Dr. AIX's POSTS — 22 February 2015

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Have you read the piece by Fred Kaplan at Slate.com defending audiophiles? Thanks to Norman Chesky for passing along a link to a very thoughtful and compelling article about our mutual passion. It’s called “I, Audiophile” and you can read it by clicking here.

Fred is an audiophile. The piece is largely written as a defense of audiophilia against the largely negative articles that have appeared in numerous publications and even as videos on YouTube. He specifically mentions David Pogue’s bad review at Yahoo Tech of Neil Young’s player and a recent rant by Seth Stevenson, which is also at Slate.com (http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2015/02/ponoplayer_review_neil_young_s_new_streaming_device_sounds_no_better_than.html). His piece is titled, “Out of the Blue and Into the Wack – Neil Young’s PonoPlayer sounds no better than an iPhone—no matter what the audiophiles say.”

Both of these articles have generated lots of comments. Apparently, both sides in the debate love to state and re-state positions that do nothing but continue the great divide between those who believe they hear a difference and those that don’t. I read through some of them and even started to write one of my own…but I gave up and realized that there is nothing I can add that would change anyone’s mind. The two sides are dug in…seriously dug in.

I was amused to see the continued mention of, “the legendary 2007 study published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society“. The implication in Seth’s article is that this “legendary” study established once and for all that high-resolution recordings don’t sound any better or any different than standard CDs. After all, it was published in the AES Journal. The Meyer and Moran “study” isn’t worth the paper it was written on for the same reason that Seth and David Pogue failed to achieve positive results with their mini studies. None of them played recordings that were actually high-resolution!

Fred gets it right in his thoughtful counter to Seth’s condemnation of Pono and by extension the entire audiophile world. He provided a great definition of Audiophilia that I would like to share:

“Audiophilia might be defined as the love of listening to good music that sounds good.”

We audiophiles love to listen to wonderful, well-performed musical compositions and/or songs using the very best method of reproduction possible. I’m all in. This has been central to my life’s path since I was a very young child. Music is an absolutely amazing art form that can easily bring forth joy and excitement as well as tears and sorrow. And those of us that dedicate ourselves in the pursuit of better and better sound do so because we simply want the best. What’s wrong with that?

Being an audiophile doesn’t mean that everyone subscribes to the same idea of The Absolute Sound, however. As we all know, there is great passion with regards to formats, recordings, hardware, and methods. In the final analysis, if it works for you, then keep doing it. So let’s keep washing our vinyl LPs, tweaking our setups, and seeking that one accessory that is going to blow our minds. It’s all good.

If Seth Stevenson had listened to real HD-Audio recording when he opened his new Pono player rather than an old standard resolution Neil Young track, things might…just might…have been different.

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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.

(19) Readers Comments

  1. Yes, both sides are dug in, but it may be worse than you think. There’s a term in psych circles called the “Backfire Effect”. Essentially, when a person who holds a strong belief in something is presented with concrete evidence that they are wrong, usually their initial belief is strengthened rather than diminished. That is, the more facts you can show, the stronger the original erroneous belief becomes. This phenomena has been well established in multiple studies going back to the 1950s.

    What’s disheartening about this is that it makes it nearly impossible to convince somebody that they are wrong, since all your efforts will just make things worse.

    It cuts both ways, too. Everybody likes to think that they are immune to this effect, but who can say that they truly are. Both “dug in” sides are more and more certain of their position the more the other side makes their case.

    • Thanks…it’s worse than I imagined.

  2. “In the final analysis, if it works for you, then keep doing it. So let’s keep washing our vinyl LPs, tweaking our setups, and seeking that one accessory that is going to blow our minds. It’s all good.”

    I’ll have to take a small disagreement with that statement Mark. If you enjoy playing with your LPs, playing with your SR dots, AQ and Nordost cables etc etc, that is all fine and good. It’s your nickle to spend at your own discretion.
    But DON’T call your self an Audiophile. You can call your self a Hi Fi Hobbyist or lay any other handle on it you prefer, but you are not an Audiophile. Some would say I’m playing a game with names, but as you Mark also look to have the Digital HD recording world properly described do to the recordings provenance, etc. I feel the same way about this.
    As you described yourself I am very much the same in history. In the 60s as a teen I build Heath and Knight kits, etc, trying to get the best sound reproduction that was in my budget. And ever since my goal has been to get as close to the reproduction of the real thing whither it was to live music of the sound of the musicians in the studio.
    But here’s the bottom line, in this science as in any other there are tools and measurements that can be made to tell us how close we’re getting to our goal, how close the output is to the original, etc.
    But over the years this hobby got split into two factions.

    Those who look to the measured ability of the equipment to judge if we’re making progress in reproduction. These people are Audiophiles.

    And those who say “I don’t care if my 5 watt triode amp combined with my 86db sensitivity speaker produces 15% distortion at a 80db spl, it sounds great and is a Class A+ level system. BALONEY. These people can be call Hi Fi Hobbyists or whatever name you chose to use to be polite. Truth is this whole faction of the hobby got started by the snake oil peddlers so they can say this (?) will make your system sound 10% better and not have to produce any documentation to prove it. Their equipment prices have gone threw the roof and all they need say is if you don’t hear the improvement your either deaf or the rest of your equipment isn’t up to snuff. (you really do need that $3000, power cable).

