Why does digital reliability suck, big-time, in the real world?

Dear dCS owners

Whilst jogging this morning, I was musing on the vaguely inexplicable observation that digital music playback systems seem - in the real world - to be far more unreliable and generally tweaky than analogue. This runs directly counter to what we had all simplistically assumed, and what we are usually told.

I’m NOT saying we have been lied to. But! Every high resolution digital playback system I have used in the last 20 years has displayed unacceptably high levels of unreliability and unpredictable behaviour, clearly worse than analogue vinyl players. And the more modern digital technologies – including otherwise impeccable devices like Auralic and dCS DACs and servers - are actually worse than most. And this is not just my experience – many relatives and acquaintances seem to have suffered in this way, as well as some folk I happen to respect (yes, there are a few…) in the higher-end music mags and companies. But they don’t always go public. So, what is going on here?

I believe a possible explanation may lie in deep-physics, and namely the emergent properties of complex systems. OK, I can hear your head bouncing off the table right now, but bear with me… a classic exemplar of emergent properties is the human brain. Many neurobiologists suspect that the complexity of this system – notably its 10 billion neurons and complex connection topologies – lead to such otherwise inexplicable phenomena as personality or consciousness.

Now think about other complex technologies – like, for instance, cars or PCs. Yep, we all know these can be pesky, unreliable and generally have a mind of their own! Now compare digital and analogue music playback in conceptual, entropic and system terms, Digital systems are far more complex – especially when you include ancillary technologies such as WiFi, the Internet and PCs; by comparison, analogue is low in parts count, subtle but basically far simpler and with less things to break. And analogue doesn’t depend on software!! (See below).

That’s why digital playback goes wrong more often and typically in unpredictable ways. Analogue may suffer from misalignments, mechanical wear or physical damage, but you can very nearly always identify a simple reason or explanation as to why this has happened. By contrast, digital breakdowns or problems tend to be inexplicable, semi-random or just downright bizarre. And digital devices are clearly capable of just sulking if the mood takes them.

Sounds familiar?

In case you think of some counter-arguments, I give you two:

  • Televisions are equally complicated, but tend to be far more reliable. OK, but TVs are also mass-produced, with larger production runs giving more opportunity to chase out the bugs. Moreover, QA/QC is better for the good companies– critical things like panels or chipsets are rigorously tested and suspect or substandard components weeded out. Bespoke, low production-run digital tech simply doesn’t have these advantages.

  • NASA moon shots. The reason these cost trillions of dollars, at least in part, was due to fanatical QA/QC of every single component, system and subsystem, together with massive and exhaustive analysis of possible contingencies, and heavily enforced backup capabilities, Even so, shit happened quite regularly with shuttles, cabin fires etc.

Addendum: my brother, also a physicist by training and career, has a slightly different spin. He has likewise had his nose repeatedly rubbed in digital flakiness and unreliability. As someone who wrote shedloads of scientific software in his time, he thinks that the complexity of most serious modern software is primarily to blame. Combined, that is, with 1) use of languages like C that don’t enforce proper memory handling and 2) the nearly impossibility of considering in advance all the so-called contingencies and ‘corner cases’ - especially if they involve error handling.

Same observation, different hypotheses – you choose!

But digital reliability still sucks. Sorry.


Hi Jon,

I am sorry to hear that the digital age does not do it for you. It does not sound familiar to me at all.

I read from your profile information that you are deeply into photography, and I see a Canon rig you use. I guess this is a digital camera. Are you having the same problems with your digital cameras too?

My digital set-up has been rock solid for some time now. The only recent issue occurred after a brief storm related power outage that required me to power off then on my switch, my SGC device running Roon and my Upsampler and DAC. Other than that Roon and my DCS gear are s0mething I don’t think about

Folks Hi

Well, that’s great for you! But please don’t assume a facile individual instance applies to everyone. That’s somewhat lazy thinking. And not very rigorous or scientifically valid, moreover.

As pointed out repeatedly by people in parallel threads, the argument that ‘… but my system is OK…’ is frankly irrelevant and utterly misses the point. And it really doesn’t help anyone. I am sure we can find lots of folk very easily whose system is OK. Or who don’t have COVID. Or for whom it’s not raining in their home town today. Or who smoked 50 fags every day of their life and didn’t die of lung cancer. Negative arguments like this completely miss the point, which is a generic and probabilistic one.

Ah… the photo of me with a Canon ‘Big White’. Again, a specific instance giving a misleading generalised conclusion. Actually, I dislike rather dislike Canon’s oversized and over-heavy ‘jelly mold’ cameras with their generic specs and ample ‘cripple hammer’ applications. The lazy but not the best choice. Having used most things over the last 30 years, I actually far prefer Olympus and Nikon; one of the main reasons is their impeccable standard of build and engineering, together with superior QA/QC leading to … you guessed it … great real-world reliability in the field.

And even they go wrong sometimes. Everything does. Be thankful you’re lucky.

That’s why, like most pros I carry at least two bodies on critical shoots.

