May 15, 2018

Vinyl vs. FLAC/ALAC

Heyo Massdrop,
Long time lurker, first time poster. I've been starting to get more into hifi and recently hopped on the HiFi-Man HE4XX Drop for my first "Audiophile" headphone. That being said I've been listening to vinyl for about a year, and I use a U-Turn Orbit Custom with Grado Black Cart, built in Pluto pre-amp and audio-engine A2+ speakers. However, I'm going to move those speakers to a TV and use the HE4XX's with a Massdrop x Cavalli CTH amp with that turntable.
My question is, based on your experiences, how does vinyl compare with a lossless audio file as far as audio quality and overall listening experience. In that same vein, what sort of DAC would you recommend for the CTH/HE4XX combo?
Thanks, and any other recommendations for cables/cartridges/other gear would be greatly appreciated!
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The answer to your comparison question really just depends on what the listener is trying to get out of their music.

Lossless digital is far superior when it comes to accurate capture of audio signal. If you place a huge amount of importance in precise sound reproduction of recordings, digital lossless is the way to go albeit only possible with a competent DAC.

The thing about vinyl that’s attractive is its physical presence. There’s a ritual to go along with the listening experience from taking the record out of the sleeve and jacket, to once in a while cleaning it, and even the physical interaction of selecting tracks by moving the cartridge around. Although, less accurate when it comes to recording and reproduction, there is something to be said about how pleasant songs sound on vinyl. It’s coloured for sure, but so very nicely coloured. This comes with the understanding that you as a listener may not be getting exactly what the artist/mix engineer/producer intended for you to hear since there are limitations to recording on vinyl. For one, mixing engineers have to ‘remix’ songs when tracking on vinyl; this is specifically important when it comes to low frequencies which are usually summed into mono to prevent cartridges from skipping. It requires songs to be mixed differently and arranged differently so that it plays back properly. The sound quality is also very dependent on the speed at which songs are tracked into the record. An album with 5 minutes per side will have a higher sound fidelity than an album with 30 minutes per side. It’s the differences in how things are layed out that make listening to vinyl special. Add the fact that it deteriorates slightly every time you give it a listen, it makes each time you spend with the record valuable.

Since lossless surpasses in fidelity, there are just as much to appreciate when listening this type of audio considering you have a competent throughput signal flow from the source all the way to your listening device whether it’s a pair of speakers or headphones. Lossless can reproduce subtle reverberations that give sound liveliness and space. It’s great with maintaining dynamics of a mix. Stereo separation is easier to reproduce in lossless. There are far less limitations in mixing and mastering in digital specially when you’re working with very high sample rates upwards of 96khz and 192khz.

Personally, it‘s hard for me to pick one over the other. Both mediums offer a lot.
As far as DAC recommendations, IMHO, there’s not much that can go wrong with DACs. Even cheap DACs have some form of buffering, reclocking, and jitter prevention. It’s a rabbit hole that’s as deep as you’re willing to go. You can spend thousands on a DAC with a dedicated quartz master clock and not hear a difference. As long as the DAC can accommodate the sample rate of your source audio or better, its good to go. Amplificaiton has a far greater effect on the overall sound signature than the DAC.

That said, I personally use the WA7 Gen 2 at home, and the SMSL AD18 when I’m at work. The Peach Tree DAC.iT might be a good fit for your CTH.
Currently, I use digital system and analog (vinyl).
Digital : Squeezebox Touch-Audiolab (M-DAC)- SET 300B Tube amp -Spendor 3/5
Analog : Project Debut Carbon -Schiit Mani phono stage- SET 300B Tube amp -Spendor 3/5

I listened Eva Cassidy album Songbird, CD and Vinyl.
Technically CD deliver good bass, midrange, treble but the vinyl deliver sound more "live".
Probably placebo, but for me listening jazz vocal , classic more enjoyable through vinyl .

note : my turntable use Nagaoka MP-110 cartridge
Lossless digital is better from a sound quality perspective (Assuming decent source material/mastering). It's true that in some cases, LPs are mastered differently (sometimes better) than the digital version, though in many cases the record is cut from the same master track anyway.
You're not losing signal in digital (any digital loss is way below the analog noise floor). This is a common assertion by people with a poor understanding of how digital audio works, or who want to stand up for the logic of a record collection that they have a buttload of money invested in.

