Digital vs Analogue Sound Quality
Observation and comments on the difference between Analogue (vinyl) and digital formats.
It is easy to be carried away with the marvels and speed of advance of digital mediums. It therefore surprises some that highly respected audio experts will say a top flight record player far surpasses the sound quality of all digital sources. They passionately own vinyl as their first choice in sound quality and will tell you this will remain so into the forseeable future. They see it as the pinnacle of sound quality because of it’s more natural, smoother, more coherent, and a more musical presentation than digital. In comparison digital can often sound harsh, disjointed and a musical mess which the ear finds unattractive.
In spite of this digital has advantages and the discussion regarding format superiority has many aspects which make it a controversial area. For example at the very budget end of the market, price for price, digital has better sound quality, convenience and availability than vinyl. However once you get beyond £500 for a good record player, this state of affairs is reversed in terms of sound quality.
At the extreme high end, Germany’s largest Hi Fi magazine (Audio) declared that a top turntable outperformed their reference Digital player comprehensively on EVERY aspect of music.
Technically, both Digital and Viny face challenges and neither can claim superiority on this basis. For this reason judgements should be based on observation rather than dogma. It’s interesting that in photography, digital has still not claimed supremacy in the high end. The highest resolution cameras for producing Imax cinema film are analogue not digital (although they use digital for lower quality productions).
Limits of this article
Time will not permit this dicussion to look at all aspects of Digital vs Analogue so we will confine ourselves to the single aspect of sound quality. This leaves out the more well known and conflicting aspects of cost, convenience, speed of access, mobility, wear, longevity, tangibility, nostalgia, retro, availability of older recordings in digital etc. There are important advantages and disadvantages in both formats and your preference will vary from others. If sound quality is important to you then the following discussion should be relevant.
Reasons for the perception of digital sound superiority
CDs first started the transition away from vinyl LPs back in 1985 promising “pure, perfect sound forever” – “no more crackles, pops and hiss”. Vanishingly low distortion was quoted at 0.001% at 1kHz. What wasn’t there to love?
The proof of digital sound superiority was simple – Compare it to an average record player. Of course most people found CD sounded better.
The world domination of digital vs analogue became overwhelming – pockets of analogue resistance held out. Strangely those who loved the analogue sound were viewed to have a mild form of benign insanity. This was eventually to prove an infectious disorder. So much so, that there was a steady growth of those reverting to the medium and this continues to this day.
The disorder gets so bad that we regularly receive letters like “your turntable has rendered my CD player unlistenable”.
To hear that vinyl is not just subjectively preferable but also technically superior still comes as a shock to the vast majority of people whose main exposure to formats is moulded by a huge industry marketing machine.
The purpose of this article is to shed fresh light on why so many top reviewers, and music lovers still prefer vinyl and will continue to do so.
Mistakes of the past
To save repeating the mistakes of the past it’s worth understanding why many turntables hugely under-perform to the extent that many never hear what analogue is capable of. The main culprit was probably the low quality electronics used for turntable amplification. These were often inadequate to resolve and properly amplify the very low signal levels of a turntable (over 200 times lower than CD output). As if this was not enough, the design and build of an average non-specialist turntable was not capable of high sound quality.
Why Analogue for best sound ?
This is a complex and controversial area where not much is what it seems at face value. For example the low distortion figures of CD are fantastic at 1kHz but far from fantastic at lower frequencies where vinyl does far better. To save getting bogged down in technical aspects where even the experts disagree, we will look at observations, principles and leading arguments.
Firstly analogue has infinite resolution (theoreticaly) which digital is always attempting to reproduce using limited and finite resolution. The Universe functions on infinite analogue resolution as seen in light waves, sound waves, water waves, atomic vibration and on it goes. The ear loves infinite resolution. Of course it is realized that resolution is not quite infinite because of finite aspects and there are limitations such as the size of atoms ultimately.
The ear identifies digital as fake analogue
The ear is incredibly discriminating at a sub-concious level and prefers pure analogue without the artifacts introduced by digital conversion.
The complexity of converting digital back to analogue
To play music, all digital sources must converted a digital signal back into an analogue one. The conversion process is fraught with issues beyond the comprehension of even the experts in this area. In fact it took years before it was acknowledged by some that CD players sounded different to one another. It took many more years before anyone was able to prove the reasons why. Then people started noticing that digital cables sounded different. This is still incomprehensible and denied by many digital experts. However there are a few brave souls who talk about phase problems causing this phenomenon.
