“Let our rigorous testing and reviews be your guidelines to A/V equipment – not marketing slogans”
Facebook Youtube Twitter instagram pinterest

Analog (Vinyl) vs Digital Audio (CD, FLAC) Sound Quality Comparison

by October 03, 2013
Audioholics Listening Panel

Audioholics Listening Panel

Ever since I picked up the Marantz PM-11S2 turntable, I've been amassing quite a collection of vinyl records.  Flip the clock back two years ago and I would have never considered spinning records on my system.  Well, let's just say ever since I upgraded my speaker system to the fabulous Status Acoustics 8T's, I've opened my mind to new possibilities.  I've come to appreciate a wider diversity of music and the various formats to listen on.  Why limit yourself to one format?  Why not enjoy the different experience you get through different listening media?  After all, it's not all just about getting the lowest noise and distortion in a recording is it?  What about the emotional response the format evokes on the listener?  There is something to be said about the crackling sound of vinyl as well as when the needle first hits the record, which I find quite enthralling.  The whole experience is best described as warm and cozy.  My wife finds it to be more personable and romantic when we listen to a vinyl recording.  Can't argue with her when she's pouring a nice glass of wine with a smile on her face dressed comfortably for what promises to be a fun night. 

CD has about a 26dB dynamic advantage over Vinyl and about 40-50dB better stereo separation.

By every measure, digital audio is superior to analog.  Even the standard redbook CD (44kHz, 16 bit resolution) has about a 26dB advantage to vinyl with respect to dynamic range, and at least a 40-50 dB advantage in stereo separation as well as unmeasurable wow and flutter.  A digital recording doesn't degrade overtime like a record does when played too many times.  I can go on, but you get the point.  On paper, digital audio is superior.  However, if I've learned anything over the years of running this website is there is often quite a difference between theory and reality.  Most technical people, especially electrical engineers, can suffer from what I call CMS (Closed Minded Syndrome), relying solely on hard data and facts to draw a conclusion before testing the reality of the situation to determine correlation.  Admittedly I am often guilty of  the CMS effect myself, but my engineering mind has opened up quite a bit over the years.  While I used to measure first and listen after, I now do the opposite.  I don't want my objective data to bias my sonic perceptions of a product.  I've found this approach much more useful to gauge my true enjoyment of a product I have under review.  I use measurements as a tool to troubleshoot potential design flaws, not necessarily to declare product superiority.  I've even written an article on Why We Measure Audio Component Performance that discusses this very topic in greater detail.

I was interested in doing a fun comparison between formats of the same recordings to see how each person's experience varied.  This comparison will likely not satisfy the few forum trolls that insist on using a strict Double Blind Test (DBT) protocol that most people, let alone manufacturers NEVER adhere to in the truest sense.  They will also decry that if the recordings weren't mixed by the same engineer, then you're comparing different mixes and not the formats themselves.  There is some merit to these arguments, but that wasn't the point of this exercise.  This listening event was meant as a friendly gathering of close friends and family to enjoy food, spirits, music and most importantly, companionship.

 Vinyl vs CD: Which One is Better?

The Food

There are two things I pride myself on, great sound and great food.  It's part of the reason why I married the best cook in the family.  My wife's passion for food is equal to her passion of life and love of our mutual audio hobby.  She cooked up some homemade vegetarian chile and I made fresh pasta and turkey meatballs (Italian style - egg, parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese) with a homemade tomato sauce.   We also put out a full spread of cold Italian favorites like artichokes, red peppers, olives, and cheeses.  One of our forum members Dave Phares (aka. Majorloser) even brought us one of Belgium's finest beers called Chimay Ale (my brother refers to this as his daily drinker) as well as a very nice bottle of Italian red wine.  Thanks Dave!

Food and Beer

The Food and Spirits

The Music

I chose music I had duplicates of on Vinyl, CD and FLAC files stored on my 4 TB HDD which is directly connected to my Oppo BDP-105 via USB.   I used the Marantz PM-11S3 as the analog preamp, a pair of Emotiva XPR-1 1kwatt monoblocks for the power amps, the Marantz TT-15S1 turntable and Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray as the sources.  The speakers were of course the Status Acoustics 8T and the cables were Kimber 8TC with Bluejeans balanced and unbalanced interconnects.