    In the end I don’t know about the HD argument and if 96/24 or 192/24 is audibly superior to 44/16 or not, for whatever reason I’ve admitted I can’t hear a difference. But I do know that I’ve never walked past a room at a HiFi show and been fooled into thinking I heard live event. I don’t know why that is for sure but I do suspect its still the speakers. The best of the best still measure horribly compared to the rest of the chain.

    But Mark, IMHO YES, Being an Audiophile DOES mean that everyone should subscribe to the same idea of The Absolute Sound. That ideal is a perfect reproduction of the original event and accepting anything less because “I sounds good” excludes you from ever being a true Audiophile, equipment hobbyist OK, Audiophile never.
    Cheers

    • I think you might get some push back from the “I just love the way it sounds” group. Most of the reviewers at the major magazines subscribe to this philosophy and they have the added incentive of maintaining ad revenues.

      • Note: analog master tape has however limited impulse response characteristic meaning a CD derived from that will as well have it limited hence it is of greatest importance to record 44.1/16 fully digitally so that after the event the impulse response could in theory have been restored by oversampling to the extent of live sound .

        • I would never recommend that someone transfer an analog tape at 44.1 kHz/16-bits.

    • Absolutely, it’s all about the money and if it weren’t for the reciprocal $ business position of the High End mag reviewers and the snake oil manufacturers. the “High End” as we know it today wouldn’t exist.
      I’d love to have the opportunity to sit down with J Gordon Holt today and get his honest opinion of the industry that he started as it stands today. If my take on him is right he wouldn’t be too pleased with the magazine they still put his name on in the masthead.
      There’s science and there’s BS, As TRUE AUDIOPHILES it’s our job and responsibility to call BS on the snake oil peddlers, The advancement of sound reproduction deserves no less.
      Cheers

  3. I agree! It is wonderful to find a great performance that is recorded well and also matches your musical taste.
    I recently attended the Ft. Myers ( Florida) art festival and heard a Live performance By Bob Culbertson playing a Chapman Stick. I was not familiar with either the instrument or the performer but now I am a Fan.
    If you are not familiar with this music you should give a listen.

    • The Chapman stick is an amazing instrument and in the right hands a joy to experience.

  4. Dr. AIX. Why does Sara K.’s Multichannel recording sound so amazing.

    • I can’t say I’m familiar with it.

      • Sara K. | Album: Hell or High Water | Style: Acoustic, Smooth Jazz | Year: 2006 | Quality: DVD-Audio (MLP 5.1 88.2kHz/24Bit, MLP 2.0 88.2kHz/24Bit) | Bitrate: lossless | Tracks: 10 | Size: ~3.75 Gb | Recovery: 3%

        Listen to it and you’ll see what I mean.

        • Thanks, I will.

  5. “As we all know, there is great passion with regards to formats, recordings, hardware, and methods.”

    Hi Mark

    That is absolutely true.
    I have been listening and working and playing with music (mainly pop, rock some jazz) for so many years, including 10 years at EMI in all aspects of the recording chain.

    I love (read passionate) about HOW the music sounds to me. Therefore I have spent what I can afford on hardware to enhance that perceived audio sound. The ability to hear things on my system that I couldn’t hear before…. (The surround system is good enough to be called “High End”)

    There is a lot of fun in comparing the same recorded piece in different formats and / or through different hardware and to make comparisons. That’s what these audiophile discussions are all about.
    I have followed your daily letters every day for years now, and have learned a great deal about some hi def audio realities, and the correct, I think, definition of Hi Def being all the way from Source to Playback, not just playback.

    One example I thought I would share is the comparison of 3 different formats of the popular Blood Sweat and Tears album, “Blood Sweat and Tears”. (Includes Spinning Wheel).

    Compare the original CD, the SACD Stereo (Mofi) and the SACD 4.0 (Audio Fidelity).

    Using the track Smiling Phases as an example of AB testing.

    There is no doubt the SACD Stereo is better sounding than the CD. Not hugely, but enough to hear the mid range and higher frequencies more accurately and with greater clarity.
    The 4.0 SACD is vastly superior because I can hear the keyboards, the horns the vocals all with amazing clarity, yet blending together all around me in my listening room. (Not even the way the engineers probably heard it in their studio!). That is an audiophile experience that can even be emotional.

    In summary.
    Same source recording on all 3 CD’s. Yet there is an audio listening difference between the 3 items. I think I would call the SACD stereo a “Hi Definition” audio experience just because it HAS higher definition in listening to it compared to the CD. (I know that in your definition that is NOT TRUE Hi Def). The 4.0 channel SACD is even a Higher Definition listening experience for me.

    Listening to “Pure” high def, ie. source to playback can be an amazing experience too, but the issue is that 99% of the music I WANT to listen to is originally recorded in analogue or “non Hi Def Digital”.

