Digital vs Analog Audio: Which Sounds Better?

A picture of a Macbook Pro and a sound system: Digital vs Analog Audio
Photo by Little Visuals from Pexels

People usually have different tastes in different things, and it’s no different with music. In the music world, there are three types of people. The first group is those who believe analog systems are the only way to make good music. In most cases, you find audiophiles in this category. Also called music “purists,” this set of people believe that analog systems produce pure and unadulterated sounds.  The second category is those who believe in variety. That is, they love to listen to the transformation of music that only electronic equipment can produce. Then, of course, there is the final group that just enjoy their music without giving a care in the world what goes into it.  While analog and digital sounds have become essential parts of high-end music in today’s music industry, digital vs analog audio continues to trend. In the real sense, both are important as they come with their particular advantages and drawbacks. 

In this article, we will explore:

  • Digital VS Analog audio: What’s the difference?
  • Which one sounds better?

Digital VS Analog audio: What’s the difference?

Of fact, the significant difference between these two is the way they store audio information. What we call sound is a type of wave that vibrates through a medium. To store analog sound, one needs to create a series of magnetic charges along with a reel of magnetic tape. However, digital audio is stored on computer drives as a series of numeric values. 

Beyond the storage, there are many other differences, and it is in these differences, you will find which one is better than the other. Whether you are producing your music, recording your podcast, or are into sound editing or any other form of audio production, understanding the difference between analog and digital audio will help you.  As you read on, you will come to learn many of them. More importantly, we will show you the pros and cons that come with using either of these technologies for sound applications. 

Before we pick the best, we want you to understand the differences between the two audio types. So, the following are some of the most significant differences between the two.

The recording methods

The best way to understand the difference between these two audio types is to look at them as steps instead of seeing them as two different methods. 

Analog recording has been here for a while, and it is one of the earliest technologies for recording sound. The process of analog sound recording involves using a microphone to collect original sounds. The sounds are then transformed into analog electrical signals that are imprinted directly onto master tapes. The master tapes at the time could be large reels or cassettes. Imprinting on master tapes could either be by using magnetization or with vinyl records that have spiral grooves.

Digital recording came later on with the invention of computers and modern technology. Like analog systems, a digital system first receives sounds from a microphone and converts them to electric analog signals. However, it further converts the analog signals received into digital signals, which are like numbers. These numbers or codes are then shared with digital devices like your computer or mp3 player so they can read the sounds and reproduce them. 

Digital audio makes it easier to store and carry music around. It also allows the ease of sharing music as people can copy their songs into drives, discs, or even upload them for everyone to download and enjoy.    

Signal To Noise Ratio (SNR)

If you are a fan of good music, you must have heard or seen the term SNR while shopping for audio equipment. Well, if you haven’t, it means a signal-to-noise ratio. The term describes the amount of noise the recorded audio signal will release to your speakers. It gives you the ratio of “music” to “unintentional noise” present in the recording.    

Unlike regular ratios, SNR is usually written in decibels (dB) and not with colons. So if you buy an audio gear with an SNR of 100dB, it simply means its audio signal (music) is 100 dB higher than the noise level. Usually, the higher the value of the SNR, the lesser the noise and the better the music.

Digital recordings usually have greater SNR ratios than analog recordings. This is particularly true, especially for those that have higher sampling rates. The sampling rate refers to the number of milliseconds a digital snapshot takes a sound. The lower or “longer” the sampling rate, the more opportunities for the recording to gather unwanted noises. Digital sound waves look like stairs instead of smooth curves, and they only have digital noise in them. Analog sound recordings have smoother curves that do not come with digital noise. But then, recording analog sounds into tapes and vinyl can create cracks and pop noises at intervals that generate more noise. 

Loss of quality 

Unless you delete or manipulate an audio file on your computer, phone, or another device, the chances that they lose quality are very slim. It is almost impossible for the sounds to get lost while you have them on your device. This might be one of the most significant advantages digital audio has over the analog type. With time, analog audio tends to lose quality when you don’t store it properly. Also, while you can copy and share digital audio files with anyone, you need to be careful with analog audio. For instance, vinyl records can break, tapes as well can be damaged, and so on. More so, copying analog audio over and over again might reduce its quality.  

