Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips

PART 2: Ditherin' and Jitterin' (February 1998)

I found myself the other day, like many days, in a trivia chatroom on the Net. Someone had just asked a Pink Floyd question, and many in the room began to wax nostalgic about how stoned they were the first time they heard "Echoes," whether or not THE WIZARD OF OZ is truly synched up to Dark Side of the Moon, and if anyone else remembered that 1980 show at the L.A. Sports Arena where the loaded bongs circulated through the audience like beach balls and frisbees. (Oops...that was just me.)

I happened to mention to the others in the room, rather proudly, that I had just scored a sealed, 180 gram audiophile-quality vinyl LP of Animals. The only response I received was from one girl who said, " should hear it on disc! It's incredible!" My response, of course, was "I already have it on CD...this LP sounds much better." And I don't think I have to tell you how the room responded to that...

So, what are the official poll results? You know, the one that measured reader response to my last article where I somewhat capriciously proposed that LP's still sound better than CD's? It might go something like this:

Where'd you get this crazy old geezer?--67%
But records are so scratchy!--18%
He's kind of making sense, but I'm from Missouri--9%
I could care less... I listen to cassettes--6%

I hope this isn't the actual breakdown, but to tell you the truth, I'm getting kind of used to being a pariah. But before I don sackcloth and rub ashes in my hair and wander the desert aimlessly with my turntable tucked under my arm, I have something to tell you: there's someone else that believes that LP's still sound better than CD's. I'm not talking about the hundred or so loonies just like me hiding in the basement of the science building. It's... are you ready for this? Manufacturers of compact disc players.

I'm serious. Millions upon millions of dollars are being thrown at the R&D divisions of all the major CD player companies to find a way to eliminate what we digiphobes call "digititis," or, the inability of the compact disc to capture the excitement, the palpability, the air, the nuances of the best analog systems. Turntables, folks. And they're doing this by examining two things: jitter and dither.

Jitter. In every CD player is a clock. This clock examines all those billions of bits of musical information off of the disc and arranges them not only in the right sequence, but within the right time frame. In other words, without this clock, The Minute Waltz would take about .0003498th of a nanosecond to hear. But this clock is not perfect. It makes mistakes once in a while. Sometimes it makes a mistake on every millionth code, sometimes it makes them more often. And when you're considering that billions and billions of codes are found on every CD you listen to, those errors can add up. Not to where you notice them so much, but well...subliminally. That's the theory some people have on why digital doesn't sound as good as analog (it's nothing you can put your finger on, it's just not right) and these clocking errors might be to blame.

Well, in the world of hi-fi, the more you isolate the functions of a certain component in separate chasses, the better it will sound. It's a basic rule of electrical design...the less interference, the less vibration a component has to endure, the better it will sound. That's why as you spend more and more money on stereo equipment, there are more and more boxes to choose from. Receivers become integrated amps+tuners, integrated amps become power amps+preamps, and preamps become line stages+phone stages.

Well, our friends the CD manufacturers decided about ten years ago that the same rules could apply to digital... they separated the transport, which houses the laser and the tray and the tray functions, from the digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which houses all the circuitry that converts all the data to an electrical signal that your loudspeakers can understand. Everything was connected with a cable called a digital interconnect. And in many ways, CD's sounded better through a system like this... a lot better. Many of us digiphobes said, "Wow. Digital is starting to get close. Won't be long now 'fore we gotta pack up our beloved turntables!"

Unfortunately, this was a case of "So close, yet so far away." The clocking errors actually increased with this kind of set-up! Apparently the clock had a tough time navigating through that digital interconnect. So the manufacturers were back to Square One. They named these errors "jitter," and decided to attack the problem with the same furor they used to attempt to eradicate LP's from the face of the earth.

So "jitter elimination devices" appeared on the market. Basically they reclocked the data, sort of an oversampler. And you know what? It worked! Unfortunately, now you needed three boxes to play your CDs, not to mention another interconnect so that you could hook up this device between your transport and your DAC! And the sound still didn't beat the best analog.

Dither. The CD player people still didn't know the ingredient they were missing. What made turntables sound so real? Why could you hear (feel, even) the air surrounding the musicians, and the acoustics of the room they were playing in much better on LP's than on CD's? And you know what they discovered? Distortion. Good distortion! When this distortion, eventually named "dither," was added to the circuitry of a high-priced CD playback system, it sounded good. Real good. Goddamnit, they were on to something... this was starting to sound more and more like analog, without all those pesky pops and clicks!

So dither, in many ways, became the saving grace for a lot of high-end CD player manufacturers. So when you go to buy one of those new-fangled CD players, be sure it has dither circuitry in it... it'll only cost you about a grand or two extra, but damn if it don't sound just like a turntable!

Or you can just buy a decent turntable for $500.

I'd just like to relate two quick stories concerning this digital vs. analog debate. First, I want to tell you about a CD player that arrived in stores about six months ago. Made by one of the legendary turntable companies, this player is one of the greatest bargains in stereo history. It retails for $795 and beats every CD player under $2000. The company was one of the last analog holdouts. They hated the sound of digital and didn't want to bow to market pressure to introduce a CD player. So they waited until they came up with a design they could live with, a design that sounded as close to their turntables as possible. What was the consumers' response? Well, there is currently a six-month waiting list for one. At this rate, it might be the best selling CD player in history. And it sounds just like a turntable!

Finally, a friend of mine who also agrees with the superiority of vinyl reproduction recently found an Ariston turntable at a garage sale. Ariston actually made decent turntables in the '70's and '80's in the $400-$1000 range. I think they're out of business now, a casualty of CD market's "Perfect Sound Forever" hype. Anyway, this particular 'table was a bit filthy and in general disrepair, so my buddy took it home, took it apart, tightened all the nuts and bolts, gave it a good scrubbing, and slapped on a old phono cartridge still in good shape, and you know what? He says it sounds better than his brand spankin' new CD player. And how much did he have to fork over to the proprieter of Ye Old Garage Sale?

Fifteen bucks.