The subject of this article is something that affects everyone, whenever you listen to pre-recorded music through whatever audio system or headphones, and yet this is something which 99% of people are blissfully unaware, but through no fault of your own, but because this is one of the industry’s biggest and dirtiest secrets and where right and wrong become upside-down and backwards… Intrigued? Well, here we go…
● It has been scientifically proven that the predominant cause of listener EAR FATIGUE is INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION.
● CLIPPING of the audio signal produces and is a predominant cause of both INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION.
● CLIPPING of the audio signal is extremely common across all DIGITAL formats, where it is induced during the audio mastering stage due to THE LOUDNESS WAR (Google it). But INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION due to CLIPPING are non-existent with all ANALOGUE VINYL which is pressed from ANALOGUE masters, where it is quite simply impossible for the decapitated square waves produced by DIGITAL CLIPPING to occur.
● Therefore, INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION induced listener EAR FATIGUE due to CLIPPING of the audio signal transpires very commonly with DIGITAL, but comparatively very considerably less, if at all, with ANALOGUE VINYL.
● Musical instruments played live and vocals alike are dynamic, in that the audio sound pressure levels range considerably from very quiet to very loud; as do the subcomponents of the music itself, including the individual musical instruments and/or individual vocals contained therein. The measurement of the range of the audio dynamics in this respect is called the DYNAMIC RANGE.
● In order for recorded audio playback to accurately and hence realistically reproduce the corresponding live performance the DYNAMIC RANGE must be retained intact.
● In the vast majority of instances with respect to DIGITAL the DYNAMIC RANGE is not retained intact, but is in fact destroyed during the audio mastering stage due to THE LOUDNESS WAR; whereas with ANALOGUE VINYL it is almost always retained intact.
Therefore, in the majority of instances ANALOGUE VINYL beats DIGITAL with respect to being overall more accurate as compared with the respective original live performance and thereby yielding superior overall playback audio performance quality as compared with whatever equivalent DIGITAL format release.
Firstly, let’s have a look at the POTENTIAL with respect to both the DIGITAL and VINYL ANALOGUE music recording and playback formats. There is no contest. DIGITAL wins hands down. For example, DIGITAL has POTENTIALLY greater dynamic range with a maximum of 150dB as compared with ANALOGUE VINYL’s 120dB.
However, the key word here is POTENTIAL; and unfortunately said POTENTIAL in the vast majority of instances is not actually realized.
In the majority of instances ANALOGUE VINYL beats DIGITAL with respect to overall audio recording and playback performance sound quality. This is fact, and hence is objective and irrefutable, and not subjective and hence a matter of opinion. I will now demonstrate this.
AUDIO MASTERING & THE LOUDNESS WAR
The crux of the problem resides with the audio mastering stage; and hence the POTENTIAL of the DIGITAL recording and playback format is irrelevant. In a nutshell, if the audio master that is created at the mastering stage of the production process is rubbish it doesn’t matter how accurate or good a recording and playback format is, because RUBBISH AUDIO IN = RUBBISH AUDIO OUT.
But why would the audio signal be screwed up at the audio mastering stage? Is this accidental and due to incompetence? Not at all; it is done intentionally.
Due to the phenomenon called THE LOUDNESS WAR the vast majority of DIGITAL format music releases suffer from the audio signal having been butchered and adulterated at the audio mastering stage. It’s called THE LOUDNESS WAR because said butchering and adulteration entails over-amplifying the gain such that it sounds LOUD via mobile playback devices, such as phones and ipods, but as a direct consequence massively compromising and impairing the audio sound quality.
Specifically what transpires is as per follows:
(1) OVER-AMPLIFY THE GAIN;
(2) APPLY HYPERCOMPRESSION;
(3) APPLY SIGNAL PROCESSING AUDIO FILTERS;
(4) SKEW THE EQUALIZATION (EQ).
All of these have the combined effect of not just degrading the audio signal, but butchering it. The signal becomes massively clipped, thereby directly inducing both INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION and hence listener ear fatigue; and the audio becomes comparatively flat, lifeless, unrealistic (i.e. unlike the live performance), without ambience, and without dynamics.
With respect to the EQ SKEWING, what typically transpires is that the lower frequencies are thinned, due to being highly contributive with respect to the overall signal amplitude, in order to be able to ‘better fit’ the over-amplified audio signal within the confines of the recording format; where even then, due to the extent of the over-amplification, the resultant audio signal is still massively CLIPPED. Further to the negative effects of the CLIPPING, the EQ SKEWING throws the whole audio signal out of whack and even yet further away from an accurate representation of the original live performance.