Some digital to analogue convertors (DACs) are much better than others but all depend on complex mathematical algorithms which are flawed in one respect or another. We highly respect and applaud those who manage to achieve acceptable results in this area as it’s incredibly challenging.
Compression losses in recording and transmission
The results of recording a high quality record player onto a digital recorder using a good digital convertor are surprising. The results can be very close to the original sound heard on the record player. The only stand out area is the bass where digital never seems to quite get it (figures show 30% more distortion in the bass of CD players than turntables).
This seems contradictory at first so why is it an exception. Or to put it another way, why is the normal experience of digital not this good?
Firstly many CDs and digital sources are compressed to the extent that over 60% of the original information is lost. This enables faster production and download speeds but wrecks sound quality whatever the claims to the contrary. The compression process is inevitably flawed as is the decompression and conversion back to analogue.
Converting your Analogue to Digital
It’s possible to create genuinely high quality digital recordings from Vinyl records that will far surpass the CD versions of the same records. Of course it’s a complete disaster to expect a low cost record player and phono stage to carry out this task as it’s simply “rubbish in, rubbish out”. This is where it’s essential to invest in a very high grade turntable and phono stage plus a decent analogue to digital convertor.
The major advantage of doing this is that it will save your records from wearing when you only want to listen to your collection as background music. An added benefit is that you can listen to much higher quality music if you take it with you on the move.
What “high resolution & lossless” can really be
In an honest world the words high resolution and lossless would be good news. The problem is that the whole truth is often not being told which is why these formats still sound terrible. You can take a low resolution recording in a format such as MP3 and upsample it into a high resolution format then call it high resolution. Problem solved? Far from it! This is like taking a blurred photograph and putting it through sharpening filters. The result will never come close to an authentic high quality image taken in focus.
Why analogue recordings from digital sources sound better than the original digital?
It’s a source of amazement to some, that many analogue vinyl records are made from digital recordings. How can they possibly sound better? The answer to this is almost certainly that the process of converting digital onto a vinyl record is mechanical. This has the effect of “upsampling” the original digital signal from limited resolution into infinite resolution. The ear finds this more acceptable as it’s free of the digital artefacts which plague algorithm driven conversion.
Michael Fremmer made an interesting remark that quite a number of turntable designers come from Silicon Valley and worked on designing chips for DACS (which convert digital to analogue). These individuals are fully aware of the flaws in chip designs and prefer turntables.
Published Magazine Article on Digital vs Analogue
Back in February 2004, Hi Fi World asked me along with a number of others to contribute answers to a series of questions. I have republished my answers below as they have as much relevance now as they did then:
 THEORETICALLY, WHICH IS BETTER – DIGITAL OR ANALOGUE?
Theoretically each format could claim superiority if the technology behaved perfectly. However the discussion ultimately boils down to the fact that both mediums have technical issues to overcome. Which is better depends on the limitations of existing technology and knowledge. When CD was first launched, people sited the technical superiority of the medium over vinyl – better dynamic range, lower distortion etc. The same old rhetoric is being repeated for the new digital formats – In the effort to claim technical superiority and the advance of technology, the issue of subjective sound quality appears to have become merely incidental.
In spite of the claims for the new formats, it is plain that much is still not understood about the exact nature of digital. Things that look perfect on paper turn out to be far from perfect in practice. CD’s were eventually discovered to have up to 30% distortion in the bass which is nowhere near as good as vinyl. This is just one example but there is also a raft of other misconceptions – were the designers not aware of these problems?
The unknown difficulties
At face value it may seem straightforward to translate a digital code into analogue, so where does it go wrong? is it sampling rates? Even with the new high sampling rate formats, the translation from digital to analogue is bound to degrade the signal significantly. This is due to the limitations of the devices that read information on the discs – not all the information is read perfectly and disc reading errors occur continuously. The electronics required to compensate for the ensuing mess has a host of side effects that are most unpleasant. Severe and complex problems lie in the multitude of activities that the electronics must perform. The outcome is that the new digital formats are severely flawed as far as the human ear is concerned.
According to a number of expert opinions outside the digital marketing departments, there are specific technical problems with the new formats which mean that they will never outclass vinyl in terms of sound quality. One easily understood issue is the “watermark” that is put on an increasing number of digital discs to prevent copying. This alone is known to cause significant sound degradation with no solution on the horizon. Yet another issue is the need to rectify disc reading errors – can a DTA converter really take an educated guess to fill in missing information with accuracy – it doesn’t appear so. A crude analogy of the problem is that of cutting up a prime fillet steak into tiny chunks – no matter how finely you cut it and try to put it back together, you still end up with a hamburger not fillet steak.
