Saturday 7 July 2018

MUSINGS: Zen and the Art of High Fidelity Audio. On transparency, in response to "Measuring Emotional Connections to Music".

Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities, the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.     --Thomas Jefferson
I ran into this article on Inner Fidelity: "Measuring emotional connections to music" penned by Rafe Arnott & Vinnie Rossi the other week that got me thinking about the hobby and the different "sensibilities" of those who partake and who write.

As you know, recently, I measured and discussed the sound of the Oppo UDP-205 player/DAC. I said that the device is "transparent". I believe that this is an important aspect to focus on because it touches right at the heart of the ideas and philosophies expressed in the article. Today, let's explore the themes brought out in that article a bit. As you can imagine, I come at audio from another perspective compared to Mr. Arnott and Rossi.

As a start, for those who have not seen it, you might be interested in a previous article on my perspective of aiming to be a "rational audiophile". Having that background could help with the discussions in this article. My intent in this article is not to limit the thought process for audiophiles. Rather, over the years, the hope is to expand how we can think about the aims of  the audiophile hobby. Is there a way to rationally express a philosophy that encompasses the complexity of music and the music-reproduction hardware that underlies the passion of the audiophile hobbyist?

I. On the subjective "connection" response curve...

The article asks many questions. Within 3 sentences in, it poses this:
Is there a response curve to show how one connects to a piece of music?
My assumption is that they're asking a rhetorical question. But is this even a contextually fair question?

As I had expressed in the "rational audiophile" article, I believe audiophilia consists of a number of different pursuits. On the one hand, there is enjoyment of music (the music lover hobby) which is where the question above as to "how one connects to a piece of music" may hold some value. Some of us like rock, others classical, others jazz, and yet others heavy metal. Music is art and art engages the emotions in subjective and idiosyncratic ways. When an artist connects to us whether through the music, lyrics, or serendipitously at a special time in our lives, we build that emotional bond that can last a lifetime.

Sure, while we can certainly ask the question "Why does Johnny connect so deeply to heavy metal!?" I suspect it's clear to everyone that this question does not have a hope of being understood or answered within the pages of an audiophile magazine (catered to "high end" hardware) or at an audio hardware show! Instead this is a question that probably can be posed and answered to some degree in the halls of academic neuroscience, not hardware engineering as the appropriate discipline. Perhaps we can scientifically measure a "response curve" in the form of neuronal activation of the brain with fMRI, PET, low-resolution SPECT tracer uptake, maybe electromagnetic activity on EEG or MEG when a person is in the presence of his/her favourite music (those familiar with neuroimaging technologies particularly will appreciate how difficult it would be to run such studies!). I'm not sure what makes the authors think that audio hardware itself has a strong relevance to this "connection" to music which is idiosyncratic to each human being and the neural networks in our brains that encode this predisposition. Do hardware devices have any special powers to connect us to specific artists or genres? Do fans actually need audiophile speakers, silver cables with ideal dielectrics, and kilobuck CD players to form or maintain their connection with the music they love? Does one fall in love more with music because one had heard it through a hi-fi system as opposed to just the local radio channel when growing up through their "lo-fi" box? I trust that most folks would consider these questions rhetorical as well... You could easily give someone a pen and piece of paper and ask them to grade music from one to 10 and subjectively measure emotional valence, but unless you're running a marketing survey, who cares how any music lover connects to his/her favourite artist - that's between them and their albums!

On the other hand, I believe that the hardware audiophile pursuit is actually a different beast when we try to understand the motivations for why some of us engage in this hobby. Remember, historically, the audiophile was one who pursued "high fidelity". While the term "audiophile" can mean different things to different people, "high fidelity" is a much more coherent term. "Fidelity" and "accuracy" of audio reproduction have meanings in engineering hence the importance of measurements to make sure that the music reproduction chain acts as a faithful conduit of the recorded information - nothing more, nothing less. For some, it's not as much about fidelity as striving for euphonic reproduction (I've previously called these people euphonophiles, this is not meant to be pejorative!). For some, "so long as it sounds good to me", then that's the goal. While the pursuit of "high fidelity" is an idealistic one where a "gold standard" can be expressed with objective parameters (eg. zero distortion, a target frequency response, noise below any hope of auditory perception, ideal timing characteristics, calibrated room interactions...), those who seek euphonic reproduction can be seen as more pragmatic in some ways yet deviating from seeking to achieve high fidelity.

Without a compass of sorts directing the hobbyist at idealized performance goals, the "euphonophile" audiophile might serially try out a number of speakers, digital players, amps, etc... in the hopes that he/she will eventually find the "just right" combination of components that satisfies his/her auditory palate. That's fine. We must understand though that by not using objective ideals to adjudicate fidelity, psychological factors will play a large part in the process. This is not to say that a "more objective" high-fi enthusiast is not affected by psychology as well (we are all humans!). But because psychological factors play such a big role without objective testing, discipline and insight are important such that one "guards against absurdities" that can result, as so well articulated by Thomas Jefferson. When the human perceptual and cognitive system like auditory/echoic memory is as brief as <5 seconds, one has to be cautious about the accuracy of recalling how something actually "sounds" hours, days, weeks or even months later. Without grounding in objective knowledge, one often ends up seriously considering highly speculative ideas (like claims of certain cable manufacturers) or the testimony of those with no other evidence to support claims (like the hype of Pono with the ridiculousness of Neil Young's claims, or MQA and its magazine-writer cheerleaders). While some can claim that this is all about "fun", I personally would find speculative meanderings wasteful and corrupt especially when being wooed with expensive "snake oil" products as discussed before.

