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Do You Prefer the Sound of Digital or Analog Audio Media?

Graphic courtesy Steve Guttenberg

Here’s an old chestnut for you. These days, analog recordings are available almost exclusively on vinyl LPs, whereas digital audio abounds on CD, DVD-Audio, SACD, and multitudinous online sources. (Okay, "abounds" is probably an overstatement for DVD-A and SACD, but you get the idea.) And music lovers have strong opinions about which sounds better.

Steve Guttenberg cleverly explored this debate in his Audiophiliac blog with two separate entries—"Why does analog sound better than digital?" and "Why does digital sound better than analog?"—though in both cases, he clearly states that he prefers the sound of vinyl, at least when played on a good system. Of course, as Guttenberg points out, digital beats analog hands down in terms of measureable distortion and noise. But he maintains that analog has a certain je ne sais quoi that reaches the human psyche more deeply, which is why vinyl survives and encourages people to actually sit and listen to music rather than playing it in the background as they do other things.

So which sound do you prefer, the technical "perfection" of digital or the ineffable character of analog vinyl? Keep in mind that I'm talking about uncompressed digital audio here—CD specs or better—not MP3 or other compressed formats.

Vote to see the results and leave a comment about your choice; I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

Do You Prefer the Sound of Digital or Analog Audio Media?
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cruser's picture

Most of the recording studios this days digitally mastered their recordings so whats the improvement to change it to LP's analog sound. There is no degradation from digital to digital... except when you record MP3 at higher compression.

Jarod's picture

I voted digital because thats the majority of listening that I do. But truthfully I must say that I prefer the sound of both. Whether its a kickass DTS-HD Master Audio track on a Blu-ray or listening to Led Zepplin LP on my turntable im a happy man.

uavCJLA's picture

Hi Y'all, Sorry to say but I prefer digital. I can tell a slight difference of vinyl as my ultimate preference but....
I don't like that the sound degrades as the record wears over time.
I don't like the cost of vinyl components.
I don't like the lack of inconvenience (can't be put on portable music player & doesn't have something like a digital library.
Otherwise it's great!

uavkelsci's picture

In the early 1980s, my brother bought one of the first cd players from Sony. He had a CD that had specific music contained on a vinyl album. Surprisingly we were able to perform an experiment where we were able to synchchronize the cd with the vinyl and both played in real time on the spot. We were able to A/B back and forth between an aux input and the phono input of a preamp he was using(it could have been an SAE or a Dynaco Pat 4) with a poweramp that was either SAE or Dynaco repective of the preamp used. There was a diffence, a substantial difference in the sound. The vinyl sounded sharp and its sound sounded like it came from a needle. The cd did not quite have the detail the vinyl sound had but it did sound more natural but more so like an FM broadcast. That is the
best way I can describe it as I remember it so many years ago.

Vinyl has loads of wow and flutter;just take the cover off of your speakers and you will see what I mean. The woofer cones are fluttering around wheter or not music is playing. Some preamp sections in receivers,pre-amps or amplifiers were atrocious in this flutter and wow reproduction to the point I could not even play a record. There was only one preamp that I found that kept this under control without sacrificing the bass response. That was Dynaco's Pat 4. In comparing the circuit board of the 4 against a similar circuit board in the SCA-80Q Dynaco integrated amp that I built I noticed there was extra circuitry built on the Pat 4's preamp section board relating to the phono section. Somebody knew something about controlling this wow/flutter factor at Dyanco. Even though the Pat 4 had a low filter(I hated those because they took out the proper bass)it was completely unecessary to use it. When you took off the cover to your speaker to look at the woofer's movement it was about 80 percent less using the Pat 4.

There is one thing I like the cd for; convenience. If I remember correctly it was decided by people in the cd industry to go digital. The cd was capable of having two other types of sound; full analog at 20 to 20,000 khz with capacity of a couple of hours of music and I believe 50 to 15,000 khz, the freqency for FM radio with what i believe was nearly 5 hours of musical recording. Is everybody condemming the cd wrongfully. I do not know of any cd reproduced analog or any player designed to play analog so we really do not know if an analog cd could have been better than vinyl

Scott Wilkinson's picture
Thank you for adding your two cents! I greatly appreciate any and all comments, as long as they are respectful of others. You've obviously had an interesting career; I clearly remember the sax sound on "The Heat is On." Well done! I also remember the Synclavier very well; in fact, I used and maintained the prototype after it was donated to California State University at Northridge by the original designers.

