The “Analog vs. Digital” Debate

Which is better for audio?

(Photo Credit Vincent Tabora)

People have different tastes when it comes to music quality. Many audiophiles live by a code, that only analog sound systems can produce the best music. The purists who are connoisseurs of hi-fidelity audio believe that the best sound quality is produced from analog equipment, just pure unadulterated sound. Digital music on the other hand is more about electronic equipment that alter and enhance the quality of audio, transforming it to create new sounds that normal instruments cannot reproduce. Either way, both analog and digital are an essential part of today’s high-end sound systems for playing the audio in music.

What is analog and what is digital audio?

Analog audio consists of a continuous signal with varying voltages that represents sound, directly from the source. The vibrations produced to create those sounds are precisely what is recorded. That may include some noise and echo as well, but that can be eliminated by signal conditioning equipment. In analog recording, the sound is directly recorded to media in the form of magnetic tape. In a recording studio this is called the “master tape” and it is then distributed to reproduce the original recording. Analog recording equipment that is typically used, consists of a microphone, mixers and cables. Vinyl records, cassette tapes and 8-track are examples of analog distribution media.

Vinyl record player is an example of an analog playback device (Photo Credit Anton Hooijdonk PEXELS)

Digital audio encode the sound into discrete signals. It only has 2 voltage states to represent audio, a 0 (no voltage) and 1 (presence of voltage), called a bit. A series of bits make up the audio and are stored in magnetic or solid state formats. Digital recording uses analog equipment to record the audio, but it is then encoded using digital equipment. The audio is digitized in a process called analog-to-digital conversion (ADC) and then distributed to more popular formats like CD, DVD or streamed over the Internet.

Digital music player (Photo Source PEXELS)

So music is really a combination of both analog and digital techniques. In the past, before digital, audio recording was more complicated and difficult. Digital equipment made it easier to produce and edit audio, as well as distribute it as content. Live streaming is popular today among musicians on Internet platforms and almost anyone can do this today. Before that, the only way musicians could play live music was by broadcasting on TV or radio. Not everyone had access to a station where they can play, unlike today where any musician can stream live from their Internet connection.

Audio playback is always analog

Regardless of recording technique used, audio playback is always analog. Whether you are using speakers, headphones, earphones, intercoms or paging systems, the audio playback is still analog. This is because audio is not discrete, it is a continuous wave of variations in sound pressure represented by changes in voltage. The difference is that analog playback systems can reproduce the sound with more clarity, reproducing the fine points of recording from the moment the pitch changes to the intensity in sound. Likewise digital playback systems must undergo an digital-to-analog conversion (DAC). There can be some discrepancies or changes from the original analog sound because digital recording can use different techniques to encode the audio.

If the recording uses any form of compression, like in MP3 formats, the quality of the audio decreases. Compression of the original audio is used to save storage space on media or improve bandwidth on a network. Thus audiophiles are never satisfied with digital music formats that use a lossy type compression because plenty of the original recording’s quality will be lost. There are well recorded digital formats like CD and DVD which do not lose as much quality because they have a different encoding method. Thus a CD will have a closer level of quality to analog sound.

With analog media like cassette tapes and vinyl records, maintenance is key to preserve the audio quality. This is because these media formats are susceptible to dust, mildew, molds and dirt that can degrade the quality of the audio. In the long run it can also destroy the media itself. The material is subject to wear and tear as well, unlike with digital media which have less to no moving parts.

In digital playback, the encoded information represents the audio’s loudness (intensity) and frequency (pitch). When the encoding process has little errors, then the audio playback to the DAC reproduces hi-fidelity music to the speakers. Many digital stereo systems used in home entertainment systems also use digital signal processing (DSP) chips to further enhance the quality of the audio during playback.

For most analog audiophiles it is about the equipment as much as the music itself. Analog is becoming more rare and a niche market due to lesser availability. This does add value as evident in specialty stores that sell the equipment and recordings.

Speakers used in a sound system (Photo Source PEXELS)

The Verdict

It doesn’t matter if you have more preference for analog or digital. DJ’s and music producers today use a combination of both analog and digital recording and playback systems. The quality ultimately boils down to the superiority of the recording and sound system. In the retail industry you will get more for what you pay for, but there are those who are satisfied with the sound of music playing through their earphones.

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