The frailty of analog

July 2, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

There is nothing in our audio systems more frail than analog.

The impacts to analog by brute force tactics like amplification, equalization, and storage seem rather obvious.

Perhaps less obvious is that even passing it through a wire impacts its sound quality.

Truth be told, there’s not much you can do to analog that doesn’t have a negative sonic contribution.

The sooner we can correctly convert analog into the more stable digital format the sooner we can work with it without much harm.

Sure, digital too is prone to insults like jitter and noise but those injuries pale in the face of analog’s frailty.

As audiophiles, our challenge is to guard the purity of our analog signals. To be the protector of their safety and accuracy.

Whatever effort you contribute to the sanctity of analog will be paid back in loads of wonderful music.

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41 comments on “The frailty of analog”

  1. Indeed. That’s why the TacT Millennium digital amp launched some 25 years ago featured the most far-sighted concept (based on PWD as DSD does) I ever encountered during my HiFi-journey. Only digital inputs, thus getting vinyl sound via a near perfect digital (!) RIAA equalization from a decent ADC also featuring DSP for loudspeaker and room correction! I wonder why there are no successors today based on 64 bit processing.

    1. Devialet Expert converts all inputs to 40/384 PCM, digital equalisation, speaker DSP (Devialet SAM) and room correction (Devialet Sweet Room).

      1. Indeed, a real innovation in high-end audio compared to all these pseudo-innovations. There are two options I still liked to see for the Devialet concept: XTC (crosstalk cancellation and mic input for “room measurement” á là méthode Trinnov Audio. I had an extensive listening with the first version of Devialet’s hybrid concept (Premier) in my stereo chain. Not bad at all! 🙂 Same sound quality as my TacT Millenium & TacT ADC combo for which I had to spent a much more higher budget.

        1. The SAM and Sweet Room software did not exist with Premier. The current hardware is now much improved. The Trinnov units cost more than many Devialet units and are much more than a microphone! There is no point of a microphone input unless you have the software to use the readings.

          1. Maybe it would be possible to simply load the correction-files of a Trinnov measurement into the EQ-module. Having today the SAM corrections it should be a no-brainer concerning the actual hardware-power. 🙂

            1. Trinnov uses its own complex complex internal correction files. Devialet Sweet Room requires the user to manually enter the settings in a .txt file and copy to the system SD card. Basic, but works.

    2. Peter Lyngdorf of TacT is making a successor, and some excellent speakers at Steinway/Lyngdorf. (BUT $$$$$)

      Unfortunately, this many years later the gear is not a lot better because we are on the asymptotic curve against the inherent limitations of room correction such as:

      1. Room anomalies are spatial. The time and frequency response is different at every point in the room. You can choose maximum flatness at one ‘sweet spot’, or a mediocre compromise to include friends and family.

      2. You can’t correct for bass modes becasue the steady state respsonse is quite different from transient response. It takes multiple cycles to feed the bass energy into the modes and for it to die out.

      3. If the room modes are not minimum phase, the system can go chaotic.

      4. You can’t correct high frequencies accurately unless you place your head in a vice so it does not move a millimeter.

      5. Boosting to counter nulls reduces dynamic range, risks clipping the amp or damaging the speaker.

      6. Rooms with substantial acoustic problems can exceed the correction range.

      7. Optimum speaker placement for “imaging” is rarely optimum for room integration.

      8. Optimum speaker placement for bass is rarely optimum for treble (case for subwoofer).

      9. Bare walls, ceiling, and floor are the most currently desirable “interior design”, and bad acoustically.

      10. Room correction is usually only considered when the room is too far out to be corrected well.

      11. Room correction can correct on-axis fr, but not diffraction and off-axis problems. OTOH, diffraction and off-axis anomalies are prime factors in “pinpoint imaging” – which is FAKE.

      I did a search of Stereophile Magazine on the term “pinpoint imaging” and every speaker model so described had symmetrically mounted drivers in a sharp edged baffle which inherently has diffraction lobing. Of course, so do all speakers with non-coaxial tweeters that are not D’Appolito configuration and crossovers.

