November 03, 2014
No, analog music playback technology isn't "better" than digital. Dylan Matthews points out in Vox that the "warmness" of vinyl is a byproduct of the noise, bandwidth limitations, and mechanical dampening that playing a record involves.
A record needle is shaken back and forth many thousands of times a second to produce a piezoelectric or electromagnetic signal (it's a little electrical generator). Without artificial filtering known as "RIAA equalization," the needle would jump all over the record.
Add to that the noise produced by the motor and bearings spinning the record. "Vinyl" reproduces music by dragging a needle down a groove of serrated plastic. Okay, not fingernails across a blackboard but the same basic concept. It's amazing that it works as well as it does.
The same audio illusion is promulgated by vacuum tube amplifier buffs. The "warmness" of a vacuum tube circuit is a byproduct of the electrical noise (hum) and dampening that are an inevitably byproduct of the electronics and can never be eliminated.
Even with expensively-filtered filament current, you can never get rid of the thermal noise. Isolating the plate voltage (to keep the listener from being electrocuted) requires big transformers that also effectively filter out any high-frequency overtones.
I'm totally down with the assertion that it makes for a great sound, but there's nothing "natural" about it. (The same goes for "organic" food.) As Matthews puts it, "[Vinyl and digital] sound different, and that's exactly the point."
Christopher Montgomery explores in more rigorous scientific terms what Matthews is saying (and shows why Matthews had to correct his article to state that digital recordings do, in fact, replicate the whole audio wave). "Better" digital quality often isn't:
Neither audio transducers nor power amplifiers are free of distortion, and distortion tends to increase rapidly at the lowest and highest frequencies. If the same transducer reproduces ultrasonics along with audible content, any nonlinearity will shift some of the ultrasonic content down into the audible range as an uncontrolled spray of intermodulation distortion products covering the entire audible spectrum.
The quality of digital converters does make a difference, and have improved dramatically in the past decade. But just as a professional can take a good picture with a cheap camera and high-end equipment won't help a talentless amateur, the human element matters a lot.
The human element is really what this whole debate comes down to. Stuart Andrews pops a hole in the balloon of our sunk cost-inflated egos. At the end of the day, what investing the big bucks in high-quality MP3 players and headphones can really do is
give you more convincing arguments as to why one version sounded better than the other. In effect, they had better tools with which to convince themselves that their subjective impressions were correct, even when those impressions were entirely misleading.
Convince people to pay more for an object with the same performance specs and they'll value it more because of the sunk costs, the replacement costs, the invested self-image, and the good opinion of their fellow devotees. This is otherwise known as Apple's business plan.
And, yes, it's also true that the price/quality curve is generally positive. Though when it comes to modern electronics, the curve flattens out much closer to the low end than to the high end. Which is why you can get a decent LCD HDTV for $120.