The Virtues of Analog Audio

"There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it's all dark. The only thing that makes it look light is the sun."--from "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd

AR-schaubana6a.pngDespite my enthusiasm for digital media of all sorts, I still have great regard for an all-analog recording and playback chain, both vinyl and tape but also terrestrial FM radio. There's no doubt that all media limit or distort the musical source in the process of recording and reproduction in one way or another; and digital has come a very long way since the introduction of the Compact Disc in the early 1980's. My Audio Note CDT-Four transport and DAC 3.1x/II Balanced DAC sound much better in many regards with a well-recorded and mastered CD than my 1990-vintage Linn LP12 Lingo turntable did back in the day even with very good vinyl. Plus, high-resolution digital downloads have come a long way in the past ten years or so not to mention the relatively new emergence of full-CD-resolution streaming from, for example, TIDAL Hi-Fi with Roon and MQA through reference-level streaming DAC's like my own Ayre QX-5 Twenty, which I personally think sounds better than the dCS Rossini Player with its external wordclock largely because of the really exceptional analog sections that Ayre has designed and built.

AR-schaubana2a.jpgHaving said that, there's a seemingly intangible quality to the sound of all analog media that brings me closer to the emotional content of the music, all other things in the reproduction chain being equal. I have a semi-custom built Transrotor Rossini turntable on a custom designed and built stand with a Jelco tonearm and an Audio Note Io Gold phonograph cartridge going into the top-of-the-line Audio Note AN-S9-L step-up transformer with ultra-low capacitance Audio Note Pallas interconnects and a solid-core silver ground wire made by AudioQuest going into the all vacuum tube MM-level phono section of my Audio Note OTO Phono Signature SE integrated amplifier all using really exceptional Harmonic Technology Magic and Stealth Straight power cables, not to use mention my J-Corder Technics 1520 reel-to-reel tape deck and my fully-restored Nakamichi Dragon cassette deck. I don't have a Magnum Dynalab FM tuner anymore because there's too much intermodulation FM distortion where I live and too few radio stations that actually play music anymore.

My love of analog does not come from nostalgia or the subjective interpretation of tonal warmth. There's a quality of presence from all-analog media that I really don't hear from my best digital sources; although, things are getting better all of the time.

AR-Schaubana12a.jpgI also have to admit a preference for first vinyl pressings, even from Blue Note, over reissues from places like Music Matters and Analogue Productions, not because I have a collector's mentality for rare objects but because the remixing, while sometimes clearer, sounds less authentic to the performance for me in the sense that I have a better inkling of the rhythm and drive of the sound and even, perhaps, the emotions conveyed by the players when the recordings were first made.

Consider, as an example, my 1J/1J mono pressing of "Kind of Blue" compared to the many fine reissues, both analog and digital, that just don't make me feel as much like I'm in the studio with Miles Davis and John Coltrane as that early 1J/1J vinyl pressing does. The 1/2 track 15 ips reel-to-reel tapes of Hugh Masekela's "Hope" and Jacintha's "Autumn Leaves" sound much more involving than even the 45 RPM double LP's of either album or the SACD's when played on an Ayre DX-5 DSD universal disc player; and the cassette of Chris Isaak's "Forever Blue", particularly the track "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing", sounds much more genuinely suggestive and salacious, yet intriguing, than on any other version of that album that I know.

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Again, these conclusions do not come from romantic memories of the past as might be suggested from the sound of these analog sources but from direct observation in the here and now.

Vinyl records have very limited frequency and dynamic range and stereo vinyl records mix the bass into mono because of the limitations of the medium itself governing how they are cut and pressed, plus there's surface noise; although, that can be kept to a minimum through proper cleaning of the record and very careful setup of your turntable, tonearm, and cartridge. Reel-to-reel tapes can have deliberate phase shifts in the low frequencies to make the electromagnetic signal "fit" on the tape; and we all know the limitations of cassettes particularly when Dolby encoded despite the greater measured dynamic range that such noise-reduction techniques produce.

However, analog employs no lowpass, antialiasing, "brick wall" filtering of the high frequencies that results in smearing of information in the time domain; and, no matter how resolute in terms of bit depth and sampling rate ADC's employ, even those using MQA, the analog signal has to be reconstructed through interpolation or a mathematically equivalent form of filtering, a form of statistically well-estimated guessing or approximation that ultimately reduces the true fidelity or faithfulness of the signal compared to continuous all-analog media.

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All forms of media that currently exist distort the signal in some way. It's a matter of relative tradeoffs; and not all forms of distortion can be measured as accurately as we hear sound, particularly in the time domain. Even FFT or Fast Fourier Transform analysis works primarily in the frequency domain. Plus, no truly objective assessment or proof of what sounds most satisfying and involving to the listener exists. In fact, quick double-blind A/B comparisons are among the worst ways of making such assessments because it takes time to become immersed in or annoyed by the sound of any one source.

So, don't throw out the baby out with bathwater, don't be dogmatic, and, to quote George Michael, "Listen without prejudice".

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