Vinyl analogue replay on the other hand has the following advantages
a) No sampling rate unless you call infinity a sampling rate.
b) The conversion of an analogue mechanical signal into the final analogue electrical signal is much simpler than a digital to analogue conversion.
c) The minimal errors of a cartridge do not need “correction”. Although distortion may be higher it does not have the “nasty” nature of digital distortion that is thoroughly offensive to the ear.
 WHICH SYSTEM DO YOU PERSONALLY PREFER – AND WHY?
Not surprisingly I prefer Analogue! It has a fluid sound quality as opposed to digital which can be distinctly edgy at times. There are numerous other subjective differences particularly in the bass region which is where analogue scores so heavily over digital. Analogue portrays an effortless and authoritative bass which forms the foundation of music. Digital sources seldom have this quality – partly because the digital recording itself has been rolled off early and no player can play music which has simply been removed. However in addition to this the players seem unable to convey the warmth and subtleties present in bass areas of the music. As for midrange, treble, and musicality you only have to listen, and the superiority of vinyl is obvious to most people. There will be people who prefer digital but it may depend to some extent on the way they process music in their brain – some people prefer an electronic keyboard over real piano.
WHAT ARE THE RELATIVE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF ANALOGUE?
1) Analogue is now perceived as “the new high end format” by those who have listened to modern turntables and phono stages . For out and out sound quality there is nothing to touch it and this state of affairs will continue due to the inherent problems of digital formats.
2) Many of the recordings on vinyl have not been wrecked by digital re mastering and this alone is often highly significant. The phrase “digitally re mastered” fills most analogue lovers with horror because they have heard the results – How some of the marketing men involved with the digital format get away with the total nonsense they deliver to an unsuspecting public is beyond me. It is also partly responsible in my view for the long term decline in cd sales. By this I mean that although short term sales may seem to increase due to people believing false claims about superior sound quality, in the long run many people wonder why they are finding their new “digitally re mastered” recordings are not really touching them at an emotional level.
The disadvantages of analogue is the availability of records although this situation is steadily changing for the better as more and more recordings are repressed and made available through specialist internet mail order companies.
The cost of hardware for analogue is much less than digital (outside the budget end of the market) – in other words a £1000 record deck will outperform a £12,000 CD player.
Turntables are wonderful looking pieces of kit – some of them resemble a work of art. This lends a certain romance to them that CD players don’t possess.
Turntables are upgradable with better tonearms, cartridges and power supplies. The upgrade path far surpasses digital as an investment because the performance ceiling is so much higher.
There are vast quanitites of cheap 2nd hand vinyl around.
a) Digital is a very convenient medium and easy to record. It is a good successor to audio tape as it has better sound quality and does not suffer degradation with age unless badly treated.
b) CD’s can be played on portable ghetto blasters and car audio.
c) Convenience and flexibility – CD’s are small and portable, people can skip tracks using a remote control and the players are more fuss free than record players.
Sound quality is hard, edgy, lacks timing, bass warmth and subtlety compared to analogue.
The lasers of CD players have a limited life. After 3 years your laser may easily breakdown and it is impossible to find a replacement due to the short lifespan of most players.
 WHY DO YOU THINK THE MUSIC AND AUDIO INDUSTRY MOVED TO DIGITAL IN THE
The Industry moved to digital because of the following opportunities.
a) The incredibly poor quality of most record players of the day meant that CD would be perceived as a leap forward in sound quality. Hence there would be a big market for CD’s and the required hardware to play them. The claim of perfect sound quality on an indestructible disc would be highly attractive and perceived as true by the vast mass of people.
b) On a commercial basis, CD’s were cheaper to produce than vinyl records.
c) Digital had a wider market as CD’s were playable on portable ghetto blasters and car audio.
 WHY DO YOU THINK THERE WAS A VINYL REVIVAL IN THE NINETIES?
The revival was partly due to discerning listeners with decent record players – these individuals recognized that CD was actually a backward step in terms of a high quality format The problem with vinyl had not really been a format issue but the low quality of most turntables. These individuals realized that pursuing better and better CD players was never going to make up for the fact that the medium itself was fatally flawed. By way of contrast, Vinyl players were making huge advances. We have now reached the current state of affairs in which the new Goldring turntable at £140 will outperform most CD players.
