With the releases of Time On Earth and Intriguer, I remember within the applicable threads for those albums someone was touting the superior sound quality of the vinyl releases over the CD. Sorry, I can't remember who, precisely, was saying that and I'm too lazy to dig through those threads to find out. (Put up your hand if it was you.) But I remember thinking at the time that perhaps I should dust off the old turntable and pick up a vinyl copy of those albums and give them a spin to judge for myself. Alas, my inherent apathy also nipped that plan in the bud.
With the recent release of the deluxe editions of the CD discography and the accompanying vinyl editions, I reluctantly overcame my natural slothliness and stumped up the not inconsiderable cash to buy all the vinyl albums - with the exception of Time On Earth, which has yet to be released.
So I dusted off the turntable and, wouldn't you know it, it had a broken stylus! So I ordered a replacement Ortofon cartridge from Germany and waited for it to arrive while my brand spanking new vinyl sat on the shelf, impatiently waiting for the opportunity to impress me with its glory.
In the meantime, I hit the Sydney Opera House and had a fabulous time with many of you fine people! When I arrived back home, the stylus was waiting for me. Sweet!
Given that I now had copies of all the CDs, a DVD-Audio copy of the debut and vinyl copies of all but one album, I thought it would be fun to pit all the formats against each other to see which one was superior. The only album for which I possessed all three formats was the debut album, so that would be the test case. It's my favourite album anyway so all the better.
Now for those who care about these sorts of things, I'm using an old Sony PS-2350 turntable with an Ortofon NF15XE MkII stylus hooked into an old Pioneer SA-7500 used as a preamp to a modern Onkyo TX-NR545 AV receiver. The AV receiver allows me to switch almost instantly between sources allowing for direct, side-by-side comparisons of each format.
The DVD-Audio disc is playing on a Sony PS3. The "CD" is actually a lossless FLAC rip streamed from Kodi on a Raspberry Pi. I did compare the FLACs to the native CD beforehand and there was no discernible difference to my ear. I also directly compared the CD to the vinyl and came to exactly the same conclusions below.
5.1 DOLBY DIGITAL - is king?
Now before I started, I kind of expected the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix to blow everything else away. It's been my favourite CH recording for some years now and I still occasionally pester Gryphon about plans of future 5.1 releases of the remaining albums - of which there are none.
The 5.1DD mix of the album must be heard to be believed. If you know someone who has a copy of this disk, you should have sex with them immediately, or at least become very good friends because this is the album you have been searching for your entire life.
Remember the feeling when you listened to your first CH album? Well, you will when you listen to this! It's like listening to it the first time all over again. The six channels of audio available to this format opens up the sound stage like you've never heard it before. Hole In The River, in particular, is exquisite. You can actually hear the wailing woman clearly in this mix - I didn't even realise it was a woman singing, prior to this; I always thought it was a woodwind instrument! It really makes you realise just how much is lost when all that sound is compressed into two stereo channels. Even just isolating Neil's vocal to the centre speaker makes the mix so much clearer.
The bass in the 5.1 mix is also superb. Floor-shakingly superb, in fact, owing to the use of a dedicated sub-woofer channel which neither of the other formats have.
VINYL - HOLY COW!
Now here's the surprise - to me, anyhow: the vinyl copy is almost as good as the 5.1 mix!
Naturally the soundscape is not as wide as the 5.1DD - it just doesn't have the channels at its disposal to compete with that - but it is still mighty wide! There's a lot of space in this stereo mix and most details can be heard clearly if you're listening to them - they just don't punch out like in the 5.1.
To my ear the dynamic range of the vinyl sounds identical to the 5.1DD, just less spread out, for obvious reasons. By comparison, the CD audio almost sounds mono, limp and tinny.
The vinyl also sounds brighter than the 5.1DD - a little too bright, perhaps? - but this may just be a characteristic of my turntable.
CD - meh.
Listened to on its own the CD sounds pretty good. Compared side-by-side to the two other sources it is clearly the inferior format.
It has the narrowest sound field of the three and, as noted above, it is nearly mono by comparison!
The bass is also nearly non-existent compared to the other two formats. Overall it sounds slightly muddy and muted. Clearly the dynamic range of CD is poor compared to vinyl and DD.
So, in conclusion, the formats of choice are 5.1 Dolby Digital and vinyl, with DD just edging out vinyl only because of its greater sound stage width and its subsequent dedicated sub-woofer and voice channels. Otherwise, vinyl is pretty damn good and, for most intents and purposes, the equal of DD.
CD? Well, wow, it's quite crap really. I don't know enough about the CD tech specs to know if it is not capable of more or if it is just popularly subject to brick walling to suit the iPod generation. In any case, it's a disgrace to modern music that albums sounded better 30 years ago than they do today.
CD still has it's place, of course; for mobile music it is so much easier than vinyl. You could digitally download everything, I suppose, but, personally, I prefer to hold some tangible art in my hand rather than possess it virtually. I suppose from here on in, I shall be purchasing music on vinyl and CD.
Oh, and if you made it this far - CONGRATULATIONS! That was quite a slog, wasn't it?