As brought out in the Arnott/Rossi article, I can appreciate Bruce Lee's admonishment to his student to "Don't think, feeeeel" in certain areas of life. But isn't that a little silly when dealing with electronics equipment? Remember, we're talking about audio gear here designed by engineering folks based on generations of accumulated knowledge of physics, refined by objective measurements and controlled listening tests (like the testing done by reputable speaker manufacturers, Canada's NRC in the anechoic rooms years back, or Sony/Philips' tests of digital audio before the CD was introduced). Should audiophiles not at least at some level try to understand, know, and be mindful of the thoughts that have resulted in the decades of work put into creating all these modern devices producing the illusion of "the sound of music as heard in a concert hall" (as per Harry Pearson) or "being present at the original studio performance" (as per MQA) to use two examples subjective audiophiles and magazine writers would recognize? Is it even wise to drag up some vague New Age philosophy with supposedly "deep" metaphysical claims here from Bruce Lee of all people applied to audio?!

[As an aside, in today's political and social climates, are we on balance in need of more emotion or thought in this world? May I humbly suggest that wisdom is when there is synergy with both present... And not always in equal measure.]

II. On the importance of nothingness and fidelity...

Unlike wines, or cars, or houses where often more is better - more aroma, more luxury/power/speed, more space - the aim of audio equipment when it comes to its basic function of achieving "high fidelity" is to preserve what is on the recording, nothing more. We intuitively know this because even for those of a purely subjectivist mindset, there is the idea that "the best cable is no cable". Shorter cables are better than longer ones (to reduce signal loss and picking up noise). "Shortest signal paths" are said to sound better than longer ones. MQA even puts it as the "sound of the studio"; that is, the "sound" of the intervening equipment after the studio and before one's ears should not color the intended production. When we aim for a high fidelity system, all we're asking for is a device that can reproduce just the frequencies present on the album, at the right time, with the right dynamics to satisfy the intent of the artist as laid down in the recordings. As for the listener, the ideal gear would have technical "transparency"; free of audible frequency coloration, distortion, added noise, or timing anomalies (eg. jitter, wow & flutter, phase distortions...).

The irony is that Mr. Arnott understands this. Awhile back in his show report on a LampizatOr DAC in 2017, he said this:
"This room had outstanding timbre, and tone, and deep, organic bass lines, and midrange that didn’t suffer an iota from the air, and extension the top end displayed. “Addictive Musicality” is what I scrawled in my RMAF brochure book next to the room name. Sound-staging actively changed from recording to recording (as it should be because sound stage is derived from the recording, not the equipment), which to me is always a hallmark of a truly transparent, and properly-engineered set-up."
So... Are we then on the same page? If "truly transparent" is viewed as the outcome of what we're all after, then what is the point of ruminating on the "response curve" of how one "connects to a piece of music" when discussing audio hardware? If the hardware is good enough to be transparent, then isn't the emotional reaction to the music the psychological outcome that the listener has with the music (recording) itself, just like the psychological construct of "soundstage"? Exactly what kind of "emotional connection" does Mr. Rossi think hardware is capable of imparting between the listener and his/her favourite album, genre, or artist if not simply to "get out of the way"?

The core purpose of the hardware high-fidelity / audiophile hobby is not about the "feeeeeeling" - the music is up to you to choose, and feelings are up to you to experience, not the equipment to give. It is about understanding that the best sounding components in a music system are the ones we hear the least from. The best does not call attention to itself, it's about less, not more. The best sound rooms are comfortably quiet and free of noisy distractions. The best speakers are the ones with least coloration from the box. The best CD/DVD/Blu-Ray players and digital servers are the ones that offer silence (no motor noise, fan noise, electromagnetic interference). The best DACs produce an analogue signal that looks like an ideal reproduction of that digital data - nothing more...

I have nothing against desiring for more of certain qualities - more luxurious speakers, more impressive cables, more metal, more weight, more silver, more gold, more money spent. I desire some of those things as well at times. But the more we ask for, outside of the goal of seeking actual improvements in sound quality (ie. transparency), is to reach into the endless non-utilitarian benefits and luxuries as I had expressed before.

III. Transparency - on the logical outcome and this "boring hobby"...

Finally, I think it's important to consider what Mr. Rossi said near the end of the Inner Fidelity article.
If we all agreed that the best measuring products were the best sounding ones, we would essentially all own the same thing and it would quickly become a boring hobby. Designers deaf in both ears could still produce excellent measuring products, as there would be no need for them to listen to their designs.
Imagine attending an audio show where all of the listening rooms were DSP room corrected, contained the same type of speaker topology, the same type of electronics, etc. For many it is frustrating enough passing by rooms playing the same overused demo tracks.
While I would not recommend designers be deaf, I can also think of audibility claims made by musicians who likely have significant hearing loss and know of audiophiles who almost certainly have significant age-related loss of acuity yet fervently make all kinds of claims. I have yet to hear a device that measures remarkably well using modern testing yet sounds poor. Over the years, I have challenged people who make the claims that excellent measuring products can still sound poor and nobody (neither audiophile nor product manufacturer) has ever given me the name of a component that this applies to in order to verify this claim. As far as I'm concerned, this belief belongs to the category of "urban legend".

