My Thoughts on Digital Vs. Analog Sound

The vinyl record is my preferred media for active listening to recordings made in the 1950s and into the 1980s.

As discussed earlier, analog recordings played back on vinyl records add a certain amount of their own “noise” to the listening experience.  Some of this noise is not desirable such as the tics and pops associated with a record that is no longer in mint condition.  But it also adds a certain “warmth” and “life” that is missing from CDs.

To help explain my opinions in that regard I have several analogies and examples:

Vintage Car

Listening to vinyl as opposed to a CD is like looking at the paint on your car before and after you wax it. Vinyl sounds like a fresh wax job looks. It didn’t change the basic color but it enriches it making it fuller and more vibrant and full of life.

Another way of describing the difference between the sound of vinyl and the sound of CDs is to describe it in terms of visible and non-visible light rays;

Ultraviolet light is not visible to the human eye, but if you place an ultraviolet filter in front of your eyes you can see the difference made by removing ultraviolet light. I think of CDs as possessing a filter that does not allow all of the “colors” of the audio spectrum to be heard.  Perhaps that is good, or perhaps it is bad, but it is different, and I prefer the full spectrum of sound that vinyl provides.

Here is one last way of describing the fuller, richer sound that vinyl provides;

The CD specification stops abruptly at 20,000 cycles per second (20 KHz) whereas vinyl can reach all the way up to 45 KHz and beyond. Sounds above 20 KHz are simply not present on a CD which is OK in itself since it is above the hearing range that most humans can hear.  But that does not mean that the sounds above 20 KHz do not affect the sounds that are within the audible range. These higher tones can reflect tones back into the audible range.  This has the effect of enriching the sound that we can hear.

An imperfect analogy is to take a pure 440 Hz tone and compare it to its equivalent primary pitch on a piano which is referred to as A-440 (A below middle C). A pure tone of 440 Hz is dull and lifeless. The same fundamental tone on a piano causes many other “sympathetic” tones to be heard and for harmonics of the 440 Hz string to be amplified or augmented by other strings on the piano. So these inaudible pure tones above 20 KHz that are present on a vinyl record do have an effect on what you hear when playing back a vinyl record by affecting or generating tones that are audible.

One last augmentation should be mentioned and that is the sound that you hear when playing music back through a tube based preamp and amplifier when compared to transistor based amplifiers. Again, it adds “color” to the sound which you either like or not, but I do.

That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

2 comments on “My Thoughts on Digital Vs. Analog Sound

  1. WWJ on

    Like you, I prefer analog over digital, i.e., the sound of my 60s and 70s LPs over re-releases on CDs of the same artists and titles by the same companies. As you say, it’s a warmer, richer sound. Often the stereo image also is better, and some of the finer details more distinct. But I hadn’t really known some of the technical reasons that you provide, particularly the super-20 KHz bounceback. I like your ultraviolet light filter and piano analogies.

    Having said that, I say that I said that I PREFER LPs, not that I typically listen to them. The catch-22 of LP-listening is that listening to LPs to hear the best sound wears the LPs out, so that eventually they no longer give the best sound. Even with high-quality styli the LP will suffer destruction, even if only the least bit, which repetitively adds up. So generally I satisfy myself with iTunes and WMAs and reserve the LPs for worthy occasions and purposes. Having mint LPs and not using them is a great waste, but then, deriving full use of them consumes them. What are you gonna do.

    BTW, I think all the analog vs. digital arguments can be extended to video. I much prefer the display of a CRT monitor to that of an LED.

    • Ron on

      You hit the nail on the head! Records will eventually wear out if you play them enough. But if you maintain your equipment properly, with proper attention to the replacement of the stylus, this can be minimized. But beyond that lies an answer! Back in the day it was common amongst the most caring of music aficionados to record their favorite albums onto a high speed reel to reel tape. Then you could play your record album just one time while recording it and thereafter listen to the tape. Alas, tape wears out eventually as well and an occasional “refresh” was in order.

      For those who think down upon analog magnetic tape, keep in mind that (back in the day) everything was recorded and mastered using high speed reel to reel tape in the studio before it was pressed to vinyl. So if your reel to reel machine was of sufficient quality the sound quality suffered very little. Home and professional quality reel to reel machines that were of sufficient quality were not cheap, but when an audiophile had a very good one, it was a sure sign that this guy was serious about the quality of his sound and about maintaining his record collection in top condition.

      So what is “sufficient quality” for a reel to reel machine? The goal of any tape recorder is to pass as much tape surface under the record/playback heads as possible. This means that wider tape is better and faster speeds are better. Practically speaking this means that the tape is 1/4 inch wide and runs at 15 inches per second. Typically a ¼ inch wide tape is segmented into 4 tracks: a left and right stereo recording in both directions on the tape (reversed for playback on the other side). Better was a 2 track machine that used the entire surface of the tape in one direction. (This doubled the surface area). So 2 track at 15 IPS (Inches Per Second) was and still is the best you can do. ( Most common reel to reel machines are 4 track and run at 3 ¾ and 7 ½ IPS). This would yield a wonderful reproduction of the original LP. In contrast, a cassette recorder uses a 1/8 inch wide tape at a speed of 1 7/8 IPS. While this did not provide sufficient quality for audiophile playback back in the 1960s and 1970s, improvements in the quality of the tape itself brought cassettes into the audiophile realm by the late 1980s with super high density metal tapes. So are the best quality cassette recorders using the best quality recording tape capable of reproducing the sound of records sufficiently well? In a word, Yes! But don’t confuse this with a common “store bought” cassette as these did not use the best quality tape and were generated using high speed duplication machines.


