Saturday, 13 May 2017

MUSINGS: On Being an Audiophile, Rationality, and Respectability (Thoughts on the Hardware Audiophile Hobby)


For the post today, I thought it would be interesting to take a step back from my usual measurements and various objective explorations and spend some time thinking about the "audiophile" hobby; you know - the big picture.

For some, the idea of "rational audiophilia" as suggested in the image above might sound oxymoronic. After all, anyone who spends thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of time on audio toys in an obsessional fashion is at the very least "neurotic" and somewhat irrational. One could spend his/her time working hard to make more money, spend time with family, read a good book, enjoy a play, take a vacation, go exercising... All of which depending on the situation potentially more worthwhile and healthier.

Yes, as one who has spent thousands of dollars and many hours of my life on audio gear, I fully accept that my hobby is not completely rational :-). But then again I don't consider complete rationality as the ideal goal of being human and living a "good" life. Much of what we strive for or are drawn into in the forms of emotional enrichment and social attachments exist outside of hard scientific or logical judgement. For any of us, the expanse between the extremes of hard logic and baseless delusion is broad and encompasses all kinds of beliefs within which we find our own niche and resonant hobby. In my opinion, joy and quality of life would be seriously hampered without the freedom to express a bit of passion, spontaneity, adventure, silliness and humour. What is important is just to be "rational enough" and in this day and age of audiophilia, on the whole as we look around, "more rational" is probably what's needed. Agreed?

In as much as there is freedom to choose how we feel and what we believe individually, consider the "audiophile hobby" as a whole. In general:
What are the values and goals being promoted by audiophiles?
Is there some level of coherence in this hobby?

From the perspective of having collective knowledge, wisdom and competence, is this hobby regarded with some level of respect that could interest new participants?
Over the years, we have heard about the demise of the audiophile hobby. So often, we also hear about the lack of engagement with the younger generations. If these comments are true, then I assume that indeed, the hobby is dying and in regard to that last question posed above, the hobby and its members are not a "store of value" with knowledge and wisdom by which the public can be engaged and served.

By writing this blog over the years, I have no doubt thought much about these "big picture" questions and philosophical musings. The fact is, even though I'm applying ideas to this hobby specifically, we can very much enter into dialogue with these thoughts in other domains of life and other hobbies we might enjoy. The opportunities to explore these ideas and sharing them have certainly been edifying personally.

For today, let's consider a few broad topics I think the audiophile world needs to grapple with seriously for the sake of unity, growth, and ultimately respectability in 2017 and the years ahead.

I. The Words We Choose & Connotations They Hold

Let's start with the words we use and more specifically the categories often evoked in the way many audiophiles seem to make sense of the world of audio.

I'm not talking about the use of subjective descriptive terms like "veiled", or "warm", or "clinical"; typical cliché interspersed through reviews and other chatter. Rather, it is the three words "high end audio" and with it, the implied cult of "high price means better sound" that has done terrible damage to the hobby.

Over the years I have seen people stratifying systems based on price; not without unfortunate side effects. Terms like "hi-fi", "mid-fi", and "lo-fi" for example are used as a common classification scheme which when taken at face value seems to describe sound quality, but in actuality, we see all kinds of connections with cost of items as if there is an automatic relationship with sound quality. While we likely can obviously hear the poor quality of the cheapest of devices, that correlation clearly breaks down in the "mid-fi" range.

To make matters worse, the audiophile press regularly uses the term "high end" or even "ultra high end" to signify yet another class of products. At worst, we see snobbish remarks made by "elite" audiophiles - check out this guy's page, or this pretentious site. Knowingly or not, this hurts the hobby by setting up not only a faux economic disparity, but for those of us who feel many of these "high end" products actually don't deliver high quality sound, it simply comes across as grossly disingenuous. How can we expect the public to be interested if even many within the hobby have such doubts?

Be careful with the words we use dear audiophiles. I know there are many who are very careful of how we speak and how comments come across especially over the Internet when non-verbal emotional cues cannot fully or accurately be expressed.

By the way, don't forget the other "class" of products! Remember that "pro" gear also can have fantastic sound quality for very reasonable prices so certainly do not underestimate them.

II. The Purpose and Trajectory of Audiophilia

I would recommend having a look at "A Tiny History of High Fidelity". It's a nice retrospective of the highlights in the story of audio reproduction over the decades, much of which I'm sure many of us were not around to experience. While I cannot agree with everything expressed, what is important to remember is that the audiophile hobby had its start in the engineering world with the expressed "idea that music could actually sound something like the concert-hall experience". Wouldn't it be great if one day the electronic devices could achieve fidelity with such quality that the facsimile can transport the mind and thrill the senses?!

Until the day we might have some kind of virtual neural download into the mind directly, what we try to do is satisfy the sensory apparatus (one step down). There is only one way to achieve this. Develop machines of such accuracy that the original performance is captured with enough information retained. This information can then be processed and stored in a way that will not dilute the potential accuracy (aka fidelity). Finally, a reproduction system that ultimately will allow the end-user an opportunity to experience the sensory information to satisfy the mind in a re-creation of the original. This is a continuum of processes from the original capture to the final playback mechanism.

The audiophile must care not just about our CD/SACD/DVD-A/Blu-Ray/downloads/LPs, players, (pre)amps, speakers, cables, rooms, but the totality of the audio continuum. This includes some curiosity around the way the sound was captured, whether the production system was adequate, whether the mastering engineer is any good. Of course, I know that we cannot directly participate in the studio audio engineering side of things, but we can say a thing or two about the end results (as per articles like this).

