What is the status of the digital vs. analog debate?

I don’t have the time or inclination to read and study the audiophile publications that split hairs over the number of hairs in their ears. I find most of them to be written by lifeless nerds that can’t listen to music, they only listen to equipment.

That being said, has there been any consensus that digitally recorded audio is equal to or better than a well recorded analog LP vinyl disc? The CD guys have had a lot of years to improve their recording process. Have they succeded? At this day and age can anybody really tell the difference?

From personal experience I somehow sense that an old analog disc from my collection is a real pleasure but that may be my mind throwing me back to pleasant memories. Is there anything close to an objective answer?

I made the mistake of asking part of that question here once. It is probably one of the more intelligently answered threads out there but it does spin out of control in the extremely technical nerdy way that you mentioned.

It is still well worth a read:

Do Compact Disks have the capability to reproduce sound perfectly?

It all depends what you mean by ‘better’ - it probably isn’t a clearcut and objective criterion.

Digitally (although not necessarily CD) recorded audio must be better at faithfully and accurately reproducing the original sound that was recorded, simply because if you set the sample rate high enough and use a stupidly large number of bits per sample, you’re able to record fluctuations that would be too small to express as a bump on a piece of rotating plastic - you simply have more resolution to play with (note again: I’m talking theory, not any specific real-world implementation such as CD or MP3), so anyone saying that a digital recording can never be more accurate than an analogue one must be wrong. I’m just not sure if anyone ever says that.

Audio reproduced from vinyl is idiosyncratic in some ways; observed purely as a waveform, it’s going to be different from the original sound that was recorded, however, if these subtle differences happen to press the right psychological buttons (for example people talk about vinyl as sounding ‘warmer’ or ‘rounder’), then vinyl will be ‘better’ simply because it makes people feel that way.

I don’t know about warmer…

But if you listen to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” on my LP with headphones on it is much more impressive than the CD.

Here are some records I have come across in my collection that are the same way:

The Beatles: Revolver, Abbey Road, White Album
Alan Parsons Project: Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, Meddle
Elton John: Madman Across the Water
Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story
Al Stewart: Past, Present, and Future
Yes: Close To The Edge, Fragile

These records especially stick out as good ones to listen to on their native formats, IMVHO…

Here I go, probably hijacking my own thread but anyway . . .

I happen to know someone who mixes for a major record company. He has been involved in remixing albums for release on CD. He told me that there is a debate as to how the albums should be re-released. Should they make them sound like the original vinyl disk or should they make them sound the way the sound was originally recorded. They go back to source tapes, the producer’s and artist’s written notes, etc. to recreate the original sound. Maybe that’s why what you are noticing is that the albums sound different from the original. Better or worse, there’s the debate.

Back the the OP. Sombody must have tested live sound against analog sound compared to digital sound. What is the reaction of the sound afficionados to that kind of test? Maybe the test isn’t possible but maybe it is. That’s why I threw out the question at, where else, the SDMB, the repository of all knowledge worth knowing.

What do you mean by live sound? “As we hear it” sound?

I was under the impression that our own ears heard in analog, moving a little bone against the ear drum in a similar fashion to a stylus on a phonograph…

I think the score is:

Analog 10

Digital 1010

So, still a tied game! :wink:

I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that audiophiles, as a general rule, are quite resistant to scientific scrutiny. It is a very odd field field in that way and crackpot on some levels.

Blind trials could easily address these debates but they tend to resist it. When testing equipment, the reviewers almost always know the name and technology used in each piece of equipment. Who knows if those cables really improve sound when the tests are invalid scientifically. Because differences tend to be small, bias is a huge problem in evaluating sound equipment.

Actual science could evaluate these claims but it seems few are willing to do it.

Since high-end audiophiles are almost invariably non-scientific in their approach, it’s hard to get a consensus. But as an engineer, here’s how I see it. CDs chop the music up in two ways: in time, sampling only every 23 us, and in amplitude, distinguishing only 65000 different signal levels. The question is whether either of these is a limitation when compared to the human ear.

The sample rate means that frequencies above 20 kHz or so are not captured. But since our ear is a low-pass filter, that can’t matter. When I was young I tested my hearing versus that of some budies, and I could hear 15 kHz but they couldn’t. 20 kHz is fine for music.

