There’s no romance in singing about an iPod.

Jack White

This week, we are returning to our listening series with our Executive Director, Dr. Scott Garlock, as he shares some pros and cons about digital vs. analog.


Digital vs. Analog?

Format cannot cure a badly engineered or produced recording. I have bought plenty of brand spanking new recordings only to find that the people that recorded and produced my new purchase did a poor job. For our discussion, we’ll assume that all voices and instruments were recorded and produced to sound close to how they should sound. We’ll also assume that they were produced such that all parties involved in the recording are balanced reasonably well with one another. A vocalist’s album will likely have the voice a bit more front and center than the other participants, but that doesn’t mean that in solidly produced recordings that it does so at the expense of being able to hear the other players adequately.

As we’ve discussed, it’s very difficult to assign verbiage to music. And people have very different things that they want to hear when they listen. So, I’ve shared some commonly held positions below-they are not universally correct from recording to recording, nor are they always based in fact. A recorded piece of music in good condition, rendered by a fine piece of audio gear, is going to sound good, and it’s a matter of how you want to listen, what you want to hear, and what works for you and your budget.

The LP Revolution

Last year, for the first time since the establishment of the CD, LP’s outsold its digital sister. Streaming services are still the overwhelming winner in the purchasing of recordings with 85% of the market, but LP sales have grown every year for the last 15 years, and 2020 sales (27.5 million units sold) were up 46%(!) over the prior year.

LP’s are chic once again, especially with people younger than 35 and those older than 55. There is something truly gratifying about the LP experience – the owner is much more “hands on” in the process, and, moreover, the size and permanence of the LP vs. other mediums makes holding an LP jacket, reading the liner notes and viewing the LP art from across the room much more of a robust and tangible experience.

Another advantage that LP collectors of older music have is that there is so much recorded material prior to the mid 1980’s that never made it into a digital format. So, there’s a lot of great music that will not get heard in any other medium than the LP. The converse is also true, however, for music from around 1990-2016 – for many recording artists, the LP was a cute way to market their wares, and these were purchasable solely at in-person concerts or on artists’ websites. More and more, if a recording exists in some physical format, and is not simply streamable or downloadable, it will exist in both CD and LP format.

About those two formats…

Digital Pluses:

  • Physical copies seldom degrade. While an LP will lose fidelity over time (I bought 3 copies of Kind of Blue before getting it on CD), what you buy with a CD is what you’ll hear forever.
  • CD’s are fairly hardy. Even if dirty and scratched, a good CD player will read the bits accurately.
  • Comparatively easy storage.
  • Clarity – I vividly remember listening for the first time to the Bernstein/Israel Philharmonic recording of Stravinsky’s Symphony in III Movements. Bernstein conducts but also plays the piano part. There’s a spot in this recording where you hear Bernstein leap between the piano bench and podium. This was buried on my LP recording (or perhaps my LP gear).
  • Used CD’s are cheap, and new ones are generally cheaper than new vinyl.
  • Less distortion.

Digital Minuses:

  • Some CD’s, especially earlier ones, sound “digital” – harsh or bright compared with the cuddly midrange warmth of analog.
  • Cover art is too small to be loved, and there’s more labor involved in reading liner notes.
  • Digital noise – an artifact created from the nature of digital data that deals in absolutes (see below in analog pluses).

Analog Pluses:

  • More warmth, especially in the midrange – so vocalists, pianos, celli, tenor saxophones, trombones, and basses really shine in fine analog recordings. An analog recording possesses a continuous electronic sine wave, whereas a digital recording is interrupted while doing a square wave of 0’s and 1’s. It is said that this makes the sound warmer.
  • Depth of soundstage – the data on an analog recording is more dense with more material, even though there is potentially more bandwidth with a digital source.
  • Albums (see below).
  • Tactile experience.
  • Used LP’s range from very cheap to very expensive depending on the artist, the recording, and the condition. For example, Zappa’s worst album commands more on an LP than any record by The Police.
  • Easy to find gold – there are always people getting rid of record collections. If you can stomach buying in bulk with the understanding that there’s going to be some stinkers in the collection, you can really get a collection enhanced inexpensively.

Analog Minuses:

  • LP’s do wear out and get scratched or worn even with the best of care.
  • Dynamic range is not as large as is possible with digital recordings (and some would argue that this also contributes to the “warmth” described above).
  • Analog data degrades faster after transmitted.
  • Storage – one must own stock in IKEA if one has a large LP collection.
  • Greater distortion – some would argue this also creates the “warmth” of analog.

Currently, nearly all of my music purchases are vinyl, and this is not so much a choice I’m making because of a format preference. My CD player started to get super temperamental (it was 17 years old), and I replaced it recently with a new machine that has made listening to my CD stock magical once again. Instead, this is mostly a byproduct for me of wanting to have recordings from jazz, classical or rock music that I’ve coveted and never had the funds or memory to buy. Like many people, I spent a number of years with my LP’s boxed up, and while I’ve had my Pro-Ject for a few years now, a great deal of my LP’s were in storage. A COVID project involving finishing our basement has created a space where I can listen and not annoy my wife and cats, and, moreover, where I can have all of my LP’s displayed for easy retrieval.

What’s on YOUR shelf? 

Until next time, happy listening!

*The CJO is not endorsing any products or sites listed, nor is it receiving any compensation from the businesses listed above.