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Does digital music sound better than analog?

Audiophiles are still divided on the subject, but one thing is certain, the fascination with analog is still going strong.


One of my audiophile pals calls and the first thing he says is, "What do you enjoy more, analog or digital music?" I quickly answered, "analog," meaning LPs, but it started me thinking about how I segregate my music collections.

I own thousands of LPs and thousands of CDs, SACDs, DVD-As and files. On any given day, I might play analog or digital, but rarely both in one listening session at home. That's because LPs usually sound so much better and digital is too much of a letdown. I think a good turntable playing LPs sounds better, it's more enjoyable than digital, even high-resolution digital.

I rarely listen to Tidal streaming music at home, but I love listening to downloaded Tidal files on my iPhone 6S when I'm on the subway. When I'm working, cooking or doing other stuff at home I might stream Tidal or play a CD -- it's just easier than playing records. When I'm focused on listening without doing anything else, I might play digital because I don't have that music on LP.

My friend Dave McNair is a mastering engineer and works with digital music all day long. Over time he fell out of the habit of listening to music at home for pleasure until he chanced upon a LP collection. Thanks to those LPs and a new turntable, he fell back in love with listening to music. Now he looks forward to going home and spending an hour or two listening to vinyl. Dave has worked on projects with Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis and other great artists.

Think about that: McNair works with high-resolution digital all the time. But there's something about the sound of vinyl that changed his relationship with recorded music. That's amazing.

So we discussed the analog-digital audio divide. Is it narrowing? McNair thinks it is, but his passion for LPs goes beyond what they sound like. Playing records engages you in different ways than digital because you have to think about what you're going to play next when the 20 minute side of an LP is over. You have to get up and pick out another LP. Put it on the platter, put the stylus in the groove, and so on. He added that even if LPs and digital sounded the same, which they definitely do not, he would still rather play LPs.

We both agreed that LP playback is nowhere as perfect as digital in terms of flat frequency response, stereo separation, lower distortion and noise floor. But there's something about the sound of an LP, played on a great turntable with a top notch phono cartridge, that makes music come alive. LP playback may be less "perfect" than digital, but that doesn't seem to matter. It's hard to quantify, but there is something about LP sound that captivates even critical, sophisticated listeners such as McNair and me.

If you have a nice turntable, do you agree? Share your thoughts in the comments section.