Editorial: Analogue Versus Digital – Which is Best?
It’s the age-old question CD or vinyl. Which is better, digital or analogue audio. Well, I’m here with the answer. It’s digital. End of story. No question.
Oh, you want evidence to back up my belief? Honestly, if you spend any time researching digital and analogue audio, you’d agree with me. So, instead of throwing a bunch of numbers at you (which you’ll handwave away anyhow), let’s keep it simple. Let’s take some of the common arguments and show just how wrong they are.
They Sound Different
“I can hear the difference! Isn’t that enough?”
Absolutely not. Your ears and experience are not enough to convince me, nor should they be enough to convince anyone else. There are a thousand reasons why you may believe that one version would be superior to another. Let’s go through a couple:
- Different speakers/room/setting
- Different “frame of mind”
- Associated memories taint audio experience
- They are actually different
That last one is the biggest culprit that no audiophile will ever consider. Often, the reason the analogue version of an album or track sounds different than the digital is because the digital was remastered. It sounds different because it IS different. But that doesn’t make it better or worse. Just different. If anything, the digital version has the ability to sound better. Any noise or issues with the original recording can be fixed in the digital domain in a way that could have never happened in the analogue.
Author’s Note: Think I’m wrong? You aren’t the only one. My favorite test of analogue versus digital audio was by the Boston Audio Society. They took a vinyl recording and pumped it through a box that switched between straight analogue, and an ADC/DAC process to digitize and undigitize it. They had an outspoken detractor of digital try to pick the analogue versus the digitized version. They could do no better than chance.
Analogue Has Higher Resolution
This argument sounds good until you look at it more closely. It goes like this: Analogue signals have infinite data points. They are a wave. Digital signals are only ones and zeroes. So when you try to replicate an analogue wave with only ones and zeroes, you end up with something like this:
Oof. That looks rough. Clearly, the digital signal is much choppier. It may generally follow the analogue line, but that can’t sound the same? Can it? Well, what they aren’t telling you is how digital recordings actually work. They aren’t taking just a few data points. They are taking thousands every second. When you actually graph that, it looks a lot more like the red line below:
At 16-bit, 44.1kHz, the digital line neatly overlaps the analogue one. The 3-bit is closer to what they want you to believe is happening. But it just isn’t true.
But you know this – we all do. Our TVs are full of square pixels but no one says that they can’t recreate a curved line. Of course they can. If you put your nose on the screen, you may be able to see the pixels, but at a normal viewing distance, the curved line looks curved. The curved “line” of audio sounds curved because it is always at the correct “distance” from your ear. You can’t hear the difference because there functionally isn’t one.
Analogue Sounds “Warmer”
We hear this a lot. Analogue naturally, by nature of the medium (usually vinyl though there are some reel-to-reel aficionados out there) sound different. They describe this as sounding “warmer.” I’d describe them as sounding “worse.”
Any sound that is endemic to a medium is not a good thing. In any other instance, we’d call that distortion. Distortion is anything that somehow modifies or changes the sound. If vinyl has a “warm” sound, you might as well say you like your music distorted.
And if you do, that’s okay. I don’t mind that you like vinyl. Just don’t try to convince the rest of the world that the distortion inherent to vinyl makes music better. You may prefer it but some people prefer cars with 300 subwoofers that you can hear five blocks away. Doesn’t make it better.
Digital is “Soulless”
I was just going to type, “See Above,” but I think a little explanation is in order. You can find lots of people deriding CDs or other digital formats as being somehow less engaging than analogue sources. Part of these claims come from people preferring the distortion of analogue vinyl over the pristine digital copy. All that vinyl hiss and noise floor are gone in the digital version. Somehow this makes it worse? I honestly don’t get it.
Digital has Jitter, Compression, etc.
When digital first hit the scene, like any new technology there were some problems. There were issues with timing (called jitter), compression was (and often still is) overused by studios and end-users (dynamic range and filesize respectively), and others. Most of the issues from the encoding side have been resolved. Others remain mostly because people prefer them (dynamic range compression is still common because louder is often perceived as better).
The reality is that there are issues on both ends. Getting bass on and off vinyl is difficult. If you make the grooves too deep (required for deep bass), you risk the tonearm jumping out of the groove (or vibrating). So there is processing that is going on to try to make the bass more accurate. Those inaccuracies may be something that is preferred by listeners because that’s how they originally heard the track. But that likely isn’t what the artists heard (or wanted you to hear) when they made the recording. So, which is better? The vinyl that sounds more familiar or the digital file that sounds more accurate and what the artist likely intended?
When is Analogue Better than Digital Audio?
There is exactly one time when an analogue would be better than a digital recording. That is when the mix was done with more care, time, and expertise. One could argue that mixing for analogue is harder than therefore the mixes tend to be better. That may be true. But that doesn’t make analogue better than digital. Just harder.
When is Digital Better than Analogue Audio?
Potentially, always. Let’s list a few:
- More accurately reproduces the entire frequency range without any limitations.
- Analogue degrades over time, digital does not.
- Digital playback devices can and often do have lower noise floors than analogue.
- Digital can be replicated an infinite number of times from the same master.
- More transportable.
- So many more.
This does not mean that I believe that every, or even a particular, digital recording sounds better than the analogue version. What I am saying is that digital is, by definition, better than analogue. The limitations of analogue may be something you like (because you are used to it), but that doesn’t make them better. Objectively, it isn’t. A person’s preferences are not evidence of objective performance. And from all objective measures, digital is better. End of story.