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Audio

High-resolution audio is a lot older than you might have thought

What was the original high-res audio format?

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Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Some say the first true consumer high-res digital audio format was the Super Audio CD (SACD) that was introduced by Sony/Philips in 1999. The DVD-Audio (aka DVD-A) disc arrived soon after, and their prolonged format war produced no decisive winner.

Both formats sounded better than CD, there's no doubt about that, but not better enough to woo huge numbers of music lovers (or mainstream record companies) to commit long term. The SACD is still around, serving the niche classical music market; music-only Blu-ray discs are rarer still.

The vinyl LP debuted back in 1948 with better sound quality than the previous popular disc format, the 78 rpm record -- and here's the best part: well recorded LPs still sound great today, even when compared with SACD, DVD-A, Blu-ray, or for that matter, with high-res FLAC files.

I was thinking about all of that just the other night as I listened to Brian Eno's "Music for Films" LP that I bought in 1978. Mind you, I was listening over extremely revealing speakers -- Magnepan .7s -- and the recording's deep textures and massive soundstage floated free of the locations of the speakers in my room. The synths, guitars, horns and percussion created a room-filling atmosphere, chock full of detail, and yet there was a real sense of physical body to the sound of the instruments. This 37-year-old recording was more engaging and fun to listen to than most 2015 high-res digital recordings.

So if the definition of high-resolution audio is that it sounds clearer and more like real music, I think well-recorded LPs, played on a decent turntable qualify as high-res audio.

Bob Marley and the Wailers' "Live" album from 1975 captured the band at its peak, and it's the best-sounding live recording Marley ever made. The Wailers' rhythm section's power is intense; the interplay of rhythm guitar, bass and drums is extraordinary. In the end, it's not about resolution per se, it's mostly how the listener engages with the music, it's how the music makes you feel.

Some LPs hold up in direct comparisons with the best high-res digital offerings, even when I play SACDs, DVD-As or high-res files over an extremely high-end digital system with a dCS Puccini SACD player, easily the best player I've owned. I'm not anti-digital, and own around 4,000 CDs, plus 500 SACDs and DVD-As, along with another few hundred high-res files.

LPs, especially older ones that were recorded and pressed before 1982, are much less likely to suffer from mixes that are loud most of the time. Music's naturally occurring soft-to-loud dynamics are better preserved on LP than most standard or high-res digital formats. There are exceptions of course -- listen to a recently recorded Steven Wilson, MA or Reference Recording album, and you'll hear how good digital audio can be. But those are rare; most contemporary recordings are loud and compressed most of the time.

LPs are far from perfect -- they're fragile and susceptible to clicks, pops, warps and speed irregularities like wow and flutter, but played on a good turntable like a VPI, Rega or ProJect, vinyl's imperfections recede into the background. In my experience, speakers that resolve the tiniest details of music highlight vinyl's advantages over the best digital recordings.

Oh, and one other great thing about old LPs: they're easier to find for next to nothing in thrift stores and yard sales; SACDs, DVD-As, and high-res files can be pretty expensive. So vinyl is usually the cheapest way to buy high-res music!