Of course there are instances with respect to all DIGITAL releases, including CD and even MP3s where the mastering is done properly and hence the audio signal isn’t butchered into an abomination. But, unfortunately this is in the distinct minority of instances and the majority of DIGITAL format releases suffer from this LOUDNESS WAR related audio mastering. For example, out of my entire music collection of CDs less than 5% are not victims of THE LOUDNESS WAR and its abysmal audio mastering. Every single other CD that I own, namely circa 95% has had the audio signal adulterated at the audio mastering stage.
Whereas, this phenomenon quite simply does not transpire with ANALOGUE VINYL. It is impossible to create a CLIPPED SQUARE WAVE audio signal within the ANALOGUE DOMAIN.
With respect to the LOUDNESS WAR related DIGITAL mastering process, amongst all the consequential atrocities, it’s the CLIPPING and destruction of the DYNAMIC RANGE that are the worst offenders; and here’s why.
It has been scientifically proven that the predominant cause of listener EAR FATIGUE is INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION.
CLIPPING of the audio signal produces and is a predominant cause of both INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION.
CLIPPING of the audio signal is extremely common across all DIGITAL formats, where it is induced during the audio mastering stage due to THE LOUDNESS WAR (Google it). But INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION due to CLIPPING are non-existent with all ANALOGUE VINYL which is pressed from ANALOGUE masters, where it is quite simply impossible for the decapitated square waves produced by DIGITAL CLIPPING to occur.
Therefore, INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION induced listener EAR FATIGUE due to CLIPPING of the audio signal transpires very commonly with DIGITAL, but comparatively very considerably less, if at all, with ANALOGUE VINYL.
Here’s a very common example of CLIPPING of the audio signal with respect to a DIGITAL music audio release (in this particular instance JACKIE EVANCHO, AWAKENING, THINK OF ME on CD). I have zoomed in on the audio signal so you can see clearly the extent of the horrendous CLIPPING and the consequential decapitated square waves in their full, bloody awful glory:
Musical instruments played live and vocals alike are dynamic, in that the audio sound pressure levels range considerably from very quiet to very loud; as do the subcomponents of the music itself, including the individual musical instruments and/or individual vocals contained therein. The measurement of the range of the audio dynamics in this respect is called the DYNAMIC RANGE. In order for recorded audio playback to accurately and hence realistically reproduce the corresponding live performance the DYNAMIC RANGE must be retained intact.
In the vast majority of instances with respect to DIGITAL the DYNAMIC RANGE is not retained intact, but is in fact destroyed during the audio mastering stage due to THE LOUDNESS WAR; whereas with ANALOGUE VINYL it is almost always retained intact.
Consequently, in the majority of instances ANALOGUE VINYL beats DIGITAL with respect to being significantly more accurate as compared with the live performance than DIGITAL.
Here’s just one example of a very great many that illustrates this particular issue that is taken from the DYNAMIC RANGE DATABASE, which comprises comparative tables that provide a comprehensive list of all the different releases for whatever particular music album, across all formats, including both DIGITAL and ANALOGUE VINYL (where in this particular instance the music album is HISTORY by MICHAEL JACKSON). The table has been sorted into descending order of DYNAMIC RANGE and you will note immediately that all the VINYL releases massively outperform all the DIGITAL releases with respect to the DYNAMIC RANGE. This is not a matter of opinion, but an irrefutable FACT:
Statistically the DYNAMIC RANGE of DIGITAL format music releases, in particular CD and DIGITAL AUDIO FILES, typically ranges from 4 - 10 (Foobar2000 Dynamic Range Scale); whereas, with ANALOGUE VINYL the DYNAMIC RANGE in almost all instances ranges from 10 – 20, which on average is double that of DIGITAL.
This circumstance is upside-down and backwards, because the DIGITAL format has significantly technologically superior POTENTIAL, with greater POTENTIAL dynamic range than ANALOGUE VINYL. And hence all DIGITAL format music releases should possess superior audio playback performance quality, with superior DYNAMIC RANGE, as compared with ANALOGUE VINYL; but in reality in the majority of instances it’s the other way around. It should not be this way, but most unfortunately it is; and there’s nothing you can do about it.
