The Writer’s New Clothes?

I read a guest editorial called “The Emperor’s New Server” at the Absolute Sound’s website today written by Jonathan Valin. Steven Stone posted the link on his FB feed and I couldn’t resist. You can check it out yourself by clicking here. It never ceases to amaze me how thoroughly uninformed some audio writers remain in the face of what by now are established facts regarding digital vs. analog recordings. Do they just write this stuff as click bait?

Here’s the essential paragraphs”

“No matter what the bit rate, no matter what the digital delivery system, you simply cannot ‘sample’ the continuous-time sound of instruments or vocalists, turn it into discrete-time numbers, and then turn those discrete-time numbers back into instruments or vocalists without losing some of the very continuousness of presentation—the dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres—that is the very breath of musical life.

Yes, I’m aware of all the real advantages of digital audio in dynamic range, greater frequency extension (at least in the bottom octaves), lower noise, higher resolution, etc. over analog. But I positively dare you to listen to any well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file and played back from a computer via a USB DAC and then listen to the exact same recording on an LP played back via a really good turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phonostage and tell me, with a straight face, that the digital recording sounds more like the real thing than the analog one. It doesn’t—even when the LP is mastered from a digital file!”

I’m not sure where to start in parsing the statements made in the preceding paragraphs. The opening salvo in Jonathan’s attack on high-resolution digital audio alludes to some imagined failing of a system that Shannon and Nyquist firmly established as losing no information from source to output. That’s right. There is nothing lost in the conversion from analog waveforms to samples and then back to analog waveforms. Is a digital system perfect? No, certainly not. But the “dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres” are all there. In fact, they are more there in a well made high-resolution recording than the best piece of vinyl on the planet. Jonathan just prefers the sound — the imperfections, distortions, harmonic inaccuracies — of one format over another. And he would have us accept HIS standards of measure, personal taste, and assessment as universal. I sincerely hope not.

The second paragraph acknowledges that in all of the metrics of sound capture and reproduction, digital audio has “real advantages”. He’s right and the partial list of advantages (there are many more) that he enumerates guarantees that the digital recording will be more accurate to the incoming analog signals than the same signals mastered to a spinning piece of vinyl.

So here I am with a very straight face telling Mr. Valin that I — and many thousands of my AIX Records customers and those that have heard my demos — prefer the absolute musical mastery, in his words “the breath of musical life” that is captured without equal by a high-resolution PCM recording. Analog has its place in the history and to appreciate those recordings in their native format is laudable. I have no problem supporting vinyl LPs for those recordings originally released in that format. But since the arrival of new high-resolution audio tools and distribution formats in 2000, there should be no going back for new productions. Anyone seeking sonic accuracy, emotional intensity, immersive music listening should avoid working in the analog domain. If, on the other hand, the goal to preserve the “mojo” of the past and craft recordings that emulate the “classic” sound of our favorites, then analog tools, processors, recorders, methods, and vinyl LPs are the way to go. There’s room for all aesthetics.

I started my label AIX Records to demonstrate that it is possible to engineer and produce recordings that exceed the fidelity of compact discs and vinyl LPs. I’ve been successful. However, merely showing what’s possible doesn’t necessarily translate into a model for the rest of the music industry. Even artists that I’ve worked with and who were amazed at the sound of our collaborations have returned to the tried and true methodologies that they’ve used for years. It’s curious but true.

My goals were met. I would put the same challenge before any interested music fan. If you were to come to my studio and experience Jennifer Warnes singing her rendition of Mickey Newbury’s song “So Sad” in high-resolution, 5.1 surround, I can pretty much guarantee that you would leave needing a tissue. It’s unlike anything you will ever hear in any other format.


