Battle Of The Sounds: Analog Vs Digital

It is a fight we are all very familiar with: the battle of analog versus digital sound. Purists have always preferred analog, and they will passionately defend their position. Those who prefer digital are usually not so avid of supporters, but will have more than one point to back up their choice.

Either way, it brings up a question that my friend Ian Ainslie always asks: is analog actually better than digital? Or has the format been over hyped and deified based on nostalgia alone?

The Pros Of Analog

Most commonly, you will hear analog enthusiasts mention the sound itself when considering the pros of the format. By most accounts, it has a ‘warmer‘ tone, and sounds more alive than its digital counterpart. This is due to a lack of enhancements that have become standard for digital formats. Analog is all natural, and you have no audio bandwidth restrictions with analog, such as bitrate and sampling rate. The type of recordings that are put in analog formats are also different. You are limited in how you edit analog, and so it is impossible to go back and make constant changes. Anyone who has heard some of the final products that come out of recording studios now will see the benefit of this. Analog music is less likely to have been interfered with by executives, who commonly step in and change music today. Things are over compressed to make them as loud as possible.

analog v digital

The Pros Of Digital

The sound of digital formats are a lot more clear, because they can be easily enhanced and remastered. It does lose the warm tones of analog when this is done, but it becomes suitable for new media uses. For example, you can quickly enhance and incorporate a digital file into a video, game, or other multimedia. Convenience is the primary pro of digital. It is easy to record, edit, and use. There are a large number of editing tools, and you can record in multiple formats (hard disc, optical, RAM, ect). Plus, you can clone data, then transmit it quickly and effectively over networks.

The Cons Of Analog

Obviously, the biggest con here is that analog has gone out of style. It is no longer easy to get a hold of, and it just isn’t used anymore. The materials deteriorate over time, constant maintenance is necessary to protect recordings, and it is hard to find the equipment needed to record to listen to it. The more you copy it, the more the sound will deteriorate, and sound pollution (distortion and hissing) is common. When it comes to data, there is very limited space with analog.

The Cons Of Digital

While analog deteriorates, digital corrupts. Data files can become unusable, and when a certain level of corruption occurs it probably won’t be possible to recover it. During work with a digital file, you are at constant risk of a computer crash. If not saved diligently, changes can be lost. Sound performance is decreased, as mentioned in the pros. The warmer, more natural sounds of analog are lost when you switch to digital. Instead you get those crisp, clear, but harsh sounds that come with electronics.

Which Is Better?

Needle on the RecordThat depends on what you are needed with the recordings. If you are a music enthusiast who just wants to listen to something beautiful, there is no way to beat the classic analog tones. You will be closer to the actual source, as though you are there listening to it in person. Digital formats create a disconnect there, and can take you away from the experience.

On the other hand, trying to convert analog for use in a multimedia project is incredibly inconvenient. The use of digital is so much easier, plus it is enhanced for better use in that way. So both have their pros and cons, and it will come down to your preference.

Personally, I prefer analog. But my experience is based on that of a listener, not someone who is using audio for any kind of professional or creative project. If I were, I would go to digital as the most efficient means of transferring and using audio. Do you have an opinion on the matter? What makes you like one over the other? Leave a comment!


Sennheiser HD650 Headphone Unboxing

A smaller blog post today. I treated myself to a pair of Sennheiser HD650 headphones, as it was high time to get a pair of phones decent enough to pair with the Little Dot MkIII tube headphone amplifier that I’ve been slowing rolling with new tubes since I bought the unit. I shot a quick video of the unboxing of these lovely ‘phones for the world to see.

Initial “test runs” confirmed what most people online have already said about the HD650 and the MkIII – it’s a great combination. The Little Dot has been more than warmed in, but I’ll give it a few days before I take a serious listen to the Sennheisers, just to give them a bit of time to get into the groove.

Here’s the video:


How Vinyl Went From Zero To Hero

I don’t pretend to have the gift of prophecy. I am by no means a soothsayer, but something that I said would come to pass actually has. And that makes me grin from ear to ear. Not because a latent sixth sense has awoken within me, but because the topic was the ever popular vinyl vs CD debate and, more importantly, how vinyl would ultimately prevail.