      Recommendations: choose a room with a substantial area of bass leakage; get speakers that have flat frequency and phase response at all angles and/or cover all 12 first reflection points with diffusion or absorption; install carpets, heavy drapes or tapestries, and big pieces of furniture with well damped structure.

      This may cost as much as room correction hardware, but sounds better and has higher SAF.

      1. I cannot but agree with all these statements. I never got satisfying results with TacT’s single microphone/single measurement based “room correction” algorithms. However Trinnov’s approach using a mic array of four mics is far more sophisticated. As everybody knows from the design of concert halls the acoustic optimization of the “listening” room is the most important aspect when trying to get the best results from a stereo system. In normal sized listening rooms room modes in the bass region are the biggest problem. My personal experience says that cancellation of inherent inter-speaker cross-talk has the biggest impact on sound quality concerning holographic imaging and resolution of fine details buried in the comb-filter effects created by this crosstalk. Seeing the driver arrangements of most D’Appolito designs I doubt that they feature a correct step response and are suited for nearfield listening. They are probably designed for far-field listening which finally requires the biggest efforts for room treatment! 🙂

  2. It is too bad that those of us who see DSD as the correct way to digitize analog are such a small percentage of the audio world. I would like to think that analog is alive in my system.

  3. I agree with much of it, especially that the sooner we can, as you say “correctly” (means losslessly in my understanding), convert analog into digital (and I’d add “in the following losslessly process digital”), we can work with the initially analog signal without much harm. This would be ideal.

    I also agree, that the impact to analog, especially in a theoretical observation, seems much more obvious (also physically) than “those tiny jitter and noise problems” of digital.

    That „even passing analog through a wire impacts its sound quality“…well….I heard that even digital signal cables make a difference, so….I count this small logic gap as part of the creative enthusiasm of todays post 😉

    That “digital’s injuries pale in the face of analog’s frailty” (if you mean practically, sound wise as an end result of what we listen to when comparing), is something that, as a general statement, I think even you can’t be fully serious about when you consider other quite widespread and also professional perceptions in the top high end scene and if you think outside the box of your personal preference. In case you mean this theoretically, I’m with you.

    1. It reminds me of high school physics class when we held the hub spindle of the vertical rotating bicycle wheel on our finger tips, and it tried to spin in a direction perpendicular to the wheel. Something called angular momentum in a direction determined by the right hand rule.

  4. Could be, but, none-the-less when I listen to a pure analogue chain, all the way from RTR tape ,to the speakers in the room, I am in a state of bliss.

  5. I won’t give up my albums, as I do enjoy the experience of playing them. Having said that, I also don’t think I will be buying any new ones. The main thing I like about digital is the ability to process it with room correction processors/software, allowing for proper sub timing & overall adjustment & tweaking. I’m not really a fan of converting analog to digital for processing then back to analog again, making it superior in that application.

    1. Yes I feel the same way. How can converting analog to digital and back to analog give you better sound? At best it will sound as good as the master analog recording but it never does. Analog played back on analog is the way to go. No conversion at all. Now if you want to argue that a DSD recording played back on digital is better than analog maybe that’s right but just maybe. Keep in mind the microphone is analog and so are the speakers. You will always need something physical moving at the microphone and at the speaker’s regardless of what happens in between. The two most important part of the chain will always be analog. Unless you can figure out how to convert vibrations to electrical and out of speakers without a membrane.

      1. Of course most musical instruments are analog as the human voice is that relies on something physiclally vibrating to produce sound. So its no wonder many people feel that a vibrating MC or MM sounds natural to them.

  6. On some level this may all make sense. But (of course 🙂 ) it seems a large part of the issue of analog fragility has to do with storage. Tape, Or a mechanically cut disc or cylinder versus a computer derived file. Livings things (I’ll say most just in case) hear in analog. A mechanical process is typically used to produce sound. Only we humans take the natural sound and manipulate it so that it pleases us.

