High-Res Audio Equipment: Upgrades Needed

If listening to the high-end audio is part of what makes you tick, you may be thinking that all you need to experience high-res audio is a great DAC and a good set of headphones. I get requests from readers everyday asking to download the FREE HD-Audio samples I have on my FTP server. Many say they’re just starting to investigate high-res audio and are looking for content capable of “blowing them away”. Of course, it takes more than just stellar content to raise the fidelity bar. Everything in the chain has to be up to the task and that probably means upgrades across the board.

Realizing the potential of high-resolution audio means that everything in the production chain has to meet very high performance standards. It’s not enough to download a few high-res files and crank up your computer music system. You’ll have to make sure that everything in the signal path from the source component to the speakers can reach performance levels that exceed those of a CD and that your listening environment is also sufficiently quiet to allow you to experience new levels of dynamic range. This is hard to achieve.

This is exactly what happened to Theodore Nicolakis, editor of “The Poor Audiophile” and a regular reader of my blog. John Siau of Benchmark wrote to me recently and told me the following story about Theodore’s experience with the new Benchmark AHB-2 amplifier and the DAC2 HGC (the same products that we had in Chicago at the AXPONA show):

“He just finished two AHB2-related interviews, one with me, and one with Laurie Fincham of THX. He has also just completed a review on the AHB2 and DAC2 in combination with the Revel Salon 2 speakers (the same gear that we had in Lakeshore Ballroom in Chicago). In the course of the review. he discovered that his existing ‘high-resolution’ preamplifier and room-correction system was 21 dB nosier than the DAC2. This was only revealed when he replaced his existing amplifier with the AHB2. This demonstrates how many high-end audiophile systems are failing to deliver high resolution. Theo needed to replace his amplifier and his preamplifier to experience true high-resolution performance. We have found that this is not uncommon among reviewers of high-end audio equipment. There are many very expensive systems that are completely incapable of delivering high-resolution audio. For this reason, we have found that we need to absolutely insist that the reviewers use a DAC2 and an AHB2 together without inserting a performance killing ‘preamplifier’. The audiophile industry is having a hard time grasping the magnitude of this problem.

As you have pointed out many times, consumers need to understand that low-res music in a high-res bit-bucket is not high-resolution audio. But, of equal importance is the fact that high-resolution audio cannot be squeezed through low-resolution playback hardware. The analog outputs on most playback devices are limited to CD quality or below (even when they support high-resolution digital inputs). The sad fact is that there aren’t many people that have had the opportunity to experience true high-resolution audio.

Recording, post production, distribution, and reproduction must all work together to achieve high-resolution. One weak link breaks the entire chain.”

Is your system capable of playing fidelity that exceeds CD quality? Thanks John.


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.

25 thoughts on “High-Res Audio Equipment: Upgrades Needed

  • Phil Olenick

    So Mark, you tell me if I can successfully play high resolution music like this:

    Oppo BDP-93, playing your stage-perspective 5.1 FLACs, its output bitstreamed over HDMI into a Yamaha Aventage RX-A1030 which has an ESS Sabre Premiere ES9006 DAC – not the same DAC as in the top of the line Oppos, but it’s in the same family.

    The RX-A1030 is driving, over 14-gauge zip cord, Paradigm Studio 40 mains, Studio 20 sides, and a Paradigm center channel, and feeding, at line level, a Paradigm 100W subwoofer cube. The room is 15 feet by 20 feet, carpeted, and full of wood furniture and a microfiber couch.

    Honestly rated, the RX-A1030 can put out 110 Watts per channel, when driving two channels – at 8 ohms, 20 Hz-20 kHz, 0.09% THD. It’s not going to put out that much power per channel driving the whole system, but it’s a benchmark.

    Does that pass muster?


    • Phil, read today’s post. I don’t really have time to check the specifications on everyone’s components and speakers but I did briefly look at the specs of your main speakers. I’m sure they sound great but they don’t meet the specs for real high-resolution audio reproduction.

  • Kevon Manuel

    I’m going to list the few disks I own from AIX and the equipment I own. Please tell me AM I WAISTING MY TIME buying your products if my gear is not giving me “TRUE” hi res playback.

