A 'more objective' take on audiophile topics among other thoughts...
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Friday, 24 October 2014
MUSINGS: Articles of Disservice - Stereophile November 2014
Over the months, I have put up posts critical of magazine articles (like this one) but I must say that the November issue of Stereophile was an "impressive" read.
I just wanted to bring up a couple of notable articles that I found interesting but highly misguided. I found these articles disturbing because they perpetuate the status quo or express an opinion that lacks constructive merit and I think ultimately do a disservice to advancing the audio hobby.
First, I think it's worthy asking ourselves, what is the "mission" of the audiophile publications? I looked around but was not able to find a page describing a "mission statement" for Stereophile. I'm sure the purpose must include informing, and educating the readership around new products. Reviewing albums to consider. Cover trade shows to let us in on what's "around the corner". The objective measurements embedded in the reviews which I have commented on previously are useful. But at the the end of the day, is there a basic mission statement? You know something catchy like "the waging of war against the tyranny of inferior audio" (Audio Task Force) as quoted in the recent NY Audio Show report. Considering that audiophile magazines are "for profit" companies, I think it's all the more worthy of consideration; especially these days where ads and the relationship the magazines make with the industry has likely become the main source of revenue.
Steve Guttenberg's "As We See It" article titled Communication Breakdown touches on the supposed ills of dynamic range compression (see Loudness War). He starts off with a provocative statement: "Classical and jazz notwithstanding, an awful lot of new music is highly compressed, processed, and harsh, and it's about time we got used to it." He then talks about some "superstar producer" not liking his suggestion to have 2 mixes (crushed & non-crushed). Then he reminisces about childhood tinkerings with AM radio and how he likes the background noise slightly mistuned (hey I liked it slightly higher pitched when mistuned but can't say I liked the noise, just more as "tone control"). Then there's a little history lesson on distortion in rock & roll. Then a little something about analogue distortion vs. digital distortion. Then he basically says he has learned to enjoy the music "through the grit". So... I guess it's okay then to accept compressed and distorted music (including many jazz and soundtracks these days).
Well Steve - hell no. You've learned to tolerate the grit and enjoy the music - I'm happy for you. You seriously don't think that most of us have clutched "to our chests our 180gm LP's of Dark Side Of The Moon and Aja and rejected all the new music" do you? I mean seriously, the Loudness War has been raging since the mid-1990's and I doubt many of us music lovers have not been able to explore "new" albums and bands for the last 20 years - a full generation! Talk about resurrecting and perpetuating a ridiculous straw man stereotype of the "old audiophile" (hilarious that the magazine front cover contains the artwork for Gaucho). Do you seriously think that many of us haven't moved on from Dark Side or Aja? The issue is not that we're not "used to it", the problem is many of us are sick of it because we know it can sound better.
Over the years, we have had tantalizing tastes of what good masterings could sound like with new music. Remember the "Unmastered" mix of Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication (DR10 vs. DR4)? How about the Guitar Heroes III rip of Death Magnetic (DR12 vs. DR3)? Recently I was discussing with some folks about the Canadian Promo of Beck's Mutations (DR11 vs. DR7). How about the much improved Steve Hoffman vinyl remaster of Stadium Arcadium? Whatever people may think about using a simple algorithm like the DR Meter, there is no doubt when listening with a high-end system, nuances can be heard and listening fatigue is reduced tremendously with these alternate masterings. Audiophile reviewers often talk about "veils being lifted", well here is a clearly tangible one which the press could speak out about but instead we have articles like this nihilistic justification of the degradation of sound quality in Stereophile of all places!
Now before I get labeled as some kind of "distortion hater" for rock and pop, surely I am not. I accept an artist's decision to add distortion, noise, Protools plug-ins of all sorts; heck, Autotune is fine (better than raw talentless singing in some cases). Some albums are 'lo-fi' by design, I get it although it's not the kind of music I prefer. But certainly this does not mean we need to endure digital clipping distortions and flattening of dynamic depth across almost all genres, does it? When it clearly gets so bad that on a high-end sound system, the terrible distortions become so obvious, are we to just tolerate it and not complain? If all recordings sound poor, why even bother with expensive gear at all? New artists (and producers who make their music) need to understand that a poor sounding recording damages the credibility of the artist in the eyes of many. And there truly are limited opportunities to make a good first impression. Audiophiles may be a small part of the music listening public, but we can be quite vocal in "spreading the word" among family and friends, and I bet we buy more music than the vast majority of music listeners.
One example I can think of is perhaps the "lowest-fi" of all the albums I have - Iggy Pop did a "great" job with his 1997 remix/master of Raw Power (DR1!). Okay, so apparently he wanted it that way. But even there, I would argue that when Kevin Gray remastered the mix in 2012 for the vinyl release (DR10), the result was obviously superior - you could at least easily understand the lyrics. I don't recall Iggy launching any accusations that this less compressed mix somehow destroyed his artistic vision. Assuming the original master recording isn't too far gone, I hope to see a day when the dynamic peaks can be restored in the music of Arcade Fire, The War On Drugs, The Black Keys, or The Killers. (You can have a listen to the vinyl releases to have a preview of what these sound like with less compression!)
