Hi-Fi
October 28, 2014

Analogue vs digital (again) Pt I

Hi-res downloads and vinyl available in the Linn music store.

 

By Lam Seng Fatt

 

During the Vinyl Talk at Centre Circle in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, recently, two well-known Malaysian audiophiles Danon Han and Jo Ki said they could hear that the vinyl versions of Linn’s digital music sounded better even though the LPs were pressed from the same digital Studio Master file.

 

It was a ‘how can that be?’ moment for me and I had to put on my thinking cap and use whatever brain cells I have left to do some pondering on this mysterious phenomena which apparently has puzzled even Linn’s sound engineers.

 

Someone said it was because analogue is better than digital. Can that be true when the only analogue part is the playback system? The turntables used by Danon and Jo Ki are certainly top end (especially Danon’s TechDAS Air Force One and reference Vertere tonearm; Jo Ki is still using his Linn LP12, I believe).

 

If the entire process from recording of musicians/singers in the studio, mixing, editing and mastering and playback is in the analogue domain and if someone tells me the LP sounds better than the digital file obtained from the same analogue master source, then it would be easy for me to accept that statement.

 

However, in the case of Danon’s and Jo’s experience with Linn’s music, the entire process is digital and it is only at the end of that process that the digital Studio Master file is pressed into LPs. The musicians/singers in the studio were recorded with an Analogue-to- Digital Converter (ADC) which converts the analogue (i.e. natural) music/singing into 1s and 0s. The recorded files are mostly in 24-bit 88.2kHz sampling rate (or 96kHz or 176.4kHz or 192kHz) in PCM. I don’t think Linn records in DSD (please correct me if I am wrong).

 

The editing, mixing and EQ-ing are all done in the digital domain. The final version – the Studio Master – is, of course, digital. The digital Studio Master is then offered for paid download and a copy is then converted into LPs (an analogue format). Jo and Danon said the LP sounded better when played on their high-end turntables than the digital Studio Master streamed to their top-end (Digital to Analogue Converters) DACs.

 

Danon said the LP sounded better in every way from the timbres to the details to the ambience.

 

Okay, my overworked and ageing brain cells are asking some questions and at the same time answering them:

 

Q. If Danon and Jo heard more details, better timbres, more ambience, etc, from LP playback, did they hear spurious information? Did they hear things that were non-existent? Bear in mind the LP is pressed from the same digital Studio Master that in their view sounded worse.

 

A: Both of them are advanced, dedicated audiophiles and I know for sure they have hearing like a bat. So they are definitely not hearing imaginary things.

 

Q. Did their turntables add some kind of distortion or sound effects to the music that they heard?

 
A: Both are using high-quality turntables with good tonearms and cartridges. Danon’s turntable system is the best that money can buy. So I do not think their turntables are adding sound effects to the music.

 

Q. In that case, where did the extra musical details come from? I stress again – the LP is cut from the same digital Studio Master source.

 

A. This is the interesting answer that my ageing brain cells came up with – whatever ‘extra’ details they heard from vinyl must be present in the digital master to begin with otherwise the two would have heard non-existent musical information. The digital master sounded worse when played back via their top-end DACs simply because the (current) DAC technology could not reproduce all the musical information contained in the Studio Master digital file whereas the turntable system could pick up the extra bits and reproduced them. The extra bits of musical information were lost in the process of playing back the digital file i.e. the conversion from digital to analogue.

 

My tormented thinking led me to this conclusion – there is nothing wrong with digital music where the Analogue-to-Digital conversion process (i.e. the recording process) is concerned since it managed to capture the right timbres, ambience, details that the LP/turntable could reproduce. It is the DAC process that is the weak link in digital music.

 

Okay, I have said my piece even though my arguments may not be logical. Anyone who disagrees with my (faulty?) reasoning is very welcome to send in his/her rebuttal and counter argument. Let’s have some fun…

 

 

 

15 Comments - View all

chang 11:35pm on November 20, 2014

CYC, thanks. i only built fanless and noiseless pc, so i mostly use atoms and celerons. strictly ssd only for drive c and no worries about noise and latency.

15 CommentsX
chang 11:35pm on November 20, 2014

CYC,
thanks. i only built fanless and noiseless pc, so i mostly use atoms and celerons. strictly ssd only for drive c and no worries about noise and latency.

CYC 10:25am on November 19, 2014

Hi Chang,

I suggest you get a high end low noise psu, low noise and low latency c drive, a metal casing and etc. Just imagine what if, the high end or even the super high end audio equipments including cd players, transports, dacs, pre and power amps, power conditioners etc are using plastic casing.

Finally make sure you get a overclockable pc.

Regards

chang 2:47pm on November 14, 2014

CYC,
I agreed with you that every components of PC is important especially PSU. Even Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 sounds different to me.
I am planning to build another ‘ultimate PC transport’ in the near future, any suggestions on which components to chose.
As per latency, i used to encounter problems with low powered hardisk based PC. Now with SSD, its no longer an issue for me even with Atom cpu.

CYC 3:07pm on November 5, 2014

Hi Lam,

Further to my earlier comments, I wish to inform that for the past 5 years I have been experimenting different kinds application software, hardware and at the same time I have been downloading studio master file from Linn, Naim, 2L, HDtracks etc. So far, in my opinion, wave file sounded the best.

As at todate, Linn never offers wave file for downloading, however, only offers flac, alac and mp3 file, correctly me if I am wrong.

As Danon Han and Jo Ki never mentioned which format file they were using to compare against the LP, hence, I am of the opinion that it is unfair to compare flac, alac or mp3 file against the LP.

