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Analog vs Digital - the infinity war amongst the music lovers

by Karl Teles on October 06, 2021

A few days ago, four friends of ours were sitting in a bar and stirring wine in glasses. After a while and after a few peg it was found by us that the one whose birthday we went was a vinyl fanatic. 

As soon as he started praising vinyl, another friend knocked on the glass and claimed that digital sound is much better.

The quarrel started. Before we would be kicked out of the bar by the bulging muscular bouncers, we paid the money and took the two of them out on our laps.

I could still hear a tune by David Gilmour was playing back in the bar. Digital or Analog - I couldn't recognize that as the music started to fade by matching with our every step.

The complex mystery of why does a person respond emotionally to music has long been a subject that many scientists have written about and lectured on. The mystery deepens when the distinct difference between listening to a vinyl record as opposed to listening to a digitally reproduced piece is discussed and poses the question – “why will most human beings recognize that analog sound is a more physical experience than that of digital borne?”.

Before beginning the discussion on the differences between digital and analog audio systems, I think it’s important to mention that all digital audio systems include some analog audio technology.

Microphones are analog audio devices that transduce auditory energy into an analog electrical signal. Preamplifiers, power amplifiers, and loudspeakers are all analog devices, as well.

Let’s consider the common misconception that digital is a ‘perfect’ recording and reproducing method because it has a flat frequency response in the range of human hearing and a noise floor that gives it a massive dynamic range. That CD’s 44kHz sampling rate is (just) adequate for sampling frequencies up to 22kHz is not in question. What is debatable, however, is the extreme filtering that is necessary to avoid massive distortion occurring beyond 22kHz in the replay of CD media (and any digital file recorded at this sampling rate).

To avoid a digital distortion it is necessary, in CD players or Digital to Analogue Converters (DACs), to employ very steep filtering at 20kHz. This filtering is so abrupt that it is often called a ‘brick wall’ filter. Such filters introduce both time domain and non-linear and non-harmonic artifacts. In many early CD players, these distortions caused a harsh, gritty character to overlay the music, which many audiophiles considered unpleasant.

Edward Singlerland in his Ted talk video Trying Not To Try ‒ The Art and Science of Spontaneity argues that the brain is, in fact, analog in its function – “No one would deny that our sensory organs are analog –  sound waves and light waves impress themselves on our embodied mind in much the same way that analog recordings and photographs are made”.

The difference between analog and digital audio is found in the way audio information is stored. Sound waves are a series of vibrations through a medium. Analog audio recording technology stores this information by creating a series of magnetic charges along with a reel of magnetic tape. Digital audio technology stores audio information as a series of numeric values on a hard drive.

There is a certain mystique to records on vinyl. It is more of an event of taking a record out of a sleeve, hearing the hiss as the needle goes down on it, and looking at the album sleeve artwork. You tend to listen to whole records, not just individual tracks, and, somehow, this whole process feels more respectful than just choosing a file on a computer.

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