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Are Records Better than CDs?

Question: Let me know if you remember this like me. I remember in the early 80s, people were blowing out their speaker systems with the new CD format.  I didn’t own a CD player at the time. The CD was way better than scratchable vinyl with pops and clicks on the records. The sound was called “almost perfect” at the time. Today, I keep hearing the opposite. The record sounds better than the CD because it’s not compressed or something like that. I know that mp3s remove some sounds that I can’t hear anyway. Which one do you prefer? I ask as I listen to my iPod, which sounds just fine.

This kind of question causes religious arguments among audiophiles. Now, I’m no audiophile, but I’ll call it a matter of taste that’s dependent on your ability to hear the difference.

I do want to clarify a couple of things. Audio CDs are not compressed. That’s the reason they’re limited to around one hour. If you actually do the math, 16-bit stereo at 44 thousand samples per second takes up about 700 MB of data. That’s the capacity of an audio or data CD.

That doesn’t mean the sound you hear wasn’t compressed.

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What is compression?

File compression is simply a way to replace data with less data. For example, a compressed file might replace a string of zeroes with a number indicating how many zeroes are really there. The compressed format might be smaller than the original format, but it can be reconstructed with 100% fidelity. I use the word “fidelity” specifically because it does apply both to audio and video as well as data.

When we talk about zip files maintaining 100% fidelity, for example, that means what you get out of a compressed zip file is exactly the same as what you compressed.

Audio and mp3 compression

The same is not necessarily true for mp3 or other compressed audio and video formats. Audio compression looks for things like frequencies out of the range of the human ear and says,  “You don’t need to keep 100% of the data. You can get by with 90% and it will still sound good.”

If compressed correctly, some amazing mathematical transformations do a wonderful job of preserving the sound you hear when decompressed for playback. But when you listen to the audio file, what you’re hearing is not exactly what went into it – you just might not hear that there’s a difference.

Audio data can be extremely large. A recording studio probably uses multi-track recording at a much higher bit rate than is finally delivered to customers, so we’re talking about a lot of data. But when they compile the final tracks, they compress them into something more manageable.

One thing to know about compression is that it isn’t an either-or process. It’s a scale. When I compress audio I can determine if I want to compress a lot to get a smaller file at the cost of audio quality or compress less aggressively to preserve audio quality.

The problem is that we don’t know where recording studios specifically set the dial while they’re producing the final product. Compression is going to depend on the producers’ goal, their audience, their budget, and other factors, so we just don’t know what the compression rate is.

LP - Long Playing Vinyl RecordFidelity and the difference between CDs and vinyl

But what a studio finally puts on a traditional audio CD will be exactly the same as what you’ll get off of it when you play that CD. While there may be some compression in how they produced the file, what they put on the audio CD is not compressed because the plain old audio CD format does not have compression.

In a way, the same is true for vinyl records as well. The studio went through many steps to create the record and each step had its own issues. For instance, you might hear tape hiss in some songs, depending on the quality and state of the tape recording and playback equipment used in the studio.

Some people hear it, some people don’t, some recordings have it, and some don’t. Whether it’s important or not depends on the listener and the kind of music or audio.

In reality, we’re really trading off different kinds of distortion and issues when we talk about digital versus vinyl or analog recordings.

Now, it’s true that compressed formats like mp3 do introduce some distortion. Just as studios determine quality when they compress, it’s easy for an individual to create an mp3 that has high quality and large size or low quality and small size. It’s just a setting that they choose when they create the mp3.

Digital music is here to stay

One more thing to consider is that how you hear audio will also depend on the device. For instance, I would be shocked if you could hear the difference using iPod-caliber audio equipment.

It also depends on how well you hear. I honestly can’t tell the difference. Admittedly, I have 55 year-old ears and as you get older, your audio acuity tends to decrease.

When I did buy CDs in my twenties, I was just enjoying the sound. I wasn’t doing an A/B test, comparing them against vinyl records, or trying anything like that. I was glad that the pops and scratches were gone and that I didn’t have to worry about bouncing my record player. And, yeah, I thought those “you might blow out your speaker” warnings were kinda cool.

