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  • JoeWhip
    JoeWhip

    Audio Engineering Matters, Not The Format

    Tribalism. It seems to be baked into human DNA. The compulsion of most of us to divide into groups. To associate with those that think like us, look like us, worship like us or worse, actively exclude those perceived as different from us. It invades our politics, our religious thinking. Audiophiles are not immune to tribalism as we all know. From tubes vs. solid state, to vinyl vs. digital, we see and hear the same topics brought up and discussed ad nauseam in various audio related magazines and on websites, like The Computer Audiophile. Even the digital tribe is further broken down into what sounds better, PCM or DSD. Some extoll the virtues of converting all PCM to DSD as that is the path to audio nirvana, and visa versa. Of course, simple DSD is not enough. We need quad DSD or even octa DSD to sound the best. Of course, red book Is not enough on the PCM side, hence the move to 24/96, 24/192, 24/384 etc. The higher the number, the better the sound, right? And, let’s not even get started with MQA. Please?

     

    My personal philosophy is that I am format neutral. For me, the format of the digital file is one of the least significant factors in getting true audio fidelity in the home. Assuming that one has competently engineered and manufactured electronics, which I find to be generally the case, the most significant and most often overlooked factor by audiophiles, is the room itself. The room can make or break the aural experience, the illusion of real musicians, playing in a real space. Perceived issues with our equipment can be room related, or a simple matter of dialing in speaker placement. Audiophiles can far too often find themselves essentially chasing their tails, constantly changing their equipment or cables or trying the latest and greatest USB dongle when simple room treatments or the tweaking of speaker placement will yield far more satisfactory results and more importantly, long term listening pleasure.

     

    As for the format of the recording, I find that the quality of the recording itself to be far more important than the format. The skill of the recording engineer, the microphones used, the placement of same, the recording venue, the placement of the musicians in that space all trump whether the format is DSD or PCM or analog tape. With great engineering and or course, a light touch by the mastering engineer, all of these formats can yield spectacular results. An example of this is a stellar recording by a local Philadelphia area group, The Hazelrigg Brothers, and their CD, “songs we like”. This group performed recently at the Capital Audio Fest. While I was not able to attend, I obtained a copy of their CD and was gobsmacked by the quality of the recording. The recording and the performances are superb. Beautiful piano sound, deep, tuneful and impactful bass and realistic drums that all recordings should strive for. The recording was made in their home studio at DSD 128. Despite the fact that the recording was “downrezed” to redbook, I really can’t imagine how this recording could sound better in my room than as presented on this CD. The CD is simply that good. A beautifully recorded album will sound sensational regardless of what format it was delivered to the listener. The fidelity of this recording comes through in spades on this CD, even if it was originally recorded in DSD. Whether it is delivered to you in redbook or some higher rez format simply does not matter, at least to me. Kudos to whoever performed the transfer. 

     

    I think we can all agree the digital has come a long way since the introduction of the CD. The newer DACs available today are superb. The advent of computer based playback has further improved the sound we can get at home, with software programs that can playback all digital formats with aplomb, and convert PCM  to DSD and visa versa at whatever resolutions one’s heart and ears may desire. Just give me well engineered recordings in whatever format the engineer or artists think sounds best to them. I will play them back in my format of choice depending on the formats my DAC or DACs support. That will make me a very happy audiophile. In short, it is the engineering that matters, not the format. 

     

     

    Joe




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    Wow. This is sure to get some folks out to defend their BS. Let me get some popcorn and watch. Roon and HQplayer and many others claim to do miracles with software manipulation of original files upsampling, apodizing, minimum phase etc.

     

    Didn't you get the memo? - there is as much big business to be made massaging audio formats and files as there is in skin cosmetics!!!

     

    Don't you dare say the truth.

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    1 hour ago, Shadorne said:

    Wow. This is sure to get some folks out to defend their BS. Let me get some popcorn and watch. Roon and HQplayer and many others claim to do miracles with software manipulation of original files upsampling, apodizing, minimum phase etc.

     

    Didn't you get the memo? - there is as much big business to be made massaging audio formats and files as there is in skin cosmetics!!!

     

    Don't you dare say the truth.

    Hi Shadorne - I think you’re conflating format and what happens as part of the conversion / playback process. 

     

    Resampling / upsampling / oversampling etc... are very different from the format in which the audio is created or stored. 

     

    If 44.1 kHz is enough for some people, it doesn’t mean there aren’t gains to be had by changing this before conversion. 

