ANALOG vs. DIGITAL AUDIO; some final thoughts!

The debate among audio enthusiasts over analog vs. digital Audio is continual and predictably never-ending. Here is my fifty cents worth of thoughts on the subject matter

The whole issue of analog v digital is not always completely understood. Any sound reproduction procedure for a real acoustic event starts with analog (the event) and ends with analog (the listening). The perception of musical sound quality reproduction is, and always will be quite subjective. Two people listening in the same room to the same music will undoubtedly have very different opinions regarding the quality of a particular recording. One might describe the music as warm, airy and quite neutral while the other could say it was decidedly harsh, bland and utterly unnatural. That can happen whether a listener uses digital or analog media.

Let’s consider a performance in a studio and the analog signal relayed via a cable of uncompromising quality to a reference-grade amplifier and reference-grade loudspeakers in a listening room. The results would represent the best achievable sound reproduction. Now let’s put in the line of digital encoding and decoding. Even with a very high sampling rate and a large number of bits, the result cannot be an improvement – but it can be indistinguishable if tested by some discerning listeners.

The real contest lies elsewhere. If the digital signal from the studio were stored then there need be no further degradation. The problems with analog material are in storage (recording), transcription, transmission, and distribution. In all these areas the analog signal is vulnerable to degradation so in practice digital wins hands down – given adequate implementation. The sooner the precious, vulnerable, analog signal reaches the safety of a digital file the better. Putting it another way, analog cannot be replicated without degradation whereas a digital file can.

BUT IS ANALOGUE BETTER THAN DIGITAL?

It is quite possible. This is always a question of execution. Some excellent live recordings on an open reel tape recorder can be observed by some listeners as better than any CD or LP they have ever heard. I have listened to some of these recordings converted very competently to digital files using both 16 bit/44.1 (CD parameters) and also 24bit/96. The latter gave results when converted back to analog, which was indistinguishable from the master tape. The former gave results that were difficult to distinguish from the master tape.

In that respect, for the average audiophile and most people – most of the time, correctly and fully implemented CD is much more than good enough! It is easy to conclude that many commercial CDs do not even fully exploit the 16bit/44.1 parameters and are compromised by earlier inadequacies in the process of creating them. In that case, you may have no hesitation in making important live recordings directly to digital files using a 24bit/96 kHz sample rate. Here, the sound quality following conversion would be just as good as an analog recording but would have a better signal to noise ratio and wider dynamic range.

analog vs. digital audio

All of the newest program material is either supplied in digital format or involves digital stages in its production or both. (There are, of course, audio enthusiasts who use their program material simply as a test medium for equipment. Generally, it’s the other way round. Most music lovers simply want to enjoy the music in which case replay requirements are driven by available program material and media.)

IS VINYL BETTER THAN CD?
Sometimes. This is a complex and very difficult question that has been clouded by a handful of stupid chauvinistic audio enthusiasts who are self-styled champions of each media type.

It could well be said that a 16bit/44.1 music file is quite sufficient for storing music so that the analog sound may be reproduced to the highest quality when administrating the use of some of the best DACs available today. This implies that the above is all that may be needed. However, in practice, this isn’t quite so easy.

It seems there is mounting evidence that CD’s are sometimes corrupted in manufacture so that reconstituting the intended digital file becomes difficult. The average, conventional CD players (excluding the more esoteric audiophile units) are not as good at doing this as computers. In such cases, it appears that the best results may be received by re-writing the program material to a CD-R and then playing the disc on a top-notch CD player or transport/DAC.

Except for much classical, operatic and acoustical instrumental jazz and/or “live” recordings, the overall performance available from CD can range from badly recorded/badly mastered/badly synthetic to well recorded/properly mastered and well manufactured discs. Along with some of the most superior DAC’s being used today, in theory, this should not be an issue to be concerned with.

Some of the inadequacies of 16bit/44.1 (minor?) and the inadequacies of CD are not an equal or mutually consistent factor. The main motives for obtaining files with better bitrates (which are now widely available) is to avoid CD issues instead of for the better, higher quality resolution per se.


If the whole engineering/manufacturing procedure is properly executed with CD all the way through with a 16bit/44.1 file then this may be a tough act to follow. As sacrilegious as it is to say, even today’s best turntable/vinyl LP spinners is a hairsplitting way of using an utterly antique technology.

In a perfect world, a turntable’s platter would spin at the exact right speed; its motor and bearings would produce absolutely no noise, and the turntable/platter system would be completely isolated from its environment. No such turntable exists, but the best high-end turntables get plenty closer to that ideal than the majority of their inexpensive rivals.

Unfortunately, even some of the best turntables are susceptible to distortion and coloration from start to finish. Most are not that quiet as they rotate and one can observe lots of groove noise, while clicks and pops can be quite abhorrent to listen to, particularly during a full classical concert. Additionally, they can be quite inconvenient in use. (many ardent enthusiasts of will vehemently disagree with this, although if they are honest, they’ll acknowledge it– except maybe with the most sterling and costly product examples). Speed and pitch stability as well as rumble, must always be addressed especially if you happen to have ‘perfect pitch’ (the author!)

The overall performance will decrease as the stylus moves more toward the center and end of the record because of the decreased writing speed and usually the frequency response will always be distorted on both recording and replay (RIAA). The primary motive for doing that is to extend the amount of music playing time on the record and can usually de-emphasize the low frequencies to keep groove spacing much smaller.

