Friday, December 14, 2012

Steely Dan "Black Cow" - Analog/Digital Showdown

We haven't had an analog/digital music showdown here on the blog for a while (okay, we've never done it), and I've found a perfect candidate in Steely Dan's "Black Cow," the opening track to their 1977 classic Aja.  This is a terrific album, a rich, warm and jazzy pop sound that perfectly defines the late 1970s for me.  Let's see how it compares on digital (CD/mp3) and analog (vinyl LP).

The analog setup features a Thorens TD-160 belt-drive turntable, one of the true classics of analog audio.  The phono cartridge is the Audio Technica 150MLX, one of the finest moving magnet cartridges ever built.  That object of my desire, the Bellari VP-130 tube phono preamp, in fire engine red, drives the music with a wonderful warm and buttery smooth sound.  Ooh, I really love this stereo system.

The digital version was the best version I could find on YouTube.  I'm not sure if it was ripped from CD or 128bps mp3 file.  It probably wouldn't make too much difference, given YT's heavy video compressions.  But I made sure this version would sound clean and clear.

Which version do you prefer, and why?  Which version pulls you into the music, moves you more deeply?  For me, it's no contest: the analog version wins easily.  The difference is small but noticeable; percussion and bass pumps deeper, there's more groove and swing.  The vocals are more natural, warmer.  The 150MLX and Bellari make an excellent team.  Everything is more musical, and I find myself getting lost in my imagination.

The digital version is certainly very good, as it demonstrates the clarity that CDs are known for.  But doesn't it feel a little reserved, a little cold?  It's not a question of volume or bass levels; I'm just not feeling the music.  While listening, my mind tends to wander and daydream, and the song soon becomes background noise.  I'm sure that if I had the actual CD on my stereo, the experience would be better.  But I can also say the same for the vinyl LP, and that one already has a clear advantage in the YouTube arena.

I think it's too easy to dismiss LPs as old-fashioned, or dismiss CDs as inferior to analog audio.  Most everything is dependent on your stereo equipment, the quality of the LP, the quality of the turntable and phono cartridge, the quality of your CD player.  I still believe that you have to spend $500 before analog defeats digital.  On a cheap USB turntable, the digital version would easily triumph.

So we'll offer this showdown as an example of the analog/digital divide, and where they stand.  As for me, I'm getting desperate to finally rebuild my stereo system.  I want that Bellari and those vacuum tubes!!

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