As readers and supporters of this site, I would like to ask you to help in bringing awareness to an innovative product that a close friend of mine is developing that makes use of binaural sound projection. I’ll get into more details over the next few posts, but the YARRA 3DX speaker array that he’s about to launch on Kckstarter is a remarkable technology and worthy of support. Imagine the immersive, “you-are-there”, quality of binaural with the intimacy of commercial tracks without the need for headphones and you’ll start to understand the revolutionary nature of this product. We need to develop a healthy email list prior to our launch. If you or someone you know is interested in a smart sound bar (and subwoofer) that can deliver immersive, 5.1 surround sound for games, music, home theater and more for less than $500 (with an opportunity to get up to 50% off during the campaign), then please visit the site and sign up. We promise never to spam you or distribute the list. I really think they’re on to something truly disruptive. Again please visit, YARRA 3DX.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

49 thoughts on “The Writer’s New Clothes?

  • craig allison

    Hi Mark, so sorry you had to endure this. Having made a perfectionist LP from a live to two track recording on an Ampex ATR-100 running 1/2 ” tape at 30ips, I actually do know what happens to the signal over analog generations.

    Big signal compresses and softens the HF on the original recorded tape, and the mid-bass response is usually up a bit from head bumps. When the tape is transferred to vinyl, that very same euphonic coloration takes place. That’s what he is used to and prefers…his sonic comfort zone so to speak
    Clean digital audio is unquestionably more truthful. But for some, it’s just like the Jack Nicholson movie,”You can’t handle the truth.”

    We just had a big vinyl event at our store, around 200 folks, Rob from Mo-Fi and a number of vinyl religionists. The energy in the room transcended sonic shortcomings… this vinyl thing has two sides. One is the preference for the easier listen as above, but the real item is the ritual involved with vinyl, no such ritual occurs in the digital audio world. Ritual is essential to human beings. Take it away, and something happens… That IMHO, is the score.

    • Hey Craig. I get the vinyl thing and have experienced sessions with advocates of analog systems. I agree they can sound really fabulous and the ritual aspect is important. I chafe when I hear people like Jonathan Valin insist that it’s “his way to the highway”. It was especially interesting to see him acknowledge that digital system are better at everything that we measure BUT it somehow fails his ears. Maybe his ears are the problem. It’s all good as long as it reaches you heart and brain.

      • It’s the old adage:

        If you meet someone in the morning and think: Gosh they are an asshole. They probably are the asshole.

        If you meet people all day and they are assholes, you’re the asshole.

    • Not to mention the time domain non-linearities of magnetic tape recording/playback.

      With regard to the AS editorial, I think Sagan said it best: “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

      • Analog tape and the rest of the systems that we used over the years were wonderful and sounded great BUT they pale in comparison to what is possible today. I love the quote…I may borrow it for the book.

        • You’ll have to ask Sagan. Bring a ouija board.

  • Is there any chance of obtaining the recoding of Jennifer Warnes

    • I sincerely wish that I could make this recording available. It is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve every produced AND that’s she’s ever done. But she refuses to let me release the album in spite of the fact that it’s finished and ready to go.

      • Terrible shame I have been a fan for years such a lovely voice have all her albums

  • Thanks for the heads up Mark. I went to that article and posted my disdain for the perpetuation of such incredible ignorance. What sort of idiot knows so little about his chosen hobby, yet has no idea how little he actually knows? Likewise, how can someone who runs an audiophile web magazine know so little?

    • How can he know so little? Simple, most of his readers know even less than he does. This is why I don’t read this junk. TAS is one dumb magazine. So is Stereophile Magazine IMO. Atkinson & Co. have almost no real knowledge. My favorite audiophool is Fremer. How can I have any respect for a man who demagnetizes plastic phonograph records? And how can I have any respect for an editor who could take it into his laboratory to see if it actually works but doesn’t bother to when he claims it does in the most preposterous experience possible? “You heard it Art, you were there. You heard it too.” (Atkinson to Deadly Dudley at an Axpona “debate in Montreal years ago.) And how can I respect a man who doesn’t understand why his pair of Vivid speakers at a live versus recorded demonstration can’t possibly produce anything like the sound of a Steinway D concert grand in a side by side comparison? No knowledge of acoustic science at all. I got tired a long time ago of reading (for free on line of course, you don’t think I’d spend money on that trash) what the best speaker, amplifier, phono cartridge in the world is for that month is. What a bunch of idiots this industry is run by.

