The Road to Analog-Sounding Digital: Are We There Yet?

To say that a digital source "sounds like analog" has always struck me as coming up short. The notion that one format sounds like another is not really sensible or even ideal. While I love listening to LPs, there are some physical attributes of vinyl that, ideally, you don't want to reproduce. You know what I'm talking about because, every chance they get, LP haters remind us about pops, ticks, skips, surface noise, inner-groove distortion, etc. So when we say that a digital source sounds like analog, what we're really saying is that it doesn't sound like digital.

What does it mean to sound not digital? I remember my early experiences with CDs, and of being nearly uncontrollably excited at their tremendous prospects: 60+ minutes of music, none of vinyl's problems, pure silence in the silent parts, the closest to the real thing we've heard yet. The idea of perfect sound right now—let alone forever—was exhilarating. I got a CD player and some CDs and listened. Instead of music, what came out of my hi-fi sounded shrill, brittle, lifeless, synthetic. What the heck? Had the engineers responsible for this Frankenstein's monster of sonic parts listened to their creation before loosing it on the world?

The Compact Disc was never the undisputed heavyweight champion of perfect sound its promoters claimed it to be. Some people learned to live with CDs without ever learning to love them. Thankfully, CD playback no longer always sucks. Some CDs even sound good. They sound like good-sounding CDs.

The LP, on the other hand—the entire experience of listening to vinyl—is still held up by some as the ultimate meeting of music and mind, body and soul.

File-Based Playback to the Rescue
The next step in our sonic evolution is computer audio—or, more specifically, file-based playback. It seems inevitable that a new sound technology's first steps must be halting ones: 78rpm discs' maximum of three minutes of playing time per side (and the earliest 78s had only one side); CD's brick-wall upper-frequency limit of 22.05kHz; and the scourge of file-based playback, the low-resolution MP3. But those of us who care about the quality of our sound are overpaying for MP3s. Not only have we transcended the sonic pitfalls of lossy compression, we've surpassed CD quality: that brick wall makes no sense in the virtual world, just as paying for lossy downloads can no longer be justified. The remaining paid-MP3 services are mainly run by megacorporations trying to hold on to the last sources of profit that can be squeezed from an impossible business model while being scavenged by pirates.

Which brings us to high-definition (HD) download: Music recorded using a pulse-code modulation (PCM) format, 24 bits and a sampling rate higher than CD's 44.1kHz can sound more natural than a CD. And the higher the sampling rate, the more potentially natural the sound. The other HD factor is Direct Stream Digital (DSD), which stomps all over CD-quality sound, offering proof that CD's brick wall of 16 bits and 44.1kHz was actually made of straw.

I offer up as evidence . . . listening. If you listen to the same recording in hi-def and on CD, you'll hear what I'm talking about. What you'll hear from the hi-def recording is a more elegant and smooth dynamic swing, greater image stability and specificity, richer tone colors (ie, greater harmonic complexity), and attacks and decays that will make your senses stand at attention. All of digital's rough edges have been refined into a natural-sounding patina.

Yield to Natives
To my ears, the best file-based HD music sounds as naturally musical as vinyl. That's not to say that HD digital sounds like analog; it's to say that file-based HD playback can sound as musically involving as vinyl, while not sounding like vinyl. For my way of listening and enjoying, that's great news, and means that everyone should own a turntable and some way to play back file-based HD music. Some recordings sound best on vinyl, and some sound best as file-based HD music. Typically, the closer to a recording's native format you get, the better off you'll be sonically.

So any digitally recorded HD master will be best served by its original format. When it comes to analog recordings, we smack into the wall of preference, but it's clear that CDs can't compete with LPs or HD downloads. Heck, CDs can't even compete with ripped CDs. Analog recordings sound great on vinyl, and the closer you can get to the original vinyl release, the better. Analog recordings can also sound great when delivered as HD files, as long as the process of converting the analog signal to digital is done with care. Some record labels, typically smaller independents, offer free CD-or-better-quality downloads with purchase of one of their LPs, which solves the problem of choice by giving you the best of both worlds.