     

    Perhaps @Miska can add to this conversation. 

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    Thanks JoeWhip, an excellent article. ?

     

    Personally, I like both, a well-engineered recording reproduced in a high resolution format such as SACD, DSD or 24 bit PCM. As I have mentioned before I would rather listen to a good audiophile CD or 16/44.1kHz music file than a high resolution download from the major labels, which are usually sonically compromised, compressed and sometimes have overloaded digital distortion.

     

    In short I want it all and usually get it.

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    Good point about "digital tribes" dividing into camps based on what format is best. As if everyone's ears are the same. A recent study shows that many people cannot even hear the difference between 320 kbps and 16/44.1. And of those who appreciate Hi-Res, some are only able to describe the difference in emotional terms. A PDF of that study is here: http://www.doc.gold.ac.uk/~mas03dm/papers/SoundQuality_WilliamsonSouthMullensiefen_ICMPC2014.pdf

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    completely agree - case in point, since it's fresh on my mind, I still think that Bob Ludwig's mastered Donald Fagen Nightfly is the defacto standard bearer for sound ... it beats the pants off any hi-res, low-res or other-res reissue of this great classic. Great article!

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    4 hours ago, PeterG said:

    Hi Joe--nice post. A couple of thoughts.

     

    First, I agree completely, that engineering, recording, mixing, etc is WAY more important than format, at least once we're at PCM.  The loudness wars are my personal bogeyman in all of this.  It is terribly sad that so many artists are reduced (or reduce themselves).

     

    Second, I take issue with your argument on the room.  I agree that the room is critical.  But the room is often not controllable, or controllable only at great expense.  While $1,000 dollars in bass traps, just for example, might get be better bang for the buck than $10,000 on a new DAC or power treatment or whatever; you are assuming that each of us has complete control over the room itself.  But architecture and wives have a say on the room that can be more in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 range.  Seriously, I could drop $10,000 on a DAC, and my wife would barely raise an eyebrow, but it would be a complete nonstarter to drape the living room in treatments.

     

    Thanks for the kind words Peter. I agree that rooms such as a typical living room are problematical. I have been fortunate to have had a dedicated listening room that does not have to function as a public space in the home. My newer room is in a expanded attic. I have been able to use the prior structure of the room as well as some tweaking of the construction to get a neutral space. I do not use things such as tube traps but typical room decorations and items that work to great effect. It can be done but I would not be able to do it in a living room and keep my wife happy.

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    Hear, hear! Great Article @JoeWhip !

     

    The quality of recordings are the top gripe here at this site, heck there's a section devoted to music downloads and analysis where shortcomings of recordings are outed for bad behaviours, and poor techniques.

     

    The audio format is only the highway used to send the music on, the road is open so to speak. Equipment needs to read all formats, so there's no chance to miss out on that ONE recording that's recorded in a format that's missing. That is, IFF, the recording process doesn't stuff up, a tall ask!

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    I keep doubting my investment in equipment thanks to so many crappy recordings on the market.  I wonder if it’s my speakers, my amp, my LPS, etc.

     

    Then I put on a well engineered recording in 16/44 and realize it’s not my equipment’s or the format’s fault at all . . .  

     

    There should be two threads added to CA so that we can all take a reality check: Albums That Are Absolutely Stellar SQ-wise (hopefully it’s also good music) and Decent Music Unfortunately Recorded Like Crap. At minimum these extremes would give relative newbies like me the ability to understand what digital audio is cabable of, and how no investment in the hobby can fix a bad recording.

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    9 hours ago, PeterG said:

    Second, I take issue with your argument on the room.  I agree that the room is critical.  But the room is often not controllable, or controllable only at great expense.  While $1,000 dollars in bass traps, just for example, might get be better bang for the buck than $10,000 on a new DAC or power treatment or whatever; you are assuming that each of us has complete control over the room itself.  But architecture and wives have a say on the room that can be more in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 range.  Seriously, I could drop $10,000 on a DAC, and my wife would barely raise an eyebrow, but it would be a complete nonstarter to drape the living room in treatments.

    Absolutely agree.

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    9 hours ago, Miska said:

     

    Hmmh, so you think the massaging done by the tiny constrained DSP in a 10€ DAC chip is better? Or what was the point?

     

    I measure the results instead of waving hands.

