Do Vinyl Records Really Sound Better? A Case Study
As crazy as it may sound to the casual music fan, vinyl records are now back in style, with the sale of records increasing dramatically over the past decade. Just in 2017, the number of records sold had risen by 10% according to SoundScan. It is now hip and cool to own a turntable and a collection of vinyl, with many artists offering special editions of releases only available on a physical record. Purists will claim that the uncompressed, analog nature of the vinyl is inherently superior to digital music. Many classic bands are now firmly in the habit of releasing extravagant reissues on vinyl, chock full of extra tracks, outtakes, and extra goodies to entice fans to buy them. The price point here is pretty steep as many of these versions are more than five times the cost of purchasing the album via digital means.
To put this concept to the test, I have done a case study comparing four different mediums: vinyl, CD, high-quality digital, and low-quality digital. These four run the gamut from what typical listeners hear while listening to music on their phones, to what audiophiles listen to with $1,000 headphones in their soundproof basements.
The album I used as a test for this is regarded as one of the best-sounding albums of all time, one that many engineers look to as the standard. I’m referencing Metallica’s 1991 self-titled release, also known as The Black Album for its black cover. Many audiophiles use the album as a way to test their audio equipment and studio engineers the world over continue to hold up the record as having one of the best audio mixes of anything in the rock/metal world.
Since its release, The Black Album is the highest selling album for any artist in America, with a staggering 16.5 million copies sold. Metallica teamed up with mega-producer Bob Rock, who had risen to fame producing records for Motley Crue and Bon Jovi, to create a massive sound that contained plenty of heavy guitar-driven songs along with other more orchestrated, cinematic pieces. The resulting combination of mainstream rock and metal continues to resonate with audiences at the album continues to sell thousands of copies every year.
Metallica re-released The Black Album on super high quality vinyl, with the record being explicitly remastered for the analog format. Being the devoted fan that I am, I picked up a copy, hoping to at last see what all the fuss is about when it comes to vinyl's inherent superiority over all other formats.
As it turns out, I also own a recent reissue of the album on CD as well, thus giving me two useful points of comparison to work in this study. Additionally, I have used youtube and Metallica’s website to obtain a high quality set of .wav files and a low quality digital stream for comparison as well.
Again, the claim among vinyl enthusiasts is that the uncompressed nature of the vinyl leads to a better listening experience: as there is a greater and broader range of sound in that format, without the audio distortion that is present in digital formats. The logic goes that an analog format is how the music was meant to be listened to and that other forms in the digital realm do not hold up in comparison.
One other thing to note is that while the sound of each format may be different, the primary factor separating the use of these formats is accessibility. We can’t lug bulky vinyl records with us on the go, so the format demands you to be in a house or someplace where you can intently listen.
For all of these tests, I used my Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones.
Let’s see how it turned out!
Low Quality YouTube
Not as bad as I thought but the whole sound is mildly distorted and overcompressed. There is a distinct hum in the background that I picked up while listening to it. The drums seemed a bit flat, and they lacked the kind of pop that I expected them to have. Many of the more subtle musical moments did not come through as strongly: such as the string section in “Nothing Else Matters” and the super densely layered intro to “The Struggle Within.” Additionally, there was a lack of depth in the guitar sound; it sounded a bit shallow.
High Quality .wav
An uncompressed audio format, .wav sounded much better than YouTube. James Hetfield’s vocals sounded crisper and the drums had much more depth and bass to their sound. There was less audible distortion, and the bass guitar came through way more. The quieter parts of the record such as the acoustic intro to “The Unforgiven” were much improved on this listening.
There was virtually no difference between the sound of the CD and the uncompressed wav. I could maybe, just maybe, discern a tiny bit less audio distortion but that was about it. Considering that the CD contains a digital version of the recordings, it is no real surprise that it would sound the same, as the .wav file and the CD are nearly identical in their audio compression.
The most striking thing I noticed after putting the needle down on the first track, “Enter Sandman” was the warmth of the sound. Whereas the previous three formats had a certain harshness about them that I thought was intentional, this version had so much warm bottom end and crisp highs. The analog remaster job certainly helped with this as the album had way more clarity, with my ears being able to pick out each instrument. While having to change 45’s was a pain the whole experience was magical. In many ways, it was like I was hearing this album for the first time again. The drums stood out to me the most: they had always been a high point on the digital recordings I had but on vinyl, but they were simply exquisite on this listen.
What do you think?
Do vinyl records sound better than digital formats?
In this instance the hipsters of the world are indeed correct: listening to an album on vinyl is a better listening experience. However, a significant thing to point out is that this Metallica album was recorded on analog equipment and it was explicitly remastered for vinyl. There exists the possibility of a modern album, recorded entirely on digital equipment to not have the drastic changes in sound.
In short, uncompressed audio formats sound better than compressed if that is something that you take seriously in your music listening. For the casual music fan the difference is negligible, but for serious fans of much who would like to experience some of the best music from the analog era, investing in a turntable and a couple of high quality vinyl reissues is a great idea.
© 2018 Andy Lindquist