Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Karl Puschmann: Old-school audio rules in sonic smackdown

Streaming handier than physical formats but quality still way off.
First up was David Bowie's utterly brilliant  Low .
First up was David Bowie's utterly brilliant Low .

The battle for our earholes has never been more hotly contested. Today, there are numerous ways to stuff sound inside them. All have varying price points and conveniences. All have one thing in common; they want to stuff you.

The two big players in the online space are Spotify and Tidal. I subscribe to the former but signed up for a free month of the latter when Kanye dropped his new album exclusively on the platform.

With much ballyhoo having been made over Tidal's superior sound I decided to stage a good old fashioned sound-off to test the claims.

I'd pit Tidal's much vaunted and costly hi-def audio up against Spotify's cheap and cheerful mp3 style streams.

With vinyl's resurgence in full swing I threw it into the mix and, as a last hurrah to the format, included the humble CD in my testing as well.

In this sonic battle I would concentrate solely on how the music sounded, listening for clarity, warmth, expression and dynamic range.

There were limitations to my unscientific but enthusiastic testing. The streamers have everything but I was limited to albums that I physically owned on both CD and vinyl. Fortunately for the test - but financially ruinous in real life - I have a fair whack of crossover. I squinted at CD spines and flipped through crates and chose a range of sounds and styles. Then I got listening.

First up was David Bowie's utterly brilliant Low. Produced by maestro sonic manipulator Brian Eno this was a perfect choice for my sound comparison test.

Kicking off with the vinyl I was enveloped in a vast, airy soundstage. Things got purposefully murky at times, but from the audible swamp Bowie's vocals, crystal clear and dramatic, would startlingly emerge.

Well, the CD didn't compete and the two streamers didn't come close. They were louder but all Bowie's drama was smoothed out and gone.

But more than that, they sounded ... different. The laid-back groove of Sound and Vision plagued with a shrill and annoying hi-hat hit, panned far left, that grated my ears. I re-cued the vinyl. The hi-hat was there, but subtly placed in the mix. What was going on?

Hot-swapping between formats meant I couldn't blind test myself. But I could blind test someone else.

After facing the wall and listening to the same busy section of the Talking Heads stomper Burning Down the House four times my partner Hayley unknowingly declared vinyl as, "the best".

Spotify was described as "sounding like it was in a can", Tidal sounded, "a bit live" and the CD sounded "like the one you just played". These results aligned with my findings.

It was then I noticed that I'd not been comparing apples to apples. I'd been comparing Red Delicious and Granny Smiths. I still had two apples. Just two different varieties.

In both instances I'd spun the original vinyl pressing, whereas the streamers and the CDs were the album remasters.

These remasters, which attempt to modernise the sound of older records by making everything sound louder and therefore "better", inevitably end up squashing all the life right out of them.

Add dubious judgement calls like Low's grating hi-hat and further compression algorithms to pipe the song over the internet and you end up with a boxy, closed in sound.

Next up was the hard rockin' manifesto of Guns N' Roses' killer record Appetite for Destruction and a big upset.

Here, the CD copy got in the ring, offering far more separation between Slash's showy leads and the crunch of Izzy Stradlin's grooving rhythms. On wax both were low in the mix and blended together, only separating for flashy Slash flourishes or blistering solos.

As I cued up albums and listened and listened a pattern emerged. As I dropped in price point so did the quality.

No matter what genre, decade or version the results were consistent. It didn't matter whether it was an older album like The Cure's defining Disintegration or a newer record like Daft Punk's lavishly produced Random Access Memories, the vinyl unquestionably sounded best every time, Spotify easily the worst. CD and Tidal were fairly even, but I'd give CD the nudge.

So, a solid slam dunk for the physical and a disappointing showing for virtual. Apart from in two crucial areas.

Firstly, my turntable and records are at home and every day I am in an office. Secondly, both streamers have millions of albums whereas my vinyl and CD collections are merely in the hundreds.

For daily background music I'm happy with Spotify. Would I be happier paying double for Tidal's better quality? Spiritually, yes. Financially, no.

For now I'll stick with Spotify and hope that sometime in the near future we'll catch up to the superior audio quality of the past.

- NZ Herald

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Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

A pop culture junkie, Karl has spent his career writing about the important things in life; music, film, television, comics and video games. He was editor of a popular music rag for five years and has since written regularly for every local culture/arts/lifestyle magazine worth a damn. His recent expansion into travel writing has flung him far, far from the comfort of his couch and into that bewildering place known as the ‘outdoors’. He is also currently endeavouring to make sense of the world by reviewing it over at critikarlreviewstheworld.com

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