03.27.2023 | Education

Behind The Sound®: Is analog sound better than digital sound?

Stereo system featuring McIntosh MA252 Integrated Amplifier and MB50 Streaming Audio Player
A stereo system featuring McIntosh MA252 Integrated Amplifier and MB50 Streaming Audio Player.

Few topics inspire more heated debate among music enthusiasts than the pros and cons of analog versus digital sound. We’re simultaneously living during the renaissance of vinyl records and the age of limitless digital streaming options, which means the volume is turned up on this age-old debate.

This article will review the pros and cons of analog and digital music and how each recording style ranks by sound quality and convenience.

The First Audio Recording

The birth of "analog sound" originates from first recorded sound that listeners were able to play back. Thomas Edison’s phonograph, created in 1877, is commonly credited as the first device that both successfully recorded and played back sounds. The phonograph’s diaphragm controlled the needle, which scratched an analog signal onto a tinfoil cylinder.

People could speak or sing into the tinfoil cylinder, and the needle would record the sound by vibrating along with the voice and creating a sound wave, almost like a map, of the audio information. During playback, the vibrations etched into the tin made the needle vibrate, causing the diaphragm to play back the original sound.

This small history of sound provides an essential foundation for the discussion around digital vs. analog, because it shows what our current technology evolved from.

Analog Recordings

Analog recordings use a microphone to translate the original sound into electrical analog signals that are then imprinted directly onto master tapes (usually large reels or cassettes) through magnetization. Alternatively, they are etched onto vinyl records with spiral grooves, much like the vibrations etched into Edison’s tin cylinder.

Digital Recordings

Digital recordings use binary code (1s and 0s) to represent the pitch and intensity of the sound. Once a digital file is recorded, it can be copied onto hard drives, compact discs, or uploaded online to be streamed across the world.

While analog recordings are a continuous waveform, digital recordings are more like a flight of stairs, where you can pinpoint and mark the changes in pitch. Furthermore, analog recordings imprint the original signal onto a physical medium, while digital recordings recreate the original signal through binary code that can be stored on various pieces of digital technology.

Signal to Noise Ratio

The signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) is a decibel measurement of the level of signal power to the level of noise power. The signal is the music a listener wants to hear, and the noise is the unwanted data.

For example, if you’re talking to your friend outside and the sound of traffic lurks in the background, that is the noise, and your friend’s voice is the signal. Naturally, you want your friend to have a higher decibel level than the traffic so you can hear them clearly and enjoy your conversation.

The rule of thumb is that a higher decibel level on the SNR will deliver better sound clarity.

McIntosh C22 Preamplifier Mk V
McIntosh C22 2-Channel Vacuum Tube Preamplifier Mk V

The McIntosh C22 2-Channel Vacuum Tube Preamplifier Mk V is a top-shelf option for those who love the warmth of analog. With an elegant vintage look, the McIntosh C22 is compatible with both moving magnet and moving coil phono cartridges, and boasts a 75dB SNR, which means it gives full power and sonic clarity to your favorite vinyl, while turning down unwanted noise.

Other pros and cons

Those who swear by analog often cite a fullness and warmth of the sound, and how it can feel more like you’re in the room with the original performance. However, because analog is a physical medium, it can be harder to maintain the quality of the recording stored solely on a vinyl record, since it ages with time and playback. This is why it’s key to invest in a high-quality turntable, such as the McIntosh MT2 Precision Turntable.

McIntosh MT2 Precision Turntable
McIntosh MT2 Precision Turntable

Digital’s strength is in its convenience and versatility. Digital recordings can be played and stored endlessly without losing quality, so long as the file is not manipulated. With products like the McIntosh MS500 Music Streamer, provides a central hub for all your digital music. Additionally, the MS500’s stellar 102dB SNR eliminates unwanted noise and produces a clear listening experience. The MS500 offers multiple connectivity options, including Wi-Fi, Spotify, and TIDAL.

In conclusion

The debate between analog and digital music is not likely to end anytime soon. While analog enthusiasts appreciate its warmth and fullness, digital fans value the convenience and versatility of their music. It is important to note that both mediums have their pros and cons, and the choice ultimately comes down to personal preference. McIntosh offers a variety of products for users to enjoy both mediums, from turntables to streamers and wireless speakers.

Find a McIntosh dealer nearest you or shop online to discover the latest offerings in both analog and digital music listening.