The other bit of good news is that most people already own a computer, and most computers can be made into music-serving machines that will whomp most CD players' butts. I know this is a terrible thing for some people to hear, but advances like high-definition downloads, memory-based playback, and asynchronous USB really do work. What's more, they serve the music, not some engineer's idea of how best to squeeze sound into a too-small container. It's win-win or lose-lose, depending on how loose you are when you dance.

We're in the passing lane of our music-reproducing journey. High-definition PCM and DSD downloads have finally allowed digital to join vinyl in offering up a truly musically engaging experience.

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COMMENTS
earwaxxer's picture

Great sounding digital is not only becoming more available, its also more affordable. Few mere mortals can affort a dcs or an MSB. Now we have the Metrum's and the Schiits for the rest of us. And, dont throw away your CD's. They sound better than Sony and Phillips even imagined that they could.

wozwoz's picture

The benefits you espouse are all old hat. They have been known for years to the hi-rez SACD community. As for downloads ... well, most downloads (as in 99.99999% of them) are low-rez mp3 or CD quality at best. The few hi-rez download files available are usually sourced from the commercial SACD discs. 

The next problem is that most people playing downloads typically use iTunes or similar, and as soon as you change the volume control in iTunes, on your computer software, your computer is interfering (likely at 16 bit 44.1 kHz or worse) with the sound path ... unless you get an outboard DAC and are very very careful with your output path.

So summary: welcome to the party ... we've been doing hi-rez for years.  

michaelavorgna's picture

It's interesting that on one hand you use SACDs as an example of hi-rez while on the other you point out that MP3s dominate the download market to seemingly discount the importance of downloads in general. It's interesting because we can easily discount SACDs for the exact same reason if we compare SACD sales to CD sales.

The important point with SACDs and hi-rez downloads is not how many of them there are as compared to lower rez offerings, the important point is the fact that they are available and they do in fact sound better than their lower rez counterparts. And with downloads, the market for 16/44.1 and hi-rez is growing by leaps and bounds and computer-based playback handily outperforms spinning discs dollar for dollar.

> The few hi-rez download files available are usually sourced from the commercial SACD discs.

This is simply not true. There are approximately 30 HD download sites that I'm aware of (HD Music Download Sites (a list)) and none of them "usually" source their downloads from SACDs. While this may have been the case with some releases years ago, this is certainly not the norm.

As far as iTunes goes, anyone interested in the quality of their computer audio playback either augments or replaces iTunes with another media player and is certainly using a DAC or streamer for playback.

And you are more than welcome to our (large and growing) party.

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

wozwoz's picture

"The important point with SACDs and hi-rez downloads is not how many of them there are as compared to lower rez offerings, the important point is the fact that they are available and they do in fact sound better than their lower rez counterparts."

Yes - agreed.

 

 and none of them "usually" source their downloads from SACDs.

You may well be surprised where they get their material from. There have been some appalling examples of material that started out life as DG 44.1kHz / 24 bit recordings ... sold on SACD ... then the SACD sent to the download sites who ripped it ... and then sold as 96kHz 24 bit downloads. The whole industry, including the SACD market, is awash with recordings that have been corrupted by editing at standard resolution, or weird practises in converting analog masters to hi-rez (see, for instance, the story in Stereophile recently on the EMI re-issues). Chandos mislabelled their recordings as "Recorded in DSD" when most were not. etc etc

 

In my view, the great advantage of the emergence of the hi-rez download market is some transparency ... people want to know what they are buying ... and we are seeing some numbers from labels that previously hid them or worse ... misrepresented them.

 

 

 

 

michaelavorgna's picture

But its something that has existed for nearly every format including LPs and CDs and as you say SACDs.

The ability to analyze downloads with free software like Audacity has helped (and hurt in some cases) to raise awareness of the instances where CD-"quality" material has been upsampled to, and represented as, HD material. But it is my experience these are not the majority of cases and the market is continuing to exert pressure to ensure this kind of thing becomes a thing of the past for HD downloads.

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

wozwoz's picture

And with downloads, the market for 16/44.1 and hi-rez is growing by leaps and bounds and computer-based playback handily outperforms spinning discs dollar for dollar

 

I don't agree on the value side.