[I see the claim of "good measurements but bad sound" was yet again trotted out recently - "Remember those Japanese receivers with 0.00000001% THD that burned the hair off your ears?" No I don't, maybe because I was too young to remember the 70's. Care to identify specific products rather than gross generalizations, Mr. Reichert?]

Coming back to the idea of what we're after from the sound quality perspective, if the goal of the perfectionist audiophile is in fact "transparency", then we need to ask ourselves "is there more than one kind of transparency"? I would argue the answer is no. "Transparent", like "high-fidelity" is easily understood and points to an ideal. Transparent devices all sound the same.

Is that a sign of a "boring hobby" if at the end of the day it's simply about achieving transparency and seeking that ideal? I dunno... Maybe for some that's a problem. I can imagine that admission of this from a product manufacturer would make it hard to come up with "even better sounding" generations of products.

As I noted above regarding "emotional connection", music lovers should not be bored because joy comes from the music itself. In fact, a clear definition of "high fidelity" as "transparency" should be great news because it means they don't have to worry about upgrading hardware; once technology is good enough to achieve transparency at a reasonable price, there's nothing else to desire.

As for passionate hardware audiophiles, I don't think there's a need to be bored either because aren't we all supposed to be music lovers first of all? Also, nothing is stopping us from exploring, experiencing, and finding ways to improve/upgrade speakers/headphones (none of which are ideal), optimize our rooms, consider new features, maybe even play with DSP to achieve the sound we want (whether it be technically accurate or not). DIYers will always have fun tweaking circuits, perhaps finding new designs or resurrecting old techniques. Manufacturers can still use newer technologies to achieve performance closer to that transparent ideal at less cost, improve the user experience, add new features, finding genuine niches to make a profit, and competing with others in the marketplace to be the best. Maybe some companies are lazy and don't want to be bothered with innovating and competing - too bad if that applies to some out there. Of course, I believe that there are a number of manufacturers in the "high end" space making worthless "snake oil" products and have no business existing.

But excitement in new tech and products needs not be constant over time nor universal across all product classes. The human ear/brain is limited in perception and I believe these limits have already been reached for high quality DACs at good prices. Digital accuracy when it comes to transports, streamers, and servers will not yield any further improvements regardless of what some believe when they tweak firmwares, OS'es, or spend ridiculous amounts on computing hardware (A €6900 LampizatOr SuperKomputer? LOL. No thanks!). I believe other than new features and ease of use to reach a larger audience, computer audio has matured; especially for 2-channel stereo. One cannot expect huge sound quality improvements no matter the expense once you reach a very affordable level these days.

Not to just pick on digital, I likewise believe there is a reasonable end point to vinyl playback. The problem with the LP is that it is an inherently limited system which never can achieve the fidelity of today's digital devices (great for its time and obviously engineering has improved the system over the decades). Unlike digital, there is no "ideal" or "exact" with vinyl, reel-to-reel or cassette because each copy will be different, each playback will detrimentally affect the next time it's played even if miniscule, and age will affect material things (everything from loss of physical shape like warping of LPs to magnetic instability on tape). Furthermore, these analogue formats will never rival digital for temporal accuracy. While some might obsessively seek to extract the very last drop of sound quality from analogue media and have fun doing it, ultimately the technical limits are insurmountable... (For the "record", I still accumulate LPs as a collector of memorabilia, not because I think they sound great necessarily.)

IV. To Close...

Feel or Think? Subjective or Objective? Euphonophilia or Pursuit of High Fidelity? Coloration or Transparency? One or the other? May I suggest both?

Like I said at the start, the intent here is to present some ideas for consideration in a way that I hope makes sense. We each choose for ourselves where we stand. Like all philosophies, some will sound more rational, others may require a stretch or perhaps a greater leap of faith. I like to both feel and think. When it comes to hardware, I believe I have shown over the years that objective analysis is more reliable and the pursuit of high fidelity points me to a vision of what "good sound" is about, with the utilitarian goal of ultimately achieving transparency in the consumer audio playback system.

I want to point readers also to what Dr. Mark Waldrep wrote recently about "Fidelity vs. Sound". Another perspective on what I've described as the pursuit of high fidelity vs. euphonic sound.

As suggested by the title of this article, while I may be "more objective" as a hardware audiophile, I also do not shy away from referencing something spiritual in the pursuit of music. Feelings and rational thought must coexist. Have fun in the hobby but never "surrender reason", otherwise the mind ends up "wrecked" as Thomas Jefferson warns us. In our relationship to the music, there should be passion, possibly even feelings of ecstasy or a glimpse of something transcendent that the art and artist is able to convey beyond this "mortal coil". Yet as hardware audiophiles we must contend with the fact that whatever we might emotionally and spiritually perceive in the music, the gear we use is very much connected to the material world and the technologies of today which in many cases have already achieved sonic transparency. To straddle these domains of existence and hold on to core truths without straying into imprudence or even worse, madness and becoming the play-thing of frivolous consumerism, IMO is the heart of achieving wisdom as an audiophile (and I believe so too in general life).

No matter your philosophical leanings, ultimately, I do hope that it leads you down a path of joy in experiencing all that the musician has created for the listener as processed and modified through studio magic and high fidelity reproduction technology.

It's summer. Time for some fun in the sun.

