Tuesday, 17 March 2015

MUSINGS: Audiophiles "Us vs. Them" (Objectivists vs. Subjectivists) Attitudes and Envy!?

Since I'm stuck at LAX on my way home from a wonderful Spring Break with the wife and kids down in Texas as well as a Caribbean cruise, I thought I'd polish my response to Hal Espen's comment in the last post... BTW, I enjoyed visiting Bjorn's in San Antonio just to see the audio and home theater gear they had on display. Some really nice stuff and it looks like they're upgrading their main demo room to Atmos soon. I appreciated the knowledgeable staff and friendly attitude; taking time to demo the gear even though they knew I didn't even live in the USA.

So Hal, nice comment:
Pure confirmation bias from beginning to end. None of this really exists. : )
You can't have it both ways. Either your blog is about providing the little bursts of brain chemicals that us vs. them skeptics receive when scientism is seen to be crushing audiophilia, or you're going to go wafting into the subjective realm of the subtle and imaginative "classy" pleasures of reproducing music electronically, as you do with evident misgivings here.

Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on>
Gets right to the heart of some of the heated debates and arguments I suppose... I guess I "swing both ways" in some regards. :-)

Saturday, 7 March 2015

2015-02-27: HiFi Centre Grand Reopening...

About a year ago, I reported on the B&W Nautilus demo at the HiFi Centre here in Vancouver. That was at their old location... As of late February, they're now in the new place near Vancouver Chinatown and to celebrate, they had a nice (re)opening event (February 27, 2015). It caught some publicity from the Stereophile web site as well.

I decided to go check it out after work on the Friday and see the new space. For fun, here are a few cell phone snapshots of some of the gear on display. Note that it was well attended and I purposely tried not to take shots with people in them to protect the innocent :-).

Upon entering the main building, we see a Nautilus "shell" display; HiFi Centre has always had a good partnership with B&W:

Sunday, 1 March 2015

MUSINGS: Audio Quality, The Various Formats, and Diminishing Returns - In Pictures!

Let me be the first to say that graphs and charts where audio formats are plotted out in terms of unidimensional sound quality ratings are ridiculously oversimplified and can be very misleading! However, they can be fun to look at and could be used as bite-sized "memes" for discussion when meeting up with audio friends or for illustration when people ask about audio quality.

Since they're out there already, let us spend some time this week to look at these visual analogies as a way to "think" about what the authors of these works want us to consider/believe. I'm going to screen capture without permission a couple of these images to explore. As usual, I do this out of a desire to discuss, critique, and hopefully educate which I consider "fair use" of copyrighted material; as a reminder to readers, other than a tiny bit of ad revenue on this blog (hey, why not?), I do not expect any other gain from writing a post like this.

First, here's PONO's "Underwater Listening" diagram released around the time of the 2014 SXSW (March 2014):
PONO: Underwater Listening
Others have already commented on this of course (here also). I don't know what ad "genius" came out with this diagram, but it is cute, I suppose. I remember being taken aback by this picture initially as it's so far out of "left field" (creative?) that I felt disoriented when I first saw this thing...

How audio formats would evoke a desire to compare underwater depths remains a mystery to me. Obviously, there's a desire to impress upon the recipient two main messages - a direct correlation between sampling rate (from CD up) with quality, and to make sure the MP3 format gets deprecated as much as possible (1000 ft?!). On both those counts, this image gets it so wrong, it's almost comedic. Clearly, one cannot directly correlate samplerate and bitrate with audio quality because the relationship isn't some kind of linear correlation. Why would CD quality be "200 ft", and 96kHz "20 ft"? Surely nobody in their right mind would say that 96kHz is 10 times perceptually "better". Sure, there is a correlation such that a low bitrate file like 64kbps MP3 will sound quite compromised with poor resolution, but without any qualification around this important bitrate parameter, how can anyone honestly say that all MP3s sound bad? I might as well say that Neil Young's a poor-sounding recording artist because the Le Noise (2010) and A Letter Home (2014) albums are low fidelity.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

MEASUREMENTS: The Intercontinental Internet Audio Streaming Test...

Time to go intercontinental. :-) [Scene from the old movie War Games.]

After the ethernet cable results last week and the absence of any difference, there was discussion about an extreme internet music server test. What if instead of maybe 100 feet of ethernet cable from server to player, we had thousands of miles of cables in between?

With help from Mnyb from the Squeezebox Forum, we were able to orchestrate a test to demonstrate the extremes of measured performance with the server system basically on the other side of the world. He lives out in Västerås, Sweden approximately 100 km from Stockholm. A direct distance of:

Saturday, 14 February 2015

MEASUREMENTS: Ethernet Cables and Audio...

Remember folks, this is what an "ethernet frame" looks like. It's data. There is no "music" in there until decoded and prepared for the DAC! Notice the CRC bytes for error detection. (The numbers represents how many bytes for each segment.)

