The Internet is wonderful, isn't it?!
In the span of a few decades, we can all make our presence known to the far corners of the world and express (almost) anything we want whether it's sharing what we had for lunch, whether we're "available", our political/moral/ethical affiliations, or even esoteric blog topics. 🤪
Even better, we can project sounds and videos on YouTube and the like, opening up the opportunity to reach others though a modern "boob tube" where instead of the TV station programmer telling us what to watch next, good-ol' YouTube algorithms choose what we might desire from tracked search preferences. Amazing, if not also creepy...
Of course, if we have an entrepreneurial spirit, one could receive great rewards. Monetization potential can be impressive as witnessed by some of the elaborate content on YouTube channels! That's great so long as we're seeing knowledgeable, verifiable content presented in fair ways that can help teach and promote understanding. Not so great when information is perpetuating falsehoods, potentially destructive conspiracies and propaganda.
For this post, let's talk about something we've seen presented over the years on a number of audio channels. There is at least an implied idea out there, thanks to YouTube, we can now "hear" the sound quality of an audiophile system. Furthermore, that we can make comparisons of the sound quality. Is this true?
Over the recent holidays, a reader E-mailed me after seeing a series of A/B blind listening videos he came across and wanted to both vent as well as just talk about the problems of these kinds of tests. He is right to be concerned! Of course audio presented over YouTube as if representative of "hi-fi" sounds would be highly questionable.
He specifically pointed me to this video which he found "interesting":
Nice. No doubt, this fellow Jay's YouTube channel is fascinating. I recall mentioning this awhile back when discussing the Taiko computer - I think he's a dealer for the brand or something like that. The style of discourse and persona of the individual is interesting - arguably more interesting than the products he talks about!
Clearly on that channel, there seems to be a need to seek out very expensive gear in the "ultra-high-end" sandbox. It's a beautiful example of what I mean by the term "high-end" as different from the "hi-fi" hobby; there's a tendency to measure by price without any confirmation of elevated sonic fidelity needed (other than subjective opinion). As you can see, there are no actual tests being done nor any kind of objectivity maintained even though his sound room is being called his "lab". The value of that experience of the man playing with his gear is suggested as being translatable to knowledge worthy of him providing paid consultations.
[I noticed in some of the comments that there seems to be a rivalry of sorts between Jay's Audio Lab and OCD Hi-Fi Guy. As far as I can tell, both are audio gear dealers. Both sell/promote questionable stuff like expensive cables. Each hype about their stuff (what makes Playback Designs DACs all that great, are Authentic Audio Image cables special?). Each seem to have their "tribe" of followers. Both seem to promote highly entertaining audio subjectivisms in their passionate videos, even if at times they clearly don't know what they're talking about. Players in the same silly game, but wonderful drama I guess!]
Anyhow, as you can see in this video, we are presented with a kind of blind listening test to declare our preference for either digital streaming or vinyl playback. No doubt, he has put in a lot of money and effort into the room and components. Unfortunately, he doesn't list the components but it looks like this is a recording of the playback from Wilson Chronosonic XVX speakers (MSRP US$329k) amplified by what looks like his Gryphon Apex (MSRP $99k, hmmm, check out the measurements), I think he has that Taiko computer (MSRP $30k) streaming from presumably Qobuz to a MSB Select 2 DAC (MSRP $90k) over USB. The turntable is a Kronos Pro I think (MSRP ~$45k). Without including the phono cartridge (My Sonic Lab Signature Gold MC, US$9k), cables, preamp(s), power conditioner (including Stromtank), and "audiophile" network gear, we're already looking at a system "valued" at over US$550k.
I appreciate that he normalized the output levels to ~80dB SPL to keep "Presentation 1" and "Presentation 2" about the same volume; one of which being the digital playback, the other vinyl. We have some Sade "By Your Side" and "No Ordinary Love" as test samples in this video; reasonable choice of tracks given the clean production value.
Now, before talking about what can be heard, let's make sure we understand the context of such a "blind" test over YouTube:
1. The playback gear is expensive as noted above. No question, measured by price, this is up there with the "best" in the world as suggested by those familiar with the brands and products showcased in magazines at least.
2. We don't know what device he recorded the audio with. What camera? Was that a smartphone he used? Did he use a high quality external microphone, if so, what ADC?
3. Was the original recording lossy from that smartphone/camera? If lossless, was it at 24-bits? I assume there was some audio-video editing involved, was that done losslessly as well or was it re-encoded to another lossy file before uploading to YouTube?
4. Obviously, when we play back on YouTube, the audio would have been re-encoded in a lossy format then streamed. On a computer with good bandwidth, currently, YouTube sends out "high quality" Opus-encoded audio "opus (251)" which is variable bitrate up to 160kbps only. Given the improvements in psychoacoustic lossy compression over the decades, 160kbps Opus still sounds great.5. Hopefully, on our playback end, we used a good DAC, amplifier, and speakers/headphones to listen with. Obviously, it could be hard to adjudicate sound quality if we're just listening off small laptop speakers.