As any leader in a large organization can tell you, without vision, we lose the ability to effectively and efficiently institute change and accomplish the ultimate goal. Yes, it's OK to have all kinds of viewpoints but I think as audiophiles, we must never forget the ultimate purpose which unifies not just those of us participating today, but those who have come before - to gather knowledge and experience in achieving high fidelity in the environment(s) where we try to obtain this "concert-hall" experience. (Obviously, the idea of the "concert hall" could just as well be a jazz club, palace chamber, monastery, live stadium...)

Last year, I expressed that I believe there is a difference between the "hardware audiophile hobby" from what I consider as the "music lover hobby". This difference speaks to the idea of purpose and trajectory. I suspect almost all audiophiles are members in both pursuits and would have no difficulty distinguishing the goals and trajectory of each.

"Hardware audiophiles" strive to be lay experts in the area of "best" audio reproduction in any given setting based on our understanding of the technological options. When friends come along and ask for opinions, we should be able to point them in the right direction. We should be educated and knowledgeable enough to communicate the rationale and understanding of the hardware and their principles. I trust this also means that in the eyes of these friends, we do not appear like "crazy uncle Bob" talking about conspiracy theories over holiday dinner, but rather educated practitioners who actually know a thing or two about the electronics we seem to admire when they come over for a visit! Even if they don't want to spend a ton of cash or need a full-sized speaker in the room, I trust that we should be able to discuss rationally our goals and interests within the shared reality of this world. To understand the science that underpins high fidelity is more important than having experienced 50 sound systems but never having developed useful insight into the "hows" or "whys" something works.

Furthermore, because audiophiles also do care about the importance of the recording chain reflected in the fidelity of the music we buy, we can express opinions not just about the hardware, but also the media itself. An understanding of "dynamic range" would be a big one. Having a concept of the sonic differences between purist recordings and multi-track studio work. Over time, we should be able to pick out various "masterings" and "pressings" and express the difference in sound of some of our favourite albums.

Like any reasonably well articulated vision, there is an eventual "inconvenient truth" which I suspect the Industry (with financial interests of course) might not like. It is that indeed there is such a thing as "good enough"; an actual end point to the goal beyond which we temper our excitement and have the ability to assess claims in a sober fashion. As I have expressed in articles like this about the limitations of hearing and the lack of evidence for ultrasonic reproduction, since we are tied to our sensory systems, we are bound by the nature of the biology of our species. While we are not all endowed with the same sensory acuity, there is no reasonable justification to aim for technical goals way beyond any hope of detection. For example, even if we argue that 96kHz sampling is beneficial, should we be compelled to reach for 192kHz? If DSD128 sounds great already, are we to then still push for DSD256? I think most of us will recognize that there is indeed at least a point of diminishing returns if not a frank end point above which the efforts spent become meaningless - time spent, storage used, money expended go to waste.

We see this in all areas of consumer technology as they mature. How many consumer digital photographers still obsess over the megapixel wars and demand more than say 24Mpix which has been easily obtainable in the SLR/mirrorless world for the last 5 years? Does anyone still worry about the dpi of image scanners? I suspect 4K TVs in the home video world will also prove to be a resolution threshold for many years to come.

Based on this, we can say with good confidence whether certain devices are already "good enough" even at rather low price points. I spoke a bit about this last week (and why I want to see technical perfection). I believe that devices like high quality DACs, digital players and audio streamers have already surpassed human biological limitations. This doesn't mean that companies should not come up with new products with better features, maybe smaller size, lower power consumption and improved convenience. All it means is that in some domains like lossless file format, DSD/PCM sampling rates, a good quality DAC, the goal of "high fidelity" has already been reached for human consumption. That's OK because we can then focus on other priorities like speakers and headphones which can still be improved with research and which we can look at worthwhile upgrades.

I acknowledge that there are "audiophiles" who insist that objective "fidelity" is not as important. Rather, for them, the goal is defined broadly and idiosyncratically as one of whether they personally enjoy the sound irrespective of the objective accuracy. Fair enough. This is the philosophy of the "euphonophile" being touted by purely subjectivist writers who believe that objective measurements do not substantially account for sound quality. I can appreciate that point of view although I believe that using a personal yardstick limits generalizability of one's experience and one's beliefs (eg. "I believe I can hear jitter/noise/distortion in that device..." with no evidence of an actuality) and is clearly not as powerful as knowing facts and calibrating experience with knowledge.

III. The Price to Pay

These days, with terms thrown around like "high end" as noted in Point I above, audiophile magazines and websites seem to feel they need to cater to this self-serving ogling of elite expensive products as demonstrated by a video like this. Judging from the comments, readers and viewers clearly appear unimpressed by the cost of items beyond the reach of "mere mortals" and even questioned by "mere millionaires". Remarkably, it's now to the point where the magazines themselves acknowledge the ridiculousness of the trend with editorials like Stereophile's "R.I.P., Audiophilia. It Was Nice Knowing You" recently (ahem... please, the term "stereophile" is just as silly and meaningless; at least "audiophile" historically came from High Fidelity Magazine which is a rather appropriate title for the endeavour).