As always, feed the inner music lover and enjoy the music (with transparent hardware of course). :-)


  1. Inner Fidelity since the founder, Tyll Hertsens, retired/sold up, has become an audiophool mumbojumbo safe space. It is such a shame. Tyll offered repeatable,comparable, objective measurements but he also offered his opinions, impressions and feelings about reviewed products. Coming from a person with a publicly described measurement process, a lot of experience and decent relationships and credibility with both manufactures and consumers this was something like priceless.

    It has taken the new owners of Inner Fidelity just a few months to discard all of that credibility and instead to sink into advertorial BS and the most subjective and insupportable written nonsense. BTW if you try to post at Inner Fidelity to object to this your post is simply "vanished". If you attempt to discuss the same subject at SBAF your post is similarly black holed. It's really sad that the single best broadminded headphone review site has turned into a marketing copy recycler, and that SBAF (those brave, irreverent and fearless people at SBAF!) is apparently complicit.

    1. You can still trust posts by Keith Howard and Bob Katz, although they don't post that often.

    2. Thanks for the comments Julian and Mikhail.

      Obviously I've popped by Inner Fidelity to see what has been happening. I have not posted any comments however. I guess I'm not surprised that comments expressed contrary to the viewpoints being expressed have ended up in the ether. It's not looking pretty.

      It has been a long time since I've visited SBAF (Super Best Audio Friends, right?).

      From what I have seen of Rafe Arnott's writings/work, it seems like he is coming very much from the "lifestyle" perspective. He likes photos and videos from what I have seen of Part-Time Audiophile and their "The Occasional" magazine. There is an intermingling of luxury products like Porsche, various alcoholic spirits, Leica cameras with the discussion of audio gear. Reminds me of "men's magazines"... The "playboy lifestyle" of leisure perhaps.

      I don't know. Maybe this has some value to some people. Not my cup of tea in being way too superficial and catering to commercial interests rather than promoting insight and education. If I were after that kind of gestalt or market segment, I would have thought Bose and Bang & Olufsen fits more in that category of audio product than what we normally think of as the audiophile niche. Most audiophiles I know and respect are more geeky and knowledgeable than this.

      Good luck to 'em.

      Of interest, I see that Mr. Arnott at least at one time is from my "neck of the woods" as well... I wonder if he still lives in British Columbia these days.

      Yes. It would be nice to see Keith Howard and Bob Katz's contributions still.

    3. Further to the decline of InnerFidelity: they are now publishing product "reviews" without any measurements. I appreciate that some articles are impressions and opinion pieces and don't pretend to or require any objectivity, but in the past InerFidelity actual reviews were supported by those strange and troubling things known as measurements. No longer:

      Apparently these days a "review" is something between hagiography and carefully letting everyone know that the reviewer is very wonderful and wealthy.

    4. Hey Julian,
      Thanks for the link... Skimmed the article. That's a lot of words. At ~$3000 for the A18t, it should (better!!!) sound good. Yeah, at that price point, it probably isn't a great candidate for portable use. Not exactly the kind of item I would throw in the gym bag :-).

      Personally, to go to the InnerFidelity website to read a review without reference to measurements or objectivity just feels incomplete. As it should be for all reviews just based on subjective opinion IMO.

      Love the use of the word "hagiography"!

    5. I have to make a correction. SBAF did not shitcan my post, they moved it to a pre-existing thread which comprises numerous members expressing themselves on the same subject. It's pretty funny; it starts out with people being a little worried about where IF might be going, but cautiously retaining some optimism. As time goes by, and the direction becomes well and truly clear, the posts get increasingly err... uncompromising and forthright. Mine fit right in!

      So I owe an apology to anyone at SBAF who reads this. Sorry.

      To the new IF editors I owe a powerful kick to their softer regions, or maybe a poke with a sharp stick.

  2. > You can still trust posts by Keith Howard and Bob Katz, although they don't post that often.

    It was officially announced at the takeover that Katz will no longer pen articles for them.

    Yes, if you try to post what they don't like they simply don't publish it. My favourite quote of Mr. Rafe Arnott is this one:

    > The electrons need to be aligned once again.

    Found as reply to a burn-in question in the LCD-XC review.

    It's clear that the Innerfidelity that many loved is just dead. RIP.

    1. Hey Tech,
      I see that response about headphones sitting too long and electrons needing realignment.

      This is rather sad. In the blink of an eye, indeed it seems that the old Inner Fidelity is gone.

  3. IMO people have more freedom of speech in the usenet era. Maybe due to the fact that modern forum software and websites' comment section made moderation much easier, and I never join any "group" to avoid any echo chamber.

    Of course people are free to express their opinion in personal website or blog, like Archimago and nwavguy, but in this way information is more scattered and more inconvenient to access.

    It is very important to find information from different sources in this era, with a critical mindset to differentiate information and misinformation.

    1. Hi Dtmer,
      Yeah, information is much more distributed these days and I suspect it'll just keep getting more scattered among countless blogs, websites, and forums. As much as Google might be able to round up the searches, it obviously cannot judge the nature of the articles at this point...

      I agree that the key is to maintain a critical mindset. And more than ever, the educational system needs to be able to teach the foundations of critical thinking, core knowledge, and effective communication.

  4. As you mentioned in your article : these analogue formats will never rival digital for temporal accuracy...this is the key factor for emotion in music reproduction. But proper synchronization in digital music reproduction is an art, not mastered by every manufacturer.

  5. The Topping D30 is an example of a DAC that measured well, according to AudioScienceReview, but sounds like "ass", "shit", "worst sounding" (of several similarly priced DACs in a direct comparison), "glare city" according to the geniuses at SuperBestAudioFriends.

