By Brad Hinkle 11/23/2019
Although it's a question that really only concerns audio and video enthusiasts when it comes to having the highest quality recordings, many novices still find themselves asking which is better out of digital and analogue formats. For the most part, analogue recordings are a thing of a bygone era now that almost everyone listens to music and watches movies recorded in digital format.
All modern computers are digital in nature, including devices such as smartphones and portable media players, all of which are computers in essence. By contrast, before the advent of CD and DVD, analogue recordings were dominant, as they have been since the very first recordings or photographs. For example, audio cassettes and videotapes are analogue formats, both of which have long been obsolete. Few people lament the loss of these relatively poor-quality recordings, but there's a lot more to the comparison between digital and analogue than that when it comes to content quality alone.
How Does Digital Media Work?
All digital data is stored in the form of ones and zeros on a data storage device, whether it's a hard disk, optical disc or the built-in storage on your smartphone or portable media player. In order to play audio or video or view images in a digital format, the program or device you need to open the file reads the digital data and translates that information into meaningful content.
Digital data is by far the most versatile of the two, since it can easily be compressed and transferred between devices. Depending on the storage medium used, such as an optical disc or hard disk, the data does not lose its integrity or quality over time, since it's not a physical thing. However, all media needs to be translated into a digital format in the first place, since video, audio and images are analogue by nature.
The quality of digital media depends primarily on the file size or bit rate. In other words, the larger the file size, the better the quality. By contrast, compressed audio, video or images sacrifice quality to reduce file size. An uncompressed file will take up a lot more space, so the vast majority of media people use is compressed to a degree using a lossy compression algorithm. With regards to audio, lossless compression formats, such as FLAC, are quite widely supported, since these files offer an enormous improvement in quality over MP3. The same is true of images, in which case most digital cameras only store photos in the lossy JPG format. However, professional photographers favour lossless images in the RAW format despite the far larger file size. Digital video is almost always compressed using a lossy algorithm, since today's storage devices simply aren't large enough to store lossless video. As such, the originals of most of today's movies remain stored in analogue format on tape. Ultimately, digital media invariably has to be compressed to make it more practical.
How Does Analogue Media Work?
Analogue uses physical changes, such as fluctuations in electrical signals or mechanical movements to represent data instead of representing quantities in ones and zeros like digital devices do. For example, with analogue technology, a sound wave is recorded in its original form. The same applies to analogue cameras, in which case the image is stored physically on a negative instead of having to be translated into digital format. Take a traditional tape-based stereo system for example - the recording on the cassette is analogue, and this is read by the hardware in the cassette player before being sent to the speakers in the form of an analogue signal. In such cases, there's no digital data involved or any data compression. In other words, you're hearing the audio in more-or-less its original form, depending of course on the quality of the microphone used to record it in the first place and the quality of your speaker equipment.
Ultimately, analogue provides a more accurate representation of the original recording, since it doesn't have to be translated into ones and zeros and compressed in the process to the extent that it may further lose its original quality. However, analogue data also degrades over time to the extent that it eventually becomes unusable. Digital data, by comparison, may simply be copied over to a new storage device should it fail, and the data will remain completely unchanged.
So Which Is Better?
Solely from an enthusiast's perspective, analogue is inherently superior to digital, but only when it comes to preserving the quality of the original recording. As such, filmmakers and many professional photographers still store their original recordings in analogue format, typically in the form of tapes. With regards to audio, analogue speaker cables and connections remain the preferred choice for computer speakers, since they can deliver improved audio quality over digital connections such as SP/DIF where the data has to be compressed.
Although almost any expert will tell you that an analogue recording is superior, most consumers find it to be extremely impractical in today's world. After all, you can store hundreds of high-quality movies on even a modestly sized hard drive these days rather than filling up an entire room with analogue video cassettes. As such, digital recordings are superior in almost every other way, since they take up no physical space, they can be copied and moved around freely and the data doesn't degrade over time.
In today's digital world, analogue media is largely obsolete insofar as consumers are concerned. Nonetheless, audiophiles in particular often claim that analogue formats, specifically the vinyl, provides superior audio quality to any digital device or file format. With video content, analogue is even less relevant to consumers, since video tapes are always of far poorer quality than today's DVDs and Blu-ray, and they're no longer widely available.