As I'm sure you can already appreciate, price is typically meaningless as a gauge of high fidelity in many areas of the audiophile world already. No, you don't need a four-figure computer to have a perfectly good audio streaming device. Seriously, an inexpensive Raspberry Pi will do. No, DAC's don't need to be expensive at all to compete with extravagant "price no object ultra high end" devices. And don't even bring up the foolishness of kilobuck "accessories" like cables!

Having said this, as in Point II, I can appreciate that the apex for high fidelity quality has not been reached yet for devices like headphones and speakers. There's obviously more work that can be done to achieve "perfection". Yes, there will be some cost to these devices for high quality sonic reproduction and we all have to perform our own cost-benefit analysis to satisfy our needs.

Remember that technology is meant to be disruptive. It introduces new ways of achieving goals and in doing so it typically is deflationary in cost (ie. cost goes down over time). Unless one collects certain rare vintage gear, audio systems are not seen as "investments" in a financial sense. One important development over the last few years has been with the use of DSP processing to achieve better sound quality. Given real-world physical restraints, this can result in quality otherwise either not achievable or with very expensive physical equipment. I believe this important step in the evolution of audiophile thinking will become even more recognized and easily implemented in the years ahead.

IV. The Way We Do It

For many guys especially, I think there is something special about not just owning our toys, but also the sense of satisfaction in the achievement of the goal we set out to do. Whether it's optimizing a car, doing a home renovation project, climbing the corporate ladder, or the satisfaction of enjoying one's music collection. This sense of achievement is important in how we value that which we "love" (the passion). As much as we might not express it outwardly, I think there is an inherent sense of pride in achieving a great sounding system and at some level, it would be nice for others to appreciate it as well (maybe even respect the knowledge and experience we display). I think we should consider how we conduct "business" in public corporately and as individual members as we express the joy we derive as hobbyists.

At the highest, most visible level, we have to consider the role of the press because whether we like it or not, they present the values of hobby members in the public sphere. Already, I have expressed my disdain for terms like "high end" which the press has somehow caught on to given the meaninglessness of this phrase for the purpose of achieving high fidelity audio.

The other day, I ran across this scathing opinion piece about "What Is An Audiophile?" from a number of years back. Looking at the material written in audiophile magazines, I think the guy certainly has many good points! The audiophile press IMO has not conducted business at times in a fashion that upheld reasonable values that were at the root of this hobby. Often I have expressed my concerns about the optics of financial factors being the primary concern of the audiophile press. Dare I say many if not most of the audiophile magazines these days are nothing more than glossy advertisements for questionable products of dubious value. "Rational audiophiles" I suspect have already tuned out. When you look at reader responses in letters to magazines and online comments, is it any wonder that the tone is often so negative? When there are so many obviously irrational claims made, so many questionable beliefs to be challenged...

For me, there is only one way out of this for the audiophile magazines. They must become "more objective" (the tag line for this blog since the beginning). Objective analysis provides us with facts, and provides a foundation for comparisons of meaningful sound quality. This is as opposed to the relative perspective of an individual subjective reviewer who might be making comparisons using recall or experience months or even years old! Don't even ask these folks to try some blind testing; they're likely to point to inaccurate apologetics and "straw man" logical fallacies like in this video.

I'm of course not saying that subjective sharing of ideas and a nice write-up of a review for a product isn't of value. However, I believe the actual value of a purely subjective write-up is nowhere comparable to the synergistic strength gained by both subjective opinion and objective facts. There is power in having both sides of the equation and I believe readers appreciate that. Although I have been critical of Stereophile and some of the writers there over the years, I do absolutely appreciate that they have at least attempted to achieve this balance - my feeling is that they don't go far enough to highlight the hard work and discipline that goes into the objective side. IMO it is the objective results that are the most valuable when looking through back issues. I also think that the magazine should not be afraid to discuss objective comparisons of fidelity directly between devices even if subjectivists appreciate that they cannot.

Furthermore, I believe the press must speak of the full continuum of what audiophiles care about - this includes the sound quality of the media we buy. There's no need to compromise or offer ridiculous articles of disservice given the current unacceptable state of affairs. It would be great if the audiophile press actually published their own independent research which is really the only way to educate the public not linked to products and the Industry. Hiring a few people with some technical background able to express honest truths would be obvious prerequisites.

Beyond the audiophile press, it's good for each of us audiophiles to also consider how we might pass along the interest in high fidelity audio reproduction. A few weeks back I put together my little Raspberry Pi Touch Streamer. I mentioned that in building this project, I got my son involved. As a "Gen X" dad with his "Post-Millennial" son, this was a nice opportunity to share the hobby, discuss/teach about computer hardware, talk a bit about networking, explain a bit about Linux and the Pi, and ultimately enjoyed listening to music together afterwards with a few rock classics and some modern pop selections of my son's choosing. This was a nice little afternoon project. I don't know if my son will be an "audiophile" in the years ahead, but I'm sure it will be something he'll remember just as I remembered my dad building a little solid-state amp years ago when I was my son's age.

About a month ago, a Millennial music lover I met over a business meeting told me he was excited about his new LP collection. He came over one evening and had a listen to my system with both analogue and digital sources. He was quite impressed with the sound but admitted that finances are tight but he'll be on the lookout for new speakers and a new amp to complement his basic Pro-Ject turntable. We chatted a bit and I realized that he was using a cheap Audio-Technica cartridge. The week after, I went over to his place with my lightly used Shure M97xE which I had not used in a couple of years as a little gift. We had a great time setting it up (brought over the protractor, digital scale, discussed stuff like record cleaning...) and listening to a few of his albums. It was absolutely an upgrade in sound compared to what he had, and a tangible difference in the joy of sharing higher fidelity playback without sticker-shock. The point is that we can absolutely affect the younger generations in being gracious; whether it's in giving of our knowledge and experience online, or in the course of real life. This is what is important. Wringing hands about whether the "audiophile" or the "high end" lives or dies in the years ahead is far from a high-fidelity hobbyist's major concern.

