Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl

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The seemingly endless possibilities of the CD also resulted in unexpected consequences.

"When the CD came, everybody discovered that they could do everything with the CD -- or they believed they could do everything," says Andres Mayo, president of the Audio Engineering Society. "So they started pushing and pushing and pushing the volume up and up and up, and that created a totally different sound."

Even before the advent of the CD, there had been a "loudness war" in the music industry -- the desire to make an album louder than its competitors, so it would catch the attention of listeners and radio programmers. But when CDs made it possible to increase the volume exponentially -- no more skipping needles -- nuance and dynamics often suffered.

Because vinyl's restrictions do not permit the same abuse of audio levels as the CD, Mayo says that listeners might hear a wider dynamic range in an album mixed separately for vinyl over a compact disc version optimized for loudness -- even though vinyl, as a format, has a narrower range than CD.

"It's not just the format," Mayo says. "It's what you do with it."

It is a fact that vinyl sounds different from CDs. And many people prefer vinyl's sound. But it's not clean reproduction of a recording that makes vinyl a preferred format; it's the affect the vinyl adds to a recording that people find pleasing.

"I think some people interpret the lack of top end [on vinyl] and interpret an analog type of distortion as warmth," says Jim Anderson, a Grammy-winning recording engineer and professor at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. "It's a misinterpretation of it. But if they like it, they like it. That's fine."

It's also clear that the vinyl experience is about more than just sound. Pete Lyman, co-owner and chief mastering technician at Infrasonic Sound, an audio and vinyl mastering studio in Echo Park, says he believes listeners are gravitating toward vinyl for the physical experience of owning, holding and flipping an LP.

"I don't think that [sound is] really the appeal for people right now," Lyman says. "They like the collectability factor. They like the whole ritual and process of listening to it. They're more engaged with the music that way."

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Chris Kornelis