I have this question about a bunch of LPs I own that I want to run by you, dear readers, to see if my hypothesis might hold some water. It is simply this: do LP records made in the early stages of the digital era (i.e., the 80s) on recording equipment that is — essentially — CD quality (16-bit, 44.1 kHz) sound any better than a CD of the same recording… because they are effectively the same?
Why, you may ask, am I even thinking about stuff like this? Well, as I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, I’m hoping to move into a smaller (read: more affordable) living situation later this year and need to pare down my considerable music collection. So I am going through it with a fine tooth comb, determining what is essential to keep on LP and what can be replaced by a CD.
The first all-digital LP I listened to (which got me going on this article idea in the first place) it turns out was a pretty significant landmark according to this AES article on the early days of digital recording: a recording of Aaron Copland and Charles Ives music done “Direct to Digital” by Sound 80 Digital Records. They even have a picture of the inner sleeve photo from the album in the article that reveals the album was recorded at 16-bit and 37.5 kHz.
Don’t get me wrong, these albums sound real good. But they sound good in a digital sort of way. Very clean. Almost sterile at times, lacking that certain something that many analog recordings (and higher resolution 24-bit/96kHz digital recordings often) possess.
Looking at the non-rock music portion of my collection, I have several other instances of overlap where I have the CD and the LP, making for easy direct comparison.
My first test is a notable entry that won many awards the year of its release: La Cage Aux Folles (the Broadway musical). And ya know what? The CD and the LP sound very similar, with the CD getting a slight nod (possibly for a little less compressed sounding — I am guessing at this but LPs often had a certain amount of compression applied to them in order to keep levels above the noise floor of the disc as well as to keep the grooves from getting too wide to reduce tracking error on the consumer side.
I switched to one of my favorite Philip Glass recordings for the first time on my (now not so new) Music Hall 7.1 turntable via the Bellari tube pre amp and — indeed — it sounds a bit boxier than I remember. Actually, it sounds like a CD. Super crisp cymbals, angular guitars, piercing violins. All stuff that sounded amazing on my old gear and now on my newer system sounds… well… wrong somehow. I still love the music on that record but I guess I’ll have to pick up a CD copy to see how it compares.
Curiously, all the Philip Glass albums being offered on HDTracks.com are 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (ie. CD quality). Which adds to my theory questioning whether some of these — probably, mostly all digital — recordings even exist in resolution above 16-bit (if they did, wouldn’t HD Track carry those? I do not know for sure — I’m asking a genuine question here, not trying to be smarmy).
Finally, I compared CD & LP versions of Pat Metheny’s Grammy winning 1987 hit album Still Life (Talking), which was (according to the liner notes) “recorded, mixed and mastered digitally”). While the LP gets an ever-so-slight nod for better separation and possibly some more warmth from the tube preamp, the overall sound is pretty much identical. So much so, I’m now wondering if I should keep the LP version (I might simply for the pretty artwork and all)
Anyhow, there you have it. This isn’t a conclusive answer by any means, but it’s a theoretical question worth hashing out. Given identical all-digital 44.1/16 masters, which should sound better: the CD, or the LP? What do you think? Help me figure this one out!