CD and Vinyl Music

from left to right: Spyro Gyra, Phil Collins, Miles Davis

The Demo Material

  • Phil Collins: Hello I Must Be Going on Vinyl and CD
  • Spyro Gyra: Breakout on Vinyl and CD
  • Miles Davis: Kind of Blue on Vinyl (180G) and FLAC (lossy copy)

Interestingly, the Phil Collins CD and Vinyl recordings are from the same era (1982), studio (Atlantic Records) and recording engineer (Hugh Padgham).  The original master is analog which is what the CD is derived from, hence an AAD recording.  The Spyro Gyra CD and Vinyl recordings are also from the same era (1986), studio (MCA/Amherst Records) and recording engineer (Bob Ludwig).  While the CD isn't clearly marked, I believe the recording was originally done digitally.  In fact, I believe the Vinyl was mastered from the digital recording since the record plays so incredibly clean and noise free.  This is an interesting comparison since in the Phil Collins case, the Vinyl would appear to have an advantage being an original analog master while in the Spyro Gyra case the CD would seem to have the advantage since its an original digital master.  So suck on that Objectivists; we do have the same recordings mastered by the same people and mixes on both formats!

For Miles Davis, I purchased the 180G audiophile recording remastered in 2010 by Sony Records.   I'm not sure what the FLAC files were mastered from since I don't recall where I acquired them.  So this is an unknown quantity that I am sure the pure Objectivists would baulk at but you can't please everyone.

Update (2/26/15): After recently downloading Kind of Blue (192kHz/24 bit FLAC) from HDTracks and comparing the file size, it has become apparent that the FLAC copy of this album we used in our comparison was NOT lossless.  Thus, we will be reruning this comparison and reporting back in a future editorial.

Audio RackThe Test Procedure

As stated earlier, I selected recordings I had duplicate copies of for digital and analog sources.  I level matched by ear and had Dave Phares also confirm the levels seemed to be very close, if not identical.  It's impossible to level match with a SPL meter since we were trying to match music sources not a fixed generated test tone or pink noise.  Each record was recorded differently, thus I had to level match for each of the three recordings.  Luckily the Oppo BDP-105 made level matching a breeze with 1dB on the fly adjustable level matching from the analog outputs. 

I've gotten pretty good at queuing up songs on Vinyl and was able to perfectly sync up the vinyl and digital recordings in each case.  I played up to two songs on each recording, randomly switching between the analog and digital recordings giving each listener at least a full minute to hear a source before switching over.  Towards the end of each listening session, I did quicker switching to allow for more instantaneous comparisons. 

I created a form (see attachment) for participants to fill out for evaluating the sound quality of each Vinyl and corresponding Digital version of the recording.  I collected the results from all six participants and averaged them.

Analog vs Digital Sound Quality Test Results

Our listening panel featured an interesting mix of people.  We had two professional musicians (Martha and Larry), a quite talented electrical guitarist (Ron), a seasoned listener and forum regular (Dave), and two inexperienced but highly technical people (Alex and Kelvin).  Of course, I was in the mix listening as well and share my observations, but I didn't participate in the scoring.

Listening Scorecard Results

Scorecard Results of Analog vs Digital Listening Tests

Status Acoustics 8T Speaker System

Status Acoustics 8T Speaker System


Phil Collins - Hello I Must Be Going
Again this was originally an analog recording, so the CD stands at a disadvantage since it was being remastered from the analog tapes.  While the CD had a whopping 2.7 pt average advantage to the Vinyl recording for noise floor, it still lost out unanimously with our listening panel to the latter mostly because of dynamic compression found in the digital recording.  I personally preferred the Vinyl recording myself as I felt Phil Collins vocals were more realistic sounding and the drums were far more dynamic.  I was quite pleased with the sonics of this used Vinyl recording that I picked up at my local record store for $5.  Money well spent, especially if you're a Phil Collins fan like myself.

