Friday, 15 August 2014

AudioPhil's Corner: Viewpoint and Follow-up on the Dragonfly 1.2...


I was offered the opportunity by Archimago to share a few thoughts regarding the Dragonfly v1.2 which I graciously received as a pre-wedding gift from my good friend the Mago himself. However, before I go into that, I'd like to provide a little background on how I feel the entire subjective high end audio hobby has changed over the past two decades or so. This leads up to why I believe that the majority of consumer electronic products have mostly reached a technological performance plateau over the last few years and why I don’t think there are really any truly “bad” audiophile products out there any more in general.

First of all, I've followed the general evolution of the high end-audio scene off and on for the greater part of two decades and have shared insights with friends from both the subjectivist and objectivist camps; with members of both camps invited for hi-fi auditions on a few occasions which led to some very interesting dialogue ☺. [Ed: War!] As for myself, I feel that I’m currently straddling both sides, being able to recognize the merits (and flaws) of each. However, over time, I feel that there will be some kind of eventual reunification as the once elusive “high end” audio performance can now be obtained at far more attainable prices.

The one area in which all audio enthusiasts can unanimously agree to is that digital audio has improved significantly over the last 20 years, with the overall performance bar taking a quantum leap in the 90s, and then having that state-of-the-art performance trickle down gradually into much less costly products since the turn of the millennium. I still vividly remember being in complete awe with mouth agape when I first saw the Mark Levinson No. 30 and No 31 DAC and transport combo at a local high end store in the early '90s. That combo was insanely expensive, costing more than a new luxury car, and looked like it could have come off the captain’s quarters from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s USS Enterprise. It didn’t just sound incredible, it was the pinnacle of acoustics, aesthetics and literally cost-no-object build quality that made it widely regarded as the Holy Grail of digital high end audio for several years to come. It would have been my “preciousss” had I been able to afford it.
Mark Levinson No 30 Reference Digital Processor (Photo courtesy of Stereophile, Feb. 1992).
Although it cost a whopping $30K back then, it was so far superior to the quality of cheap mass market consumer electronic products at the time that if one could afford it, it might possibly be justified, like buying a Ferrari. Even today, the No. 30 and 31 are still sought after as icons of audio history.

Fast forward a few years and I was similarly awestruck when I saw my first HDTV feed on a 42” plasma display which at the time cost a cool $25K. Today a 42” LCD TV that is superior in every way would sell for closer to a hundredth of that price. Similarly, audio electronics have also advanced significantly in price-to-performance. Archimago not long ago measured my Oppo BDP-105 which had a measured performance that is off the charts, with noise and distortion levels that are significantly below the thresholds of human hearing acuity.

In fact, I believe that the “perceptible” (as opposed to measurable) performance of most consumer electronics products, which includes everything from digital cameras to flat screen displays to audio products have reached a plateau several years ago so the continued marketability of these products have primarily come from improving aesthetics and at the same time drastically reducing prices.

All these technological advances and marketing efforts are slowly but surely killing the subjective high-end audio industry. Once upon a time, there were mighty Mark Levinson products which were lusted for by many but attainable by only the most affluent and dedicated audiophiles. But today, something close to the “absolute sound” can be quite painlessly acquired by the masses, and it is that mass-market availability that has in no small way led to the decline and possibly the inevitable demise of high-end audio as we once knew it. An audio dealer will likely require significantly more persuasion to convince an ever shrinking base of hardcore and well-heeled audiophiles that a dCS Vivaldi digital playback system is worth $100K when one can buy an Oppo BDP-105 for a tad over $1K which also gets you one of the best Blu-Ray players available. That’s a pretty steep diminishing marginal return curve to climb no matter what your available resources. After all these years, the current reigning “preciousss” has in my opinion lost much of the sizzle in the ”s”. My MacBook Air is technologically advanced and also beautifully sculpted from curved shiny aluminum yet doesn’t have to cost six figures...

Stepping back to the subjective camp for a moment, I will make mention that Archimago stated that he feels that the Dragonfly gives an overall “warmer”, more pleasant and less hard-etched sound than the AudioEngine D3 despite a bit inferior measured performance. I think that’s yet another example of the paradox that fuels the never-ending debate between the subjective and objective camps. If the original audiophile goal should be to seek the most accurate reproduced sound possible, why do subjectivists (or even normal human beings without the “golden ears”) seem to often prefer euphonic distortions in the form of tubes, vinyl, etc.? However if the ultimate goal is to simply enjoy the music, then should we even care?

Finally, I will say a few words on my overall impression of the Dragonfly, but really, there is nothing much more that need to be said that hasn’t already been covered by many others before. It is well made and feels like a very solid and weighted USB stick. I never had the chance to do an intensive A/B test with it but the Dragonfly does a fine job of radically improving the headphone output from my MacBook Air which is most obvious when listening to AKG K-702 headphones, even though it is still a very noticeable improvement even with cheap earbuds. The soundstage is much larger, with instruments having far better stereo imaging and voices had more body and depth. The Dragonfly was able to extract significantly more micro-details, especially on live recordings so it is able to more convincingly put you at the recording venue when compared to listening straight off a MacBook Air or iPhone. The bass is full but not bloated. Overall, the sound is detailed yet well balanced and smooth. There was minimal listening fatiguing even after a couple of hours of critical listening, and I was able to listen at louder than normal levels.

Overall, this nifty $150 DAC offers exceptional price-to-performance much like a $500 DLSR or LED TV, or the latest Android smartphone or many other techno gizmo these days. Heck, it may even sound as good as the revered ML No 30 DAC (in a DBT, of course) if plugged into my main system. Near state-of-the-art performance in consumer electronics products has never been better or more attainable.

Happy listening!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

MEASUREMENTS: AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 Reviewed

An audiophile buddy of mine (AudioPhil) got married a few months back and a few of us decided to chip in to give him one of these Dragonfly DACs for being a good sport :-).

I don't think the Dragonfly requires much introduction since it has been around in the 1.0 iteration since 2012 and Stereophile had it grace their cover page with a full review back in September 2012. It uses an unspecified ESS Sabre DAC (not sure if confirmed, likely the ES9023 with integrated 2Vrms driver - there's also the older ES9022 chip) and the USB communication part is the TI TAS1020 performing asynchronous data transfer. I haven't read anywhere if these parts have changed in the 1.2 version. Supposedly, the new version has improved sonics ("Even smoother and more open sound!" seems to be the official tagline).


It looks good and feels great in the hand with a slight rubberised texture to the surface of what seems to be a metal shell underneath. As you can see above, it is slightly smaller than my AudioEngine D3 previously tested. Despite the smaller size, the weight on the Dragonfly feels heavier; hence a noticeable ruggedness and density to the package. It comes with a small black pouch for safe keeping along with the USB cap. I don't think the Dragonfly comes with a 1/4"-to-3.5mm adapter cable like the D3.

You can see the Dragonfly indicator change color depending on sample rate. AKG Q701 connected.
In use, I found that it didn't get too warm and was clearly cooler to the touch after about an hour of listening compared to the D3. AudioEngine was quite open about revealing the use of the LME49726 op-amp for the headphone output and presumably the Dragonfly utilizes the integrated op-amp function of the ES9023 (or similar chip) as per the "direct-coupled circuitry" in their promo material. From a price perspective, both the AudioEngine D3 and Dragonfly are priced similarly, $150CAD for the Dragonfly and $170CAD for the AudioEngine D3.

Other specs like output impedance (12 ohms Dragonfly, 10 ohms D3) and power (150mW Dragonfly, 200mW D3), both being driverless USB Audio 1.1 devices with a maximum of 24/96 sample rate (it is capable of the important 88kHz for DSD conversions) further adds to the functional similarities between the D3 and Dragonfly. These driverless USB DACs make it really easy to just "plug 'n play" with Windows and Mac OS X - I did not try using Linux but that should not be a problem.

I. Objective Evaluation

A. The Basics
As you may recall, at 100% volume, the AudioEngine D3 would clip. This was noted to happen with the Dragonfly v1.0 as well; discussed in the Stereophile measurements, and used to show some atrocious distortion numbers by Light Harmonic when they did their "Geek Out vs. the Others, 3rd Installment" (5% THD+N!? Sorry, that's just plain nasty and paints the situation in a much poorer light than it should even though objectively correct...). Well, it looks like this issue has been resolved with v1.2; here's the oscilloscope measurement from the unit I have on hand:
Square wave at 0dBFS.
Sine wave at 0dBFS. No clipping at 100% volume.
Peak volume of 2.63V correlates with an RMS voltage of 1.86V. Hmmm... I suspect this must be what they did to avoid clipping if the ESS chip used is the ES9023 with 2Vrms capability; dropped the highest volume level settings (notice that the Geek Out test posted was with 100% volume at 2Vrms).

