Friday, May 25, 2012

Analog vs digital: why not both?

Today's raging debate in the audiophile community is centered around an age-old argument of whether analog is better sounding than digital or vice versa. If done properly, there should, ostensibly, be no reason to have to make a choice!

Take the guy or gal who saved all their vinyl records since they were young, and have an incredible collection of the best classic rock or whatever. They may want to reconnect with their musical past, nostalgically, but realize that since the 80's, technology has changed. Somehow they were influenced that CD's were superior to vinyl, but managed to store away their prized LP's. This person has to either ressurrect their turntable or set out to find a new/old one. They are in the catbird seat, having plenty of first- and second-press run LP's already, and that part of the search is virtually unnecssary. The only purchases they need to make would be to fill in the blanks of titles they missed the first time around, or explore new genres. Maybe they supplement their collection with MFSL and 180 gram vinyls to enhance or complete their NOS experience. At least they have a good selection of music as a foundation to build on. They can concentrate on gear (TT, cart, stylus, belt, interconnects, new dustcover if needed, shelf, cleaning accessories, all essential to complete the experience from a serious standpoint).

For the persons moving their listening experience into the digital age, there are many more choices to make. First of all, they would have to decide whether to have a disk-based system or a file-based one. For the disk-based angle, they would naturally have to choose a disk spinner with the features and capabilities they need to complete their CD experience. There are plenty of used silver disks on the open market in various formats and levels of sound quality to complete their selection of titles. As far as accessories go, some of them border on "tweaks" (inexpensive, and in some cases, very spendy options to enhance sound quality, real or imagined). The "placebo" effect is common among entry-level listeners, and as one gains experience, he/she moves past this phenomenon. The secret in doing this right is avoiding the "snake oil" tweaks, ones that are rumored to work but are questionable at best. Then you definitely have a leg up on what really makes a legitimate improvement, and you haven't spent good after bad to find out what works best. Seriously, this is a science unto itself.

If you choose to go with a file-based setup, it's a matter of selecting a computer with sufficient memory if you want better sound quality than mp3 (superior lossless, compression-free downloads and rips take up considerably more space on your hard drive). Sound cards come in varying sound quality, so it behooves the listener to select the best sound card (one with the highest bitrate playback capability) within their budget. Backups (in case of file loss, computer crash, etc.) require at least one outboard hard drive, preferrably two, to avert emergency crash or accidental loss (fire, natural disaster, bluescreen, etc. - it's recommended to have one backup offsite in case of catastrophic loss and one handy for quick reload). Currently there are many good, convenient choices in terms of material (HDtracks, itunes, record label samples, band demos, etc.), and there are new and better choices becoming available every day. There's a fairly steep learning curve with this approach but the experience is very rewarding, and this is the route I've chosen, (lossless, that is) along with the vinyl appproach. There's no reason why someone couldn't have a combination of all the different choices, so mix and match at will, and don't forget radio in all of its iterations.

Then there's the question of whether you plan to use an outboard DAC (digital analog converter) to complete the rig, or simply utilize the stock DAC's in your CDP or computer-based system, alternately. This is going to be the biggest challenge for the novice, as there are units in every price range ($150 - sky's the limit), with different features, for PC or Mac. This is a relatively new area of audio, comparatively speaking. As with any developing format in audio, there is a such a duplicity of information, it positively guarantees that, if you don't get the best and most pertinent suggestions for your particular set of variables, and follow them fastidiously, you will embark upon a long and winding road to your own audio nirvana (not good). Choose a well-mapped, thoroughly-researched approach and you will reach your ultimate destination with flying colors, and relatively few costly detours.

This is going to take a great deal of websurfing and consulting of experienced audiophiles on the web so that the consumer can make the most informed choice, as much of the pertinent info is relatively new and not yet published widely in reference book form.There are opinions, conflicting views, and lots of misinformation currently being tossed around, making this a daunting task at best. Caveat emptor is the watchword as one progresses into uncharted territory, as it were. Gathering a consensus of opinion is certainly warranted here, as it isn't always that cut and dried in the case of new(er) technology and its alternate uses. Once you finally do get it right, you can simulate the effect pictured below (that 70's dude with JBL L-100's and good tunage), with favorable results!

From the "we missed it" department...Yesterday was Bob Dylan's 71st birthday! Here's wishing the best to the Grammy winning singer-songwriting storyteller, as he advances on (and on...) into his forever young-er years. Happy belated birthday Bob, and may you have many, many more!

Tomorrow we continue the madness, and here's hoping we see you back for more then! Keep your tubes hot and your antenna up! See you then!

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