  • I like it when JV writes:
    “I positively dare you to listen to any well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file(*) and played back from a computer via a USB DAC and then listen to the exact same recording on an LP played back via a really good turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phonostage and tell me, with a straight face, that the digital recording sounds more like the real thing than the analog one.”

    Where am I supposed to do this? None of the “high end” stores in my area are set up to do a demo like he describes. Even if they had the proper equipment, the listening rooms are way less than ideal for that kind of challenge. The only way I could accomplish his dare would be to purchase the analog and digital systems he describes. Oh, wait a (self-inflicted head slap) minute, that’s what TAS is all about.

    At least your “counter-dare” includes an offer of a demo at your studio – which I’m sure would impress even more than you can convey in print.

    * Read the quote carefully. Is this really a trick challenge? Just what is a “well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file”? What does “turned into” mean? Is he really talking about rips of LPs instead of true hi-res digital recordings?

    Maybe he should talk to Robert Harley about getting a dose of MQA:)

  • Robert Wortman

    Mr Valin is the resident vinyl head and ultra expensive audio reviewer at TAS. As such, most if not all of his equipment is on open ended loan from the manufacturer. He has a $100K turntable that he plays with that he didn’t pay a dime for. I wouldn’t accuse him of bias but there is an incentive to say nice things about it. Most audio reviewers don’t know much about the technology they write about. There is an assumption that analog media have infinite resolution that is nonsense. Vinyl resolution breaks down at a bit less than CD resolution due to imperfections in the surface of the vinyl that can’t be fixed. The difference between analog and digital at the resolution limit is the nature of that breakdown. An analog photograph has a resolution limit too. Looked at under a microscope you can see the granularity, it just has a different structure than the digital granularity. Sound recording is no different. There is a vinyl guru at that other magazine that travels with digital recordings dubbed from his vinyl rig to play for people as a demonstration of the superior sound of vinyl. He doesn’t seem to understand the paradox. Clearly he likes the added harmonics and reverberations added by all that mechanical stuff vibrating. I enjoy playing my LP’s. Many of them sound very good. I think an LP from the 50’s mastered and pressed when the tape recordings were new is going to sound better than a “high rez” transfer made today from a 60 year old tape. This isn’t a vinyl versus digital comparison, it is a new tape versus old tape comparison.

    • Thanks Robert…I’m on your issue this weekend.

  • John Deas

    I find this whole analogue vs digital argument totally tedious as it seems to be overlooking the basic point that the music we listen to has all been converted from sound into something else in order for it to be actually recorded. You cannot capture music by opening a jam jar and then quickly closing the lid, it has to be changed into something else – bumps in wax, electric current or zero’s and ones. This idea of some kind of purity via vinyl is ridiculous and i played the stuff for the first 21 years of my (so far) 51 year life. It has its own district quality (“sonic comfort zone” sums it up perfectly) and if you like that great but please don’t pontificate to others that it is the only true playback format.

    • Well stated. Thanks for the comment.

  • “Do they just write this stuff as click bait?”

    Well there is that but above it all is the almighty $ buck.
    I know this comment will ring a bell with you,
    “Because it’s good for commerce”
    From the manufacturers of the vinyl tech gear to the people involved in High End print media and websites, and many others, just about anyone with a financial ore in that water has gotten on board. The boom in very expensive vinyl gear (even inexpensive) is putting a lot of either $ money or job security in their pockets. Look thru the pages of TAS and Stereophile and count the large expensive advertisements, same for the major audiophool websites.
    How dare you try to tell the truth about analog recording and playback! Your shooting the goose that laid the golden egg.

  • I’m getting to the point where I doubt the sincerity of writers like Valin. Along with that of the editors who vet such writings. Somewhere along the chain the article has to pass through the hands of someone who knows 0’s from 1’s, but they are all quite happy to let it slide — every single time. At some point, it ceases to look like ignorance.