    1. Those two forums exist primarily to disagree with each other.

    2. So a site that provides actual measurements without taking price tags into consideration, versus one which don't?

      Boy, it soooo tough to pick who to trust! *sarcasm*

    3. I would say the best way to find product reviews is using search engines, I don't even solely rely on Google, I also use Bing, DuckDuckGo and others. Read my comment about "scattered information" above.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Specifically, look into AVSForum and hydrogenaudio to find their relationship with ASR.

    6. ASR is certainly the more objective, and measurements posted there can be useful. That doesn't mean there isn't a feud going on.

    7. Hi there! I want to point out that the D30 and other DACs measured and reviewed by ASR have been also measured and reviewed at SBAF (Yggdrasil with new analog stage a.k.a. Yaggy, Modi 2 Uber come to mind). The SBAFs claim flawed and even deceptive measurements and interpretations from ASR (still, they state/acknowledge that they don't perfectly correlate sonic performance to measurement performance). The controversy also reached Head-Fi, where additional measurements where conducted (I remember Yaggy, at least), but I am not sure about the outcome there (not too much time to follow the threads, but I had the impression that ASR had the losing hand). Maybe an interesting topic for a future post/article?

    8. Interesting and complex relationships among the audiophile sites all around :-).

      Can't say I've been following the drama either over the years among the sites and personalities... More fun doing my own thing and listening to my own music!

      So the Topping D30 measures well but sounds like "ass". Okay. Will have to keep an eye out and see if I can find one locally to check out.

    9. Archimago you have a great advantage here since you never reviewed any Topping or Schiit products. But such a battle is trivial when there are some $17000 filterless DACs out there :P

    10. Fascinating also these days with all the propaganda around these extremely priced filterless DACs or old-skool R-2R designs.

      I guess what's old is new again and it's never hard to have a few people subjectively opine that "rich, warm, neutral" are characteristics one can own with a fistful of bucks.

    11. Comparing ASR to SBAF is like comparing astronomy to astrology. SBAF is a fansite for Schiit acolytes.

  6. Archimago, thanks for another excellent article — and for the link to my article on fidelity vs. sound. These are important topics for audiophile, euphonophiles, and equipment hounds. However, I would urge all music enthusiasts to look beyond the sound reproduction half of the music production chain and recognize that the fidelity and the sound of any piece of recorded music is established at the time of its original production — including the tracking, overdubbing, mixing, and mastering stages. The record producer, audio engineers, and artists make those decisions (sometimes with additional input from the label). Just as you say that a piece of equipment that measures "remarkably well" will produce excellent fidelity, a similarly true aspect of record production is "if it sounds bad in the studio, it will never sound good at home". I think we've all experienced the decline in fidelity thanks to overzealous mastering and tools like "ultramaximizer". This is where many audiophiles, reviewers, and high-end equipment/accessories companies fail our market. It's also why I followed the entire record making process — from the music performed in the studio to the replication of the source format — in my "Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound" book. Focusing on the reproduction half of the process is far too constrictive. Other high-end audio books, magazines, and websites push fidelity enhancement devices, expensive cables, snake oil accessories, and new acronym formats that cannot — and should not — change the fidelity as "locked" down during the final mastering session. Fidelity means true to the original sound — as defined in the production process. We should consider the entire process IMHO. Thanks.

    1. Of course the whole production chain matters. However, as consumers we only have control over the reproduction half, so that is naturally where we tend to focus.

    2. I'm not sure one could say "of course" in the manner that you do, or that it is (still) "natural" to focus there.

      I think 90% of consumers are completely oblivious to the production side, assuming that "of course" the production-side professionals are doing a high-quality, professional job.

      It wasn't until I got a reasonably decent hifi system that I realized how poor a non-trivial number of recordings are. For a long time I was blaming my mid-fi system for what, in retrospect, were failings of the recordings themselves.

      I now recognize as obvious there's A LOT more money to be had keeping consumers on an upgrade treadmill with regard to their playback chain, than admitting when you have good-enough and calling out mediocre content.

      Ditto keeping consumers on an upgrade treadmill with regard to their playback media, than calling out the limitations of the original, 40+ year-old masters (which, as Mark points out, as often as not are not even true masters) that go into creation of the playback media.

      Yes, now we can say, "of course," but it was guys like Mark that made it all "click" for me, after I'd invested enough into my playback chain and was still experiencing meh results more often than I expected.

      To my mind, once you have guys like Arch objectively demonstrating the playback chain is transparent, and you have guys like Mark pulling back the curtain on the recording side, then you can focus consumers on the final target: the quality of the recordings the industry is putting out.

    3. Thanks for the note Mark,

      Yeah, no question that in the consumer space, we've been focused on the gear and have been sold the idea that the "promised land" of high fidelity is to be found in what we (consumers) buy including nonsensical encouragement to explore snake oil products. The truth of course is that so much now depends on just how well the music was recorded and produced in the first place. As you've noted over the years, this has sadly been disappointing. And continues to be so.

      Transparent audio playback can at best only reveal the full characteristic of the recording. Warts, wrinkles, age spots, acne, and all. I guess in many ways audiophile magazines are like fashion magazines. Just as pictures of the cover girls are Photoshopped and air brushed to perfection, or shown beautiful ads promising the fountain of youth with the newest beauty product, we too are treated to audio gear porn pictures and flowery language to show us how beautiful the "sound" can be...

      Just fork over the $cash$ of course :-).

