Digitizing an Analog World

Bits and pieces in, bits and pieces out. As it turned out, the music-related theme triggered by last week's monologue continued into the weekend. Although some of the more profound questionssuch as why I might like a particular song in spite of idiotic lyricsare still blowing in the wind, there are many avenues left to explore. For example, the old analog versus digital debate hasn't ever really gone away, which may say something about the brutality of subverting the aural experience with the cold rationality of computers.

On the other hand, it may also be a testimony to the technologies that make it possible to carry an entire music library in a shirt pocket, and the apparent lack of widespread disappointment at the sound quality of such a compact arrangement. If there's a tradeoff, it must not be the sort of thing that causes sleeplessness, becauseat least outside the context of brawny speakers and their similarly substantial power requirementsanalog anything is getting hard to find.

This morning's Web-crawling turned up an actual example of one man's frustration with the digital listening experience, and what he did to convince himself that the superior audio he remembered from his analog-tape days was more than mere nostalgia. His digital versus analog shootout was particularly interesting to me because I, too, have the Sony WM-D6C Pro (a.k.a. Walkman Professional) he chose as one of his weapons. His conclusion was, as he says, a bit of a shock.

Okay, so we are now talking about tapes recorded on two of the best tape decks every made and replayed on what is amongst the finest portable audio devices ever made. But really, the obvious, massive and indisputable superiority of the ancient cassette technology over the latest compressed audio codecs on a highly rated MP3 player was a shock (if not really a surprise).

Of course, the subject is larger than that. An Apples to iPods comparison makes some sense, and even bouncing a pocket-size collection of microchips designed to play music against a device specifically designed for capturing the audio portion of our analog world isn't entirely meaningless. Ripping tracks from a CD isn't recording in the traditional sense, but converting sound waves to electrical current with a microphone adds an extra A to D step that doesn't exist in the computer-with-CD-drive scenario.

But even after subtracting every possible difference and disadvantage of either mediumanalog or digitalwhat remains is really more of a debate over subjective matters such as warmth, space, and yes, the sweetness of the listening experience. Quantifying the difference is more difficult, and perhaps impossible; in the end, it's up to our earsand our mindsto decide what sounds better.

And then there's that pesky pocket issue.


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