Digital Audio was a Beautiful Idea

Reading a little of the history of the development of digital audio, it is evident that the recording industry in the 1970s had reached a point where analogue technology was a bottleneck preventing truly transparent recording and reproduction. Experimental digital machines were introduced tentatively, in parallel with analogue systems during classical recordings, and from the off it was clear to the labels that digital was the way of the future. Initially, of course, the digital recordings were distributed to the listeners via vinyl, but the introduction of CD allowed them to be heard in people’s homes exactly as they were in the studio. Digital versions of many of the 1970s digital masters are available even now, and sound perfectly fine – as the recording professionals knew at the time.

With digital, not only is the quality orders of magnitude higher than analogue on any measure, but the ‘perfect’ source is now a chip that costs pence and requires no maintenance. Its job is to be transparent and contribute no sound of its own, and it does this admirably.

However, I do not think that the majority of audiophiles share my certainty of the superiority of digital audio for serious listening. They may tolerate their CD player, or a streamer and a DAC, but in their heart of hearts what they really love, or would aspire to own, is a turntable. In my world, audiophiles (and I think I am one in my own way) are rare. It is a disappointment to me that the ones that I do know, invariably wish to talk about vinyl and its attendant paraphernalia. “It’s OK, but not as good as vinyl, obviously.” said one, when describing his digital-only system. As an ‘ideas person’ (and I think I am one, in my own way) I actually find this offends me, and I have the urge to argue with them, but it would be futile I know.

The beautiful idea and its practical realisation have made it as far as becoming a medium for the masses, and the quality of digital audio has hitherto never been doubted by classical music enthusiasts. But the power of superstition, placebo and expectation bias was never going to allow audiophiles to be content.

A number of forces have aligned to create a ‘vinyl resurgence’.

  • Simple psychology that cannot square the circle of beautiful art being embodied within numbers and plastic chips
  • The need for a physical prop or totem when listening to music.
  • That the ‘loudness wars’, over-compressed MP3s and digital downloads all became ubiquitous at the same time, tarring all digital audio with the same poor quality brush.
  • A sense that modern life is soulless and that digital technology is partly to blame.
  • ‘Hipster’ fashions that include old instamatic cameras, and now vintage audio gear.
  • Falling record sales and the music labels looking for higher margins and another way to encourage people to buy their music collections again. Again.

Some classical labels are considering releasing music on vinyl once more. Many bands now release LPs in parallel with digital downloads and CDs. Will the digital versions therefore also be compromised in the ways that are necessary to squeeze music onto vinyl? Or worse, will there be deliberate nobbling of the digital version in order to justify the high prices of the vinyl product? Not many people realise that ‘vinylisation’ isn’t just a bit of judicious compression or ‘de-essing’ of the digital master, but could also involve compromises at the recording stage itself – so we digital audio consumers may be affected by the vinyl fad whether we like it or not.

It’s a mini-tragedy that a perfect idea came along, democratising high quality audio in the process, but that it has then been tarnished through superstition and ignorance. Even those people who were, and are, happy with digital audio are under a constant media onslaught of articles implying they are tin-eared philistines without souls. Some of them will cave in, and buy turntables. Ultimately they will be dissatisfied with the sound, always worrying about dust, belt stretch, stylus alignment, and aware that the record is damaged a little bit more each time they play it. If only they could have been allowed to enjoy the logical conclusion of the digital audio concept: the streaming audio service that makes all of the world’s music available at the press of a button, in perfect quality – as is just around the corner. Audiophiles were given the keys to the sweet shop, but decided to stay outside gnawing on a bit of celery.

Of course digital audio will remain the dominant medium for distribution of 99% of music, but all the movers and shakers in the industry and their most influential, affluent customers now despise it! I think that the originators of digital audio cared passionately about what they were doing, but there are few remaining who remember that it was primarily about quality and not mere convenience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s