Friday, 24 October 2014

MUSINGS: Articles of Disservice - Stereophile November 2014

Over the months, I have put up posts critical of magazine articles (like this one) but I must say that the November issue of Stereophile was an "impressive" read.

I just wanted to bring up a couple of notable articles that I found interesting but highly misguided. I found these articles disturbing because they perpetuate the status quo or express an opinion that lacks constructive merit and I think ultimately do a disservice to advancing the audio hobby.

First, I think it's worthy asking ourselves, what is the "mission" of the audiophile publications? I looked around but was not able to find a page describing a "mission statement" for Stereophile. I'm sure the purpose must include informing, and educating the readership around new products. Reviewing albums to consider. Cover trade shows to let us in on what's "around the corner". The objective measurements embedded in the reviews which I have commented on previously are useful. But at the the end of the day, is there a basic mission statement? You know something catchy like "the waging of war against the tyranny of inferior audio" (Audio Task Force) as quoted in the recent NY Audio Show report. Considering that audiophile magazines are "for profit" companies, I think it's all the more worthy of consideration; especially these days where ads and the relationship the magazines make with the industry has likely become the main source of revenue.

Steve Guttenberg's "As We See It" article titled Communication Breakdown touches on the supposed ills of dynamic range compression (see Loudness War). He starts off with a provocative statement: "Classical and jazz notwithstanding, an awful lot of new music is highly compressed, processed, and harsh, and it's about time we got used to it." He then talks about some "superstar producer" not liking his suggestion to have 2 mixes (crushed & non-crushed). Then he reminisces about childhood tinkerings with AM radio and how he likes the background noise slightly mistuned (hey I liked it slightly higher pitched when mistuned but can't say I liked the noise, just more as "tone control"). Then there's a little history lesson on distortion in rock & roll. Then a little something about analogue distortion vs. digital distortion. Then he basically says he has learned to enjoy the music "through the grit". So... I guess it's okay then to accept compressed and distorted music (including many jazz and soundtracks these days).


Well Steve - hell no. You've learned to tolerate the grit and enjoy the music - I'm happy for you. You seriously don't think that most of us have clutched "to our chests our 180gm LP's of Dark Side Of The Moon and Aja and rejected all the new music" do you? I mean seriously, the Loudness War has been raging since the mid-1990's and I doubt many of us music lovers have not been able to explore "new" albums and bands for the last 20 years - a full generation! Talk about resurrecting and perpetuating a ridiculous straw man stereotype of the "old audiophile" (hilarious that the magazine front cover contains the artwork for Gaucho). Do you seriously think that many of us haven't moved on from Dark Side or AjaThe issue is not that we're not "used to it", the problem is many of us are sick of it because we know it can sound better.

Over the years, we have had tantalizing tastes of what good masterings could sound like with new music. Remember the "Unmastered" mix of Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication (DR10 vs. DR4)? How about the Guitar Heroes III rip of Death Magnetic (DR12 vs. DR3)? Recently I was discussing with some folks about the Canadian Promo of Beck's Mutations (DR11 vs. DR7). How about the much improved Steve Hoffman vinyl remaster of Stadium Arcadium? Whatever people may think about using a simple algorithm like the DR Meter, there is no doubt when listening with a high-end system, nuances can be heard and listening fatigue is reduced tremendously with these alternate masterings. Audiophile reviewers often talk about "veils being lifted", well here is a clearly tangible one which the press could speak out about but instead we have articles like this nihilistic justification of the degradation of sound quality in Stereophile of all places!

Now before I get labeled as some kind of "distortion hater" for rock and pop, surely I am not. I accept an artist's decision to add distortion, noise, Protools plug-ins of all sorts; heck, Autotune is fine (better than raw talentless singing in some cases). Some albums are 'lo-fi' by design, I get it although it's not the kind of music I prefer. But certainly this does not mean we need to endure digital clipping distortions and flattening of dynamic depth across almost all genres, does it? When it clearly gets so bad that on a high-end sound system, the terrible distortions become so obvious, are we to just tolerate it and not complain? If all recordings sound poor, why even bother with expensive gear at all? New artists (and producers who make their music) need to understand that a poor sounding recording damages the credibility of the artist in the eyes of many. And there truly are limited opportunities to make a good first impression. Audiophiles may be a small part of the music listening public, but we can be quite vocal in "spreading the word" among family and friends, and I bet we buy more music than the vast majority of music listeners.