0. Preamble

Hey folks, over the years, I have been critical of high-end audio cables... Previously, I have shown that RCA analog interconnects can result in measurable differences with channel crosstalk changes with long lengths. But the digital interconnects themselves do not result in measurable differences even in terms of jitter (TosLink SPDIF, coaxial SPDIF, or USB). Although my HDMI receiver's DAC isn't as accurate or jitter-free, different HDMI cables don't seem to make any measurable difference either. The only caveat to this being that a digital cable can just plain fail, in which case the distortion to the audio signal has a particular (annoying) characteristic which is clearly audible and not a subtle change (eg. a poor USB cable sound).

So far, I have not seen any further measurements to suggest my conclusions are inaccurate. I have seen audiophile reviewers and forum posters still claim digital cables make an audible difference and when questioned they provide lots of words but no actual empirical evidence. It has been awhile since I've seen any articles claiming objective evidence for cable measurements - haven't come across new ads or audiophile articles although of course I may have missed some.

However, as computer audio expands, there will be opportunities to "brand" more hardware as somehow "audiophile approved" and companies that make audio cables likewise will naturally capitalize on new lines of interconnects / cables... And as expected, cost of these things will be commensurate with "premium" products.

Which brings us to the concept of "audiophile ethernet cables" (see here also, and recent mainstream press exposure of the "madness"). Let me be clear. If I have issues with USB cables, or SPDIF cables, making any significant contribution to audible sound quality (assuming again essentially error-free transmission of data), there is no rational explanation whatsoever that ethernet cables should make any difference. The TCP/IP protocol has error correction mechanisms that allow for worldwide transmission integrity (otherwise Internet financial transactions should be banned!),  and is asynchronous so there is no temporal dependence on exact timing mechanisms (jitter not an issue with adequate buffer to reclock and feed the DAC). So long as the "protocol stack" is functioning as it should between the devices, there will not be any issue. Systematic errors causing audible distortion either means hardware failure or poorly implemented communication software. Therefore the expectation if we were to test or "listen to" different ethernet cables is that there would be no difference.

Since I like to make sure objectively, let us at least run a few tests to see if indeed evidence can be found to support the hypothesis.

Friday, 6 February 2015

MEASUREMENTS: Bob Dylan's "Shadows In The Night" - when 24-bit HRA isn't! (Qobuz)

Of shadows... and hot air...
A reader gave me a tip about the new Shadows In The Night album from Bob Dylan. The allegation is that the 24-bit high-resolution downloads of this album are in fact NOT true 24-bits as claimed!

To start, here's a video to show what the inversion-null should look like with a true 24-bit audio sample:

Thursday, 5 February 2015

MUSINGS: The ongoing Vinyl vs. Digital debate...

The always assertive Batman. But assertiveness isn't necessarily correct...
(Just a shortish post this week... I've covered much of this in the past.)

As I mentioned in the comments section of the previous post on HRA, there have been discussions recently again around the sound quality of vinyl compared to CD. I assume it started from this article "Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl" from the L.A. Weekly. Overall, I think it's a good article! Some excellent quotes from veterans in the audio engineering business like Bob Clearmountain and Bob Ludwig. We even have the pleasure of an interview with James T. Russell - the "father" of digital optical media. Folks... These people know what they're talking about, so do not take their comments lightly.

Despite the fact that there's nothing ground breaking in that article, it's no surprise that the vinylphiles are up in a tizzy. Michael Fremer has now dragged out an old 1996 article about "Does Vinyl Have Wider Dynamic Range Than CDs?" (the PDF in the article). Let's talk about this...

Thursday, 29 January 2015

MUSINGS: What Is The Value of High Resolution Audio (HRA)?

I promised not to talk about Pono anymore, so I won't to a significant degree :-). This article is one about high-resolution audio in general.

It has been interesting seeing the audiophile press's responses to articles such as:
Gizmodo's "Don't Buy What Neil Young Is Selling"
Pitchfork's "The Myth and the Reality of the $43 Download"

with these:

Analog Planet's (Michael Fremer) "Gizmodo Won't Post My Comment So I'm Posting It Here"
AudioStream's (Michael Lavorgna) "Is High Resolution Audio Elitist?"

As I had laid out in this blog a number of moons ago (March 2014 to be exact) in "High Resolution Audio (HRA) Expectations (A Critical Review)...", there are many challenges to overcome in order to perceive an audible difference between a true high-resolution recording and the same track down-sampled to standard CD (16/44) resolution. This challenge is significant and technically difficult; culminating in the ultimate question of whether one's own hearing mechanism is even capable of the feat. (Remember folks, aging is good for wine, not so much for hearing acuity!)