Audio Bandwidth

You can reproduce both analog and digitally recorded signals at different resolutions for any sound system. However, the resulting sound quality will likely not be the same. This is because the resulting sound quality largely depends on the bandwidth of the initial signal. 

The bandwidth of audio files is another critical rating. It’s just like with resolution in pictures. If you take a picture with low resolution, for instance, you can never have a high-quality image with fine details. Similarly, audio files with higher bandwidths from the original sound have better audio quality (also called fidelity).  

When it comes to bandwidths, analog audio recording is far better than digital audio. Analog recordings usually have unlimited bandwidths. That means you can increase the resolution of the sound without reducing the audio quality. Digital recording, however, involves giving audio recordings a particular bandwidth or limiting the bandwidth. 

Increasing audio potential is very important for people who would like to play high-quality audio on reproduction speakers. For such people, analog recording is usually the option to use.  

Latency

Digital sounds are processed at high speed; however, the speed of processing is still slow compared with electricity moving through a wire. This is a negative characteristic that tends to add latency to digital audio signals. 

Latency is a term that describes the delay of audio signals, usually as a result of processing. This is one of the advantages that analog systems have over digital sounds. Unlike analog signals, digital signals need to undergo a processing period before they can be stored digitally. This process usually adds latency to the signal chain. 

The big problem of latency is that it comes with a risk of destructive phase interference. For example, if an audio signal takes two paths, each adds latency to the signal differently. The result will be a signal out of phase that might cause comb filtering or echoes. 

Another big issue with latency is that it creates an unnatural monitoring experience for audio recordings. With delayed signals, a singer or speaker might get confused as they monitor themselves through headphones. This is why it is better to monitor audio signals directly with analog signal chains than with digitals signal chains if the latency in the digital system is too much to bear. However, advancement in audio technology today continues to reduce the effects of latency in digital systems. 

Versatility  

One of the most significant advantages of using any digital media, not just digital audio today, is versatility. You can only play analog audio files on unique systems that are built for them. For instance, to play an audio file on cassette, you need a tape deck. Similarly, if you need to play music recorded on vinyl, you will need a phonograph. That means you can only enjoy analog music only when your phonograph or tape deck is with you. 

However, digital music does not come with such limitations. You can play and store your digital files in different ways. In the past, we had compact disks and DVDs that had dedicated players for them. However, things have changed. People can now store their digital music on almost all devices from their phones to their computers, portable mp3 players, iPod, iPad, and so on. Thanks to the growth of the internet, people can even access digital audio on the internet and download it to their devices. 

This part is why digital music is increasing today and analog recordings in recent years have reduced in popularity. However, there is still a huge market for vintage vinyl records and tapes. Most of the demand comes from people that understand and appreciate the value of analog audio.   

Digital vs Analog Audio: Which one sounds better?

So, to conclude our digital vs analog audio comparison, we will go on to the big question; which one sounds better? By now, you have seen all the positives and negatives that each of the two methods has. You should also start to see that choosing the best between these two is more of preference. For most record collectors and audiophiles, analog audio is the best because it has warmer tones with that subtle vintage feeling that digital audio cannot replicate. 

More so, people who understand the value of music prefer analog sound because it sounds more original. Many musicians also choose to record their music in analog styles before converting to the digital format at the end of the signal chain. This is so that they can reduce latency during the recording process. While most digital platforms try to imitate analog platforms, there is no such instance of an analog system trying to imitate a digital platform.      

In terms of reliability and storage, however, digital storage is preferred to analog storage. Digital audio allows users to easily share, replicate, and listen to their audio files with convenience at any point. More so, analog technology is fast phasing out as cars no longer come with tape decks again.      

Conclusion

Digital vs analog audio has been here for a long time, and it will continue for as long as possible. However, the truth is there is no one better than the other. In the real sense of things, it’s just about personal preference and nothing more. More so, the two methods play vital roles in music production today.  

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Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

Ever since I can remember, music has always been my passion.

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