One example I can think of is perhaps the "lowest-fi" of all the albums I have - Iggy Pop did a "great" job with his 1997 remix/master of Raw Power (DR1!). Okay, so apparently he wanted it that way. But even there, I would argue that when Kevin Gray remastered the mix in 2012 for the vinyl release (DR10), the result was obviously superior - you could at least easily understand the lyrics. I don't recall Iggy launching any accusations that this less compressed mix somehow destroyed his artistic vision. Assuming the original master recording isn't too far gone, I hope to see a day when the dynamic peaks can be restored in the music of Arcade Fire, The War On Drugs, The Black Keys, or The Killers. (You can have a listen to the vinyl releases to have a preview of what these sound like with less compression!)

The article ends on this: "Over the long term, sure - maybe sonic realism will be the next big thing... In 2025." It's said in the financial trading world, "they don't ring a bell at the top" (or the bottom). Well, ding ding ding, Mr. Guttenberg. I sure hope this article marks the beginning of a shift towards musical realism. 2025 is only about 10 years from now - that's not really a terribly long time from now and a typical time frame for trend changes considering we've been enduring needless dynamic compression for 20 years. I suspect the next round of remasters will indeed be back to a more realistic sound because they just can't squeeze the dynamics any more! Furthermore, I would argue that for the high resolution digital audio movement to gain any traction, it will have to be married to a remastering renaissance with better dynamic range in mind in order to demonstrate a perceptible difference. (Generally, I consider buying a 24-bit album with DR<12 to be wasteful of money and storage space and will check out DR Database before considering any such purchase.)

Already, I'm encouraged to see the recent U2 album Songs Of Innocence (DR9) being better than previous efforts (No Line On The Horizon DR6, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb DR5). I was even more surprised by Train's recent work Bulletproof Picasso at DR11 (good job on the music and mastering boys; better than California 37 DR6, Save Me, San Francisco DR5)!

If I am correct, and we do see improved mastering and more sonic realism, it will certainly not be thanks to Mr. Guttenberg and Stereophile for their lack of advocating for true high fidelity in this issue. Gross "communication breakdown" indeed. Leadership gentlemen... Please find some courage to speak out with conviction.

Well, that's the software bit... How about the hardware side?

Consider Art Dudley's "Listening" column. He really should have subtitled this piece "Rage Against the Double Blind Test". In it he quotes from Malcolm Gladwell, takes liberties with comparing blind testing with the "Pepsi Challenge" (as if this is somehow highly relevant), seems to consider objectivism in general with disdain, and apparently has a phobia of guys in white lab coats, engineers and "Daddy-with-a-clipboard" (hmmm, father issues?). Anyhow, there really is too much in there to comment on completely so I invite the reader to have a gander.

"Daddy" (sans clipboard).

I hate to break it to you Mr. Dudley. Sit down so you don't hurt yourself... Those engineer guys (with clipboards) designed your sound system. Yes, they (at some point) figured out how to "cut" sound into that spinning vinyl disk. They used some fancy maths to figure out your tonearm to reduce distortion as it traced out the grooves. They studied electronics to design circuitry for that RIAA compensation curve. They figured out how to make speakers with low distortion and even put them together with appropriate crossovers. They considered the theorems involved in digital sound sampling and spent time researching fancy ways of encoding and error correcting that shiny disk. They figured out how to amplify a little signal with low overall distortion so it sounds decent at multiple watts. They figured out how to engineer computer programs to store, sort, decode, and transmit sonic data. They even were so thoughtful as to make something called the "remote control" so you could sit on your favourite listening chair and not waste energy getting up to change tracks if you desire! I almost forgot, since you love the Playstation 1 so much, I'm sure some engineer came up with that lovely plastic game controller too. Shocking, right!? How's it possible that anything that can convey artistic beauty come from measurements, graphs, charts, scientific principles, and yes, the occasional blind listening test (oh the horror!)?

