Saturday, 28 August 2021

SUMMER MUSINGS: On the dreaded "Digital Glare" in audio, and conversely, exaggerated analogue evangelism.


A reader E-mailed me the other day asking about what I thought of the dreaded "digital glare" because it was mentioned by a "more subjective reviewer" he was also connecting with.

Basically, I don't believe "glare" exists as a generalizable phenomenon that is somehow special to digital audio. Rather, my guess over the years on how some audiophiles started using this term is that many of the early CDs (not necessarily subsequent remasters) did sound overly bright and harsh. As much as I love the music on The Nightfly (Donald Fagen, 1982), Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms (1985), Dead or Alive's Youthquake (1985), OMD's Organization (1980, 1985 CD release), Culture Club's Kissing To Be Clever (1982, ?1984 CD), ABBA's The Visitors (1981, 1983 CD release), despite excellent dynamic range, the sound of these albums are just "bright", too "thin", a bit "glassy". Perhaps some of this also has to do with the synthetic instrumentation and studio techniques of the time.

For many of these recordings, it appears that the deep bass has been attenuated, but most egregious sonically for me is the "piercing" treble overemphasis especially of synths, and percussions like cymbals and snares; not to the point of a literal inability to appreciate/enjoy the music, though it does result in fatigue over prolonged listening. At least for the Fagen and Dire Straits, this has always been associated in my mind with the sound of the early digital recording process itself. Though many early rock and pop CDs had that kind of sound, things got better within the next 5 years and by the late '80s, even pop like Rick Astley's Whenever You Need Somebody** from 1987 and Rod Stewart's Out Of Order in 1988 were significantly improved. Having said this, some mainstream pure digital recordings from the late '80s like Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session (1988, see this interesting Soundstage! video) remained bright, has noisy "air", and Margo Timmins' vocals are sibilant on tracks like "Misguided Angel" (interesting that Guttenberg highlighted this album in vinyl, describing as sounding like "you were actually there" - yes digital can do that, no surprise). You might recall from comments elsewhere that back in those early days, many ADCs and DACs were simply also incapable of true 16-bit resolution.

At least for the Fagen album, there is some corroboration of this sonic limitation by the engineer - see this excellent article on Audiophile Style by JoshM. Notice the discussion about how the 3M digital recorder was said to be "incredibly bright" perhaps related to the avoidance of the machine's dithering (which upped the noise floor too much).

I have wondered if another source of the brightness and harshness may have been erroneous handling of pre-emphasis in early CD pressings. I mentioned this possibility previously when talking about how to manage digital pre-emphasis in CD rips.

Once we hit the early '90s, the CD sound became consistently more tonally natural especially from some of the boutique labels. Audiophile "classics" like Rebecca Pidgeon's The Raven sounded excellent by 1994 as a standout album, I'm sure in no small part thanks to Bob Katz's mastering work.

I suspect that opponents to digital audio (for whatever personal anachronistic reasons) latched on to the the sound of some of the early digital recordings and just ran with it, creating the impression that this is somehow emblematic of a problem with digital in general for all time.

Folks like Neil Young (as per his usual exaggerated fashion) came on the attack like in this 1992 quote from the 2002 book Shakey: Neil Young's Biographyspeaking about his belief about digital sound since 1985:

"—I notice I can’t listen to as much music on CD.

Right. It hurts. Did you ever go in a shower and turn it on and have it come out tiny little ice cubes? That’s the difference between CDs and the real thing—water and ice. It’s like gettin’ hit with somethin’ instead of havin’ it flow over ya. It’s almost taking music and making a weapon out of it—do physical damage to people without touching them. If you wanted to make a weapon that would destroy people, digital could do it, okay?"
Sometimes this shaky (pun intended) rationale for the "digital glare" is attached to the erroneous mention of digital audio being represented as stair-stepped waveforms, echoes of which have followed in how Young misrepresents digital audio as if they're sharp "pixels" (here's an example from 2015 during his promotion of the short-lived Pono). [Yes, as discussed previously, I know some audiophiles and manufacturers seem to prefer stair-stepped playback as with NOS DACs.]

