Vinyl vs. CD: listening test 1 (Miles Davis' "Eighty-One")

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Switching back and forth proved a task, because the CD came in much louder, requiring me to increase or decrease the volume after a switch between the two, which in turn caused a several-second delay in comparative listening.

After awhile I got the hang of it. Here’s what I found:

There clearly is a difference between the CD and LP listening experience. (I was counting on it, or else my purchase of a new turntable would’ve been largely moot.)

The CD version of “Eighty-One” was sharper, brighter and more finely detailed. The LP version was warmer and rounder. The LP’s sound had more depth compared to the CD’s comparatively up-front sonic plane. The acoustic bass on the CD was terser; I could hear Carter’s percussive snaps. On the LP, the bass was more of a drone. Similarly, Williams’ ride cymbal sparkled on the CD — maybe even a bit too much — while the LP relegated it to more of a background role.

Overall, I more appreciated the ensemble parts on LP and the solos on CD, not exactly practical for listening to Miles.

So which was my preference? Each one had its merits, but if I were forced to keep just one, right now, it would be the CD player.

But … I suspect that’s partly because I was using a fairly high-end CD player and an entry-level turntable with a stylus that costs in the $50 range. What would the difference be if that stylus cost $100, or $150? My guess is that the sonic detail would improve and the warmth and depth would stay.

Uh oh. I see how this works. A $50 stylus just won’t cut it. Guess I need a better one.

But not right away. I’ve got to get that hum sorted out, and get some brand-new high-grade vinyl in here, then test some more.

I gotta tell ya: This is fun. To an extent, the actual music takes a backseat. My ears homed in on specific sounds rather than absorbing the entire piece of music. But it was just an exercise, and it really raised my concentration level. Hey, I can always sit back and just let the music wash over me. Which I'll do — on both CD and vinyl.

If you’ve read this far, you probably are interested in the equipment I used, so here ya go:

Pro-Ject Debut III turntable

• NAD 5100 CD player

B&W 683 speakers (which I love)

[the above were purchased at Audio Visions South in Tampa]

• Sony STR DA2000ES receiver

Last week, I wrote about my acquisition of a new turntable, my first since the early 1990s, and pledged to do some comparisons between CDs and LPs, which is a heated debate in the audiophile community (with most audiophiles, I’m told, favoring vinyl).

First, you should know that I am not an audiophile, nor even an aspiring audiophile. But I do want my home system to sound as good as it can within my budget. Even if you’re not all that concerned about the fidelity of your stereo system, it’s still an interesting discussion, especially since the LP is making a comeback in a boutique sort of way. Just this fall, major labels have begun to issue back titles on high-grade vinyl.

Using those titles, of course, would be the best comparison test against CDs, and the publicist at EMI Capitol tells me that a 180-gram vinyl copy of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is on its way to me. Until then, we’ll use available materials.

Namely, an old standby for me: Miles Davis. I chose his tune “Eighty-One” from the 1965 album E.S.P., which features his great 1960s band: drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

I grabbed a barely-used vinyl copy from my long-ignored closet stash of LPs, and pulled out the CD. Synching the disc and record up was easy enough, but I immediately ran into a problem, which puts a major caveat into this debut listening test.

The turntable produced a seriously audible hum at substantial volume. So, uh, that’s gotta be figured out.

But onward anyway.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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