Now here’s a subject that’ll get some of you fired up. Which is better: CD or vinyl? There are more opinions than people on this subject, so I am not going to touch on this hot potato just yet.
What I do want to write about started in yesterday’s post titled the bit game: dynamics.
If we ignore, for the moment, the fact that many vinyl releases have better sounding mastering than many CD’s then we can take a look at another reason vinyl playback seems to have more dynamic range than the same music on a CD – when technically, even a lowly 16 bit CD has more dynamic range. For your reference, a vinyl album has about 80dB of dynamic range, while a 16 bit CD has 96dB.
The answer is called Relative Dynamics (my term) and we will learn about its ability to change our perceptions.
Vinyl can sound more dynamic than CD’s precisely because of one of vinyl’s big limitations – groove noise. We’re all familiar with vinyl noise and it’s caused from the needle traveling through the plastic grooves. Intermix this with the occasional ticks and pops of the groove noise and you have the unmistakable sound of vinyl – ever present in the background when we listen. CD’s, on the other hand, are “better” because they possess none of these noises.
Here’s what’s funny about this. Our human abilities to measure dynamic range are subjective and therefore relative to our surroundings. We use background noise levels to set an internal reference point and anything louder than this is then judged to have a dynamic range greater than the reference level (dynamic range is technically the difference between the background noise and the loudest noise above that). But if that background noise drops below a certain point, it is wasted and we lose our reference.
It turns out that the groove noise of a record is just the right amount of background noise to give us a solid and stable reference point – which we lack on a CD. It is this reference noise level we establish that helps vinyl sound more dynamic than CD’s, despite the facts.
Does this mean we should add noise to our recordings? No, but it does bring up a host of interesting possibilities which I will write about in future editions.
Tomorrow, don’t believe everything you think.