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The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience

  • History

    Intro To The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience

    Welcome to the Sound Exchange reference guide about vinyl records. On these pages we will explore any and all topics that are relevant to the enjoyment of vinyl records. Read more...

    The Emergence of Long Play (1948)

    The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience began with the emergence of the 10” and 12”, 33 1/3 rpm, Long Play, Micro-Groove, Vinyl Record in 1948, and its smaller sibling, the 7” 45 rpm record. Read more..

    Modern Long Play Records

    The modern long play, micro-groove record brought to the market had a tremendous impact on artistic creativity. Read more..

    The Modern Vinyl Record (1960s)

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    The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience Timeline

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  • Analog Vs. Digital

    Which is better, CDs or Vinyl Records?

    This question can be reduced to studying their differences. Read more..

    How Sound is Created and Heard

    This discussion begins with the creation of sound itself. Everything in nature that creates a sound creates an analog sound, which also happens to be the only kind of sound that we can hear. Read more..

    Analog to Digital Conversion

    The digital process begins at the point where the electrical impulses generated by the microphone are encoded onto a recording device. Read more..

    Playback Pros and Cons

    An analog recording doesn’t attempt to describe the sound as it simply records its input continuously, so it doesn’t have the sample size and sampling rate issues that digital has. Read more..

    What about CDs?

    First you must remember that the specification for CDs was developed way back in 1979. Read more..

    My Thoughts on Digital Vs. Analog Sound

    The vinyl record is my preferred media for active listening to recordings made in the 1950s and into the 1980s. Read more..
  • Stereo Recordings

    Stereo Recordings

    Any discussion about music and sound reproduction will eventually make reference to how it is presented to the listener. Read more..

    Stereophonic Recordings (1960s)

    Regarding stereo recordings, when stereo first came out it was a brand new world and exactly how to represent a recording in a stereo format was very subjective. Read more..

    Mono Vs. Stereo Recordings

    Beginning with the comparison of Mono and Stereo recordings, it was typical that both mono and stereo records were made from the late 1950s until around 1970 when they ceased production of mono records. Read more..

    Quadraphonic Recordings

    Finally let me touch upon quadraphonic recordings as they appeared on vinyl records. Read more..
  • Turntables

    The Record Player

    “For the record,” a record player is generally thought of as a turntable with a built-in amplifier and speaker(s). Portable units are typically record players. Read more..

    Anatomy of a Turntable

    The turntable has several basic components including the plinth (base), the revolving platter, the tone arm, the cartridge and stylus, and the mechanical and electronic components to make it all work. Read more..

    Reducing Unwanted Noise

    Isolating the noise generated from the turntable’s motor from the platter is essential. Read more..

    Choosing a Quality Turntable

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    Turntable Belt Replacement

    Occasionally, belt drive turntables require turntable belt replacement.

    All about Phono Cartridges

    At the heart of any turntable system is the phono cartridge. Read more...
  • Other Stereo Equipment

    Classic Stereo Equipment

    Stereo equipment is one more significant variable that can greatly affect the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience. Read more..

    Phono Preamps: Amplification and Equalization

    When the discussion turns to the phono preamps (short for pre-amplifier) we are really getting down into minute details of the record groove in order to understand its role and its importance. Read more..

    Purchasing Quality Preamps

    Like all components of a stereo system there are significant variations in quality in the preamps, which has significant effects on the quality of the playback of your records. Read more..
  • Records

    On First Pressings

    Typically, a first pressing is defined as what the actual record album looked like when it first came off the manufacturing line. Read more..

    Grading the Condition of Records

    At Sound Exchange we use visual grading (as opposed to play grading) for our records. We do not grade jackets, only the vinyl itself. Read more..

    About 78 rpm records

    The 78 rpm record was the primary format for music sold during the period from the early 1900s into the 1950s. Read more..

  • Taking Care Of Your Records

    Record Storage

    Always store your records in a cool, dry, dark environment in an upright position (never flat) that is high off the ground, and that provides some airflow around them. Read more..

    Tips for Handling Records

    Always handle your records by the label and the outer edge and never ever touch the record grooves except when performing a deep cleaning. Read more..

    That’s Not a Scratch on Your Vinyl – It’s Dirt!

    Dirt and static electricity may cause good records to sound “scratchy”. A proper cleaning will remove dirt and static electricity from the vinyl. Read more..

    How Often Should Records Be Cleaned?

    Record cleaning, like most any other type of cleaning, is a matter of degree. Read more..

    Record Cleaning Solution

    Wet cleaning of vinyl records is the best way if not the only way to really get them clean and to get them free of static electricity. Read more..

    How to Clean a Record

    Use plenty of solution and really get the record wet while being very, very careful to keep the solution off of the record label, as it will cause the paper label to “rise” or stain the label, etc, and it will never look like new again. Read more..

    Salvaging Vinyl

    An old trick of “last resort” is to actually play a record while wet. Read more..