There is bit of channel imbalance in the graphs above... It represents approximately a 0.5dB difference (left channel louder) at full 100% volume.

Impulse response is the typical symmetrical appearance of a linear phase oversampling filter. The signal maintains absolute polarity. No surprise.

B. RightMark 6.4.0
Okay, with the above done, let's have a look at the resolution of this DAC using the RightMark test bench. Like with the AudioEngine D3 tests, this was performed with the latest free version using the ASIO device interface.

Setup:

Test machine + AudioQuest Dragonfly --> shielded phono-to-RCA cable --> E-MU 0404USB --> shielded USB --> Win 7 laptop running RightMark 6.4.0

Summary of the machines tested (the laptops were described here in more detail although OS has been updated):

1. ASUS Taichi 21 Ultrabook (early 2013): Intel "Ivy Bridge" i5-3317U (1.7GHz dual), 4GB, Windows 8.1 x64, 128GB mSATA SSD, USB3 port, foobar + WASAPI component 

2. Apple MacBook Pro, 15" (mid 2009): Intel Core 2 Duo (2.26GHz dual), 8GB, OS X 10.9.2 "Mavericks", USB2 port, WD 640GB SATA HD, Decibel player (AIFF files)

As you may recall when I tested the AudioEngine D3, I measured that device with 6 different machines! It was clear that this made no difference to the measured audio output (and I heard no difference either - indeed folks, bit-perfect does mean something)... For these tests, I just chose a PC platform and a Mac platform, both are laptops, but with major differences like OS, file types (FLAC vs. AIFF), different generation Intel CPU, different player software, USB2 (Mac) and USB3 (PC).

Let's start with the 16/44 standard resolution (CD-quality) signal:

The 2 columns on the left are the measurements from the Dragonfly 1.2 - leftmost using the ASUS Taichi laptop, second one using the MacBook Pro. The middle column is the result from the AudioEngine D3 connected to the ASUS Taichi (exact same cables and setup as the leftmost column measured the same day), and the last two on the right are with my higher end DACs - the Transporter using XLR connection, and the TEAC UD-501 with XLR output measured awhile back. Note that because the AudioEngine D3 clips at 100% volume, the measurements were done at 91% which approximated the same maximum output voltage as the Dragonfly.

As you can see, when it comes to noise level and dynamic range, all these DACs are capable of ideal 16-bit resolution. Very low noise floors all around. Where things do seem to separate out is in the area of distortion - the Dragonfly appears higher in this respect compared to the others (repeated this a number of times to double check). Also, the stereo crosstalk is objectively higher with the Dragonfly. Here are a few of the graphs off RightMark:
Frequency Response - Transporter seems to roll off a wee bit more.

Noise floor.

Dynamic Range test.

IMD+N

Stereo crosstalk - note the significant difference between the Dragonfly vs. the others.
Now, let us look at the 24/96 (high-resolution) results:

The columns are arranged the same as above. Leftmost two columns represent the Dragonfly results, then AudioEngine D3, then the Transporter (XLR), and finally TEAC UD-501 (XLR).

Again, no difference in results between using the ASUS Taichi and MacBook Pro laptops despite disparate hardware and OS. The Dragonfly is indeed capable of >16-bit dynamic range, and at approximately 106dB, that's about 17.5-bits (same as what Stereophile found with their v1.0 review). As with 16/44 above, however, when you look at the measurements of distortion, the AudioEngine D3 is capable of less distortion and dynamic range is about 0.5-bits higher. Needless to say, the stand-alone "higher end" DACs like the Transporter and TEAC UD-501 with XLR outputs handily beat these little USB DACs by about another 'bit' of dynamic range and lower noise floor (especially the old Transporter!) measurable within the limits of my ADC set-up of course.

Frequency Response (no significant difference <20kHz)
Noise level - notice Dragonfly slightly higher especially in the bass.
IMD+N
Stereo Crosstalk - Dragonfly again significantly higher crosstalk... Very impressed by the Transporter using XLR cables! 
C. Jitter
As usual, I'll use the Dunn J-Test paradigm. Easy enough to do...


As in previous tests, with these asynchronous USB DACs, the Dunn J-Test spectrum generally looks fine. This is the situation here, no evidence of jitter issue at all using this simple measurement... Only very slight noise floor differences between the two laptop machines.

II. Subjective Evaluation

So I asked my buddy AudioPhil (the guy who actually owns this Dragonfly) to provide his subjective review and it looks like he'll be providing a little write-up of his own in the next while... While that's in "gestation", I figure I'll jot down a few of my subjective impressions and comparisons on this little device.

I spent about 2 weeks listening to music with this DAC/amp (some before, and some after the objective testing) and comparing what I heard with the same tunes off the AudioEngine D3 and ASUS Xonar Essence One (which remains my primary DAC on the computer workstation). Each of the devices have quite different DAC architectures; Dragonfly with the ESS Sabre, D3 with an Asahi Kasei AK4396, and the larger Essence One using TI/Burr Brown PCM1795s (quite unfair comparison given that it's not a simple USB bus powered device!). It's impossible to "instantaneously" switch headphones / DACs and then level-match compare... I tried my best.

A potpourri of DACs and headphones: AudioEngine D3, AudioQuest Dragonfly 1.2, ASUS Xonar Essence One; Sennheiser HD800, AKG Q701, Etymotic ER-4B IEM.
The published output impedances for the Dragonfly and D3 are around 10-ohms - the Essence One apparently has similar output impedance as noted by 'Xnoreq' in the comments although there are estimate of it being in the single digits [I'll need to have a look at this later]. So, to give them all a fair chance, I'll speak about what I heard using the Sennheiser HD800 (300-ohm input impedance) headphones primarily. Thankfully the HD800s have high enough sensitivity (102dB at 1Vrms) so music could be played reasonably loudly with the Dragonfly and D3 even with the lower power ratings. Of course from a price point perspective, the HD800 isn't the kind of headphone one would expect to see mated to an inexpensive USB DAC like this!

I started with listening to some "vocal audiophile jazz" - Diana Krall's The Look Of Love (2003 24/96 DVD-A) being one of my favourites over the years and particularly "Let's Fall In Love" as a track I've been using to compare new gear with since around 2000. I like the instrumental portion in the middle of the track and particularly the detailed resolution of the bass and piano through that portion. With the Dragonfly, the piano sounded rich and full. The bass was detailed with each pluck easily discerned. In comparison to the D3, the Dragonfly sounds more laid back and "smoother". The D3 just seemed to have a bit more sparkle, slightly brighter; for example the high-hats on the song stood out a bit more from the rest of the instruments. Personally, with my "Anaxilus mod" Sennheiser HD800, I preferred the D3 rendition but I can imagine with even brighter headphones, the Dragonfly may be preferred.

While staying with the vocal genre, I listened to some Nat King Cole - Cole EspaƱol (HDTracks 24/96 release, and no, I don't actually believe this album has enough resolution to warrant the high-resolution format). On a track like "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas", the Dragonfly was a joy to listen to with the HD800! This old 1958 recording can be a bit "brittle" through many DACs and the Dragonfly just made the instruments sound less harsh and the voice "ultra-smooth". I found the same on some traditional Chinese erhu recordings where the pleasant demeanor of the Dragonfly helped impart an enjoyable, smoother experience.

Time for some heavier fare - how about AC/DC Back In Black (1988 DR12 CD)? Pump this baby up to rock! The intro to track 1 - "Hells Bells" - with those church (er... hell's?) bells sounded realistic in terms of the attack and smooth decay using the Dragonfly. While not exactly the paragon of audiophile recording technique, this analogue recording from 1980 is about as "hard" as I like my rock to be and the Dragonfly was able to render it nicely. However, I found the Dragonfly to be a bit more on the "polite" side of things as compared to the more aggressive sound of the D3 which I thought fits this type of music better.

