Music on the Brain

Our latest poll question—Do You Prefer the Sound of Digital or Analog Audio Media?—has inspired more comments than any I've posted up to now, and I'm grateful to everyone who has added their two cents to the discussion so far, as well as those who will do so in the future. This is exactly what I had hoped these questions would stimulate—a lively but respectful discussion of the issues that concern all who enjoy the audio/video hobby.

I'm a bit surprised that digital has a strong lead over analog, especially given that many commentators express a preference for the sound of analog while acknowledging that digital is far more convenient. So I want to make sure everyone understands that the question asks whether you prefer the sound of digital or analog audio media, not which one is better in one way or another or which one you listen to more often. In that respect, there can be no objective answer as C seems to want; after all, preference is entirely subjective.

Clearly, C is a devout materialist—the only reality is that which can be measured objectively, at least in principle. I agree that scientific measurement is critically important; in fact, I'm trained as a scientist, and I rely on objective measurements quite heavily. But in my belief system, this is not—nor can it ever be—the entire story.

For example, I do not believe that all human experience can be completely explained by biochemical processes as C maintains. Consciousness itself cannot be fully explained in this way, since the relationship between mind and body is a two-way street with each having the ability to influence the other. The placebo studies that C cites prove this by unequivocally demonstrating the power of the mind to affect the body.

C's proposed double-blind listening test is an excellent idea, and I hope someone performs it someday. (To recap, using the highest-quality equipment, record the same performance on both analog and digital media, then master each one to vinyl and digital, so you end up with four recordings—AA, AD, DD, and DA. Play all four to a large sample of listeners in a double-blind process and record their responses.) I suspect the results would resemble similar tests performed with different grades of audio cables—experienced listeners would be able to discern the differences between the various recordings more reliably than naive listeners.

Also, C seems to imply that if the human psyche is real, it will be captured in a recording. Quoting him (assuming C is male) and editing for clarity, "If someone consistently preferred the AA and DA recordings, maybe it is just the vinyl noise and distortion they hear and unconsciously associate with the positive 'human psyche' feel. Then it has nothing to do with digital being unable to capture this mysterious 'human psyche' because the original master of the DA vinyl is a digital recording; one cannot introduce 'human psyche' after the recording has been completed."

I did not say that recording in analog or digital "captured" the human psyche; I said that many believe that analog recordings reach the human psyche more deeply than digital recordings. "Psyche" is just another word for consciousness, mind, or soul, the existence of which is often denied by devout materialists. But even though the psyche/mind/soul is indeed mysterious—i.e., not well-understood—that does not mean it doesn't exist. I believe it does exist and can be influenced by music, though not in a way that can be easily measured.

I'll even go one step further—I believe the psyche/mind/soul can be influenced differently depending on the medium, and there are even objective measurements to support this. For example, I've heard of brain studies indicating that highly compressed digital audio affects the limbic system—the part of the brain involved in emotion—less profoundly than uncompressed digital audio. (I've been trying to contact the researchers who conducted these studies, but so far, no luck.) Similarly, I'm not surprised to hear many people say that analog audio on vinyl is more engaging than digital audio.

As I said earlier, I'm trained as a scientist, and I place great stock in objective measurements and testing. However, I've learned that measurements alone aren't enough—for example, reviewers have often observed that amps and speakers can measure well but sound bad and vice versa. Thus, I agree with brad.clarkson that experience generally trumps tech specs in the end. And personal preference trumps everything else, so listen to as many different devices and types of recordings as possible and buy what you enjoy the most. If you do, you can't go wrong.