    Aix disks: Zephyr Voices Unbound, Chopin – Selected Piano Works, Vantage Point, Peppino D’Aagostino Guitar, Bad Haggis with Ruben Blades, Marcello, Handel & Vivaldi. Plus I have other non AIX DVD-A and Sacd

    My equipment:
    Pioneer Elite-VSX 52 AVR (used as a processor) http://www.pioneerelectronics.com/PUSA/Home/AV-Receivers/Elite+Receivers/VSX-52

    Amps: Crown XLS 1500’s (powers the L/R mains) and XLS 1000’s (powers surrounds speakers) http://www.crownaudio.com/en-US/product_families/xls-drivecore

    Player: Pioneer Elite DV-49av (HDMI to receiver and PCM DIRECT mode) http://www.pioneerelectronics.com/PUSA/Home/Blu-ray-Disc/Elite-DVD-Players/DV-49AV

    JBL Studio 530 L/R http://www.jblsynthesis.com/products/bookshelf-speakers/studio-530/

    JBL LSR 308 for center (temporary)http://www.jblpro.com/www/products/recording-broadcast/3-series/lsr308#Specs

    Polk Audio OWM 3’S http://www.polkaudio.com/owm3/d/1023C2826

    • Kevon, you ask a very tough question…and the answer is provided in one of the other comments. You’re not wasting your time or money purchasing my productions…I hope you appreciate the fidelity, the mixes, the music, and the performances. You have assembled a very capable system and from taking a quick look at the specs of the amps and speakers, it exceeds the capabilities of CDs. So yes, you’re getting virtually everything that is on my discs.

  • “In the course of the review. he discovered that his existing ‘high-resolution’ preamplifier and room-correction system was 21 dB nosier than the DAC2.”

    OK, You have to explain that one for me. How is it possible for his system to be 21dB nosier and not have a huge noticeable amount of hiss, hum, whatever going on that would have been extremely noticeable and annoying?

    “For this reason, we have found that we need to absolutely insist that the reviewers use a DAC2 and an AHB2 together without inserting a performance killing ‘preamplifier’.”

    Statements like that seem to really say that HDA is something that even if widely available as the std method of distribution, that no one except for the dedicated audiophile will ever be able to take advantage of except maybe with a headphone-HD portable player.

  • Thank you for all your effort in clarifying what hi-res audio/music really means. I think that some typical specification for systems capable of playing high resolution audio would be helpful for anyone who intend to set up a media room.

    • Read today’s post…I’m going to do just that.

  • Yes, this has been known for decades. Those active pre-amplifiers are real issues and quite a lot of sites I visit usually recommend to ditch pre-amp or use passive ones.

    That said, real issues are transducers (i.e speakers, headphones, etc) It is hard to find a decent speaker that actually has response extension suitable for high-res playback. Most of them are optimized for CD-quality sound, even pricey ones.

    Problem is that many amplifiers/receivers are also not up to the task, and it is hard to find ones that are up to the task. Many consumer-grade receivers are massively suffering from feature creep (nearly running out of space to put stickers on a front panel!), and the manufacturers usually try to get around this issue by cutting corners on sound quality of the amplifiers/receivers.

    With amplifiers/receivers manufacturers making short-cut on power supplies and manipulating specifications (i.e claiming power wattage using measurement at 10% of distortion instead of 0.02%, for example) to lure consumers, I can assume the number of people who have capable playback system is extremely low.

    People would find much more luck in headphone system. Quite some headphones claiming to be going as far as 40k without problems, and most of headphone amplifiers not suffering from feature creep (yet). Not to mention entry cost is relatively low compared to a full 2-channel speaker setup.

    • Thanks Won…thanks. Yes, the cheapest and easiest way to high-resolution audio is with a decent player or computer server, a great DAC, headphone amp, and great set of phones. I’m just not a big fan of headphone listening. So in reality, my own studio system doesn’t deliver my real HD-Audio tracks to their full potential. The amp and speakers are just not like the gear we had in Chicago. I’m working on it.

  • So in analyzing my playback equipment, seems all my equipment is only capable of outputting at 24/96. So, when playing back any of the samples through JRiver, including DSD from certain sites, it downsamples to 24/96 for output. How much of the high resolution experience would I be expected to lose in this case?

    • I’m a little confused by your comment. If you’re acquiring content that was recorded at 96 kHz/24-bits, then it has the potential to exceed CD specs. I believe that 96 kHz/24-bits is enough…no real benefits to moving to 192 kHz. The fidelity improvements are made possible by the techniques of the engineering/production team not the formats! The central issue in the most recent post is whether you equipment is capable of delivering the full fidelity of a real HD-Audio file.

      • You answered my question as I really wondered if there was something new to be gained by exceeding 24/96 with material recorded that way, but you pointed out there was not. I am well satisfied with the sound output now! I am going to browse through your selections and pick out a couple of CDs to buy, the least I feel I can do to compensate you for your efforts in keeping these posts and information flowing.

  • craig allison

    Wonderful insight; all the 32 years of my career, every time the source material gets better, the rest of the chain has to keep up. Todays’ whipping boy, CD, caused many folks to upgrade their systems. As hi-res content becomes easier to access, more folks will be exposed and that should produce some of the same upgrade energy as occurred previously. Right on Mark.

    • The gear is not the limiting path in realizing the full fidelity potential of high-res music productions. We’ve got to get the content piece figured out.