As you and others have noted here, the first digital-audio recordings were not pretty. However, the technology has improved tremendously since then, making a comparison between modern uncompressed digital and analog entirely valid. And you are not alone in your subjective sense that digital feels different than analog, even if you can't quantify that feeling. Of course, 128kbps iPod audio is a different story, but that's not what this question is about.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

I want to thank everyone who has posted a comment on this poll question. And I hope many more readers will weigh in on this obviously thorny issue.

I started writing a comment of my own in response to some of the points made here, but it got so long, I decided to make it a separate blog, which you can read (and comment on) here:

Let the discussion continue!

Phopojijo's picture

Well if you think about it... a technically accurate guitar amp has no overdrive, no bass/mid/treble adjustments, no distortion pedal, etc. The same idea is applicable to general amplifiers as well.

If I remember correctly, the whole craze of distortion pedals came from a broken tube-diode in a tube amp that the guitarist loved the sound and went nuts trying to recreate it.

A tube diode is basically treated as if it were an instrument. You're "playing" your amplifier by giving it your source (guitar, music, whatever) and it outputs its characteristic sound under various parameters.

The noise it adds is pleasant to hear. Does it sound more accurate? No, but accuracy doesn't make it better.

jaggervm's picture

Guys, the question clearly states "Do you prefer sound of digital or analog media?". That in other words means which "sound" do you prefer, and NOT which sound you actually tend to listen to.

Request you to kindly go through my previous post as I have clearly demarcated my preference of sound and listening.

Hunkydad's picture

I prefer the sound of Analog when done well, however Digital is capable of coming very close to the sound of Analog, depends upon how it's mastered, listening to SACD or DTS HD Master BR or the Dolby True HD tracks is the way to go, multi channel does make a difference, so in the end, I guess I prefer them both when properly mastered and reproduced

C's picture

It is known that the early digital recordings, especially the DA and AD conversion processes in the 80's, were pretty horrific when compared to today's standards. It would be more appropriate to compare an analogue recording of the 50's with the earliest digital recordings of the 80's. Otherwise, it is not a fair comparison as all technologies takes time to perfect and mature... There is a reason why a lot of older recordings are being re-digitized with modern AD process. Apples should only be compared with apples only, not oranges...

We also know that iPod DA converters are pretty bad.. At any bit rate, it would be a poor choice as an example to conclude generally how a digital recording sounds...

Your general statement that digital music just "feels" different without any concrete, objective, and discrete description of this "different quality" also invites many questions... If would be helpful if there is at least some detailed description, subjective or objective, that applies to sound quality is implied, such as if the recording sounds "shrill" or "cold", or the recording tends to emphasize this frequency band only when there is a sudden volume amplitude spike, etc... Descriptions reserved for other phenomenons such as human emotions such as "psyche" or too general such as "different", at least to me, adds more questions than validity.

brad.clarkston's picture

How about we try listening to the music instead of getting bogged down into trying to make people write a thesis about why you think they are wrong? After all that's the point isn't it?

I'm sure not going to try to explain to you why I think a peace of gear or tech sounds different than another it's a personal thing but I generally believe experience trumps tech specs in the end (that's coming from a Network Admin).

And my vote was for Analog. I've bought and listened to enough gear since the late 80's to know the difference.

brad.clarkston's picture

"All these talks about the mysterious "human psyche"... This is really disappointing coming from a technical review site. Sound reproduction is a science, not magic... "

You must be new to all of this, I guess that's forgivable then ;)

Take a look at the different interconnect cables from the low end like Kimber Kables up to ASI Liveline. Or power treatment, or isolation/vibration control, heck even the Cardas RCA caps I just bought.

Feel free to get 10 scientists in a room, ask them the same question and you'll be surprised to get 11 different answers.

Music is subjective your never going to get everyone to agree that your idea of perfect music is correct.

C's picture

I have not asked 10 scientists, but I have asked at least 4... My younger sister and her husband are Phd scientists who did research for Harvard and now live in Silicon Valley. My ex physics professor is a MIT and Cal Tech graduate. And another friend who also has a Phd in Physical Chemistry. All of them would completely disagree with you... Did you actually follow your own advise and asked 10 scientists about your claims...?? Yet you draw conclusions as if they are facts that when posed the basic scientific questions about sound reproduction, testing, and electromagnetic physics, they will have different answers...?