V. The Love of Music

In Point II above, I expressed a belief that knowing the hobby's purpose is important and suggested the goal of achieving and enjoying high fidelity playback is the prize we have our eyes set on when we listen to the music as "hardware audiophiles". But we must keep in mind that no matter the brand, reputation, cost, and components used, at the end of the day, unless the hardware works for its intended purpose - playing music - it will end up being just a piece of idle furniture.

Yes, music is ultimately subjective and personal (and the playground of the "music lover"). Whereas we can put hardware under the microscope of objective analysis to adjudicate what level of fidelity is "good enough" for human sensory acuity ("Golden Ears" are humans too), there is no such objective standard for musical enjoyment and artistic quality. We can criticize hardware for suboptimal functioning because objective parameters might not be met but tastes in music truly span the gamut and as far as I'm concerned should be celebrated as such. I think sometimes the pure subjectivists lose track of this differentiation and somehow doesn't appreciate that those with objective leanings for testing gear also obviously appreciate subjective life as well.

Over the years I have seen some writers offer some rather unkind remarks about the type of music audiophiles listen to or even suggest that there's something superior about the type of music they recommend. I honestly find this type of attitude even more distasteful than "high end" hardware elitism because it's directed at truly something that is personal. While a constant diet of "audiophile quality female vocal albums" might not be to my personal taste, there's nothing wrong with enjoying this or any other genre should one so choose.

As a partial aside, consider for a moment just how much music we have out there. From a recording quality perspective, we can look back at the 1950's as the beginning of the era of "hi-fi" with the availability of 33.3333 rpm LPs, and 2-channel recordings by the late 1950's (around '58 onward). In 1961, the GE/Zenith stereo FM broadcast method was FCC ratified. By 1968, the major record companies on the whole were producing only stereo LPs. From say 1955 in the "golden age" of recordings (think Miles Davis, Sinatra, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Nat King Cole, Thelonious Monk, Harry Belafonte, etc..) to now, we have more than 60 years of high quality recordings, mostly 2-channel, maybe hundreds of thousands of bands/artists worldwide worth checking out, and as of April 2017, the FreeDB database of CDs contains 2.4 million separate albums just within the major identified genres (I'm not including another 1 million on the database that were "unclassified" which might include compilations, "various artists", and world music)!

Check out the distribution:

Even if we consider that the database contains a number of replications and remasters, that is a lot of hours of sound. Unlike movies where we probably tend to just watch once, most albums we buy have many hours of replay value whether in serious listening or as background music. One could easily enjoy a lifetime of remarkable "female vocals" out there if that's what he/she desires. There's a ton of great music without bothering to look at "new music". There's nothing to say one must or even should bother given the bounty of "old music" to discover. In fact, with the vicious cycle of poor quality recordings (which again the audiophile press remains mute about), music lovers interested in great sounding dynamically uncompressed recordings in the pop/rock genre especially will naturally gravitate to explore the archives of the 60's to early 90's for some fantastic sounding releases.

Remember, the numbers above only reflect CD releases from the FreeDB database which is not truly encyclopedic. CDDB had already indexed >3.5M in 2005. Think of all the millions of LPs out there, more than 10.5k SACDs albums (as listed in SA-CD.net), thousands of music and concert DVD/DVD-A/Blu-Rays, thousands of multichannel mixes, etc... Not to mention those who value reel-to-reel tapes, compact cassettes, MiniDiscs, DATs, and maybe even 8-tracks.

Before I leave this segment, with regards to the use of "audiophile" recordings like Diana Krall, or Lyn Stanley, or Hugh Masekela, or 2L albums specifically in audio shows (and discussed by some writers lately)... Yeah, I agree, variety is important and more popular music must be incorporated for relevance and to interest a wider audience. But let's not forget that playing poorly produced, noisy, and severely dynamically compressed recordings in expensive audio set-ups in foreign hotel rooms with limited acoustic treatment would not be a great demo of high-fidelity gear. One cannot expect high-fidelity hardware companies to be showcasing their gear with substantial amount of dynamically compressed remasters, garage rock or "lo-fi" recordings in these shows. Even big-time Metallica fans know Death Magnetic isn't going to sound decent on five-or-six-figure hardware :-). The show rooms are being set up to highlight the hardware. The audio show is the sanctuary of the "hardware audiophile hobby", not the domain of the "music lover hobby" primarily looking for the next artist to get into! Whether one likes it or not, realistically, I think the female vocals, boutique classical recordings, acoustic jazz must be a permanent expected fixture with hopefully a bit more variety along the way of course.

Conclusions... The Hope for Change?

