Asks For "CD vs. Vinyl Comparison"

At AXPONA 2014's Thomas Mulready interviewed me following a turntable set-up seminar. This year he returned and asked me to conduct an on-camera CD vs. vinyl "shootout" using Roxy Music's Avalon as the test subject.

I was happy to oblige. Mulready brought with him two American pressings (one for me) and the original U.K. pressing. Paragon Audio's Larry Marcus generously offered one of his rooms, even though the show was officially over for the day and everyone wanted to go to dinner.

The room featured a Brinkmann Balance turntable fitted with a Koetsu cartridge and a DCS Puccini SACD player, so the source comparison was more than fair. Electronics were from highly regarded, but still relatively unknown Doshi Electronics: amplifiers, preamplifier and phono preamplifier and the speakers were the new Wilson Audio Specialties new $15,000 Sabrinas.

As we were about to begin, Nick Doshi, who is an experienced electronics and broadcast engineer, informed us that the master of Avalon was a PCM 1632 U-matic video tape! This was certainly news to me and a shock to the system. He claims to have seen the master. Nonetheless, went through with the exercise.

When I returned to my room I emailed Bob Ludwig, who responded the next morning (even though he's on vacation--thank you Bob!): "Avalon was DEFINITELY cut from a 1/2" 30ips Bob Clearmountain (analog tape) mixed from a Sony 3348 digital multi-track."

So that turns things in the opposite direction! A digital recording mixed to 30 IPS analog tape. Don't you wish the new reissue had been cut from that tape? But that's another story.

In any case, here's what went on last night in the Paragon Audio room:

gMRfk6LMHn's picture

8mins 27secs into this video explains exactly why I never switched to CD while all my 'friends' were slagging me of for not doing so and getting rid of their vinyl.

I saw straight away that the enjoyment I was getting from tuning my system to my taste (as you say in the video) was going to be taken away from me.

So I just said no, not for me thank you!

All these years later my same 'friends' were looking for sympathy from me because they got rid of their vinyl and regretted it.

James, Dublin, Ireland

Michael Fremer's picture
So many regrets from so many. I hear it all the time, especially from those who get back in and are having such a great time (again). I was approached at this show so far by so many young people who love the site and the videos. That means so much to me....
Rudy's picture

I'm hoping that since my daughter is a bit older now, and likes "our" music (not that teeny Top 40 garbage), she would appreciate vinyl. Just need to get her a rig, and I have a growing stack of spare copies of records she will be glad to get.

I do like the sound of vinyl but in my experience, the condition of much of the NEW 180 gram vinyl I have bought lately has been deplorable. The Sinatra 10" is a trainwreck. I picked up the Rhino pressing of Depeche Mode's "Black Celebration" and it is a joke--warped, noisy, and nice scratch through a track on side two. (My other Depeche Mode titles all came from the UK, via Music On Vinyl, and they are flawless!) I recently grabbed the orange vinyl Vince Guaraldi "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" that is also quite noisy and--again--warped. Rumer's latest LP was so poorly pressed that it got back to Rumer herself, and her management is trying to get a re-pressing of it to send out to us as replacements. (And I hope the record company is the one footing the bill!)

I'm just tired of so much wasted money and time dealing with crap pressings. Fortunately, I've been buying the recent Led Zep discs from the UK, and they have been nearly flawless, as have any of the Music On Vinyl titles. QRP misses the mark--they can't even press an on-center record in my opinion. Two Elvis 24 Karat sets later and it's still not right.

I'm fine with a disc that has a few minor ticks here and there. Not something that looks or sounds like it was thrown down a flight of stairs and/or dipped in a mud bath. I've had better luck with some of my used record purchases, in fact.

coolhandTONY's picture

Michael you nailed it in your comment "those who get back in are having such a great time (again)" I stopped buying and basically listening to music for about twenty years...lost the joy with CD's. Now I'm having so much fun buying and listening to records again! Dig your reviews and videos...Thanks for spearheading the vinyl revolution!

soundman45's picture

Actually, it was not that surprising that in that era a 30ips master tape existed of Avalon. Analog tape is still a preferred format for archiving of recordings, because if properly taken care of it can have a shelf life of 100 plus years.

tube dog's picture


Michael Fremer's picture
Has no clue?
tube dog's picture

that was interviewing you seems to have no clue about the sound of vinyl.

