Closing The Gap Between Analogue and Digital

Closing The Gap Between Analogue and Digital


In my preceding articles, I shared my thoughts on digital file playback and the equipment and cables I use to improve its musicality. In my current world view of “improving the musicality” of digital playback, I think that doing everything possible to maintain digital signal integrity is paramount. Maybe it’s all just ones and zeros, but when those digits flow through a more perfectly realized signal path, you’ll hear more musically perfect results. And even though obtaining better digital sound generally involves a lot of high-powered processing, I constantly reference the sound I hear with that of the perceived “holy grail” of music reproduction: all-analogue playback in a system using “pure” analogue sources. That includes LPs or tape-based formats, like open reel tapes, or cassettes and even 8-track tapes, both of which are making a comeback. I currently run two audio systems at my home. One incorporates fully digital music sources, while the other features an all-analogue, tube-based setup that relies strictly on LP playback.

I love my digital and analogue systems equally, but truth be told, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool LP spinner from way back. I’m currently getting reviewer service for a ton of LP records spanning a diversity of artists and genres from both boutique and major labels. So far this year I’ve already published 41 record reviews, with at least 11 more waiting in the wings, and it’s only April. At this pace, I should end up far ahead of last year’s total, which clocked in at 50 albums! In addition to my review endeavors, I love digging for LPs online and in local independent record stores here in Charleston, South Carolina; the hunt is almost as much of a thrill as scoring that elusive LP. But I continually balance my love of analogue with the belief that we’re living in a golden age of digital, where the differences between digital and analogue playback are becoming vanishingly low. Regardless, I still believe analogue—warts and all—is the gold standard, but I also believe that digital sound quality is gaining on that of analog at a remarkably swift pace.

Reaching Towards Perfection in an Already Good System

In the middle of last year, I authored an article for PMA that highlighted the contents of my two audio systems, and I’ve made some significant system changes since then. I’ve upgraded the AC power conditioning in each room with devices from Puron, ADD-Powr, and Vera-Fi Audio. The importance of great AC power can’t be overstated—it’s one of the keys to lowering the noise floor and substantially improving system performance. The analogue room has seen the addition of a PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier, an elegant device that offers amazing functionality, world-class sonics, and has inputs to service both my turntables. In another major step forward I upgraded the tube complement of my PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier; I added a matched quad of premium Gold Lion KT77 power tubes, along with a NOS matched pair of vintage Brimar 12AU7 input tubes. While I didn’t think the sound quality I’d been getting from the EVO 300 could be bettered, the improved transparency and musicality brought by the new tubes has taken the analogue system to the next level!

The tube upgrade resulted in a remarkable improvement in the analogue system’s performance.

There’s also a new complement of loudspeakers gracing the analogue room—a pair of Vanguard Scout standmounts and a Vanguard Caldera 10 subwoofer. The Scouts are based on classic British LS3/5A designs, and offer unbelievable bang for the buck. While I still have the KLH Model Fives, it was becoming apparent to me that perhaps they weren’t particularly well matched to my room. The much less expensive Vanguard system really sings in combination with the new tubes. While impressive gains in performance and sound quality have been realized in both systems, the improvements in my analogue room have been transformational. All the upgrades have helped rubber-stamp my continued belief in the superiority of analogue over digital, and have helped push me headlong towards more fully embracing my love of analogue playback. But the biggest overall improvements to either system came from the addition of new cables.

The Viborg connectors on the Copper Cryo balanced cables are jewel-like in appearance.

In my last article, I mentioned getting new USB and i2s digital cables and their positive effect on the digital system. I’d been having other cable-related issues in my systems, and had been talking at length about the situation with one of my many editors, Positive Feedback‘s David Robinson, to whom I expressed my misgivings about the [Brand X] interconnect and loudspeaker cables that had occupied my systems for the last four years. His response was, “I’ve known [owner of Brand X] for years. He manufactures what are probably the most well-constructed cables that exist in the high end. His meticulous attention to detail is nearly bonkers. But his cables sound absolutely dreadful!” I’d evaluated Audio Art Cable’s Statement BNC digital cable last year and was mightily impressed with it, so David encouraged me to approach Rob Fritz of Audio Art Cable about upgrading my systems with a loom of his cables. Audio Art Cables are all hand-built, cryogenically treated with a proprietary process, then burned-in on an AudioDharma Cable Cooker prior to delivery. Their premium cable terminations from Furutech and Viborg utilize exotic metals, are among the finest available, and possess a fit and finish that’s nearly jewel-like in appearance, looking as though they might have been taken from a glass counter at Tiffany’s rather than from an audio manufacturer. When the Audio Art Cables arrived, I was awestruck by their elegance, and hearing music through them has elevated my enjoyment of recorded music exponentially—I’m gobsmacked by the differences these cables have made in both systems.