      BTW, Mark, I saw your latest commentary regarding LAOCAS. Keep up the good fight!

  7. Re: "Transparent", like "high-fidelity" is easily understood and points to an ideal. Transparent devices all sound the same.

    Thank you Arch! At what resolution does audio become transparent to our ears? I tried an experiment here:
    Fun With Digital Audio – Bit Perfect Audibility Testing

    The best I could do was about 12 bits of resolution ABX’ing the original file with the “distorted” file, while listening at reference level (i.e. 83 dB SPL C weighting, slow integration at the LP).

    I wonder what hardware devices you have measured in the past 6 years that has 12 bits or less resolution?

    Keep up the great work!


    1. Hey Mitch!

      Well there ya go, last week's tube-mod Oppo BDP-105 is right there at 12-bits or so! Of course there's the non-flat frequency response. Admittedly not the best sounding piece of gear IMO but seems like a number of audiophiles liked the thing and I guess even believe that having an outboard linear power supply somehow makes the sound better. Go figure, given the poor noise floor!

    2. LOL! What unmodified gear have you tested that is 12 bits or less resolution in the past 6 years?

    3. Yes... There was 1 other device that delivered about 12-bits of performance - unmodified :-).

      The Sony CFD-S05 "lo-fi" boombox CD/tape player/radio from 2013:

      12-bits from the headphone out, with an even more anomalous frequency response, plus a bit of jitter to boot! A steal at $60...

  8. I noticed the article "Is neutral sound possible in a recording?" on Inner Fidelity this past weekend.

    Unfortunately the author IMO meandered quite a bit. But I was wondering, do you guys see the word "neutral" as meaning "transparent"... Seemed like the article makes this equivalency especially when wandering into discussion of DSD256 being better than DSD64.

    To me, "transparency" is as described in this blog post. An ideal state of nothingness between what's on the recording and what's reproduced to be heard.

    "Neutral" in my mind has a more restricted meaning. I usually think of neutral as mics, headphones, amps or speakers having a flat "uncolored" characteristic. I guess whenever I think of neutral, I associate it with the frequency response curve of a device or the lack of EQ added to the recording. To me, both DSD64 and DSD256 are capable of "neutral" as far as human perception even though DSD256 can be more capable as a "transparent" data stream (lower noise floor, flatter extended ultrasonic frequency response).

    Anyhow, wondering if you guys use the terms interchangeably?

    1. Just to add... For me, the adjective "neutral" is equivalent to "flat" which is perhaps a term that's easier to disambiguate.

    2. I agree Arch. To add, Floyd Toole has used the term neutral for loudspeakers, which is a flat, but tilted frequency response, as can be read about in the section called The Science of Preferred Frequency Responses for Headphones and Loudspeakers Scroll down a couple of paragraphs.

      Further, when it comes to loudspeakers, based on Floyd's and Sean Olive's research at Harman,
      preference versus accuracy are synonymous.

    3. Nice, thanks Mitch!

      One more adjective I thought might be better than "neutral" for some of what was discussed in the Inner Fidelity article is the word "natural".

      I have many remasterings of albums like Kind of Blue or say Bob Dylan's body of work. Without direct side-by-side comparisons, I can say that most remasterings while sounding different, are still "good"... Still sounding "natural" in that there's nothing objectionable, reflecting the expected nature of the work. Even if not exactly "neutral" in that some EQ was added here and there among the different versions, the music remains enjoyable and has held on to the qualitative state that is appropriate (natural) rather than inappropriate (artificial). To me there is no such thing as an "ideal" sound for any recording since 2-channel audio is of course at best a facsimile. One can manipulate the recording in countless ways and it would still sound enjoyable and even "natural" in as much as we allow the ear/brain to accept.

      Certain remasters however have become "unnatural" sounding. For example "loudness war" overly dynamically compressed Rolling Stones (eg. 2009 UMG) sounds "unnatural" based on previous expectations. Furthermore, I feel fatigued and end up turning off the music as a physiological reflection of the objectionable artificiality.

      That sense of a "naturalness" to the sound however can only go so far for modern pop productions with obvious DSP and extreme effects added. Some things are meant not to sound natural (or neutral) at all. For example extreme AutoTune as embodied by Cher's "Believe" in 1998. It was supposed to sound like that and even though clearly artificial, is appropriate for what it is and a good example of the artist/producer/engineer's intent. Nobody would be fooled that Cher could even vocalize like that without artificial manipulation.

      This again brings us back to the idea that in some cases, there is just no such thing as "neutral" nor "natural", and that's completely fine! But no matter the intent of the sound, one's audiophile playback system can still be transparent and deliver the full quality of the recording.

    4. Yes I am a fan of The Rolling Stones and I can confirm that their releases from 2009 (mastered by S. Marcussen) are very bad. Original Virgin/Bob Ludwig masterings are great, though. Also ABKCO releases have good dynamics.

      Remasters from original tapes make sense when better digitized. But too much creativity with (re)mastering does not help.

      By the way, I stopped usign dithering when upsampling. I read some articles and forums and concluded that when upsampling dithering is not neccessary even during offline (e.g. 24 or 16 bit saving) upsampling.

      So currently I use this for offline upsampling with Resampler

      -r 176400 -b 24 --mt --doubleprecision --nometadata --lpf-cutoff 95.2

      and this

      passband 95.4, stopband 160, no alias, linear phase

      for online upsampling (I use Resampler-V or SoX directly for that purpose)

      These options sound great.