But digital music is incredibly flexible and convenient. I buy all of my music now on Amazon as mp3 files and I’ve actually ripped all of my old audio CDs and created mp3 files out of those original uncompressed audios. Again, it’s convenient, it works for me, and I really don’t hear a difference. I just enjoy the music.

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22 comments on “Are Records Better than CDs?”

  1. Leo…
    I’m 81 years old was have always been a classical music fan. I looked forward to those new “compact discs” because they’d be lighter, smaller, less shelf space, quieter, cleaner high fidelity………all of that hype.

    I was and remain terribly disappointed at the shrill violin notes, the piercing high piano notes and the overall harshness and cold sound of these CD’s after all of these years……forget the brass: naturally they’ve improved a lot, but they are in my mind, and it was pointed out at the time of their introduction, that the cold harshness was due to the inherent nature of the digital recording process which consists of inaudible breaks, comparable to the flickering of a flourescent light. The incandescent bulb’s warmth comes from it’s uninterrupted, analog, continuous stream of light emitted. Flourescent light is brilliant and harsh.

    All of those individual, interrupted O’s and 1’s in a broken digital stream will never be able to duplicate the former English Decca FFRR [full frequency range recordings], they, along with the former Mercury Label discs will always remain much more emotionally satisfying. The un-interrupted analog stream has to be warmer, smoother.

    If all one wants is the thump-thump-thump of mindless noise that passes today as “music”, then go ahead and enjoy your CD’s.

    Any classical musicians out there want to weigh in?…..honestly?

    • Hi, Charlie. I love classical music, but I have nothing on record (vinyl) that didn’t have a lot of noise; maybe when they were new? I still listen but on CDs (SACD when I can get it or MFSL). If a quiet part of a recording had some noise to it, it would destroy the whole listening experience. My all-time favorite is “Vaughn Williams, Barber, Grainger, Faure, and Satie” directed by Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. On TELARC, of course!

  2. Funny, Charlie, that you would use such an analysis. Incandescent lighting is not actually continuous as the bulb is flickering at 60 Hz. As AC voltage pulses through the filament, it glows brighter and dimmer with the frequency. Only the response time of the filament causes a delay that makes it seem to be continuously lit. Flourescent lamps, on the other hand, act as rectifiers in a power supply, converting alternating energy into direct current energy which then does provide a continuous, uninterrupted flow of current. The color temperature, or soft warmth/harsh cold, of either incandescent or fluorescent lighting is determined by the materials used to generate the light. Similarly referring to the quality of the vinyl in analog, or the sampling rate in digital, audio.

    Even at my advanced years, I still have exceptional hearing range, and am unable to differentiate between good quality vinyl analog or good quality digital audio. And there are sound engineers who are sensitive to differences that far exceed my capability who will agree that properly produced CDs will sound every bit as good as fine vinyl. Of course, there will be others who disagree; again demonstrating that it really is a “religious” discussion after all. A matter of what people want to believe.

    There is a similar discussion about the higher “resolution” of 1080p over 1080i, in video, when both hold the exact same resolution. Only the vertical refresh rate is higher, which reduces flicker, but does not increase resolution. Yet, there are people who swear they see better resolution in 1080p. I call it the “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome.

    • For TexasMike..
      Yes, ironic……I seemed to have it exactly reversed….No physics marks for me……Thanks for the corrections…..noted…..but my earliest days’ prejudice is still embedded……although I’m glad to hear that professionals agree now that CD’s are much, much better.
      Somehow, now, I seem to’ve lost interest in listening, I’ve become a computer addict, sigh.

      Don’t get old.

  3. I am 70 and have been listening to recorded classical music since my early teens. I remember back in the 50s when stereophonic sound came on the scene. There were “purists” who clamored for mono, which they said “sounded natural,”—unlike the new technology. I saw the demise of tube-type amplifers (again, today there are purists who will have nothing else) and the coming of the CD in the 80s. I have a critical ear, and about the only thing I miss about LPs is such things as having to get up and turn the LP over at that point in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (older classical music listeners will most likely know exactly the point I’m referring to.)

    • Yes! Yes!

      I remember every bit of that…..we had a Westinghouse mohagany console in the 1950s, 12″ speakers….FM radio, no static during the summer……and some friends of my parents’ had a large Fisher console which actually flipped those heavy large 78rpm operatic recordings so a whole act could be heard, albeit with a bit of nervousness during the changeover……the needle [!] actually dropped right in place without that horrific scraaaatcchhhhing sound……

      Ludwig winced!