Due to the fact that the higher frequencies have smaller amplitudes anyway (regular signal level amplitude falls with growing frequency) it’s hugely possible to enhance the signal to noise ratio through pre-emphasizing the excessive frequencies. The fact that the best turntable (arm/cartridge) combinations can sound so dissimilar is incontrovertible proof that we’re working with an imprecise medium

We may now have an answer to the question of why many audio enthusiasts listening to today’s music enjoy the sound of vinyl. Due to its greater limitations, the dynamic range cannot be compressed as much as it can on CD. Hence it sounds better than an overly compressed CD. The irony is that the CD is capable of a greater dynamic range than ever thought possible, but due to digital compression, many current hip hop, pop and rock recordings have a much smaller dynamic range than could ever be imagined!

One must never–forget, the not-insignificant issue of the quality of the original recording. Unfortunately, and as I have stated in some of my equipment reviews, most contemporary music is so poorly recorded or over-processed that you don’t need to be concerned about CD vs. Vinyl, or even, dare I say, a high-quality playback system for that matter!!

analog vs. digital audio formats

Adding insult to injury, there are more reasons why a particular CD may sound worse than the same performance on vinyl. The two mediums require exclusive recording techniques in their own right. When CDs were first introduced, many, if not most recording engineers didn’t recognize some of these required differences and proceeded to use some of the same techniques that they were using with vinyl records.

A major difference is that the frequency response of vinyl records rolls off near the higher end of the frequency spectrum (20 Khz.is about the uppermost limits of human hearing). To atone for this, roll-off, they might have applied a ‘lift ‘to the higher frequencies. However, CDs haven’t any such roll-off. If an engineer boosts the upper frequencies like they had usually applied to vinyl, the CD sounds often sounds too bright and harsh. Listening to audiophiles who are fans of vinyl speak about how CDs are harsher sounding whilst vinyl is warmer and quite more natural. This is generally what they’re speaking about. By definition, I could not agree more!

VINYL POSSIBILITIES? 

As we are all well aware, many astute listeners prefer vinyl or even judge it to be more accurate and realistic than a good CD. The explanation for this may lie in the realms of psycho-acoustics and physiology rather than audio engineering. A well-known blind test was conducted some years ago where a master tape was compared with an LP made from the same master tape and played on a well-known turntable/arm and cartridge (you can easily guess which turntable) of the day. Many of the listeners thought the latter was better! Ironically, despite the inherent disadvantages in this type of vinyl system, the distortion and coloration was not at all fatal and an excellent, mellifluous sound was indeed quite possible.

Linn Sondek LP12

In countless contrived and extremely good instances, it is undoubtedly possible for an LP system to compete with a fine high definition CD (and without much, difficulty beat a CD which is poorly executed). In effect, its balance of virtues may probably be quite exceptional while still having at least some traces of coloration. It is no wonder that the sound from a premium, high-end vinyl system, when everything is set up “accurately” can be immensely desired to the sound reproduction from a CD — if indeed the latter is sabotaged by being crudely engineered or manufactured.

And so we see, it is quite feasable to get a genuinely smooth, excellent sound off a turntable/cartridge combination. In fact, currently as well as in years past with some wonderfully remastered analog vinyl records, an innumerable amount of amazing results are possible. A great vinyl system example can be quite capable of reproducing subtle detail, intricate transparency, and a decisively pleasurable, audible experience. At the same time, it can never be as good as CD as far as signal to noise ratio and dynamic diversity.

PERTINENT CONCLUSIONS?

This brings us to an in-depth, thoughtful, and mixed epilogue. Although an excellent vinyl recording and playback system may-, in fact, beat many CD’s, there still may not be any useful ground for it to continue to occupy. The “finest” engineered compact discs, on a great day on your most illustrious audio system (i.e. perfect 16bit/44.1 file) can be more than rewarding with the capabilities of offering an outstanding and efficient musical sound reproduction experience in your home!

On the other hand, getting the finest, most exceptional possible outcomes from vinyl may be quite luxuriously expensive and difficult. Even if the price is no object, a decent majority of audiophiles but more importantly, music lovers, are, dare I say, more interested in what can be accomplished without the above vinyl “problems” as well as a somewhat good value, with “correctlyreproduced sound ( uh oh !) in contrast to winning points with their vinyl front end and audiophile colleagues to boost their egos.  

As such, it must be stated that a “good” LP turntable vinyl system can perform on a fine level where the participant will be satisfied quite enough, if they can not or will not spend many, many thousands of dollars on the most exotic turntable, tonearm and cartridge combinations. However, on the other side of the coin, it is only fair to point out, though rather the exception to the rule, that there are more than a few high-end manufacturers who sell DAC’s and transports now for well up in the $30,000! range!

Nevertheless, is there really any importance to engage in this contest between vinyl and CD? Ultimately none at all. The audio equipment used is surely dictated by the medium carrying the music so in either case and with the quality audio components of your choice, you just must always venture to keep listening and exploring both mediums fervently and then give (and hopefully) enjoy your best shot at them! It might be well worth noting that in today’s most glorious hi-fi world, both media formats are becoming no more than a temporary home en route to a digitally stored music library on a computer or hard drive or better yet, a top flight server/ streamer.

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