What about digitizing error in the signal levels? Reproducing a signal with 16 bits resolution is mathematically identical to reproducing perfectly, but adding noise at a 1/2 bit level. With 16 bits, this noise will be like 96 dB below the signal peaks. Analog recordings have nowhere near this noise performance, so CDs are much better in this regard.

But they do sound different, because they have lower noise, and because the mixing might be done differently. In my opinion, people who say analog sounds warmer actually like the noise being present.

The human perception of sound does not take place in the ear. The outer and middle ear collect and transmit vibrations to the sensory organ in the inner ear in an analog mechanical process. At that point, sound is translated into a set of electrical stimuli that either do, or do not transmit to the brain. The fact is that at that point, the signal is as digital as any other yes/no data set. The brain interprets that set of data into a neurological experience, unique to the individual. The person hearing the sounds can compare that experience to another person’s experience by means of an evoked response audiometry test or a subjective description. The audiometry will measure only what was heard, not the musical quality of what was heard.

You might like one or the other better.


“In my opinion, there’s nothing in this world, Beats a '52 Vincent, and a red headed girl.” ~ Richard Thompson ~

This question, at least, can be objectively answered. Yes, they have improved their recording process. Much (all?) of the digital processing now takes place using more bits (24 or up, versus 16 on a CD), and at a higher sample rate (48 KHz or 96 KHz Vs 44.1 KHz on a CD). At the end, they dither the data (add a tiny amount of noise) prior to dropping it to 16 bits, to prevent artifacts that you would get from truncation or rounding. Also, a lot of work has been done to optimize the dither function, to move the noise to frequencies where people are less sensitive, pushing the effective noise level below the 96 dB CurtC mentioned.

Regarding whether some albums sound better on vinyl versus CD, Spartydog is dead on that you don’t know what was done to process the music prior to putting it on CD. I have a record (Blind Faith) with a couple of songs that were included in Eric Clapton’s Box Set, circa 1988. The difference between those songs, nominally the same except for remastering, is like night and day, even though both of my copies are on vinyl.

I had a friend once tell me, “all recorded music is distorted in some way. It’s just a matter of what kind of distortion you prefer.”

For me, that was the end of pondering.

What Mangetout wrote is a good answer, IMO.


(Now imagine Spartydog chasing his tail.)

I guess the question that is the flea in Spartydog’s fur is based on an assumption that music experienced “live” under ideal concert hall conditions should be the ultimate musical experience. Can that ideal be better replicated with a digital or an analog recording?

What if a person with very discriminating sense of hearing were able to experience a chamber orchestra performance that was recorded both digitally and on analog equipment. Would someone with those refined audio senses find the digital recording or the analog recording to be more “true”.

The previous posts have been most helpful. I just wonder if the contention that analog recordings seem “warmer”, under the conditions that I am suggesting would be considered “muddier”.

The trouble is that, per others in this thread, what gets compared are records and CDs, both of which are old technologies.

As others have pointed out, digital at some point must be equal to analog, since at that point it will have the data needed to overcome the limits of human hearing itself.

But CDs, which were great for their time, don’t go all the way. We need to take that step and make a digital format that is the true be all and end all. At the very least, one disc should hold more data than a CD does.

Very true. I find digital distortion most objectionable, and I’m going to be most annoyed when analogue TV gets turned off in the UK. They better not touch FM radio, or I’ll be intensely cross!

Analogue audio distorts harmonically* - that is, the distortion tones produced are multiples of the wanted signal frequency. Some sound nicer than others, for instance, the 2nd and 4th harmonics produced by a valve amp will sound quite pleasing, but the 5th and 7th harmonics produced by crossover distortion on a bipolar transistor amp will sound grating. Digital distortion sounds really nasty, as it’s only distantly related (if at all) to the original signal, and so really stands out. Think of an mp3 recorded at a low sample rate, and listen out for that tizzy edge buried in live news reports, samples on records, electronic toys, CDs etc.

The spec for CD is way short of “good enough”. 16-bits isn’t enough to mask all the audible quantisation noise, and a 20kHz brick wall filter does take something away from the quality**. Maybe the SACD or DVD-Audio specs will set a new standard that analogue purists will gridgingly be happy with.

*Apart from transient intermodulation distortion and suchlike, but harmonic distortion is usually dominant.

**I know an adult can only hear up to 16kHz or so, but it can be demonstrated that ultrasonic harmonics play a part in making the upper audible frequencies more “coherent”. Acoustics is a weird science.