All the stuff you talked about concerning interconnects makes me wonder if you have the basic understanding of the 3 principles of electromagnetic physics all that well. You can review your old entry college, or even high school level, physics text books and look up resistance, inductance, and capacitance... Interconnects for analogue signals have to take shielding, the gauge index, and placement into consideration to avoid compromising current pass with the effects of resistance, inductance, and capacitance, which resistance being pretty much the only variable that is really meaningful in most settings. Digital signals? Since the current is not analogous to the musical signal but rather expressed by a series of on and off electrical pulses to be decoded by the AD converter, a $5 digital interconnect will perform the same as a $200 one given that both meet the same specs.

Furthermore, "subjectivity" is basically the inability to describe and measure a physical phenomenon that occurred in the physical reality, due to either or both, the lack of exact understanding of the phenomenon in its entirety or partially due the complex and numerous variables involved. It is ONLY in the measurement and description of the experience that is subjective. It is just we have not yet worked out ALL the variables in this "subjective" perception for us to measure them objectively. Music is "subjective" to everyone as everyone process the sensory stimuli somewhat differently, but this does not mean to give a free ticket to discount all the objective measurable data we already have. To do that, it would not be any different from someone claiming that he felt a placebo sugar pill decreased his medical symptoms, and when presented with the objective facts, just say "Oh, I bet you if you get 10 scientists in here, they would all disagree how the sugar pill I just took did not do more than what a regular sugar pill would have done, since I DO feel different and since my perception is subjective, then this sugar pill must have some special powers than any other ordinary sugar pills out there. No, I do not have to understand any of the brain neuro sensory pathways or the biomechanism of sugar and carbohydrate break down in the human system because what I feel is "subjective" and I can find you a group of people in this double blind test who also felt improve symptoms with this sugar pills!"

FYI, I have been following audio and video equipment and was designing my own cross overs and building my own speakers since the late 70's in my teens (my dad is an electrical engineer) and I am in my mid 40's, been reading every issue of High Fidelity, Stereo Review (both now watered down as Sound & Vision) and Stereophile since the 70's, so all of this is not new to me at all (one more assumption on your part). Again, before "forgiving" me about scientific validity, or make a generalized false claim that 10 scientist would disagree on electromagnetic and acoustic physics, or tell me that you can hear a consistent difference with the extra money you spend on interconnects when you have not participated in a double blind test yourself, please review basic electromagnetic and acoustic physics and also neuro sensory pathways while you are at it...

uavK.Reid's picture

I have to be honest, I am part of the digital generation. My father has three record players and I have never heard any of them. I really have no basis of reference to make a comparison. Most of my listening is done on Computer Audio with 24/96 files, streaming internet radio and playing my SACD and HDCD players.

I think I need to hear a reference system which source component is analog so that I can formulate an opinion. I just brought Robert Harley's book to begin re-educating myself on what good sound/music truly is - why is analog allegedly better than digital and why does a McIntosh reference tube amp supposedly sound better than the best Mark Levinson monoblock? Can anyone really explain why tubes sound so good compared to solid state?

Does one really need a $100K edge-of-the-art record player or a $500 player that makes good music? I would be curious to hear some commentary by Michael Fremer. Perhaps there will be some good recommendations for players, tone arms, cartridges, etc. in Stereophile's new upcoming budget section.

jaggervm's picture

Digital (FLAC,ALAC etc) gives me the flexibility to carry my music around, with me, wherever I go. It is FAR more easier to maintain on a single hard-drive. It gives me the flexibility to pick and choose a song of my choice immediately. It also gives me a WAY better SQ.

However, what it does not give me is life-like sound. It sounds beautiful if you ONLY listen to digital. The moment you put on an analog record, you immediately realize "This is so life-like. So much more lively."

And THAT is precisely why I voted ANALOG!
(The question kind-of answered itself. Analog is LIFE.)

uavKenny Kraly Jr.'s picture

I will go with digital audio because of the whole 5.1 channels of audio with analog you don't get that with digital you do and with digital the audio does'nt break up as much as it does on analog.

Woodysax's picture

I voted analog, based on my unique experience as a studio musician over the years.

I played the sax on the song "The Heat Is On" from the soundtrack from Beverly Hills Cop back in 1985. It was one of the first CDs released to the public, and one of my first experiences in a digital recording studio. I did that session and many others at Giorgio Moroder's Oasis Recording studio, using the best SSL board available at the time, as well as 2 Sony 24 track 1/2 inch tape machines synced up and a pair of top of the line Syncalviers. This was pretty much thhe top of the line in the mid 80's. Playback was pretty loud, which was pretty normal in any recording studio.

I'll never forget that the sound got pretty disconcerting after a few minutes, which never happened with analog playback. I've lived with that feeling ever since.

