The Digital/Analog Dialectic

garylkoh

WBF Technical Expert (Speakers & Audio Equipment)
#1
In the press, forums, and social situations we often hear the phrase "Spirited Debate" - by definition, full of energy, enthusiasm and determination to win an argument. We hear far less often, "Lively Discussion" - where the objective is to entertain, learn, find a middle ground, and possibly to discover something new.

The Digital/Analog Dialectic is designed as a discussion among people who wish to seek the truth - perhaps discovering the truth in both sides and even a middle ground. I hope that everyone posting will keep to this spirit - no arguments and especially no name calling. Everyone has an equally valid point of view and everyone has an equal opportunity to post their views.

I hope to start this with a public event - hosted by the Pacific Northwest Audio Society at their next meeting Feb 10th, but discussion can begin before the event, and can also help to shape the event. This event has been announced on this forum by the club already, but it bears repeating here for anyone interested in attending. I'll try to get everyone attending the meeting to post their impressions here, but even if you cannot attend the meeting, your point of view is valuable.

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Is Digital Ready for Prime Time?
The club has many members who are dedicated vinyl-philes, and as many members where the CD/Music Server is their primary source. There have been endless debates on digital vs analog - theory and specifications vs "just listen". This month's meeting is not a debate on analog vs digital, but an exploration and discussion on state of the art in analog and digital playback.

As a basis of discussion, we have attempted to put together a system that is equally optimized for analog and digital. We will be able to compare high-quality analog playback with a pass through an ADC and DAC loop. While this is certainly not exhaustive, it will give attending members food for thought..... and whether with the system assembled, members in the acoustic space of the club meeting can hear the difference between straight analog, and analog digitized and then converted back to analog.

The system will comprise the following:
Roksan Xerses 20+ record player
Roksan Artemiz arm
MicroMagic Virus cartridge (with Soundsmith ruby cantilever and optimized contour stylus)
Burmester Top Line Ph100 phono stage with built-in 24bit/192hz ADC
Weiss Minerva DAC
Genesis SMc-1 Preamp
Genesis GR360+ amplifier
Genesis 7.1f loudspeaker

Members are encouraged to bring their LPs to play.

Date/Time/Place:
Thursday, February 10th, 2011 at 7:30pm
Mercer Island Congregational Church
4545 Island Crest Way
Mercer Island, WA 98040
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The event will hopefully inspire lively discussion.

  1. Many of us prefer the warmth and naturalness of analog reproduction. Is this because of or despite the obvious distortions or an inaccuracy of the reproduction chain?
    1. What is it we prefer about analog? Can we describe it?
    2. What could contribute to these preferences?
    3. It is often said that we can measure the shortcomings of analog, but not the advantages. Can we possibly describe the measurements that might?
  2. Many of us prefer digital - for the clean and undistorted sound and the convenience. Is this because of or despite the perfect specifications?
    1. What is it that we prefer about digital? Can we describe it?
    2. What could contribute to these preferences?
    3. It is often said that we can measure the advantages of digital, but not the shortcomings. Can we possibly describe the measurements that might?
  3. Can we hear the introduction of a real-time analog-to-digital-to-analog link in the reproduction chain?
    1. If we cannot, then does our preference for analog or digital change?
    2. Is the preference psychological?
    3. If we can hear the difference, can we describe the difference?
    4. What about after the converted digital is stored to a music server and played back? It there still (no) difference? Can we describe the difference?
  4. If there are distortions in analog, do those distortions help "digest" the sound so that it sounds "more natural" after the reproduction chain, or does the distortion mask other failures in the reproduction chain, or is this nothing more than human preference?

We are not looking for a winner and a loser. We are looking for a discussion where both sides may discover things that might improve their enjoyment of music in their preferred reproduction chain.
 

mep

Member Sponsor & WBF Founding Member
Apr 21, 2010
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#2
Gary-I would love to be there for the demonstration. I think it will be very interesting. My guess is that people will hear a difference between analog straight-up vs. analog run through an AD/DA converter but I don't know what this will prove even if 100% of the attendees hear the difference other than people hear a difference. Since nothing is perfect, there has to be residual effects from running the analog through two sets of conversions which should give the straight-up analog an advantage. So it seems that really you are testing for the difference the digital conversion makes rather than comparing pure analog to pure digital. There are several recordings available where there exists an analog master and digital master recorded at the same time. KOJ comes quickly to mind. I think it would be more interesting to have a controlled playback of those two mediums to see if there was a clear preference for what people liked and why they made their choice.

