Hey guys & gals, grab a coffee, maybe a hot cocoa! Winter is here, at least in the North, so settle into a comfy chair by the fireplace as we head into the last days of 2018. Let's chat.
Recently, I received this comment from Museatex which I thought was a good comment and deserved a bit more discussion as a post rather than just a response which would typically be lost in the usual chatter:
"Now we add the 10-year old Energy C100 speaker pair to the receiver amp. The Energy sounds similar in tonality to the rear Paradigm Studio 80's. Perhaps not surprising since both are Canadian companies using research from the National Research Council and are not far apart in age."Hello Museatex, good comment and in fact, it's good to discuss the big picture and motivations once awhile. To be honest, there isn't one motivation. Perhaps back in the day when I started this blog, there was a more specific intent - which at that time was just to start an online blind test to see if audiophiles could reliably hear a difference between high bitrate MP3 versus lossless FLAC compression. But remember, this is a blog. It is by nature an "online journal" of what myself and a few contributors over the years have thought worthwhile to share.
I haven't had such a good laugh in a while. :)
BTW I do enjoy glancing at your measurements but I am somewhat puzzled as to why you started this blog. You invest money in new sound cards/adc and not in room treatment? $15 google chromecast audio sounds to you the same as logitech transporter so why not to spend money where you can measure a real difference such as room treatment? You room is dying for acoustic treatment while you are chasing minuscule differences in digital filters you cannot hear. Why waste money on monoblock amplifiers if it is irrelevant? I mean have you compared them to $300 receiver in properly setup double blind test? ;). Please continue on doing what you are doing as I do enjoy looking at graphs at someone's else expense, though I do not understand your motivation.
While some sites have a clearly expressed "vision, mission, and plan", I trust that this is unnecessary for a blog! These are primarily my "musings" as an audiophile who enjoys his music, is interested in the technology, and does this as a hobby. The topics of interest will ebb and flow depending on what shows up and what topics catch my attention. Since I set my own agenda, of which over the years there have been many, ultimately there is really only one major motivation - I want to openly explore some things I'm interested in. :-)
Notice that over the years I haven't just talked about audio (also computer builds, CPU overclocking, 10Gb home ethernet, 4K TV, 4K UHD Blu-ray comparison...). But as a consumer who's interested in audio reproduction and what it means to be an "audiophile", many of these >300 posts over the last few years have been audio related. To a large part, this is because I am deeply dissatisfied with what I have read in the audiophile magazines, heard spoken among certain audiophiles, and discussed with salesmen in audio showrooms. I cannot help but feel disappointed by the lack of depth and evidence I see out there for all kinds of beliefs. It seems therefore that if I am to share something useful, it would be to address this sense of dissatisfaction by trying to explore deeper and discuss openly with the hopes that others could also benefit from the findings and perspectives.
As we end 2018, Google/Blogger tells me that this blog has >75,000 hits per month worldwide. Not bad I think considering that I post on average less than 1 article per week over the last few years although I think you know that my articles tend to be much longer than typical in the mainstream audiophile sites. I'm sure that's a drop in the bucket compared to many other blogs but considering that this is rather esoteric stuff and the number of audiophiles isn't likely numerous, I assume that what I publish here must be of interest and reasonably worthwhile. Thank you for "looking at the graphs at someone's else expense (sic)", Museatex. That's great, I'm happy to share, and you're welcome.
Realize that other than time and effort, there's really not much financial "expense" as such producing these posts. Since I do have some AdSense and Amazon revenue, I actually don't spend too much on the hardware I write about. Notice that what I buy, like the Oppo UDP-205 is stuff I actually would get anyways. I wanted a UHD Blu-Ray player (the best one before it was discontinued) that also happened to be a great DAC incorporating the current ESS chipset for some tests. The various ADCs I have are not that expensive in the world of audio and can be used in some recording projects. Likewise, some of the other things I have like the inexpensive SMSL iDEA, SMSL A6, and Raspberry Pi boards were purchases I could either just buy with Amazon gift certificates I get from my writings or stuff I was going to buy as gifts anyhow!
