Analog vs Digital — The Great Audio Debate   

One of the most hotly contested debates in modern-day hifi is one of source and substance: analog or digital. The preferential rift isn’t as clear-cut as one would think. Thanks to the recent resurgence of vinyl (and even reel–to-reel, which is increasingly seen at hifi shows), one’s inclination towards LPs or CDs, tapes or WAV files, can’t be determined by the decade one was born in.  There are benefits and deficiencies to both formats to be sure, and that is exactly what we are exploring here…

 

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Argument for Analog

Aside from the obvious nostalgia, there are several reasons why discerning music lovers would opt for analog over digital sources. To many, vinyl recordings have a more authentic, natural quality than their digital counterparts (which critics often describe as cold and uninviting). Some may argue that analog bandwidth is superior, especially when compared to the dumbed-down results of compressed recordings (although those recordings are getting better with time, thanks to modernized digital files). Bandwidth aside, the REAL allure of analog is its raw charm, which has the power to elicit an emotional response from listeners. The term that is typically associated with this emotional response is “analog warmth”. It is interesting to note that this distinctive warmth is in fact a side-effect of technical imperfections in the analog recording process. Whether it is speed-stability issues of magnetic recording tape, or harmonic distortions created by transformers, each of these flaws leads to an enhancement of the mood, character, and enjoyment that comes with analog reproduction. And that enjoyment is only amplified when you add the ceremonial aspects to LP listening. No skipping around tracks—just you, the music, and the liner notes and artwork provided on your canvas-like cover.

 

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Digital Defense

Where analog may sweep with the nostalgia and feel-good factors, digital sources win out in terms of precision and convenience. We have advocated for “analog warmth”. However, let’s not forget that a lot of that warmth is the direct result of distortion—and some of that distortion is not so welcome. In general, digital recordings have a greater SNR (signal to noise ratio), and in many cases, that leads to a more enjoyable listening experience. Of course there are some wonderful pressings of vinyl available, but those LPs come with a high price tag. Unfortunately, the majority of affordable records are noisy, warped and distorted. Furthermore, while the ritual of getting out an album and listening to it play out in full may stand the test of time, the album (or tape) itself does not. The grooves and tapes of analog recordings can only withstand so much play time—digital files, on the other hand, can be listened to ad infinitum without any negative repercussions to their sonic integrity. Even at “first play”, you may be better off going with digital, since even standard CDs have significant dynamic advantages over vinyl. Lastly, consider the convenience of digital storage and the variety of digital streaming. Thanks to new technology and ever-improving files, audiophiles can keep their entire music catalog at their fingertips and explore artists and genres that they never would have been exposed to otherwise, with the click of a button.

 

The debate of analog vs digital could go on and on without a concrete, impartial conclusion. For the most part, the correct answer is highly individualized and preferential. It is a testament to our industry that we have so many great options on which to experience high fidelity recordings. But a debate is a debate, so we ask you: How do you like to have your music delivered to you?

14 thoughts on “Analog vs Digital — The Great Audio Debate   

  1. My personal choice is analog, basically vinyl. Taken all the precautions needed in their playing. HS files can also do very well and nicely, by my number one choice is analog.

  2. I really like digital media. I still enjoy the clean pure sound of CDs. Some of the remastered CDs really sound fantastic! The newer digital streaming services also sound great.

  3. Personally cds are conveniently easier to use. You will hear more of the recording with cd, especially if you have a decent player and also decent Nordost cables. With cd, there are many more layers to extract than there are from records. Records wear, and the stylus wears too…variables that I don’t wish to have in my system. I want consistency throughout… Cd albums are cheap to purchase compared to records, plus the market for used ones is good.

  4. I choose CD & SACD because they can give you great sound if they (the records) are done correctly and I would HATE to have to get up and flip sides two or three times, like with Roger Waters Amused To Death, before I come to the end.
    It destroys everything when you listen to music.

  5. An excellent digital music player with hi-res sources feeding an excellent DAC is very hard to beat for pure music quality.
    An excellent vinyl pressing, tt, cartridge, power supply and phono pre-amp for analogue is hard to beat too.
    I have both in my set- up and seldom play vinyl because the digital reproduction is outstanding and the selection of music is unbelievable.
    Convenience vs. vinyl ritual? Enjoy both. This is not a binary choice.

  6. I normally prefer digital files streaming instead of vinyl as digital is far more resolving and accurate. Therefore the sound is more exciting and enjoyable – it has more presence and the soundstage is more believable. It’s often like the musicians are in the room with me. Many times I’ve been fooled into thinking percussive sounds are being acoustically generated in my listening room! Never experienced that with vinyl.