FIRST, most DSD downloads cost considerably more than identical file on SACD disc. For example, Channel charges about $37 for a DSD download, but you can buy the disc from Amazon usually for around $10 to $18.

 

SECOND, the SACD disc contains the DSD multi-channel content and the DSD stereo content  AND the standard CD layer (for playing in the car or wherever). The download sites often charge for each version.

 

THIRD, the download has no resale value whatsoever ... you can't sell them at all, so your investment is sunk. By contrast, the physical SACD has a healthy secondary market on Amazon and ebay  ... if you don't like it, you can sell it. And if they sell out, as many SACDs have done, they can even become quite valuable. 

In each case, the physical disk is the better proposition on the value side, even if you throw in transport costs.

michaelavorgna's picture

And also not specifically on DSD downloads versus SACDs, rather on HD downloads in general including PCM formats where in many cases there is no disc equivalent. I do find the Channel Classics DSD downloads to be positively and consistently stunningly good. And one can, using Korg's free AudioGate software, create your own PCM copies of DSD files.

You make some very good points especially regarding resale value. I've often wondered/commented why it is we're charged ownership rates for something we do not have ownership rights to...

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

Jon Iverson's picture

I think price is a key point (not related to sound quality) that is inhibiting wider adoption of HD. I profess ignorance about what the licensing issues are that may be contributing to high download prices, but it bothers me that they are so expensive when all that is involved is server space (practically free) and download time (also practically free).

The ownership issue also complicates digital downloads, and it's time for a new paradigm with a pricing scale to match. If I'm just licensing an album, the fee should be far less.

michaelavorgna's picture

This paradigm exists in the physical world and for now it's being applied to the virtual world of downloads where in many cases it doesn't appear to make sense (charging more for the FLAC download than the MP3 for example).

And I agree, pricing an HD download at $50/album restricts its sale to a niche (within a niche) market.

Jon Iverson's picture

It's easy to imagine audiophile labels saying to themselves, "only this small group of people will buy HD downloads from us anyway and most of them easily can and will pay the extra fee, so why lower the price."

So perhaps the labels do not perceive that a lower price will bring them more customers and therefore more revenue overall?

michaelavorgna's picture

But this may be a case of a self fulfilling prophecy. 

volvic's picture

"most computers can be made into music-serving machines that will whomp most CD players' butts. I know this is a terrible thing for some people to hear, but advances like high-definition downloads, memory-based playback, and asynchronous USB really do work."

I was shocked to find out my itunes with CD's ripped into it, uncompressed, then played through a Stello U3 that was connected to a Moon 300 DAC was able to trounce my LInn Ikemi and YBA CD1a, by a long shot.  I was hesitant to rip my CD's into a hard drive but side by side comparisons on every CD showed how much better it was through a computer than through a CD player.  Oh! and still lovin' my VPI with SMEIV turntable.  However, computer audio is a great democratizing medium for playing music and I am in the process of transferring all my CD's into a computer then archiving the CD's and booklets in a specially made filing cabinet.  Good times!

Nick

hollowman's picture

15 or 30 ips tape is -- according to some (thetapeproject.com, etc) -- the ultimate ref. If so, the LP is the WRONG analog format with which to compare any digital media (incl 24/192).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVXPdd9UTfQ

michaelavorgna's picture

..to compare formats, imo.

Saying that digital does or does not sound like analog tape, and I've heard this direct comparison most recently at RMAF 2012 in the Playback Designs room where we compared analog tape playback to 128x DSD, comes up as short as saying that HD downloads sound like LPs. My point being computer-based playback does not sound like LPs, or analog tape if you prefer (but DSD comes darn close), yet can still be just as musically engaging.

Michael Lavorgna
Editor, AudioStream.com

Jon Iverson's picture

Yes a low generation analog tape (or even better, analog master tape) is the ultimate analog reference and much better than a vinyl record. But analog tape and recorders/players have their own characters that can euphonically color the sound.

