Analog Sounds Better Than Digital - Listening to music on vinyl is a superior option to digital playback

Analog Sounds Better Than Digital – Listening to music on vinyl is a superior option to digital playback

I just spent an hour sitting with a client in one of our listening rooms, demoing the Marantz TT-15S1 acrylic turntable. With virtually every drop of the stylus, he would turn to me and exclaim, “How does this sound so much better than the CD version of the same album? It doesn’t make sense. Isn’t digital better?”

The conversation that ensued was thoroughly enjoyable, insightful and it inspired this blog post…

Ever since October 1, 1982 – the day Billy Joel’s ‘52nd Street’ was played on a Sony CDP-101 for the first time, audiophiles and the manufacturers who serve them have been clamoring for better sounding ways to reproduce music in the digital domain. Ironically, this pertinacious pursuit of higher resolution digital audio playback is focused primarily on one goal. Namely, the discovery of a perfectly “analog sounding” means of digital reproduction.

What do I mean by that?  Simply this – music is comprised of complex waveforms – not ones and zeros…

[Side bar: my good friend and Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro has always theorized that everything in the known universe is comprised of complex waveforms – which is why music is such a powerful and emotive form of communication.]

…How do you piece together a series of 10100110100 and end up with Joe Pass playing a B♭ at the first fret on the fifth string of a 1960 Gibson ES-175 with dual PAF pick-ups? You can’t. Or at least you shouldn’t be able to, with any reasonable expectation of a producing a realistic musical outcome. 

However, go down to your local record shop (I’ll pretend that every town still has a local record shop, with some hipster named Doug sitting behind the counter sipping his fourth coffee of the day, having just smoked a Camel filterless cigarette in the alley out back) and pick up a copy of Joe Pass ‘Virtuoso.’ Dropping the stylus on the sixth track “Cherokee” will reward you with that very experience – namely Joe Pass playing a B♭ at the first fret on the fifth string of a 1960 Gibson ES-175 with dual PAF pick-ups. This is because that flat piece of circular vinyl has a groove cut into it – a groove that is a physical representation of the complex waveforms captured August 28, 1973, at MGM Recording Studios in Los Angeles. No error correction or adaptive digital audio interpolation is required to reproduce the music. The music itself is etched into the disc. As Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell taught us in 1968, “ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”

I discovered this reality for myself many moons ago, in the basement of my childhood home. I found that I could listen to my father’s “blue” records like George Carlin’s “Class Clown” and Redd Foxx’s “You Gotta Wash Your Ass” without turning on my stereo. In the clandestine confines of my playroom, I would drop the stylus into the groove and sit with my ear hovering just above the surface of the spinning LP. What resulted was a feeling akin to pressing my ear against a closed door, so I could listen to my great-grandfather’s dirty jokes at Thanksgiving. It was a feeling no other recorded format (other than perhaps a wax cylinder) could offer.

As I posited in an earlier blog post, there has been a revival of all things authentic – artisan pickles, locally butchered meats and the like. Analog music reproduction has also played its part in this renaissance. Although this is partly due to the visceral, hands-on aspect of enjoying vinyl, I would argue that it has far more to do with the fact that analog music simply sounds better. There is an unmistakable authenticity about it. The stereo image, sense of space and audible staging produced by listening to music on an LP has a realism that is unmatched in the digital domain. In addition, the sweet spot in an analog stereo image feels larger and more pronounced. Instruments (especially reeds, brass and strings) breathe with life and appear to float in front of the listener.  The title track from John Coltrane’s apocryphal album “Blue Trane” serves as a perfect example of this phenomenon.

As we dug into “Stars Fell on Alabama” from the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong LP, my client and I shifted our discussion to the background noise of the recording and the audible imperfections of the medium itself. I’ve always felt that the inherent noise that accompanies vinyl playback only adds to the listening experience. I liken it to the clinking of ice-laden glasses at a jazz club, the mosquito-like hum of a tube guitar amp or the undertones of shifting patrons and rustling playbills at any given symphonic performance. Even when listening to the 1934 recording of Duke Ellington’s “Cocktails for Two,” after the first twenty seconds or so, your brain filters out the hiss, leaving only the brilliance of the composition and the musicians who brought it to life.

My client purchased the Marantz TT-15S1 (which we set up for him while he waited), picked up some of the choice LP titles we are now carrying and left the store with a huge smile on his face. I got to spend an hour listening to great tunes. Everyone walked away a winner. If you’re in the area and have some time to kill, stop in and spin some vinyl with us. We have a few turntables on display and will continue to add to to our demo arsenal in the coming days. We’ll keep the phono preamp warmed up for you.