The article ends on this: "Over the long term, sure - maybe sonic realism will be the next big thing... In 2025." It's said in the financial trading world, "they don't ring a bell at the top" (or the bottom). Well, ding ding ding, Mr. Guttenberg. I sure hope this article marks the beginning of a shift towards musical realism. 2025 is only about 10 years from now - that's not really a terribly long time from now and a typical time frame for trend changes considering we've been enduring needless dynamic compression for 20 years. I suspect the next round of remasters will indeed be back to a more realistic sound because they just can't squeeze the dynamics any more! Furthermore, I would argue that for the high resolution digital audio movement to gain any traction, it will have to be married to a remastering renaissance with better dynamic range in mind in order to demonstrate a perceptible difference. (Generally, I consider buying a 24-bit album with DR<12 to be wasteful of money and storage space and will check out DR Database before considering any such purchase.)
Already, I'm encouraged to see the recent U2 album Songs Of Innocence (DR9) being better than previous efforts (No Line On The Horizon DR6, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb DR5). I was even more surprised by Train's recent work Bulletproof Picasso at DR11 (good job on the music and mastering boys; better than California 37 DR6, Save Me, San Francisco DR5)!
If I am correct, and we do see improved mastering and more sonic realism, it will certainly not be thanks to Mr. Guttenberg and Stereophile for their lack of advocating for true high fidelity in this issue. Gross "communication breakdown" indeed. Leadership gentlemen... Please find some courage to speak out with conviction.
Well, that's the software bit... How about the hardware side?
Consider Art Dudley's "Listening" column. He really should have subtitled this piece "Rage Against the Double Blind Test". In it he quotes from Malcolm Gladwell, takes liberties with comparing blind testing with the "Pepsi Challenge" (as if this is somehow highly relevant), seems to consider objectivism in general with disdain, and apparently has a phobia of guys in white lab coats, engineers and "Daddy-with-a-clipboard" (hmmm, father issues?). Anyhow, there really is too much in there to comment on completely so I invite the reader to have a gander.
"Daddy" (sans clipboard).
I hate to break it to you Mr. Dudley. Sit down so you don't hurt yourself... Those engineer guys (with clipboards) designed your sound system. Yes, they (at some point) figured out how to "cut" sound into that spinning vinyl disk. They used some fancy maths to figure out your tonearm to reduce distortion as it traced out the grooves. They studied electronics to design circuitry for that RIAA compensation curve. They figured out how to make speakers with low distortion and even put them together with appropriate crossovers. They considered the theorems involved in digital sound sampling and spent time researching fancy ways of encoding and error correcting that shiny disk. They figured out how to amplify a little signal with low overall distortion so it sounds decent at multiple watts. They figured out how to engineer computer programs to store, sort, decode, and transmit sonic data. They even were so thoughtful as to make something called the "remote control" so you could sit on your favourite listening chair and not waste energy getting up to change tracks if you desire! I almost forgot, since you love the Playstation 1 so much, I'm sure some engineer came up with that lovely plastic game controller too. Shocking, right!? How's it possible that anything that can convey artistic beauty come from measurements, graphs, charts, scientific principles, and yes, the occasional blind listening test (oh the horror!)?
Well, let's try to answer a few questions raised by Mr. Dudley in the article shall we?
"Are we disappointed when our favorite analog recordings are remastered from 44.1kHz files rather than from the original master tapes, because someone convinced the company that "that doesn't make any difference"?"
Yes. I would be disappointed I suppose if I were looking for a "pure" analog pressing as a matter of principle. That's not however to say that just because it's analog, it's good or has to be better than a 44kHz master. Many old 1980's LPs were derived from ~44kHz digital source recordings and sounded great (Dire Straits Brothers In Arms and Telegraph Road, Don Fagen The Nightfly come to mind). Many reissued LP's since have used well mastered 44kHz source and sound great. Let me ask you this... Would you honestly be able to tell where the source came from if the mastering engineer didn't reveal it to you? Over the years, other than with objective means, has any of the subjectivists been able to come up with a list of SACD's that look like they're sourced from 44/48kHz PCM by listening? If they haven't been able to do so with high resolution DSD audio, how plausible is it that vinyl listeners would be able to do so with the remixing and application of the RIAA EQ inherent in making LPs (not to mention distortions like surface noise)?
"Are we disappointed when an otherwise good electronics manufacturer lowers its manufacturing costs by switching from hand-wired circuits to PCB construction, because the company was persuaded that "that doesn't make a difference"?"