As you can see, with each of those items from 2-4, risk of sonic deterioration compared to what was actually played in that room, is significant with potentially multiple signal changes between what was captured and the final YouTube playback. Clearly, given the variables, this would not pass adequate scientific rigor if we were to study the listening test results. Nonetheless, despite all these limitations, what do we hear in this vinyl vs. streaming comparison?
Well, although I would have no problem enjoying either presentation, let's be picky about the sound. Here's what I notice listening through a pair of Sony MDR-V6 headphones using the Drop+THX AAA 789 headphone amp on my desktop computer with basic, hi-res Topping D10s DAC (measured here) - nothing exotic needed:
1. The tonality isn't the same. Even if the source master is the same, for creating the vinyl version, application of RIAA EQ is necessary among other changes like making sure the bass isn't too "hot", possibly summing the bass frequencies to mono. I noticed that Presentation #2 has accentuated treble and a recessed midrange which some might prefer (the "smiley face curve"). Bass is fuller in Presentation #1, smoother midrange, more natural and potentially less harsh. Tonality varies more with vinyl playback depending on the phono pre-amp quality as well as the cartridge used.
2. There's a bit of "grittiness" to the noise floor that to me does not sound good in Presentation #2. On occasion we can hear other imperfections like crackling or anomalous "ticking" probably from some dust and light scratches. I noticed this more on "No Ordinary Love". Often when I hear this stuff on vinyl rips, I wonder if some listeners might mistaken the noise as if this is intended detail on the original recording. Higher frequency noise might sound like "air".
3. Louder portions sound a little harsh and kind of "flimsy" in Presentation #2. For example around 13:35 it didn't sound good to me with loss of definition during the louder and more complex passages.
4. Right-left balance slightly left-shifted in "By Your Side" on Presentation #2, especially the vocals. Overall, Presentation #1 sounds better centered and more stable.
5. For me, there's a "hollowness" to the sound of Presentation #2 which some might experience as more 'spatial' or even '3D'. I suspect this effect is from the tonality (1) with tipped-up treble plus imprecision of LP playback with higher crosstalk, resulting in a sound that seems to "fill" the room more at the expense of soundstage precision.
Based on those impressions, I believe:
Presentation #1 = digital streaming
Presentation #2 = vinyl
The characteristics of Presentation #2 fit with the objective limitations of vinyl playback.
Many of the audible anomalies I listed above should be quite familiar to vinyl rippers. Typically, to do a good vinyl rip, one would need to meticulously clean the LP, make sure the cartridge and turntable are properly set up, and then make sure to use a good ADC. On the digital side once the audio is captured, fix anomalies like DC bias offset, adjust for channel imbalance, and software like Click Repair or Vinyl Studio or the professional iZotope RX can be used to reduce the noise and surface anomalies. Those are the processes and tools needed in order to make vinyl rips shine; it's quite a lot of work.
I see there's a second video with more A/B examples using older songs that are not particularly high quality from the late-'70s - early-'80s (Bowie/Moroder and Armatrading) that I find inherently more noisy. Unless I missed it somewhere, I don't think Jay has posted any reveal of the A/B test over the last 2 months. It would certainly be nice to get some confirmation. As we can see, a number of viewers offered their opinions in the comments. I don't see any consistent preference.
As I type this, I'm listening to the "No Ordinary Love" lossless rip from the Love Deluxe CD (1992, first release DR11) on my desktop computer and it clearly sounds much better than the YouTube video. This certainly isn't to imply that my desktop DAC or speakers are higher fidelity than the MSB and Wilsons, but rather a reflection of just how compromised the recording (from a smart phone or camera) is and once you go through the lossy encoding across YouTube, things likely got even a little more distorted.
Obviously, it would be impossible to fully gauge the sound of a hi-fi system over YouTube even if sometimes, comparisons like this could be useful.
I know, it's the age-old audiophile question: LP vs. CD, analog vs. digital - which is better?
As usual, they each have their pros and cons (discussed ages ago). But what is certain is that the differences are quite obvious with a little bit of critical listening. Even without listening, logically, one can deduce that for most modern albums like Sade which came out in the '90s, the recording and production were most likely done digitally anyways so it should not be controversial to suggest that staying digital would maintain the highest fidelity.
Note though that the opposite logic - suggesting that an analog recording should sound better as an analog LP - is not necessarily true! Analog recordings start as tape captures and they still need a lot of mastering work in order to sound good on vinyl. Characteristics like dynamic range typically is better with the professional tape than vinyl LP. In comparison, these days the analog-to-digital process can be done transparently with modern hi-res ADCs from the tape source (including to DSD). So long as the engineer is reasonably skilled, a CD/streamed/hi-res digital version of an analog recording can be way more accurate without all the processing and losses when converted to an LP (ostensibly this is why MoFi used DSD256 as their intermediate). There's also not nearly the amount of potential deterioration on the digital playback side from poor pressings, poor vinyl quality, dust, turntable issues, poor vibration isolation, tonearm & cartridge alignment, etc.