  • Hi Mark,
    I recently downloaded an “expensive ” hi-res 24\192 album which is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. It is a new recording that was recorded direct to disc (vinyl) and tape at the same time. Whilst I understand the EQ used for vinyl, I expected the hi-res file to be taken from the tape feed (that is to say flat..no eq.) No such luck, what I have is an inverted doughnut.
    Thanks Mark for your efforts.

  • Ronaldo Franchini

    Dear Mark,

    You are right. Jonathan Valin is a complete idiot! He is out of our time! He lives in another archaic planet!

    • Ron, I never called Jonathan Valin and idiot. He’s certainly not. His attitude towards analog and vinyl LP is not uncommon among audio writers. It’s OK for him to offer an opinion on such things but he and I depart when he asserts things that are clearly not true.

  • Dave Griffin

    Perhaps Jonathan should compare the best analogue video recordings ever made to the best digital video recordings now made; perhaps he will prefer the look of analogue video tape to 4k or 8k at 60p.

    • Dave, this is brilliant! Although, there are directors and DPs that prefer the look of 35 mm film over digital at whatever resolution. Again, it’s a matter of personal taste. I do find it interesting that even hard core analog film fans, use digital post production methods. They’re OK with the conversion to numbers and then back again.

  • Digital video is compressed. That’s why analogue video may look better.

    • Sorry, but this is not true. The resolution of video is way better than analogue.

      • What exactly isn’t true here? Higher pixel quantities don’t seem to bring higher visual quality, better seek for ways how to make video as uncompressed as your audio files probably are!

        • “Higher pixel quantities don’t seem to bring higher visual quality.” Have you experienced 4K or UHD native video with high dynamic range? It has much more resolution and visual quality than 35 mm film through a projector. The schemes for compressing video can admittedly go damage to the original capture but all source media (analog and digital) have to submit to compression. The best imagery was can experience is digital. Even staunch film advocates telecine their source footage to digital to do all of the post production. Video and audio are fundamentally different. We can live with a small drop out in video but not in audio.

          • “Have you experienced 4K or UHD native video with high dynamic range?” If I watch not from 3 metres distance, why would I need a large TV screen? High dynamic range can make imageries look hyperrealistic. Moreover, small pixels hardly aid in delivering best video quality. “It has much more resolution and visual quality than 35 mm film through a projector.” Do you mean a video not edited in digital? “The schemes for compressing video can admittedly go damage to the original capture but all source media (analog and digital) have to submit to compression.” Then, why not use a lossless video compression (H.265 has such function, albeit on a poor level)? As an example: DVD-A uses lossless MLP (once 3000$ for the .dll file) while there exists lossless OptimFROG (free) which is superior. Modern computers and current Internet speeds are sufficient to handle lossless video. “We can live with a small drop out in video but not in audio.” I personally can’t stand FLAC (apparently lossy) and the lossy video that has become a standard nowadays.

          • If you don’t like the FLAC files then simply decode them back to the original WAV. The format (and MLP) are truly lossless as a comparison of the source and restored version are bit for bit identical.

          • I wrote in haste about MLP. Actually, MLP is lossy too!

          • Actually, MLP is truly lossless. I’m not sure where you heard otherwise. I’ve personally done the data comparison. I got back everything that was in the source. MQA is lossy but that’s another thing.

          • I do decode FLAC to WAV, and that’s not because I don’t prefer the former format. I hugely suffer from not wielding 64-bit WAV native format. As to FLAC, MLP and the likes: when a file is compressed with OptimFROG, it gets greatly reduced in size, but still retains its stable 1411 kbps throughout, i.e. this technique doesn’t cut ‘unnecessary’ bits! This is the difference.

          • What are you going to gain with a 64-bit WAV file? MLP and FLAC don’t lose any bits…that’s the whole point of a lossless codec.

          • True natural response. MLP and FLAC don’t provide stable 1411 kbps bitrate throughout the sound track. That’s the whole problem.

          • Perhaps I’m confused. Not MLP and FLAC encodes of high-resolution audio don’t result in a 1411 kbps bitrate…nor are they supposed to. So how is that a problem. MLP, for example, a verified lossless algorithm can provide 6 channels of 96/24 PCM within a bandwidth of 10 Mbps. That’s what it was designed to do and why it was chosen for the DVD-Audio format.