    Very few recordings today are done direct to disc or in the case of digital, direct to the final file. So digital allows manipulation of all kinds of things in the name of correction, then combining those things in ways the wasn’t in the original presentation. Even DSD files on the recording side require some conversion change to be manipulated. (Whether it be to analog for the change or another digital format for the change)

    Amplifier topology hasn’t made huge changes since it’s inception. (refinements yes) so if that part isn’t preserving what it is being fed to it then what? Has microphone transducer technology been perfected? In some ways digital has just allowed the great cover up of weaknesses in the chain. Others will say it has brought things closer to perfection.

    One parting thought – everywhere you look in the 2 channel audio chain there is a flaw – what seems to change is which flaw any given individual is concentrating on at the moment.

    1. Your last paragraph is surely true beyond today’s discussion!

      I would say, those who manage to identify the really meaningful topics to take care of among many popular or partly individual agenda driven ones, reaches great sound much quicker.

      There are just so many who tell you what to focus on…not easy for those who depend on what they read.

      1. True to all you just stated Jazznut. Where and how far into the deep end we travel is up to each of us. The advise / reading / research / experience that makes lots of sense to each of us individually also helps steer thru the uncharted waters.

    2. Storage is definitely the problem with analog. Best place to store it and preserve its pure analog state is on an album not used much but to record to an analog tape. Not digital to LP though. That makes no sense. The tape isn’t great at preserving it. Second best is on CD.

      1. What you suggest Joe may be true. Yet most masters (before the advent of digital) were stored on tape, but that has proven to be less than an ideal for the long term. Which digital format is best for the longest possible time archive? In 50 years from now – in a 100 years from now or longer….

        1. Tape has to be stored on digital. And on a first pressing LP if not played a lot and when played is only played using a high quality turntable arm and cartridge correctly calibrated is the best long term storage of analog. To prevent high usage transfer the LP to a good quality tape player and use that for playback. Also burn the master tape to both LPs and CDs for longer preservation while technology further figures out how to preserve the analog sound even longer for future generations to enjoy analog in it’s purest form.

  7. Thanks to jazznut for parsing through the troll-like mess of mere subjective opinions stated as objective facts which is today’s post. Out of Paul’s nine sentences I disagree with six of them.

    For audiophiles who find it easier to be emotionally-engaged by, and to achieve a greater suspension of disbelief through, analog 1) the theoretical problems of analog do not matter in practice, and 2) nothing good sonically comes from converting to digital, at any stage in the process, music recorded in analog.

    1. Yeah, I’m not as emotionally engaged and wouldn’t say yet, Paul is trolling topics which are outside of his preference or agenda 😉 . There are always many correct statements included in an objective sense and the in our perception wrong ones are vague enough to be on the edge (depending on how we understand them). So instead of naming it „trolling“, I always tend to say, it’s easy to identify intentionally or by superficialness misleading statements. I then just try to question those when too obvious, for the sake of just another point of view 😉

      In todays case the implied conclusion would have been, that analog sounds as much worse than digital as the description of “digital’s injuries being pale in the face of analog’s frailty“ says about the frailty comparison. Which, as not rarely, is at least misleading (positively seen). 😉

      But did we ever meet a neutral, unbiased audiophile? Paul’s just another one of us 😉

    2. My analogue is converted to digital, allowing speaker and room correction. Is that not a great benefit? Another is that digital conversion enables much shorter signal paths.

  8. Paul,

    For eons you have extolled the ambiance, warmth and emotional connection to analog. You have stated that digital just doesn’t evoke the same response.

    Now you are saying that analog is very fragile and anything between the source and your ears degrades the sound. What do you get the most emotional impact from, analog or digital? Personally, I find digital satisfying because I am inherently lazy and can cue up a bunch of music and not move from my chair. If I really want to get deep into listening, I put a vinyl record from 60’s on my challenging to setup Oracle Delphi and just immerse myself in the music. So, fragility be damned, I love my vinyl. I also have over 60,000 songs on my hard drive. It depends on my mood.

  9. Slightly off topic.

    In today’s Ask Paul video, Paul mentions a new streamer from PS audio the “Air Lens”. However going to the PS site, there’s no mention of this product.

    Is Paul describing a streamer that is incorporated into an existing DAC? Or is Paul referencing a product that is not yet on the market?