  7. Saying there’s any kind of debate about vinyl is like saying there’s a rational debate about whether it is wise to vaccinate your kids or whether evolution is only a “theory.” There’s no debate. Claiming vinyl is making a comeback is like claiming cameras are becoming popular again – the facts confirm neither is true. I assume vinyl fanatics likewise prefer…

    1) Using paper maps – ignoring Siri, OK Google, Cortana, or Alexa for directions.
    Using paper in general (not getting the memo on the paperless society).

    2) Memorizing everyone’s phone numbers (a half dozen) and not using Contacts just like using cash instead of digital mobile payment systems.

    3) Using a physical encyclopedia and dictionary – not Google (not knowing how) and using glasses over either contacts or Lasek surgery.

    4) Walking across the room to change the TV, refusing to use any kind of remote.

    5) Watching over the air TV, cursing when you miss a show at the neighbor’s.

    6) Making Magic Lantern movies on your digital camera (never streaming).

    7) Posting here using your dial-up 300 baud modem over a fence wire.

    8) Growing all of your own food, your own clothes, and your own candles. #GoAmish

    9) Adding color to your photos by hand … for that sense of accomplishment.

    10) Abstaining from sex with others preferring doing everything yourself.

    Over 25 years after the introduction of the Compact Disc, there’s no reason for anyone to still to be so confused concerning the technical advantages of digital audio. Good tech info is readily available – but many brainwashed cult members deny any that might refute their sad delusions. Moreover, there are numerous and readily available superior digital sources than CDs. It’s one thing for you to prefer vinyl’s muddy bass and rolled-off highs but that insane judgment shouldn’t be equated with better audio quality, which implies a more rigorous technical standard of measurement. CDs offer a far greater potential for accurate sound reproduction. THAT is a fact. The “loudness war,” which refers to the music industry’s tendency to highly compress the dynamic range of recordings so they can be recorded at a louder level, is completely besides the point. There’s no getting away from the fact CDs (and other formats more so) offer – by far – the better recording medium for wide-dynamic-range recordings compared to vinyl by virtue of the former’s inherently wider dynamic range capability. They all fail in any way to acknowledge the data in an analog groove is limited in any way. It’s just a case of music listeners grasping for technical reasons to justify their subjective preferences. Producing an analog recording is an inherently distortion producing process and its playback is means more distortion at multiple levels. Paradoxically, the best way to preserve and enjoy their precious vinyl is to play it back once, digitize it, and play back the digitized copy. I first did this with VHS. I can only assume they’ve never listened to a SACD from the fear of having their concrete minds changing. I am not arguing for low-bit-rate MP3, which makes small compromises in fidelity, as does low-bit-rate AAC, the higher-tech successor to MP3 used by iTunes, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and SoundCloud. However, by any measurable criterion, CDs are vastly superior to LPs. And so are MP3 and AAC files with bit rates above 300k, in most cases are indistinguishable from CDs. Here are but a few of the the numerous technical reasons why:

    Dynamic range. The difference between the loudest and softest sounds an LP can play is about 70 decibels (dB). CDs can handle over 90 dB. In practical terms, this means that CDs have more than 10 times the dynamic range of LPs.

    Surface noise. Dust particles in the grooves of an LP cause crackles and ticks that are present and audible no matter how well you clean the record. CDs are not affected by surface noise, because they use light beams to read the musical data, which ignore any foreign substance on the disc. Besides that, vinyl records have an underlying hiss generated by the needle moving over the surface.

    Mechanical noise. Every turntable, even the most expensive, generates a low-frequency rumble that is transmitted by the stylus into the amplifier and speakers. The system has to work much harder to handle all that low-frequency energy, and that can cause distortion in other parts of the audio spectrum. Many audio systems include a rumble filter that can reduce this, but that filter also removes the lower-frequency sounds on the record, like the bottom octave of a piano, or the low tones that give a bass drum so much of its power.

    Speed variation. Listen to a recording of a solo piano on an LP, and then on a CD. I’ll bet you can hear the difference immediately. Vinyl depends on a mechanically driven system, and any such system will introduce minute changes in the speed and pitch of playback. A vinyl record that is even slightly warped, or has a hole that is not perfectly centered, will have “wow”—slow variations in pitch. Tiny imperfections in the belts or wheels of the turntable will cause more rapid pitch changes, known as “flutter.” CD players, because they use super-accurate digital buffers, are immune to this.

    Channel separation. On a CD, the separation between the left and right channels used in recording is over 90 dB. On LPs, it’s 30 dB AT BEST. That means engineers have a much narrower range to work with when they’re mixing and mastering the audio, and the result, for the listener, is that the stereo “image” is highly constricted. It’s worse at lower frequencies; a loud bass signal in one channel of a record can push the needle out of the groove, so engineers have to make sure bass frequencies are always in the center.
    One of the most magical moments for me was playing a CD of Pink Floyd’s Money in my new car in 1989. I thought the greater stereo imaging might have been a playback error and actually reinserted it to check.