Well, let's try to answer a few questions raised by Mr. Dudley in the article shall we?
"Are we disappointed when our favorite analog recordings are remastered from 44.1kHz files rather than from the original master tapes, because someone convinced the company that "that doesn't make any difference"?"
Yes. I would be disappointed I suppose if I were looking for a "pure" analog pressing as a matter of principle. That's not however to say that just because it's analog, it's good or has to be better than a 44kHz master. Many old 1980's LPs were derived from ~44kHz digital source recordings and sounded great (Dire Straits Brothers In Arms and Telegraph Road, Don Fagen The Nightfly come to mind). Many reissued LP's since have used well mastered 44kHz source and sound great. Let me ask you this... Would you honestly be able to tell where the source came from if the mastering engineer didn't reveal it to you? Over the years, other than with objective means, has any of the subjectivists been able to come up with a list of SACD's that look like they're sourced from 44/48kHz PCM by listening? If they haven't been able to do so with high resolution DSD audio, how plausible is it that vinyl listeners would be able to do so with the remixing and application of the RIAA EQ inherent in making LPs (not to mention distortions like surface noise)?
"Are we disappointed when an otherwise good electronics manufacturer lowers its manufacturing costs by switching from hand-wired circuits to PCB construction, because the company was persuaded that "that doesn't make a difference"?"
No. What makes hand-wired circuits "good" and PCB construction "bad"? Why would a company be "otherwise good" based on this construction criteria? Why do you engage in such black or white dichotomies? Over the years I've seen some really shoddy "hand crafted" construction so that's nothing special in my mind - made worse when it costs more. For complex circuits, I would consider good quality PCB construction superior in fact due to the likelihood of better precision if made by a reputable company. I also see nothing wrong with being able to repair a complex piece of electronics with replacing the PCB. Furthermore, if the manufacturer can lower costs and pass the savings down to the consumer, what's wrong with that? Please, give us a concrete example where switching from hand construction to PCB boards with essentially the same design resulted in a clearly diminished sound quality that was audible but not detectable by objective assessment (which is presumably what the engineer used to persuade).
"Are we disappointed when a manufacturer of classic loudspeakers begins making cabinets out of MDF instead of plywood, because an engineer convinced the company that "that doesn't make any difference"?"
Well, I can appreciate solid cabinetry and am happy to spend more on it if it's what I desire. But again, if the cost reduction is passed down to the customer, what's the problem? Are you again being black and white declaring that solid wood is definitely better? Are you mixing sturdiness, longevity, and aesthetics with "better sound quality"?

Of course, Mr. Dudley answers all these questions with this gem: "Yes, of course - and, in every case, we have the most single-minded, hardheaded objectivists to thank for lowering quality across the board." Pssst... Mr. Dudley, please do not muddle up material/physical/luxury "quality" from "sound quality". Has sound quality not generally improved over the years in both the low-end and high-end thanks to engineering efforts? I cannot help but feel that this man is angered by the very people and scientific know-how that has given him such pleasure over the years.

Then there's this beauty:
"The trouble is, many of the loudest people in the skeptic community, by their own admission, appear to be less interested in investigating seemingly anomalous events with fairness and an open mind than in shooting down everything that strikes them as "woo-woo"..."
Are you serious!? So, do you mean to say that an "open minded" subjective reviewer plugging in a pair of cables and declaring that the $500/ft pair sounds better than the $100/ft one after a bit of listening is "investigating". The term "investigate" requires some form of process of systematic inquiry by definition. Over the history of the subjective audiophile press, how many PWB rainbow foils, StopLight pens, expensive cables, and dubious "room treatments" have undergone systematic investigation? How about the recent Synergistic stuff like the Tranquility Base or the recently demo'ed Atmosphere? If anything, there is a resistance to scrutinize and investigate the most specious of claims by manufacturers - exactly the ones that need to be investigated. The whole point of blind testing is to remove potential confounding variables and an attempt here to discredit controlled test methods like blind listening tests is essentially to say one is really not interested in serious investigation into "anomalous events" or to try to separate verifiable fact from opinion.

To end off. Consider this quote:
"Perhaps it's our warm-and-fuzzy emotionalism that keeps those blinkered objectivists coming back again and again: We foolish, insecure record-lovers wish, in our hearts, for Daddy-with-a-clipboard to tell us what we ought to and ought not to buy - even though, in our brains, we know how thoroughly, obstructively mistaken they can be."
Well, there is one thing he is correct in. There's a sense of insecurity and fear in some audiophiles as embodied in articles like this. A desire to split what is good and what is bad yet oddly try to present the idea that it also doesn't matter to him (see the "Get off my lawn!" portion) but in an aggressive and divisive manner. I haven't seen a scientific looking bogeyman come out to push a product or tell anyone what to buy or not buy in ages! Rather, it's primarily the subjectivists who announce recommendations, sometimes conducting uncontrolled listening "tests" declaring the next best speaker / DAC / preamp / amplifier / cable / room treatment / etc. as worthy upgrades and in the process fueling insecurity. Articles such as this seem to be unable to dissociate between sound quality, aesthetics and material quality as if they are one and the same. If anything, the objective test results damper the hype in many product reviews and provides a point of reference on what is objective reality in terms of the quality of the sound itself. I can see how some manufacturers might not like this and find it inconvenient.

Just remember Mr. Dudley, many engineers over the decades made sound reproduction not only possible, but fantastic! That's a fact. Another fact is that objective analysis whether by blinded controlled listening tests or instrumentation can and is used to determine accuracy of the sonic reproduction, that's sonic fidelity. And I think many audiophiles would want high fidelity as a primary objective in this hobby.

