Sometimes I feel like Larry David as I am always getting in trouble somehow, someway. A few weeks ago, I was visiting with my client, Bill Voss from Technics, at the AXPONA regional audiophile show. We had just completed a small ad campaign and were talking a little business which quickly morphed into a presentation on his newest products starting with some retro-cool Technics turntables. I told him that I really liked the industrial design and its retro appeal, but we really are focused more on full resolution formats like digital (meaning they can reproduce 120 dB of dynamic range and don’t inherently make distortion by the physical insertion of a stylus into the groove of a record) and Bill’s reply didn’t miss a beat. He said, “Jerry, we got it covered from both ends as we have some of the better digital that you will find as well as some really cool electronics.”
And he was right. As we turned to look at the Technics ultra-cool, retro-awesome integrated amp with one of the best-looking meters that I’ve seen on an audio component in a while, a show-goer interjected into our conversation how great vinyl is. For him.
Sure, everyone is allowed their opinion but much like flat-Earthers and climate change deniers – some opinions just ignore facts. This Baby Boomer show-goer went on to say “to my ears, vinyl just sounds better.”
Let me start by saying vinyl is very trendy in 2018. It’s collectable. It’s tactile. It’s affordable. It’s retro. There are some upsides. Just like the guy who drives the Mercedes 1959 300 SL convertible down Sunset Boulevard . He isn’t worried about how much slower his car is than the twin-turbo charged, V-12 SL-65 AMG that pulled up next to him at the stop light. He drives the old SL as a style/comfort statement. For history. For art and design. But nobody ever expected the 1959 SL to blow away the V12, twin turbo charged Benz in a race from 0 to 60. Both have their appeal, but there’s no question as to which car performs better.
Trying to be polite, I asked the guy about his background is in audio. “Are you a recording engineer? Do you have degree in music? Are you a filmmaker?” and he said he was none of the above. No problem, but I could not resist the urge to avail him with anecdote… “Imagine we could get into a time-space transport right now and I could take us all from this hotel room in Chicago to Capitol Records Studio A in Hollywood to make your first ever recording. It will be a simple recording with one track and really only one instrument – a snare drum sitting on a stand. I have procured one of John Bonham’s famous tree-trunk drumsticks and my sole directive to you as your first record producer is to haul off and hit this drum as hard as you humanly can…” The guy is looking at me like I am crazy and perhaps for good reason, but I am continued toward my point. “Bob, how loud do you think that snare drum will sound?” Bob didn’t know. He didn’t want to even field a guess, so I helped him out a little. “I think you could get upwards of 120 dB in terms of volume on that snare but my question to you Bob is… what’s the maximum dynamic range of vinyl?”
You could see him getting pissed off like a Fox News host who’s about to have the facts presented to him right on TV. “The answer is about 65 dB. Thus, we can only reproduce about half of the dynamic range that we heard in the studio if we released your song on vinyl.” This is when he kind of lost it, “I know what I am hearing, and my ears know best” and he left the room. Another potential reader, lost…
Perhaps your ears know best, but analog master tape, like what many of the most important recordings in the history of music were recorded on, can capture the 120 dB-ish range of an actual musical event. Music was sold on vinyl at the time because we didn’t have a better, affordable, mainstream distribution method that could get closer to the master. That was the 1950s through the 1980s. Then came CD, which while admittedly limited to 16/44, is capable of far higher dynamics and doesn’t suffer from the “warmth” that vinyl true believers don’t like to admit is second degree, harmonic distortion.
Yes, distortion – the one thing that top electronics designers go to ultimate extremes to get out of our lauded audiophile electronics, but vinyl true believers still want to pour “50-octane audiophile gas” into their high-performance systems, when today’s HD digital files like the ones you get from say HDTracks.com, stream from Tidal, or find even find on a Blu-ray can reproduce ALL of the dynamics on the master without any clearly audible distortion needed.
I bring up this topic, not to rehash my argument (that comes with help from recording engineer and former Audio Engineering Society President, Garry Margolis) but to point out how great a world that we live in today in terms of audio playback! In 2018, you can for $20 buy an entire album that is literally the facsimile of the original master tape be it a recording done in the analog domain or the digital domain. Obviously, you can’t get access to the VERY fragile and environmentally sensitive analog master tape of a recording, but what you buy music on current HD formats that are damn-near bit-perfect to that master tape. For $20 you get a meaningful recording with full 120 dB plus dynamics, no meaningful distortion from the playback source.
I want to hear exactly what’s on the master tape when listening to a top performance music playback system – don’t you? I want to hear the closest reproduction of what the musicians, engineers and producers had in mind when they were in the studio or on stage. While remastering might be needed to deal with issues of getting a historical master tape to sound its best on a higher resolution, higher bandwidth format – that’s a price I am willing to pay gladly.
Steven Stone makes the argument that vinyl is by its physical nature “a built-in limiter” which can be a useful tool. He argues that some people are accustomed to the sound of vinyl and have tailored their systems to optimize for that and the results can sound damn good. Also, some recordings never were mastered for the wider dynamic range possible in HD and need remastering for HD, and that’s a good argument. Analog-only engineers had to fit the dynamic range of their masters onto the LP format (and in the case of classic RCA and Mercury recordings, did it amazingly well) but the result was not as faithful to the original as a high-resolution digital copy can be.
These are golden times for audio. It is now possible to enjoy music playback in HD, be it streaming, on some form of soon-to-be-obsolete silver disc, or via download. The options are plentiful. Today, you can actually have your music at a level of quality that people who made it wanted you to hear it at. I encourage you, that if your goal is to have the best audio performance you can afford, to embrace music in HD today.