      • ……hasty correction…..that big old Westinghouse had two speakers, but no stereo in those days…the speakers were angled a bit to give “room presence”. We thought it was wonderful.

  4. Just a note to Leo.. I’m very impressed that you answered a question about vinyl vs. CD, though it wasn’t a particular computer question/problem. I learned something about compression today. Thanks!

  5. You said it right, Leo, it depends on your ability to hear the difference.

    The issue here is not compression, but the fact that CDs (as an audio format, not as a physical disc) cut off the frequency after a certain threshold. CDs play sounds up to 22.05 KHz, whereas the average human can hear sounds with frequency up to 20.00 KHz.

    Any sound with a frequency above 22.05 KHz will not be played by the CD. It will be cut off.

    Some people, not a large percentage, are able to otherwise hear the frequencies which are cut off by the CD, and for them the experience is very unpleasant, especially if they invested a lot of money in the speaker system. It’s depressing, really. You know how the chimes sound like but the CD sound is different because it cuts off a portion of the sound’s frequency. On an expensive speaker system the difference is more noticeable. A drum is not a drum, a guitar is not a guitar.

    These people just have to set up a vinyl record system if they want to enjoy music. And then they have to deal with the imperfections of that system (scratches and the like).

    I haven’t yet heard of a person older than 25-30 who can still hear frequencies above 22.05 KHz though. Hearing declines with age. I, for one, could have heard the difference between vinyl and a CD clearly at age 21 – and was the only one in class who could do so – but can no longer hear it at age 32.

    I can still detect sound masking easily and have therefore went through my entire life without really enjoying a recording.

    All in all, I’d say the CD audio is a system which revolutionized music as it’s the first format which eliminated noise. It’s good enough for the vast majority of people. There is a small number of people who can not be satisfied by the 22.05 KHz cut-off because they hear the frequencies above that range.

    And then there are “audiophiles”, who are by default never satisfied. Their number is much, much greater than the number of people who can really tell a difference between vinyl and a CD.

  6. Oh dear, a lot of misinformation is still doing the rounds! Firstly, a fluorescent lamp does not produce steady light, it pulses at twice mains frequency. It is actually the best type of illumination to have if your turntable has a stroboscopic speed indicator such as the Garrard had.
    In the 1950’s, I was a junior member of a team working in the record engineering department of EMI at Hayes in Middlesex. One of the projects I was involved in was the making of a frequency calibration vinyl disc to be used to calibrate the pick-up heads being developed there at the time.
    Volume compression was used on “pop music” recordings in order to restrict the amplitude of the lateral movement of the groove and thus increase the total recording time that could be achieved on one side of a 12 inch 331/3 disc. A higher dynamic range could be used on “classical” music. Upon the adoption of stereo recordings, the amplitude of both the lateral and the vertical movement had to be controlled. The lateral movement had to be prevented from breaking into the next groove cut one revolution of the disc later, the vertical movement had to be restricted otherwise it could pop out of the surface of the record. These restrictions do not apply to digital recordings. The highest frequency that can be recorded is limited by the wavelength and the surface speed of the medium at the smallest diameter of the recording. This was about 20kHz.
    At the time studio recordings was done with magnetic tape running at 30 inch/sec. Hiss and compression was virtually negligible at this speed and so there was little deterioration of quality. Hiss, however, was a problem with the microphone amplifiers and it was common practise to only turn on the signal as it started so that the signal overrode the hiss when transferring to disc. None of these problems occur with digital recordings, neither do CD’s suffer from wear or dust as do analogue recordings. To believe that analogue recordings have a better ‘sound’ must be more to do with perception than science, not to mention the distortions that can be caused by the amplifier and loudspeakers used in the reproduction.