Now I know this is totally subjective, but I've been recording since the early 60's and to me, digital music just "feels" different...especially if I'm listening at 128 bits on an iPod.

Thanks for letting an "Old School" guy add his two cents to the discussion.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Actually, Michael Fremer did talk about this when he was a guest on my podcast:

In that discussion, he said one could get a good turntable for around $350, and as I recall, he even spoke of specific brands, though I don't remember them right now.

As for why tubes sound so good compared with solid state, I addressed this a bit in a recent poll question:

I suspect it's related to why many people prefer the sound of vinyl to ineffable quality that reaches the human psyche more deeply. And again, it sure isn't technical accuracy, which solid state has all over tubes.

uavcapndad's picture

Analog was my vote. As I read the question, it was which do I prefer, and the richness of analog sound far exceeds the fine digital reproductions. Even with the clicks and pops.

kirby sharpe's picture

Jarod, right on you hit the nail on the head!The important thing is that we enjoy our movies and our music and what we play them on is secondary. Tonight I listened to my new Tom Petty Dame the Torpedoes Bluray, The Doors first album vinyl (mono) from the Rhino box set, The Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas comes alive on cd and had a good laugh while watching Dr. Horrible's Sing along Blog, bluray movie.They all rocked and I had fun and isn't that what it's all about.Happy New Year to all, PS I voted analog,but really, who cares.

Antslappy's picture

I've been doing this high end audio thing since 1965 and to me, analog is the only way to go!!! I only buy CD's or downloads if the music I want is NOT available on vinyl!!!

C's picture

All these talks about the mysterious "human psyche"... This is really disappointing coming from a technical review site. Sound reproduction is a science, not magic... And magic does not exit in reality, except in the minds of the superstitious. Would someone please stick to objectivity? "Human psyche" is no longer a scientific valid term as all human experiences can be explained through biochemical and biomachinary processes, and that includes all emotions, and in this case sensory processing and perception. We already know so much about seratonin, dopamine, oxytonin (the empathy hormone neurotransmitter), effects of brain damage and biochemical imbalances, etc, etc...

I suggest someone perform this test: Perform a recording of the same artist playing the same instrument of the same musical piece in the same recording environment, and record this simultaneously with the same mic but at the very end of chain, split the musical signal via 2 recording mediums: the highest quality digital and analogue equipment. Take the 2 masters of the same recording and produce 2 playback versions of each at the highest quality technology possible: one vinyl and one digital. So now we have 4 playback versions: AD, AA, DD, and DA. Now take a large random sample of subjects of all variety (age, gender, musical training, recording training, etc) and do the double blind tests of playing back the 4 recordings in the same environment and exact same equipment except the obviously origin playback medium.

If someone persistently preferred AA and DA recordings, then maybe it is just the vinyl noise and distortions that they can hear and unconsciously associated with the positive "human psyche" feel to a recording. Then it has nothing to do with digital being unable to capture this mysterious "human psyche" because the original master of one of the vinyl is a digital recording anyway; one cannot introduce "human psyche" after the recording has been completed.

If there are a group of subjects who can correctly and persistently (in statistical terms, > 75%) identify the AD and AA recordings and perceive them as better, then there is something to the mysterious variable "human psyche" all these talks are about.. Otherwise, all snake oil effects.

There are plenty of medical studies where subjects taking placebo pills report noticeable effects from sugar pills. There is a recent study where subjects are already aware that they are taking fake pills, but still report feeling effects. We also know that human sensory and perception are highly dependable on various extraneousness variables and therefore inconsistent, inaccurate, and unreliable, and this includes hearing, which not only depends on the ears, but the brain.... SO, without any OBJECTIVE, SCIENTIFIC, double blind studies, all these talks about the magical, undefinable, and the mysterious just gives "audiophiles" a bad name... Why bother with objective and scientific testing when stating a preference or when purchasing a piece of electrical equipment made possible by science if one is to steer away from the objective and dwell on superstitions? Why not just invest in prayer recording and listening (instead of prayer healing) and use plenty of snake oils?

uavtmsorosk's picture

Tough question , as far as convenience and choice of music goes there is only one . But as to which I prefer to listen to the choice becomes more complicated . I guess in part it would depend on the type of music I cued up as well as the mood I was in . Both have there virtues and down falls , To say I prefer listening to one would mean I think one is better than the other , one thing I can say with some certainty is one is not clearly better than the other in every way ? I'll have to leave this post without giving a clear answer , but I'll ponder on it for a piece . Regards .. Tim ..

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