Analog vs. Digital Definitively Answered, Once and For All!
by, 01-11-2016 at 08:46 PM (651 Views)
OK, maybe not, but hear me out. I think I found the break-even point between Digital and Analog in my system, and I think it's an interesting data point for some who, like me, have spent years and years and years and countless 10s of $1000s wondering how good my digital system sounds in the grand "scheme," and how much better can it sound, and at what cost? And when the F are people going to stop suggesting I should try vinyl?
DIGITAL OR DIE
For the record (no pun intended), I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Digital man. I've only owned one vinyl album in my whole life--Thriller, yep--MJ. Bought it when it came out around Christmas in 1982, when I was in fifth grade. I bought it at Meier in Newark, Ohio while off from school on the holiday break. I played it on a Sears All-in-One stereo my parents bought me that same Christmas. Up to that point it had been radio and homemade mix-tapes of 80s goodies, taped off of the radio, or listening with my parents to their Neil Diamond on their console downstairs. Occasionally I would steal some 45s I liked from my parents' console and would play them up on the stereo in my room, but there weren't many I liked.
I quickly learned that records were a pain in the ass, especially when you were 11. They sounded like crap, too. Sears couldn't even make them sound good. Cassette tape is where it was at, I figured out. Sony Walkman to the scene, and my vinyl collection was one and done. My next two "albums" were Duran Duran's Seven and Ragged Tiger and Billy Idol's Rebel Yell--both released a whole year after Thriller--and I bought both of them on cassette tape. Somehow I lived with Thriller for an entire year with no other albums. I don't think I go a week like that now...a whole year with one album!
Some years of cassette buying went by, and in the summer of 1987, my younger brother shocked me by buying a CD player. It must have been a Sony D-5 or something close, that had been out for a couple of years and had come down in price. I can remember being surprised that he spent so much money on it...I think it was like $100, which to a fifth grader and a seventh grader, was a ton of cash where we lived. We already had Sony Walkmans--why did he need a CD? He told me CDs were supposed to sound better than cassette tapes, and WAY better than vinyl. He was like "it's digital." That made all the sense in the world to me--it must sound better. CDs had been out for several years, but we didn't own any, or know anyone who did. And as if the CD player wasn't cool enough, he brought home an album that his since become my all-time-favorite. The Joshua Tree.
We RCA-connected his portable CD player to my Sears All-in-One. Joshua Tree blew my mind. It blew my mind on CD. By the transitive property, CDs blew my mind.
I CAN AFFORD NICE STUFF FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE
Fast forward nearly 20 years to about 2006. I bought some mid-fi stereo equipment. NAD, Adcom, Krell, NHT speakers. I started to run a "CD" Digital rig with no CD player, and process my MP3s with Burwen Bobcat software. Well, I've since had to rip my CDs a second time--all of them--because I first ripped them compressed before I knew any better. Actually, I still have some of those Bobcat MP3s sprinkled throughout my music servers, and they don't actually sound that bad. But 10 years later, with vastly better 2 channel gear, like many of you, I would never go back to spinning discs--of any size or format. To date I have over 1,600 cd albums ripped. Many of the CDs I've had since not long after that fateful day in 1987 when I fell in love with U2. And CDs for that matter.
Sometime this year, I made it. My system finally sounded as good as I wanted it to. All digital. All the time. And it sounds phenomenal. Years and years and years of trading out speakers, DACs, amps, speaker cables, interconnects, power cords. And that f'#$@ing computer. All of them. Apple wasted about 5 years of my digital listening--don't get me started. I couldn't bring myself to go Windows or Linux native. Apple wouldn't build an expensive computer--in many different shapes and sizes--that wouldn't sound awesome through a nice DAC. Would they? Turns out, yes. But that's another rant for a different day.
Then I found the Aurender. So much better than all 6 MACs I've tried over the years. Then I added the Schiit Yggy DAC. Then I went back to my PrimaLuna, and it sounded great with my Zu speakers. Then I bought new Zu speakers, and a new PrimaLuna HP with upgraded KT-120s (yes, I hear the 150s are even better). Then I sat back, listened to the clarity, the soundstage, the cymbals, the guitars, the banjos, the stand-up basses, and I was finally happy. FINALLY. Super super musical with a sound that was as good as I wanted. Any my analog friends come over and reluctantly admit "that sounds like analog--doesn't sound like digital at all."
Well we all know it wouldn't last, or you wouldn't be on this site.
THE DARK SIDE CALLS
A day before I took my kids to see the new Star Wars, I stopped by a local stereo store (brick and morter!) that is literally 2 minutes from my work, and carries many of the brands I love, and many I already own. How in the hell did I not know this was here?
Super happy with my digital setup, a ton of turntables caught my eye. They were everywhere. And nice ones. Since this is a Digital site, I'll skip to the punchline. You know what happened. That was 3 weeks ago. I'm obsessive. I own 107 vinyl albums so far. That includes Thriller, which I found in my parents' basement.
SO YOU'VE GOT VINYL NOW...SO WHAT'S BETTER?
With this equipment, and CD-quality rips, the winner is...they sound nearly identical. But right now, tonight only. Not with yesterday's equipment (iFi phono stage)...digital was better. Not with what I'm going to have in a week with a better TT, cart, tonearm, and likely a new phono stage...I suspect analog will sound better. RIGHT NOW. THE SAME. WITH THE LONER turntable and phono stage, albeit very nice ones.
I did my comparison, unscientifically, using a cd rip of the Joshua Tree, and a used vinyl version which I cleaned like no one's business. I used some other album combos which I had as well. Ironically, while I found my original Thriller album, I don't own it on CD.
I a/b tested with two inputs on the PrimaLuna. They were eerily close--and many times I forgot which one I was listening to. And both sounded phenomenal.
So here is the perfect 1:1 matchup:
Digital--Aurender N100 and Schiit Iggy--$2500 + $2300=$4800 for a killer digital front-end.
Analog--VPI HW19 mk 4, Grace RS-9E MM cart (70s, but retipped?), Audio Research PH3SE phono stage with Bugle Boy Amperex NOS tubes--$1500 used TT + $500 used cart + $1300 used phono + $100 tubes = $3400 for a pretty killer analog rig, albeit 15 years or more old.
WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU JUST PROVED?
I'm not sure, except that if someone tells you a $400 turntable with a $100 MM cartridge and a cheap phono stage can beat an Aurender/Schiit Iggy digital combo, take the bet. I bet it can't in anyone's system. That $4800 is the best you will spend in a long, long, long time. It will take a $20K digital combo to better it by much at all.
However, if someone has a decent turntable (with clean power), isolated from vibrations, with a good cartridge and a good, tubed phono stage...they might give your killer digital front-end a run for the money.
My new VPI Signature table with speed control, a 3d-printed arm, a Lyra Kleos MC cart, feeding this same Audio Research PH3SE, should beat my digital front-end. But it will also cost almost $10K--2x what my digital front-end costs. Will it beat it by a lot? I'll report back in a couple weeks when it arrives and burns in for a bit. As much as I love my digital rig, my money is on the new turntable combo winning by some amount.
I'm going to try to buy a hi-res download of Thriller for that comparison.