I listened to a number of other genres to get a feel for things - Pet Shop Boys Actually (2001 remaster), Yello Touch Yello (2009), Eiji Oue & Minnesota Orchestra Stravinsky: Song Of The Nightingale, Firebird, Rite Of Spring (1996 Reference Recordings), Ed Sheeran x (2014). In general, I thought that the Dragonfly performed well but was more at home with an acoustic set than say the synthpop or electric guitar rock. Despite the dynamic range compression especially near the end of the song, a track such as Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire" with overlaid vocals and relatively simple instrumentation found on x sounded just fantastic through the HD800 with the Dragonfly; bass response on that track was simply cavernous in depth.

Not unexpectedly, the much larger (and unportable) ASUS Xonar Essence One sounded better than the USB stick DACs. This has more to do with the quality of the headphone amp than the actual DAC function I believe - providing a more full-bodied, powerful sound overall (even more cavernous bass at the end on "I See Fire"!).

Near the end of my subjective evaluation, I put on some mono music to see if I could easily detect the channel imbalance noted above. For this I used the mono Beatles remasters from 2009. I listened to most of the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band albums one evening. On the whole the stereo imbalance at normal listening levels with the Etymotic ER-4B balanced armature IEM (100-ohm impedance, excellent noise isolation) was subtle when I compared it with the output from the D3. I was concerned about perceptual bias knowing the objective results earlier so I asked my wife and she identified correctly the slightly louder left channel after listening for a bit. So, we're looking at a small, but perceptible imbalance.

III. Summary / Conclusions

There you go, the objective and subjective evaluation of the AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2. Overall, from an objective perspective, it doesn't measure as well as the AudioEngine D3. The Dragonfly's 24-bit dynamic range is lower by about 0.5-bits in comparison, plus harmonic and intermodulation distortions measure higher. Furthermore, there's a bit more stereo crosstalk with the Dragonfly. Realize of course we're looking at tiny differences in terms of real-world audibility. For example, what audible difference is there between 0.011% THD (Dragonfly) versus 0.0009% (D3)? Would our headphones/speakers be able to manage such low level of distortion or our ears capable of such resolution? Remember that a typical NOS DAC like the old TDA1543 measures 5-10 times higher in terms of THD and IMD yet they can still sound OK (and in fact some audiophiles swear by them). The other difference was increased stereo crosstalk with the Dragonfly measured around -72dB. Compared to the others around -90dB or less, this sounds like a lot. Again, remember that a typical LP cartridge has "only" about 25-40dB channel separation at 1kHz. Therefore, again it's unlikely you're going to notice an audible problem.

The one area of concern for me was the channel imbalance on objective testing at 0dBFS on the oscilloscope with this unit. Even so, it was difficult to detect a difference at normal listening levels through my Sennheiser HD800 and AKG Q701 playing stereo music but could be detected with mono recordings using the Etymotic ER-4B IEM. This could really be a problem if one's headphones also had a slightly louder left channel imbalance issue. Perhaps others can double check if this imbalance is present with their own Dragonfly units.

I cannot help but suspect that the advertised "direct-coupled circuitry" where the op-amp is integrated into the ESS Sabre chip might be the reason for the relatively poorer objective test results. Compact size is achieved with this kind of arrangement but physical factors like significantly higher heat production could I suspect limit absolute sound quality from the DAC chip itself. I don't know if AudioQuest could have also "tweaked" the settings for the DAC chip to bias towards a more pleasant sound.

Here's the bottom line... If you're looking at the AudioEngine D3 versus Dragonfly v1.2 and want the best objectively accurate sound quality, go for the AudioEngine D3. It measures and sounds like a much more expensive separate DAC on a stick! However, the main caveat is that it clips at 100%, so keep it around a maximum of 92% and you'll hear some really clean audio. Remember what I also said previously about allowing a portable device to clip - it may not be an unreasonable trade-off when you just need that extra bit of volume in a noisy environment where a little distortion is fine. The D3 is also a little bit more expensive around here currently (only talking about $20 difference).

On the other hand, the Dragonfly is built very well and I would rate the look and feel of the unit higher than the D3. The color-changing dragonfly indicator based on sample rate is also a nice touch. Furthermore, it is slightly smaller and significantly cooler to the touch than the D3 after an hour of music being pumped through. Output impedance isn't much different between the two (both around 10-12 ohms), so check if you have higher impedance headphones (80+ohms) for best performance. The D3 can play a bit louder but remember this is with the potential for clipping at 100% volume. My usual benchmark for a "good enough" headphone amp is one where I would not need to put the volume to 100% to enjoy my AKG Q701s... And the Dragonfly is clearly good enough in this respect for what I listen to.

The main criticism I have of the Dragonfly is that ~0.5dB channel imbalance I found which I hope is just variability among samples rather than a systemic finding (remember that even well regarded cartridges for vinyl playback can have stated channel variances up to 2dB). Subjectively I thought the Dragonfly imparted a "pleasantness" to the presentation rather than aim for absolute technical precision as demonstrated objectively. Compared to the typical headphone jack on a laptop, it'll provide your headphones with more power, lower noise floor, and more dynamic range especially for 24-bit audio. I'd be very curious to know what objective differences there are between a 1.0 and 1.2 version of the Dragonfly if AudioQuest claims that 1.2 sounds better (other than no clipping at 100% volume)...

---------------------

Happy listening everyone... Considering the 24-bit performance from the AudioEngine D3 and Dragonfly, consumer audio technology is clearly getting better, smaller, and more affordable!

Weather has been very nice here in Vancouver lately. Off to an Alaska cruise next week so hopefully there will be blue skies and maybe see a few whales along the way. Catch you all later...

Friday, 25 July 2014

MUSINGS: Vinyl Update - Technics SL-1200 M3D

This week, I thought I'd put up an update on the analogue/vinyl changes I've made in the last few months since the "Vinyl Time" post back in May.

The Sony PS-T15 was pretty good. It sounds reasonably quiet but certainly not of "heavy build" quality weighing in at 5kg and things like the fluidity of the tone arm and resistance to vibration left a bit to be desired. I started buying a few more LPs and eventually decided it was time for a little upgrade to something a bit more substantial...

Looking around Craigslist, I was able to snatch up a lightly used Technics SL-1200 M3D turntable for a pretty good deal (<$400CAD). Based on the serial number, it looks to be made in 2002. The metal body and tonearm were immaculate but there were a couple small defects; a small imperfection at the base of the platter which doesn't affect the actual record surface or motion and a pop-up light which burned out. The platter looks really good with no scratches or anything other than that small imperfection (looks like a 0.25cm dent at the lower edge) so there was no reason to change it. I replaced the pop-up incandescent light with an LED (a shame that Technics didn't make it easier to replace the original incandescent bulb since it seems to burn out quite commonly). It came with a Stanton 890SA MM cartridge which supposedly could sound good with a new stylus/cantilever (maybe I'll check this out in time).

As you probably are aware, the Technics SL-1200 line consists of a series of turntables originating back in 1972. They were in production all the way to 2010 when discontinued. The motor is a high-torque magnetic direct drive and quartz-locked by 1979 with the introduction of the SL-1200 MK2. It starts and stops in <1 second. The specs look good with rumble at -78dB (DIN-B, check out the gory details) and 0.025% (JIS) wow and flutter... These numbers easily give many much more expensive "audiophile" turntables a run for their money (interesting opinion). Some have said the tonearm is the weakest link in the Technics line and replacements can be found (many aftermarket mod like this from KAB or this article with SME tonearm attached). I haven't played with many tonearms but it's certainly nice to have easy VTA adjustment with this stock design. Like almost everything else in this world, opinions vary and there are the detractors as well like this guy who seems to have a problem with direct drive tables in general, and Michael Fremer's assertions.

Finally, at 12.5kg, this unit is on the heavier side of things (not ridiculously heavy of course). It's built like the proverbial tank and I suspect will easily last me a lifetime assuming the electronics don't break down or some physical mishap. Build quality is fantastic with a metal base and rubberized undersurface for vibration reduction. Legs are functional and height-adjustable for leveling.

Here's a look at the innards exposed when I replaced the pop-up light:

Since the M3D model was meant for DJ use, it doesn't have a hinged cover and instead the lid is just the standard SL-1200 lid loosely placed on top... I got a DeckSaver lid instead which fits quite snug and overall I think it looks pretty good while keeping the dust away (I heard they're discontinuing this product):

One final "upgrade" is the Funk Achromat 1200 replacement mat instead of the standard rubber Technics mat. Some Vaseline/petroleum jelly underneath to "bond" with the platter supposedly helps. Here she is juiced up and ready to spin:

I've got a Shure M97xE cartridge in place now on this 'table and have a Denon DL-110 on order... Looking forward to hearing the difference the cartridges make.


