audio discussion Archives

The digital versus analog debate.

Posted on February 8, 2010 by Leave a comment

by: Robert Guenther, Ph.D., Clinical Professor of Psychology
Department of Clinical and Health Psychology

College of Public Health and Health Professions
University of Florida

The digital versus analog debate is a long-standing one that is not easily resolved for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the intensity of opinion on both sides. There are many articles and web sites devoted to this topic. I will mention only two of them here, and I will then give you my opinion. Ultimately, your opinion should be the most respected one in your experience with respect to this topic.

An excellent article on this topic, written at a basic introductory level, can be found at:

The article is excellent but it perhaps makes one mistake. The authors note that digital recordings, stored in digital formats are very good because they avoid the conversion of digital to analog anywhere in the process. This is, in fact, incorrect. No one can “hear” a digital recording. It must be decoded into an analog format before it can be sent to your speakers.

Everything you hear is analog. This is because the human ear is an analog sensory system. It is also true that the ear, an analog system, then encodes the information into a sort of digital signal – nerves communicate by either firing or not firing. Information is transferred within the nervous system by impulses within and among nerves. That information is stored by virtue of the strength of associations and rates of neuronal firing/inhibition of firing. Neuronal associations are probably closer to analog systems, determined by the number of inter-neuronal connections which may either augment or inhibit information processing and transfer. Thus, the nervous system is fundamentally a bio-digital-analog system. But hearing requires analog raw data for the ear to function.

The authors of this article invest a lot of energy in laying out the nature of the debate, but they give their opinion so quickly, you may miss it. They believe it’s a draw – good analog and digital systems are probably equivalent, in their opinion. That quick opinion seems a bit anti-climactic. I had to wonder if there isn’t a better opinion on this topic elsewhere. There are certainly many other articles on the web, and many are excellent. Two far more detailed expositions can be found in Wikipedia at:

and at:

These articles are lengthy and very technical. There is a fair amount of overlap, but they have a different focus. The first one is mostly about recording music, and the second has a focus on playing it. They suggest that the debate between which is better (analog or digital) ceases to be a meaningful debate when one considers all the variables involved. Excellent analog systems are as good as excellent digital systems, but the analog systems will probably be more expensive and require more maintenance. You may enjoy these articles if you have a strong technical background (I have a degree in electronics as well as psychology). After reading them, I felt that the debate is really a bit artificial. But it will probably continue for as long as there are people who are passionate about their music. And I, for one, believe music to be one of those things deserving of our passion.

As a clinical psychologist, I can tell you that most of human experience is fundamentally determined by one’s expectations. For this reason, scientists always default to double-blind experimental methodologies when studying things that involve human perception and expectations. In a double-blind study of sound quality, the subject listens to two sounds and rates them relative to each other. The person rating the sound – the judge – is not allowed to know which is from a digital source and which is from an analog source. The procedure is double-blinded when the experimenter who is flipping the switch from one source to the other also does not know which is which. This prevents subtle experimenter behaviors from communicating information that may bias the judge or rater. Psychology has a long and embarrassing history of conducting experiments that showed some amazing things, only to later find out that it was all due to the experimenter’s subtle cues guiding the subject’s experiences. The second Wikipedia article mentions several studies using double-blind methodology. Those studies did not show any difference in judgments between the two sources when both were high-end systems.

At this point, the technology has far exceeded the technologist. By that, I mean our equipment can now perform so well, the average person cannot hear the difference – high-end audio systems perform far better than the human ear.

If you expect one format to sound better, it will – to you. If you feel strongly that one format is superior to the other, that’s great, and you should go with your opinion. Your experience will definitely be consistent with that expectation. There is an indescribable profound satisfaction to be had from gingerly handling a treasured vinyl LP, placing it on a priceless turntable, carefully positioning the tone arm, and enjoying the music that it organically brings you. Perhaps this is similar to the joy that overwhelms a connoisseur from a fine rare vintage tea or wine that must be nurtured and presented in a precise ritual for full appreciation. Being a bit obsessive-compulsive, I get that.

For those without a strong opinion, perhaps you should consider using the format that is easiest to acquire, store, and use. That format is probably going to be the digital world of mp3, other digital compression formats, and CD formats.

As for the debate, perhaps it is going to be far less satisfying to argue with someone from the other camp than it will be to use that slice of time to enjoy your favorite music, in your preferred manner, on your favorite system. For many of us, that will be an old LP on a turntable through a priceless vintage tube amplifier.