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Why does analog sound better than digital?

Analog was the original sound "format"; it's what humans were "designed" to hear.

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
2 min read
Steve Guttenberg

Music was forever changed in 1983. Up to that year we had lived in a digital-audio-free world, where musicians and the music industry flourished in a state of pure analog bliss. Vast numbers of people actually listened to music--without doing anything else--on a regular basis.

An analog recording corresponds the variations in air pressure of the original sound. A digital recording is a series of numbers that correspond to the sound's continuous variations, but the numbers have to be reconverted to analog signals before they can be listened to. No wonder analog and digital sound so different from each other.

I'm not going to argue that analog is, or will ever be more popular than digital. Or cheaper, or more convenient, easier to use, more durable or that analog will reverse male pattern baldness. Analog just sounds better than digital. Listening to a well-recorded LP, you hear humans making music; with digital it's more about sound for sound's sake.

I'm defining better as more enjoyable to listen to. Music isn't a test tone or just a sequence of numbers. It's about soul, and when the music's good, it's supposed to connect with people, get their juices flowing or get them up on their feet and dancing. Analog-sourced music does that stuff better than digital. That's my opinion, though 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.

But even the most devoted digital disciple will have to concede that analog hasn't shriveled up and died in the nearly three decades since the CD debuted in 1983. There's a never-ending stream of new turntables and phono cartridges from mainstream and high-end manufacturers on the market. Somebody's buying this stuff.

If analog's naysayers would like to think vinyl's appeal is strictly limited to aging baby boomers living in the past, they're in for a rude awakening. There's an ongoing flood of new LP releases (Amazon currently lists 938,000 LP titles). Kings of Leon, Taylor Swift, Nine Inch Nails, and Kanye West all have their latest releases available on LP. Sad to say, only a small minority of the people who grew up in a (nearly) all-digital world are turned on by analog's sounds.

So if you really love listening to music--not just as background sound to accompany work, exercise, or driving--but if you love music enough to give it your undivided attention, then analog ought to be worth checking out. There's something going on; do you know what it is?