A look now at the front end with a some of the albums collected (about 1/2 of recent purchases) over the last few months:

As you can see, other than the Daft Punk Random Access Memories on the left edge, the rest of the albums are old-skool or "audiophile approved" 70's (Steely Dans, Dark Side...). I grew up in the 80's and other than some albums my dad had, I never bothered to collect any of the vinyl from back in the day myself... Until now :-). Already, a few of the albums by then were sourced from digital. I have Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms (isn't it amazing how many remasters there are of an album that was essentially 16/44? DVD-A, SACD, 20th Anniversary, recently 2013 MFSL!), and Madonna's True Blue which is speculated to have been an analogue recording but digitally mixed (ADD SPARS code?). Madonna is just to the left of Peter Gabriel's So which itself was produced with digital gear and effects. And so it goes...

Knowing myself (I think!), I doubt I'll ever be a rabid vinyl fanboy... As a result, I don't think I'll end up being any kind of "completist" collector. Certainly right now, I don't have much interest in the new digitally remastered LPs although I have a few already and they do sound great (Dark Side, Graceland, Kind Of Blue).

So... How does it sound overall? Really good.

Noticeably more authoritative bass and lower noise floor than the Sony PS-T15 previously (using the same Shure M97xE cartridge). Albums like Steely Dan's Aja sounded punchy and clear as it should. Good quality new albums like Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia 180g remaster release) sounded sweet, palpable with a nice soundstage. On good vinyl, the surface noise was almost imperceptable (unless the volume was turned up excessively of course). Remember thought that I have a very quiet basement sound room so almost any imperfection is quite easy to hear - I had to change my HTPC power supply to a fanless design because I could hear it in that room despite it being a "quiet" design. The aforementioned Kind Of Blue of course has quite high tape noise which was easily audible above the turntable / cartridge noise floor. Michael Jackson's Thriller sounded realistic with the creaking doors, zombie noises, and of course Vincent Price's inimitable sinister dialogue and laugh.

It's difficult to do a proper comparison, and I found it hard to notice a difference between the Achromat vs. rubber stock Technics mat. The Achromat does look nice on the platter nonetheless.

In the next few months I'll take some time to evaluate how some of my albums sound in both CD and vinyl formats and see if I have a preference overall. It's quite clear that the sound is different and how one decides which version is preferred has more to do with factors other than just resolution which in theory (and in my experience so far), digital will win without question. There's no doubt that vinyl has more distortion. Physical factors like slight vinyl warping and cartridge alignment geometry affect the sound, not to mention the fact that the inner grooves cannot maintain the same quality as the outer grooves (ie. inner groove distortion - a 24-minute monologue). I'm sure everyone also has at some time heard the pops (thankfully not common, usually associated with damaged used LPs), lower level crackles (a bit more common unfortunately, likely due to poorer quality vinyl material or damage from previous owner's gear), and low level surface noise (there's always some mechanical friction, essentially universal if you pushed up the volume during playback). Depending on the music, I can generally handle the excess noise; for example, pop and rock recordings will mask out much of the softer distortions but if I'm listening to classical, I find even the low amplitude noise will mar my listening enjoyment. It's no wonder that the classical community generally embraces digital. Of course resolution isn't the only determinant to whether a recording sounds good, so even though reason and science tells us that for the same original signal, a good digital system can offer better fidelity, we're generally not presented with that same original signal being stamped on to the vinyl. Remember, to compensate for the limitations of the LP medium, the mixing and mastering has to be different. And I wonder if often compensating for these limitations could result in an overall more pleasing sonic product. I can certainly appreciate what vinyl aficionados have said for awhile; when the stars align with good vinyl, it does sound heavenly... The problem is that they don't always align :-(.

As I'm putting the finishing touches to this post, look what showed up:

The Denon DL-110 high-output moving coil cartridge ("HOMC"). Nice package with an overhang gauge, built-in "magnifying glass" (round part under the cartridge), stylus brush (in white plastic packet), and a metal weight balance plate (cartridge weight is only 4.8g). With a 1.6mV output, it should have no problem mated to any phono preamp (no need to add step-up moving-coil amplification). Frequency response should be flatter across the audible spectrum (especially the highs) and let's see if the sonic resolution picks up significantly with this baby compared to the Shure :-)...

I'll be away a bit through the summer. Enjoy the (hopefully good) summer weather for all in the Northern Hemisphere! Happy listening...

------------------------

BTW: A few months ago I mentioned I ordered the Light Harmonic Geek Out 720mW DAC. Well, I waited for >2 months on the pre-order line and decided to cancel... It would have been fun to run it through some of my own measurements. Since I don't really have very low efficiency headphones needing the power, there just wasn't a need and likely the DAC would be sitting unused. I rolled the $$$ into the toys above instead - which will definitely get more use!

August 3, 2014 Update: A cool Technics ad circa early 1970's when objective measurements were more important for selling gear rather than just word-of-mouth subjective reviewers :-).

(Found here.)

Thursday, 17 July 2014

MUSINGS: The Distortion of Truth... More obfuscation.

Guys, check out this video from Harman:


Check out the segments from 11:30. LOL. Somebody has to go back to school and learn the difference between data compression (ie. MP3) and volume compression (ie. crappy engineer) as demonstrated by those waveforms. On the one hand they say they want to sell "better" sounding recordings but they're obviously going after the scapegoat (MP3) instead of the real culprit - themselves. The ones who allowed their recordings to sound like crap. The ones who apparently never listen to their own recordings or allow their own engineers to volume compress to death in the "loudness war"... Geez... Hans Zimmer talking about "filling your soul" when his own Dark Knight Rises from 2012 has a DR of 7 for an orchestral soundtrack on CD and 24/48 HDTracks! Do you think that MP3 was to blame for that, Hans? Shameful.

What a joke. "Head bob test?" Four times more bobbing with higher resolution audio?!

Here's the final comment:

Folks, we have a problem here. Just who is the audience they're targeting? Why would Harman produce this video - they want to sell more CD players or something? I've seen some comments about this leading into their DSP Clari-Fi system which sounds like a fake surround algorithm to me - I want the real volume uncompressed audio, not a DSP reconstitution, thank you (here's another opinion). But with a general comment as in the screen capture, they seem to have a problem with downloads (presumably all downloads including lossless), and they have a problem with streaming (presumably all streaming no matter the bitrate and maybe including lossless). To obfuscate the term "compression" as both volume compression (poor DR) as well as data compression (MP3) totally damages credibility here and understandably would frustrate if not insult any reasonably knowledgeable music lover / audiophile (especially ones who have tried blind testing high bitrate MP3!).

In sum: "Please consumers. Audio files and streaming suck. Listen to albums start to finish because artists put a lot of work into sounding good. Buy physical." Somewhere in there is the allegation that the physical (LP, CD) sounds better with no real evidence (oh yeah... that non-scientific head bobbing observation). A desperate plea to increase physical sales?

Yeah... Good luck with that. What a mess of a "documentary".

Monday, 14 July 2014

HOWTO: Spotify (Free) Streaming To Squeezeboxes



It's been a great weekend!

Managed to enjoy BBQ with some family visiting overseas for summer, enjoyed the World Cup finals (congrats Germany), finally put up the dining room pendant light (waiting months for the thing to come in stock!), finished some work-related financial paperwork, and finalized some scheduling for a trip to China later this year. Not bad for a weekend.

Even better for this weekend... I rejoiced at the arrival of Spotify to Canada. Previous to this, I was accessing it through Hola! Unblocker on occasion to have a look at what all the Americans have been enjoying. I guess one of the conditions to Canadian entry must have been to include Canadian content and perhaps French language content - French ads show up once awhile now. I might get a subscription in the months ahead depending on how often I access it on my cell phone and around here at home. The fact is, I already have a large collection of music on my server and the music collection is growing as I add more vinyl titles (in that regard, I've made a number of changes in the system which I'll post about later).

This brings me to thinking about these streaming services which I'll also talk about in the days ahead. For now, I'll have a good listen to Spotify and see how it integrates into my life.

