How good or the little AudioEngine speakers? Better than most of the digital audio you can feed it. The ears do like sound that deviates very far from a smooth wave form. Harmonics are good if they are only that. They enrich the sound and establish the timbre of the musical instrument. Any other wave forms only add distortion, whether it is heard or not. Nevertheless, the human ear is quite good at discerning how close recorded audio comes to the original performance, particularly if that performance was produced by acoustical instruments. Distorted wave forms are easily heard, even by people who have lost some of their high frequency hearing.
The diagram above speaks volumes. Admittedly, the digital signals will look at little with some added filtering. But they won’t sound much better. As you can see, high frequencies are particularly difficult to reproduce digitally. The best that any digital recording can do is approximate an analogue signal. Naturally, the higher the sampling rate of the analogue sound the better the approximation.
How about high resolution audio downloads which involve very high speed sampling rates? Potential they are better but there are some inherent drawbacks. These downloads are expensive. Nonetheless, I would be willing to invest in them if the original source material were of high quality and musically pleasing. Unfortunately, the so-called “master tape”s that were used to make the digital transfer were often not the original master tapes at all. In many cases the original master tapes have been lost by the record producers.
On the other hand, even if original mater tapes were used there is still a chance that the recorded sound is inferior. Why? More recent recordings have been produced with dynamic range compression. This was done to make them sound better on MP3’s. The sound is dimensionally flat. This type of compression does more damage to the sound than the compression that is used merely to reduce the file size of the recorded music. It is even possible to have better sound over ACC on iTunes if the original source material is of high quality.
How would we describe high quality source material? It is recorded with minimal miking. Better yet, it is recorded on analogue tape as opposed to digital. An added bonus might be that tube electronics were used instead of solid state in the recording process. Some of the best sounding recordings I have ever heard were on the Mercury Living Presence label. Under the direction of recording engineer C. Robert Fine and recording director David Hall, Mercury used minimal miking, tube electronics, and often 35mm magnetic film instead of half-inch tape for recording. Some would argue that the sound would be better if not tape was used at all. (Do we remember the Sheffield label which recorded sound directly to disc?)
High resolution digital recordings over the internet may be the future. But for now, I would say that more development is needed. Right now the selection of recordings is limited. We need new recordings done well. That day is coming because some of the musicians who care about their sound are insisting on it. In the meantime, vinyl records are the best answer to analogue. Those smooth audio waves have been mechanically inscribed in the vinyl. They just need to be traced accurately.
Vinyl has its limitations, however. It can de damaged over time, especially if not handled properly. It needs to be cleaned occasionally. The playback stylus needs to be properly cleaned and replaced when worn. The tonearm needs to be properly balanced. The tracking angle of the cartridge needs to be set accurately. The anti-skating mechanism needs to be adjusted properly. The tracking weight is very critical. Too much will destroy the record over time. And too little will cause mistracking and damage the record. The turntable most have accurate and steady rotational speed. It must have inaudible rumble. All these requirements usually require very expensive solutions.
More people have not experienced the joy of vinyl because of the expense. Cheap record players cannot be expected to compete with quality separate components. But I believe we have found a quality all-in-one turntable, tonearm, and cartridge that will come close to the true analogue sound. Let us say that it will almost equal an expensive record playback system. The last five percent of the overall quality may be missing, but it will sound clearly superior to almost any CD playback system. And it is very affordable.
Audio Technica AT-LP60 Fully Automatic Belt Driven Turntable will do the job. It is belt driven. (Never buy a direct drive turntable. The motor needs to be isolated from the platter.) It has a very nice sounding Audio Technica dual magnetic phono cartridge with replaceable stylus. Noise is inaudible. The tonearm and cartridge have already been set up for us and perform beautifully. Many audiophiles will dismiss this product because of its price – under one hundred dollars. They are the ones who will tell you that they have more money than that in their speaker cables.
But if you want to really enjoy your music with minimum fuss and expense, this turntable is the one you are looking for. It will enable you to enter the world of true analogue sound at the least expense. You will have enough money to go out and look for those vintage old vinyl records whose sound has not been surpassed and buy a few of them. Just be sure that they have not obvious scratched. Then bring them home and wash them with dishwashing liquid. Use a good record brush and stylus cleaner and you are good to go.