Digital vs. analog audio: Which sounds better?

Even among audiophiles there's no consensus as to whether analog or digital sounds better.

Steve Guttenberg

The analog vs. digital debate has been raging for nearly three decades, and there's still no clear winner, because it's really just a matter of personal preference. I'm fine with that, but there's a lot of sniping in the analog/digital wars, and each side never misses an opportunity to put down the other side as misguided, deaf, just plain stupid, or worse. Each side claims its chosen format is superior and the opposite's is garbage.

I'm an analog guy, but I'd admit that analog's distortions, speed variations, and noise/hiss make it less by-the-numbers accurate, but digital sound can be cold, hard, and uninviting. So on one hand you might say analog's distortions are part of its appeal, but if that was all there was to it, why do so many analog lovers like higher-resolution (96-kHz/24-bit or SACD) digital, more than CD-quality digital? I think high-resolution digital goes a long way toward eliminating most of the problems I hear with CDs. It's just that there's very, very little newly released high-resolution digital music to choose from (most SACD and DVD-A titles are back-catalog releases).

The " loudness wars " and overprocessed sound common are rampant in digital audio formats, and that muddies the debate. "Bad" sound isn't inherent to digital, but there's a lot of pretty awful-sounding digitally recorded music out there. Better-sounding CD players and digital-to-analog converters can help improve the sound of CDs and digital files to some degree.

LPs have problems, too. While we have vastly better vinyl pressings from companies like Mobile Fidelity that reduce the noise, clicks, and pops associated with LP playback, a lot of LPs are noisy, warped, and have distorted sound. Like the best high-resolution digital titles, the number of high-quality vinyl titles on the market are more limited, and most of the better-sounding, all-analog recordings come from the back-catalog vaults of the record labels. New music on an LP can be great, but again, if the recording is overprocessed, pressing it on vinyl doesn't make it sound any better. Most new music LPs are sourced from digital masters; there are very few, new all-analog LPs to choose from.

Peaceful coexistence between the analog and digital faithful is the only way forward, and each side should enjoy music in its own way.

Analog vs. digital: what's the difference, sonically, to you? I feel LPs have more get-up-and-go energy. Digital is stiffer, and less fun. I want to hear what you think in the Comments section.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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