Why Isn’t Digital Audio Perfect?

Digital glare. A plague of digital audio playback systems. It seems the best comment a CD player or digital source can get is to sound “analog-like,” or “as good as vinyl.” I’ve gone to great lengths to battle this in my CD-based 2-channel system but it’s never ending. My father, upon hearing my system for the first time (and at loud volumes), said this: “The treble isn’t offensive to my ears.” What a great compliment! My hard work has paid off, but the “glare” isn’t completely gone… yet.

Digital glare can manifest in multiple ways, often in the form of piercing high frequencies or “shouty” midrange frequencies. A hallmark signature is that long listening sessions, especially at louder volumes, leads to listener fatigue: your ears may hurt or you may get a slight headache that makes you want to turn the music off. Analog sources, like vinyl records or reel-to-reel tapes, don’t seem to be as plagued by this as digital sources are.

So what does digital do wrong? Is it a problem with the format or the playback hardware? Why does it take so much work to make digital sound as good or better than analog recordings? The technical specs tell us digital is far superior to vinyl or reel to reel. Does it try too hard? Where digital is trying to capture the micro details of complex passages, analog just “rounds it off” and says “good enough,” and it sounds good enough? Or does digital have some other issue in the chain – noise in the DAC chip, high frequency harmonics, or issues with the anti-aliasing filter? Does it have to do with the power supply? If you ask any audiophile, they’ll tell you that clean power is very important.

There are studies that show people subjectively prefer the sound of vinyl, even if only by a small margin. That doesn’t quite add up when we consider digital’s dominant technical specifications. On paper, digital should win.

So what’s really going on here? Why doesn’t digital knock the socks off vinyl and why does there appear to be some issue with “digital glare” in these types of audio systems that takes some serious work to resolve?

A flow of audio from sound waves through a microphone to an analog voltage, A-D converter, computer, D-A converter, analog voltage, speaker and finally as sound waves again. Image Credit: Wikipedia User: Teeks99

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