It must have been about five years ago that I proclaimed “With the rise of online digital music, CDs will become more and more redundant and vinyl, that musical dinosaur that steadfastly refused to kick the bucket, will continue to shine and outlast its digital counterpart.”

What I saw coming was that online digital media would be a nail in the coffin of the CD for the same reason that CDs (almost) killed off vinyl – mp3s, ma, ogg vorbis and the like offer a more convenient means of storage for music. They take no space and they offer reasonable sound quality (heftier files types like wav and FLAC are needed to get better levels of reproduction). You can carry entire music collections around on devices that fit into the palm of your hand.

When CDs were blasted into the consciousness of the the world, we were told that they offered “Pure digital sound” with no crackles or pops and that the discs were far less cumbersome than 12” pieces of PVC. CDs were the laser guided future (nobody mentioned that CDs had their own version of being scratched and needed similar levels of care to ensure that the laser could read the digital code burned onto the silver disc).

Vinyl CuttingWhat we now see is a repeat of the process – the new kid on the block offers the same sound quality as the CD, but takes even less space and comes with all sorts of troublesome advantages such as portability and no vibrations of the dis while its being read by the laser. And let’s not forget the most troublesome – shareability. Troublesome for the music industry that was more than happy to profit from everyone re-buying their music on the wonderful new format. Some might also remember that CDs cost more than LPs and were touted as a luxury item, despite the fact that production costs were on a par with those of LPs…

With the new kid, you don’t even need to nip out to the shops to get your hands on your fave artist’s new album. Just spend five minutes online and download it instead. And who knows, you might even get your wallet out to actually buy the music online. With that kind of competition, the demise of the CD was inevitable.

On the other hand, however, vinyl initially took a kicking as CDs all but killed it off in the eighties and nineties. Demand plummeted as everyone jumped on the digital bandwagon (myself included, before I came to my senses). Pressing plants closed and those that remained were kept alive by two very different types of client; the Dj’s insatiable appetite for 12” vinyl to spin at raves and the audiophile’s insatiable appetite for the warmth of analog over the harshness of the compact disc.

Gradually, there was a role reversal, whereby CDs became the norm and special edition pressings of LPs became the luxury item, produced for the more discerning fan. In the long run, though, vinyl played on its strengths to make a comeback – tangibility. High quality cardboard gatefold sleeves. 180 gram discs that not only lend a feeling of quality to LPs, but also provide a flatter tracking surface for the needle to dig the music out from. The introduction of “virgin” vinyl, which introduced non recycled Poly Vinyl Chloride to produce the discs which are reportedly less prone to dodgy pressings. LPs frequently come with a download code, so that buyers can access digital copies of the music, without the need to rip themselves. And let’s not forget the rainbow of colours available to the pressing plant – coloured vinyl just looks so cool and (IMHO) splatter vinyl even more so.

Vinyl pressingThe tables have now been turned to such an extent that sales of vinyl rose almost 50% 2013 on 2014, with eighty million units shifted. The interesting thing for me in all of this is that the black slabs of PVC that were so openly belittled by the music industry seem to be its knight in shining armour, with record labels rushing to publish audiophile and limited edition LP pressings, while sales of of CDs continue to plummet and illegal downloading remains a thorn in the side. Yes, legitimate online purchasing of music continues to grow. For many, however, the idea of actually shelling out some cash in exchange for music is utterly foreign, when it’s so easy to just grab from a file sharing site.

So. that’s how vinyl went from being on death row to the saviour of the music industry. What do I see in the future? I think that the trend will continue. Vinyl will continue to gain fans, as people come to appreciate the ritual of placing the needle on the record and understanding that music can be enjoyed on a deeper level than just downloading and sticking on your iPhone. It won’t ever usurp online digital media, as most people really are just happy with downloading and listening on tinny speakers / earplugs. CDs will become more and more redundant for all of the reasons cited above – they are so comprehensively beaten by mp3 and the gang that they will vanish in a way that was predicted for vinyl, but never came to pass.