Digging DSD Digital Playback

Among the technologies and formats that blur the lines between great digital and analogue playback is DSD (Direct Stream Digital), which I’ve been digging for over two decades. DSD relies on 1-bit digital-to-analogue conversion as opposed to the typical 16, 24, or 32-bit PCM of most digital music files. DSD got its first big push with the introduction of the SACD (Super Audio CD) format and offers sound that’s very close in character to that of analogue. Some people consider SACD to be a dead format, but there’s a fairly steady stream of discs being offered from a surprising number of labels. I’ve ripped over 400 SACDs to my digital music server and have countless DSD downloads, and playing them through a much better DAC than the ones typically built into most SACD players has yielded a serious uptick in sound quality. You can read about my adventures with SACD ripping in this Copper Magazine article.

Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool in DSD 512 is my new reference for well-recorded digital music.

PCM sample rates are measured in kilohertz (kHz), or 1,000 cycles per second. In comparison, DSD playback features a sample rate that’s measured in megahertz (MHz)—which is one million cycles per second! SACD features a sample rate of 2.8224 MHz, or DSD 64, but many current DACs are capable of DSD playback at 22.5792 MHz, or DSD 512—including my Gustard X26 Pro. I have a handful of DSD 512 albums on my music server, including music platform NativeDSD Music’s offering of Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool from Impex Records, which was NativeDSD’s album of the year for 2023. Modern Cool in DSD 512 has become my new principal source for evaluating digital playback, and hearing this new file represents the closest digital approximation of the “absolute sound” I’ve encountered. That is, it’s the only digital playback medium I’ve heard that truly approaches the realism of live music—it’s quite nearly the equivalent of listening to great analogue. But there’s a price to pay for that quality in terms of storage space; a typical ripped, uncompressed CD takes up about 750 MB of disk space, but a single song ripped in DSD 512 can take up as much as 1 GB of space! Storage is cheaper now than ever, so if your network is up to that level of intensive streaming traffic, go big or go home!

In my last article, I mentioned my explorations with the Topping E70 Velvet DAC. The E70 uses the latest version of AKM new production chipsets in a novel implementation AKM calls Velvet Sound. On paper, this technology essentially makes the E70 Velvet a 1-bit DSD-direct DAC, and trust me, its sound quality is superb. Using my Oyaide Neo D+ USB cable, the Topping’s DSD 512-capable USB digital input sounds remarkably good, though perhaps not quite at the same level as what I’m hearing via the Gustard X26 Pro’s i2s connection, where the i2s, especially now that I use it with a Sommer EBH4 cable, really does make a difference for the better.

Can You Hear Differences Between Cables?

I’ve heard this expression countless times: “To hear, one must only listen.” I’ve been futzing about with cables in audio system implementations for decades, but only fairly recently took the time to really listen to the differences between them. Surprisingly, those differences are reasonably easy to spot.

Achieving great audio playback, whether analogue or digital, often comes down to the quality of the cables. My cable upgrades last year have proven to me that you can’t underestimate the power of great cables to elevate your system’s performance. Prior to installing the Audio Art Cable loom, along with the new digital cables from Oyaide and Sommer, I was regularly clouded by doubt about my system’s sound quality. I now know what I’d been missing.

Do I hear differences in cables? You betcha!

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

Dear readers,

As you might know, PMA is an independent consumer audio and music magazine that prides itself on doing things differently. For the past three years, we’ve dedicated ourselves to bringing you an authentic listening experience. Our commitment? Absolute authenticity. We steer clear of commercial influences, ensuring that what you hear from us is genuine, unfiltered, and true to our values.

However, independence comes with its challenges. To continue our journey of honest journalism and to maintain the quality of content you love, we find ourselves turning to you, our community, for support. Your contributions, no matter how small, will help us sustain our operations and continue to deliver the content you trust and enjoy. It’s your support that empowers us to remain independent and keep our ears to the ground, listening and sharing stories that matter, without any external pressures or biases.

Thank you so much for being a part of our journey.

The PMA Team

If you wish to donate, you can do so here.

Search for a Topic

and receive our flipbook magazines early


Email field is required to subscribe.