Dr. AIX's POSTS — 19 March 2014

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The excitement generated by the Neil Young and his Pono initiative has been noticed at the major record labels, the DEG (Digital Entertainment Group), the Recording Academy (NARAS) and the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association). It’s certainly gratifying that after 14 years of high-resolution audio production and delivery options that 2014 may be the year that it finally happens for the masses. As a major advocate for better sound recording and specifically REAL high-resolution audio, nothing would make me happier than to see music consumers and artists have a direct connection through better fidelity. But as we’ve seen, getting the truth is going to be very difficult if not impossible.

I read the latest update from the Pono KS page today, where CEO John Hamm recommends that supporters read a paper titled, “Computer Audio Demystified” put together by high-end cable manufacturer Audioquest. There is plenty of useful information in the paper but I lost some of my enthusiasm when I read this in the second paragraph:

“In this brave new frontier of computer-based digital audio, the current reality is that a lossless 16-bit/44.1kHz digital music file can sound far better than the CD it was ripped from when each is played in real time, and a high-resolution 24-bit/88.2kHz digital music file can truly compete with vinyl’s sonic beauty without our beloved vinyl’s flaws.”

This is one of those statements designed to keep everyone happy…imagine if they had told the truth. A well-done high-resolution recording can do much more than “compete with vinyl’s sonic beauty”. It could blow it away in terms of dynamic range, frequency response, distortion specs, number of channels and a myriad of other aspects. But if you’re Audioquest, you can’t say that because vinyl lovers are part of your target audience. You want to sell them your expensive cables. And does anyone really think that a 44.1 kHz/16-bit file ripped from a CD “can sound far better” than the actual disc playing from a good quality player (using the same DAC)?

[NOTE This is one that I can actually test…stay tuned]

I remain skeptical that Neil or any of the organizations mentioned above can actually turn the tide against the standard operating procedures of the major labels, but I’ll continue to push as much as I can. Today, the CEA Audio Board working group charged with defining High-Resolution Audio had its first conference call. And while I can’t really share the things that were talked about, I think it is important to share my opinion that the chances of getting a meaningful definition are slim to nil. Why?

Because an organization has to serve its membership and the working group is made up of companies that want to sell you a new piece of hardware (it is after all the Consumer Electronics Association), it’s going to be difficult if not impossible to produce a definition for high-resolution audio that actually means something. The tendency will undoubtedly be to generalize high-definition audio as being better than CDs or MP3…a statement that means absolutely nothing! Pointing to the “masters” as the best sources is also meaningless when we know that there are a variety of “masters”. We’re going to get what we deserve. My guess is that within a couple of months we’ll have a definition something like this:

High-Resolution Audio is made from sources that are at least CD quality and represent the “best available” fidelity of an album exactly as the engineers, producers and artists experienced in the studio.”

There are a couple of others on the group that understand the idea of provenance and quantifying both source and delivery specifications. But the loudest voices or the majority will push a definition without any backbone in the interest of keeping everyone happy. After all, the mission statement is all about selling more electronic stuff, not making it clear what is and what isn’t high-resolution audio.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(21) Readers Comments

  1. Mark Waldrep said:
    After all, the mission statement is all about selling more electronic stuff, not making it clear what is and what isn’t high-resolution audio.

    So it boils down to money. It’s always about money. They are not making it clear what is and what isn’t high-resolution audio. Seems like that is exactly what killed high-end audio in the last couple decades. The audiophiles don’t appear to be a large enough percentage, so the marketing folks target the music loving folks who don’t really care about the engineering data and only care about the latest and greatest technology. Only to be replaced in a year with a newer, better technology with higher sampling rates and bit depth. Not a good thing for audiophiles.

    • It is always about money and staying with the crowd. What else is new?

  2. A high quality DAC + computer has to be more cost effective than a high quality transport + high quality DAC — doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that most people already have a computer. I don’t have a problem with the statement that computers sound better than cd players because, for the money, they do. Plus, cd’s wear out — remember the dreaded “skip” — doesnt happen with a properly ripped cd, they dont wear out (don’t forget to back-up).

    • There value proposition is really the issue. Sure you can get a Mac Mini or an inexpensive PC and send USB to a good to great DAC inexpensively but you can also get an Oppo machine that does everything with great DACs (and multichannel) for around the same money or less. The point is the same disc playing from an optical drive will deliver the exact same bits as a SSD or HD from a computer…thus the sound is identical with all other factors being the same. I’ll test this this weekend and report back.