Why the iRiver H340 Still Rocks

In this blog post, I want to talk about the incessant drive to always be using the latest technology and gadgets. It seems that V1 of any given product is redundant in the eyes of most users pretty much as soon as it’s in their hands. Mobile phones, in particular, are symptomatic of this psychology. It’s no uncommon for a smartphone to cost around $500 when it’s first released. 18 months later, when the release of V2 is broadcast to the world, everybody just HAS to be using it. To behave otherwise is blasphemy.

OK, slight exaggeration, but you get my point. So, what’s the reason behind this rant into cyberspace? The iRiver H340 multi codec jukebox. Most people reading this won’t have a clue what it is, what is achieved and what it does. Let’s step back in time to 2004, when the mighty iPod was still using monochromatic screens, people still referred to mp3 players as “mp3 players” (instead of “ipods”) and the iPhone three years away (in the world of haute-gadgetry, that’s practically a millennium). The iRiver was the first mp3 player in the world to have a full colour screen. That is to say, it brought colour to a world of drab white Apple products. It also boasted this outrageous spec list:

  • TFT LCD 260,000 pixel colors
  • 20 Hz ~ 20,000 Hz frequency range
  • Audio playback of MP3, OGG, WMA, ASF and WAV files
  • FM Radio
  • 16 hours playback time
  • Viewing JPG and BMP pictures
  • Viewing TXT files
  • Viewing XviD AVI videos encoded at 10 frames per second
  • Recording via microphone to MP3
  • Recording via line in to MP3
  • Recording of FM Radio to MP3
  • USB v2.0 Device Interface
  • USB v1.1 On-The-Go Host Interface
  • 40gb hard drive
  • 3.5mm phono jack line out

Yeah, you read that right – not only did it play practically every format on the planet, but it allowed you to record through an inbuilt mic or a 3.5mm jack input. And it offered a simple plug and play interface with your laptop / computer, where it was recognised as a USB drive. None of that massively restricting iTunes BS that the Apple fandom decided was an acceptable way to up/down load music. So, it did everything you could possibly want an mp3 player to do at the time. It also featured something that I’ve not seen anywhere else (feel free to correct me, though…). It also acted as a USB host, which meant that you could connect USB sticks and copy/paste the files to your iRiver!

Here’s the most important thing – it did all this and it sounded good. What it played sounded great. What it recorded sounded great. In tests against the iPod, it always faired much better. So, with all of this in its favour why did it sink without trace and allow the iPod to sink its claws into the world’s mobile ears?

Two reasons that I can see. Firstly, the iRiver looks like a brick. There’s no getting around the fact. It doesn, in fact, look more than a little like the iBasso that is doing the rounds at the moment. While the iPod wasn’t much of a look at the time when the two went directly head to head, the subsequent iPod generation added the multi colour screen and just looked slimmer and slicker. This is what mine looks like today:

iRiver H340

Secondly, it’s no understatement to say that Apple knew/knows how to market a product. And that’s exactly what they did to obliterate the iRiver and, let’s not forget, giants like Sony that were also in the competing mp3 sphere.

So, what relevance does this forgotten dinosaur have today? I bought mine in 2005 and was thrilled with it. I used it so much that the battery died. And that was when it was consigned to the loft for an age and opted for a Sony NWZ-A845. Until about six months, when brought it back in to the land of the living. I remembered with fondness how much I loved the iRiver and, after watching this video, it underwent something of a reincarnation. I bought and installed a new battery (which to this day works and holds charge very nicely). But that was just the beginning…

Remote ControlAfter the new battery came the wonderfully sturdy and robust cradle to hold my baby while it plays sweet music in a domestic setting. Then, thanks to the joy of Ebay, came the full-spec remote control with backlit screen, which makes it child’s play to navigate the folders and files without the need to take the iRiver out of your pocket. But best of all, in the interim years when it was sitting forgotten in a dark corner, FLAC files had come in to being and offered audiophiles a convenient way to listen to high quality music files, without the bulk of a wav file and some smart cookie had coded up something called RockBox. Which allowed me to update the unit’s software so that it can play FLAC files.

