ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

September 1, 2005

That Steady, Steady Drumbeat

It reminds me of those old black-and-white jungle flicks: pith-helmeted gentry slowly going bananas to the pulse of native drums. In calling attention to a vinyl source, an audio journalist -- DUM dum dum dum, DUM dum dum dum -- yet again slams the compact disc as an inferior technology foisted off on a na´ve and gullible public. His comments conclude, "P.T. Barnum lives." (Phineas Taylor Barnum, his era’s foremost showman and hoaxer, is credited with having said, "There’s a sucker born every minute." The rascal actually got himself elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.)

Were this swipe at the CD some isolated, rear-action eructation, one could shrug it off. To the contrary, the vinyl claque’s chokehold on Audiophilia and, by extension, the impressionable agora shows no sign of abating. Ask around: A good LP trumps any CD. To deny it puts one beyond the pale, out there with the knuckle-walkers.

I could perhaps understand thumping for early-generation, open-reel copies of analog master tapes, played of course with an Ampex deck, but these were never in general circulation. A friend’s sound system included a pair of studio Ampexes that he kept in tip-top shape. His music library consisted of several hundred 7.5ips and 15ips dupes, all classical, purchased and bartered illicitly. It was quite a frisky underground. In most recordings of classical music, performers push air simultaneously in the same acoustic space. In most pop recordings, tracks are laid down separately. Never mind musical tastes: In evaluating a recording or its playback hardware’s quality, sound that bears comparison with the live, unamplified event is a more reliable measure.

But that’s another, sometimes debated, story. Anyway, when the compact disc appeared in the early 1980s, my friend A/B’d his tapes against CD reissues of the same material and could not detect a difference. He eventually sold off his tape collection to audiophile acquaintances who thought they were getting away with murder.

Whether or not you believe that no difference could be detected between the guy’s tapes and the same performances’ CD reissues, I’m told that an LP, particularly one with high-energy and dynamically challenging passages, will rarely sound identical to its master. In the cutting, compromises need to occur. And then, once played -- and played and played and played -- the groove’s squiggles fall prey to wear. The stylus’s diamond tip degrades, likewise the tender path it traces.

Urban mythology has it that a CD’s pits are finite, knowable, proscribed, and inadequate, and that an LP's groove is not. Another audio journalist states that within the LP’s spiral trench (I paraphrase) resides some mysterious gesture toward the infinite. Nonsense. A microscope reveals the groove in its most intimate, finite detail. There’s nothing in the least unknowable about it. Also, to return to urban mythology, the CD’s high-frequency cutoff point is said to curtail the sense of spaciousness the LP’s unbounded topside more readily portrays. If we go back to stereo’s Golden Age, how many microphones and tape recorders then in use went anywhere near 20kHz close to flat? Many had little to say beyond 10kHz. Indeed, how many of today’s recording mikes exceed 20kHz, again, anywhere near flat? Measuring mikes, yes, but they’re not "musical."

I’m wrong in several or all particulars? No sweat. I got most of this from reading, the fellow with the Ampexes and a wonderful old guy, recently deceased, who worked as a recording engineer. Grieve forgot more about pipe organs and Elizabethan music than most of us will ever know. I miss him.

To return to my task, I’m what they call an observationalist: on a bad day, a subjectivist; on a worse day, delusional. None of the above technochat goes to the heart of an observationalist’s argument, which spells itself out as follows.

Most philovinylites allow that the CD medium has improved over the years but still falls short of the LP’s capabilities -- its musicality, if you will. The CD players are better, no quarrel there. So are analog front ends. I have CDs issued in the early 1980s, when the silver disc was in its infancy, that today sound very good. How does that square against the view that a godawful medium has slowly improved? Other CDs have been nothing short of unlistenable. If but one great-sounding CD exists, how then is the medium flawed? In fact, many more than one exist.

In terms of sound quality, philovinylites tend to dwell on choice specimens, forgetting that the bulk of LPs are mediocre and worse, as are CDs. The difference lies in production values. Garbage in, garbage out. To assume that everyone on the production side routinely cranks out masterworks is to believe that, somewhere above the Arctic Circle, Santa’s elves cobble toys for good girls and boys. Ah yes, the philovinylites say, but an LP sounds better than a CD of the same production. Here we revert to attitudes.

And arrive at a cognitive dissonance. I’ve heard the comparisons and ask what the fuss is about. Far from being some mass-market scam, the compact disc is a remarkably good carrier, and I’ve never thought otherwise. But in terms of unanimity? Back when the upstart CD was in particularly bad odor among the knee-jerk cognoscenti, a Fanfare colleague wrote, of a disc that I judged a sonic mediocrity, that a few more like this and he’d be sold. One never knows what another hears. Allowing that the ear’s physiology works pretty much the same for most of us, there’s that pesky brain and its interpretive filters to contend with.

The contempt Audiophilia’s Happy Few have heaped on the "Red Book" CD has long since trickled down to general-interest publications where we see, time and again, that the CD is vinyl’s inferior. I count this an embarrassment. It really needs to stop. With respect to two-channel stereo, vinyl succumbed to silver far more rapidly than the compact disc is deferring to higher-resolution formats. The need then was readily perceived. Now it is not.

...Mike Silverton

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