Since I have a full Squeezebox "family" around the house, I figured it would be nice 'tuning' into the Spotify stream with the devices. For those interested in trying to stream free Spotify (with ads) to their Squeezebox system, you can follow the instructions below originally found in an older Squeezebox Forum post (thread started by 'ejnj' in 2011 but instructions from Nick Kewney). Remember that the Squeezebox Spotify plug-ins require the 'Premium' account. This 'hack' essentially converts the audio from your PC to a stream for the Squeezebox device through the PC's URL (making the PC audio output a radio stream); music selection is through the Windows PC's usual Spotify app. I've included the instructions here with some annotation for my Windows Server 2012 R2 system:

Playing Spotify Free (with ads) through Squeezebox

Spotify is a peer-to-peer music streaming allowing users to listen to specific tracks or albums on-demand.

Despite launching clients for Android, Symbian and iPhone OS, an officially supported Squeezebox Server (formerely SqueezeCentre) client for Spotify hasn’t yet been unveiled (there's both an official plug-in for Radio and Touch now as well as third party Triode plug-in for the older units). Until somebody gets their Perl boots on and creates one, I’ve created a short tutorial demonstrating how to stream audio from Spotify on your PC to your Squeezeboxes. It works by utilising DirectSound Bridge, a small wrapper which exposes the playing stream as an MP3, which can be received by your Squeezebox.

It really is pretty simple. To start, you’ll need to download two files to your PC:

* The Lame MP3 Encoder (I've included the link to RareWares - I used the 3.99.5 "for older Win32 OS's"; the 64-bit version did not work for me) 
* DirectSound Bridge (current "dsbridge-20090727-bin.zip" worked for me)

Next, you'll need to:

1. Close the Spotify application if it is currently running. On Windows 7, you might have to launch the Task Manager and end the process. (Best to go up to File/Exit on the Spotify desktop app to shut it down.)

2. Open the Lame MP3 Encoder archive you just downloaded and locate the file “lame_enc.dll” and copy it to the Spotify directory on your local PC (e.g. C:\Program Files\Spotify). On my Windows Server 2012 R2, as Administrator, use: C:\Users\Administrator\AppData\Roaming\Spotify.

3. Open the DSBridge archive and copy “DSound.dll” and “DSBridge.ini” to the same folder in step 2.

Open Spotify as normal and start a track playing. It’s best you turn the volume down as your PC will only be used as a controller for streaming to your Squeezeboxes. You will notice a new icon in your system tray. It’ll be blue when idle and green when streaming music (the icon looks like a colored orb; put your mouse pointer over it and it's tell you which port - usually 8124).

You’re done. Now, you just need to tune in to your stream from your Squeeze Centre web control panel, in effect creating the bridge between Squeeze Centre and Spotify.

Do this by entering your Squeeze Centre address into the address bar (mine is http://192.168.1.80:9000).

Locate Internet Radio / Tune In URL on the web interface and enter the address of the PC running Spotify. In my case it was http://192.168.1.80:8124.

In a few seconds, you should hear your Squeezebox connecting to the server and playing your Spotify stream. You'll hear that the music from the desktop speaker will cease when the Squeezebox plays. Track titles and artist will be displayed, no album cover image. 

Tip: If you don’t know the address, go to your PC and press WINDOWS+R, type CMD and enter which will display a command prompt window. Now enter ipconfig and press enter again. The IP address will be displayed.

Of course by doing this, you'll need to use the desktop app to search and play your playlists. Not too bad if I'm on a computer and can Remote Desktop into the server machine. Note that this process will recompress the incoming Spotify stream (I believe Ogg Vorbis 160kbps VBR for the free content) to an MP3 320kbps - don't be afraid, it still sounds great! Tuning multiple Squeezeboxes to the same URL didn't work for me resulting in me needing to restart the Spotify app to get music out again.

-------------

I hope the instructions above are clear for those giving it a try.

Have a great summer! Enjoy the music... Cuz theres's a lot out there!


Friday, 4 July 2014

24-Bit vs. 16-Bit Audio Test - Part III: SUBJECTIVE COMMENTS & FINAL THOUGHTS

Part I: PROCEDURE
Part II: RESULTS & CONCLUSIONS
Part IIa: The 20 Correct Respondents

Welcome to Part III; the last in my reporting of the 24-bit vs. 16-bit blind test. In this segment, I want to spend time looking at the subjective differences as reported by respondents to the survey. I also want to spend a few moments offering a few personal observations and thoughts at the end.


I. Subjective "differences" between 24-bit vs. 16-bit audio?


First, I want to present verbatim the comments I received when the respondents were asked to describe what difference they heard between what they believe as the 24-bit and 16-bit samples:
soundstage, instruments and voices in 3d space, edginess of crescendos, how relaxed I was in listening to the music
Depth, instrument brass and breathing of the voman
nothing specific - overall clarity and air and space
The 24-bit tracks sound more realistic, but the difference is very small. Some tips would be to use the best equipment you can, and do not listen for too long at a sitting.
Space, separation, intensity of instruments
Much more clarity and width/depth
Small parts (10-15 secs) comparison.

24bit was to me which sounded the more colorful
Clarity of sound 
Dynamics, detail. In my experience if tracks are produced and mastered in the same manner there is no significant audible difference in audio format. Differences in producing and mastering are what makes the difference.
Do not listen to a section of any more than ten seconds. Use good headphones and a good DAC.
Detail, space.
Tried to listen for the usual audiophile adjectives, but was ultimately unsuccessful in picking out those qualities.
Use headphones absolutely. Bozza - A Sample seemed more alive and enthralling. Vivaldi - A Sample seemed clearer. Goldberg - B Sample seemed richer and complete.
Listened for imaging, soundstage, clarity, decay of piano notes.
a mix of distortion and resonances
string instruments, background noise "air", human voice neutrality, brass instruments, bells...
Started out listening for/expecting the stuff you specify in Q's 1-3, but mostly could not discern significant differences. In one case, on a different system, I got the opposite answer with the same notes (more "room" and "more resolved".

I went into it not at all confident that I would be able to discern the difference between a properly down-and-upres'd file and the original. Truncating or dithering-down a good quality recording mostly results in removing very little information. Upres can "smooth" things out (e.g. Cambridge Audio 840C - I sold it).

I suspect if this test were done with the sample rate rather than the bit rate, it would be more audible.

I also think a more meaningful comparison might be to simultaneously record a performance in 16 and 24 bit with the same ADC, though my current feeling is that it's best to record and play back at the "native" rates of the ADC/DAC.
Dynamic details, piano string more ohysical reality
Listening for instrument/vocal placement in the soundstage, transient dynamics, general recording ambience (such as reverb decays) and tonal qualities of instruments.
I already played this game with recent recordings that I own in both qualities. The listening is more intense and discerning at night. The morning is the worst moment of the day when everything sounds equally and sadly flat.
The Dynamik, the Clearness, at the End: The Music

The Piano is easy, you hear definetly more mechanical Noises
I tried to listen to dynamic and spatial reconstruction
1. With 24bit more reverberation can be heard.
2. Cymbals or other high tone percussion instruments have more clarity and remain clear when other instruments play loud (e.g. at the end of Bozza)
3. Piano tones have more information in the upper frequency range, especially in the attack.
dynamics and upper mid range 1 khz - 3 khz.
For the first sample it was the cymbals.
For the second and third, it was what sounded more live and natural.
Generally listen for clarity of the highs, separation of instruments and soundstage. 
I'm pretty new to this though.

Really couldn't tell much of a difference in the three samples.
I do attend classical music concerts regularly and just try to compare how the instruments sound on the recordings to how i remember them sounding live - nothing more sophisticated than that.in truth.
I ythought the '24bit' recordings sounded sharper with more precision especially at the top end of the frequency range. But I might be wrong.
small clues such as sound of triangle, fullness of the sound, how fast the transient response is, room ambiance, decay of the piano, etc
I tried to focus on the clarity, on the precision and dynamic of the presentation, but honestly I cannot identify a single difference, even a very subtle one. No way to distinguish from the two versions.
Fullness of sound. Decay of notes.
If I'm right then I would bescribe the 24-bit sound less "spikey" and rounded. Less focused on left/right but more coherent and staged in the middle. I hate to say it, but "more analog" would describe it for me. (If I'm wrong with my choices then I will not buy any 24-bit music ... !!)
The A tracks seemed more life-like and engaging. The B tracks in comparison sounded flatter.
I listened for ringing on piano, realism in voices and "pressence" in all intruments and voices
More "airy", increased clarity and realism.
Smoothness and depth.
I felt the tracks I picked for 24bit had more open dynamics, the 16bit tracks sounded a bit constrained.
Honestly i couldn't tell between them, for "Bozza - La Voie Triomphale" i thought sample A had a bit more fullness/detail, but the other 2 sounded the same to me, if the difference can be heard it doesn't seem my equipment is good enough for me to tell (or my ears i suppose. haha)
High frequencies, airiness, etc
A more dimensional sound, one of the samples usually sounded "flatter" than the other.
I listened to resoluion and depth at upper midrange and high frequencies to specify some differences.

