During the recent T.H.E. Show I told several attendees that I intended to write a post comparing fidelity vs. sound. They are not the same thing. The background for this post comes from a variety of sources. I’m sure a prominent piece comes from conversations I’ve had with advocates of analog audio and vinyl LP supporters. A fellow booth partner in Munich strongly disagreed with my insistence that digital audio can deliver far greater fidelity than the than his cherished turntable. His defense of analog audio? That the resolution of vinyl LPs and analog sound is “infinite” while the resolution of CD and even high-resolution sound files is limited to 16 or 24 bits! Crazy talk to those of us that understand the technical underpinnings of digital sampling and information theory. But his misunderstanding of the subject is not surprising.
Even seasoned writers on mainstream audio websites advocate for analog systems and formats for the “intangible quality to the sound of all analog media” or “a quality of presence from all-analog media that I really don’t hear from my best digital sources; although, things are getting better all of the time”. The subjectivists and their tilt to personal preference over technology/science remains a mystery to me. If the assumed goal of high-end audio reproduction is to recreate the sound of a live musical performance, why would anyone defend an all analog system? The shortcomings of analog are well known. The lack or inability to capture real world dynamics is among the most serious. A loud rim shot fails on analog media. Unnatural dynamics compression technologies — called compressors or limiters — are used in studios and in live concerts to tame any sudden outbursts like that. But PCM digital — especially systems running with 24 or 32 — need not fear from similar loud moments. The dynamic range of a moderate PCM based digital system is orders of magnitude better then the best analog formats.
The gentleman that stopped by my AIX Records booth at the show with a bag full of vinyl LPs echoed the statements made by the journalist above. “I’ve been listening primarily to vinyl over the past couple of years because I get more emotionally involved with sound of an LP”, he told me. So I asked him whether he had any experience with real high-resolution PCM digital masters? He replied that he had initially tried some “high-res music” downloads from HDtracks and other sites but found that they lacked the same sense of depth that he got from his vinyl. He fell into the same trap as most other listeners. He hasn’t heard real hi-res music.
At that moment I asked him whether he had a Blu-ray player. As he said yes, I handed him the latest AIX Records Blu-ray sampler (the one with 72 tracks, three mixes for each track, and videos for most) and challenged him to listen to it and report back. If the tracks on that sampler lacked “emotional involvement” or “presence” or “intangible quality”, I wanted to know about it. I know they lack distortion, wow and flutter, tick, pops, and crackle. My confidence was high knowing the reports that I’ve received from others presented with the same challenge. Once you’ve heard real high-resolution audio recordings captured like I produce them, you know.
I remember driving my best friend’s 320i BMW (many years ago) for the first time after having driven automobiles made by the big three audio makers back in the early 1980s. The feeling of that BMW was unlike anything I had ever driven before. The same happens to people that hear real high-resolution audio recording from my catalog for the first time. Until you’ve experienced that level of fidelity, you simply don’t know. And the fact is most artists, recording engineers, labels, and audiophiles haven’t heard real high-resolution audio recordings. I would venture that the gentleman with the stack of vinyl LPs under his arm hasn’t heard Destani Wolf singing “Primavera”, Jamie Hanna and Jonathan McEuen sing “Lowlands”, or John Gorka singing “I Saw A Stranger With Your Hair”, which are three of the most engaging recordings I’ve recorded and released. There is more emotion and depth in these tracks than any analog record could ever dream of delivering.
Vinyl LPs and analog tapes deliver a “sound”. These analog formats are “warm”, “lush” and possess just the right combination of 2nd order distortion and other imperfections as to make them familiar and comfortable. But they lack real fidelity. Fidelity is defined as “the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced”. A PCM digital recording — standard or high-resolution — does this far better than analog. The sound coming in a from a microphone can be reproduced from good speakers with full fidelity — just NOT from vinyl LPs or analog tape. PCM digital delivers fidelity and analog formats produce a cherished “sound”. Listeners — and writers — have to decide for themselves which attribute they prefer. Neither is wrong. But they can’t ultimately choose until they tried the best of both. For me fidelity wins hands down.
The banner on the right side of this band is your free ticket to some real high-resolution sound files. You can’t know unless you listen. Please give them a try. I haven’t heard back from the vinyl LP guy from last weekend but I did hear back from a couple of other attendees. Fidelity won every time for them.