Understanding the Analog Obsession

Understanding the Analog Obsession

Written by B. Jan Montana

“I don’t need no machine that don’t need me!” Harley Mike proclaimed. He was responding to a question asking why he prefers a motorcycle that is so problem-prone and maintenance-intensive. Turns out Mike is one of those guys who enjoys working on bikes, unlike most motorcyclists who only want to ride them. He gets satisfaction from taking them apart, inspecting the greasy pieces, and fixing or replacing whatever is necessary. For Harley Mike, that’s part of the joy of owning the machine.

It would be easy to dismiss Mike as suffering from some kind of masochistic personality disorder – but he’s not alone. Harley Davidson owns almost 30 percent of the American motorcycle market, so there must be a lot of enthusiasts who enjoy working on their machines.

Consumer Reports revealed in a May 2013 article that, “Despite the number of problems, Harley and BMW owners were among the most satisfied with their motorcycles.” It seems the more attention their bikes demand, the more owners love them. Could it be that mankind has an inborn need to be needed? In this era of childless couples and pet-less singles, is that need being transferred to machines?

In a recent audiophile discussion, someone wondered if vinylphiles like to mess with their equipment for the same reasons as Harley riders. Perhaps they “don’t need no machine that don’t need them” either. 

To streamers, it’s painful to watch them go through the seemingly endless starting ritual: locating the album in the usually extensive collection, extracting it from the double sleeve, brushing it with a million bristles, wet cleaning it, de-sparking it with a plastic gun, de-fuzzing the stylus, adjusting the VTA, checking the turntable speed, changing the input on the preamp, etc. But to the vinylphile, this is a cherished ritual to assure a boundless harvest.

Both the Harley rider and the vinylphile carry on about their product experiences in transcendental terms. To the non-believer, these arguments are mythological. They know that in empirical terms, Hondas perform better than Harleys: they accelerate faster, stop quicker, handle better, need less maintenance, and are more reliable. Likewise, digital audio has superior transient response, a wider dynamic range, flatter frequency response, lower harmonic distortion, and a lower noise floor.



Spotted at AXPONA 2024: this Clearaudio Statement V2 turntable certainly benefits from being tuned for maximum performance. Photo by Frank Doris.

So what is it that keeps these enthusiasts rooted in their anachronistic technologies? Harley guys will tell you they get more chicks, but vinylphiles don’t get more chicks, they get more clicks.

And clicks can't run out for another six-pack.

But is there more to the story? Harley riders seem to cherish the nostalgia associated with the brand. They also appreciate the unique character of a Harley engine. Researchers tell us that the 45-degree cylinder angle of a Harley engine creates a firing order which mimics the syncopation of the human heart. Psychologically, riding one may engender the feelings of warmth and comfort felt in the womb. That’s an empirical difference, not a mythological one. 

We wondered if there were any empirical advantages to vinyl? It turns out there may be at least three.

1. Most listening rooms consist of many hard surfaces: walls, windows, floor, furniture, coffee tables – all of which reflect high frequencies back to the listener. Those reflections hit the listener’s ears out of phase (at a later time) than the direct sound from the tweeters. This makes some systems unlistenable, especially those with a flat frequency response. The correct solution is damping material judiciously placed around the room to absorb those reflections. If that’s not possible, attenuating high frequencies by means of a treble control or an analog front end also helps.

This is not unlike what we experience in a concert hall, where the high frequencies are attenuated by distance, so those who say that analog sounds more like live, unamplified music may have a point.

2. Not only are the high frequencies of vinyl recordings capped by sound engineers, the deepest bass frequencies are attenuated for the same reason – to accommodate the limitations of cartridge tracking. 

Attenuated bass is less likely to excite room modes – which make acoustic spaces resonate at low frequencies like blowing across the top of a soda bottle. The listening rooms I’ve measured exhibit bass peaks of 7 to 17 dB between 30 and 80 Hz.

That tends to drown out midrange frequencies. When I equalize their bass modes, the audiophile never comments on the linearity of the bass, but on the improvement in the clarity of the vocals. As large concert halls also dissipate most bass frequencies, concertgoers who say vinyl sounds more like live, unamplified music may be correct.

To compensate for the lack of deep bass, vinyl engineers often boost the midbass response – which many concert halls do acoustically depending on where the listener sits. That may be the reason why so many analog fans claim that vinyl sounds “warmer” and “more like live music.” 

3. As well as the bandwidth, transients can also be compressed by vinyl engineers to limit dynamic range. This is necessary because the physical nature of the medium can’t handle high-amplitude transients without distortion.

When music is compressed, it can be played louder without the volume peaks distressing the listeners. That makes the quiet passages more audible, which is described by some vinylphiles as superior resolution, sweeter midrange, more body, or even by one reviewer as “fatigue-free, tonal lusciousness” – anything except “louder.”

Large concert halls also limit dynamic range, albeit acoustically through distance. The in-your-face dynamics of close-miked recordings faithfully rendered by digital front ends may actually sound less like a live acoustic concert than an analog presentation.

So audiophiles who say vinyl sounds more “live" have at least three empirical reasons to justify their belief. They are not claiming that analog reproduction is a more accurate representation of what the microphone hears; they are saying that "analog reproduction is a more accurate representation of what I hear in a concert hall” (to quote Jim Lindstrom).

I can simulate analog sound on my digital/solid-state system by means of my studio processor, which I often use on early digital recordings. It doesn’t make them perfect, but it does make them listenable at louder volumes. As Dr. Floyd Toole of the National Research Council in Ottawa concluded during his extensive loudspeaker testing, “louder sound is always perceived as superior sound.”

But don’t take Dr. Toole’s word for it; ask any Harley rider.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/F. Muhammad.

This article originally appeared in Issue 21 and has been revised and edited.

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