So we now have a role reversal, where the slick and slim Sony NWZ-A845 now sits in darkness and the iRiver is my go to “mobile audio unit”. The NWZ didn’t stand a chance. I have compared the H340 to the audio output from my resplendent Sony Xperia (which also plays FLAC files), but it a totally one-sided fight. The iRiver was built to do one thing – play and record audio files. The Xperia (and, I assume, all other smartphones) are built with different criteria in mind and contain all kinds of other hardware. It’s like comparing a hi fi separates system to a Dewalt jobsite radio. But I jest…

Yes, it would be easier to just use my slimline smartphone, just as most people do. Yes, it’s chunky and draws horror-filled looks from fellow commuters, but the pros outweigh the cons for me. It delivers what I crave – quality audio reproduction on the go. It allows me to listen to FLAC files and I get to record my precious vinyl direct to wav or mp3. It may look like a brick, but it’s built like one, too. I recall dropping it before its rebirth and there’s even a few small scratches, but it keeps on kicking. I can’t imagine that the same could be said for an iPad or an iPhone and the many cracked screens that I’ve seen on the London Underground seem to prove that point.

So, to come back to my original point – you just don’t need to be on the eternal upgrade bandwagon. There’s always going to be another new generation just around the corner. Getting the newest, shiniest object is not always the way to go. Sometimes, old tech is just as good as the new stuff.


Little Dot Mk III Tube Rolling

So, today I did a quick video for my YouTube Channel. It was looking very void and quite unloved… Shame on me! The precursor to this was a little gift my wife bought me for Christmas (2014) – a pair of Electro Harmonix 6H30Pi tubes to help me squeeze the very best out of my beloved Little Dot Mk III.

I have never tried tube rolling before, but now I have the perfect opportunity to dip my toes in the water and get on that never-ending upgrade path. Tube rolling is one of the things I love about tube amps – there’s normally a plethora of options after purchase to get more out of what you’ve invested in. This is obviously not something available to owners of solid state amps.

Why chose the Electro Harmonix pair?

  • I have always loved the name Electro Harmonix. Not because I am a guitarist, but because of an obscure CD that I own and love. Yes, very shallow, but true.
  • This review laid it out plain and simple and made the decision easy: Little Dot Tube Amps: Vacuum Tube Rolling Guide

    A good reason and a bit of a dumbass reason. Either way, the next step is to get the tubes all warmed up and ready to listen to. More on that at the right time!

    Here’s the video in question…


Little Dot MK III Headphone Vacuum Tube Amp

Those who are looking for a sublime audio experience have to get a pre-amp that delivers some proper stabilization and oomph. Vacuum tube amps have become the style of choice for most audiophiles and musicians. But what brand offers the best sound quality, and within a decent price range?

First, the Little Dot MK III headphone amp has the distinction of providing a large number of compatible formats, which was the first thing I noticed when I found it. It works with EF92, CV131, WE403A/B, 5654, M8100, CV4010, EF95, 6JI, and all equivalents to those tubes. Which means (for those that are always on the upgrade path) there’s plenty of tube rolling options.

Second, I noticed that it was specifically made with high impedance headphones in mind. The double gain switches put the control firmly in your hands, and work with the highest quality headphones on the market. That isn’t reflected in the price, which is set on Amazon at less than $290.

little dot mkiii

Who Likes This Amp

Normally, the immediate assumption would be that this was an amp for people who love clarity in their music, the typical auidophile, for want of a better (or more overused term). Which it is, just not exclusively. Quite a few Mark IIIs are finding their way computer audio setups. People are downloading albums in Lossless Formats nowadays and the typical jackplug on a laptop or desktop is hardly headphone ambrosia. Headphone amps like this offer a genuine way to hear the music with much greater clarity and definition.

My Personal Oppinion

It’s no secret that I am a fan of all things analog and anything that has glowing glass tubes sticking out of it. The Little Dot was the first vacuum amp I bought, for three specific reasons:

1. After significant research, I couldn’t find a dissatisfied customer. That’s always a very positive sign. The fact that there had been relatively little mainstream media reviews (a la What Hifi) did nothing to dissuade me.

2. I needed a headphone amp, as listening to music at the kind of volume that I want to is not always practicable (sleeping kids don’t like Iron Maiden…). I figure, if you’re going to listen to music through headphones on a frequent basis, it’s best to improve the signal path as much as possible. The Mark III serves that purpose perfectly.

3. It’s cheap. Not cheap as in it will fall apart a month after purchase, but cheap as in cost effective and the manufacturers don’t have to cover massive advertising budgets with increased costs.

