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The analog vs. digital audio debate, no clear winner?

What sounds better, analog or digital? That's a matter of opinion.

Steve Guttenberg
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 Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Steve Guttenberg

Last week I wrote two blogs with opposing headlines, Why does analog sound better than digital? and Why does digital sound better than analog? The Comments sections of those two blogs ran hot and heavy with opinions as to why analog or digital are hopelessly wretched-sounding things. I was surprised to see that the pro/anti comments were interchangeable between the two blogs; each side dug in their heels and wouldn't budge.

I own 2,500 CDs, 300 SACD/DVD-Audio discs, and 4,000 LPs. I play records on a VPI turntable and spin discs on an Ayre C-5xe/MP and Oppo BD-83SE players. So my analog and digital playbacks may not be ultimate state of the art, but they're awfully good. I'm lucky to own such great gear, and sure, crappy-sounding turntables sound worse than $100 CD players. I made that point early on: analog will never be more popular than digital. Or cheaper, or more convenient, easier to use, or more durable. I just think a well-recorded LP sounds better than any digital recording I've heard.

A lot of comments pointed out that most recent LPs are sourced from digital masters, so today's LPs are more like digital/analog hybrids. But stattube noted that "There are actually quite a few major projects that are still all analog. Some artists and/or producers insist on it. Norah Jones, Elvis Costello, White Stripes, Sharon Jones, and Sparklehorse come to mind. Some studios like Electrical in Chicago, and Sear Sound in NYC are very much analog studios."

I agree that digital-sourced records don't sound as good as pure, all-analog LPs. The analog curious among you can buy old LPs for a $1 or less at yard sales or used record shops. Yes, you'll buy lots of trashed records, but I regularly find clean records that way all the time.

Which reminds me; I have hundreds of LPs that are 40+ years old, and they still sound great. Record wear is overrated, and some records I bought when I was a teenager still sound great today. Sure, if you insist on dead quiet background sound, I agree, don't listen to records. Again, I made that point in the blogs, "I'll readily concede that digital recording creams analog on almost every type of measurable distortion and noise specification. Digital ought to sound better than analog, and I have no idea why it doesn't."

I liked jmobb's comment "It (analog or digital) doesn't sound better, it sounds different. To argue that one sounds better than the other at this point in the game is purely a matter of opinion and not based on any kind of fact, PERIOD." In other words, buy what sounds good to you!

At least leord40 tried vinyl, "Sorry steve, i tried vinyl several months back...it sucked...i am moving towards the future...you can stay back in the past." Each to their own.

I've heard the best that digital can offer and worked as a producer for Chesky Records, and participated in lots of analog and high-resolution digital recording sessions over the years. State-of-the-art digital sounds better than ever, but I still prefer analog; that's my choice. I understand why others prefer digital; i just wish people would be more open-minded about the virtues of the other side.

I like amplifier designer and all-sround nice guy Nelson Pass' take on the subject at hand. "Appreciation of audio is a completely subjective human experience. Measurements can provide a measure of insight, but are no substitute for human judgment. Why are we looking to reduce a subjective experience to objective criteria anyway? The subtleties of music and audio reproduction are for those who appreciate it. Differentiation by numbers is for those who do not."