The question of “which is better, Analogue audio or Digital audio?”, is an old one, and one that has been argued about for years. Analogue audio is old and loved by many in the audio enthusiast world. Digital audio, on the other hand, is new and fangled, and sometimes frowned upon by the older audiophile generations. Digital is made of ones and zeroes, where Analogue is freeform and ‘alive’.
The problem with this argument is that there is no correct answer. The phrase ‘Digital is better’ or ‘Analogue is better’ should always be followed by ‘for me’. The word ‘Better’ is subjective, and should not be used without ‘for me’ when talking about the quality of experience. Instead, use it to describe the accuracy of audio reproduction.
Comparisons between Analogue and Digital audio
Analogue, these days, largely means Vinyl. Analogue audio does sound different to Digital audio, and to many ears better. However, we have to make sure to separate the accuracy of reproduction, from the ‘feel’ and enjoyment it gives us. When it comes down to it, digital audio is more accurate than analogue at reproducing sound as it was recorded. Perhaps also how it was intended to sound too. It’s more accurate; we’re not allowed to use the word better. Accuracy can often be mixed up with ‘quality’ and enjoyment, and that I think is a mistake.
In both analogue and digital, the quality of the speakers and headphones, and their components, you listen to will have the exact same impact on sound quality. This means, if you listen on a rubbish pair of speakers, they will always be rubbish no matter what you play on them or where you play it from. Analogue and digital have no say in this.
A truly accurate system will reproduce an audio waveform exactly as it was recorded. By its very nature, Analogue cannot be truly accurate. To create a vinyl record, you use a tiny chisel to sculpt tiny grooves on a surface that matches the soundwave. It’s impossible to be perfect. The medium is not exact and, as it degrades, due to dust and use, the quality of the recording will change. A 10-year-old vinyl you’ve played over and over again will definitely not have the same molecular structure as it did new.
Early digital systems were not capable of capturing sound with enough resolution to make it high quality. However, today CD quality (CDs are a digital format) has resolution that can surpass the limit of human hearing in some cases.
Without compression (like mp3), digital recording accuracy and reproduction is far beyond what humans can detect. Digital recording quality also does not worsen with wear-and-tear, as vinyl does. However, if the medium (e.g. the physical CD) is degraded enough it will eventually be unplayable.
Over a long period of time analogue tends to degrade, albeit ‘gracefully’, where digital does not. However, when digital fails, it fails ‘catastrophically’.
What does ‘Better’ mean?
Something that doesn’t get mentioned often in the Analogue vs Digital debate is that, for the last 20+ years, the vast majority of musicians and filmmakers have recorded digitally. They started using Digital Audio Tape for their master recordings almost as soon as it came out in the late 80s.
They started using it because musicians record separate tracks for each instrument, then mix them together in different ways many, many times until they manage to get the version they like the most. That’s an extremely simple explanation that I could expand on in another post. Digital is great for this, you can overwrite a digital tape as many times as you like without ruining the quality of the sound. Older analogue tape recording sessions could not re-record onto the same tape anywhere near as many times before they started running into problems.
The point is that any analogue recording you listen to that is less than 20 or so years old is, without question, a degraded version of the ‘original’ digital recording. This also means that if musicians record digitally, there is no way, ever, that an analogue recording will express the ‘true sound’ that was recorded in the studio. It’s like looking at a 4k UltraHD picture on a CRT monitor.
So why do people prefer analogue over digital? Here are five reasons why it could be considered better:
One: It’s Psychological.
People like the nostalgic feeling they get from an uneven analogue recording. They grew up listening to music on vinyl and tape and they’re used to the difference in sound, often described as ‘warm’ or ‘alive’ or ‘full’. It is almost like a placebo, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
Two: Taste, or Perception.
Everyone is entitled to like or dislike something for their own reasons. What I hear is different to what you hear. We don’t all come out of the factory with the same set of ears. It’s perfectly possible that somebody literally hears analogue as better quality.
Three: Device and Speaker Quality.
When listening on Vinyl, the system you’re listening on requires setting up. You can only listen on vinyl on a properly prepared system in a room that is prepared for listening. We can listen to digital recordings anywhere, because there is no special set up necessary. So, if all of your analogue listening time is spent with high quality equipment and digital is the complete opposite, you’re more likely to associate analogue with higher sound quality.
Four: Headroom, Subtlety and Fragility.
As far as I am aware, this isn’t often talked about. When getting a track ready for vinyl, the mastering engineer will produce a slightly different final mix. Because digital audio is played everywhere, the digital master will be very loud; it has to stand up against all other music in the industry and there are standards it has to meet. With the vinyl mix, however, the mix doesn’t need to be as loud, the engineer can leave some space for dynamics. This can make a song breathe more easily on vinyl and could definitely, subjectively, sound better than its digital sibling.
Connect your phone via Bluetooth and play a 192 kbps mp3 file on your £15,000 audio system. It will sound bad and that’s basically it. Because most digital audio available to purchase online is compressed as mp3 files, it won’t hold up against any decent analogue recording. If you play a Lossless copy, however, with regard to audio quality and reproduction alone, the same song will blow the analogue version out of the water.
So, which is better?
It depends who you are.
It’s important to understand that how something feels and how something performs should be treated separately. A top-class digital system and top-class analogue system will sound different. It’s down to us to decide on which we prefer subjectively, but down to hard science and common sense to figure out with performs better at the most basic level.
As a conclusion, you could say both are better. They’re better at different things, and better for different people. It’s ok to disagree.