Here’s a video of me unboxing this marvellous headphone amp when I first got it:

I still think that it looks fantastic! Set aside the tube for just a moment and look at the brushed aluminium fascia. Just lovely and surprisingly thick. The volume know is a solid hewn piece of aluminium too. The whole unit has a certain heft to it, which speaks quality.

Bottom line: Partner this little delight well (with something like the Sennheiser HD650s and a decent source) and you’re very likely to be surprised at what such a relatively little sum can do.


Why People Still Prefer Vinyl

A couple of months ago I was at a second hand shop I like to frequent. Just as always, I inevitably found myself drifting toward the “electronic/media/obscure items that must have been sold as a device at some point but I have no idea what it is” section.

One thing that caught my eye purely for nostalgia’s sake was one of those mass cases for cassette tapes. You know the ones, with the built in plastic slots that carry 20+ tapes at a time. It was full with some of the most awful music that time forgot, and I was tempted to buy it just to have such treasures as Donny Osmond’s Christmas At Home in my audio collection. Somehow, I resisted the urge. As I assume everyone else did, considering it was still there two weeks later.

the glory of vinylThe reason I bring this up is that in contrast to the lack of interest in audio tapes, there is always a crowd around the vinyl section of that same store. One of the flea markets near me has four different vendors that specialize in vinyl alone, and they are always doing a good trade.

Archaic (yes, I said it) formats for music are often swept under the rug, in time. You don’t buy cassettes anymore, or 8-tracks, and even CD’s are pretty much entirely obsolete. On the other hand, fans of records have continued to collect, and you can find them everywhere.

What is it about vinyl that people still adore, decades after the format fell out of style?

The Sound

You have probably heard the claim before about the sound quality of vinyl versus digital formats. Unless you are a well versed music fan, you may have trouble discerning the superior quality, simply because the style of recording is so different.

But vinyl has a clean, pure sound that digital music lacks. It may not be as crisp, but that is part of its charm. There are no enhancements, and the sound quality hasn’t been mangled due to file compression, which is necessary to fit music files onto devices or high-performance disks.

The Price and Variety

Go to any flea market or second hand store, just as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, and you will find a lot of vinyl for sale. Around my town, you can get as many as five records for a dollar, picking and choosing. Sometimes people will sell whole boxes of records without even looking at what they are selling (like in the story below).

You can buy a wide variety of incredible music, some from artists you have never heard of, for next to nothing. One love I discovered after I started collecting vinyl more seriously was obscure soul singers from the 1960’s. You never know what will catch your attention, and what will become a life long obsession.

The Lost Gems

Back in 2011, an Air Force base located in the Pacific Ocean came forward with an ultra-rare collection of vinyl records that had been found by soldiers stationed there. It was estimated in worth between $90k and $120k, and captured the imagination of record collectors everywhere.

This is one of many interesting stories about people finding rare gems in unlikely places. It doesn’t just happen with vinyl, but also with earlier records such as 78’s prior to vinyl adoption. The owner of the infamous Jerry’s Records store ended up with a rare copy of Robert Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” after purchasing a random box of old records from someone who found them in an attic.

Vinyl Never Dies

Fans of vinyl will always swear by the format, and for good reason. Nothing is quite as exciting as listening to a newly purchased record, even if it is barely playable. It has a little extra something that digital music just can’t compare to. Partner your turntable with a tube amp and things will really start to sing!

So, next time you are moving through that second hand shop, and you catch sight of the old records others have discarded, take a little peak. You could make the next big vinyl rediscovery, or just find a new passion in yourself that you never expected.

Or, you will just find some cool music. That’s great, too.


Everything You Need To Know About Vacuum Tube Amplifiers

The battle of audio equipment rages on. Everyone, from radio DJ’s to rock stars to record producers, maintain their own personal favorites in the world of electronics. Some prefer vinyl, some prefer digital. This is one of the fields of work where it isn’t unusual to find professionals that blatantly refuse to use anything outside of their own beloved brand or category. Even to the point of refusing work if those demands are not met. Some of this can be blamed on old fashioned snobbery, if we’re honest here. But in some areas, it is more understandable. The issue of amplifiers is one of those areas.