As for me, I'm definitely an analog person first and most people here know that by now. However, I do maintain the ability to play any type of digital files up to 24bit/192kHz in order to keep an eye on my digital brethren lest they come up with something that sounds good when I'm not looking. The question of "what is it we prefer about analog? Can we describe it?" are good questions. I guess the simple answer for me is that analog sounds more real to me. I am more easily fooled by the sound of analog that maybe, just maybe there are real performers playing real instruments in front of me. The illusion seems more real to me with analog than digital. As to what contributes to these preferences, I would say that somehow analog captures music in such a way that it preserves more of the cues of the actual event that help fool us into believing the illusion we are hearing. When I listen to digital, I always feel that I'm listening to a reproduction of music first, and music comes second. With analog, I always feel that I’m listening to music first, and reproduction comes second. I hope that makes sense. As to possible methods of measuring those differences-do we have a way of measuring the density of sound? Can a spectrum analyzer do this for us? I (rightly or wrongly) feel that analog is capturing a density of sound that eludes digital to some degree. And by density I mean that it captures more information than digital. The ambience of the room, all of the hall or recording studio sounds that are taking place, the air coming off or from the instruments, all of the sounds coming from a drum kit, etc. Would we see any differences if we looked at spectrum plots from an analog master and a digital master playing back the same music?

In closing, I want to say that I don't subscribe to the theory that analog has so many distortions that when you add them all up, it makes analog sound better than what it would really sound like if we could just strip away all of those distortions. I'm not going to be convinced that somehow all distortions in analog are complimentary and add up to one big ball of ear-pleasing sound. I hope that people mind your words and keep a civil tone to what they say. I will do my best to behave.
 

garylkoh

WBF Technical Expert (Speakers & Audio Equipment)
#3
Thanks, mep for sticking with the spirit of this discussion. I would love to see you at the demo.

I do agree with you that an even more interesting demo would be a controlled playback of recordings where both an analog master and a digital master were recorded at the same time. I just don't have enough material to make it relevant. I do have, though, several recordings where I have both digital and vinyl, but in all of my recordings, the differences are so great that I would think that 100% of the members of the club would instantly tell the difference - although preferences being what they are, there will still definitely be divergence in preference.

I, too, have used "density" to describe the "analog sound" too, but I have still not figured how to measure it. I'm hoping that through discussion, we can figure it out!!
 
Jul 1, 2010
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#4
The comparison that would really be interesting would be a blind A/B (it doesn't need X or to be statistically significant to be interesting) of some really well recorded vinyl, and the same vinyl, on the same system, digitized.

Tim
 

FrantzM

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Apr 20, 2010
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#5
The comparison that would really be interesting would be a blind A/B (it doesn't need X or to be statistically significant to be interesting) of some really well recorded vinyl, and the same vinyl, on the same system, digitized.

Tim
+1

I also hope that the mere mention of "blind" is not construed as an uncivil post ... This to me is the crux of the matter .. How people would react to a "digitized" vinyl with knowledge removed?

I won't be able to attend ... I am interested in the results however
 

mep

Member Sponsor & WBF Founding Member
Apr 21, 2010
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#6
And the blind test would possibly prove that people couldn’t tell the difference between the two? Me thinks they are going to sound different Tim, but I’m sure Gary is going to report back the results and I look forward to reading about what happened.
I think that everything has a sonic thumbprint; some are small and some are large. Running the LP through 2 stages of conversion should leave some tell-tale clues behind. Maybe it will be a real close horse race. We will find out. I know that some people will discount the findings because the test won’t be done in some sort of blind fashion unless the results suit their bias.
Rather than this being a digital vs. analog shoot-out, this is really a test to see if there is any audible degradation caused by the two stages of conversion. There is not going to be a comparison of a pure digital source against a pure analog source.
 

garylkoh

WBF Technical Expert (Speakers & Audio Equipment)
#7
No, "blind" does not construe to me as an uncivil post. The test will be done as "blind" as we can achieve. The conversion will be level matched to as close as possible. The Weiss Minerva was chosen because it has an output level that can be set to 0.5dB. The PNWAS is also very familiar with blind tests - we carry out a DIY loudspeaker contest every 2 years, and judging in that contest is done blind. One of our members - Terry - will keep me honest.

This is not going to be a digital vs analog shoot-out. Rather, if we can build a system that is equally optimized for digital and analog playback (and crucially not have do dumb down one or the other to match!!) then we can have a level playing field to do an actual digital vs analog shoot-out. Although..... IMHO then the winner will depend on the actual pressing and digital conversion.
 

garylkoh

WBF Technical Expert (Speakers & Audio Equipment)
#8
The comparison that would really be interesting would be a blind A/B (it doesn't need X or to be statistically significant to be interesting) of some really well recorded vinyl, and the same vinyl, on the same system, digitized.