I'm sure most of what I've written isn't new to many readers. Over the last couple of decades especially, we have witnessed very rapid advancement in technology that has shifted the foundation of the hardware used to enjoy music. While digital audio may have had it's first coming with CD-Audio and the release of the Sony CDP-101 in 1982, it really has been with the rise of computers and the advent of CD ripping in the latter half of the 1990's that high quality digital audio was liberated from the confines of a spinning or rolling physical medium. We now can have thousands of lossless songs in the palm of one's hand and millions available on the "cloud" and distributed worldwide. Though virtualization has provided us with powerful means of immediate access and storage, at the same time in the last 5 years or so we have seen the gradual resurgence of the LP format, a reminder too that having "physical" connections with the music is important for many (regardless of whether one believes a spinning vinyl disk with music extracted physically by a needle brings home the "concert-hall experience" better or worse than quantized bits).

Within this foundational shift, and in the context of this post, as a group of hobbyists interested in promoting "good" sound, which in a historical context has meant "high fidelity" sound, have we been successful? Have we embraced the changes? Have we engaged with the public, providing knowledge as a group with recognized expertise in that which we "preach"? As a group, do audiophiles have any "power" to lobby for change in the service of improving fidelity out of the Industry? Have the mouthpieces of this hobby (here's looking at you Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, Hi-Fi+, What Hi-Fi?UHF Magazine, etc...) been able to address the needs of hobbyists and the public?

Sadly, as a group, I believe over the years "audiophiles" have become even more powerless. At a time when technology affords us with remarkable abilities to accurately reproduce the music we love, we are so often disappointed with the sound quality of albums we buy. Energy is spent on fighting imaginary wars on the basis of "sound quality" (here's looking at Neil Young and Bob Stuart's offerings recently). Company publicists propagate all kinds of bizarre nonsense without any checks and balances; and in fact often aided and abetted by the press. What would the forefathers like Major Edwin Howard Armstrong, Alan Blumlein, recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, or the numerous unsung engineers at Columbia Records, Western Electric, RCA think of the evolution of the audiophile hobby and sound quality?

To close off this post, I thought I'd just highlight a few points and potential changes that would be very nice to see in the years ahead for the audiophile hobby.

1. Audiophiles embrace objectivity again. I know many (like probably you folks here) already do. But it does need to be a shift of generally accepted sentiment. Remember that we are not living in some kind of unique alternate dimension of physics with our own principles divorced from mainstream science and engineering. It would be truly bizarre to think so since the gear we buy are borne out of the hard work of scientists and engineers. And the music we enjoy went through the studios and tweaks of various audio engineers. I would hope that audiophiles see themselves in some ways allied like a "lay person" extension of the Audio Engineering Society (AES) who represent the professional members. Hopefully in many ways we're able to share similar values and educational goals. To act and believe otherwise would result in the loss of respect and engagement with the world.

2. The audiophile hobby maturely embraces the tensions, promotes discussions, explores controversies. Mature people discuss things calmly. Mature people examine the evidence and explore the facts rather than offer opinions as if this is all that constitutes "truth". Mature people recognize that the world is complex and there are always "shades of grey" that are acceptable and within reason. Mature people also hold on to values, appreciates goals, and sees limits externally and also within themselves.

Most importantly, mature people also have thick skins and don't just propose banning alternate points of view (unless truly confronted by mindless trolls). Remember, this is not some kind of theology class, there were no ecumenical council decrees, and the "high priests" of the audiophile press are just as fallible as any of us whether some of them know it or not!

3. Audiophiles remember that their raison d'être is to remain in the service of high-fidelity. That is "our" purpose, specialty, and potential value in the world. Audiophiles are the people interested in high quality reproduction not just in having reliable, thoughtful, and insightful suggestions into the hardware side but having understanding also about the media we listen to. At times, it also means taking a stand and having the courage to render an opinion contrary to the beliefs of some (but in a mature fashion as #2 above). In my experience, when positions are taken on objective grounds and arguments put forth rationally especially with evidence, this opens up productive discussion and dialogue.

4. Individually, remember to stay gracious. Even the most ardent "enemy" can in time be one's strongest ally on virtual battlefields called "forums"! Be on the lookout for young folks interested in audio. Watch the use of those terms like "high end" and thoughtless hardware suggestions with four-figure+ price tags. Be humble enough to realize that many of those prized mega-buck components often do not produce higher fidelity output than many less expensive products. In the same way, realize the truth - that in this age of advanced digital audio, something as inexpensive as a <US$100 audio streamer like a Raspberry Pi 3 will easily produce the same digital output as any expensive "audiophile" computer. This, folks, is the "democratization process" but it still has a ways to go. Always remember the non-utilitarian functions inherent in luxury goods and be mindful of these factors. I have seen the word aspiration applied to owning hi-fi products - it's much cheaper to aspire for good sound quality than jewelry.

5. Enjoy the music of course... But stay curious. Like the videophile and her movies, the computer gamer with his online death matches, the DIY computer geek looking out for the next speed upgrade... This stuff is fun. Speaking personally, when I started this blog I thought I'd maybe post 10 or 20 items and be done with it. Instead, after >220 posts, I can still see many experiments to try and tests to perform to help me understand the technology better as a "hardware audiophile" while enjoying the music as I evaluate, compare, and verify! I don't expect everyone to take out their measurement equipment of course, but I hope folks find an "academic" curiosity and apply critical thinking while going along in the hobby... Particularly important given the unsubstantiated claims, and at time grossly distorted opinions out there.

