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Vinyl versus the rest: Which is best?

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Does vinyl really sound better?

The short answer is, "It depends." That's not a cop-out, because sound quality depends on how the music was originally recorded and mixed, not just on the medium (compact disc, MP3 file, vinyl album, 8-track tape, cassette) on which it is played.

Analog recording stores a sound wave on a physical medium (tape or the vinyl record), with minimal loss of information. Original sound is analog, and a vinyl record gets the listener as close to hearing that original sound as physically possible. But if the record gets scratched or dirty, it can distort and diminish the sound. Most music is recorded using digital technology, which means that the source information isn't necessarily going to sound better when it's played on an analog medium.

Digital recording converts the sound wave into a sequence of numbers, an aggregation of discrete data points gathered on a compact disc that is read by a laser beam. It's the equivalent of taking a number of snapshots of the sound (the higher the bit rate, the more snapshots are taken, and hence a more accurate replication of the original sound).

Even at the highest bit rate, the original sound can only be approximated. Theoretically, however, CDs should never wear out, and the sound should be relatively consistent over time.

In recent years, many commercial recordings have been compressed in the mixing stage to make them sound louder and, presumably, more appealing to radio programmers. Compressors are specialized amplifiers used to reduce dynamic range and make the softest and loudest passages sound more alike.

Lately, consumers have begun to complain that too much compression is being used on certain recordings - such as Metallica's recent album "Death Magnetic" - and wiped out the dynamic range, to the point where segments of the recording are plagued by unintentional dis­tortion. Without compression, a recording will have a wider range in volume, and more closely resemble the original performance. No medium is better suited to represent those dynamics than a vinyl record.

The conclusion: A recording will sound only as good as the way it is recorded, mixed and mastered. Many vinyl albums of older recordings sound excellent because they preserve the nuances of an analog recording session. But a compact disc can offer a sparkling representation of a well-engineered digital recording. All things being equal, vinyl will sound less artificial. But there are too many variables to say that will be true all the time.

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