  • David Ilowite

    Hi Mark,
    I attended your seminar during CE Week,regarding Hi Res audio. I enjoyed your presentation very much .
    Ive also started reading your web site and your 10 steps(suggestions) about Hi Res. All very interesting. Yesterday I received the September issue of Sound & Vision magazine. Their Editor,Rob Sabin,wrote a column called Hi Res and the Art of Provenance. In it,he wrote about the issues that are confronting Hi Res audio. After reading it,I thought of you. I think you both touch on many of the same issues.
    My dad was a audiophile,with Rek-O-Kut,Viking,Fisher,ElectroVoice equipment. We lived in NYC,so on weekends I would go to Canal St and visit all the electronic stores with my dad. I loved that stuff and so I also became a audiophile, and later on a videophile too(of course!).
    Ive always enjoyed good sound and the equipment needed to reproduce it decently. And yes,out of my group of friends and family,I was the “nut” who cared about how things looked and sounded. Frankly most people don’t care,or know enough to care.
    So fast forward to 2014. I was one of the Kickstarters for Pono. I heard about Neil Youngs ideas and plans for years. I knew he’s one of the few major artists to publicly come out and say,”sound does matter”. No matter what people think or say about him nowadays(and theres been some absolutely rude comments made recently),I wish there were other major artists who took a stand and said they also care about how their music sounds. And yes,Im sure,due to Pono and the streaming competition now,there are some conflicts of business interest going on.
    But putting all that aside,I paid my Kickstarter money,received my Pono in November 2014. I was thrilled.
    I set up my Pono account,downloaded my first purchases, and connected the Pono to my AUX inputs on my receiver . Again,I was very pleased with the sound. Actually,I couldn’t believe that such a small device could produce such a big sound. I also think I have some fairly decent equipment to judge by, B&W Speakers,OPPO 103 BD player,Yamaha Aventage receiver and Rega turntable.
    But after all this time with Pono,and reading a lot of things online about HI Res sound, and having an IPhone 6,I decided to do my own listening tests.
    Few things Ive noticed. Downloading from Pono can be very frustrating and time consuming,at times. Things don’t download,or they don’t download the entire album,so you have to reboot and try again. The actual download time can be a few minutes to close to an hour(maybe depending on the servers?), and of course,the price of the albums you buy. So OK,after all thats done,when its playback time,it does sound good.
    So now I delved into the Apple world. Yes I know many audiophiles tend to look down on Apple for their bit rate(or lack of), and that their content is not true Hi Res music. Apple will never be a audio/videophile orientated company .
    So with a open mind I went into ITunes and purchased “Mastered for ITunes” and non MFiT releases. A few things I noticed . Compared to Pono,the downloads were painless and fast( and yes I know the files are smaller). The prices for albums were less expensive. But I wanted to compare Pono Hi Res to Apple AAC.
    I played both the Pono and IPhone 6 via the same AUX inputs on my receiver,and at the same volume, and with the same album. If there was a difference in sound,I would say the Pono sounded a touch more “analog” sounding,but the difference was so slight,between the Pono and the IPhone,it really was hard to tell.
    Now I also have a original iPad Mini from 2012. So i decided to to compare sound quality from that to the 2014 IPhone 6. This time I listened via a pair of $20 Sony over the ears headphones. Again using the same album,set at the same volume for each device(more or less), and I was so surprised at the results. The IPad sounded good. But the IPhone brought out a much fuller,warmer,richer sound. Better soundstage and bass. So I guess,based on my humble testing,there really are differences in sound quality between Apple devices .
    Apple is a very shrewd company. Their major concerns are battery life,download times,space/storage management. These are all things Hi Res is not great at. It takes more time to download,uses more battery and more storage space,since the files are bigger. So,do I think Apple will embrace Hi Res? No. But I think they can do a couple of things that can improve the sound even more and still be efficient . I think they should raise their bit rate from their current 256, and they certainly can improve on their DACs they use, and perhaps ,make them a bit more audio(phile) geared.
    But when its all said and done,I am enjoying the sound and my music on my IPhone. But like a audiophile,Ill always strive for better.

    • Thanks for the very interesting comment. Your experiences and background run parallel to my own…we all want to hear the very best rendition of the music we love. Sometimes the experience is wonderful and other times frustrating. I agree that Apple will probably never embrace real high-res. They don’t have to. As for Neil, I think he made his own bed and is lying in it now. The Pono player is a very nicely engineered playback device…although I hate the form factor and interface. It’s the PonoMusic site and content that drives me crazy.

