Why does digital sound better than analog?

A few audiophiles may be the last analog holdouts, but everyone else loves digital!

Steve Guttenberg

Digital audio won the popularity contest years ago, and nowadays almost every sound you hear coming out of a speaker is digitally encoded. Sound is always digital, whether it's on your phone, computer, radio, TV, home theater, or in a concert hall. I'd go so far as to say most people never hear analog recordings anymore. Unless you're a musician, or live with one, virtually all the music you hear live or recorded is digital.

Digital audio eliminated all of analog audio's distortions and noise-related problems. In that sense digital is "perfect." When analog recordings are copied, there are significant generation-to-generation losses, added distortion, and noise; digital-to-digital copies are perfect clones. Some recording engineers believe digital doesn't have a sound per se, and that it's a completely transparent recording medium. Analog, with its distortions, noise, and speed variations imparts its own sound to music. Perfect, it is not.

As to whether digital sounds better than analog, that's a moot point. A wise old audiophile once told me the best way to enjoy digital is never listen to analog, and it's still true. I enjoy digital for what it does well, but I can't go back and forth between CD/SACD/DVD-Audio discs and LPs. Digital just sounds boring and flat after you've spun a decent LP on a good turntable . High-resolution digital is certainly better sounding than MP3s or CDs, but high-res is nowhere as musically satisfying as LPs.

Music may be easily reduced to a series of numbers, but its reason for being is to get under people's skins. Music existed for eons before it was ever converted to digital codes. People made music to get people to dance, cry, laugh, think, dream, or just feel alive. Digitally recorded music may be technically superior to analog, but it misses a lot. It doesn't seem to connect with listeners as well as analog did. My proof? That's easy, as perfect as digital recordings can be, very few people can actually listen to music without doing something else. There's not enough there there to hold their interest.

Digital may be perfect, but people are more likely to really listen to their LPs.

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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