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.