6. Finally... Don't like the music at audio shows? Well let's not just sit and complain. Why not do something to encourage improving recording quality. Contact your favourite artist when all you see are DR0-10 albums (if you don't know what this is, see here, here, and check the database here). Maybe spread an idea like a two-tiered system for high-resolution audio. Maybe encourage adjustable dynamic compression (eg. my thoughts about Neil Young's XStream). "Hardware audiophiles" might be a small group but I think with our "music lover" brothers and sisters, the consumer can have a very potent impact. Maybe then your favourite artist can be showcased with a megabuck sound system which not only promotes his/her musical talent but the recording also sounds great with high fidelity reproduction.

Audiophilia is not dead because it cannot be killed. For the foreseeable future, there will still be "audiophiles" - the folks who have a special place in their souls for high-fidelity sound reproduction. The ones who will seek out the better quality products and strive for ideals; most of which can be verified objectively. In this regard, I don't believe there will ever be a dearth of excellent products to serve this market. As always, there will be companies that fall by the wayside due to poor marketing, poorly conceived ideas, or whose products fail to satisfy consumers. I do believe as well given my position as a "more objective" audiophile that there are segments that deserve to fail (I'll leave you to guess what I might be referring to :-). But for the typical audiophile, the business cycle in the audio world is not something we need to particularly concern ourselves with.

Arise, dear audiophiles, and proudly display your knowledge, understanding, and most of all, ability to engage in rational discourse.

Enjoy!

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Speaking of Diana Krall above, her new album is out - Turn Up The Quiet (2017, DR12). From a recording perspective, it's OK. Unfortunately the noise floor is far from pristine even on CD which would make me think twice about whether this is worth a high-resolution download. Musically, well, it's Diana Krall, and the album is very reminiscent of her late-90's work like When I Look In Your Eyes or Love Scenes in song selection and arrangement. I think you're in luck if you like the older work. Soon heading to an audio show near you in any event! :-)

Okay, I've got a bunch of exciting projects lined up at work and abroad as the year goes on! As a result, things are gonna get pretty busy around here as we get closer to the summer :-). Will post when I can but I'm probably not going to be able to keep up with the weekly article release as I have over the last few months.

Hope you're all having a great time listening to the music!

23 comments:

  1. Three points:

    1) Are 96kHz sample rates really beneficial? I know you've looked into this, but the evidence remains ... unpersuasive.

    2) In addition to SBC-based streamers (RPi and its cousins), another real revolution is the advent of inexpensive high quality class-D amplification. Indeed, if your power requirements are modest (sensitive speakers/small room), you can even buy a combo HAT board for your RPi which combines a DAC and amplifier for little more than the price of a DAC alone.

    3) In addition to the quantity of available music having gone up, the price (largely thanks to digital downloads) has gone down precipitously (remember the days of $18 CDs?).

    Put together, cheaper hardware and more and cheaper recorded music (ought to) mean we're living in the audiophile golden age. That most avowed "audiophiles" don't see it that way is ... odd.

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    1. Hi Blog, thanks for the comments!

      1. I agree, it's not persuasive if our target is whether we can hear the difference or not. What I think we can say is that *practically*, it's easy to have good music in 24/96 (or 24/88 for that matter) because it's a "standard" which all hi-res DACs would be capable of decoding. Likewise all DVD/Blu-Ray/UHD Blu-Rays can decode this. It would also put to rest *any concerns anyone has had about digital filtering* which is all the rage in new products and claims including the recent MQA discussions.

      All said and done, if a production company truly captured a recording with pristine quality and can present it in 24/96, I'd be happy to buy such a recording and wouldn't mind paying a little more... As I have said before about "hi-res", I don't think it's reasonable to charge too much more given likely subtle improvements only assuming one has the ears/mind to hear the difference.

      2. Yes, good thoughts about Class-D amp! The other day I was over to listen to the B&O BeoLab 90. An example of the showcase of the marriage between Class-D amps, DAC techology, and DSP processing. This is the "holy trinity" of the future of speakers :-).

      3. Indeed, cheap music prices is a good point. Considering that there are millions of albums out there, and as I noted, the potential to spend a lifetime mining "old music", the industry must recognize that supply and demand means lower prices. Since digital can be copied infinitely, supply is plentiful. Music price must go down just like hardware at increasingly better quality.

      I agree, we are in the golden age of audiophilia. Perhaps the conflict is with the business cycle because I'm sure the record industry isn't making money like they used to and the hardware side needs to keep bringing out generations of "even better" gear despite the fact that in many areas, quality has reached a threshold...

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    2. >... which is all the rage in new products and claims including the recent MQA discussions.

      MQA (a subject you've written a lot about) was, in fact, one of the reasons for my question about your view on 96kHz sample rates. There, the idea seems to be to deliver something that is *effectively* 16/96 in a format that "looks like" (and more-or-less behaves like) a 24/48 PCM stream.

      Whether this (the 25% bandwidth saving) is worthwhile kinda depends on whether the (effective) higher sample-rate confers a tangible benefit.

      A way to quantify this is: "How much of a premium are you willing to pay for a 96kHz versus 48 or 44.1kHz FLAC file?"

      >The other day I was over to listen to the B&O BeoLab 90. An example of the showcase of the marriage between Class-D amps, DAC techology, and DSP processing.

      The BeoLab 90 is a bit out of my league but, yeah, the availability of relatively cheap DSP is yet another reason we're in an audiophile golden age.

      >Perhaps the conflict is with the business cycle because I'm sure the record industry isn't making money like they used to and the hardware side needs to keep bringing out generations of "even better" gear despite the fact that in many areas, quality has reached a threshold...