While Neil Young might be talking about analogue including master tapes, a vinyl adherent ("evangelist") like Michael Fremer likewise may have a clear agenda in his audiophile magazine articles, often taking on the mantle of some kind of prophet as the world went digital while he expanded on the same themes and exaggerated on how awful digital sounded (to him) in typical hysterical fashion. For example, it's bizarre that he's OK with digital-to-vinyl but not direct CD playback. There is one very reasonable interpretation to that kind of sound preference - he simply likes the EQ, noises and distortions added by the vinyl pressing process and in his playback chain. There's nothing wrong with that of course, but it isn't high-fidelity reproduction, just be honest with the reader (and himself maybe?)!



Notice how he claims he got a bumper sticker that said "Compact discs sound terrible" and started his "campaign that very week"; apparently all from the first time he heard an early pressing of Roxy Music's Avalon (1982)! Hmmm, if you take his words at face value, it seems like his mind was made up very early. This is a sign not of an open mind, but a man who pretty much had a mission from the start (one can read this with a religious connotation, just like "evangelist" - we might talk about that another time). Sorry, but he's like a cartoonish caricature playing out his part for the Industry, and a certain audience.

No folks, vinyl did not win any "war" as the video suggests. As far as the masses of music lovers are concerned (including for myself), PCM-based digital streaming has won the war when it comes to consumption and sheer amount of enjoyment to be had from recorded music. Vinyl and its associated hardware I think is a format that will come in and out of fashion over time as young folks try out something novel, older folks buy for sentimental value, and some making purchases as collectors' items. Vinyl I think will have a tendency to grow in popularity during times of excess and conspicuous consumption, but shrinking in market share at other times.

By the way, I've observed from friends and young folks that have gotten into vinyl over the years that as the novelty fades (usually by a couple of years), there is a realization that sound quality isn't all it's idealized to be even if they've been sold on the "digital glare" claim and as the burden of LP playback eventually results in a return to the norm of digital audio consumption. Not to mention the cost of new LPs these days! A minority might end up loving the ritual of LP playback, but the majority I've seen find it tedious, especially the disappointment when hit with warps, scratches, and manufacturing imperfections (eg. off-center pressings) of the LPs themselves.

While I think there might still be a little bit more in the vinyl gas tank to push this current resurgence, I suspect the vinyl unit and dollar sales numbers will tell the tale through 2022 and 2023 as fatigue sets in (maybe we'll have upcoming SUMMER MUSINGS about this in those years ;-).

When it comes to vinyl playback hardware, we don't see measurements these days for turntables and cartridges often. This is a shame because I think modern audiophiles do need reminders of what the technology is doing. For example, compare the flat frequency response and high channel separation (low stereo crosstalk) of almost any CD player with measurements from a vinyl cartridge such as this 2017 review of the Shure M97xE phono cartridge on Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity. Or look at the poor audible time-domain performance of turntables in general as they rotate at the typical 33.3rpm (discussed here). Maybe it is just a given that "everybody" knows that analogue products measure quite poorly, and some folks simply like the stuff regardless; I see this as Fremer's stance, not that he has any special hearing ability nor particularly clear insights about high-fidelity sound (I do enjoy his music reviews however).

I think that something as basic as the frequency response for expensive cartridges like this X-quisite asking north of US$10k should at least be examined in reviews. Sometimes measurements are not just for folks interested in purchasing a device, but can also be helpful if one were to ever doubt the quality of what was purchased and want to measure and compare the performance with what's published - just in case one might have purchased a dud.