    5. Thanks for the thoughts and resampler suggestions Honza.

      Looks like good settings to experiment with :-).

    6. Thank you Archimago for your comment. By the way, with offline upsampling, OptimFROG can be used on the desktop for better compression of the upsampled files. It supports 24 bit and even 32 bit audio (FLAC does not support 32 bit), with good compression ratios.

    7. This tread reminds me of my early listening days, 10 band a side equalizer, DBX expansion, Click and Pop machine, trying to create my own sound, regardless of what the engineers had intended. Then when digital hit and the early CD's sounded so good, we all went neutral, Flat, and gave up on equalization. Maybe with modern Loudness wars, we need to go back to waveform modification again? Thanks for the great insights.

  9. Flag does support 32 bit audio. See


    What kind of audio samples does FLAC support?

    FLAC supports linear PCM samples with a resolution between 4 and 32 bits per sample. FLAC does not support floating point samples. In some cases it is possible to losslessly transform samples from an incompatible range to a FLAC-compatible range before encoding.

    FLAC supports linear sample rates from 1Hz - 655350Hz in 1Hz increments."

  10. Flac autocorrects to flag :-(

  11. FLAC doesn't support 32-bit float. I have read that in theory the FLAC format could support 32-bit integer, but no such encoder exists.,83520.0.html

    1. The FLAC format supports up to 32-bit samples. Since it's lossless, you can encode floating-point by pretending the values are integers. It doesn't compress quite as well as it could, though, and there's no way of indicating that you've done this.

    2. The problem is as far as I know standard FLAC encoder does not support 32 bit integer encoding. I always use original encoders when possible. OptimFrog I discovered recently, know its compatiblity is very limited, but has foobar plugin and compresses 32 bit integer very nicely.

  12. "Topping D30 measures well but sounds like "ass". Okay. Will have to keep an eye out and see if I can find one locally to check out."
    That would be actually great. You seem to have a great middle of the road approach: spend time on measurements and even more time listening.
    Folks on ASR do a lot of measurements but they make an impression that they do not listen to anything.
    Almost like they think that if two DACs, amps etc measure the same they must sound the same.They found out that Bryston BDA-2 measurements are like Topping D30 and the questions were: why would you buy BDA-2? My answer is just put those two DACs in the same system and listen. And yes, comparing to BDA-2 D30 sounds a bit ... like crap. Listening for sound stage, instrument separation, etc is not purely subjective and I do not believe that you can exactly measure it.
    You will find plenty of of measurements on SBAF but even more listening impressions, and they are a lot of fun.

    1. Thanks for the note Andrzej :-).

      Ultimately, it is about the listening of course! The hardware serves the listener and hopefully the listener/audiophile is educated enough that he/she can pick and choose what is best for him/herself based on the underlying intent which is personal and even philosophical as noted in this article.

      Intriguing debate about the Topping D30 in any event :-). Will keep my eyes open!

    2. SBAF is a joke. And yes, if the Bryston and the Topping measure the same, I expect a DBT will confirm they sound the same. Sighted listening tests are as useful as homeopathic medicine. With which they share a lot, btw.

    3. Jeff Ryan, you realize that your expectation that if two DACs measure the same they will sound the same is pure faith. You do not have statistically significant sample of DB tests showing that the DACs that measure the same sound the same. It is hard to be condescending and right at the same time. Try harder.

    4. I'm not making the claim that DACs with identical (or close enough) measurements will sound different. That's an extraordinary claim, so the burden of proof is on you.

    5. Now we ware getting somewhere: you did not read or comprehend what I wrote.
      I wrote that two specific DACs that, according to ASR, measured the same did not sound the same. Very different, and not even at the same logical level, as the statement that all DACs that measure the same must sound the same.
      What I wrote is not a generic statement. I, and the owner of Topping D30, were listening to both DACs focusing on sound stage and instrument separation, and we both agreed they were very different. You dismissed it out of hand on the basis that all DACs that measure the same must sound the same, and the only way it can be established that there are differences in sound would be to do DBT. That is a generic statement, I have no idea how you can know that, and therefore it is not even interesting. Or valid for that matter. Critical listening is not entirely natural, it is in a way a learnt skill, and let me give you an example how you can start:
      JS Bach wrote Orgelbüchlein BWV599-644, 45 pieces for organ, one of them is Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ. Then Aaron Copland wrote his famous book: What to listen for in music. One of the exercises he suggests is to listen to four voices in Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesu Christ separately, then listen again to the piece and do it until you really can hear each voice and hear how they interact to deliver the stunning experience that this piece is. We, me and my friend, did it with D30 and BDA-2 in the same setting, listening specifically for instrument separation and sound stage. The differences were obvious to both of us: on BDA-2 the four voices were easier to separate, there was space between them. On D30 they were blending together, at times impossible to separate. If you are saying that it is impossible to hear that, well you have a lot of listening to do.

    6. As a matter of proper testing, sighted listening (where you can see the components under test) are of no (or quite limited) value. If you and your friend could see the DACs, and know which is which while testing, your test is invalid.

      This is Science 101. This is why drug companies must test under double-blind conditions, and the same goes for listening tests. Unless your test was double-blind, your results mean nothing.

      To state that two DACs that measure the same nonetheless sound different is an extraordinary claim. (I expect you didn't match levels within .1 dB, either.) Double-blind testing is the gold standard, and I see nothing indicating you tested that way. Two guys sitting around listening to two components that you can see while testing means nothing. If you know which DAC you're listening to at any given time, the test results are invalid. Sorry.