I think there are a number of issues here and it's important to treat each separately without getting overly simplistic into a single declaration of whether HRA is "good/needed" or "bad/worthless". Furthermore gentlemen, there's no need for name-calling or ad hominem attacks.

For your consideration, here's how I see it:

Thursday, 22 January 2015

'Last' Words on PONO - Mastering Analysis & General Comments

(A friend thought the new Broadway musical hilarious.)
At some point in a relationship, we reach the end of the honeymoon...

That's of course not describing my personal relationship with the Pono idea since I've been critical of the hype put forth by Neil Young and others (like John Hamm) since the start. I'm suggesting rather that the honeymoon between anticipation for Pono with 'the world' is about to end as the Kickstarter pledges have shipped and the public can start to purchase these PonoPlayers and browse the PonoMusic Store. What will they find? Would the public expectation for music that "sounds like God" be satisfied, or would there be many who at the end of the honeymoon recognize faults which up to now were perhaps graciously overlooked.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

MUSINGS: Miscellanies on audio encoding (Dolby Atmos & Meridian MQA Concerns)

Hey everyone. It really gets dark in January in Vancouver; just the kind of weather to cozy up in bed with a nice book or maybe some spirits in front of the hi-fi system :-).

So, I thought I'd offer up a few miscellaneous thoughts this week as I looked over recent CES reports.

I figured it'd be good to spend a few moments on the new encoding techniques that came out or were announced in 2014. I think the biggest advancement in audio encoding (at least as it pertains to the home) this past year was Dolby's push for Atmos into the consumer space. Remember that Atmos has already been out for a couple years in the movie theaters since 2012's release of Pixar's Brave. This happened with announcements in June 2014 and the first Atmos-encoded Blu-Ray came out on September 30 with Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Not exactly a movie that will win Academy Awards (maybe in some technical categories), but appropriate to show off some sound effects I suppose.

With Atmos (and other techniques like Auro-3D and the upcoming DTS UHD/MDA), digital processing takes another step up... We all know about the role DSP's have played in home audio including bass management, then room correction (like Audyssey MultEQ), and now we have dynamic, object-oriented sonic rendering in 3D space adapted for one's speaker configuration on top of the typical multichannel (5.1/7.1) mixing. Cool.

I'm unclear whether this will have much relevance for audiophiles (unlikely I would think) given the relatively small numbers of "multichannel audiophiles", but it does represent a true technological step forward. The question is whether many folks will be able to have a home theater setup capable of experiencing a significant difference given the "need" to increase the number of speakers. Even having a dedicated sound room (the solution to the WAF issue of course!), I'm really not keen to cut holes in my ceiling for placing speakers up there and running even more wires to the audio rack for height channels. Dolby's push for ceiling-bounce speakers (like these Definitive Tech A60's [see review]) is an interesting though compromised solution when it comes to fidelity. From a physics perspective, there's only so much that can be done with what would be small up-firing speakers, room interactions, and the timing/phase issues that need to be accounted for. Even if there were compelling high-fidelity music to be enjoyed, I doubt many if any of these up-firing solutions would be acceptable for audiophiles used to very low distortions in their existing speaker systems. I see that Kalman Rubinson in January's Stereophile suggested the potential for 3D speaker arrays to be used for even more effective room correction. Hmmm, not sure if this would be worth it if those extra channels actually are of inferior sound quality... One could be creating more problems than it's worth.

Time will tell and certainly an interesting technical development to keep an eye out for if one has a multichannel setup now that the "800lb gorillas" (Dolby & DTS) seem to be seriously getting involved with their usual hardware partners (like Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha...).

The other "advancement" in encoding technique in 2014 comes from Meridian and their MQA. This certainly got lots of air time in the audiophile press late last year. Smart move throwing a fancy party (oooooohhhh... 69th floor! The audio must have been orgasmic!) and inviting your media friends of course - everyone loves a good party! Let us spend a bit more time on this one.

Friday, 9 January 2015

MEASUREMENTS: Tascam UH-7000 USB Interface (Part II: As an ADC)

TEAC & Tascam combo with size differential. The E-MU 0404USB in the background to the left.
Alright, it's time to spend some time looking at using the Tascam UH-7000 as an analogue-to-digital converter. Remember in the first instalment, I showed that this device is already a very good DAC. This time around, I wanted to see whether this device did the job well as an ADC; my main desire being to use it for vinyl needle drops and to see if it can be used as a good measuring device in comparison to the Creative E-MU 0404USB I've been using for the last couple years (which I bought mainly as a DAC back in 2009).

Friday, 2 January 2015

Happy New Year!

Hey folks, welcome to 2015 :-).

I was hoping to post on the ADC component to the Tascam UH-7000 today but the wife and I decided on a surprise trip to Disneyland instead with the kids.

Let's aim for next week...

Happy New Years to all!