      • craig allison

        All of the Pono ‘controversy’ would be way less if everyone that comments would make clear that while the Pono music service has holes in the cheese, that has nothing to do with these two facts: Owning a Pono player does not in any way require downloading from Pono Music Service, so complaints about the service should not involve the player. As for sound quality, I think John Atkinson was far more qualified to review the unit, which he did, in glowing terms. Re: I-device comparisons, yeah, those 20.00 phones will really let you find out. Why don’t you call Charlie Hansen at Ayre and ask him straight up what he thinks. Did he put his companys’ name on the Pono player just for the bread? No, I bet he is fully confident that a Pono smokes I-devices, and compares favorably to even the more costly A&K units. I have the 300.00 Sony in my shop, the Pono sounds much better. Please, can we make a permanent differentiation between the player and the politics. I played professionally for 30 years, shared bills with John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Etta James, Bo Diddley and others. We all know the same thing. Music is beautiful, and the music business is awful. What other brilliant original insight will we use to dump on Neil Young? None, if you fully understand the previous sentence. Thanks as always.

        • John Atikinson and I agree that the Pono player is well made and delivers very good sound for a portable player. However, it does not compare to high quality AC powered home units…not even close. The difference between the Pono and the iPhone depends on the source material that you’re comparing. That’s why David Pogue at Yahoo Tech came to the right conclusions about the Pono player vs. an iPhones…because the devices weren’t challenged by the content that he played. Politics has nothing to do with any of this discussion.

          Neil Young’s integrity took a major hit…a justified one! It doesn’t take any special insights to see the facts and acknowledge them.

  • Hi Mark, so looking at the Benchmark gear, it appears the DAC2’s are two channel. So for surround we need at least three DAC2’s. Level control would be a nightmare unless you can adjust at the source. Plus the source needs to have three or more digital outputs to feed the DACs, cant say I’ve seen that too often – The DAC2 would benefit from a digital pass through to daisy-chain (would require some DAC configuration to assign particular channels) to get around this. Then it appears the Benchmark amps are only two channel, so we at least three of those! The source would also require bass management without fidelity loss, as I imagine the DAC2’s don’t manage this.

    So, why not just use the analogue outs on an Oppo-105 (even though only the 2xfront channels have the super nice DAC) …then pipe those outputs into the amps… again x3 if we’re to use Benchmark. Sure, we wont get the very best DAC on all channels, but certainly more do-able in putting together?

    Dont, get me wrong, this is not a dig at Benchmark, there gear looks truly awesome and engineered to perfection. I just cant see how this is in anyway practical when considering a surround sound system…which you advocate!?

    Basically, the way I see it, obtaining true high-res surround playback is impractical, and very expensive as things stand? In which case I reckon I’ll just continue to enjoy 44.1/16 (if that’s all Im getting) until high-res capable playback becomes the default capability of all components… like 1080 video has (provided a capable and well calibrated display)

    • I’m actually no suggesting that anyone would want to assemble the system we used in Chicago. You’re absolutely right, the stereo DACs are not workable in surround. THe analog outputs of the Oppo are good but not as good as the DAC2. What I’ve been bugging John Siau to design and build in a multichannel DAC. eXasound makes a wonderful multichannel DAC.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I do hope Benchmark can come out with a multi-channel unit, I’d be very interested at that point. Although I guess they’ll have to figure out how to receive 6+ channels of 94/24 PCM without HDMI? (cant to it with SPDIF) …As I believe HDMI has some clocky issues? Or perhaps they can engineer around that? …I’ll stay tuned 🙂

        • If anyone can do a multichannel DAC right, it would be John and Benchmark.

  • craig allison

    Mark, I’m sure you know who Steve Hoffman is. He masters some of the best work I’ve heard, no question he is top level+, and he largely prefers vintage equipment which most likely does not meet the hi-res spec. I basically agree with your standards, but remember that great race car mechanic who always used that worn wrench? As long as you get the job done, the specific tools don’t seem to matter quite as much in the end. The divergence of valid belief systems never fails to amaze me, supportable cases on both sides of the tracks. I guess that makes for the endless back and forths’ in high-end audio.

    • I know Steve, although it’s been a while since we’ve chatted. In this case the “worn wrench” analogy doesn’t apply. In audio fidelity, we’re not just getting the job done. If that were the case we would have stopped advancing the fidelity of recorded music decades ago. An Edison cylinder “gets the job done” but is not delivering quality sound. Tools do matter in audio…critically so. Vinyl LPs or analog tape or any other format all have their limitations. The problem with audio formats is that people let emotion and passion get in the way of science. Not that it doesn’t belong, OK. But I read a prominent writer state on his site that he didn’t care if AQ cables are proven to be no better than Monster cables…he would still endorse the much more expensive AQs. Crazy.

  • kawser

    Thanks for the very interesting comment. Your experiences and background run parallel to my own…we all want to hear the very best rendition of the music we love. Sometimes the experience is wonderful .I relly relly like your blogging And good writ up.


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