The DJ influence on the Analogue vs Digital debate
The other factor was that DJ’s still used vinyl. This partly explains why it is cool for youngsters to have a turntable in their room. DJ’s have an amazing following and are influential in their own right. The great bass quality of analogue is of course a key aspect for dance floors and apart from scratching this is another reason why it is the favoured medium of DJ’s. Night clubs are becoming more aware of the potential of analogue and have started fitting our arms to their technics decks with astounding results. Currently one of the clubs in New York which use our arms have been shortlisted in the top 5 best sounding clubs in the world.
 DO THE NEW HIGH RES DIGITAL FORMATS (SACD, DVD-A) HAVE A FUTURE?
The average person does care about sound quality – if they didn’t, CD’s would never have caught on in the first place. People want to have the best but are easily misled. The accountants and PR people obviously realize this – everything is touted as having “high sound quality”. Many people are starting to get disillusioned with format change and the uncertainty of format wars. The new formats are still fataly flawed according to most experts who give an honest opinion in the magazines. Dilution of the market place will lead to less profitability and higher prices – the music industry is doing itself damage through this pursuit. The hope is that the new formats will revive sales because everyone is going to rush out and want the best sound quality available. However there are problems with this perception:
a) The improvements are not great and will never surpass vinyl replay.
b) The formats can be pirated – if some form of encryption is put on the format then sound quality is severely degraded and the purpose of the change is lost.
c) The hardware necessary to play all the different formats will mean either several players or a universal player. More players gets expensive and space consuming. Universal players mean degradation in sound quality and additional expense.
My honest opinion is that the new formats may have limited success but are unlikely to last for any significant length of time due to the rate of change in the technology of digital storage. Soon there will be further advances in sampling rates and increased storage capacity. However in spite of a number of possibilities the fundamental technical problems associated with digital to analogue conversion are likely to remain unsolved.
The case for promoting analogue
If the accountants and PR people made a smart analysis, there is a great argument for promoting Vinyl records as the “new high end format”. The reasons are obvious.
a) Vinyl outperforms the new mediums even on inexpensive modern turntables like the Pro-Ject Debut II. Higher Grade turntables simply run rings round all digital players which is one reason why our turntable was voted by the pubic as “best sound at the show” recently in Vienna.
b) Vinyl cannot be pirated without the loss of sound quality associated with CD’s etc. People cannot produce another vinyl record whereas a digital recording can be perfectly copied.
c) In the long term vinyl will give far more musical satisfaction than digital formats which will mean increased sales of music.
 WHAT, IN YOUR OPINION, ARE THEIR RESPECTIVE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
The new formats are not quite as edgy as CD and have a better bass with no disadvantages in comparison.
 (HOW) CAN WE IMPROVE:
[a] ANALOGUE VINYL?
Besides improving turntables, one of the most neglected areas of vinyl replay is the phono stage. Listening to the GSP gram amp 2 SE at a mere £179 was a revelation to me a few years ago. This moving magnet phono stage caused me to realize how many people have never appreciated the quality of vinyl simply because of the dire quality of integrated amplifier phono inputs. Phono stage design has advanced tremendously over latter years and inexpensive but excellent phono stages like the Gram amp 1 at £85 could be much better promoted.
[b] DIGITAL AUDIO?
The transports and mechanisms to read the discs need such massive improvement that I suspect an entirely new technology of reading information is required. At present the need for DTA converters to carry out oversampling and then take educated guesses to fill in the information missed by the laser is a cause of untold sound degradation. At the end of the day the information needs to be read perfectly and fully without the need for electronics to fill in the gaps and make up it’s own version of the music. Sound quality must not yet again become victim to technical arrogance and false claims to superiority.
 WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE:
[a] ANALOGUE PRODUCT (i.e. turntable, tape deck) The Origin Live Sovereign turntable with Conqueror tonearm
[b] DIGITAL PRODUCT (i.e. CD, DVD-A player) The Shanling CD player
I like the Origin Live Sovereign turntable with Conqueror tonearm because it’s the closest thing I’ve heard to live music. It also looks eye catching with an engineering quality that begs to be listened to.
The Shanling CD player looks absolutely superb and is overall one of the best sounding in my opinion although it is rather on the euphonic side and does not have the best bass quality.
Answers by Mark Baker