Jon's picture

I don't know if that is entirely fair. First of all he is the interviewer who is interviewing a world renowned expert in the field. Therefore a good interviewer is not going to flex his ego and is instead going to ask the same sort of questions that the target audience might be thinking themselves. That target audience is not necessarily most of us (except with respect to it being yet another entertaining piece from Michael), since we already understand everything Michael is saying and we already hear the differences and appreciate them.

Secondly, he did actually say they were "close" (better than saying they were the same or that the CD was better) and I think for someone who is not a hard core audiophile that is quite a reasonable and even astute observation all considered. He also commented on the difference in the bass which is one of the more obvious differences between typical delivery via the CD format (though not necessarily lower resolution digital) and vinyl. After all, as an analogy someone who is not a motor racing fanatic might not think that a Formula One driver who is regularly 0.3 seconds per lap faster than his team mate is really any better. They might call that difference "close", maybe call it "hardly any difference" but they definitely would not consider it to be a significant difference. Yet the Formula One experts will usually agree that such a consistent difference occurring on a routine basis is the difference between an elite world class driver and a world champion.

As for LPs derived from even low res digital masters, the 3 volume LP sets of the Mercury Living Presence series are a very good example. 17 LPs have been released over the last two years, each of them derived directly from Wilma Cozart-Fine's 16/44.1 masters on hard drive. One of them (brilliant sounding it must be said) was derived from a recent high res remastering (the mono 1953 recording of Respighi Church Windows and Roman Festivals). Now I bought all those Mercury Living Presence CDs back in the 90s when they first came out. But these vinyl releases sound far better. They even arguably sound better than the Speakers Corner reissues (which, whilst being fully analogue were from second generation masters). They are, however, inferior to the Classic Records reissues that were fully analogue, nor do they compete with the (only one thus far) Original Recordings Group version of SR90006. But they are still very nice to listen to and I am always wanting to play the vinyl rather than the CD. Perhaps some of the difference is that the digital to analogue conversion chain going on with these audiophile reissues is simply far and away above anything I have at hand myself or ever will have at hand (I certainly don't own any dCS gear even though I dream of doing so).

So although I do groan - a little - if an LP does come from a digital source, for me I will still buy it if I badly want the music, know that the source material (even in digital form) sounds excellent, the remastering engineer is well respected, the pressings are good and the price is reasonable.

oranfoster's picture

When I play vinyl at my bakery/cafe (we usually stream from Tidal or Soma FM, but when I have time weekends I spin records, pics at Audiogon>virtual systems>Village Baker) I get many more comments on the music, often before people know that we are listening to a record. The sound is just so much more vibrant. Last weekend I played an old garage sale copy of Willie Nelson's Stardust and let me tell you, my customers really enjoyed it! Michael, if a big huge fan of yours introduces himself to you at Sunday's Axpona, it might be me! Keep up the great work!

sunderwood's picture

In 1988 my brother bought a cd player. At the time I had a Radio Shack direct drive going into the phono input on a Sony receiver. I did think at the time that cds sounded about as good as what I had so I bought a player and started collecting cds. More convenient and no needle or record to keep clean. Later as I had the finances I started upgrading equipment starting with a pair of Vandersteen Model Twos and better electronics to drive them with. The problem was that no matter how much I upgraded there was still something wrong with the sound. My turntable finally gave out, so I threw it out and decided I would just get the cd version of what I had on vinyl. Thankfully I didn't throw my records out or give them away. What a mistake that would have been. I just stacked them on shelves in the garage. About five years later after listening to what Michael had to say about the sound you could get from records in his column and getting that longing feeling every time i went into my garage and saw them on the shelf I decided to give vinyl another chance. On his review I ended up with a Rega P324 with all the upgrades I read about online, Groovetracer reference subplatter, Boston mat and Mitchell technoweight. Now I know that the sound problem I had wasn't in the equipment even though it is fun to upgrade. It was with the cds I thought were perfect. Back when I bought the Vandersteens the dealer told me if I would get a good turntable I would get rid of my cds and start buying records again. I didn't pay much attention at the time, but now that is exactly what I am doing. The only time I buy a cd is when it doesn't come in the vinyl version.

