THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE COMPACT DISC: Introduction

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The analog LP, while indeed passing into recording history, has yet to be eclipsed sonically by any other medium (Except reel-to-reel tape.) -- including the digital compact disc. Strip away the hype and keep your mind open and you can hear this for yourself.

Digital recording—on vinyl and CD—owes its meteoric rise to two factors: an enormous publicity campaign and the wretched quality of the mass-fi (aka mid-fi) turntables generally offered to the public. If turntables of the sort we recommended here were commonly produced in quantity—at the lower prices that this would allow—then the compact disc as well (and even higher-resolution SACD and DVD-Audio discs, and high-rez files such as 24/96 FLAC) would undoubtedly be having a much harder time of it.

Actually, the real contest is not so much between digital and analog, or old and new technology, as between mass-fi CD players and even worse mass-fi turntables. A mass-fl CD player may sound better than a mass-fi turntable, but a good turntable sounds better than all but perhaps the few best CD players. The problem lies not with the analog LP record but with the low caliber of the record players, or turntables, found in most homes. While the vinyl disc may be technologically out of style (at least for the time being), proper playback will reveal vinyl’s magnificent and as yet unsurpassed sonic virtues.

Like any other audio source, the turntable system has a profound effect on the final quality of the musical experience. The mass market has traditionally underemphasized its importance because conventional audio wisdom long ago concluded that a turntable was a supposedly “passive” device, contributing little to the sonic quality of playback. But this is just plain wrong.

Only very recently, in the last ten years or so, has the significance of the turntable begun to be recognized. (As luck would have it, this has coincided with the untimely decline of the vinyl disc.) Yet despite superb sonic advances in table design, there are still a tot of mainstream reviewers and audio technologists who continue dogmatically to hold to old ideas, refusing to acknowledge the table’s true importance.

Traditionally, loudspeakers have been exalted as the preeminent component, the so-called voice of the system. But without an excellent signal from the front end (accurately enlarged by the amplification stage) the speakers wouldn’t have a note to give voice to.

The turntable is the first component in the system to determine whether what you hear will be a living, breathing resurrection of the original live performance or nothing more than a facsimile. A really good table system can do more to bring alive a lackluster system than any other single investment in the signal chain.

This fundamental misunderstanding helps to make some sense out of how the purveyors of digital have been able to take such a promising recording medium as CD and premiere it to the world in a completely wretched state of development. It has required “obscure” audiophile designers and tweakers, experimenting independently in basements and garages, to reveal finally digital’s hidden excellence.

Millions of dollars’ worth of publicity and advertising won’t change the fact that CD is not inherently better than the vinyl disc, but only an improvement over the vinyl disc played back on a low-quality or poorly set up turntable. A mediocre CD player may not sound as bad as a mediocre turntable, but to get really good CD sound you have to use a really good CD player. And that genuinely good player may cost you as much as or more than a good table, arm, and cartridge.

Currently the best-sounding CD players are made individually or in small quantities and so cannot be bought off the shelf of any audio store. Nor is it likely that excellent-sounding CD players will be rolling off mass-production assembly lines in the near future. Also, the CDs themselves cost considerably more than LPs, especially now that a lot of vinyl is going for bargain prices.

Not appreciating the profound significance of the turntable exposes a fundamentally inadequate understanding of what a recording is. Records are a lot more than just memorabilia—they are an artistic medium.

Next: The Importance of the Turntable System

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Updated: Friday, 2016-05-13 19:10 PST