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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl

Posted By on Wed, Feb 4, 2015 at 3:33 AM

Of course vinyl records sound better than CDs. Or do they?
  • Of course vinyl records sound better than CDs. Or do they?

James Russell's mother told him that his first invention was the "automated battleship" he built when he was six. By the time he was thirteen, he was fixing toasters, irons and fans at a local appliance store in his hometown outside Seattle. The summer before he left for college, he was hired to set up a radio station -- transmitter and all -- something he'd never done before. He'd never even seen an antenna that big.

"That's why I am an inventor," says Russell, now 83. "I can envision how it should be."

At Portland's Reed College, Russell studied physics and built his first turntable. Unsatisfied with the standard needles of the day, he used cactus needles, which he sharpened with sandpaper, to play the first LP he purchased: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Even so, with his sharp ears, he could hear the quality of his LPs disintegrate after the tenth or twelfth spin.

After he graduated in 1953, Russell took a job in the research laboratories at Washington State's Hanford Works, the nuclear reservation that produced the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Long-time classical music fans, Russell and his wife, Barbara, were subscribers to the Seattle Opera, even though it meant a 400-mile drive roundtrip for each performance.

He worked on projects tangentially related to nuclear reactors for several years, then convinced his superiors to let him research ways in which optics -- the use of light -- could improve the recording and reproduction of music.

Russell wasn't trying to make recorded music more convenient or portable. He was trying to make it more accurate, a clearer reflection of the performance.

"I wanted the symphony to sound like the symphony," he says.

On a Saturday morning in 1965, Barbara took the kids to buy shoes. Home alone, free to think about his problem, Russell figured out how to bring optics, digital technology and other disciplines together to create the digital optical storage and playback technology that would be used in what is now known as the compact disc.

The CD revolutionized the music industry, but it was never cool. Even as CD sales eclipsed and nearly exterminated vinyl, the format was plagued by accusations that its sound was inferior, that it was merely a convenient alternative to the LP.

As consumers flocked to the convenience and ubiquity of downloadable and streaming music, they unsentimentally abandoned their CD collections. But as CD sales have plummeted, vinyl's sales figures have been moving in the other direction. The CD-versus-vinyl debate -- and, by extension, the debate over digital versus analog sound -- has only grown.

By 2014, vinyl's resurgence as a marketable product and fetish property appeared to be hastening the CD's obsolescence. While CD album sales in the United States had dropped by 80 percent since their 2001 peak, LP sales hit 9.2 million, up 52 percent from 2013 and nearly 800 percent since 2004. Jack White's Lazaretto moved 86,700 LPs, the most units in a calendar year since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping track in 1991.

Colored vinyl LPs. - KELSEE BECKER
  • Kelsee Becker
  • Colored vinyl LPs.

Even purely digital music is now marketed using the trappings of vinyl. When U2 distributed 500 million digital copies of its new album to iTunes users -- a reach unimaginable when the band released its debut in 1980 -- the artwork depicted a vinyl record inside a sleeve with the initials "LP" scribbled on the exterior. And when Neil Young launched a Kickstarter campaign for PonoMusic, a digital music player and online store, his company's stated mission was to "re-create the vinyl experience in the digital realm."

Baked into the vinyl resurgence is the suggestion -- fed by analog apostles such as Young and White -- that an LP's analog playback produces honest, authentic sound, while digital formats such as the CD compromise quality for the sake of portability and convenience. Young articulated this sentiment earlier this month at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he told Rolling Stone's Nathan Brackett that the vinyl resurgence is due to the fact that "[vinyl is] the only place people can go where they can really hear."

Fathers of the compact disc -- and many audio engineers who make a living reproducing what transpires in the recording studio -- bristle at this notion.

"As long as you can measure the difference, the CD will be better than the vinyl, absolutely," says Kees A. Schouhamer Immink, a former Philips engineer in the Netherlands who was a member of the Sony/Philips task force that created the compact-disc standards. "But if you say the whole experience -- just like smoking cigars with friends -- [is better], well, do it. Enjoy smoking cigars with friends, and drink beer and brandy and enjoy listening to an old-fashioned record player. But don't say the sound is better.

"You may say it sounds better to you. That's OK. That's a subjective matter."

Story continues on the next page.

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