One more thing about vinyl... I noticed that the video above was taken at AXPONA 2015. I would encourage people if they have a chance to visit audio shows to have a listen for themselves the differences between digital vs. analogue playback especially with highly-resolving systems. The difference is often not subtle. Since some in the audiophile world idealizes vinyl like that video above (they're trying to make a sale), typically they won't talk about negatives. In reality, as one would expect, the noise level and other distortions of vinyl can be obviously distracting and can diminish the experience of what should be excellent sounding rooms/gear!

I have asked sales reps at audio shows on more than a couple of times to please switch over to digital from noisy, poor resolution records (like at RMAF 2019). I don't recall any company rep ever hesitating to make the switch especially when they see the audience might be getting a little tired of those vinyl distortions.

A fun comparison of vinyl vs. digital... :-) Qualitatively, LPs are less resolving, have less dynamic range, less stereo separation, but have their charms. I find the whole hobby of LP-playback also a more solitary pursuit IMO with all its maintenance and cleaning, Unless you're a DJ spinning wax, I think parties are better with a digital playlist and dance music with lots of deep bass content (a vinyl limitation).

These days, the technical standard to beat for audio playback is clearly hi-res digital (like 24/96 and beyond). As discussed before, other than our dogs and cats at home who probably could tell the difference between 96kHz and one downsampled to 16/44.1 with ease, there's little "need" for hi-res even though I still would not mind having the objectively better digital data when warranted as expressed way back in 2013. "Digital glare" simply was never really a major issue other than in the minds of those who were looking for an excuse to not like digital, believing that quantization of the analogue "must" sound a certain way. Yes, many early CDs did not sound good. Did very early LP releases all sound great?

CD sound quality has progressed far, and I trust these days audio engineers have no problem aiming for natural-sounding albums if they want to. For example, I would say that the majority of classical albums sound great these days, and rock/pop would be better if they didn't dynamically compress so much on so many albums.

Ultimately, it's the skills and intents of the artists and recording engineers that make the most difference to the final sound. In the 21st Century, we have all the tools needed in the digital realm to create, store, and recreate any sound audible to human ears. The particular digital "format" whether it be CD or hi-res, is of a secondary matter. When I listen to music, I prefer accurate tonality, good dynamic range, and low distortions (especially classical, acoustic jazz). These days, my few LP purchases are mainly for sentimental reasons and collectability of the items (packaging, artwork which I try to keep in top condition) rather than the music on the vinyl, which I prefer to enjoy as digital playback.

** My kids told me the other day that "Never Gonna Give You Up" on YouTube surpassed 1 billion views. The '80s are back, baby! ;-)

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

Spending some time out in Calgary with family this week. I used to live here until Y2K, on my, how the city has grown over the years:

A view of the Bow River and a bit of downtown Calgary, Canada. Peace Bridge in view.

Given travel restrictions during the pandemic, a wonderful year to check out the great outdoors...

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park. Glacial waters.

Athabasca Glacier at Columbia Icefields, Jasper National Park. As with basically every glacier in the world, this one is receding at an incredible ~70-100'/year. Less than 1/2 the length of mid-1800's now. And clearly smaller than the last time I was here in 2000. :-(

I hope everyone is staying safe and all the while enjoying the music!

30 comments:

  1. Thanks Archimago! Interesting thoughts and nice pictures!

    Regarding the sound of early CDs, besides the emphasis, there were also issues with recordings themselves. Considering "Brothers in Arms" for example, if you read Paul McGowan's "99% true" book, the recording engineer used one of the first digital tape recorders. Since he was using the same approach he used to for analog recorders—keeping the levels close to the red sector on the VU meter, for better SNR—they have got a lot of clipping. They had to fix clipping artefacts by passing the recording back and forth through Neve mixing console, which I guess created sort of a gentle low-pass filter. I imagine that a lot of early digital recordings could share similar stories.