Tim
I'll do my best to get the audience to close their eyes and trust their ears! I've picked the following, but still open to suggestions -

) Female voice: Dusty Springfield on Casino Royale (45rpm clear vinyl Clarity Recordings)
2) Male voice: Johnny Adams sings Doc Pomus (my lowest serial number pressing - nr. 22)
3) Blues: Joe Cocker Sheffield Steel (white label radio station promo)
4) Rock: Deep Purple The Mark 2 Purple Singles (white label radio station promo on clear purple vinyl)
5) Jazz: Oscar Peterson Nigerian Marketplace (clear red vinyl)
6) Big Band: Les Brown and his Band of Renown (Direct to disc)
7) Piano: Nojima Plays Liszt (Reference Recordings)
8) Big classical: Faust Ballet Music, Royal Opera House Orchestra (LSC 2449 RCA Victor)
 

Ron Party

WBF Founding Member
Apr 30, 2010
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#9
I wish you and the participants a great time in this endeavor, Gary. As you well know, these events can be tiresome. If I understand correctly the nature of the test (and that is a big assumption on my part), there is no winner per se, except in the more general sense that everyone who participates is a winner for having personally participated and therefore gained from the participation in such a comparison or, as you called it, "food for thought". Well, I take that back in part, there may be a winner in the sense of what the specific participants prefer.

A couple of questions (or additional food for thought). Are you planning on having more than 1 participant in the room? Will any of the participants be what we usually refer to as trained listeners? What are you going to use to control for speed and pitch deviation?
 

garylkoh

WBF Technical Expert (Speakers & Audio Equipment)
#10
Ron, when I told the club that I would do it, I didn't think that it would be this hard work! But you are right that everyone who participates is a winner, and should gain something from the participation. We will have the whole club in the room, as many seats as would be necessary, and I know that the club members will be fair and swap seats throughout the session. I think that there will be a number of "trained listeners" - I hope that MikeL will have the time to come.

Because this is going to be a real-time digital pass through, I don't have to match speed, pitch between an analog and a digital source. However, the turntable has been properly set up (well, as well as the designer of the turntable was able to).
 

fas42

Addicted To Best
Jan 8, 2011
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#12
Rather than this being a digital vs. analog shoot-out, this is really a test to see if there is any audible degradation caused by the two stages of conversion.
I agree entirely with this, and I, for one, will be fascinated to see the results here.

Gary, the fact you have included such an experiment implies to me that you already have a view on this. Would that be the case, or would that be giving too much away? :):)

Congratulations on thinking up such a comprehensive test ...

Frank
 
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garylkoh

WBF Technical Expert (Speakers & Audio Equipment)
#13
I agree entirely with this, and I, for one, will be fascinated to see the results here.

Gary, the fact you have included such an experiment implies to me that you already have a view on this. Would that be the case, or would that be giving too much away? :):)

Frank
I have a very strong view that the system should get out of the way of the music and let everything through - analog or digital. If I put two more stages into the chain, they will be as transparent as I can make it.

What ever the outcome, it will be very interesting.
 
May 30, 2010
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#15
As a basis of discussion, we have attempted to put together a system that is equally optimized for analog and digital. We will be able to compare high-quality analog playback with a pass through an ADC and DAC loop. While this is certainly not exhaustive, it will give attending members food for thought..... and whether with the system assembled, members in the acoustic space of the club meeting can hear the difference between straight analog, and analog digitized and then converted back to analog.
Gary,
I would love to be present, however too many miles separate us ...

As I have expressed before, I think it is impossible to put together a system that is equally optimized for analog and digital. We compromise something when we want to have both, and most of the time the preference will be due to the system, not only the media. However, as your music choices cover a wide spectrum it would be very interesting to evaluate the preferences versus recordings.

BTW, the ADC- DAC tests will be of great value especially if the preference is for the analog.
 

garylkoh

WBF Technical Expert (Speakers & Audio Equipment)
#16
Gary, do you foresee any issue with the needle drop?
Not sure I understand you.

My preamp has two balanced inputs. I have determined that they sound identical. I have two identical balanced interconnects. The analog output of the phono stage will be connected to one input, and the DAC will be connected to another input. The digital output of the phono stage will be connected to the DAC. The DAC will be level matched with the phono stage.

With every new album, we will start with one input or the other. The operator (me) will be the only one who knows which input we start with. You will hear the needle drop on both analog and digital. We will flip between the two inputs, and I'll have the audience discuss any difference (if any).

I don't know yet what the outcome will be. Since the phono stage can output 24bit in 44.1kHz, 96kHz and 192kHz, I suspect that with certain kinds of music, we might be able to hear some difference.
 
Jul 1, 2010
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#18
And the blind test would possibly prove that people couldn’t tell the difference between the two?
Nah. You'd need a very carefully set up test and a lot of trials to prove anything Mep, but I still think level-matched blind listening yields more interesting results than a couple of chaps like you and I watching a turntable spin and deciding that I like digital better and you like vinyl. That wouldn't even be surprising, much less interesting. :) But if I liked the original vinyl better, or you couldn't reliably tell which was which...that would be interesting.

Tim
 

Gregadd

WBF Founding Member
Apr 20, 2010
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#19
I'm definitely for level matching.
 
Jul 1, 2010
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#20
Gary, are you planning on comparing the vinyl to needledrop digital at different sampling rates?

Tim
 

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