[BTW: Alright, who has been using a robot avatar to cause grief to Mr. Dudley!?]

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I come back then to where I started. What ultimately is the "mission statement" or goal of an audiophile magazine like Stereophile? Is it anything like "the waging of war against the tyranny of inferior audio"? I actually hope it is... But do articles like these advance audio quality or foster reasonable discussion?

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PS: I'll be away for the next few weeks. Don't forget to participate in the LP Needle Drop Test :-). Enjoy the music...

11 comments:

  1. That's quite a rant there.

    IMO magazines are there to make money, audio/video/phone companies are there to make money, artists need to make money.
    And lets face it .. what's more fun than reviewing expensive gear AND getting paid without having to buy that expensive stuff !
    Manufacturers benefit from 'guaranteed' good reviews as well.
    Magazine owners/reviewers would be shooting themselves in their feet when 'bad' reviews were written so they don't and think most truly enjoyed what they heard.
    Their non mentioned but true 'mission' is to sell magazines and make money on advertisements.

    The 'popular' music recording industry targets what they believe will sell most products and where they listen to it.
    Young people with earbuds/monster beats and car audio (most people only listen to music in cars). Lets say < age 40.
    For them DR compressed music is a blessing in so many ways and they don't care and even prefer it.
    The 'Jazz and classical' music recording industry targets music lovers, audiophile type. Lets say > age 40. For them high DR recordings are a blessing and 'distortion' isn't liked.

    Perhaps everyone should just buy what they want (regardless what their decision is based on).

    The music industry only listens to 'the market', sadly those aren't the small minority named 'audiophiles'.
    It has always been this way and will continue to be like this, even after 2025, regardless how loud a minority screams.
    This may be true for most things in life.

    Still... I like to read less subjectively based material which is thinner spread than more subjective based material for obvious reasons.
    Those reasons being: most people know zilch about the technical side and HAVE to trust what they hear and what they are 'told'.

    This of course is just my POV and YMMV.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Frans. The profit motive of course is strong and I'm sure is primary. However, I do hope there is still some semblance of independence and fortitude in these publications...

      As for the loudness war, I remain hopeful that in time, this will change... Might be hard to see today, and maybe I'll eat my words in 10 years :-)

      A significant percentage of music revenue these days seem to be from remastering efforts. I think they really need to sound different - different from the same old loud distorted trend which I believe is nearing the end-of-life as sales continue to sag. Since many albums over the last few decades began life as a loud compressed mix/master, I hope that the record companies will start releasing special "high quality audio" remasters. I'm sure the companies can entice and encourage album reviewers to publish pleasing reviews of the "new" "quieter" "more realistic" remasters based on this...

      Anything to make a few bucks and even better if they make a few bucks in a way that we sound-lovers can consider as an improvement! Hey, I'll happily spend some $$$ if they did this!

      I do believe we are living in a wonderful time when the digital playback side of audio (DAC, players) has reached a level beyond auditory perceptual abilities and within financial grasp of almost everyone. The limitations have to do with good amplification, transduction system (speakers, headphones), and of course a good sound room. These latter should be where $$$ should go into. Now, if the software side could only follow with putting in place reasonable standards of quality recording and mastering (where noise and distortion is not intended), this could be a new "golden age" :-).

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  2. Dudley's rant was pure vitriol and poppycock. Glad to see someone else was offended by it :/

    And don't get me started on Rubinson's comments on multichannel playback on Macs. He and I corresponded several times in the past few months as he struggled to get 192/24 playback working with his receiver, and I confirmed it works just fine on mine. Even so, he published his article with the conclusion this was an OS X "bug" (i.e., inherent in the system, works for no one) rather than "I couldn't get it working . . . " Ugh.

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  4. I found this under the Digital Edition subscription link on stereophile.com online: "Every month Stereophile Digital magazine offers authoritative reviews, informed recommendations, helpful advice, and controversial opinions, all stemming from the revolutionary idea that audio components should be judged on how they reproduce music.

    "Stereophile Digital never loses sight of the fact that its primary responsibility is toward its readers and how they choose to spend their hard-earned money. Whether you enjoy your music on LP, CD, DVD or SACD, Stereophile Digital enables you to get the most from it."

    That might be the nearest you will find to a mission statement. After all, Stereophile is published online under TEN (The Enthusiast Network), so their mission statement needs to be TEN's, whose vision is "TEN: Inspiring Enthusiasts to Pursue Their Passions". TEN is all about the car and outdoor adventure enthusiast media markets. Their 'Portfolio' link doesn't even mention Stereophile, or audio enthusiasts.