Best, Jon

PS, if your computers, tablets and WiFi never misbehave, just what kit, exactly, together with O/S and apps, are you using? I really, really want to know, so I can get me some. some of that…

I have been a ‘Power’ computing user for decades, and still get baffled and amazed sometimes at their antics. Sp does just about everyone, including pros. Some of the stories my bro tells would curdle your brain.

I also use Nikon and Olympus cameras (and glass), and (knocking on wood) never had a problem. I build my own PCs since 1995, from parts I selected myself. I never (more knocking) had a problem I could not solve myself. In the audio world, only Cambridge Audio gear has given up on me, years ago.

Why does digital reliability suck? A couple of reasons:

  1. Complexity. In comparison to the analogue world the flexibility of digital processing has allowed the addition of numerous features which would not have been attempted otherwise. Unfortunately these features are not always fully tested because:

  2. The speed of change and competition. The business requirement to meet strict dates allows products that are really still in development stage to reach the market in order to gain advantage over competitive products. A classic example of this was CD which was marketed some years before it was fully ready for the big time.

My main source of digital unreliability currently is digital kitchen timers. They never last longer than about 18 months. In fact I now buy in pairs, one to use and one to get out of storage when the first fails right in the middle of making dinner. I have tried many different models. Always the same.

I have probably been a user of dCS equipment for a longer period and with experience of more models than most people on this forum. I can confidently say that, overall, reliability has improved over the years. However that does not mean that these highly complex machines are without problems. Looking back over 22 + years one main area of failure has been with those components NOT made by dCS i.e. disc transport mechs. I recall needing no fewer than 4 replacement OPUs for my Verdi. Thanks Sony. I required one service for the Esoteric UMK5 transport in Paganini as a drive cog failed ( a part that is known to have a limited life in use - thanks Teac). Nothing yet to report on the new D&M mech in the Rossini Transport ( fingers crossed). I have had a few other issues ( failed control board in either Elgar or Purcell - a long time ago) and a couple of others including with Vivaldi. All fixed promptly.

Meanwhile back in analogue world, in over 56 years I have never had a turntable/arm/cart fail nor a pre-amp, nor an amplifier nor a speaker. I did once need an FM tuner realigned after 20 years of use. So Jon’s premise is correct IMO.

BTW, camera. I had a Nikon lens focussing ring bind - that’s all. Digital? The problem here is software support. I have a beautiful little Fujifilm X something or other. Requires files to be transferred to computer of course. Fuji had a little program to do this called Fuji Studio. No longer supported. The camera needed its firmware upgraded to work with Win 10. Win 11 is imminent. Will Fuji provide the anticipated update? I doubt it somehow.

Erno Hi

You wrote ‘. I build my own PCs since 1995, from parts I selected myself.’

Aha! A PC hardware builder. That explains it! My bro does exactly the same thing - and his hardware is therefore rock-solid, as I’m sure yours is. I have even purchased some of it over the years. The consequence of competent home-building is that the hardware just works… until aging components, disc drives, solder joints and components start inevitably wearing out.

Even before that, however, in order to do anything useful on a PC you need an O/S, software and apps, databases, browsers etc And that’s where the trouble really starts. These are not perfect, never were and I suspect cause the overwhelming majority of user glitches in the real world.

It is unfortunate that dCS devices - and PCs - need firmware, software and data to be of any use! Without these, however, they are just shiny bricks.

And back to the core of this thread, it is these imperfect but regretfully essential adjuncts to the hardware that probably explain why digital high-end audio components tend to misbehave more than analogue front -ends.

Sorted. Simples.

Or does anyone disagree? J

Hi Jon,

Sorry, disagree. I think it is more a matter of having, or not, a feeling for digital.

In general, I always am very gentle and patient with electronics, be it computers or audio equipment. Specially digital gear asks for understanding. I think if you do not have affinity with it, like I do not have with mobile stuff, you are set back from the start, and problems await you.

Not so much the gear itself is faulty, but its underlying ignorance of the user’s experience to deal with it.

It is often not user-friendly: not easy to learn, use, understand, or deal with.

Hi Emo

Naturally, it is your right to disagree; dialectic drives progress. But I must confess I find your comment a bit strange and also need to set a few facts straight.

In my main career as an environmental scientist and consultant, I worked professionally for decades with PCs, software, databases and websites. And, before that, I worked extensively with electronics as a BBC research scientist - when they still had them. I still remember manually punching out parity bits on paper tape for input to stone-age PCs. And my software teams developed real-time database-driven websites for customers all over the world. For instance, the UK National air quality website at https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/ is one of ‘mine’ So PCs and I go way back…

Therefore to imply my ignorance of user experience with these technologies is wholly erroneous.

Likewise, to imply lack of ‘affinity, gentleness, or patience’ (seriously?) with them is way off the mark. Like most pros, I have a love/hate relationship with hardware and software; I both appreciate what it can do for me, whilst at the same time accepting its manifold blatant imperfections.

Digital does suck, but we can’t do without it!