Notice that I am not a "serial upgrader". Unless I have evidence that something actually makes a difference, I'm not going to be upgrading to new amps, speakers, pre-amps, etc... just for the sake of having a new toy. I think that too is a reflection of "real" audiophiles who are not consumed with materialism, but willing to understand the value of what one has and upgrade when something truly better comes down the road. I believe understanding how something works and using reasonable equipment to do the demonstrations will cover over a multitude of devices within reason without having to test each one - let's leave that to the press.
Having said this, remember the point about "non-utilitarian" benefits to the things we buy. Whether monoblock amps make a sonic difference or not doesn't mean I can't freely choose to own a couple! It's cool to show off when friends come over and ask "Dude, what are those things on the floor?" To which I reply - "Yeah, each of those larger speakers up front is powered by its own separate 250W power amplifier... Cool, eh?" No different than a car aficionado showing off his "ride" with fancy trimmings.
You assume that just because I adhere to a more objective way of knowing "truth" in audiophile gear and accessories, that I place no value in these "non-utilitarian benefits" and thus it's wasteful to own the Transporter (vs. Chromecast Audio) or dual monoblocks (vs. $300 receiver). That's not how it works. I'm sure a typical men's clothing store will carry some excellent suits and can customize to one's dimensions, but it's also great to own a "Made to Measure" Giorgio Armani for various reasons beyond the utilitarian purpose of owning formal attire. Audio "objectivists" can still appreciate art, beauty, and the subjective, while willing to explore what's under the hood and openly cast a critical gaze on questionable engineering regardless of subjective opinion.
Sure, some of what I write about are in the domain of microscopic differences. But these topics are important and useful to think about because they are often spoken of in the magazines and by manufacturers as significant differentiating factors. Experiments with the various filters is an example of this. All the hullabaloo around jitter is another. While blind listening tests are important, I never said that I would only buy things based solely on test results or measurements! Appreciating that empirical methods like blind testing is important before making claims that something sounds better/different than something else doesn't mean one must do such a thing before purchasing a product that fits one's purpose, budget, or desire.
Yes, you're right, there are many things I can do for room treatment!
I could rip out the right side cabinets with reflective glass surfaces, install some ceiling panels, get rid of the table, replace the sofa with individual listening chairs, get rid of the hanging artwork on the side behind glass, take away the guitars, get some proper room treatments instead of the LP collection behind the seating position, install various absorbers, diffusers and bass traps... Heck, if this were a proper "sound room", I would get rid of the large-screen TV as well!
But this of course doesn't mean I haven't done a few other things... Over the years, I have explored ambient noise and RT60 in my space, added some GIK panels and I have explored digital room correction and done what I can with placement of the speakers. I count my blessings in having a dedicated "man cave", made sure there's a thick rug in place, and made sure the little table for drinks isn't a hard reflective surface. But there are pragmatics to keep in mind and I'm not out to make "the ultimate" sound room because the room is used for more than 2-channel audio. Nor did I even imagine this blog as "Archimago's Ultimate Sound Room Blog". For the post about Atmos and the Energy speakers, they do add a dimension I otherwise would not experience and the tonality is good enough especially when adjusted with the receiver's DSP system. Let's not forget the context of that quote in your comment; obviously I never said arranging the speakers like this is ideal. And as for my speculation about the age and technical lineage of the companies (ie. using NRC research), one is of course free to take that with a grain of salt :-).
Finally, while I never started with this intent, over the years, I have also thought about this blog as a greater experiment in the use of the Internet to have a voice especially in hobbies like audiophilia where the number of participants are few. It's an amazing time to be alive as we witness the power of communication technologies, explore social media and consider the role that "alternative" sources of information like blogs can provide. Of course, this can be a bad thing when there are clearly falsehoods spread far and wide unchecked. In this information "wild west", writers have a responsibility to be honest and truthful. I hope I have been thorough in my posts, providing both my conclusions yet at the same time encouraging other to explore themselves. This is why running "internet blind tests" from time to time, or posting demos for others to hear I believe are important. From my perspective, audiophilia is ripe for an overhaul and begging for "disruption" by those who are willing to speak up with evidence in hand given how IMO obviously untrustworthy the mainstream media have become over the last generation. In this regard there is much to think about around the psychology, philosophy, and intersection between audiophile hobbyists, the media, and the Industry. This too, I have spoken of over the years within these pages.