Imagine a bright clear stary night sky. Guess how many gloomy stars our eyes are capeable of.
Which sky might be brighter to your perspective.

What about your reproduction system, will it be able to resolve the higher density transparently and deliver it to your ears.

24bit is nice, not necessary.
This was my first time ever comparing the two. I don't recall listening to a 24-bit recording before.

The 24-bit version, at least what I thought they are, had deeper bass (noticeable in Vivaldi's), richer highs (around 1.5 minute into Bozza's), and crisper notes (Goldberg).
I looked for the air around the instruments and whether the notes lingered a bit longer or ended abruptly (ie not naturally). I tried to also notice the violin, guitar plucks and the piano to see if they sounded more natural.
Sounds closer miked than the 16 bit track, livelier, more rough. The 16 bit sounds more polished. The 16 bit might be a little bit more boring and easier to listen to.
Transparancy
Presence.
more detail overall 

In particular the transients and decays are much easier to follow on the tracks I've identified as 24 bit
richer sound
separation 
realism 
I just felt I detected more detail, "air"
More relaxed, dimensional and resolved.
Nothing particular. I thought it sounded richer.
What sounded better! The last track was the hardest.
Nothing specific...just straight listening and looking for any possible difference whatsoever.
24 Bit: more present, livelier, 3D space, subjectively more dynamical, more resolution of the polyphony
more details of airy sounds. While listening You forget about the media

16 Bit: flat, artificial
I was unable to honestly discern any difference between samples. My markings were a total guess! That has been my previous experience when comparing 16 to 24 bit from the same source.
Mostly imaging and top end clarity.
The sustain of notes and tonal quality
The highs specifically cymbals and sibilance in vocals. That is the usual way of telling a really low bitrate MP3 from lossless. Couldn't tell a difference.
Smoother, more lifelike and natural sounds to the instruments/vocals.
I tried to listen to then deepness of the sound, especially the bass
I listened for 
dynamic range
sound stage/spaciousness
attack and sustain

I am not an experience classical music listener, so not familiar with the instrumentation of these sample audio tracks.

on Goldberg. I preferred B, which I think was 16 Bit
Clarity of tone.
openness of sound seemed to me different.
a bit smoother and less harsh on the cymbals
High resolution; as when listening to a 64 kbit stream and the obvious difference when compared to CD quality
quiet passages
The 24-bit sounds "thinner" because of better separation of instruments, sound is clearer, in particular bass is cleaner and more natural.

Have heard each piece once (no ABXing or similar), and decision was clear. Did a second round to double check, with same result.
I felt the tracks I identified as 24-bit had a *shade* more bass "impact" and less "edge" on the notes (e.g., "rounder", "smoother" sound). It was certainly very subtle in my setup (Geek Out 720, HE-500 headphones).
Smoother and less harsh sound.
vocals, piano warmth trebble
With the first track I listened to the difference between the bass drums. The 24-bit track had a clearer "bang" here and the overall room between the instruments was larger.
The 2nd track was much harder to identify but also on certain passages the 24-bit gave it away through more details and more room.
The third track was the hardest and at the end I identified the 24-bit by the details of the side noise such as the breathing of the artist.
Greater attack, more space between instruments, more tonal colour. The first track had a much grander scale than the second. The third track held the attention much better and allowed the listener to see into the recording more - notes hung and decayed more realistically. On the piano track, the 16-bit sounded as if there was a blanked stuffed inside the piano in comparison with the 24-bit version.
Quietest passages. Headphones.
Too low a bit depth "flattens" the music. It will sound less airy, less dynamic.
I could not identify any differences between tracks. I listened for transparency, potential harshness, resolution and such things.
percussion; voice; extend/sustain
details
originally though i could hear a more realistic sound on piano/voice. i was exactly 50% for all three tracks with 10 trial ABX
At first listening i thought i got it which one is some what "fresher", but after several times played i get confused TBH.
Did not perfome a/b-ing. Got no reason for that. If I can't tell difference within half a minute between two listenings then it is good enough for me.
Was picking sollely by impression of freshness. Not a native english orator so i can't figure more apropriate words.

Must say both Goldbergs is somewhat different sounding compared to my copy of the same recording and that is without a doubt. Unfortunatly got no ma own copy's of other two recordings to make that comparisson as well. Know that was not the question you asked, but thought you might find it interesting enough to mention.
Transients, tonality, space around the music.
no help here. Just listening for some sort of extra clarity for lack of a better word.
I would not expect 24 bit to be different to 16bit, personally, but had a clear preference for A, B and B which surprised me.
Smoother with more air and better intelligibility.
complete
Just initial impressions. Most probably I picked more B tracks since they were the second listen of the musical piece!
Imaging mostly, the ones I prefered had a better, more detailed and stable soundscape. The most obvious (to me) is the Vivaldi. The singer really stand out more in A while in B she is drowned in the accompaniment.

The piano is also more natural and stable in A, even though I hear notes bouncing all over the place in both, a normal phenomenom with a non-point source as the sounboard is, when closely miked.

The band was more difficult, I listened mostly to room decays, and better definition of the instruments.

Of course, I may be completely wrong...
Spaciousness. The sound of the room more than the instruments. The interaction of different sounds.

The difference with the Bozza was vastly more obvious so I assume it may have been a trick question with the lower being deliberately knobbed.

IMHO, the best of 24-bit will come when producers etc. use less dynamic range compression. I look forward to that day.
Maybe a bit fuller and smoother.
Smoothness and presence
track b's were less pleasant to listen to, sounding thin.
fullness of sound. 
soundstage
imaging
smoothness
The A tracks sounded consistently more strident, less focused and less coherent. Vocalist and piano was more diffuse on A tracks. Piano was duller sounding.

The B tracks were slightly more dynamic, more focused and richer in tone. The vocalist was more 3-D.
Upper bass. It is lighter in the 24 bit version.
air, spaciousness around decaying notes and transients
I was listening for any difference in overall listening experience. Did one sound more natural. I was particularly paying attention to the dynamics to see if that extra headroom allowed for greater impact and contrast from the soft to loud sections.I payed attention to noise floor etc. I didn't expect to hear a difference but i tried my hardest to find one and i honestly couldn't . at first i thought track 1 sample B was slightly softer in the quiet sections and had more impact in the louder sections but i used abx test and at best got 60%.
I listened loud obviusly :) tried to hear the ambience but also the 3d space and deep bass and the silence ! if it sounded differently .

But... this is so hard

There were a handful of comments about not hearing a difference which I've left out from the list above since I wanted to focus on the subjective experience of those who believed/heard a difference. Not surprisingly, the respondents utilized the standard lingo of subjective audio evaluation with the typical adjectives (I of course offered some of that when I asked which sample they thought was 24-bit earlier in the survey). There are >80 comments in that list above yet we know overall there is no evidence that despite these subjective impressions, the respondents were statistically able to discern a difference as a group.


