by Nick Seiflow
Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to a very fine stereo system. It consisted of a good CD front-end, high quality cabling leading to tubed preamplifier and mono block tube power amps, finally into a pair of excellent custom speakers.
It was one of the first times for a long time that I’d listened to a digitally sourced system, and the experience was revealing. As expected, there was absolutely none of the noise one might expect from vinyl; no obvious compression on peak signals, and imaging and bass control was superb.
But it didn’t sound quite correct. On first listening it was perfect, but the doubts crept in quite quickly. Something was missing. Perhaps the best way to describe the paradox of perfect/imperfect sound was the lack of low-level information. Although everything seemed to be there, there was a sensation that the subtlest cues that exist in all sound – and music – were absent. This is perhaps the crux of the debate between analog and digital sound; although digital sources can provide seemingly endless energy with the peaks, they so often appear to miss something at the opposite end of the dynamic range. Of course, sampling rates and recording and mastering skills can go a long way to rectify this, and no doubt techniques will improve if we demand it, but this particular demonstration left me feeling that I had looked at an image of the thing, as opposed to have heard a live performance.
Until they put record players back into cars (again) I’ll be very thankful that we have digital sources, and that we can have music on demand. But at home I’m afraid that my large collection of CDs will carry on accumulating dust. I might be deluding myself, but I will soldier on with the Big Discs. To horribly mis-quote C.S. Lewis’s Lucy, my love for vinyl might just be the product of make-believe, but I for one will carry on believing in it!