    Continuous vs. “chopped up.” It is popular for people to foolishly believe that because digital audio “chops up” the signal into discrete numbers, it cannot carry all of the information that an analog signal does. But before the digital signal reaches our ears, it is reconstituted into a continuous analog wave. The process does filter out sounds above 20 kHz, which is the highest frequency the most acute human ears can hear. However, no phono cartridge, amplifier or speakers can reproduce those frequencies anyway. So really, nothing is taken out that affects the sound.

    Longevity. Friction causes heat, which softens plastic and makes it easy to deform. This means that every time you play a record, the smallest peaks and dips—the high frequencies—soften and can literally get shaved off. The more you play it, the worse it gets. Also, whenever the needle encounters a dust particle, it gouges a hole in the soft surface, so that pop or crackle becomes permanent. By contrast, CDs will sound the same essentially forever, unless you leave them on your car dashboard on a sunny day. However, you can always make as many perfect copies of them as you like.

    CDs reflect exactly what the artists recorded in the studio. Vinyl distorts it. Some listeners honestly feel the defects vinyl introduces somehow make it more attractive or “warmer.” But from any objective standpoint, there’s no justification in calling the sound of vinyl records “better.”

    Provided by Tufts University – https://phys.org/news/2016-07-music-vinyl-cds.html

    P.S. A poll from last year showed 41% of people who buy vinyl have a turntable but do not use it, with 7% of vinyl buyers not even owning a turntable. Amusing. And finally, by buying an album, you aren’t really supporting the artist. You’re sadly supporting but an outdated and impractical system. Vinyl is not outdated for the consumer – it’s outdated for everyone. Bandcamp may be the best alternative to iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon – there’s also 7Digital, Bleep, and HDTracks. They all support FLAC files (my favorite format since SACD died). Merge Records is one of the few truly independent labels still around. Qobuz Sublime is both a music streaming service as well as a download store. The best (the most profitable for the artist) is their own online web sites.

    https://splinternews.com/buying-an-album-isnt-the-best-way-to-support-a-recordin-1793852977

    https://support.duplication.cdbaby.com/hc/en-us/articles/213101288-How-much-does-CD-Baby-pay-Artists-for-digital-and-physical-sales-

    Just like your poor thinking, your music is bad as well. As measured by timber, dynamic range, lyrics, etc… it’s another fact. With 85% of pop music written by only two song “machines,” it’s all “spam” music (“spam” comes from a Monty Python restaurant skit where everything is made of spam). All modern forms of art “suck” for the same reason … you all have nothing important to say. None of the modern trash is authenticatable with zero intrinsic value. For instance, some suggest The Greatest Showman is the greatest album. The GS’s soundtrack has sold 900,000 copies. Not even a million. Do you own one? Bing Crosby’s White Christmas sold 50 million. Elton John’s Candle in the Wind sold 33 million. I want to hold your hand sold 12 million. Paul McCartney’s ownership of old Beatles songs is the most valuable IP in the industry. Yesterday has made $30 million. 85% of pop music today is written by Gottwald and Martin – and they’re no Wrecking Crew (know them?). Then, I’m not a big fan of the “Millennial Whoop” (used in The Greatest Showman), do you know that term? Music writers are just as unimpressed. It’s “populist to a fault, every song a Voltron-esque evocation of various current pop and rock stars,” (Rob Harvilla) “Pounding, processed, overdubbed orchestrations that make the voices sound disembodied,” says Timothy Kandilis. Finally, James Gordon Bennett calls it simply “cotton candy.” It’s not good.

    And then, Rap is the biggest con in the history of all things music. I just don’t get your generation’s obsession with remarkably bad music (as well as bad equipment). Imagine Bing Crosby stammering and stuttering White Christmas or True Love. Imagine Stevie Nicks reciting Rhiannon in a droll monotone. Imagine Stairway to Heaven with no chorus. No one can deny that Bob Dylan (the first musician to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature), according to Rolling Stone readers, was the best songwriters of all time. At the same time, everyone can admit the rap industry is characterized by some of the most inarticulate and unintelligible lyricists who but confuse clever wordplay for childish metaphors and lay-z innuendos. Then, there’s nothing more ironic than the feminist who bops her head to sexist lyrics or the lefty who listens to filthy, disgraceful thugs. Absurd jokes – a common theme.