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  5. You know what comes to mind reading Art Dudley sometimes?
    "Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
    Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
    He wept that he was ever born,
    And he had reasons.

    Miniver loved the days of old
    When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
    The vision of a warrior bold
    Would set him dancing."

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  6. Greetings

    As an engineer and an audiophile, I got a lot of fun while reading this article and your blog. I agree on many point (if not all ;-) )...

    I would be very interested to have your feelings about Daphile (http://www.daphile.com/) which is currently the streamer of my main system (Teac UD-501, Rega Elecit (first génération) and Rega RS5 speakers).

    Especially against a jriver system ?

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    1. Fortunately here the PC, DAC, amp, speakers and room will not be changing.

      As a fellow (analog elecronics) engineer and audiophile my gut feeling is that the speakers/room obviously is the most 'limiting factor' followed by the UD501.
      The latter may well be 'technically sufficient for transparancy' (never heard one).
      Another big contributor is the recording quality (I don't think codecs/formats are that relevant unless they are lossy and compress heavily)

      So perhaps the decision of using J-river orthe Daphile could be determined by:
      A: ease of use
      B: codec / bitrate / bitdepth support.
      C: features
      D: stability
      E: price
      F: looks

      I highly doubt audible differences can be found in a well performed blind test and most likely no technical differences as well unless one of those software solutions use sourcery or alter the sound (by accident, by ignorance, by design limits or on purpose)
      No way to know for sure unless tested.

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    2. That's exactly my point, change only one thing at a time and since i'm coming from the software side, I made a lot of try with the streamer.

      Let me explain my personnal choice for the TEAC :
      1 - it's well built (not a requirement but I like that)
      2 - asynchronous USB interface which is a requirement because I don't want to use SPDIF links.
      3 - good design I think (dual monaural which make echo to the Elicit Amp which is also a true dual mono)

      That said, I have tried some bit perfect solutions
      - Home made MPD solution (PC hardware under Debian)
      - MPD (Rune Audio, Volumio) solutions on ARM hardware (Raspeberry Pi, Cubox)
      - Squeezelite both on ARM an PC with a squeezebox server on a Synology NAS.

      On the paper, all those solutions should sound the same as they are bit perfect.

      My problem : this is not true, it doesn't sound the same, and sometime the difference is quite obvious even on my system. Currently Daphile is the one working the best for me.

      I'm still trying to understand what happend, I will not go in the esoteric explanations like the USB cable (fortunately all my USB cables don't affect data streams when using my hard disks), but really I would like to understand.

      At the end, listening is a pleasure and even if I can't (for now) explain the differences, they are ... So I feel like asking for J-River results or feeling with the same DAC can be relevant :)

      On the other side, I agree, user interface, for example, is also important but for me who doesn't have even a volume remote and have to extract my butt from the sofa to adjust it, it's not my primary concern. This will maybe come when I will have the feeling to master the solution a bit more :)

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    3. A: I do not know your test method but suspect you knew what player was used in each test ?
      B: Have you tried a similar 'nulling tests' as Archimago did in the past ? (they aren't 100% conclusive though)
      C: Did you use an USB data analyser to check for actual differences in the USB audio DATA that is sent to the DAC.

      If you really would like to understand WHY you observed differences that seem to be impossible and get technical guys on board to help resolve the question, you would have to redo your tests but 'blind' and with enough statistical evidence.
      This means playing music through a randomly selected 'player' by someone you cannot see directly.
      Both keep logs and compare notes afterwards.
      When enough attempts are made (for statistical relevance you need quite a lot) and you can tell them apart that easily and reliably ONLY then would start to investigate why it is with technical means.
      In that case I suspect the differences in the analog output voltages would have to differ considerably and very measurably for some technical (or software) reason.

      In most of these cases, however, where people find 'impossible' differences there is a distinct lack of interest in testing blind (takes a lot of time and effort and involves time of others) nor isn't the need felt to repeat any tests as they have been so obvious from the start.

      In the latter case I would say you already have done many tests and one solution is best to your ears I would definitely stick with it, if it were only to ease the mind and get more enjoyment.

      Archimago already tested different (bit perfect) players.
      J-river was amongst them and he found no compelling evidence players sound different. Daphile wasn't tested.
      see: http://archimago.blogspot.nl/2013/05/measurements-bit-perfect-audiophile.html

      Just my opinion of course and others may have vastly different thoughts about this issue.
      There are lots of (computer) audiophile sites that confirm your findings, but not one of those threads ever lead to answers, proposed test methods or any technical evidence that would hold up in court.

      Delete
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