I wrote an article in January titled "10 things the tech world should leave behind." In my piece I lampooned several examples of technological elements or trends which should be put out to pasture, including java problems, lost data and password aggravations.
One element in particular provoked something of a firestorm: "In my view there are many other candidates forthe museum: digital/video cameras, MP3 players, CDs, DVDs, radios, cassette players, calculators, alarm clocks, and vinyl/turntables. Your mobile device can perform many of these functions and more." That produced many comments and emails from readers who urged me to reconsider my preference for digital over analog music, assuring me that the sound quality from records and cassettes was far preferable to that of MP3s.
Some of the remarks I took with a grain of salt, such as the email from a reader who admitted her partner ran a record shop, which signified she had a personal financial stake in the promotion of analog music. The bulk of my replies on the topic focused on the fact I don't detect any deterioration in sound quality when listening to MP3s, and I find the manufacturing and transportation of analog media to be a waste of resources. Being a minimalist, however, I will admit my "eliminate all unnecessary possessions" mantra does influence my preferences.
These exchanges have had me wondering ever since then: is there really a difference between analog and digital music, and do I just have a tin ear and can't detect it? Keep in mind I'm pushing 45 and have been listening to loud music for over 25 years, so it's possible my eardrums are less sophisticated than yours.
And so without further ado I decided to research the facts behind what until now has been an opinion vs. opinion battleground, at least in my experience.
First I want to talk about how analog and digital music works. While there are many complicated factors involved, in a nutshell here are the basics between the two:
Analog music represents the actual, continuous sound waves generated by the artists and their equipment (in most cases, but sometimes records are based upon digital recordings being converted back to analog format), recorded on vinyl as grooves via metal stampers or on cassettes as magnetic impulses. Every time a record or cassette is played a physical toll is taken upon it due to friction, wear and tear. Over time the sound quality will deteriorate. Furthermore, the sound is generally better at the beginning of a vinyl recording as opposed to the end, because the smaller circumference can impact the ability of the record needle to follow the groove with 100% accuracy. And for those of us who grew up in the 1970's, the "crackle and pop" factor of records - not to mention the proverbial skipping or looping the same few seconds of music over and over - could be quite distracting.
Digital music is a COPY of analog music and it is not a continuous recording. Rather, the sounds are captured using samples (generally several thousand times per second). For instance, a CD is usually sampled at a rate of about 44.1 kHz, which translates to over 44,000 times a second, but sampling levels can run higher. The music is recorded in bits of information; a CD will usually feature 16-bit music, and as with sampling more bits can be used for better quality. The bit rate (the amount of data played per second) is also a factor; CDs often play at 128 Kbps, but this can increase as well. There is also a factor of compression; shrinking the music file to fit on the medium for which it is intended, which can impact playback. However, a type of compression called "lossless" is intended to combat this issue.
In essence, there are a lot of variables at play when it comes to digital music (fidelity and frequency are also part of this equation), but the fact remain digital music is usually a conversion of analog music and some quality loss can occur if this is done poorly or the sampling, bits, and bit rate are inferior. It's also a fact that a vinyl record will contain more musical data than an MP3. However, a digital recording can be played over and over with no deterioration in quality.
HowStuffWorks.com said: "Early digital recordings sacrificed fidelity, or sound quality, in favor of reliability.... today, technology in the audio recording industry is so advanced that many audio engineers will tell you there's no detectable difference between analog and digital recordings. Even if you were to use the best stereo equipment, you shouldn't be able to identify one medium versus the other just by listening to the sound. Many audiophiles disagree and claim that the analog format is still supreme."
Other elements which can impact your listening experience involve the quality of the sound system involved, the environment in which you're listening (a vehicle with the windows down will be vastly different from a quiet living room) as well as the recording being played. A 1980's Eddie Murphy comedy routine will probably sound the same in either analog or digital format, but a jazz recording of Miles Davis may sound better in vinyl format - or at least, may foster a perception thereof. Perception plays a large role here.
The article's author, Jonathan Strickland, said:
"I knew I'd be walking on thin ice with this article. If there's one thing guaranteed to launch a shouting match among music fans, it's the old digital-versus-analog debate. While there are audiophiles who will protest to the grave that analog formats like vinyl records provide a truer, richer sound than digital formats, there's not much hard evidence to support the claim. Sure, if you listen to music on a substandard system, it's not going to sound very good. And if you encode digital music using a low bitrate, the sounds you get as a result may be less than pleasing to the ear. But if you're using a lossless digital format and a decent sound system, it's very difficult — perhaps even impossible — to tell the difference between analog and digital. I believe that what some audiophiles truly value is the ritual of listening to analog music. Taking a vinyl album from a sleeve, placing it on the turntable and delicately positioning the needle gives the experience of listening to music a gravity it might not otherwise possess. How could that not sound better?"
In the end, while the facts may point to higher analog sound quality (depending on circumstances), the premise remains largely subjective. Is listening to a digital recording of Miles Davis song truly going to adversely impact your experience and cause you to pine for the vinyl instead? I can't answer that - only you can. I'm just happy that at any given moment I have the capability to play my favorite Led Zeppelin albums without worrying about lugging media around, thanks to my trusty old Blackberry. You see, I can find value in things commonly considered outdated and obsolete!
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.