    1. Aero,
      I suspect that it’s the latter.
      PS Audio has been working on a streamer for a while…
      this could be a hint that it’s release is not that far away.
      Although, remember how long the AN3/FR30’s were announced 😉

  10. I also love vinyl and found myself needing a new turntable. My old one finally gave up the ghost. the market out there is loaded with ridiculous variety, but I found one that fit my needs, I wanted one without a preamp because I had heard a friend’s system with a vacuum tube separate preamp, and it was astoundingly more natural and warmer than my own. I purchased that combination and was more than gratified I was in vinyl heaven. Analogue has a place in every system in my opinion.

  11. Dear Steven not to be confused with Steven,

    Converting your analog signal to digital for speaker and room correction is a “great benefit” only if you prefer the resulting DSPed sound over the original, unadulterated analog sound.

    1. Thus, When I said earlier that I think analog is alive and well with my system you can be sure there is no DSPing going on in my system. 🙂

    2. Hi RonRes,
      I suspect that “unadulterated analog(ue) sound” is a contradiction in terms
      when you consider the complex process that the signal has to go through
      from being stored on a vinyl record to your amplifier,
      even without room correction.

  12. Of the vertical or “wall-mount” tables I’ve seen, thay all egregiously miss linear tracking.

    I sold many Bang & Olufsen tables in the ‘80, and should have stored some away for the future. A better place to spend than what I saw above.
    Limited only by cartridge and styli choices.

  13. If you look at the human brain, many say it is analog in the way it functions, many say digital, others say neither or both. At the neuron level, individual neurons either fire or they don’t, like digital 1s and 0s. But above the neuron level, clusters of neurons vary as a function of time in net intensity, like an analog system. So, following nature’s lead, there is a place for both analog and digital in the audio chain. As the resolution of the digital signal increases, the analog output and the digital-to-analog converted output by high quality converters become more and more indistinguishable to the brain. So the ease and practicality of digital makes perfect sense.

    Now, to bring up my digital pipe organ (again). There is no way the Hauptwerk program could work in analog mode. Thousands of individual recordings of individual pipes being selectively played in different combinations real time would be impossible with analog mixers. The mixing board would require thousands of sliders and the noise would be intolerable. In this application analog would be very frail indeed. Thank God for clean digital processing.

    1. I think you’ve zeroed in on the point Paul was trying to make. I think many interpreted Paul’s use of the word ‘frailty’ as a critisicm of current techniques to record analogue phenomena. I suspect that those who believe that the current digital recording methods are inadequate to ‘faithfully’ capture analogue signals may only be satisfied when we have a technology that is able to capture, store and reproduce the quantum energy states of the air molecules as they collide with the ‘hearing’ transducer’s (microphone’s) active receptor!

      If such a means were ever to be invented, I wonder if it would be considered ‘analog’ or ‘digital’? 😀

  14. HAHA! First of all, vinyl will store sound longer than digital. If you allow contamination or play it too many times it degrades, but there is still enough information left to re-construct, a la Zenph Labs, in a hundred years when the bit error rate of digital media exceeds the EDC codes.. (you can also use bigger or smaller stylii tips to find virgin vinyl on worn discs).

    Second, vinyl chains were highly evolved to make sounds that consumers want to hear, from boom and tizz West Coast sound to polite and refined East Coast sound. (OK, there are exceptions. Roy DuNann and Carl Jefferson made polite and refined sound, and Phil Ramone made raucous in your face sound.)

    Engineers learned how to work around or even use tape and vinyl anomalies to deliver the goods, sound quality in the listening room. Since 95% of the record buying public don’t listen to live acoustic music often enough to know what is sounds like, absolute accuracy does not figure too much in the equation.

    I find the primary shortcoming of digital is how easy it is to change a digital signal. This encourages engineers to get creative by twiddling hundreds of knobs, and every knob twiddled increases distortion both inherently and from roundoff errors. Analog errors tend to correlate to acoustic modifications of sound, but digital errors are impossible in the physical world (jitter, quantization errors, etc.) so they cause more cognitive dissonance.

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