    Considering all that analog equipment story, I agree that LPs are more for nostalgic reasons. I myself bought a couple of early Alan Parsons Project albums I found at a second hand store, purely out of sentimental reasons. But they can sound really well, too, despite all the technical limitations. I have enjoyed the samples from this Stereophile post: https://www.analogplanet.com/content/listen-sats-original-pickup-arm-and-compare-it-new-lm-09-and-cf1-09, although frankly I couldn't tell a difference between the samples from a quick listening session.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, this is how it worked. Comparing to tape you had to limit peaks by 10-15 dB. You can overload the tape for a short period of time, but not DAT. Similar story for the bottom. Distortion in tape recorders follows the signal amplitude and goes down with amplitude going down, also it is 2-5 harmonics (like in speakers), so masking works here too. Using DAT you are fighting not tape noise, but increasing high order harmonics. You can’t go lower than -50 dB when recording, so including compressor in front of the DAT recorder solves the issue. And yes, it resulted less distorted records compare to tape (if engineer was familiar with new tools), but kind of flat or annoying in long run. I don’t buy the thesis about euphoric low order harmonics associated with analog process. With the same success, you can say that compressors and limiters are impacting digital process and a lot off people euphorically accepted it as a new digital. CD players were introduced to marked as 97.8 dB device, but sounded like 35-37 dB. Yes, sounded “laud and clean” without familiar vinyl limitations. You can argue that a lot of improvements were made, CD is dead and vinyl comes with digital download code. I fully agree, but compressors and limiters are still in place and this is how finally digital sounds if we are in generalizations :)

      Delete
    2. Thanks Mikhail and Nobody,
      Appreciate bringing into the discussion that importance of the lack of familiarity of early "pioneers" with the technology and the more graceful analogue tape as levels got into the red zone.

      Great information on DAT and the dynamic range challenges on both the top and low end with recordings.

      Delete
  2. To Fremer's credit, he complains about CD, not digital in general.
    He has even said that some hi-res versions of albums sound better than vinyl.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah Unknown, I certainly accept that he recognizes to some extent the quality of digital and that hi-res is better than vinyl...

      (BTW: If you have a link to where he says this, it would be good to read.)

      I think his very quick dismissal of CD itself is in error however. And the years of extreme comments made against CD (and often just "digital" in general) does need to be addressed.

      Delete
  3. Roon recently recommended Supertramp, "The Ultimate Hits of...". Seemed very bright to me. I thought I had the wrong EQ profile for the headphones I was using. Back at the time when those hits came out that was style. Supertramp, Styx, Yes, ..., lot's of emphasis on the more piercing sounds. I guess that's what was intended by the producers and engineers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the note Doug,
      I looked around and saw this entry for "The Ultimate Hits Of..." Supertramp:
      https://www.qobuz.com/au-en/album/the-ultimate-hits-of-supertramp/tqivydv12le5b

      Not seeing it on my Apple Music here.

      Yeah, I think just like changes in societal preferences (looking at what models of "beauty" looked like over the generations) there must also be an analogous phenomenon in the sound of recordings; producers and engineers targeting the output.

      Technological limitations (source format, speaker abilities) must also factor into this as well...

      Delete
  4. My experience has sometimes been that an improvement in playback (equipment or other) can reveal flaws in recordings. Back in the day, I'd even find that some LPs were improved subjectively by dubbing on cassette (or open reel at 3.75 ips.)
    Have fun in old Alberty, my home province. Many peak experiences to be had there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey there Phil,
      Yup lots of great stuff out in "Alberty" ;-).

      For sure, subjectively we can change the sound with manipulations of various sorts including "lossy" copies. That's cool of course.

      Just hope audiophiles will be insightful enough to make sure not to get to the point of insisting that lower-res formats like LPs are "best" quality (which is misinformation) or worse, try to push ideals like analogue recordings have "infinite resolution"; looks like Fremer had to walk back some of this kind of nonsense talk back in 1996:
      https://www.analogplanet.com/content/analog-corner-7

      Absolutely, old master tapes should be archived with hi-res 24/96+ to make sure to capture everything. But no need for concern on the consumer side with high quality resampling and dithering to CD or 16/44.1 files...