Tubes

What Is A Vacuum Tube Amplifier?

If you are involved in the music industry, you have probably come across (or used) vacuum tube amplifiers before. Especially important in the world of electric guitars, these amplifiers are well known for creating a pure, crisp tone that is created through producing an even harmonic distortion, at least according to the experts.

In layman’s terms, a vacuum tube amplifier – aka a valve or tube amplifier – allows for a more gradual leveling of signals that sounds better than the more harsh and sudden drop found with transistors. Tube amplifiers also tend to be cheaper, easier to repair, and both smaller and lighter for greater portability. They do have their drawbacks, the biggest being their somewhat shorter lifespan. Tube amplifiers have to be regularly maintained, otherwise they will break down completely. But parts are relatively inexpensive, and easy to replace.

Types Of Vacuum Tube Amplifiers

There are a number of different types of amplifiers, and chances are you will need a collection of most. Some are for personal use, and some are designed specifically for large concert or recording style ventures.

Preamplifiers – Think of a preamplifier as a little extra protection against noise pollution that could impact the sound of your instrument. It is placed next to a sensor or amplifier, to produce a very small signal. This signal stabilizes the sound, boosting the signal strength of the main cable to the instrument, while canceling out static and other noise.

Power Amplifiers – A power amplifier produces a small signal that is within the level of normal human hearing (never exceeding 20,000 Hz), for the use of loudspeakers. It would be used in conjunction with other amplifiers, such as the preamplifier, to create a complete audio playback chain.

Integrated Amplifiers – An integrated amplifier is a combination device that includes both a preamplifier and a power amplifier in one. This is a piece of equipment usually aimed at MC’s, who need other integrated services such as CD, DVD or turntables.

Mono Block Amplifiers – Unlike a stereo amplifier, which uses two mono block amps and creates one stasis, a mono block amplifier creates two separate channels. These are considered high end, more energy efficient amps, which drive at greater power for longer bursts than the typical stereo amp can.
Headphone Amplifiers – This is an amp specifically designed for use in personal headphones, and so provide less power and frequency than other amps. You find them in personal consumer devices, such as headsets.

How you choose to create a system will be based on your own preferences, but some combination is clearly necessary. For example, you may choose to use an integrated and mono block amp combo, or you may want to pick and choose all equipment by piece, and so buy an individual preamplifer, power amplifier, and stereo amp. Despite what many musicians claim, there is no right or wrong system. It will be based on what you are comfortable with, and what creates the audio chain you are looking for. Equipment quality, rather than type, is what is most important.

The Types Of Vacuum Tubes

Signal Tubes – A small-signal filtration device that causes distortion based on the overall design. It allows for the canceling of unnecessary noise within the amp, and creates a sound based on the specifications of the musician.

Power Tubes – Long tubes that are found in the back of your amp in pairs of two or more. Depending on the size, placement and design of these tubes, the sound can be slightly altered. There are a number of different types, but the most common include: EL84 and 6V6GT.

Picking Out A Vacuum Tube Amplifier

When you are looking for your own tube amp, it is important to keep a few things in mind:

This is an investment. Yes, you can find some fairly cheap amps out there. But the quality of the tubes will be compromised if you go too low. It is better to spend more on a higher quality amp than to risk purchasing one that will have to be replaced in a year.

What Watts? Depending on how loud you need to be, you will need a higher or lower level of watt. Let’s say you are buying for your electric guitar, which you are playing at home. You can get a higher watt (such as 100/w), but keeping it at a low volume will compromise the sound quality. A lower watt (such as a 5 or 10/w) amp can be played at lower volumes without that distortion. If you are playing gigs in bars, something mid-range (50/w) may be acceptable, but loud clubs need something more powerful (100/w).

Try It Before You Buy It. This one is annoying for most vendors, but they do understand. All amps are different, due to the difference in the tube sizes, shapes and design. A EL84 won’t sound like a 6V6GT. So try out the amp before you commit to buying it, and don’t be afraid to try several before you settle on the one that produces the correct sound.

Have any tips or experiences with vacuum tube amplifiers? Any questions about a specific type, or how they stack up against solid state amps? Let us know in the comments!