You missed my point: I did not imply your ignorance, I meant to say that digital gear often does not take into account (ignores) that humans have to operate it. It is often not user-friendly.

I’ve been 100% digital since 1986 and 100% streaming since 2002. During that time I only experienced two unpredictable events significant enough to mention. The first involved an update to Netflix iPad app that, apparently, improperly implemented upnp resulting in my Naim streamers to stop working when someone on the network watched a Netflix movie. It was weird but I was able to diagnose the problem in a few days. After providing my findings to both Naim and Netflix an update to the Netflix app was published and the problem solved. Other than that my two Naim streamers worked flawlessly other than having to reboot them once or twice a year due to connection loss. My digital audio system has been completely reliable with at least a 99.9% uptime since 1986. It is difficult for me to view digital audio as being unreliable. Most issues I’ve read about are the result of improper setup and general incompetence.

What you’re missing is that a digital failure is obvious while analog might be subtle. Do people complain when their turntable revolves at 32.1634 rpm? Also the feature set in digital replay is extensive vs analog. Imagine a completely analog system that allowed gapless playback of playlists via a user’s record collection. Do you believe the analog solution would be more reliable?

This is called: Nostalgia. Hopefully it does not hurt :laughing:
Some brands are reliable, some are less and other much less.
It is not about technology, it is about the quality of the industrial design and implementation you set up to build the products….It applies to every industry.

I’m a big consumer of digital — audio (including dCS), photography, car, work — and I have to say it has not been problematic. There’s the occasional glitch or bug, but that’s about it. In fact, given how interconnected and complex anything digital is, I’m surprised it works as well as it does.

The biggest problem in my view is often the user experience design. I’ve been in the field of UX design since 1996 and I often get frustrated at how little some companies seem to put into designing the experience of using their products.

Digital tools often have a bias towards technically-inclined people. But my wife and even worse her father often struggle with the unintuitive-ness of digital experiences. They sometimes seem to end up in odd corner case scenarios, and I often have no idea how they got there and it can take some tinkering to figure out how to get out of it.

But on your Addendum, I would agree. Software is built on top of software is built on top of software. In my career, that sometimes limited what we could do about the UX. Even newer software eventually gets complicated.


And don’t assume because you can’t keep yours up and running that many of us go hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month without any issues what so ever.

Yes, two or three years ago I had a couple of month period where I introduced a Orbi mesh network and then tried and returned a gigaFoil and Keces power supply before settling on my current set-up. The Orbi support was the worst I have ever encountered with any product but I finally got everything settled in.

I visit the Roon community daily and can’t understand where all the issues come from.


I am 67 and have been heavily invested in digital and analogue in the music world for so long … and I have no agreement to your words. I have had however innumerable television sets fail - again to contradict your statement . No DCS product has let me down. Components can fail for any number of reasons and clearly you are not in any business to understand that. My answer in response to your strange assertions, is in the plural and they bounce.

Your age does not excuse your rudeness, the first I have encountered in this esteemed community. I won’t even try to respond to your feeble punny spheroids. It’s not worth it. And kindly do not respond, if your level of discourse continues on the churlish level exhibited above. You’re going to make yourself look silly.

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Digital isn’t inherently more prone to failure. Consumerism-driven, ever-accelerating, product development cycle is to blame. Less time and resources are being spent on testing and quality assurance and instead those efforts are directed to chasing the next feature set, oftentimes just solutions in search of problems. Marketing overriding engineering, feature creep, you name it.

Contrast my always-connected dCS, sporting FPGAs with millions—if not billions—of transistors running firmware compiled from likely hundreds of thousands of lines of code, embedding third-party libraries, with my First Watt amplifier having a grand total of six transistors across both channels, and make an educated guess as to which will still work as advertised 40 years from now?


Hi. Agree completely with this. There is nothing inherently problematic about digital systems per se; it’s how they are implemented in the real world that causes aggro. With my photography hat on, I can tell you that digital photography obliterates analog in performance and image quality, except in the most esoteric niches. There are good reasons for this, but it would take a long time and a bit of neurophysics to explain…

Anyway, back to digital sound. I think it comes down to what we can neatly call the 4 Cs - Complexity, Component Count and Coding. Nice.

I would add ‘Entropy’, but this applies to just about everything in the universe (probably…), and also begins with an ‘e’, which rather spoils the fun.

No takers for bets on your dCS/First Watt question. I think we all know the answer!


I can only guess; highly unlikely I’ll be around to wit by that time.

One aspect I’ve come to appreciate in dCS-land is their responsible approach of having very long replacement cycles and field upgradeability of the installed base.

True, I’m sure they do, but the driver here is probabilistic, not a commentary on dCS - or anyone else’s -QA/QC, build quality or engineering; it’s all a bit like Occam’s Razor, but applied to technology - a simpler system, less to go wrong, lower component count, fewer failure modes. Components - active or passive - age and WILL fail. Even solder joints go with time. Entropy rules and increases over time. Second law of thermodynamics.