Phil Collins  Kind of Blue  Spyro Gyra Breakout

Spyro Gyra - Breakout
Ok, I was interested in the results on this one since we were dealing with an original digital recording that had to be remastered for the analog Vinyl version.  A lot of the new Beatles records are being done like this from the 192kHz FLAC files and I'm hearing mixed results of these on our forum.  A couple of listeners left the "vocal" field blank until I later explained you can substitute vocals for brass instruments in these cases.  In the situations where a blank remained, I simply averaged the data I had on hand only.

The results were almost dead even for this recording which tells me the Vinyl transfer was done very well to preserve the dynamic range of the digital recording. In fact, the noise floor was so low on the record that it was often hard to determine which was the CD and which was the Vinyl record.  The listening panel seemed to slightly prefer the more detail, especially in the trumpets, the CD version offered.  I personally preferred the detail and snappiness of the digital recording but also really enjoyed the somewhat smoother sounding Vinyl transfer, especially at high listening levels.  Given the choice between both recordings, I'd probably find myself still picking the Vinyl record to listen to most of the time. What can I say, I like seeing my record player spin, especially when it sounds this good. I got this record for $2 used, but still sealed at a thrift shop.  What a great purchase!

Miles Davis - Kind of Blue

I was eager to pop in this recording as I'm such a fan of the 180G Vinyl recording.  It set me back $22 from Amazon but I felt it was well worth it for the experience.  As I said prior, I don't know too much about how the FLAC file was transferred to the HDD so unfortunately this was a bit of an unknown.

Update (2/26/15): After recently downloading Kind of Blue (192kHz/24 bit FLAC) from HDTracks and comparing the file size, it has become apparent that the FLAC copy of this album we used in our comparison was NOT lossless.  Thus, we will be reruning this comparison and reporting back in a future editorial.

While our listening panel judged both recordings almost similar in their overall experience, they clearly critiqued the finer points much differently.  They clearly preferred the Vinyl version in every category, most notably in dynamic range with a 2.2pt advantage, and in clarity and realism in the brass instruments.  I honestly couldn't believe the difference when I took a critical listen.  The FLAC file on its own sounded very clean with good tonal balance.  But, when you directly compared it to the Vinyl version, it was as if the FLAC version was lifeless, void of dynamics and realism.  This was especially true during the Miles/Coltrain solos.  Martha, a professional saxophone player, was particularly floored by the difference.  She commented to me that on the Vinyl version, it was as if the sax player was playing live in the room, something she never experienced before on an audio system.  However, with the FLAC version, she said it sounded bottled up or closed in as if it was coming from a speaker.  I very much agreed with her assessment.  Get the Vinyl record if your a fan of this album for sure!

how the recording was made often plays a more dominant role in sound quality over the comparative differences of the formats.

So What was Learned from this Experience?

Wine TastingThat more testing is needed!  More food, more drink, more listening, more friends.  Everyone really enjoyed the experience.  Isn't that what it's all about?  Oh, did I mention we also hosted a wine tasting?  That certainly added to the fun factor :)

It was very clear to me that Vinyl is still a very viable format and I understand why so many audiophiles flock to it.  It appears that more care is often taken when mastering music on Vinyl to avoid excessive compression and damage to the stylus.  The Achilles' heel of the format in this case is actually an advantage.  It's truly sad how much abuse has been done in the digital era of music.  Here we are with virtually limitless dynamic range for digital media, but recordings are being squashed down to oblivion, often making their technically inferior analog counterparts sonically superior.  I've written about the Dumbing Down of Audio in the past that discusses these points in finer detail for anyone interested in reading.  

In the meantime, don't limit yourself to just one playback medium.  Open your horizons to multiple media (ie. CD, streaming from a HDD, SACD, DVD-A, Blu-ray, and Vinyl).  Search out the best sounding transfer of your favorite recordings across multiple platforms and enjoy the experience!

Attached Files


About the author:
author portrait

Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

View full profile