Regardless, beyond applying logic, one can still hear the difference between LP and digital as in this YouTube video because the difference is large. Despite the insistence and hype of vinyl advocates, these limitations can be heard without much difficulty; the change in fidelity such as the audible noise floor is higher than the lossyness of YouTube's Opus-encoded audio stream averaging around 128kbps (max 160kbps).
I know that some would use subjective words like LP's sound "smoother", "warmer", "musical", or has some kind of "analog sound". As far as I can tell, it's plain and simple EQ variation, higher distortion, noise, lower channel separation and at times audible wow and flutter that certain listeners seem to identify as preferable. I don't believe there's anything magical in those grooves, and remember not to get mentally trapped into the pitfall explanation of digital being "stair-stepped" as if all DACs are like the few NOS devices. Sure, these LP distortions can be subjectively "euphonic" to some tastes even though they add coloration to the sound and ultimately reduce fidelity. No reason to idealize turntable playback, even through a system that MSRPs for more than US$500k! (Kudos to Jay for putting his money down to demonstrate this for us.)
As suggested previously, when at audio shows, make sure to have a good listen to the difference between vinyl and digital versions of the same song since it's quite easy these days to find the digital track on streaming services. I contend that most of the time, the digital source will produce an obviously more accurate sound that's more impressive when showing off high-quality gear. In other words, the vinyl medium hinders the full potential of modern high-fidelity playback systems.
YouTube audio is not the best way to demonstrate hi-fi sound differences unless the change is quite significant like this digital vs. LP video. Best practice would be to make sure we're using low-noise microphones, high-quality ADC, and to record in hi-res losslessly (like 24/48). Make sure to edit and save losslessly, then upload to YouTube. While YouTube will still put the data through a lossy process (typically remaining at 48kHz), at least there will be less recompression and compounding of distortions (like temporal smearing) when transcoding.
Alternatively, if we're intending to show the quality of the audio output from individual hi-fi components, as I do for my listening tests (like this), or AMPT recordings, capture the high-quality stream in 24/96 with a good ADC, let listeners download it and play as lossless hi-res FLAC files to the best of their ability.
Have a wonderful weekend everyone and I hope you're all enjoying the music!
Addendum 1:A hilarious video on the vinyl vs. digital debate from the other day...
Addendum 2:I figured it would be good to add this response to Doug's comment as part of the blog post since I think it belongs to the ideas in this broader text.
Nice comment and right to the point Doug,
When "pushing" to make a point, often people seem to lose track of the underlying nature of what they want others to believe. I tend to see 3 variations on this:
1. Objective Truth: This can be measured. Verified empirically to be true like with blind listening tests. And in the world of audio, fidelity to the source content is this factor that can be quantified and confirmed like the output from a hi-res DAC with typical resolution ideals the product is engineered for.
When trying to convey truth, at least in the world of engineered products, this is the highest level of discussion we should strive for in order to be sure we're well grounded in our beliefs.
2. Subjective Preference: This is what you're clearly noting. We sometimes like non-flat frequency responses. A little bit of noise can seem to add "atmosphere" in the room as if one is listening to some jazz in an intimate smoky nightclub after midnight. Distortions can add "air" to the room, and vinyl can sound good - to some people depending on situation and content. I agree, the trick is to make sure we express this insightfully and say things like "I prefer the extra distortion because it makes the sound more 'whole', rather than 'lean' on the more accurate digital gear". Nobody can disagree with that.
It becomes a problem if we pretend that our impressions are more "accurate", "hi-fi", or reflective of a truth that others should agree with; mixing personal preferences with #1.
3. Just Plain Bias: This one I find the most disturbing, potentially the most dishonest. Whereas one could measure and listen for accuracy (#1), and one could hear distortions and declare it to be "euphonic" (#2), bias happens when we declare something and there are personal benefits which one could consciously or unconsciously overlook. For example, this is what I believe happens with OCD Mikey where I have seen him declare that Playback Designs DACs sound like the greatest DACs in the world or something like that in some of his videos. Really? Based on what?
He's a salesman. He makes money off referrals, consultations, moving product, etc... I'm sure Playback Designs gear sounds fine, but clearly the bias "pushes" the product. I would bet that in a blind volume-controlled listening test, it would be highly unlikely that someone could differentiate a Topping, SMSL, other "cheap" Chinese brand in his eyes (looks like his personal bias is strong and IMO not totally fair when I've heard him talk about this once), with that fancy MPD-8 or whichever Playback DAC he's promoting. IMO, just another sales guy with a pitch, just like the expensive cable pushers (I think he does this as well). This is what gets us into the Snake Oil territory.
We see this kind of bias elsewhere. Just look at most politicians and what they "push"!
People are free to say whatever they legally want to on the Internet. The technology no doubt amplifies all kinds of ideas. It's up to us as knowledgeable people to parse out the difference, be wise about it, and develop the skills to elucidate truth.