The Only Metric That Matters Is Listening

I can’t promise this will be my last post regarding the exchange that has been going on between myself and Jonathan Valin, but I will write about something else tomorrow. His response to my last comment was:

“I don’t really have anything to add to or subtract from what I’ve already written about your room at AXPONA.

You say you’re not “dismissing” analog recordings, only pointing out that by your metric they can’t possibly match the dynamic range of today’s digital recordings and (ergo) can’t possibly be as high in resolution or fidelity as your own (and other) digital recordings. (An interesting distinction, this–not a “dismissal” just a statement of disparaging fact.) [MW: There is nothing disparaging about stating a fact. Accept it and then continue enjoying what is offered by analog.]

I have seen this same argument made since the dawn of Perfect Sound Forever (or the Dawn of the Dead as I think of it); your party made the EXACT same claims about the very first 44/16 CDs. [MW: The CD specification had the potential to best analog tape and vinyl LP back in 1982 AND it still does today. How much dynamic range is available on analog tape?]

For TAS, the only metric that matters is listening. Though I freely admit that digital recording and playback have come a good deal closer to the absolute sound over the years, in my opinion and that of a lot of other experienced concertgoers and audiophiles, great analog recordings still sound markedly more like the real thing than great digital recordings. It is also my opinion that comparative measurements of dynamic range in digital bits (assuming, of course, that these measurements are valid) come no closer to telling the whole story about what is being presented than they did with 44/16 CD.” [MW: An opinion that can’t stand in the face of analytical and scientific reality.]

There just doesn’t seem to be any way to make him or others with same unwavering attachment to analog music understand that different levels of fidelity can be achieved by different formats…AND they are NOT all equal! And while he and plenty of others can continue to enjoy and cherish their analog formats, it is NOT disparaging of them or the formats when the march of technology moves ahead and it becomes possible to achieve higher levels of fidelity. The ultimate expression of music recording and reproduction isn’t analog tape and/or vinyl LPs, as much as Jonathan and his friends would like to have it. Those formats are wonderful but are not the end of the line.

The only metric that matters is listening. I sincerely hope that this statement is not true at The Absolute Sound. It would mark a very sad day for our audiophile passion if any writer or publication refused to acknowledge that acoustic accuracy, dynamic range, frequency range, distortion levels and a myriad of attributes of sound recording and reproduction have improved thanks to new discoveries and equipment. Could the folks over at The Absolute Sound really be “Flat-Earthers?” to whom any scientific facts are dismissed in favor of pseudoscience one’s personal opinions? I sincerely hope not.

The absolute sound might be found in a great piece of vinyl or played from an analog tape but it’s very possible that a new absolute sound with greater fidelity born of high-resolution digital technology has already arrived.

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.

24 thoughts on “The Only Metric That Matters Is Listening

  • May 5, 2014 at 6:30 pm
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    Mr Valin clearly is an Audio Creationist. Viva the Evolutionists! (with thanks to Charles Darwin)

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  • May 5, 2014 at 6:55 pm
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    Dr. Mark:
    I don’t think anyone emotionally-touched by a musical recording can in fact, separate out the dynamic range/frequency range from the mastering, mixing, performers, and most of all, the music. HRA had no real props or creds without the type of clear definition you have been championing.
    My old monaural car radio used to, at times, give me goose bumps too. And that was far from HRA.

    Go figure. Our country seems to luv closing its mind today. Years ago, the tenor of our culture was different.

    Keep up the hard fight. Good stuff!

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  • May 5, 2014 at 7:45 pm
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    I hope for the sake of The Absolute Sound that Jonathan Valin doesn’t represent their way of thinking. After all these years of reading the magazine, I’m almost positive that he doesn’t represent their way of thinking. It sounds to me as though he’s a very angry man with an “us and them” attitude. Not at all accepting of all forms of recorded music.
    I much prefer to download only digitally recorded (96khz or higher) files of music and if I want to hear the analog stuff, I’ll get an analog version of it, either reel to reel or vinyl (the way it was meant to be heard).

    I’m not sure I like this Valin guy anymore after reading this stuff.

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  • May 5, 2014 at 8:09 pm
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    Because he doesn’t have facts or the sense to shut up, Mr. Valin resorts to personal attacks. It’s about money and how to keep the analog mystique alive and very profitable. If facts are not required, you can convince some that they are one of the few discerning people that can appreciate this $25,000 turntable. I am in the market for a new turntable. Wow, flutter and rumble specifications – not easy to find. There is no shortage of buzz words and testimonies. With all of the disinformation in the analog world, I find it difficult to trust any claims. Any recommendations?

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:33 am
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      Blaine, I have to smile. You’re asking me to recommend a turntable…I don’t actually own one. But I did have an AR-100 many, many years ago. I think it cost about $200ish. I loved it. It was simple, solid and did the trick in a cost effective way. That’s the kind of engineering that I appreciate and seek. There’s got to be someone making turntables like that. I did sit through a presentation of the ClearAudio $160,000 turntable and stand (the stand was $25,000). I just can’t believe that such a thing exists and they’ve actually sold a few.