      Delete
  5. Listen to the first Tracy Chapman, entirely recorded on Digital Multitracks (Mitsubishi gear).
    Track as Mountain'o'Things is quite vivid and very precise, the percussion track per Paulinho da Costa is very well recorded with many little details.

    Neil Young- Freedom it's also a full digital recording.
    Crime in the City, is an another good exemple of digital recording propely done.

    Concerning the analog tape archiving, the classical recording industry recommend 192kHz or 176.4kHz.
    You want to capture the full bandwith and having more sample per seconds is a must for editing.


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Blogue,
      Thanks for examples of other digital albums. I've certainly found the first Tracy Chapman album from 1988 a wonderful companion on many a road trips and plane flights! And yup, it certainly sounds excellent without whatever "glare" some people claim.

      Yeah, certainly if I were in audio production, 32/192 would be just great to get the highest quality for editing and archiving. On the consumer side, a 24/96 version would be fantastic for fans even though 16/44.1 or 16/48 would be great already...

      Delete
  6. Every now and then I read about some insanely priced turntable and think, who can be buying these things? We now have one that costs $450k. Yes, nearly half a million! https://www.stereophile.com/content/techdas-air-force-zero-turntable

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey AudioSceptic,
      I saw that review yesterday on the TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable. I dunno what to say initially other than "that's a lot of money to put into something that can only extract so much quality out of spinning pieces of plastic".

      If we have a look at the speed test, we see the truth of the time domain performance. Compare that to my old Technics SL-1200M3D:
      https://archimago.blogspot.com/2014/08/measurements-technics-sl-1200-m3d-wow.html

      Mean frequency is off more than the Technics (target 3150Hz), and the range of raw frequency deviation is even wider (about 20Hz!). If we were to listen to that test being performed, it would be obvious just how unable a $450k turn table would be in maintaining frequency stability off a test disk (which typically would be more precisely pressed than a run-of-the-mill LP).

      And some people complain of jitter in digital ;-). What a joke, and the punch line isn't funny. Fremer was a comedian, right?

      On a more serious note perhaps, let's take a step back and recognize what this is. It's basically a glorified toy aimed at boys (likely) who have everything else. Unlike a high-tech sports car with its acceleration and top speed figures that can hang with the best and fastest out there, this thing barely posts up decent wow and flutter performance. An example of a company extracting money among those few willing to spend and consider something like this as "cool". Certainly not in my eyes...

      IMO, this is supremely poor value with little "utilitarian benefit". I think it's appropriate for many audiophiles (just look at those comments) to experience a feeling of disgust when reading that review or thinking about such a monstrosity.

      Delete
    2. Yes, with “The new, multistep drive system begins with a sensor that communicates platter speed to the micro-processor. The desired rotation frequency is synthesized by a "Direct Digital Synthesizer" (DDS) with reference to a crystal oscillator. Each motor phase is driven by its own 50W power amplifier” and
      “On the bottom of the stack is a 15¾", 80lb platter made of nonmagnetic forged stainless steel; above that is a 43.5lb, 12.2" platter made from the same material; the drive belt, which is made of "polished and non flexible polyurethane fiber" and isn't stretchy, wraps around this platter. Above that is a 40lb, 12.2" platter made of cast gunmetal, a form of bronze. The platter second from the top is also stainless steel. It weighs 48.5lb.
      The top platter comes in two versions. The standard version is titanium with a "special surface hardening treatment." It weighs 13lb. For an extra $50,000, you can get a tungsten top platter that weighs 50lb.”
      this monstrosity can only manage such mediocre speed measurements. It must take a special talent to manage that with a total platter mass of 262 lb!

