There are "hot topic" debates that stand the test of time, never truly resolved as it were. Typically, these debates are arguments of subjective ideologies (thus never fully resolved even if some elements can be shown to be clearly false) rather than explorations of nuanced facts. The "Analogue vs. Digital - which is best?" debate remains popular among audiophiles since the dawn of CD consumer audio in the early 1980's. As if there is ever only one single answer to such a broad topic with various pros and cons. I suspect most of us these days have grown at least a little tiresome of the topic even if we recognize that this "issue" will inevitably arise along our audiophile journeys interacting with others.
In the last while, there have been items in the news related to analogue audio, and by extension this whole debate, I think worth examining honestly. Let's spend some time to talk about this, consider some facts, and address a few of the unsubstantiated beliefs often perpetuated even among some respected members in the audiophile pursuit.
I. A look at the MoFiGate Class Action
IV. Consumers Pay A Price Premium For All-Analog Recordings42. MoFi’s misrepresentations and omissions were not just disingenuous, they alsocaused economic injury to Plaintiff and other consumers.43. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for all-analog recordings for numerousreasons. First, an analog recording is as close to a studio recording as one can get, “like reading literature in the original language,” whereas “converting analog recordings to digital inevitably changes the sound in ways the band never intended.”10 For that reason, many consumers maintain that analog recordings sound better than digital recordings.
10 Steve Guttenberg, Digital and Analog Audio’s Curious Coexistence, CNET, Apr. 28, 2018, https://www.cnet.com/tech/home-entertainment/digital-and-analog-audios-curious-coexistence/
44. Part of this is a result of the concept of “losslessness.” When a recording iscompressed so that it can be converted to digital, it loses frequencies “at the very highest and lowest of a record.”By contrast, an analog recording maintains the full spectrum of frequencies. Digital recordings that maintain most of but not the entirety of the range of frequencies are referred to as “near-lossless,” but are not the same as an entirely “lossless” recording 11:
11 Devon Dean, Analog vs Digital Media: Which Is Better?, THE KLIPSCH JOINT, May 17, 2021, https://www.klipsch.com/blog/analog-vs-digital-media-which-is-better.
45. Second, analog recordings are more collectible because only a limited quantity can be produced. Digital recordings are exact copies of one another that can duplicated indefinitely, theoretically without any loss in quality or degradation. So, once a digital recording is made, it can be copied infinite times and each copy will sound the same. However, this means digital recordings are not as collectible because there are an infinite number, and a vinyl record using digital remastering will sound the same as a digital record streamed on Spotify or Apple Music. By contrast, the original tapes degrade over time, meaning only a limited number of analog recordings can be made using the original master tapes until the tapes no longer function. Each analog recording may also sound different the further it is from the original (i.e., the first analog recording may sound different from the one-hundredth). However, that also means that analog recordings are more collectible and more valuable because only a limited number can be produced before the original master tape deteriorates.46. MoFi recognizes that analog recordings are more valuable than digital recordings, which is why it charges a premium for the same. Indeed, the Records are the most expensive vinyl records that MoFi sells, ranging from $40 (for the Record Plaintiff purchased) all the way up to $125 for some of the “Ultradisc One-Step” recordings. By contrast, MoFi sells its digital recordings for $30 or less.47. Accordingly, MoFi charged Plaintiff and other Class Members a premium based on MoFi’s representations that the Records were all-analog, and MoFi’s failure to disclose that the Records made use of digital technologies like DSD in the production chain. Had MoFi disclosed that its Records used DSD, or otherwise not mispresented that its Records were all-analog, Plaintiff and other Class Members would not have purchased the Records, or would have paid less for them. Plaintiff and Class Members were thus injured by the price premium attributable to MoFi’s representations regarding the all-analog nature of its Records, and MoFi’s omissions regarding the use of DSD or other digital technologies in the Record’s production.
|MoFi: A sin of omission...|
** The Klipsch marketing diagram with the stair-stepped digital vs. smooth analogue signal is not accurate. Notice in the diagram the level of those digital steps didn't even correlate with the waveform levels!In reality, do not think of these sample points as "flat topped" quantized peaks. Rather, they are just the levels at specific regular intervals in time correlating with the sample rate. Here's a more accurate diagram of what the point samples represent:
The yellow sample data points are just the instantaneous levels at those specific times (thin yellow line). Good DACs will accurately interpolate the levels in time between those points to recreate almost the exact bandlimited waveform for the analogue output (green interpolated waveform). A non-oversampling (NOS) DAC that just holds the sample levels flat across the time period is not an accurate way to reproduce the intended waveform, thus resulting in distortions with these kinds of DACs. I've always found it perplexing why some audiophiles would choose to listen to stair-stepped waveforms, even paying the high cost for some of these brands! Sure, certain individuals might like that kind of distorted sound - that's ok, just be honest and acknowledge what it is.NOS DACs are far from the most common type of DAC thankfully! Do not be fooled by these inaccurate, yet enduring diagrams over the ages, dear audiophiles. Make sure to speak up when you see this kind of disingenuous claim.
II. On the idealization of analogue audio (master tapes, engineers, longevity, and quality...)
"If you want to preserve it for a long time, you have to make tape. Because digital will not hold up. Even Jump Drives lose their information and they'll drop out. The signal is so complex in a digital signal that the littlest thing that goes wrong, you're going to have a drop out, noise..."
|Modern automated data archive at CERN Tape Archive.|
|Old Soundstream 4-channel recorder... Detailed history here.|
|Mac "Sound Tools" from 1989, the precursor to Pro Tools.|
III. Analogue Media... The future?
|LP & LD. [ZZ Top Eliminator original vinyl, and MGM/UA The Compleat Beatles LaserDisc.]|