    Therefore I download only from HD Tracks or similar sites. The playback may or may not be more accurate than the original CD, but it certainly is more accurate than an MP3 from iTunes at around 256 kpbs.
    AND that is the main point. Which download or CD type will sound better on my system?

    The PONO people etc are really only stating the obvious when they say their downloads (compared to iTunes etc) are better, but I agree its NOT PURE HI DEF. Its just a more accurate representation of the low def source. And it doesn’t ALWAYS sound better.

    BUT using a more “accurate” (better?) audio system will make the PONO download sound better to the entrapped listeners than the same material they listen to on their iphones/ipads/mobile players. Neil Youngs in car Audio demo. Unbelievable that even music industry people fall for that “spin”, but great marketing!

    There are differences in audio quality when listening to music. We audiophiles want a more accurate representation, we strive for it, we want to perceive/believe it sounds better, whether it really does or not.

    The arguments will go on forever. But until your definition of what actually constitutes “Hi Def Audio” (source through playback) is both understood and accepted, the term Hi Def will always be bandied about and used to sell more products. I too am striving for the Absolute Sound on my audio system,.

    Its a lot of fun.

    Howard

    • Thanks Howard…I appreciate the extensive comments. Makes sense to me. I can’t help but focus on the word “higher” definition…the use of the relative term in critical to understanding the whole world of high-res. I would prefer to see “higher” fidelity applied to things like the HDtracks versions but not the Pono ones, which are the same as the CDs for 99% of his catalog.

  6. I have followed the links you have posted recently to various sites peddling extortionately priced nonsense and i am as baffled as you and many others as to how they get away with it.

    I am from the UK and i personally people who have left the country because of the effectiveness of the “prove its objective not subjective” mantra, if you will, of the Advertising Standards Authority because they were peddling medicines, that they could not prove worked objectively .

    What strikes me is how groups of people who will literally foam at the mouth about individuals who follow religious belief systems who are self styled self righteous intelligent and very wealthy people incidentally. Will entrench themselves in exclusive mindsets, which they have to for shame of their overdeveloped egos or vanities. Have developed belief systems known to psychologists, which can if sufficiently entrenched be indistinguishable from psychoses. This makes them very angry and will stoop to any form or source to justify their entrenched beliefs systems. They have spent multiple thousands on these systems in many cases just for bragging rights.

    My point is that what they are hearing or believe they are hearing apart from the above, is more in line with what i feel happens amongst sportspeople. They have bad days, their minds rather than their techniques are not on the job as are the listeners if you will. Instead of being philosophical they change their swings or their gear hoping or demanding of their belief systems a change or reinforcement.

    What happens next is complex, but something i read / saw by Ethan Winer, who did a very interesting workshop on audio myths at rocky mountain and a youtube video around 17 minutes in discusses comb filtering and head positioning as a source of audible effects when experimenting with these snake oil widgets etc. The proximity of surfaces near the listener interferes with the signal coming from the speakers creating a comb filter, which cuts or boosts frequencies, explaining the changes heard by the suckers who buy this crap.

  7. I’ll be brief for a change. The music and the sound are two different things that run closely parallel top each other. The sound is the CARRIER for the music, which is the artist’ EMOTION and INTENT. We all began enjoying the music on lo-fi devices, so evidently the music always comes first, as it should be.

    However, the operating concept behind good hi-fi is that when the SOUND is clean, the EMOTION and INTENT come across much more profoundly.

    But for many, there is a nice place where it all comes together. It’s just like starting with fine ingredients, then enjoying the result of combining them skillfully.

    The continual upgrading of the median publicly available music sound quality is coming up, not just because of Neil Young’s visibility, Pono fan or not, but because the proverbial ‘man on the street’ has finally become sick of 128 MP-3 and is doing something about it, be it Tidal, Pono, HD Trax, i-Trax or any other path towards lower distortion music playback.

    • Which component is more important? The sound or the music? Listening to very old scratchy recordings drives me nuts…even if the music is a Bach Cello solo by Casals. I need great sound and a great performance of a great work.

  8. We both know that the emotional expression is the key element. It is entirely understandable that for you Mark it has to sound great too; you have spoiled yourself by working so long and hard at your chosen metier, as the French would say. I can turn on that perspective whenever it’s appropriate.

    Yes, it’s best when both quality of expression and quality of sound are present. But we sure as hell didn’t have great sound on those x-istor radios, and it sure as hell didn’t stop us from discovering and loving all the amazing music made during the late 50’s and 60’s now, did it? In fact, it was the thought that “there is more” that caused us to buy our first stereos, and guess what, there WAS MORE! This is what the young listeners today will miss if they don’t move past cheap headphones , get good loudspeakers, and realize that home is where the most rewarding listening can take place.
    IMHO, the most significant aspect about the ‘resurgence’ of vinyl is that turntables and LP’s can ONLY BE USED AT HOME. Speakers should follow, as I wouldn’t want all that LP noise so close to my ear.

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