CYC 2:04pm on November 5, 2014

Hi Lam,

I have been playing pc home theatre and pc hi fi since end of 2009, since then, I have built up a few pcs for my systems.

In my opinion, every parts of the computer are important and these includes casing, hardware, application software etc.

Notebook or laptop are using plastic casing and this allows emf and rf to penetrate into the circuit board, hence, affecting the sound quality.

Different software and hardware have different level of latency. Higher latency will attract more noise when processing data especially with the presence of emf and rf in laptop or notebook.

Currently, I have built up a pc home theatre in my living hall and a pc hi fi in my master bedroom. As I am staying in PJ you guys are welcome to my house for auditions, thereafter, we can discuss and explore further.

Regards

chang 7:39pm on October 31, 2014

lam,
in this crazy hobby, i have built 10 yes ten PC in past 3 years and they each sound different. and i am still trying to figure out why?

sflam 11:33pm on October 30, 2014

hi chang,
you are right. the digital transport plays a big role in getting good sound quality. in fact, everything in the playback chain is important – the cables, the streamer, the dac, which connection you use….for e.g. if you use the bryston bdp2 and its matching bda2 dac, the best-sounding connection is via the aes-ebu. i think many bryston owners would agree with me that the bryston bdp2 sounds best via the aes-ebu connection with any dac. if you use a laptop to stream, even changing the usb cable makes a difference.
i am now using a battery-powered chord hugo headphone amp/dac/preamp. this uses fpga instead of an off-the-shelf dac chip and the sound quality is in my view getting much closer to the ideal of analogue sound. a review will be out soon.
in this crazy hobby, i learn new things every day and the more i know, the less i actually know…

tq
sflam

chang 7:43pm on October 30, 2014

lam,
if i playback using dell i3 notebook, i hear much less details, soundstage width and height and ambients compare to my custom built pc.
and i use the same player, wav file, usb cable and dac. thats why my opinion ‘digital transport’ is the weakest link and not the dac. i know the importance of good dac also.

sflam 6:13pm on October 30, 2014

hi chang,

i don’t know what digital streamer danon used, but i know jo ki has a bryston bdp-2.
actually i came to the conclusion that the digital-to-analogue conversion part is the weak link simply because i cannot figure out any other way to explain why jo ki and danon han heard better details and timbres from the LP than from the digital studio master that the LP was pressed from.

tq

sflam

chang 5:58pm on October 30, 2014

Lam, what digital transport they used? Macbook, Notebook or music server like Linn, Bryston BDP and Aurender.
My experience is more to the ‘digital transport’ where you can hear more details, vocals timbre and recording ambients.
Have you heard noiseless and fanless custom made PC with average Dac like BMC PureDAC? It may change your opinion DAC is the weak link.

crittertoo 1:59am on October 30, 2014

Vitus mp-d201 also gets OEM board from m2tech loh…..music taste is what u wanna hear. Ever been to Barbican where the LSO plays? The violins and percussionist are noisy and loud as hell when they are cresendo ing to the fff or even sfz , but when play back by audiophile system, those violins strings are damn smooth and laid back….are these TRUE representation on how LSO wants their music to be heard? There is no right or wrong, things that are super expensive somethings can be crap and things that are super cheap can sometimes be pretty good. Each to it’s own.

Eugene 1:40am on October 30, 2014

I agree that the type of DAC will have an impact on the sound but we must also not forget the PC or Music Server which we use as the “Transport” for the Digital File. Our Digital source is made up of Digital transport device (PC) plus DAC compared to a Turntable system where source is comprised of LP plus Turntable which is already Analog to begin with. For our PC there are many variables which can affect the sound such as type of Operating System and its Configuration, type of Music Playback Software and its Configuration as well as the kind of electronics inside the PC like Motherboard, Power Supply and type of Digital cables used etc. This is even before we consider the DAC ! So I think the problem with Digital Playback is that there are many more variables that can affect the sound compared to LP playback.

In order to bypass the effect of all of these variables consider this hypothetical situation – if we are able to connect directly to the Professional Digital Equipment at Linn’s pressing facility and feed the exact same analog signal output which was used to cut the LP into our own Hi-Fi System, would it then be possible to get the same quality of sound from the Digital file as playing the LP on a turntable ?

Adrian4454 12:53pm on October 29, 2014

My take and own opinion, by using the coaxial and optical digital output as an example.
I can hear more details and more articulate voices with the coaxial, but the optical has greater ambient and occasionally sound better because of musical note decay more naturally. The rise and flow of music just a bit more natural.

The Optical will be the Analogue LP player, the Coaxial will be the digital ends.

Absolute accuracy may not be the ultimate reproduction sound we are looking for after all.

sflam 6:12pm on October 29, 2014

hi james,

u may be right. pro components are very high quality and expensive. however, danon’s dac is a top-end vitus dac (very, very expensive).
nevertheless, i recall that when i visited pete teo in his studio, he played a ry cooder Buena Vista Social Club CD using his computer’s (i think it was a Mac) CD-rom drive (!) through his pro DAC (i don’t know the brand) and the active PMC studio monitors.
the music was very clear and detailed. when i went home, i played the same songs in hi-res HDtracks 24/96 version in my system and heard much less details.

tq
sflam

James 7:11am on October 29, 2014

The digital master would still need to be converted to analog right before pressing the LP. If your final hypothesis is true, this implies that the D/A conversion at Linn’s pressing facility is significantly better than anything home audiophiles have access to?