      Someone (I can’t remember who) once said that, given enough money, any engineer can make something good, but what’s hard is to make something as good as the current best for less money, or make something better for the same money. The TechDAS is the best example of the absolute opposite of good engineering that I know of.

      Delete
    3. Wow.

      Thanks for the quote there man. I think my eyes glazed over when I saw how many pounds this and how many pounds that... and just went on to the next paragraph.

      It's so ridiculous just to basically spin a piece of something like 130-180g plastic at 33.3rpm precisely and without too much vibration.

      Delete
  7. Ha! My audiophile buddy and I have long joked about the audiophile trope of "glare." Though we usually refer to "midrange glare." So when one of us gets some new piece of equipment the other often asks "Did it solve your midrange glare?" Or if one is in a bad mood the inquiry is made "Midrange glare, again?" :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Vaal,
      We could go with the unholy trinity of supposed digital ills:
      - midrange glare
      - digital noise
      - "blurring" jitter


      Never mind if anyone can prove these things! Just follow Neil Young and Michael Fremer's ears. ;-)

      Delete
  8. I agree with the general thrust of this article. The b.s. technical tropes trotted out by vinyl evangelists need to be countered with real understanding of the technical qualities of each medium.

    So why would an audiophile actually also enjoy, or even often prefer, the sound of records on his system?

    I started adding vinyl to my collection again several years ago because, with the revival, plenty of new vinyl was now being produced, especially many of my favorite soundtracks, with beautiful packaging and aesthetics.

    I found that opening up a brand new LP, with gorgeous artwork, holding it in my hands, and pulling out pristine new vinyl, was a real kick. Previously "vinyl records" always meant dusty old record shops or my own left over collection of moth-eaten albums. But buying modern-made vinyl revitalized buying and owning vinyl for me, and it offered tactile, aesthetic pleasures I wasn't getting from digital streaming (which as it was available everywhere I went, felt more disposable).

    Eventually I'd bought enough records that, being an audiophile, it was time to upgrade my vinyl playback. I ended up with a high-mass design Transrotor Fat Bob turntable and a Benz Micro Ebony L cartridge. Sonically it was something of an epiphany. I couldn't believe how good my records sounded, even my old records.


    I'm not a fan of record noise. I cringe at articles that rapture over the "nostalgia of the pop and crackle of a record." I want as low record noise as I can get. At the same time I'm no doubt more tolerant of record noise than some other people, who run to digital partly for it's absence of such noise.

    But when I'm listening to music on my system it's not the utter absence of noise I'm concerned with, or the absolute limit of dynamics. It's the general sensation of presence, texture, density, punch, imaging, richness, organic quality of the sound. That's what turns my crank, and I get a lot of that from my vinyl records. Basically, in those terms, and given the inherent variability of source quality whether digital or vinyl, I find my sonic "wow" factor isn't determined by whether I'm listening to my digital or vinyl music, it's mostly determined by the quality of the recording/production. And then it can be tipped slightly one way or the other due to the medium. For instance I got the vinyl version of a long beloved Everything But The Girl album I'd played endlessly on CD, and even though the vinyl version came from meticulous mastering from original tapes, I still found myself preferring the clarity and timbral precision of the CD version.

    On the other hand, when I got the updated vinyl releases of the classic Rush albums I was blown away by the sound through my system. I'd been listening to the digital versions forever and NEVER remember them sounding so vivid, so punchy, like it's just bursting through my speakers, and like I can hear Peart's drums cutting through so easily. When I cued up both the digital and the vinyl versions to compare it turned out...yeah...it seems I wasn't imaging it because the digital versions really did come off as more opaque sounding, more flat, more homogenized, less energetic, less "real" to my ears. Not by a huge factor mind you but there were subtle, distinct differences I favoured in the vinyl that built up to a significant subjective preference.