There are some uncommon instances where the DIGITAL CD release(s) possesses either equal or even rarely superior DYNAMIC RANGE as compared with the corresponding ANALOGUE VINYL release(s) however statistically this is in the distinct minority of instances; wherein in the majority of instances the ANALOGUE VINYL release(s) have considerably higher and superior DYNAMIC RANGE.
Furthermore, it is quite common for different DIGITAL CD releases to carry out and/or utilize different audio mastering for that particular CD release, yielding different extents to which the audio signal has been butchered. In almost all instances where there is a variance it is in fact the older CD release that is superior, especially if as early as 1980s given the date either preceded THE LOUDNESS WAR or transpired when THE LOUDNESS WAR was in its infancy.
See the following example, wherein for this particular music album (Van Halen ~ 1984) you will note that the initial DIGITAL CD release dated 1983/1984 has superior DYNAMIC RANGE as compared with ANALOGUE VINYL release, but the later DIGITAL CD releases all have had the audio butchered at the mastering stage with a lousy DYNAMIC RANGE of only 8, wherein you can be sure they also suffer from all the other atrocities including massive hypercompression, filters and EQ skewing:
And here are the corresponding audio signals. Firstly, here’s DIGITAL CDs released 2000-2015, which suffer from both clipping and dreadful dynamic range:
Whereas, here are the VINYL and DIGITAL CD 1983/1984 releases, both of which have the mastering done properly; and rarely this particular CD release is unscathed, without having been butchered at the mastering stage due to the LOUDNESS WAR. If only all DIGITAL music audio releases were mastered properly like this particular rare example!:
‘REMASTERED’ MUSIC RELEASES
Here we have yet another instance where public perception / general understanding as compared with the reality is upside-down and backwards... You have often seen the phrase “REMASTERED” used within the marketing spiel relating to a new release of an old music album, right? So, what exactly does ‘REMASTERED’ mean? Well, you are probably under the impression it means that somebody has taken an old music recording and redone the audio mastering and thereby have produced a shiny, new and improved mastering that sounds better, right? WRONG! In the vast majority of instances, it means they have taken a perfectly fine original master recording, what with being historical old probably predates the start of THE LOUDNESS WAR and hence is in most instances already optimally mastered, and then butcher the audio, destroying the DYNAMIC RANGE, in precisely the same way as modern recordings do preceding the respective DIGITAL releases. Where “REMASTERED” is simply a word, ingeniously created by marketing professionals, to dupe unsuspecting and blissfully ignorant customers into thinking whatever newly “REMASTERED” music re-release is ENHANCED AND/OR IMPROVED where in reality it’s the PRECISE OPPOSITE of that. And so in most instances with respect to DIGITAL music audio releases ‘REMASTERED’ = BAD and should be avoided at all costs!
Like I said, if you want the best version of whatever music release on a DIGITAL FORMAT, such as CD for example, you should seek out the OLDEST / FIRST PRESSING, as typically this will be the one with the best mastering. And so, I personally do most of my CD MUSIC shopping on EBAY or even better DISCOGS (Google it) but also use the aforementioned invaluable DYNAMIC RANGE DATABASE to cross-check what are the best particular releases and corresponding BAR CODES or CATALOGUE NUMBERS denoting which is the particular CD pressing with the best MASTERING and DYNAMIC RANGE. You may wish to follow my example and do the same, if you are interested in obtaining the best version of whichever music album on CD.
HIGH RESOLUTION DIGITAL MUSIC RELEASES
I’ve established that DIGITAL music releases in the majority of instances suffer in the aforementioned manner, but surely that applies only to ‘lesser’ DIGITAL formats such as CDs and MP3s, and not SACD, DVD-AUDIO, and certainly not HIGH-RESOLUTION DIGITAL FILES, such as 192 or 96 kHz 24-Bit FLACs and the like, right? Wrong.
Like I said, if the audio master that is created at the mastering stage of the production process is rubbish it doesn’t matter how accurate or good a recording and playback format is, because the resultant recording will be rubbish. RUBBISH AUDIO IN = RUBBISH AUDIO OUT.
And there’s countless examples of this. Here’s just one of a very great many for you. This is a “SUPER HIREZ” Premium DIGITAL music file download of Michael Jackson ~ The Way You Make Me Feel, as a 192kHz 24Bit FLAC file with a Bit Rate of 3,169 kbps (N.B. For those who aren’t in the know MP3 audio files are either 128 or 320 kbps, so this is 10 - 25 times the Bit Rate of an MP3 audio file).