II. How "easy" or "hard" was this test?


One of the last questions asked of the respondents was whether they felt the test was easier or harder than expected:

I had no real expectations. I found it impossible to hear any differences on first listen, but after approximately 30 minutes or so, began to sense a bit more air and relaxed presentation with of A samples. It also seemed that I could relax into the music with the As. It will be fascinating to know whether I just made that up in my head or actually heard a difference.
Clearly harder than I thought, although I'm not really used to listening for those small details - I usually just enjoy the music...
harder
Thanks for putting together this test. You obviously put a lot of effort into it. Here's some advice on how to give the results. Document with as much detail as you can the procedure used to create the test files. That way, people can duplicate your test files exactly and show that you weren't trying to cheat them in any way. A lot of trust is required for this kind of test to have any kind of validity, and many audiophiles are paranoid.
Thank you for doing this. Really made me re-think how I feel about high resolution audio. Going into the tests I thought there was not a lot but some clear differences. After the tests I would probably place more emphasis on finding the best recording/mastering of a particular Album rather than just buying the highest resolution files of that Album.
You manipulated this music, when I understand it corretly there could have been
Diffmaker shows only a negligible difference, still hearing difference
Exactly as I expected ;)
It was approximately as simple as expected.
Again THANKS TO YOU looking forward to the seeing the results. Playing Bass since 1968.
About what I expected. Did not expect to be able to tell much of a difference at all. I thought i heard differences the first time through, but the differences became smaller as I became more familiar with the music.
That more difficult than was expected. Thank you !
I expected there to be no difference, and I heard no difference.
Thanks for putting together this valuable survey. I have long suspected there was no difference between hi-rez and redbook formats. Would like to see the same thing with 96 or 192 sample-rates vs. redbook.
It was hard to listen any difference.
Could you manage a similar test between PCM and DSD in the future.
Hmm, without quick comparison AB tracks seem to be the same :-)
As I mentioned, I was not at all sure that chopping off bits and upres'ing them would be audible. And I'm not at all sure what it illustrates. I'm not confident that it proves that there is no difference between 16 and 24 bit recording.
The test was difficult. I'm by no means certain of any of my answers. I have yet to reach the stage where I will habitually buy a 24bit version of an album in preference to the CD, though that's partly because of the price difference!
Assuming that my answers are correct I did find the test a lot easier than what I expected.
It was easy
I expected it would have been hard, it was indeed :)
Harder than expected.
I believe a very good DAC and amplifier are needed to make the difference hearable.
It is much easier with headphones than with speakers.
harder than expected.
Not easy. I think a ABX test to determine if people can actually hear a difference would be useful. Sorry I don't have to software to do the ABX switching you talked about. If there were three sample for each song and Q1 would be which are the same, Q2 would be which do you think is the 24 bit.

I am curious to know if I got anything right!
It was hard, just like expected. I played with open windows and an open balcony door which raises the noise level in the room. But either way, I would be surprised if I got all three correct.

I didn't spend much time on this. I would have preferred being able to more easily forward both to a passage in the sample where more "is happening" and then AB test them quickly with a press on a button.

Those times I've been able to distinguish MP3 in 256kbps vs lossless, I have found it easier when entering a passage in the music where there's for instance more high frequencies.
F'ing hard!
Came with no preconceptions - on one hand hoping 24 bit might offer an inexpensive upgrade on CD quality but likewise if there is no benefit to the "extra 8 bits" why waste disk-space and extra cost of 24 bi files.

Honestly couldn't tell much if any difference.

All samples sounded very well recorded - better than many recordings I have bought from major record lables.

Looking forward to seeing the results !
Slightly harded than expected. I thought I'd be confident about hearing a difference between 16 and 24 Bit.

Thank you for setting this test up. I will be very interested to read the results.

John Allen (UK)
I got the MP3 vs lossless response right. But my confidence is much lower with this test. The difference is too minute for my ears/equipment to reliably detect the difference.

Anyway, thank you for putting this together!
The third sample was more difficult.
This test confirmed what I'm sure about from a long time: that I cannot hear any difference from 16/44 to 24/96 or more files. No way, 16/44 seems to be enough, at least for my hearing system :D
For future tests I suggest you leave the files in wav format uncompressed. I know this is a waste of storage but someone could be influenced by the different file sizes of a flac compression (even though they're not correlated to the original file resolution).
Anyway great test!! Useful for people to understand what they can and what they cannot really hear!

PS: I don't care anonymity so if needed this is my email address: mag1ster@alice.it
Easier than expected. I found the classical pieces chosen to be very revealing- more so than some rock selections I have tried this test with in the past.
Currently I use a Raspberry Pi + HifiBerry DAC. There is much debate about powersupplies (walwart vs BOTW). I would like to see a test about the differences between the use of a "stabilized" PSU vs an ordinary "2-dollar" PSU. Is this auditable.
This was easier than I expected. You don't mention how you dithered the files. I'm wondering whether the differences would be less pronounced with a different or more sophisticated dither algorithm.
harder than expected
very hard
Great fun, thanks for your effort.
I can't tell if it was easy or not because I don't know if I'm right yet XD
I think I can tell them apart when listening side by side but it would be very difficult to guess a track on it's own. The 3rd pair was hard to tell because the recording wasn't as detailed to begin with.
Much harder than expected. I still think the raw material and capture of true ambiance is much more important than the final resolution of the music tracks. I've heard some great CD's and some very bad supposed to be HDTracks
Harder than expected!
for me, it was't easy to detect subjectivly the higher resolution examples. yet I only suppose less or more that I'm right
In terms of how you ask the questions. It might have been better to have a 'not sure' option instead of 2 because that might skew your data analysis.

You could have combined both first questions as having 5 options: Definitely A, Probably A, Not sure, Probably B, Definitely B.


Any questions/feedback, feel free to reach me at ezzatelhalabi@yahoo.com.au

Really keen on the results of this survey.

Regards and best of luck.
It was hard. The differences are not huge (to my ears). Clips should be shorter.
I made a point not to look at file sizes or any other file property. I cwitched the output to 96khz on the Dragonfly. I am not sure I could consistently differentiate between the samples in a real blind AB test.
Much harder than expected.
This was harder than expected. Please do more of these tests in the future :D i enjoyed it greatly
much easier than expected
bit easier!
Easier. (assuming I was correct...!)

Thanks for going to the trouble of providing this survey.
A little harder than I thought it would be.
Differences were subtle. Was the 16 bit file sourced from 24 bit file and downsampled. Or was it a native 16 bit track.
Harder.
The tests were easy but trying to find any difference between 24 and 16 bit was very difficult to the point where my answers were complete guesses. In other words, can't tell the difference.
Easier to decide than thought
I appreciate your ongoing efforts to clarify the vast amount of misinformation surrounding digital audio. I belong to that subset that finds 16/44 more than adequate.
I didn't expect to be able to hear a difference. The unsure results were as I expected.
Harder
Not a big proponent of high-res, at least not on normal gear. I think its benefits are marginal, making this sort of evaluation as challenging as I expected it to be.
Great work
Is there a recommended BC wine to consume whilst performing the test.
Thanks for doing this.
HARDER!
Enjoyed it and looking forward to your findings.

Would really like to know if someone can hear the difference without doing A/B'ing instantaneously.
Well prepared test.
But was not difficult for me (as I expected).
Not sure, if I could distinguish files after high quality up- and down-sampling (or down- and up).
harder than expected.
I just could slightly notice the dynamics more clear but wasnt 100% sure...
Harder - not very confident on any of the samples. But did not expect it to be "night and day", as some "audiophiles" say it is.
Samples 2 and 3 have lost resolution in editing and have become noisy. (digital resolution have been limited)
I just felt curious. I don't think I have "golden ears", so my ABX tests are just from an untrained person.
I am considering upgrading my gear to a pair Sennheiser HD650 headphones in the future, since the sony's are not great for mid and high frequecies according to many reviewers and experts. Also, I am unsure wether a dedicated headphone amp would better help to discern each version.
Assuming that my results are correct I found it so-so. See my comments above. But I knew before that the differences between 16-bit and 24-bit recordings can be quite subtle and therefore not so easy to identify.
Much easier than expected. I was expecting to have to play the tracks a number of times to discern any differences, but I played each track through only once and could pick up the differences within seconds of the second track starting.
I'd like to see more of these tests. Too many people saying that high-resolution is pointless and tests like these prove otherwise.
easier than expected - nothing to hear, move on :)
I switched between A and B extensively on all three tracks, I could not discern even the slightest difference. Not even a hint.

Therefore, I didn't even complete the test by picking X = A or Y = A. It would have been pure guesswork.
dear archimago

first i would like to congratulate you for your awesome work. I greatly enjoy your damn fine blog. You are a champion of rational thought and enlightment in this hifi world which unfortunately is plagued by snake oil, hocus pocus and gullible fools (I once was one myself)

please go on with your excellent work!
This was interesting. It would be so much more with some other equipment...
i expected to get about 50%.
In case my findings are relevant in reality i could confirm my phylosophy about audio - if you must to perform intensiv listening on your thoes in order to find some pluses or minuses then those differences are irelevant when you actually listen to the music itself. Big enough diffs will be transparent from the go and that is when you should think about upgrade or trying another recording of the same peace. YMMV
I found this very hard. After one or two passes I formed a view which I didn't change, but I know if I'd been listening properly blind, I wouldn't have been able to ABX the tracks successfully.