As we end 2018, I also want to touch upon two recent articles that are somewhat interesting and relates to the last bit above.
The first article I want to mention is Stereophile's "Snake Oil: A Short History" written by Jim Austin. A number of months ago, I wrote "Why Do People Equate High End Audio with Snake Oil?" with related content.
But why throw up straw men like: "A handful of hard-core objectivists maintain that every new digital technology since the advent of the Compact Disc is snake oil." Care to tell us who exactly believes this and is calling all digital tech since CD snake oil!? A man can be honest enough to admit that he cannot perceive an improvement beyond 16/44.1 (since it ain't easy), but that doesn't mean the person necessarily thinks that new digital technology is incapable of higher fidelity! What an unsophisticated and misleading statement.
And why the final conclusion: "Moral: The audiophile community may wish to reconsider its use of the term snake oil. Snake oil works. The problem is that most snake oil is fake."
By definition, the term "snake oil" is simply an expression we use these days to denote questionable products and potentially fraudulent businesses dealing in said items. Who cares if the "real" snake oil from the 18th to early 20th century "worked"? That's not the point. "Most snake oil is fake" - and I agree that in audio, most of the things many consider as snake oil are also fake and deserve to be called out.
Suppose for a moment that we're generous and accept that "The Real Snake Oil" worked to a certain extent as suggested by Mr. Austin. Being very generous, imagine that a $5000 set of cables may actually provide better protection from interference in 10% of situations compared to a $50 set (remember, even if a difference can be found, it may not be audible!). What should an astute, thorough Golden-Ear certified reviewer who recognizes this benefit say about such a thing? Is it that "Yay!!! It works for 10% of the various noisier systems I tried!!! I'm gonna put it on the Greatest Cables List so all audiophiles know about this!"? Or would most people (and perhaps rational reviewers) focus on the fact that 90% of the time it made no difference, there's likely something else one can do to reduce interference in those 10% of times, and one should therefore critically consider the value of the 100x price increase?
Do typical cable reviewers have the insight to tell us when and where cables like this may help when the vast majority of reviewers cannot run measurements or know if the cables actually changed anything in the electrical properties or sound waves in the room? Or do most cable reviewers go the easy route and suggest that the unverifiable "audible" differences are somehow obvious, with "veils lifting" and "lowering noise floor" as if these are readily found in typical use situations? Of course, cable companies would prefer the latter.
While not full-on fraudulently useless "snake oil", I think there's still something to be said about being wise and critical when we see situations like this. This is why in my article, I called this "Class B" snake oil since one should still proceed with caution. It's important to understand not just whether something could work, but also the magnitude of effect if it did work so as to judge potential benefit. It's easy to trump up the hype even if in essence there's little to be excited about.
Notice that companies (whether it be cable companies or makers of other questionable products) are cautious about their wording on advertisements. It is an offence to publish false and deceptive advertising. Instead, they use the words from subjective reviewers in magazines as "proxies" for making their claims. Companies will sometimes quote from individuals who make these claims in their advertisements or web pages to insinuate the things they cannot come out and speak of openly because it would open them up to potential false advertising complaints which can include unproven claims; happily attributing these ideas to supposedly respected, golden-eared magazine reviewers. This is an important dynamic between the Industry and the press.
IMO - Moral: The audiophile community needs to be vigilant about "snake oil". The term "snake oil" has a clear meaning since nobody is using it concretely to refer to the lipid. It exists in audio as false, deceptive, or unproven advertising and claims. Yes, there have been many instances over the years.
By the way, I am curious. What is Jim Austin's motivation for an article like this? Why doesn't he like the term "snake oil"? The article doesn't demonstrate a good grasp of why readers may be concerned about "snake oil" in audio. It doesn't make suggestions on how consumers can be protected from questionable companies and claims. Ultimately, given the history of so many of these products in the "high-end" audiophile world, this article shows a lack of leadership and moral fortitude to reassure readers that Stereophile is committed to consider and explore questionable claims. I suppose certain manufacturers will be happy with this laissez-faire stance that sadly devalues the interests of consumers. Carry on I suppose!
