Analog Versus Digital Music – Not an Either-Or Proposition

I keep reading articles with harsh statements like: “So, I put the record on the turntable, dropped the needle and, let me tell you, it sounded terrible!” or “I’ve never listened to a digital source and been able to relax, you can only really enjoy music through analog playback.” Why are we presented with such a black and white music listening world? Why can’t we strive for the best playback possible through analog and digital paths?

Getting the Best Out of Vinyl Playback

  • Buy an affordable specialty turntable like entry level models from Music Hall or Pro-Ject.
  • Align the cartridge and set up the turntable in a vibration and RF/EMI free zone (following Michael Fremer’s DVD)
  • Invest in an affordable phono pre-amp
  • Make sure the signal does not pass through any digital processing, using “direct” mode on an AV receiver (if you have a “normal” home theater set up you will probably lose your subwoofer in direct mode if it’s connected through the sub pre-out) or a stereo pre-amp or integrated
  • Listen by yourself in your stereo sweet spot

Getting Best Out of Digital Playback

  • Stop playing CDs on your DVD player: Unless you own flagship DVD players from Arcam or Ayre (or more expensive and exotic brands), you are not hearing the best CD playback
  • When possible rip your CDs to a lossless format (FLAC, Apple Lossless) with MAX or EAC onto a large hard drive shared on your home network
  • Access your music library in your hi-fi system with a wireless music server like the Airport Express, Sonos or Slim Devices Squeezebox 3 or Transporter
  • Unless you are blessed with a Transporter or modded Squeezebox connect the digital output of your music server to an outboard DAC (feel free to upsample the signal if you think that improves the sound
  • The DAC should directly feed an analog pre-amp and amplification stages (never double process the signal)

So, if you follow the rules above and take your analog and digital signal paths seriously, you can have the best of both worlds.

Further Reading: Detailed diagram and description of my own hybrid system.

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