The audio signal speaks for itself, as in it is quite obviously absolutely abysmal, with massive clipping of the audio signal, as well as hypercompression and practically non-existent dynamic range. And it is hardly surprising that this sounds terrible in numerous ways as compared with the ANALOGUE VINYL release of the same music track:
Speaking of which, here is the ANALOGUE VINYL equivalent; which as you can see from the audio signal (see below) has had the mastering done properly and as such is unadulterated, with the DYNAMIC RANGE retained fully intact, with NO CLIPPING of the audio signal, and without any COMPRESSION (let alone HYPERCOMPRESSION), nor signal processing via audio FILTERS, nor skewing of the EQ. And hence it is substantially more accurately representative of the original live performance; and, unlike the DIGITAL version, it not surprisingly sounds absolutely fantastic:
But what about DIGITAL’s massively superior SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO? I hear you ask.
Historically the primary selling point of DIGITAL versus ANALOGUE VINYL has been its delicious background of absolute silence, to the extent that you could be sure that the only hiss or hum that you are hearing is emanating from your amplifier and loudspeaker array and most certainly is not on the source material; or if it is then it was present at the performance itself, such as recordings of live performances of classical music for instance. Whereas, ANALOGUE VINYL has a long-standing reputation of being about as quiet as bunch of asthmatic fat guys eating popcorn and packets of sweets and/or crisps, whilst wheezing with a whole load of heavy breathing.
Like THIS for example (CLICKABLE LINK): “FAMILY GUY | The National Association for the Advancement of Fat People”
Well, whilst that’s obviously hyperbole, it is indeed true that historically DIGITAL has indeed in most instances offered a superior SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO as compared with ANALOGUE VINYL. However, times have changed and that quite simply is not the case any more. Firstly, the resurgence with respect to ANALOGUE VINYL has created an increased demand for TURNTABLES; wherein, new TURNTABLES have been designed and brought to market which utilize up-to-date, leading edge, modern technologies that quite simply did not exist 30 – 40 years ago. Wherein, these modern TURNTABLES have succeeded in very much closing the gap with respect to the comparative NOISE FLOORS. And believe or not for the first time there are numerous ANALOGUE VINYL turntables that offer SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIOS pretty damn close to that of DIGITAL audio equipment, and that’s even taking into account the SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO of the VINYL itself.
Furthermore, the CLICKS and POPS associated with ANALOGUE VINYL have also become significantly less problematic too; wherein, these are both less frequent in transpiring and there now exists a number of methods whereby these can be removed without negatively affecting the audio signal; and/or prevented from transpiring in the first place, such as by cleaning the vinyl records (including the brand new and unused ones) using a sonic technology record cleaner.
Of course, it is not that case that all DIGITAL format music releases are awful; and similarly it is not the case that all VINYL is fantastic. Wherein, there are both instances of perfectly mastered and hence absolutely incredible sounding DIGITAL format music releases. And similarly there are instances of terrible quality VINYL that sound absolutely awful; where, this is due to either the particular VINYL pressing not being done properly and hence being of low quality and/or, with respect to modern VINYL releases, the VINYL being pressed from a DIGITAL master that suffers from the aforementioned butchering of the audio signal.
However, all of these without exception transpire in the very distinct minority of instances; in that it is rare for modern VINYL to be pressed from a DIGITAL master that suffers from the aforementioned butchering of the audio signal. Furthermore, it is uncommon for a VINYL pressing to be screwed up. And it is unfortunately similarly uncommon for DIGITAL music releases to be mastered properly.
Therefore, all of these exceptions, when compared with the whole, are statistically insignificant.
It’s irrelevant how good the POTENTIAL of whatever recording and playback format is if the audio is screwed up at the mastering stage. And this is precisely what transpires with respect to the majority of DIGITAL music releases, across all DIGITAL audio formats. And this includes high-resolution DIGITAL music format releases.
Therefore, in order to attain the best version with respect to the playback audio sound quality of whatever music album, if purchasing DIGITAL you will need to check with a reputable source (e.g. DYNAMIC RANGE DATABASE) with respect to which particular release version has had its audio mastering done properly, and hence is not butchered as a consequence of THE LOUDNESS WAR, and cherry-pick accordingly… AND/OR purchase the version which possesses the highest DYNAMIC RANGE, which in the majority of instances will be the ANALOGUE VINYL release. Wherein, you will of course need to invest in a turntable in order to be able to play the ANALOGUE VINYL. Or else you will be beholden to the limitations of whatever DIGITAL format releases are available and have no choice but to suffer the impaired audio performance quality that is produced due to the LOUDNESS WAR. Wherein, with respect to many DIGITAL music releases there quite simply is no good option available that has not had the audio butchered at the audio mastering stage.