    • What a great, intelligent discussion, and I find your comments particularly helpful. I am a 63 year old musician, though not a classical one, who has played on a lot of recordings, and I am close friends with a famous jazz and “world” music producer who has worked in studios since the early 1970’s, who was nominated for an Emmy just this past year for score production, and who helps me keep my head straight on what is and is not important in sound capturing and reproduction. His synopsis is that 1) 30 Inch Per Second professional audio tape recording on 2 inch analog tape was the best sound reproduction and playback medium ever. But obviously it was ridiculously expensive, and was challenging to edit with. But when you played back on that medium, the sound was as perfect as could be in reproducing every analog sound that it had captured. 2) Vinyl was a pretty affordable analog playback medium for analog tape masters, and relatively compact, but even if the person doing the mastering knew what they were doing, which was not always the case, even in classical and jazz, the vinyl had serious dynamic range limitations, it scratched, broke, and wore out from the needles inserted in the grooves. Vinyl could be pretty good, when new, but was not the same as the analog tape master. 3) DAT was a terrific recording and playback medium, but it was virtually never used for playback, so now it is only found in some recording studios, for recording purposes only 4) CD’s were a practical improvement over vinyl in the long haul due to their more convenient size, abiity to withstand hundreds or even thousands of playback without degredation, relatively long storage life. And yes, there are sampling limitations, but he has one in a million ears, and he says those never bothered his ears. 5) Almost nobody who pays him wants him to produce masters with good sound in 2014, since the audience has learned to accept MP3 super-compressed formatting playback on tiny computer speakers and absolutely abominable sound reproduction circutry on MP3 players, then tablets and cell phones, and nowadays on super-thin digital TV monitors without sound reinforcement as the way music is SUPPOSED TO SOUND. And no matter how much dynamic (loudness) compression he gives them on his masters, they always ask for him to mix it even “hotter”, meaning with even more dynamic compression, so his masters sound louder and “clearer” on these abominable sound reproducing devices. He said i would be amazed at how much compression he is coerced into using to produce his masters, even from reputable clients who personally love good sound. So he wouldn’t pay for better sound reproduction equipment to amplify such crummy masters. That said, he enjoys the sound from excellent monitors when he plays back stuff he mixed 25 years.

      So when new vinyl lovers a lot younger than me try to push me to throw out my CD’s and get new, not yet scratched vinyl, I remember these truths. Vinyl was always a serious compromise. As was and is audio CD. But if younger folks feel it is going to help them experience an era they missed, then more power to them and to the antique medium they are playing back. For me, I sure do love playing the 9th Symphony on one CD without having to get up to change over anything. or hearing 75 minutes of Coltrane without getting up, with reasonable fidelity. And imagining how great it must have sounded live. But even Steeley Dan, circa 1975, had separate tracks mashed together from multiple sessions in recording studios located in different time zones, recorded in different months mixed together onto the master tape. Resulting in a pleasing, but completely fake analog audio “performance.” There is no truth in audio recording, only religion.

  7. In the past I made my living teaching physics. Sound is an interesting part of physics and I certainly have my ideas about the difference between vinyl and CD–and about the sound of music.
    One of my aunts contracted musicians such as Arthur Rubinstein for concerts in e.g. the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam–the quality of the sound producing audio products at her guest house was very low but the musicians were more interested in the idea behind the playing of their colleagues than in the technical quality of the sound!
    CD vs vinyl–when taking samples at 44 kHz (encoding) it is clear that a sound of 11 kHz is measured at only 4 points per wave. Once you are trying to reproduce this wave out of the 4 points you only can guess how the wave was shaped. So how could you reproduce the difference between the wave of, say, a recorder and a harpsichord? You can’t. The lower the frequency the better the reproduction of the original sound can be. But: from the vinyl it will also be difficult to reproduce the higher frequencies.
    As far as frequencies above 20 kHz are concerned: they are not that important for themselves and the information they bring us is but a very little part of the whole. But, there is the idea of ‘beat’: two sounds, one of 22 kHz and one of 23 kHz both not perceptible to the human ear will together produce a sound of 1 kHz and that is musical information you do not want to miss. Voila the importance of very high frequencies.

    And the not so steady light of the fluorescent tubes–watch the extremities of a light producing tube for some time (maybe with your eyes staring at infinity) and you can very often see the light go on and off because at the ends of the tube the light frequency is half of the frequency in the middle.