      When you make an extraordinary claim, it is your burden to prove it. So far, based on what you've written, you haven't.

    7. "This is Science 101. This is why drug companies must test under double-blind conditions, and the same goes for listening tests."
      this ends it, I have never seen so much nonsense in one sentence.

    8. You're entitled to your opinion. You're not entitled to your own facts.

    9. Well boys, this is interesting...

      Looks like I might have to get myself a Topping D30 to hear/see what's going on with this device.

      Admittedly, it's a rather old-skool Cirrus CS4398 DAC first released in 2005. Not exactly a highly desirable device in the face of many other good DACs out there!

    10. CS4398 is the DAC chip used in Creative's X-Fi Elite Pro (2005). iXBT (the maker of RMAA) has a very detailed review of it:

      It contains measurements from Audio Precision and self-loop (ADC: AK5394AVS). The results are great even by today's standard.

      X-Fi Elite Pro is a PCI card with breakout box. The highest quality DAC/ADC are on the card (SB0550) itself, the breakout box (SB0510) also has discrete converters, but not as good as the ones on the card. Here is a teardown of the box from a Taiwanese reviewer:

      The whole thing costs $400 at that time and all X-Fi cards utilize the CA20Kx DSP support multiclient ASIO, hardware monitoring and DSP effects like the PCI(E) interfaces from EMU.

      Therefore if you are going to try the Topping D30, I am expecting at least similar measured quality as the X-Fi Elite Pro, otherwise I would consider it a fail. The Topping is cheaper, but it is only a simple USB DAC and it is also much newer.

      Long before the rise of USB DACs Creative and Asus have some serious RMAA competition and that's why those old consumer soundcards are also equipped with flagship ADCs so that customers can reproduce the RMAA results themselves. RMAA's website is still offering step-by-step pdf guides from Asus and Creative.

    11. Thanks Dtmer!

      You are a fount of computer audio card knowledge. Great to review those results from back in the day.

      Particularly enjoy the ixbtlabs comparison of AP results with what they got using the loopback!

    12. Thanks. Needless to say I am always skeptical about manufacturer claimed specs. The AP logo is not very meaningful to me unless I also have an AP myself. I measured the output of a cheaper X-Fi XtremeMusic (SB0460, $128, DA: CS4382, AD: WM8775) using the input of X-Fi Titanium HD PCIE card released in 2010 (SB1270, $170, DA: PCM1794, AD: PCM4220),104556.msg858334.html#msg858334
      As you can see Creative and iXBT are not lying about the specs of my SB0460.

      PC enthusiasts often care about reproducible benchmarks, CPU/GPU/memory/storage... all have dedicated benchmarking suites. Audio is no different for PC enthusiasts. Benchmarks are not everything but without benchmark there is nothing. I like and do listening tests with proper control but it is not easy to persuade others to do the same with honesty.

      I like the term "audio jewellery". Once transparency is achieved, higher price or better measured performance is irrelevant to human hearing but in the world of traditional jewellery (e.g. gemology), authentication also requires scientific knowledge, not some bold claims without proof.

    13. Great work with the measurements, Bennet.

      LOL. Your analogy with gemology made me laugh :-).

      Imagine going into the local jeweller with a diamond you bought for your future wife hoping to get an appraisal of "value" for insurance purposes... The guy doesn't use the standard AGS/GIA scale. The guy takes the stone and puts it to uncontrolled incandescent light, says the color is "awesome" and he "sees" it as "colorless". Doesn't have a magnification instrument and puts down that he thinks the clarity is a little "veiled" and the cut is "one of the best I have seen" without bothering to measure dimensions... Furthermore, he has no precise digital scale and just holds it in his hands claiming it's "1 carat" in weight.

      Subjective evaluation at it's best. ;-) In no other technologically-based hobby would this kind of "mainstream" evaluation be acceptable. No wonder audiophiles get a bad reputation.

      Of course, whether one's girl friend/fiancee/wife/partner subjectively likes the stone you bought is a more idiosyncratic choice. But one person's opinion should not necessarily be of particular concern to the evaluator trying to be balanced and unbiased.

  13. Hi Archie. The CS4398 is a surprisingly good DAC chip that still holds against a lot of actual chips. Yes actual high end chips have a bit lower noise floors, but the CS4398 behaves very good in the transition between delta sigma and multi bit modulator, has a good balance with a mixture of linear phase and minimum phase filter, with good behavior concerning intersample overloads, with low THD in the important – 10 to – 30 dBFS area. In Sum: Still a good sounding DAC chip that also still measures well. “Only” a bit jitter sensitive, as it runs in synchronous mode. Juergen

    1. Hey Juergen!
      Hope you're having a good summer!

      Thanks for the note. It really does along with Dtmer's post and links above remind us of the quality of DACs these days and how far technically we have achieved already in the last 15-20 years or so since the advent of hi-res audio from the early days of SACD/DVD-A to now.

  14. "...the aim of audio equipment when it comes to its basic function of achieving "high fidelity" is to preserve what is on the recording, nothing more."

    And how about looking at it from a neurological point of view? Your claim above is just an attempt at a logical explanation of what actually goes on, namely the releasing of endorphines in the brain/hormone system. The correct claim would IMO be: "The aim of audio equipment when it comes to its basic function of achieving "high fidelity" is to have as many endorphines as possible released into the system."