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Why Comparing Digital to Vinyl is Comparing Apples to Oranges

Why Comparing Digital to Vinyl is Comparing Apples to Oranges

We hear a lot about comparing formats, streaming services, analog vs digital, etc.  Which is right for you is a purely personal decision. There is no right or wrong when it comes to music playback.  "Better" is a tricky word. At DSD-Guide we support music first and encourage your to support artists, record labels and manufacturers that you enjoy.

With that in mind, we've come across several conversations in forums this past week with interesting discussions about comparing playback systems.  Sometimes these conversations lead to conclusions without enough information.  We thought it was important to offer education about how best to compare and why some statements made of "better" require more information.  We hope you'll learn to ask the right questions so that you can make a proper decision for your own preferences.

To start, we suggest reading this article on how to do a comparative listening test.  It will give you a basic idea of what is needed to be considered when coming to conclusions in audio.


First we need language to discussion what we're comparing. I'll use our "Six Degrees of Degradation" model of music production.  These are six places in production where loss of quality is most likely to happen and should be considered when coming to conclusions in comparisons.

1) Recording

2) Mixing and Editing

3) Mastering

4) Prep for format sale, authoring, transferring

5) Replication, Delivery of Digital to Home

6) Home/consumer Playback Outputs (DACs, analog output circuitry 

Recently a comparison test was made between a vinyl recording transferred to Digital and a CD playback of the same music.  At first glance, this might make sense that you're comparing vinyl to CD using the output of the digital to compare.  But really what you are comparing are apple to oranges.... both taste good, some people prefer one over the other. 

In this test you are comparing the Mastering stage of production.  Mastering to vinyl is a different process than mastering to CD.  In some cases, a different mastering engineer is doing each one and the music is subject to the opinion of the Mastering engineer.  The human element of "better" comes into play.  One person's idea of better may not be the same as another's.

It makes complete sense these two masters would sound different because mastering to vinyl has rules or vinyl won't be commercially viable.  Commercial CDs are generally over compressed in mastering to create a "loud" output for the consumer (often considered to be a more competitive sound for the mass markets).  Vinyl on the other hand will have problems with an overcompressed master and the needle will pop out of the grooves.  

What that means is that the vinyl playback is more likely to have more dynamic range than the CD.  If you transfer the output of vinyl to digital, you are more likely to have more dynamics on the digital recording than on the commercial CD. This is s generalization, of course, and there may be cases where the opposite is true. 

If a CD is made without compression in mastering (as we do with our Master Quality Disc series -- MQD) it would have more dynamic range ability than the vinyl.  Here's a link to how our sister company, Blue Coast Music, creates our MQD discs.


As a mastering engineer will tell you, vinyl has requirements that to some are a pleasing representation of the music -- but the result is not the same as what the creator/producers bring into the mastering studio.  Digital (whether PCM or DSD) does not have to adhere to those rules in mastering.   Digital can give you the creator/producer's intention at the mix without accommodating for a format.... if no additional effect/compression are added. 

This is where the challenge becomes the definition of "better".  Not everyone is going to agree.  Restriction of vinyl can be wonderful compared to unencumbered dynamics of a digital mix.

We encourage you to listen to a variety of formats.  You may find you like different formats for different recordings.