    So these days I find myself actually listening to more vinyl than digital, yet also find myself whispering "wow" under my breath at sonic fireworks as often as I ever have with my digital source. Someone else zeroing in on different criteria may of course have a different listening experience.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the complex, nuanced comment Vaal!

      Great that you've gotten back to the vinyl system and have been meticulous in your upgrades and selection of LPs.

      I certainly believe that there is a rewarding experience that we feel when we pick up a pristine LP and can be "blown away" at the experience of how a technology like that can still bring so much listening quality! Likewise, the packaging with some of the new releases is fantastic compared to digging through the used crates at some musty corner record store (which is often not a pleasant experience here in the dark, wet Vancouver winters ;-).

      Ultimately, yeah, it's in the quality of the production and the master we're listening to that determines so much of the subjective quality of whether we determine the sound to be "good".

      Enjoy!

      Delete
  9. Great stuff! First, I think you're right that the issues on early CDs come partly straight from the musicians. Consider "Brothers in Arms" - the title track and "The Man's Too Strong" have no sharp edges to my ears and I've used them as examples of tracks that you can turn up to frightening, crushing volumes and still have happy ears.

    I was pretty surprised at you criticizing "The Trinity Session" - I thought my view that this is one of the all-time wonderful-sounding recordings was pretty mainstream. (Never heard the vinyl.)

    The "Avalon" CD for me is the canonical example of pretty wonderful music ruined by a screechy recording. (Never heard any other format.)

    There's only one record I can think of where I'd argue that the LP beats the CD. That's Sunn O)))'s recent "Life Metal". Mind you, an unusual sonic palette.

    Thanks for the musings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the suggestion on the Sunn O))), Tim.

      Yeah, I'd probably need to get myself mentally ready for the genre :-).

      As for The Trinity Session, no question that there's a lot to like on that album. It's open, expansive, "airy", etc. I just find that the vocal EQ is a bit too sharp, sibilant on some of the tracks - like "Misguided Angel" and "200 More Miles" among others on the album.

      Delete
    2. Oh man Tim,
      Just had a look at "Life Metal" - CD DR2!

      Wondering did the LP use a more dynamic master?

      Delete
  10. Framer has at least been drawing attention recently to the shocking production quality of some of these $10k hand-made cartridges, showing pictures of styli sitting skew to the cantilever. Of course, he doesn’t name names, but this just suggests that such poor quality control is endemic to these products. Anyone considering buying a ‘high-end’ cartridge is probably not going to be reading your blog, but I’d suggest they also budget for a high-quality microscope so they can check their purchase.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Charles,
      That's good that he's pointing to the concerns around build quality. That totally sucks at these kinds of nonsense prices for playback technology of such inherently limited quality! Not only should it not easily break, but the styli should really be made of unobtanium at this price point as well. ;-)

      Whether those who buy this stuff would ever happen on this blog or not doesn't really matter. I'd like to think that the audience is just "audiophiles" in general; most of whom I believe are reasonable, rational human beings who are passionate about music and playback gear, hopefully as sick and tired as I am about being basically being lied to with many companies selling fantasies and scams. And of course a mainstream "press" that finds themselves typically within the intended delusional orbits of such companies and unable to speak truth these days.

      If the trajectory of "grass roots" audiophiles turn away from the nonsense, then the "culture" over time will also turn and at some point, silly stuff like $400k+ turntables would appear as objects of disgust rather than desire...

      Perhaps most of us are already there.

      Delete
  11. One of the first CD's I've ever bought was Ry Cooder's Bop Till You Drop, which is one of the first digitally recorded pop albums. The CD sounds fabulous, the only thing missing appears to be deep bass. I've never had an issue with the sound of CD's, to me they typically sound a lot better than their LP equivalents.

    As to Neil Young, I'm a fan of his music but not of his position about audio quality. On Harvest, there's a tape drop-out in The Needle and the Damage Done that mr. Young wasn't able to correct in most editions of that album that I'm aware of. If you're that serious about quality, at least ensure you put out albums without glaring errors, I'd say.