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  • May 5, 2014 at 8:27 pm
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    It’s easy for me to believe that money is at work here. Because vinyl has been on the rise, perhaps so have been subscriptions to The Absolute Sound, as well as related advertising income. Speaking from a perilous position between a rock and a hard place always requires compromising what is true.

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  • May 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm
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    Dear Mark,

    I have just canceled my subscription to The Absolute Sound.Magazine. I could not stand up any more with that subjective audio publication. I can’t continue reading that magazine after making me sure that their reviewers and commentators are medieval absolutists who do not accept other opinions . Thanks and keep up the good work.

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:36 am
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      I’m a subscriber too…and I do know and consider some of the writers at TAS as friends. This current episode and the particulars of Mr. Valin are very troubling. I thought about cancelling my subscription…haven’t made of my mind. They’ve published some very nice articles and reviews about my stuff…in spite of the fact that I’ve never purchased an ad.

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  • May 5, 2014 at 11:02 pm
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    Don’t worry, Mark! This is a battle that will continue forever. As there will be people who know how to erect a wall and people who can design a skyscraper. The huge difference between them is science. We all could well be audiophiles, or gardeners or divers, but few are engineers, biologists or marine scientists.

    Since this blog is called “Real HD-Audio”, science must prevail. Ethan Winer talked about this at a AES some six or seven years ago. It may help Jonathan understand some things you may have not already explained to him. In that seminar (this is just a brief part of it:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYTlN6wjcvQ) he, and his colleagues explained the phenomenon of hearing as what it is, mechanically and how it is absolutely impossible (as it is with all of our senses) to measure anything subjectively. So, as he says, we use science to have an objective picture of phenomena we perceive subjectively. Sound is -clearly, measurable to its extremes with scientific tools. Our ears are not scientific tools, be them gold or iron.

    Let the discussion flow. If we’re to believe that a power cable costing £550 will change the effect of all the cabling that leads to that particular outlet, we must be really stubborn.

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:37 am
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      Thanks Carlos. I have Ethan Winer’s book and have watched some of his presentations. He explains things well.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 12:18 am
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    I think that once you’ve properly read half a dozen articles and reviews on that website you will understand the futility of trying to engage them with ‘analytical and scientific reality’.

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:39 am
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      You’re probably right. But in a market that depends on getting positive reviews or mentions, it is frustrating to discover that sonic opinions are the “only metrics” used in determining the quality of a track at TAS.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 2:11 am
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    I agree with the folks at TAS up to a point (Lord Copper).

    If you remember your schoolboy physics, the relationship between an electric field and the electric displacement field of a ferromagnetic material (a.k.a. the magnetic field) follows a non-linear relationship, known as the hysteresis loop. There is a good entry on Wikipedia if you are interested. However, if the electric field is kept small, there is a linear relationship between it and the magnetic field. Provided that analogue electromagnetic equipment (e.g., loudspeaker coil, pickup cartridge, transformer coil, analogue turntable motor) is operated within the flat part of the graph, you can experience a close approximation to ‘perfect’ linear reproduction. What you will NOT experience is the sort of dynamic range available on digital, nor the lower noise floor, higher signal:noise ratio and lower THD that can be enjoyed even on good old Red Book CD format.

    Let the flat earthers enjoy their analogue sound under the mistaken impression that that is as good as it gets. The rest of us can look elsewhere.

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:42 am
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      Right. I’ve never said that because analog tape or vinyl LPs are scientifically incapable of the same level of dynamic range or frequency response that they are to be avoided or that they are not important. I’m simply saying that current state-of-the-art PCM digital technologies are more capable and should be included in the production and delivery process.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 2:32 am
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    Hi Mark, if you carefully read my comments on your AXPONA Fallout post, you would have found it not necessary to ask the questions you did at the end of today’s post, because I have already answered them! Of course TAS never measure anything! Their whole philosophy of good sound is entirely opposed to the concept that there is any correlation between measurements and sound quality. I am quite sure that you have not read their magazine with any depth or regularity, or you would have known the answers to your questions!

    Ah dear. The sad thing is how many audiophiles subscribe to their philosophy hook line and sinker. At least it gives you a taste of what you are up against. To the extent that your approach does not worship analogue as the pinnacle, you will have implacable enemies. You will not be able to rationalise and bring them about with common sense. It is simply something to accept and move on.