No. What makes hand-wired circuits "good" and PCB construction "bad"? Why would a company be "otherwise good" based on this construction criteria? Why do you engage in such black or white dichotomies? Over the years I've seen some really shoddy "hand crafted" construction so that's nothing special in my mind - made worse when it costs more. For complex circuits, I would consider good quality PCB construction superior in fact due to the likelihood of better precision if made by a reputable company. I also see nothing wrong with being able to repair a complex piece of electronics with replacing the PCB. Furthermore, if the manufacturer can lower costs and pass the savings down to the consumer, what's wrong with that? Please, give us a concrete example where switching from hand construction to PCB boards with essentially the same design resulted in a clearly diminished sound quality that was audible but not detectable by objective assessment (which is presumably what the engineer used to persuade).
"Are we disappointed when a manufacturer of classic loudspeakers begins making cabinets out of MDF instead of plywood, because an engineer convinced the company that "that doesn't make any difference"?"
Well, I can appreciate solid cabinetry and am happy to spend more on it if it's what I desire. But again, if the cost reduction is passed down to the customer, what's the problem? Are you again being black and white declaring that solid wood is definitely better? Are you mixing sturdiness, longevity, and aesthetics with "better sound quality"?
Of course, Mr. Dudley answers all these questions with this gem: "Yes, of course - and, in every case, we have the most single-minded, hardheaded objectivists to thank for lowering quality across the board." Pssst... Mr. Dudley, please do not muddle up material/physical/luxury "quality" from "sound quality". Has sound quality not generally improved over the years in both the low-end and high-end thanks to engineering efforts? I cannot help but feel that this man is angered by the very people and scientific know-how that has given him such pleasure over the years.
Then there's this beauty:
"The trouble is, many of the loudest people in the skeptic community, by their own admission, appear to be less interested in investigating seemingly anomalous events with fairness and an open mind than in shooting down everything that strikes them as "woo-woo"..."
Are you serious!? So, do you mean to say that an "open minded" subjective reviewer plugging in a pair of cables and declaring that the $500/ft pair sounds better than the $100/ft one after a bit of listening is "investigating". The term "investigate" requires some form of process of systematic inquiry by definition. Over the history of the subjective audiophile press, how many PWB rainbow foils, StopLight pens, expensive cables, and dubious "room treatments" have undergone systematic investigation? How about the recent Synergistic stuff like the Tranquility Base or the recently demo'ed Atmosphere? If anything, there is a resistance to scrutinize and investigate the most specious of claims by manufacturers - exactly the ones that need to be investigated. The whole point of blind testing is to remove potential confounding variables and an attempt here to discredit controlled test methods like blind listening tests is essentially to say one is really not interested in serious investigation into "anomalous events" or to try to separate verifiable fact from opinion.
To end off. Consider this quote:
"Perhaps it's our warm-and-fuzzy emotionalism that keeps those blinkered objectivists coming back again and again: We foolish, insecure record-lovers wish, in our hearts, for Daddy-with-a-clipboard to tell us what we ought to and ought not to buy - even though, in our brains, we know how thoroughly, obstructively mistaken they can be."
Well, there is one thing he is correct in. There's a sense of insecurity and fear in some audiophiles as embodied in articles like this. A desire to split what is good and what is bad yet oddly try to present the idea that it also doesn't matter to him (see the "Get off my lawn!" portion) but in an aggressive and divisive manner. I haven't seen a scientific looking bogeyman come out to push a product or tell anyone what to buy or not buy in ages! Rather, it's primarily the subjectivists who announce recommendations, sometimes conducting uncontrolled listening "tests" declaring the next best speaker / DAC / preamp / amplifier / cable / room treatment / etc. as worthy upgrades and in the process fueling insecurity. Articles such as this seem to be unable to dissociate between sound quality, aesthetics and material quality as if they are one and the same. If anything, the objective test results damper the hype in many product reviews and provides a point of reference on what is objective reality in terms of the quality of the sound itself. I can see how some manufacturers might not like this and find it inconvenient.
Just remember Mr. Dudley, many engineers over the decades made sound reproduction not only possible, but fantastic! That's a fact. Another fact is that objective analysis whether by blinded controlled listening tests or instrumentation can and is used to determine accuracy of the sonic reproduction, that's sonic fidelity. And I think many audiophiles would want high fidelity as a primary objective in this hobby.
[BTW: Alright, who has been using a robot avatar to cause grief to Mr. Dudley!?]
I come back then to where I started. What ultimately is the "mission statement" or goal of an audiophile magazine like Stereophile? Is it anything like "the waging of war against the tyranny of inferior audio"? I actually hope it is... But do articles like these advance audio quality or foster reasonable discussion?
PS: I'll be away for the next few weeks. Don't forget to participate in the LP Needle Drop Test :-). Enjoy the music...