    Rap sucks even if you might like rap. Rap music is meant to be lyrically driven, a steady beat behind the powerful voice of a poet who speaks to an audience entranced by each melodic syllable escaping the speaker’s mind. However, that no longer happens. The days where Biggie Smalls spoke about struggles of growing up in a rough neighborhood as a fat, poor black child who was forced to sell crack cocaine are sadly gone. The Millennial whoop is replaced with 2 Chainz’s “truuu” or “yeaaaahh.” Rap music these days leans more on but comedic relief rather than any real artistic value. Jay-Z’s D.O.A blames Auto-tune but it’s worse than just that. There’s again no message to the music and few seem to mind.
    NG

    Drake is a perfect example. Aubrey dresses as a Peter Pan stuck in his adolescence who is quite liberal with the n-word considering he’s a half-white Canadian Jew. Tuscan Leather only rhymes using the n-word. He is always talking about girls and how they hurt his feelings or how he’s not the guy he used to be and BS like that. Poor Drake sounds like he needs a hug all the time. Why so sad? Being from an upper-middle class background, I can’t even imagine his struggle. And, why is he trying to make Toronto “the 6?” Apparently, it has something to do with the area codes. Has there ever been a more delusional man? He recently named his child after a direction on a compass and/or failed airline. 100% Pathetic.

    Could any of you walk us through the story of when you first came to believe that mumbling “something something” incomprehensibly was music? Wheelchair Jimmy is so soft, he is constantly ranked the softest rapper alive by his peers. Lil Pump is just more mindless monotonous mumble rap that’s greyly devoid of melody with nothing but a post-ironic sense of the plainly ridiculous. Where punk shocked us on a musical level, Pump’s distorted, bass-heavy rap feels banal and derivative. Lil Xan’s persona is similarly a joke (due to the xanax?). He once posted “You know how bad it sucks to know no one really likes you.” It went viral. That’s you, right? Nobody. Lil Xan lost many’s respect when admitting “Tupac is boring.”

    “I am looking forward to the death of rap. I’m looking forward to music coming back to lyrics and melody, instead of just talking.” — Gene Simmons, KISS bassist

    “What rap did was to show there are many tone-deaf people out there. All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling and they’re happy.” — Keith Richards

    This was birthed out of hip-hop. Did you know ALL hip-hop is counterfeit? Iwas raised not far from Baltimore Avenue. I’m from West Philly. After steak sandwiches, what I miss most may be the block parties. What’s the most important part of a “real” block party? The music. Have you ever even heard of “Cornbread” – honored at the Graffiti Hall of Fame for his contribution to hip-hop culture? Hip Hop is 100% DJ music. It’s starts with a mashup from mixing tracks from multiple record players. The “rapping” (also called an MC) goes on top. However, as those tracks are from licensed music it is illegal to sell hip-hop rap. The sampling of tracks, or “flipping,” is fundamental to real rap. It makes it both new and old. In 1990, Ronald “Bee-Stinger” Savage, a former member of the Zulu Nation, is credited for coining the term “Six elements of the Hip Hop Movement.” You all buy only one of those six aspects because you lack any real education in the music (or electronics), a musical functional illiterate. It is a performance art form you can’t download. So, you don’t get it. It’s like watching TV’s Big Bang Theory without the laugh track … it can’t work. This century’s commercialization and ruination of hip hop was the deathtone for music. Hip hop or Rap of the 1970’s was the last true art form. The king is dead long live the king!
    *Just like Vinyl.*

    42% of people polled on which decade has produced the worst pop music since the 1970s voted for the 2010s. These people were not from a particular aging demographic as all age groups were equally polled, including 18-29 year olds, who fairly unanimously feel that the 2010s are when pop music became the very worst. Any disagreement only puts you in the minority among scientists and among people. Songs have steadily become more repetitive over the years and song lyrics from today sadly compress 22% better on average than less repetitive song lyrics from the 1960s. The most repetitive year in song lyrics was 2014.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVME_l4IwII

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/science-proves-pop-music-has-actually-gotten-worse-8173368/

    https://mic.com/articles/104764/the-music-industry-is-less-of-a-democracy-than-ever#.VhG3WXNzx

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/08/26/objective-proof-that-modern-pop-music-has-degenerated-and-the-reason-why/

  8. I actually prefer cassettes, with vinyl second, then for discovery and convenience, cd or master quality streaming. Cassettes on a high quality Walkman are the best sounding and they are, of course, the most portable. I actually wish I still had a tape player in my car.

  9. I enjoy playing my Venyl records than playing a CD. The audio signal passes through a analog-digital adapter and then connected to the digital amplifier through optical/coaxial connection. The sound is excellent.. This is how I convert the analog sound to digital sound….

  10. analogue has unlimited bandwidth; digital is always limited and is therefore objectively inferior my preference is for opentape reproduction

  11. Interesting the ‘comeback’ of vinyl records issued by present artists. People are saying these vinyl releases sound better than the digital equivalent. Yet surely those same artists’ music will have been recorded on digital tapes first, then their recordings pressed as vinyl. So we still have digital conversion in the process, don’t we?

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