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:44 am
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      I get the magazine and I usually get as far as the letters to the editor…scan through the rest of the magazine and set it aside. Your assessment hits the mark.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 5:28 am
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    Ah the old digital vs analogue debate! I have been reading articles, blogs and comments from various sites about the recent Axpono show and it seems that the current trend for open reel tape is still continuing to grow. Even if it was the ultimate playback source average Joes like me could never afford the inflated prices of those old refurbished Technic machines and of the insane price of the few pre-record tapes available. True HD recordings offered from the likes of AIX, 2L etc. can give you awesome results even in a modest real world system. Personally, I’m fed up with it, I came across the following comment: ‘ZEROS AND ONES AIN’T MUSIC, HD or otherwise! It is a mere representation of real music. Analog tape is infinite, not confined by a computers reanimation / interpretation of zeros and ones. Wake up, reality is all around us and spreads out seemingly to infinity in all directions, it is does not reside in a computer!’ Clearly an emotional response and typical of most of the arguments I have heard in favour of tape and none are based on science and hard facts. Sometimes, Mark, I think you are fighting a losing battle against mis-placed predigest, but thankfully you are and a lot of us are grateful. Ultimately, if the sound of open reel floats your boat and you can afford it then great and don’t get me wrong I’m sure it’s very good, but the argument is that it’s not true HD, we all have a right to choose and are all different in our tastes…thankfully. However, the point is how are we to move forward when people are vehemently clinging on to archaic technologies and popular magazines are promoting it.

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:48 am
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      Thanks Martin…that comment about analog tape says it all.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 7:23 am
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    I wonder if Jonathan Valin thinks that a VHS video tape shown on a CRT type TV set is as good as a modern 1080P video source shown on a high definition video monitor? If so, then I guess the only Metric that matters is the viewing or the fact that you can see at all.
    Don’t worry Mark. The TAS will fade away as the majority of the world is not interested in going backwards in technology. I don’t worry that the majority of cell phone users will return to the candle stick telephone any time soon.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 7:25 am
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    Mark, you can’t really argue with people who hold deeply religious or political beliefs. I was always told, don’t start arguments over 2 subjects, religion and politics. I think you can now add analog vs. digital to that list. In those arguments, facts never seem to matter. I have been a audiophile ( I really don’t like that word and all its connotations) since my early teens. I enjoy both analog and digital. Since getting into computer audio, I listen mostly to digital. I have a neutral system and the digital I hear at home, both hi rez and CD sounds superb. Yes there are some that stink but not too many. It seems to me that far too many manufacturers in the high end have catered to the too bright crowd. Having listened to some of these systems in peoples’ homes, I can see why they prefer analog. The problem isn’t digital but the fact that their systems are so damn bright, especially in the 200 to 2000 range. Some of these systems are those of high end reviewers, whose systems are so bright, they can peel paint. I have learned to ignore the mags over the years. I read them for amusement and news, not for their opinions on what sounds good.

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    • May 6, 2014 at 9:51 am
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      I think you’re right…adding analog vs. digital has proven equally troubling. While I was running this morning, I was thinking about the politics analogy to the current discussion. But politics and religion rely to core philosophies and faith…can’t we do better with a discussion of scientific facts with analog and digital. I guess not.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 8:07 am
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    Listening enjoyment is all dependent on the constraints on one’s playback system.There is no absolute sound. Only absolute potential waiting to be diminished by any weak link along the recording or playback chain. Mark is right about the potential of high sampling rate digital with at least 24 bits being superior to analog (and 44/16, too, being potentially superior). For example, I never really enjoyed digital until Oppo, which made everything sound better. To claim that analog is superior because I have constraints in digital playback is like saying no human can run a mile under 6 minutes because I cannot run a mile under 6 minutes. JV may be operating under digital playback constraints that limit his perception. It is too bad that he doesn’t seek to find all the variables and constraints. I think if he spent some time with Mark in his studio, it would help him.

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  • May 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm
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    Mark,

    I’ve written and discarded this several times since yesterday, but a comment above crystallized it all for me.

    Due to the rolloff of treble in RIAA playback, and the near-extinction of low bass in RIAA mastering, I always had to boost both ends of the audio spectrum on my analog systems.

    I was of the generation who – before the introduction of subwoofers – built a “bottom octave boost” circuit for my Dynaco amp to drive my original Advent loudspeakers (and slowly killed the foam surround on their woofers as a result).

    Now plug a truly flat signal into such a systtem with the tone controls left where they were – since “that’s what the room and speakers require” in the mind of the analog worshipper – and you’ll get sound that’s both too bright and too boomy.

    Add to that the “it isn’t important until it been on TV” premium on glitzy production that compresses dynamics to make things “punchy,” looking down on realistic reproduction as boring “ordinary life” and not part of “the big show.”

    We’ve got a headstart on de-programming on flat frequency response because, its other faults aside, lossy compression at least has relatively flat response, so the younger generation doesn’t habitually boost the bass and treble.

    As far as the audio-MSG that dynamic range compression represents, that we’ve still got our job cut out on, particularly since for listening where there’s a lot of ambient noise, compression is actually a good thing.

    Why not build a “compression level” knob into equipment, so recordings can be distributed with full dynamic range and the user can compress the playback to suit their current surroundings, to keep the quiet passages from being lost below the ambient noise floor?

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    • May 6, 2014 at 2:08 pm
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      It could be labeled “Quiet Passages Volume” so the user would turn that – rather than the master gain – up when there’s a quiet passage that they want to boost so they can hear it over the background noise.

      It would function similarly to some of the controls in photo editing programs that are used to increase brightness in the shadow areas without blowing out the highlights.

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