There are even digital plug-ins that model the sound of different recorder/tape combinations for use in high resolution digital recording studios so that the digital recording has "analog" sound (distortion) added.

dalethorn's picture

The preservation of analog tapes from past releases has been hit or miss. Brubeck's Time Out did well, and the Sony releases of Biggs' 1960 organ recordings at Harvard likewise. But the 96k downloads of Rolling Stones recordings I obtained from HDTracks exhibit some obvious tape dropouts. The better tapes as I remember were 1.5 mils thick, and it didn't take long for the tape to dig a channel in the permalloy etc. heads that were typical in the 1960's. Those grooves in the head could damage the tape edges. You're constantly depending on the people who mount those tapes to verify the condition of the heads, and just one error or "let's see if we can get away with just one more day of use before replacing the heads" can initiate damage. Then there was the question of how well the silicone etc. lubricants were embedded into the tapes, and whether they would tend to bleed out. Not to mention demagnetization, which can be very tricky. How do I love digital? Let me count the ways.

hollowman's picture

I have a "high-end" Pioneer Elite uni player, purch'd in 2004. It does CD, SACD, 24/192 DVD-A. FWIW, Pioneers are used by certain audio high-end companies like Ayre, etc. Being a DIY modder, I was able to improve the Pioneer quite a bit from stock. But , even after  extensive mods, I never got its SACD (or DVD-A 24/192) performance -- from this uni -- up to that of an ancient, modded Philips/Magnavox CD-650. Wasn't even close (the CD-650 has a NaimAudio sound if that helps one imagine its charac.). In fact, the modded CD-650 is still my sonic ref., even with a VPI-HW-19/Rega RB300/Sumiko BP Special cart.

So, I guess me=confused when all these folks make wild claims for SACD/DSD. Not unless SACD/DSD quality varies DRASTICALLY from one piece of gear to the next??

labjr's picture

 ...I wouldn't compare anything to vinyl. Seems that some think vinyl itself makes whatever comes off of analog tape sound better. To me vinyl is just another form of coloration like adding passive components in a circuit. Each component or stage adds or subtracts something from the original sound.

I want to hear what sounds closest to the analog tape because I mostly listen to material which was transfered from analog tape. I want to hear whatever's on the tape, good or bad. And I wouldn't mind flat transfers too. We can experiment with DSP and  tweak the sound ourselves.

Anyone who likes the vinyl sound can probably recreate the sound with modern DSP. It's getting pretty darn good when reviewers are having a hard time discerning a difference between digitized vinyl and the original.

Now, Logically, I would think a format which sounds most transparent for live digital recordings would also be best for analog tape transfers.

pwf2739's picture

I have spent most all of 2102 rebuilding my system. Back in February, I would have agreed that analog had a better sound than digital. Now, however, my opinion has changed. I think it is widely agreed that in general an SACD sounds better than a 192/24 which sounds better than a 44.1/16. And it may also be widely held that analog, even with the pops and clicks, sounds better than digital. Until recently, I would have agreed with that notion. Now, not so much. I replaced my Mac Mini, iTunes, Pure Music, and USB cables with a dedicated music server using a solid state drive and a purpose designed and built for audiophile music playback sound card. When the music is playing through the SSD the spinning hard drive shuts down, thus improving the sound. Also, changing the interconnects from USB and unbalanced to balanced connections, in my opinion, helps improve the sound quality. Add to that a high quality DAC capable of HD playback and DSD upsampling and the digital sound I hear is great. I also upgraded all of my cables from RCA to balanced and replaced the power cords. These changes made an across the board improvement. Perhaps the most recent and significant change I made was replacing the power cord between the wall outlet and the power conditioner. For this I went all out and used a Nordost Odin power cord. Now, every component that is plugged into the power conditioner has increased performance. The phono preamp is one of these components. With my current digital components I cannot really see any  significant difference between analog and digital. I see similar frequency response, clarity, accuracy, timber, sound stage, dynamic response and presence between both formats. I will admit that analog has a certain feeling of "warmth" as compared to digital being very analytical. That may or may not be viewed as a sonic attribute- it is a matter of opinion and the recording. There will always be an argument about which is the better format but for me, in my system, I can say with certainty that the digital music I hear is every bit as engaging and exciting as the analog that I equally enjoy. Ten months ago I would not have made such a claim. I see that as a product of components as much as a file format. And yes, I have made a larger investment in digital than analog. The debate between digital and analog will rage on for some time. The cost may be high and even prohibitive but digital can be made to sound really, really great. So much so that the gap has been all but closed. 

tmsorosk's picture

Why would we even want digital to sound like analog and vise versa . I like good digital for what it is and does , and the same goes for vinyl . 