Thanks for setting this up!
Difrents is small.
I was not expecting anything. The differences were small but I am fairly confident in noticing them.
easier
Easier, but still the difference is quite small. I think the sound engineering quality of a recording is the most important aspect. Some very well recorded 16/44.1 CDs sound as good or better than some multi-channel SACDs, DSD being somewhat equivalent to 24/96 PCM. But I also have some amazingly realistic SACDs...
One seemed very obvious but the other two were both very subtle. I wouldn't be surprised if I got them wrong.

You should really try the demo CD (yes - CD) from http://www.earthworksaudio.com/products/microphones/ it's a great demo of how better quality kit shines even through a 'bottle neck'. Personally I think it's more to do with accurate timing than high frequencies.
Just as I expected.
Very nice
Probably some people (who also are certain about their abilities) are going to answer right by chance. Without proper ABX those are of course worthless data points. It has become clear to me that even really rigorous scientific testing doesn't apply to audiophiles or marketeers - people who have a "I want to believe" poster up in their heads just ignore facts and continue spreading myths no matter what.
This is very hard (read impossible).
I would like to se a test where CD quality is compared to hirez.
About what I expected.
Differences were subtle, but noticeable without doing fast A/B switching. Particularly with Bozza, fatigue would set in with track A and not so much with B version.

I think some more musical tracks would be nice, something that most would want to listen to and keep in their collection. More percussion and maybe string bass would be helpful. A mix of Jazz and classical and acoustic guitar would also be helpful.
the file sizes for A and B are different- maybe this factored into people's judgements.

as hard/easy as expected.
You can so a similar test like I made where the ultrasonics are removed only.
So convert 96/24 to 48/24 and back to 96/24.
Make sure to use a good down-upsampler.
Info for this here: http://src.infinitewave.ca
thank you for your hard work in finding out the truths within this myth filled hobby of ours. Your Blog is a breath of fresh air and is truly excellent. Thank you once again, regards, James.
Impossible but i expected that .

But i actually tried hard .
As you can see, there were a variety of experiences described in the comments above. Some felt it was harder, some felt it was as expected, and some seemed surprised by the difficulty. Interestingly a number thought it was easier and expressed high confidence in their ability to discriminate the sonic difference. Since this is all anonymous anyhow, let's correlate a few scores to the comments above: the person who said "easier" was 1/3 correct, "much easier than expected..." 1/3, "it was easy" 0/3, "easier to decide than thought" 1/3, "bit easier!" 1/3, "it was easier than I expected..." 2/3, "Easier than expected." 0/3, and "It was approximately as simple as expected." 3/3. Easier? Really?

III. Final Thoughts & Personal Impressions...


After reading the testimony of the respondents above, I think it's just as fascinating watching again the promo video for Pono where Neil Young apparently wows his buddies with his car stereo system allegedly on account of fantastic sounding high-resolution audio (Neil of course seems to have a "thing" for 24/192).



Given the 24-bit vs. 16-bit audio test results, unless high samplerate (ie. 44kHz vs. 192kHz) is to explain the striking difference so dramatically captured in that video (take any 24/192 track and down sample it to 24/44, tell me if you were WOW!ed by the difference), I honestly wonder what those celebrities are talking about. In my opinion, if these dramatic Pono testimonies are to be believed as genuine, then Neil Young must either be playing different masterings (eg. distorted vs. better mastering, playing them at different volumes), and/or he's playing some ridiculously data compressed track (64kbps MP3?) versus high-resolution to get that kind of reaction. I'm sure this can be easily answered if Pono would just release a couple of minutes of what was used on those celebs - I'm sure the rest of us would love to experience the apparent glory.

On a side note, CNN listed Pono as a "game-changing gadget" of 2014. Yeah... I guess we'll see about that...

On a personal note, I did try the blind test myself on two systems:
- Windows 8.1 PC --> ASUS XONAR Essence One via USB (ASIO) --> Sennheiser HD800
- Windows Server 2012 R2 or Win 8.1 PC -->  Squeezebox Transporter or TEAC UD-501 DAC --> Emotiva XSP-1 pre-amp --> Emotiva XPA-1L monoblock amps in 35W Class A bias mode --> Paradigm Signature S8 + SUB1 (balanced XLR interconnects, 4' 12G OFC speaker cables; <30dB SPL quiet sound room at night, room correction DSP off)

Total cost of the systems above would be in the $10,000 - 20,000 range. I used Foobar ABX on the PC with HD800 headphones and achieved 6/10, 6/10, and 4/10 correct in identifying the 24-bit sample over 3 listening sessions with each musical piece (that would be 2/3 "correct" I suppose). I could not tell the difference with the Transporter or TEAC DAC played through the full-sized speakers with sub and would easily grade my level of confidence as a "guess" or at best slightly "more". I'm currently 42 years old.

Over the 2 months that I was gathering data for the survey, I also tried this test with friends and family of various age and both males and females (results not entered in the survey). Never did anyone express the opinion that differentiating sample A vs. B was "easy".

I do remain open minded, however. Although I have not met anyone who could easily and accurately detect 24-bit vs. 16-bit audio file differences in a controlled setting, I'm also not saying it's impossible. Who knows, maybe the fellow above who responded "It was approximately as simple as expected." and got 3/3 is one of these. Humans are capable of amazing feats after all... However, I do believe hearing acuity of this magnitude would at best be rare and I suspect most reasonable individuals would recognize this once they try an ABX for themselves or logically figure this out based on understanding of the science. Listening volume would also be a consideration and most people would understand that at normal listening levels, the extra 8-bits would be highly unlikely to be of any benefit, especially if audible ambient noise is present.

Finally, someone asked me the other day whether I thought 24-bit music was therefore some kind of a "con". Well, no, not necessarily. Assuming an album was recorded, mixed, and mastered well with extremely high-resolution equipment, then one could be buying music of the highest fidelity/accuracy (more dynamic range if ever needed, more "complete" ultrasonic frequency and low level details captured from the recording session). It would be hypocritical of me to desire a high-end DAC capable of >16-bit resolution but turn my nose up against a truly high resolution album, wouldn't it?

The key of course is that first, the 24-bit/high-resolution audio file must be actually of high quality (accurate digital chain, superb microphones, music worthy of the dynamic range and frequency response, expert engineer doing the job, all processing maintaining at highest level of resolution). Secondly, that the album was one I truly love and desire the best resolution version in order to "go the extra mile" in terms of finding the hi-res version. Fulfilling these criteria, I would personally find some value in the purchase (how much $$$ over the same CD resolution version is another matter requiring consideration!). The pragmatic reader could just as easily ask "what's the point at all if we can't hear the difference?" and I would not argue with that either. For me, this is still about "perfectionist audio" and I believe one is allowed a certain level of neuroticism in this (and any) hobby... :-)

[Speaking of assessing value, obviously when it comes to music, this is totally a subjective personal matter. But let us also keep in mind that high-resolution 24-bit downloads (any music downloads) are intangibles. There is no "street value" attached (I don't even know if it's legal to sell them 'used' - presumably the laws could be different depending on country). Let me know what's on offer at the local pawn shop if you ever bring over to them a USB stick with your beloved 24/192s, JPEG "covers", and PDF "booklets" assuring them that these are your last copies and transferring all rights/privileges of ownership. In this fashion, "collecting" high-resolution music downloads is quite fundamentally different than having a library of stamps / books / spirits / wines / paintings / vases / cigars / cars / CDs / LPs... To me, there does not appear to be any material "store of value" in the digital music download collection from a monetary perspective.]

What I think consumers should not have patience for is hyped up talk about high-resolution audio applied to questionable old recordings that never had more information in them than what a 16-bit CD was always capable of encoding. Or even worse, new volume compressed recordings and remasterings of low dynamic range especially when sold as 24-bits as if this somehow magically makes it better (like this). Sadly the above conditions cover the majority of what I believe are current "high-resolution" offerings (at least in the pop/rock genres). Remember too that there could be a different mastering used in the high-resolution version like they did for the SACD of Joe Satriani's Engines Of Creation documented in my upsampled SACD list (eg. more dynamic, less clipped or volume compressed) which would make it the preferable one to get as an audiophile... But this would not necessarily be because it's in a 24-bit format.

I suspect the marketplace will figure this all out in time, as it did for the likes of most DVD-A and SACD "high-resolution audio" over the last decade and a half.

A final thanks to all those who helped me put together this test and to all the folks who gave the test a try. I appreciate your willingness to participate in this little experiment! I hope it provided some personal insights beyond the conclusions presented as a group.

Until next time, enjoy the music.