From Stereophile, let's hop over to our "friends" at The Absolute Sound. What's the article "Objectivity and the Abstract Truth" by Allan Moulton even talking about? Considering the name of the magazine isn't "The Absolute Music" and the contents of this magazine deals with hardware, the message seems a little misplaced. Nonetheless, let's consider the article itself and a few ideas contained within...
It begins with a fascinating jump from a description of Microsoft's ad to a thought experiment around Tarzan asking about tennis racquets! Seriously, does it have to be this complicated? It's almost like the article is a parody of itself by "abstracting" itself into incomprehensibility.
For fun, let's think about that tennis analogy for a bit. Tennis racquets are made for the game of tennis and that "abstract" idea of the game is important, just like enjoying music is subjective and "abstract". Sure, Tarzan, given his world view and experience would not understand the concept of the game of tennis initially or what this "thing" (racquet) is. But I bet so long as he's not intellectually challenged that he will quickly grasp the concept of this being a "game" along with the important elements of victory, defeat, joy, sportsmanship, discipline, and facing up to challenges. Eventually, once Tarzan starts playing the game and develops some skills, will he not consider the old wooden racquet in his hand with loose strings and a shoddy grip? Would he not be wondering if he might not enjoy the game better with a slight upgrade to the "thing"? Would he not then consider physical "objective" parameters like the weight of the racquet, the tension of the strings, the vibration absorption capabilities of the frame and quality of the grip?
The subjective-only audiophile seems to expect Tarzan to remain somewhat in the dark about these physical characteristics of the racquet. He would instead look through tennis magazines and marvel at nice pictures, know the names of the fancy brands, enjoy stories from various well-known writers who apparently have tried using the racquets and interviewed racquet designers. Tarzan them might be encouraged to try out a few racquets to see if they "feel good" in his hand but not exactly knowing why (assuming he can afford the "high end" prices of course!). He would likely be expected to spend more money as he goes along and in the process leave much of this experience to trial-and-error rather than use the measurable, objective parameters for guidance. I think this is rather shallow. I'm not sure Tarzan would find the trial-and-error method based on testimony "fun" after awhile either.
Assuming Tarzan shifts to questions about the physical qualities of racquets (best analyzed objectively), we must not be tempted to believe that there is some kind of "zero sum game" and that his objective focus on the racquet in any way diminishes his subjective love for the game! In fact, this thirst for understanding could very well heighten his interest, understanding, and skill in the sport. From the abstract, he actually shifts into the concrete and "objective". Personally, this has been my experience with "maturing" over the years as I thought more about the audiophile hobby and the desire for higher fidelity hardware to enjoy what's in the recordings I own.
Yes, I agree. We should not obsess over the minutiae of audio. Focusing too much on one piece of hardware, or arguing incessantly about numbers like 0.001% THD is pointless. In my experience, those who have more of an objective focus actually typically do not obsess over these things. I think it must be some kind of stereotype to think that the numbers themselves are what's important. It's what the numbers tell us that's important. As I wrote awhile back about the limitations of hearing and listening, I believe that the rational audiophile recognizes that there are limits which we can correlate to measurement results. Beyond these limits, it becomes academic. When objective-leaning folks believe they've reached the threshold of transparency, interest in purchasing "yet more stuff" unless for a good reason, tends to drop. The Industry doesn't like it when the wallet closes, I suspect.
From what I have seen, objective-leaning audiophiles do not go on audio forums and say "The UltraSelect II DAC is clearly better than the Ultima III! The UltraSelect II has 0.0005% THD compared to the Ultima III with 0.005%!". That's obviously silly. Rather, I think most objectivists would appreciate well engineered gear, have an idea that transparency can be achieved without egregious cost, maybe glance over some measurements, say something complementary if things seem about right, and move on. What's disturbing for objectivists is when measurements clearly show poor performance or no conceivable difference at all yet the company/reviewer/owner seems not to be able to appreciate these facts. Worse is when the person then goes on to make unlikely and unsubstantiated claims of why the device is "better" when there could be absolutely nothing impressive at all about the performance of the device (consider NOS DACs for example).