  8. Interesting facts – where the facts actually are facts! Vinyl is often ”better” than C.D. [opinion or fact?] not because of the capabilities of the recording, storage and reproduction of soundwaves, but more to do with the trends in audio reproduction. For some reason, exceptional ”treble” response is nowadays all the rage and extreme ”bass” is also popular (with idiots in big cars who like to show off that they have no brains). Then there is the ”Boom & Tish Brigade” who just love to show off their “woofers and tweeters”. Young music producers who have grown up with it will tend to be biased this way. In the old days (of mono vinyl and televisions with a tiny speaker, almost as though added as an afterthought!) treble was simply not possible to reproduce on ordinary (cheap – no, affordable) equipment – except that it made a harsh, tinny sound and bass only made the set rattle. Medium Wave (AM) radio had quite a limited audio range but it was what we were all used to. … Finally, it’s not just the sound quality – A vs. B – it’s also to do with the presentation, the cheap and nasty reproductions of the packaging (a 12” record sleeve looks poor in a small and cheap plastic C.D. cover), and the ”unfeeling” remasterings – they often get out the WRONG recording! (cf. famously, The Beatles’ first single ”Love Me Do”, also most of the stereo mixes of their singles which sounded different in mono, whether better or not. It’s the simple fact that they are different that is the problem. People without ears wouldn’t even notice. Sadly, that’s most of the people working in the industry! Heh, me, religious?) … Thanks for setting us all off, Leo!

  9. I was a kid when vinyl started disappearing and cassette tapes began to appear. CDs came out as I was entering high school. So I can’t say I have a lot of experience with records.

    However, what I’ve been told, is that the British records were of higher quality than the mass produced American records (which might partly explain Charlie Griffith’s praise for the Decca records). That would also explain why when CDs came out, Americans thought they were better than records (because they didn’t get high quality records).

    The other thing to remember is that the equipment you play your records and your CDs with makes a huge difference in what you hear. It’s possible that one’s CD stereo is not as good as their record player once was.

    The room that you listen to your music in also makes a huge difference. A high quality CD played in an acoustically poor room will sound worse than a cheap record played in an acoustically perfect room.

  10. I believe the original topic of discussion was the issue of compression of a burned CD and if it affected the recording of the disk. Leo has laid out the facts as they are in that dept.
    Whether CD’s are better sounding than vinyl is a different subject all together. One that brings personal preference into the mix, which, after all is what makes us individuals as a whole.
    In the car, My head unit has a USB port, so it’s my i-pod, home, I can plug in my laptop, or listen to my limited vinyl collection on my prized vintage Marantz Stereo. Personal preference.
    As always, thanks Leo, for all your valuable info!

  11. I am unhappy with my recordings of CD’s I make.

    Can you give me tips of how to create a good music CD. and I want to know what (besides the antivirus programs) I should shut off before I record. Also sometimes I don’t know HOW to adjust or turn them off or disable them temporarily, esp a antivirus. Right now I am using Webroot Secure Anywhere.

    just in case I do not remember to view this later, can I get a email with the answer to this?

  12. To Texas Mike.

    On a 60 Hertz/cps supply, the flickering of an incandescent filament is at twice that frequency, 120 Hz, corresponding to the two peaks, positive and negative, within each cycle.

    Those peaks would be at 1.414 times the normally-quoted RMS value. For example, if the (RMS) value is 110 Volts (sinusoidal) AC, the Peak Voltages, both positive and negative, would be 155.54 Volts.

    Although a different form of lamp, those peaks can be observed readily in simple neon bulbs/globes (as opposed to neon fluorescent tubes), by suitably wiring one up etc and rotating it in lasso fashion.

    • Ask Leo! neither recommends nor condones swinging a lightbulb – or any electrical device for that matter – around in a lasso-like fashion. (But I do understand the effect of which you speak :-) ).

  13. I’m not an expert but as for as I know. CD’s are better than vinyl in anyway, You can replicate vinyl sound on CD with 100% exact sound copy (I’ll give you 10 bucks if you could differentiate) but you cant replicate CD like untouched sound quality if you copy it on vinyl. even if u can, it will change after few frictions. I read someone said vinyl sound is more warm and digital sound is harsh, are you serious? you can record any warm or harsh sounds on both formats, warm sound can be recorded in digital too.

  14. Quite frankly, I’m astonished that Leo would elect to address a subject so far removed from the matter of computer problems. If one of us posted any such treatise, I would fully expect it to be rejected and/or deleted, for being off-topic!


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