          • FFV1 (version 1) provides the best compression for FullHD video

          • But if this codec is not widely used in consumer equipment, then it doesn’t really matter if it’s the best.

          • And that’s the reason not to use H.265 at all, yet it can compress losslessly and you may take advantage of it. I am for fully uncompressed video because a two-hour DVDV-resolution film with incredible sound will take up only around 400 GB disk space not seeing the immaturity of laser disc technology, although a petabyte disc already exists. But then how does it come that OptimFROG not only preserves 1411 kbps but also provides the best compression?

          • I’ll have to investigate OptimFROG because I don’t know about it. But I don’t understand the focus on 1411 as some sort of magic number. I don’t see any reason to restrict bandwidth to that of a CD? We can already provide CD streaming today without compression.

          • Even with FFV1, overall visual quality deteriorates somewhat. Not mentioning FFV1 in video and OptimFROG in audio are both under free licence, meaning that they are hardly suitable for commercial spread. This is why uncompressed is the sole choice for video, however, OptimFROG seems to be useful, but it is not very common, to say the least. Wave files are good, but OptimFROG can preserve their bandwidth full while making the files twice as small.

          • So, the question is as simple: how to live with MLP’s and especially FLAC’s variable bitrate?

          • If they’re lossless (and they are), then who cares about the variable bitrate process?

          • thamini

            variable bitrate is not synonimous with lossless

  • Musiclover

    M. Fremer put some videos on YouTube, comparing records with CDs, to prove analogue sounds better than digital (see for example David Bowie: “After all”).

    I say, if you don’t like what’s coming out of your CD player, try a better CD recording.

    • Mr. Fremer likes what he likes and he’s entitled to his opinion. Many people disagree with his assessments, I’m one of them.

  • He’s enamoured by distortion as are all vinyl fanatics. It’s the same reason I turn my Marshall amp to 12 when I play the lead part on my Les Paul.

  • Dave Griffin says it well….look at the quality of the recordings. Many digital recordings are terrible and many analog recordings are terrible…. analog tends to be more forgiving to slightly bad recordings than is digital… because high resolution digital is so revealing, a not so great recording sounds even worse than it would have on an analog setup which obscures some of the not so great details.

  • “No matter what the bit rate, no matter what the digital delivery system, you simply cannot ‘sample’ the continuous-time sound of instruments or vocalists, turn it into discrete-time numbers, and then turn those discrete-time numbers back into instruments or vocalists without losing some of the very continuousness of presentation—the dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres—that is the very breath of musical life.”

    This in incorrect. First of all, all you have to do is sample faster than the human ear can hear. At the very best it can theoretically hear a difference every half cycle of 20 kHz or 1/40,000 of a second. But RBCD samples every 44,000ths of a second so it is faster. All you need is that the increments in amplitude, that is the number of bits per word be of smaller increments than the human ear can differentiate over a dynamic range of musical sounds. 16 bits again is satisfactory with 64,000 loudness levels. Furthermore, all it takes is an “integrator” such as a shunt capacitor to make a smooth transition from one loudness level to another. This is how radio signals are detected for example. In an AM radio broadcast the IF frequency is 455 kHz which is the analog equivalent of sampling rate, that is to say the peak amplitude is modulated at that frequency and after detection an integrator connects the dots. So the fact is that not only is this writer wrong, he’s wronger than wrong. He’s not a writer, he’s a wronger. 🙂

  • Keith Jackson

    I am lately enjoying TV watching it on a vintage 1980 cathode ray tube console by RCA.
    The washed out colors and lines on the screen not to mention the narrow picture pack a much more emotional punch than today’s soulless digital TV . Not to mention the programming of say Chalie’s Angels Vs Breaking Bad.

    I picked up a 1995 dialup modem today on the real market. I always solved the wonderful anticipation of waiting for a page to load on my computer back then. I could actually click on a site and go have lunc, then the page would be up.

    As far as audio, don’t get me started. Only cylinders ever sounded natural and have the depth and feeling of real music.


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