Whether you’re a serious audiophile or just looking to get the best bang for your buck on sound equipment, you’re probably concerned about sound quality. However, with all the different formats out there, it can be difficult to tell how audio-quality levels measure up across different formats.
While CDs have recently fallen out of favor, many people still have sizable collections lying around their homes. The standard CD audio track is sampled at 44kHz (kiloHertz), which is just 4 kHz below the 48 kHz sampling rate recommended by the Audio Engineering Society. This level is also the sampling rate of professional digital-video equipment, which is often found in digital TV and DVDs. Sampling theory states that the upper limit of human hearing is 22 kHz, meaning that a CD should be able to capture most everything in that range
SACDs (Super Audio CDs) were developed to offer more channels (handy for surround-sound systems), and sampled at a higher rate of 2.8224 MHz, which can reach a level of 100 kHz for listening purposes—a level much higher than the level of human hearing. While SACDs look great on paper, it might be difficult to squeeze out that extra quality without professional equipment. Research has suggested that there is no difference between the SACD and standard CD format at normal volume levels. Despite this, some purists still stay true to their SACDs.
An MP3 is used in the MPEG-1 format, just like a CD, meaning that it is recorded at a similar kHz level. However, MP3s vary in quality because they are compressed by an algorithm that throws out parts of the sound in order to decrease file size. MP3s are also available in different formats, including 128 kbps and 328kbps, which offer different levels of quality.
Meanwhile, vinyl records offer an altogether different format: analog instead of digital. Usually the frequency response does not reach above 20kHz, and does not match the dynamic range over the audible-frequency spectrum that a CD can offer. However, many vinyl enthusiasts will tell you that there is a certain warmth and richness to the sound that they get out of their analog systems. While scientifically, frequency response stays at that level, results can vary. The quality of each individual record and the sound equipment can have a big impact on what you hear with an old-school analog sound system. Dust, scratches, and wear caused by the stylus (needle) on the record alter the sound over time, changing the experience.
What does all of this mean? In general, the CD will offer better quality than an MP3 or a vinyl record. However, there are also several factors at play. A CD track can sound fuller and more spacious than a low-quality MP3, but depending on the audio equipment or headphones, the difference can be very difficult to tell. Ultimately, you must test the waters for yourself and see what works best for you. While some users love to hunt for good vinyl to include in their ritual of putting the needle to the groove, others enjoy the simplicity and convenience of having their music collection saved on their iPhone in MP3 format.
At the end of the day, you may not even be able to tell the difference between some of these formats. Give them a spin, and allow your needs and preferences to be the deciding factor. Of course, you can always stop in to Century Stereo and for additional help, and to give some of them a try.