If you spend as much time around high end audio products in Chicago as we do, you’re bound to be sucked into the analogue versus digital debate at one point or another. Audiophiles on both sides of the issue can get fairly adamant about the superiority of one over the other, and the discussion almost always veers into a dead end of wave physics and digital sampling rates.
For some of you, that last sentence has already kicked up your adrenaline production in the telltale prelude to an argumentative tirade. For others, this paragraph was just a jumble of vaguely technical sounding words. If you’re already confused, we urge you to read on.
The main difference between analogue sound and digital sound is the manner in which sound waves are created. It helps to think of it in terms we can easily visualize, for instance, think of drawing a stick figure. As you draw the circle that creates the figure’s head, you leave your pencil tip on the paper, dragging it along the surface in a continuous motion.
However, if you were to try to print that same image out from your home computer, you would notice that the printer takes a significantly different approach. Instead of drawing a continuous circle, the printer will generate the image line by line, forming a representation of a circle. While the end results may look the same, the processes that produced them are completely different.
What does this example have to do with audio? Well, we can think of analogue audio in terms of the pencil drawing. If you were to put your pencil drawing under the microscope, you would still see a fairly smooth curve. Analogue audio is produced continuously, giving it a smooth waveform. No matter how small of a sampling you take of it, it will always describe a curve.
The significance of this becomes apparent when we look at the way digital sound is produced. In our example, this is represented by the computer printout of a stick figure. From a distance, the figure may look exactly like the pencil drawing. However, when you look closely at the drawing, you can see how it is built out of tiny lines, which approximate a smooth curve. Digital audio works very similarly.
Much in the same way the printer cannot draw a single, continuous curve, digital audio cannot create completely smooth audio waves. Instead, digital audio is made up by adding a bunch of individual sound frequencies. This is because digital audio is not produced continually, but rather is composed of “samples.” A sample is a representation of the given sound frequencies present on the track at a single moment. By combining a bunch of these samples, we can get something that sort of blurs together to sound smooth.
When the sampling rate is high enough, these sounds appear to blend, creating a representation of analogue sound. When the sampling rate is low, the audio sounds jagged, jumping from one frequency to the next.
This is not to say that digital audio cannot create amazing sound quality. Much in the way a decent photo printer can create stunning, high-resolution images, digital audio is approaching the limits of our ability to detect the difference between it and analogue sound. And, of course, the only way to get your sound quality high enough to truly appreciate the difference between analogue and digital sound is to shop for some high end audio products in Chicago.