Records are fun, and they can sound very good, but there's no technical superiority. If you just want the best sound, stick with lossless digital. If you want to get all subjective, and ignore the technical merits, get yourself an expensive turntable and tube preamp, and enjoy it. (Just don't try and tell people it's better than digital)

Also, don't get hung up on high bit depth/sampling rate either. Normal 44/16 is fine. I've never heard of any properly set up ABX testing showing that _anyone_ can tell the difference with any equipment. Again, I'm not speaking of mastering differences, which can sometimes be significant, but the formats themselves.
You're inherently losing part of your signal in digital. You're also inherently degrading your storage medium in vinyl. Both have their positives and negatives. Most serious audiophiles still swear by vinyl though. Personally, I've never heard a really good record setup, so I can't compare.

The only record players I've ever heard have been old-timey, bought in the 1950's, buried in dust and my grandparent's house ones. Not the best to compare against. I can say that I do notice more degradation of sound quality as more DSP is applied to a signal. It follows that an all analog source will be better, at least temporarily, than a digital source since DSP is as inherent as signal loss. I don't have a good feel for where the source degradation of the record overtakes loss from converting the analog sound to the lossless digital file in terms of signal loss.

IMHO, I think it really comes down to personal usage. I listen to my digital files many, many times. If you do the same I think you'll be happier with a digital rig because your vinyl will wear, but your 1's and 0's won't. If you're more the type to sporadically play a record infrequently, stay vinyl.
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I've looked at the theory behind FLAC as well, and have to agree, but I can hear a definite difference. I still haven't completely understood why, but I can hear it and I'm not worried about disk space. I'm still gonna go WAV until I understand why it sounds better and can get my FLACs there.
Heefty
Oh not saying you couldn't hear a difference as there is more at play than just the tech behind the compression. I just wanted to clarify that all things being equal WAV=FLAC and FLAC=WAV. In real life the "all other things being equal" rarely pans out. This is often related to how your listening program "unpacks" the FLAC encoding. I just hate limited tagging options in .wav and I've not been able to notice a difference with jRiver in my system.
I have an entry level vinyl turntable at home (Project Debut Carbon with Ortofon Red cartridge>Project Phono Box S), as well as a basic digital setup (Laptop>Ifi iusb3.0 nano>JDS OL DAC/Grace SDAC). Both feed either an O2 headphone amp or go straight into my JBL LSR30X speakers. Vinyl wins, being more textured and impactful/engaging with excellent imaging and better depth, but for some the difference may not be worth the sacrifice in convenience as well as cost (every hour or so long vinyl record costs a considerable sum- I would be broke if my existing music library were made up of vinyl lol)

PS: Without the Ifi purifier the digital chain is incomparable. Totally lacks substance.
I am curious about this as well. I have always been really wary of vinyl because it doesn't last very long, or at least it didn't used to.
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To be fair to vinyl, if we are nitpicking, vinyl is theoretically capable of resolution at the molecular level.
fhood
Assuming you had some perfectly homogeneous Vinyl, and clean-room perfect molds, and a very tuned process to ensure that everything is near perfect.
Then also assume you have a way of reading that high resolution signal back without imparting any other resonances or other material-based filtering effects. (or damage)

Meanwhile in the real world, there's not much you're going to be able to press onto a record that's going to be able to beat digital on any criteria. Yes, you could probably record frequencies above the nyquist frequency of CD, but you're not going to play it back accurately, you're not going to hear it (except possibly other distortion products it creates), and it's probably going to be too fine to stay there long before the stylus knocks the peaks down. Dynamic range isn't even close. Real world vinyl has mechanical limitations limiting the big end, and material limitations on the small end. Ever wonder why phono inputs need RIAA correction filtering? That's because bass is too "big" for the groove spacing on a flat recording, so they EQ it down before it goes to the lathe, and then your preamp boosts it back up near its original levels.
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