Years ago, when I too was mainly of a subjective mindset, I remember obsessing over those neurotic questions I couldn't find answers to despite reading more than a decade's worth of audiophile magazines! Did I need better cables? Does this CD player have bad jitter? How does jitter sound like? Is balanced better than unbalanced? Am I really sure FLAC sounds the same as AIFF/WAV? Do I really need to buy more expensive software players because someone online said Foobar sounds inferior? Do I really need to run a separate power line into my sound room? Without running some objective tests and knowing for oneself with one's own gear, or at least have the manufacturer be transparent about what their product actually does, how does the subjective audiophile disentangle these uncertainties and fears? I believe that it is the responsibility of the media to do this for the audiophile by promoting truth and understanding rather than perpetuating those fears, uncertainties, and doubts! A role which sadly, IMO, the media has abdicated long ago by not helping Tarzan understand the physical, objective, characteristics of racquets...
We often hear the term "lifestyle" audio as a pejorative term referring to "mass market" and "mid-fi" gear rather than true "hi-fi" or "high-end" products. But doesn't an exotic pair of speakers with thousands of dollars worth of source gear, expensive cables, and other accoutrements also project one's "lifestyle"? The only difference really is that instead of convenience like smaller size and wireless Bluetooth, the "high end" has mostly been seeking after the luxurious lifestyle with expensive fascia, exotic components, and high price tags that often do not even match the objective sound qualities of much less expensive gear. In this context, when the article writer states "The audio industry and hobby lags behind this generational shift.", is that not just recognition that mainstream audio has diverged from the old-skool audiophiles that TAS caters to and that the new generation isn't following along with this type of "lifestyle"? For years audiophiles could not accept that adequate bitrate MP3 files actually can sound very good, and iPhones can make excellent audio players. The younger generation simply just moved on and ignored what would become of the "high-end" and all its idiosyncratic beliefs, myths, overpriced things, and penchant for anachronistic technology (analogue playback systems and tube gear for example).
When the writer suggests that future generation audiophiles will have to consider "What will you do with it?" ("it" presumably being simply the ability to play music with high quality), isn't that question already quite well answered now?! Just look around: people exercise with music, drive with music, study to music, fall asleep with music playing, wake up to music, meditate to music, dance to music, sing along with music, put music in slideshows, take hundreds of albums with us in the pocket when we travel, stream music off the cloud, etc. How much more does the author think we can do with "it"? What I don't understand is what exactly Mr. Moulton believes the "high end" Industry and magazines like The Absolute Sound can actually add considering that the shift away from traditional two-channel-component-system-in-a-sound-room-sitting-in-the-sweet-spot listening has been occurring for decades?!
One last thing I want to say about this article reaches beyond audio. I'm a little concerned about this sentence: "There has been a shift away from the truth of things and capabilities towards a truth found in a way of living and being."
I think we have to be careful because objective truth (of things and capabilities) will always be important. Just look around the world these days. Aren't many news headlines concerned with the importance of truth? Even if society looks more at "lifestyle", and concepts like "quality of life" become even more important, a good grasp of reality must always be built on "the truth of things". "Ways of living" and "being" could be true for oneself. There's nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves, but remember that taken to the extreme, self love can become pathological narcissism (I believe we see this come through at times with various writers). Factual truth applies to everyone. Without "the truth of things", upon what foundation are we then to clearly communicate, build trust, ensure justice, and measure progress? Perhaps at the very core of the audiophile hobby, "the truth of things" is exactly what has been missing in part or totally as it may be when snake oil products are promoted without restraint. Perhaps the "high end" audiophile hobby, in its willingness to go "full-subjective" in the mainstream magazines like TAS has in fact been at the forefront of technological hobbies in embracing form over function, that "shift away from the truth of things" for decades now.
I'd like to think that maybe audiophiles can lead the way back to embracing truth again. While computers, cell phones, and video technologies take their turn in becoming subjective objets d'art as the technologies mature, perhaps audiophiles can quietly return to their roots with thoughtful and rational appreciation of high fidelity music reproduction.
Enjoy the music... Movies... Toys... Foods... Drinks... Friends... Families... Holiday cheer... And so on and so forth...
Let's chat again in 2019!