    To me, the CD still is the carrier with the best possible audio quality, it's just a shame that due to the still raging loudness war a lot of that potential is squandered.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi The RA,
      I'll have a listen to Bop later tonight on Apple Music. I just had a look at the WiKi page and it says:
      "The album was the first digitally recorded major-label album in popular music. Bop Till You Drop was recorded on a digital 32-track machine built by 3M."

      Cool. Nice little audiophile trivia I didn't know about! One of the links is interesting:
      https://www.mixonline.com/technology/1978-3m-digital-audio-mastering-system-377974

      3M 16/50 digital system on 45ips 1" tape. ADC 12-bit + 8-bit converters. Similar system as The Nightfly. Brothers In Arms used Sony's 24-track 16/44 DASH system - apparently with pre-emphasis applied from the start.

      While I still have many of my LP rips, overall, unless the CD is dynamically crushed, I prefer the digital as well. I'm still blown away that in the video world, "HDR" is a thing and is promoted as desirable... But in the audio world, it's like the artists have no idea what it is nor are there many champions for high dynamics (other than a few audio engineers and us audio geeks); even the audiophile press for the most part stays silent.

      AARP claims that hearing loss is "America's silent and growing epidemic":
      https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-2018/hearing-loss-epidemic.html

      Maybe that's why so many people like their music CONSTANTLY LOUD.

      Delete
  12. Hi Unknown,
    Yeah, good question and one I haven't seen answered well. I suspect there are a number of answers depending on what music and which hardware a person is using. I typically think of 2 major factors:

    1. Excessive "brightness":
    - forgetting to de-emphasize the playback
    - poor mastering, EQ unnatural
    - poor frequency response with hardware ("harsh" speakers anyone?)
    - could be very idiosyncratic... if I always listened to say LP playback with a "pleasant" cartridge that rolled-off above 10kHz, then a flat frequency response might not be my preference.

    2. Excessive distortion:
    - modern "DR5" and worse recordings are typically terrible for me and I generally cannot tolerate them for long. Many have clipped samples, sound unnatural. Especially for vocals that get muddied (along with whatever background instrumentation). This is way worse than harmonic distortion.
    - This is where sometimes LPs are mastered with more dynamic range and can be superior to the CD/hi-res. For example my LP version of Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication sounds much more tolerable than the CD - and one can clearly tell that they didn't push it too loud.
    - Obviously hardware can play a role here but these days, I think it's less of an issue assuming one has decent gear.

    My suspicion is that if frequency response, tonality tends toward neutral/natural and the music is recorded/mastered with low distortion, natural dynamics (you know, the singer isn't SHOUTING all the time) I don't think most of us will be "fatigued" - unless we don't like the music of course. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  13. BTW: If anyone knows of an actual research "study" looking at the topic of human perception and "fatigue", I'd love to know how this can be scientifically/empirically defined and measured...

    ReplyDelete
  14. I wonder if the perception that CDs have glare also originates from the fact that all digital formats stand a better chance at storing and replicating the high end compared to analog equivalents. You touched on this with the comment about preferring the imperfections of vinyl, but considering that fancy audio formats get sold as THE WAY IT'S MEANT TO BE HEARD, it would amuse me if the thing they do not like is actually based on an accurate representation of the master.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I remember many years ago reading somewhere that some of the early 80's CD masters were created not from the original masters, but from tape copies intended for vinyl mastering, hence, with a compensated eq for the inerent losses of the lacquer cutting lathes.
    Also, even in the analogue domain, 30 IPS recording was all the rage by the 80s, and these machines had (i) a much better transient response and (ii) the head bump shifted to higher bass frequencies, so a much less "warm" result.
    Anyway, some of these old CD masters do sound much better than more recent squashed remasters, provided you apply some downward tilt eq.
    Keep on your excelent work!

    ReplyDelete