Mister Tim's picture

To hearing your review of the new Roxy box. I like the fact that you've stuck to your guns about vinyl, but don't have a knee-jerk reaction against well-mastered digitally sourced vinyl.

Recalling a Roxy CD/LP shootout my buddy Jim and I had in the 80's when the first Roxy Music CDs came out. The vinyl was a winner by a wide margin.

Irwin's picture

I noted underneath your review of the box set that the new SHM-SACD was a flat transfer from the analogue master. I did a similar shoot out to yours above with the sax and vocal section at the end of Avalon with the SACD and UK first press vinyl. They are very different. The sax on the UK is very definitely in the left hand channel with a lot of separation between instruments and vocals. It is all very painterly and subtle. On the SHM-SACD the sax is on the right and mixed with the female vocals. I would agree on your point about the difference between the sax sound between vinyl and (SA)CD though I do still like the SACD. On the assumption that there is such a big difference between the two I imagine therefore that the transfer from analogue master is actually the US and not the generally preferred UK version :)

Todd Lainhart's picture

That was a fun interview. It was good that the editor didn't try to contrast the differences via the audio format of the video.

I wish that they had mic'd you.

tube dog's picture

conducted a similar listening test with a Steely Dan Gaucho record and the sacd and then with an M&K Realtime Bill Berry For Duke record and the cd. In both instances the record slaughtered the cd. Wasn't even close. The vinyl sounded like real people playing real instruments. The cds, well, you know. Even my son who grew up with an iPod glued to his ears had no trouble hearing the difference.

AnalogJ's picture

Did the interviewer address you as Michael Freemer??

Anyway, I think you know more about why CDs sound inferior to LPs, but just didn't want to get into a discussion which would bore the average listener. But certainly, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Does it sound better or not?

I do have a friend who can only cite the ticks and pops as reason that vinyl sounds inferior, and CDs are more convenient. I play music for him and he can only hear the surface noise.

Michael Fremer's picture
He never attends live concerts where there's way more "surface noise". Yes he did a "Freemer" but I didn't want to interfere with the flow...
Martin's picture

Like the world has shaken slightly
Avalon is a low res. digital recording mixed to 30 IPS analog tape??!!!
That really is news.
It sounds great!
I'd love to know why.

Rudy's picture

Nice to see a local company (Paragon) getting some "airtime" as well. And good on ya for putting on the demonstration for the press. WWJ (local AM radio station) caught me outside the store I went to during Record Store Day for a short interview, but the reporter wasn't too interested to hear the whole story.

Energy2677's picture

The first Cd that I bought was Electric Light Orchestra's ELO II around 1995. I was pretty happy being my first Cd. I took it to one of my friend house and we play it on his parents Rotel cd player. We listened to it then his mother said I wonder how it compared to my vinyl version. It was a no contest. With the CD I was under the impression of listening to an old 8 tracks cartridge played on an old Candle 8 tracks player. It was that terrible. With the vinyl I was hearing music !

Coltrane2's picture

I'd like to posit an alternative viewpoint. I think it's largely down to whether a particular source recording is best suited to CD, vinyl or some other digital format. And of course how well said source was mastered to a particular end product.

Examples: (1) Compare an original 1987 vinyl pressing of Fleetwood Mac's Tango In The Night with any digital version and it absolutely blows them all out of the water. Not subtly but demonstrably so. Today I A/Bd said vinyl against the much trumpeted remaster (released earlier this year) and the latter sounds phoned in. Barely an approximation of the power of the original vinyl master. Everything - volume, depth, realism. I could go on. Nothing comes even close to the original vinyl.

(2) The (un) remastered Apple Music AAC 256kbps of Prince's Around The World In A Day is lively, vibrant and perfectly captures the purple one in his irreverent, mercurial prime. But the original Paisley Park vinyl pressing is all over the place - sibilant, splashy and unrealistic. The CD fairs a little better but carries no where near the power of the supposedly compressed and lossy Apple Music file.

I'd side with the opinion that vinyl typically wins the day (else why would I be on this site), but 'tis not always the case.

EdwinSianturi's picture

Thank you, Michael. I'm a DIY audiophile (with limited budget, and low WAF). I bought a vintage Lenco L75 TT, made some modifications, and it totally blew the digital sound system. Since then, I have never bought a single CD.