     

     

    Ahh, now we are talking! Just tell me where the big business is and I'll start running! :D

     

     

    As far as I can see, the article in question was talking about content formats, not about how to best reconstruct the digital data into analog signal. CD certainly needs much more massaging than for example DSD would. If you could buy all content in DSD256 there would be much less for my software to do. I would still keep running digital room correction using HQPlayer though.

     

     

    Hand waving for your own products again. More unsubstantiated claims that DACs are inadequate without your magic sauce. So what’s new?

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    11 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Hi Shadorne - I think you’re conflating format and what happens as part of the conversion / playback process. 

     

    Resampling / upsampling / oversampling etc... are very different from the format in which the audio is created or stored. 

     

    If 44.1 kHz is enough for some people, it doesn’t mean there aren’t gains to be had by changing this before conversion. 

     

    Perhaps @Miska can add to this conversation. 

     

    So the data fed to a DAC isn’t in a format? Changing the sample rate or bit depth fed to a DAC isn’t changing the data format?

     

    For a website titled “Computer Audiophile”, I am rather gobsmacked by this remark.

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    3 hours ago, Shadorne said:

    Hand waving for your own products again. More unsubstantiated claims that DACs are inadequate without your magic sauce. So what’s new?

     

    One example, AK4490 DAC chip, input sweep 0 - 22.05 kHz at 44.1k PCM rate:

    NT503-sweep-pcm441-sdl-sh.thumb.png.33e9a75610010ba1366718d24760eea1.png

    Since the on-chip digital filter can do only 8x, you can see strong fully correlated images around multiples of 352.8 kHz.

     

    Same source data, upsampled through 256x digital filter and DSD256 output:

    NT503-sweep-dsd256-50k.thumb.png.18f89de5ffb0cbb5694f7e8a1790d805.png

    Very little totally uncorrelated noise left. That is 30x drop in level!

     

     

    Another example, Jtest-24 input at 44.1k:

    NT503-jtest24-pcm441.thumb.png.52a8207a0027caf8f008b6e263e8f6f1.png

     

    Same Jest-24 input, but upsampled through 256x digital filter to DSD256:

    NT503-jtest24-dsd256.thumb.png.5751469fda198d902aff7b8e4649e0c9.png

    Quite a bit cleaner!

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    8 hours ago, Miska said:

     

    And digital room correction is also useless massaging?

     

    Sadly, digital room correction also comes at a sonic price.  I tried the McIntosh MEN220 ($5K would not have been a problem, see previous post on wife's eyebrow).  The bass and transients were better, quicker, sharper.  But the mids and highs, especially voices, lost texture and a bit of sparkle (to use a technical term).  My take--for certain combinations of room/existing system/musical tastes it could be a definite plus--but with my room/system/library/ear, it was a definite minus overall.

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    2 hours ago, PeterG said:

    Sadly, digital room correction also comes at a sonic price.  I tried the McIntosh MEN220 ($5K would not have been a problem, see previous post on wife's eyebrow).  The bass and transients were better, quicker, sharper.  But the mids and highs, especially voices, lost texture and a bit of sparkle (to use a technical term).  My take--for certain combinations of room/existing system/musical tastes it could be a definite plus--but with my room/system/library/ear, it was a definite minus overall.

     

    Tuning the correction is it's own form of art. I'm only correcting lowest frequencies from 500 Hz down where the room has correctable impact. Above that, it goes into loudspeaker correction, and that is also doable, but it is a different domain. So overall I've chosen speakers that are flat and work as intended at higher frequencies and then I run correction only for bass where the room kicks in (much harder to fix).

     

    In the storage I have for example Harman/Kardon HK990 amp that has quite nice room correction DSP built in. IIRC it measures room below 1 kHz and then you move microphone right front of the speaker (something like 1 ft or so) and measure just the speaker for higher frequencies. Then you can choose if you want just the bass/room correction or full band correction. This is a good way to do it.

     

    With software tools like RoomEq Wizard, Acourate and Audiolense you have quite a bit of flexibility how you want to do things, but it is good idea to be prepared to spend quite a bit of time for trial/error and tuning things for a good result.

     

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    Great article, I’ve been saying this for years, but many people just don’t get it or are offended because they’ve got to justify their purchases. 

     

    We are at a point in history where we can technically make the most realistic recordings, yet we are stuck with some of the worst. This applies to live concerts too...sound engineering in the auditoriums are as hot as the recordings. 

     

    This is the new normal folks. 

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