Feature

Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl

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In the rush to get into the vinyl game, Lyman -- who not only masters recordings but also cuts the master lacquer disc that is sent to the vinyl pressing plant -- says a lot of corners are getting cut. In the 1960s and '70s, when artists were recording specifically for vinyl, they recorded and mixed to fit the confines of the medium, he explains. They kept sides below 20 minutes, and put loud songs on the outside tracks and quiet ones toward the center to account for the natural deterioration of sound that occurs when the needle gets closer to the middle of the LP.

These days, Lyman says, vinyl is often the last thing artists and labels think about. Clients who employ Infrasonic's services only for lacquer cutting often hand over albums that are optimized for digital downloads and CD but are too long for vinyl, with track sequencing that fails to account for the medium's natural limitations.

To get an album longer than 40 minutes to fit onto one LP, Lyman says, high frequencies and bass are the first things that go. There's also extra distortion because he has to cut the master lacquer at a lower volume to fit all that extra music onto the LP.

"As soon as you have to cut that record at a quieter volume, you're going to hear more kicks and pops, you're going to hear more surface noise," he says, "because you're going to have to turn your stereo up to accommodate the lower level on the disc."

As labels seek to capitalize on a physical medium that is gaining momentum, some marketing efforts offering superior sound are downright misleading. Most notable among these is "audiophile-quality 180-gram vinyl," which consumers assume is superior because it is heavier. Lyman, however, says the added weight offers no musical benefit at all.

"It increases shipping costs and sales cost of the record. That's about it," he says. "It's the Super Big Gulp of vinyl, but you're not getting more [sound quality], really, you're just getting more vinyl."

With PonoMusic, Neil Young is leading fans down the digital version of a similar "bigger is better" sonic trail.

It has long been believed that the human ear cannot hear frequencies above 22 kHz. This is why CDs sample sound at 44.1 kHz and 16 bits of information per sample. According to a theorem called Nyquist-Shannon, in order to reach a desired range, sound must be sampled at twice that range. Half of 44, obviously, is 22.

Pono -- along with some other digital retailers such as HDtracks.com -- sells some tracks that sample music as high as 192 kHz, with 24 bits per sample. Pono also offers a PonoPlayer (retail price: $399), which the company says is optimized to play those tracks.

Ben Blackwell, head of vinyl operations at Jack White's Third Man Records in Nashville, says that he thinks some people prefer vinyl because it tells the world something about who they are. "It's like the kid walking around with a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his back pocket," he says. "Does he really connect with it or does he think it's making a statement?"

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Chris Kornelis