What Do Records Sound Like?

Russell Lichter

                                                                                             December 2003

We were having dinner with our friend Helen the other week. (Should I tell you about Wahid’s incomparable lamb skewers, his basmati rice and homemade bread, the obscure spices that go into the marinade and rice that no amount of friendly persuasion will get him to reveal?) I was fascinating the table with tales of my recent adventures hunting old vinyl at Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. Out of the blue she asked a question which, I suppose, should not have but did surprise me, What do records sound like?

My relationship with vinyl was always love-hate. Records sounded good enough, if your rig was capable of tracking loud pianoforte passages without the stylus dancing around in the groove, leaving behind permanent damage, but absolutely nothing I ever did kept my records from acquiring pops and clicks and even the occasional scratch. In fact it almost seemed the harder I tried, the worse it got. Not special proprietary inner sleeves, not anti-static sprays (I knew how to make the stuff for a tiny fraction of retail cost), not preservatives, not carbon fiber brushes or special cleaning fluids. And the rig I had in those days, unlike that I now own, didn’t effortlessly move the inevitable noises to either side of the soundstage, but tended to leave them front and center for the highest possible annoyance factor. There is in life nothing quite like the feeling of having pampered a disc with the very best of jackets and fluids only to discover a new scratch, or some new pops and clicks, when you go to play the thing. I used to wonder if other audiophiles had this problem or if it was only me, like those people who put on a wristwatch and it stops running?

These days, the availability of an alternative to vinyl records, those little silver discs with the 1’s and 0’s, enables a degree of tolerance and nonchalance to its foibles impossible twenty years ago when the big black, wobbly discs were the only game in town.

From a technical standpoint, vinyl is inferior to CDs. Signal to noise ratio, channel separation, distortion, frequency response, dynamic range: CDs have vinyl beat in all these categories. And no tracking error. (Let’s us not, for God’s sake, hear gainsay from the peanut gallery about frequency response. Virtually all vinyl recordings are rolled off well before the perfectly flat upper limit of CDs. And as for reactionary claims of “hearing” the 1’s and 0’s, or the impossibility of quantified data recreating a continuous (analog) signal, I can only suggest they take it up with Mr. Nyquist.)

And the fact is you can go down to the bargain room of your local high-end store and buy an NAD CD player for $250 that won’t sound half bad. But in order to play vinyl decently you have to lay out a lot more money. And to play vinyl superlatively you’ve got to lay out a small fortune. And that’s not taking into account the cost of a phono stage (since most preamplifiers these days lack one) and a fancy step-up transformer for that low-output moving coil cartridge. In my experience it is patent that the financial point of diminishing returns for a CD front end is much lower than that for a vinyl front end. Why you can put together a damned good CD-based stereo system for the cost of a great phono cartridge!

But I have a special love for record players. It’s always struck me as a near miracle that they work at all, let alone as well as they do. The idea of a little piece of meticulously formed diamond on the end of a hollow cantilever made of some proprietary alloy of boron and beryllium or whatever, bouncing back and forth in a soft plastic concentric groove containing microscopically fine variations, producing beautiful music, has always rather amazed me. And the problems involved! A constant rotational speed (unlike CDs) means the microscopic fineness of the physical data increases as the tonearm moves inward, exacerbating the inherent problem of controlling the continuous acceleration/deceleration of the stylus. The cantilever holding the stylus must accurately transmit the stylus motion to the inside of the cartridge without adding standing waves or resonance of its own. Inside the cartridge are a pair of magnets or coils which present acceleration/deceleration problems of their own. And any vibration that is coupled to the cartridge body must be damped, otherwise some frequencies will travel through the tonearm to the plinth and to the spindle and platter and back to the record as out of phase feedback. While other frequencies may reflect back from a discontinuity on the tonearm body or bearing, reentering the cartridge body. Moreover, the motion of the stylus in the grooves generates vibrations that travel in all directions through the vinyl, and these too must be damped or they will bounce back, or return by way of the spindle, plinth and tonearm. The massive platters and costly bearings on expensive turntables do more than help quietly maintain constant speed: they are coupled to the vinyl record with a clamp to help absorb these very vibrations. And of course a radial tonearm would have to be infinitely long to eliminate tracking error. Have I left out anything?

As one might expect, the turntable/tonearm/cartridge is one area of audiophilia where money spent tends to be clearly audible. I am not in the least convinced my Accuphase DP90 sounds “better” than a PS Audio Lambda (particularly when used with a reclocking DAC that’s theoretically immune to incoming jitter above 2Hz). But the vinyl fanatics who invest $14,000 in a VPI Industries TNT HR-X and a Koetsu Rosewood Signature cartridge tend to get commensurate sonic excellence.

My kit is not in that league: a stock Rega Planar 3 with a stock RB300 and a Benz Glider. Total cost: considerably less, I imagine, than retipping the above mentioned Koetsu!

But, to return to my friend’s question, what do records sound like?

Magnificent, that’s what. My library of vinyl is pretty small and, like my much larger CD library, consists of almost all classical music. So my claims for the “typical” sound of records are statistically invalid. But my sense of that sound, neutrality, presence, body and, especially, superlative imaging, is shared by many others. Why should that be? Why should a medium technically inferior to CDs in every respect, (often) sound better than CDs (typically) do?

I know a guy who not only prefers vinyl, he prefers monaural. He is a classical clarinetist and feels that that combination sounds closer to live music. Oh yes, live music: live music is, we should remind ourselves, what high fidelity sound was originally about. And how many of us have regular exposure to live music? For most of us, when we sit down between a pair of monoliths and smile because it sounds just like a violin, we are in truth relying on a very distant memory of how a violin actually sounds. Maybe some of us have never even heard one. But then again, my audio mentor, who does listen to live music frequently in his concert attending and audio engineering activities, was visiting a couple of years ago. We were enjoying my CD collection a lot. But when I put on a vinyl recording of Albenez’s Iberia, he turned to me and said, “Now that sounds like a piano.”

Back in the old days we’d grouse over the lousy engineering and production that went into so many recordings. I attended the session in Inglewood of Sheffield Labs direct-to-disc recording of Jim Keltner on the drum set. Doug Sax did everything impeccably and all vinyl lovers know the result. What I suspect is that the relative proportion of poorly engineered recordings has gone up with the advent of digital technology. The new technology is all so easy to use, and so easy to misuse. There is clearly nothing inherently unmusical about the CD format. JVC’s XRCDs prove it. Mapleshade proves it. BIS proves it. But in terms of imaging, most of my records are stunningly better than most of my CDs. Could engineering and production be the culprit?

But I haven’t told you anything about some of my remarkable finds at Goodwill and Salvation Army. Maybe next time.




--------------------------------------------------------------------------------