      On the record industry side, they just have to get used to a "Long Tail" business model (making most of their money off of very modest sales of a large number of titles, rather than boffo sales of a small number of titles). This is a lot easier when you don't have to manufacture, ship and warehouse physical media.

      As to the hardware side, I think most manufacturers are toast. Aside from speakers, everything in the audio chain can nowadays be filled by commodity hardware which is audibly indistinguishable from its "boutique" counterparts.

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    3. Hey blog...

      Right, with regards to:
      "How much of a premium are you willing to pay for a 96kHz versus 48 or 44.1kHz FLAC file?"

      I'll throw out the number - 25% more AT MOST. If a CD costs $10, I will not pay more than say $13 for a 24/96 download of something I know was recorded well. Not DR6 pop stuff! That's just my personal opinion of course as discussed previously:
      http://archimago.blogspot.ca/2015/01/musings-what-is-value-of-high.html

      Ultimately the market will sniff out the price. And based on the above, I believe hi-res downloads are currently way overpriced at 100% or more above 16/44!

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  2. Your articles are interesting and well intentioned, but you are operating in isolation. I have worked in the "High-End" audio industry for a very long time, and know plenty of people who are involved. It is rare to find one who is dishonest or deluded in their search for better enjoyment, or who seeks to take advantage of unsuspecting customers. In the most part they are very nice easy going generous people. I'm not sure which country you are in, but if it is possible I would like to try to introduce you to some of the industry so that you can look and listen from the inside. Would this be useful?

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    1. Sure Audio, why don't we connect by PM on ComputerAudio?

      Over the years I have had contact with people in the Industry. As well I have met and discussed with some well known folks at sponsored events. Remember that much of what I talk about here are fundamental viewpoints from the perspective of hobbyists and in surveying the science and technology. In doing that how I view things in terms of *value* and anticipation of what might lie ahead.

      I trust that many of the concepts presented such as importance of objectivity should not be that controversial!

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  3. I feel that Archimago’s approach in his blog is one that benefits all audiophile consumers.

    If I use the automotive industry as an example in this case, acoustic requirements and performance measures are defined for all designs, materials and components so that a car manufacturer can ensure a level of acoustics which is expected for each class of vehicle. These requirements must be met while also maintaining the additional cost, manufacturing and design targets.

    Quite simply, if the acoustic performance of a component from an expensive vehicle and a cheaper one are similar, then the major difference in the cost of the component is going to be mostly (but not always) due to aesthetics, i.e. how nice the component looks. The materials used under the surface away from sight are going to be very similar.

    In our beloved audiophile community, a well-defined set of standards and acoustic performance targets that will guarantee how a product will perform in our rooms and our systems is not available for consumers and manufacturers. Jitter measurements for a DAC or distortion measurements for an amp are not enough for this.

    As consumers, we are left with “If it sounds good, then it must be good”.

    One of the important things highlighted in this blog then is the identification of at least some level of technical performance equivalence between lower cost solutions and much more expensive ones. This is what is under the surface, hidden from sight. The cost difference must surely be aesthetics then, or something else superficial. A cost-effective product could sound as good as a much more expensive one.

    As an audiophile consumer, I’m happy to know this and realise that I don’t always have to pay through the nose, but can if I want additional things like brand cache, design aesthetics and heft.

    This is what this blog provides for me. I don’t have to agree with everything written here, but I do feel that it is a valuable sanity check for audiophile consumers.

    If it appears sometimes that he is holding certain manufacturers feet to the fire, so be it. Accountability is always good for the consumer.

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    1. Thanks for the note BB. Nice analogy by the way with the auto industry!

      This is exactly what it comes down to many times in articles I've seen:
      As consumers, we are left with “If it sounds good, then it must be good”.

      Heck, some audiophile writers even seem to promote this IMO rather limited evaluation.

      While this is a fine sentiment for someone who just wants a good sounding system, I would like to think that audiophiles desire something deeper when it comes to their hardware. This is why I've always appreciated articles that touch on the technology itself. The "hows" and "whys" of the gear. I have no issues with spending money and paying for esthetics as well if I so desire. But the core hardware hobby has always been about the celebration of the ingenuity and advancement of science for the goal of fidelity.

      I certainly do not expect everyone to "enjoy" thinking about or talking about dB's, noise floors, checking out impulse responses... And some do not appreciate the value of ABX or blind tests. That's fine.

      I do find it rather hypocritical when people write in audio reviews using technical language like low noise floor, "neutral" sound, minimal distortions, believe that jitter is low, etc. But seem to have no ability whatsoever to provide evidence of these descriptions which are technical in nature and have objective correlates.

      Worth thinking about the next time one reads a review on interconnects, power cords, USB "filter" or "regeneration" tweaks. Why even bother interviewing and quoting engineers, designers, etc. and all the fancy technical qualities if at the end of the day it's just about subjectively "sounding good"?

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  4. I am relieved to find that I fail Ken Rockwell's test for an audiophile, having had my pair of QUAD 55 and 63 electrostatic loudspeakers rebuilt in 2016.

    Being more of an IT man than an audio man, spending anything but small amounts of money on transferring bitstrings (= music audiostreams) from a fixed source to a fixed destination seems wasteful: you can't improve the quality of 0000000000101010 from input to output. Ensuring 0000000000101010 was the right number in the firdt place and what happens to it in translation back to the analogue domain are pretty much the only worthwhile questions.