      CDs don’t wear out. There have been reports of “disc rot” but you won’t find this if you take care of your discs. I’m all for having digital files. There are advantages but the sound is the same.

  3. Pardon if you’ve covered this already, but what would you consider a proper and meaningful definition?

    • I’ll put a post within a couple of days. I did include my definition in yesterday’s post and then removed it because I want to put it in context. I need to adjust my thinking to get to the “simple message” that the masses can understand. Stay tuned.

      I have stated in the past, “high-resolution audio is fidelity that equals or exceeds the capabilities of human hearing.” But there’s more to it when you’re talking about a definition without referencing other formats that are “standard-resolution” or “reduced resolution”.

  4. As someone who has been into computer audio now for all of 2 months, I can state that at least for my set up, ripped CDs onto my macbookair played into my Schitt Audio Gungnir via USB sound better than when played via coax from my Sony ES SACD player into that same DAC. Do they sound way better, no, but there is more detail, smoother highs, lesss glare and a lower noise floor, so that some of the detail lost in that noise is more audible. This is especially true of live jazz recordings from clubs, where the tinkle of glasses, door opening and in the case of one record, sirens down the street are clearly audible. Even some conversations can be made out in the background. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the cds are ripped and played back via battery power and the fact that the drive in the computer and the external hard drive are both solid state, but the difference is there.

    • Thanks for the comment. I don’t doubt that you believe you have a different (better?) listening experience between the Sony and the Mac Book Air. However, I’m absolutely certain that if the same digital data read from the disc or the hard drive are being sent to the DAC AND the clock is the same, the analog output will be acoustically identical.

      I’ll do this test this weekend. In my studio, I can actually synchronize the live playback AND DAW and then reverse the polarity of on of them If the audio disappears then they are identical and there is not difference between the 16-bit words coming live from a disc and the 16-bit words delivered from a computer.

      If this turns out to be the case, would you accept the results?

      • Sure I can accept the results. However, I will still enjoy the hell out of my computer based system. I would also suggest that you level match which I have and give them a listen to see if you hear a difference regardless of what the scope says. I was skeptical myself as I went into computer audio more for high rez files such as the Lawrence Juber tracks but found that I liked my CDs better on the computer. I find it to be a nice bonus!

        • I’m certainly not advocating that you should abandon listening to your computer based system…I wouldn’t either. Do what works and perhaps Audirvana is making the difference. I have it as well and will give a careful listen this weekend. Different players certainly handle audio streams differently just as different DACs do.

      • Oh, I am also using Audirvanna+ as my playback software. Perhaps that is contributing to the difference.

  5. I have found that cds ripped to the solid state hard drive on my macbook do indeed sound better than the same CD played through the same dac via coax. The discs are ripped with the computer on battery and are played back via battery power only via usb. Less glare, in fact on a well made cd, no glare at all with a lower noise floor. I have ripped all of my cds that I love listening to and this is now the only way I listen to those. Perhaps it is the fact of the battery, the sold state hard drives or both operating together. The AIX stuff, like the Lawrence Juber tracks sound simply sublime this way. I need to borrow a Blu-ray drive so I can get the stereo tracks off the numerous AIX blus I have in particular the Ernest Ranglin one.

  6. I can assure you that disc rot can occur even if you take care of your discs. From my experience while it is rare, it does happen. I have thousands of CDs, and fortunately, I have encountered disc rot on only one disc set, but unfortunately it is a 10 disc set, “Sergei Rachmaninoff – The Complete Recordings” RCA Gold Seal 09026-61265-2.This set is packaged in 3 jewel cases. The first case contains discs 1 and 2 plus the recording notes, these 2 discs are still in excellent condition. The second case contains discs 3-6, 2 of these discs (3 and 4) have degraded so severely that you can barely see the aluminum surface, 1 of the discs (5) is severely degraded, but some of the aluminum surface can still be seen, and 1 of the discs (6) is starting to become cloudy, but it can still be played without errors. The third case contains discs 7-10, disc 7 is still in excellent condition, disc 8-10 are starting to become cloudy but can at least be partially played. These discs have all been stored together along with thousands of other discs in the same environmental conditions. The disc labels all say “Made in U. S. A.”, but I don’t know where in the USA. Clearly a manufacturing defect and not the handling of the discs has caused the degradation of these discs. On the positive side, I did manage to rip all but 6 of the tracks to FLAC files on my media server before the disc degradation progressed to the current state.