This is the reason behind the recent resurgence of popularity with respect to the ANALOGUE VINYL format. The general populous have found that they prefer how the ANALOGUE VINYL sounds as compared with the corresponding DIGITAL equivalents, in most cases without knowing the reason why it sounds better. “Edgy”, “Harsh”, “Bright”, “Fatiguing” are often used by such people with respect to describing the DIGITAL format; and this is primarily due to the INTERMODULATION and HARMONIC DISTORTION induced EAR FATIGUE and much reduced if not obliterated DYNAMIC RANGE. “Flat”, “Lifeless”, “Cold”, “Clinical”, and “Thin” are also used; where this is typically due to a combination of the HYPER-COMPRESSION squashing the audio, the over-processing with AUDIO FILTERS, and the skewing of the EQUALIZATION (EQ).
The bitter irony is that the whole situation is upside-down and backwards because the DIGITAL format has significantly technologically superior POTENTIAL, with greater POTENTIAL dynamic range than ANALOGUE VINYL for example. And hence all DIGITAL format music releases should possess superior audio playback performance quality, with superior DYNAMIC RANGE, as compared with ANALOGUE VINYL; but in reality in the majority of instances it’s the other way around. It should not be this way, but it is, and there it is. And this is an irrefutable fact, not an opinion.
And finally, here’s a revelation for you… Personally, I am a DIGITAL fanboy.
Yes, you read that correctly.
In my opinion, without a doubt and by a very long way the best audio system currently available in the world today operates exclusively within the DIGITAL DOMAIN, from beginning to end, throughout all stages, right up to the speakers; namely STEINWAY LYNGDORF (for details see the previously published paper of mine titled: “UNBIASED REVIEW AND RANKING OF 12 ULTRA-HIGH-END AUDIO SYSTEMS”).
So why is a DIGITAL fanboy so passionately advocating ANALOGUE VINYL source material over DIGITAL? Quite simply because I am seeking the absolute best with respect to music audio source material to play via the best audio system in the world in order to both achieve and enjoy the resultant combination, namely the absolute ultimate in music audio playback performance quality. Which again brings us back to the same fundamental principle that RUBBISH AUDIO IN = RUBBISH AUDIO OUT. So, it doesn’t matter if you own the best audio system on the planet if you feed it rubbish quality source material.
Consequently, this DIGITAL fanboy is also concomitantly an ANALOGUE VINYL fanboy. Wherein, at first glance this might appear to be somewhat contradictory, but it actually makes perfect sense when the target objective is taken into consideration, namely how to achieve the absolute best audio sound quality that is currently possible with respect to the playback of audio recordings. Where, whilst with respect to the best audio system in the world being one that operates predominantly within the DIGITAL domain, when it comes to what is the absolute best music audio source material, all things considered, that is irrefutably ANALOGUE VINYL.
But here’s the thing… Whilst many people (myself included) consider that there's a certain pleasure derived from the physical act of playing vinyl records, there are instances where this either is not feasible, such as whilst travelling and/or whenever you are away from home; or you may be of the mindset that playing vinyl records is a laborious pain in the arse. Where I think it goes without saying that most people would not consider THIS to be an acceptable viable solution:
But there's good news!
Because, guess what you can do? Simply purchase a TURNTABLE plus ANALOGUE VINYL records, and thereby attain the best audio sound quality source material version of whatever music track/album and then via your TURNTABLE record your ANALOGUE VINYL records DIGITALLY to a DIGITAL audio file and thereafter use said DIGITAL recordings for any and all playback. The difference being that when you make your own personal DIGITAL recordings, unlike the majority of commercial releases, you can ensure that all of your recordings are actually mastered properly, and hence are an accurate copy of the ANALOGUE VINYL record, with the DYNAMIC RANGE intact and unaltered, and thereby entirely circumvent the LOUDNESS WAR and its associated audio mastering abominations.
OR instead why not simply sit back, relax, and enjoy playing your ANALOGUE VINYL records via your TURNTABLE.
Either way, welcome to the VINYL RESURGENCE!