    One thing that surprised me after listening to good recordings of music ... is that not only have I developed a fondness for the music as a whole ... I have also developed a fondness for individual instruments. I say that as someone who is not a musician and I think I can now understand why someone would want to just play an instrument. Consider for example the tremendous variety of church organs. Following that I have developed, though only in a small way, some appreciation of the merits of performers ... or maybe just the differences between performances.

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    1. Good man John; sounds like you're more in the "music lover" side of the hobby.

      But I think you do highlight an important piece that makes you a semi-audiophile at least :-) - heck, if you weren't "semi" I fail to see what you're doing here!

      Fidelity captivates, doesn't it? That ability of better technical gear to capture the fidelity resulting in sense of realism is beautiful when done well! I love church organs as well but there's no way I would truly appreciate the magnificence of the Saint-Eustache organ with a couple of earbuds. Heck, even with big speakers capable of sub-20Hz it's still not the same as being there... But at least it's a qualitative start which has quantitative correlates.

      I know music lovers who enjoy church music and organs but would never honestly spend time looking for better equipment to achieve higher quality reproduction. The audiophile would... Perhaps not obsessively like Ken Rockwell's generalizations, but "we" do feel there is value in recreating the experience with the technology. That in a nutshell is what drives the hardware audiophile IMO.

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  5. I hope A is able to take up the offer of an introduction to the high end audio industry crowd.

    Call me a pessimist of you will ...
    ... but I doubt there is a single major industry which doesn't fleece its customers, or at best provide poor value in order to maintain corporate profits. Consider:
    - the financial system
    - the automotive industry
    - the pharmaceutical industry
    - the petrochemical industry

    ... and coming from corporate IT I know all the dodges therein!

    If my local hi-fi shop had been filled with honest people then they would have said "we sell these USB cables ... but so does your local PC retailer".

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    1. Well John, I think the question is one of ultimate motive.

      I believe it is good for reviewers and press to not be "in bed" with the Industry. And it doesn't matter what industry because ultimately companies and corporations are interested in the "bottom line" whether it be the financial system, cars, drugs, retail sales... Influence is predictably towards the growth of this "bottom line".

      As I mentioned above, I have connected with some well known Industry figures over the years and I know there are some very nice, graceful, and smart people there. Though each person might be nice, if we take a step back form the "trees" and look at the Industry as a whole, the "forest" might not look all that pleasant; at least in parts!

      While perhaps many parts of the "forest" might look quite lush, green, vibrant... We certainly can imagine areas ravaged, damaged and dead from the mountain pine beetle (fancy USB cables industry perhaps?).

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  6. I've been meaning to check out the assertions on this page for a while now ...
    http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/20-20khz/4375907/Audio-Myths-Workshop-video-
    ... i.e. actually run the tests for myself instead of just sucking it up.
    Working in isolation can be good for one's objectivity ... when faced with deceitful 'experts'!

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    1. Great link.

      A classic example of sanity from the AES.

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  7. Thanks for this eminently sane and useful overview. I’m going to be musing on a number of points you’re making for awhile. You’re performing an great public service and have become one of my favorite hi-fi writers, so keep cool and carry on!

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  8. A well rounded and sensibly reasoned article, thank you.

    The links - many already familiar to me - provided great support and a nice rabbit hole that ended with a complete collection of Vacuum Tube Valley issues.

    Plus, its always fun to try to follow the arguments presented on the Hans Beekhuyzen Channel!

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    1. Hey Daniel.

      Every once awhile I run into a link from the Beekhuyzen Channel and have a peek... Yeah... He has some measurement devices in the background and once awhile I see that he presents a graph or two. But so much of his assertions and conclusions contradict my own personal experience and findings.

      It's like I'm watching images from an alternate universe deposited on YouTube :-).

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  9. The curse of an audiophile is being able to hear the difference.
    The way to avoid being exploited by the industry is to become educated.
    Immerse yourself at dealers, audio shows, local friends and clubs so you develop your "sound". Look to understand the value in what you purchase.
    Learn how to set up and optimize the sound of what you own.
    Of course it doesn't hurt to have a dealer with a generous return and trade-up policy.




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    1. Yes Anthony. I agree those are the steps forward. And I would also add that audiophiles try their best to determine the effect of placebo, sighted listening for themselves... It's about "knowing thyself" and one's own limitations.

      You've brought up a very important point...

      These days, with sky high prices for many devices, I do hope that the return and trade-up policies can be generous without too many questions asked. I haven't actually asked locally; anyone out there have experience in their local store?

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  10. An other problem...: while reproduction has reach the "ultimate" quality level, we see more and more emerging musicians with very limited $$$ resources recording themselves in their basement with using DAW with low quality microphones and almost no sound engineering skills. Too bad that the quality of new recordings is often worse than those made years ago...

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    1. Sad indeed, Denis.

      At least the quality of the pro gear will get better and better at lower prices as well so hopefully the price will be within reach of the proverbial "starving" artist.

      Let's just hope they at least learn the importance of not clipping the digital capture. Even if the mixing and mastering sucks, at least there's the hope of going back to the source to get things done right!

      Having said that, back in the day (1982) Springsteen was able to create the "Nebraska" master on cassette tape with a TASCAM 4-track Portastudio 144 in a farm kitchen with 80's-era noise reduction in post-processing. Obviously good art can still shine through poor-fidelity equipment... :-)

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