Here are our own test results from a first class deck playing various industry test discs, plus a few theoretical musings.
But what is the theoretical dynamic range? Records are a highly-standardised mechanical-medium, it is therefore posible to calculate the dynamic range.
The standardised groove geometry on an LP record is of a 2 thou* groove on a 5 thou spacing (the latter being based on 200 grooves per inch). As the diagram right illustrates, the absolute maximum modulation of a groove is ±1.5 thou which is equivalent to 76μm pk-pk modulation.
At the other end of the scale, the surface roughness of an LP is about 25nm, this being about 1⁄20th the wavelength of light2. So calculating we can say,
76μm⁄25nm = 3040 = 69dB
This is happily very close to the figure derived from measurement, the latter being inevitably a little higher due to mechanical noise in the tuntable bearings and electrical noise in the cartridge and preamplifier3. So we can be very confident of this figure. We can say that an LP record is roughly equivalent to a correctly dithered 13 bit-resolution digital-medium3.
* Thousandths of an inch, equivalent to the American term "mil" and equal to 25.4 μm.
1. There are several issues with measuring noise levels with peak meters because you have to relate peak values to RMS values; the latter being the form in which noise voltages and levels are expressed.
We can assume the RMS value of Gaussian noise is 1 ⁄ 6th of the peak to peak value (see illustration right). In other words, the RMS equivalent is 1 ⁄ 3rd of the peak value (for example, as shown on the DAW peak meters). One third = -9.5dB. In other words, the noise voltage RMS value is 9.5dB below the peak value. However, we can't express this RMS equivalent with respect to 0dBFS because that is itself a peak value. We need to express it with respect to an RMS maximum value. Assuming a sinewave, the maximum RMS signal is 0.707 of (or 3dB below) 0dBFS.
Thus two things:
2. Versatile Stereophonic Pickup, J. Walton. Wireless World August 1961. (Presumably Walton was taking an average figure of 500nm for the λ of light; a reasonable assumption. Walton worked for Decca.)
3. In fact, the various mechanical "rumble" mechanisms and electrical interference (especially hum) are the principal contributors. The internal resistance of a typical moving-coil phono cartridge is 10 ohms. The maximum RMS output from the cartridge is about 5mV (that being 20dB above the nominal 0.5mV @ 5cm/s level).
The RMS thermal noise generated in 10Ω in a bandwidth of 20kHz is 57nV. So the ratio between maximum signal and noise voltage is,
5mV⁄57nV = 87,720 = 99dB.
This is very substantially (28 times!) better then than the theoretical maximum from the vinyl medium. The preamplifier will probably reduce this margin by 6dB but clearly the electronics are comfortably better than the mechanical limitations of the medium itself.
A similar figure for dynamic-range is possible from a moving-magnet type provided that the inductive nature of the cartridge is isolated (as it is in the PHLUX cartridge.) Here, the internal generator resistance is 100 times higher but, because of the square-root sign in the calculation for thermal noise, the noise is only 10 times higher. The output voltage is also about 10 times higher too, so the ratio of maximum-signal to noise is maintained.
3. At least it is at low frequencies. Groove excursion is limited by RIAA equalisation to a quarter of the 76μm pk-pk amplitude above 2kHz when the record is cut. Thus the resolution of the medium is reduced to 9 bit at high-frequencies. For more information concerning maximum recorded levels on an LP, see this page.
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