    • I’ve encountered very little problems with optical discs. Your situation sounds like a serious flaw in the replication process. However, I’m with you that every disc should be ripped and backed up. You never know.

  7. I think a lot of folks still are in the analog mindset that digital hardware and software can be “tweeked” in order to derive a higher sound quality somehow. I think people want to believe this and it seems to me that very few people really understand the Nyquist theory and and still think that it is not possible to derive a high frequency signal by only sampling it twice. To understand the digital world, you need to let go of old beliefs about analog. Analog circuits can be tweeked and need to be tweeked in order to meet the original specifications. A good example is a tape recorder. If the mechanical alignment of the tape head is off a bit, the high frequencies suffer. If you align the head with a “standards” alignment tape and adjust the bias properly, you can “tune” the recorder back into specification again and thus, better sound. This is not the case with digital. As mark said, if you have the same digital data as mentioned in the previous posts applied to the same DAC, the sound will be the same. It has to be. If you hear differences, it is something else in the system that is different. Also when analog signals are contaminated with noise or distortion, it will still play with a lesser quality sound. In the digital world, when a digital word fails for some reason, the error is muted. It either works, or it doesn’t. Tweeking doesn’t fix it. You can see this effect when your TV freezes up, or pixalates. The problem is not because it is digital, rather some other problem that is not allowing the digital data to get where it needs to be.

    • Well said Gerald. Thanks.

  8. why do you advocate for the benchmark dac when the oppo does everything the benchmark does and more for roughly the same price? Does the benchmark sound different in some way?

    • The Oppo BDP-95/105 and Benchmark DAC2 (and the previous DAC 1) are all very high quality pieces of equipment. The Oppo uses the ESS Sabre DAC chip in both surround and stereo outputs. It’s a great set up and combined with all of the other capabilities of their machines, you can’t do better. But you can do better for dedicated conversion of digital to analog. Benchmark straps 4 of the ESS DAC chips together for each output. Each time you add another chip to a channel the noise floor drops by another 3 dB. Therefore the specifications AND the sound of the Benchmark tops the Oppo box. I highly recommend both but they are different.

  9. Hi Mark,

    This is an excellent discussion. I have owned CDs since the mid 1980s. They slowly took over from my analog LPs as my medium of choice. From my experience:

    1. CDs actually do “wear out”, and,
    2. FLAC files ripped from my CDs clearly sound “better” than the CDs spinning themselves.

    My dozen or so “worn out CDs” would slowly develop clicks and skips over time. Some have progressively gotten worse and stopped playing at the offending bits. In a way this was like the LPs of old, except that there was no increasing noise with each passing playback. Most of the worn out CDs are from the mid 80s and early 90s, but I do have some newer ones as well. The surfaces are spotless and without scratches on either side. There is no visible rot on my failed CDs. I take care of my CDs as well as I took care of my LPs so they were never abused, used in the car etc… Of course I have many hundreds of CDs from the 80s and 90s that are just fine.

    As I ripped all my CDs to FLAC files, I found that some of the CDs that I have not played for a long time, could not be ripped without errors. That was when I discovered how many have “worn out”.

    As for the sound quality of the FLAC files versus their CD “masters”, there is no contest. On better recordings the FLAC files were clearly better. Mind you, I am comparing against CD player RCA coaxial outs compared to a Bryston BDP-1 XLR out and into DEQX. I will refrain from the usual subjective audiophile jargon but, I was surprised that I could hear such an obvious difference with so many pieces of music. So in my case, the rationale is not important; it works for me and that is all that matters.

  10. Marpe,

    I use a Bryston BDP1 with a BDAC1 via XLR and also noticed quite a difference in detail and overall cohesiveness to the sound compared to OPT or COAX…I am thinking of just switching to a made for music PC with JRiver because of the excellent GUI JRiver offers and bit perfect is bit perfect right?

    Oddly, these days I find myself listening to vinyl more because my wonderful wife bought me(us) an expensive set up…30 year old records simply sound amazing…far better than the supposed HDtracks of the SAME music…obviously different masters.

    Pisses me off that a $2 30 year old used record sounds far better than a $22.99 hi-res digital download…that in theory should blow the vinyl out of the water.

    • If you could use get the same data streak into the Bryston, if would sound identical to the hard drive version. As for vinyl LPs, you’re right they have a sound that it incredible and unique. But they’re hardly convenient.

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