In my main system the format thats clearly superior on a given day has more to do with the individual  recording than the technology . 

bracondale's picture

Having had recent experience with Netflix and LoveFilm in the UK, when I watched a film in hi-def on TV, streamed across the internet.  I am forced to wonder if perhaps we might see this model extended into Hi-def PCM and DSD.  Spotify and others already do low-def streaming.

Netflix and LoveFilm costs just £5 or £6 per month for unlimited streaming of hi-def video, significantly better value than Spotify which charges more for streaming low-def music.

I think for the bulk of the population music streaming for a monthly fee will in due course displace downloads and disc ownership and become the defacto method by which most people listen to music.

One problem with such an approach, and why I don't use Spotify (apart from it being low-def) is that any music disc on Spotify and others is invariably re-mastered and I have yet to hear a re-mastered disc that didn't sound worse and often much worse than the original.

It is a shame that Spotify or another company don't also seek out the original discs and allow consumers to choose the re-mastered compressed messed about crap or the original disc.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that most of the music I would want to listen to is not available on SACD or DSD.   DSD is great for people who want to listen to boring anaemic folk, jazz or modern music which many small labels churn out endlessly.

If there where a way to conveniently rip SACDs I would buy lots of SACDs, at least those that have some musical content that I would like.  I have a number of SACDs, but have never heard them.

I have also bought a number of downloads from HD tracks and Linn, but at times have regretted doing so since the source quality, especially of older recordings transposed to hi-def download were not worthy of the effort and should not have been selected.  HD tracks and others should allow users to comment on each particular discs performance and sound quality merits in the manner that other sites eg. Amazon do.

I have some free DSD downloads, from 2L and others, but have never heard those as I have yet to acquire anything that can play DSD.   Linn still make SACDs but their streamers don't and won't play DSD.  Linn claim to have listened to DSD and say that they think 24/192 is better.  Personally I am not happy to have my choice or freedom restricted in such a manner.

I have a Linn Sneaky which means I can avoid the pitfalls of USB, not least of which is a cable length limitation.  Sadly the mighty Mytek doesn't do ethernet, otherwise I would buy one.

michaelavorgna's picture

There's a company called OraStream that has developed a means to stream HD music over the internet and you can sign up for a free demo.

But one of the ongoing issues with the streaming model in general is profit (or lack thereof). Spotify has yet to make a profit, declaring significant losses year after year ($59M in 2011). The streaming model is also problematic from the musicians point of view - see this article for details but here's a quote:

"Since we own our own recordings, by my calculation it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one-- one-- LP sale. (On Spotify, one LP is equivalent to 47,680 plays.)"

Unfortunately, I do not see improved sound quality as offering a solution to this issue.

On DSD downloads, it's a very young market but I find the DSD releases from Channel Classics to be exceptional. The free 2L DSD downloads are sourced from DXD, i.e. they are derived from PCM masters.

On the Mytek, it has a Firewire input as well as asynchronous USB and S/PDIF and at present, I'm not aware of any DACs that offer Ethernet input. Once you do so, you have a Network Player or Streamer and a host of additional issues. And properly implemented asynchronous USB avoids the pitfalls of USB (see John Atkinson's measurements of the Halide DAC HD).

JadenKrosis's picture

FYI~ and just so you know the highest price I`ve seen for an entire audiophile album on HDTracks at 192khz/24bit is $19.98

Not saying they arent out there but thus far I havent seen any $50 albums.

labjr's picture

"FYI~ and just so you know the highest price I`ve seen for an entire audiophile album on HDTracks at 192khz/24bit is $19.98"

 

What's your idea of "Audiophile" ?  Dusty Springfield is $26.98 and most of the 24/192 stuff is $24.98.

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