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Are there real audio differences and, if so, how do I find them?


sdolezalek

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If I can't reliably perform my own DBT, and I can't rely on my own listening tests or long term memory for telling differences, and I can't rely on audio reviewers, and I can't just rely on specifications, THEN HOW IN THE WORLD AM I SUPPOSED TO CHOOSE WHAT TO BUY?

 

Please no, arguments about what works or doesn't. I'm just really curious what the most avid posters here actually use to make your own purchase decisions. AND PLEASE DON'T COMMENT ON ANYONE ELSE'S ADVICE, JUST POST YOUR OWN.

 

I'll start:

 

First, I do read audio reviews to assemble my list of possible equipment choices;

Second, I do listen to what the most experienced people here (and elsewhere) say they like;

Third, I do try to find something in the specifications that support the differences others claim to be hearing;

Fourth, I don't buy anything that I cannot convince myself I'm hearing a difference in;

Fifth, I pay attention to good and bad synergies between equipment choices, as no piece of equipment stands by itself; and

Sixth, I try to associate the percentage of improvement to the percentage of price increase; to justify some sense of value

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If I can't reliably perform my own DBT, and I can't rely on my own listening tests or long term memory for telling differences, and I can't rely on audio reviewers, and I can't just rely on specifications, THEN HOW IN THE WORLD AM I SUPPOSED TO CHOOSE WHAT TO BUY?

 

Please no, arguments about what works or doesn't. I'm just really curious what the most avid posters here actually use to make your own purchase decisions. AND PLEASE DON'T COMMENT ON ANYONE ELSE'S ADVICE, JUST POST YOUR OWN.

 

I'll start:

 

First, I do read audio reviews to assemble my list of possible equipment choices;

Second, I do listen to what the most experienced people here (and elsewhere) say they like;

Third, I do try to find something in the specifications that support the differences others claim to be hearing;

Fourth, I don't buy anything that I cannot convince myself I'm hearing a difference in;

Fifth, I pay attention to good and bad synergies between equipment choices, as no piece of equipment stands by itself; and

Sixth, I try to associate the percentage of improvement to the percentage of price increase; to justify some sense of value

 

My thoughts, FWIW:

 

First and Second: are essentially the same thing and a good place to start.

Third: I don't know how this will help you in choosing what you want, but it might be an interesting exercise.

Fourth and Fifth: Just listen to the equipment you selected as a result of First and Second. If there is a local dealer who will let you audition the gear in your own system, so much the better. If not, you can listen in a dealer's sound room but make sure you bring along music that you know very well, especially of an acoustic variety. If there are no dealers nearby that carry what is on your short list, consider attending an audio show that is geared towards consumers rather than industry types, e.g. Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver.

Sixth: It is very difficult to associate or assign percentages to improvements according to price, as diminishing returns virtually always apply as you go up the cost ladder. And spending more does not guarantee better performance. Where there is a difference in both sound quality and cost, it becomes a subjective judgment as to whether the additional enjoyment provided is worth the extra cost to you.

 

Consider the above with other advice and do what sounds most logical and consistent with your goals.

"Relax, it's only hi-fi. There's never been a hi-fi emergency." - Roy Hall

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." - William Bruce Cameron

 

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First, I do read audio reviews to assemble my list of possible equipment choices;

(Read them for the sonic descriptions, but not for comments on quality)

 

Second, I do listen to what the most experienced people here (and elsewhere) say they like;

(Sometimes you can identify people who share similar tastes and this can be quite helpful)

 

Third, I do try to find something in the specifications that support the differences others claim to be hearing;

(Pretty much pointless, especially with speakers. Where are those distortion specs at?)

 

Fourth, I don't buy anything that I cannot convince myself I'm hearing a difference in;

(You may be reported to the Audiophile authorities for such statements)

 

Fifth, I pay attention to good and bad synergies between equipment choices, as no piece of equipment stands by itself;

(Doesn't sound like fun to me)

 

Sixth, I try to associate the percentage of improvement to the percentage of price increase; to justify some sense of value.

(Marketers love it when you do this sort of thing.)

 

My meager insights...

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Thanks for the advice, but I wasn't so much looking for feedback on my process as hearing what process others use. For example, I would love to see just how different this list is for someone who sees themselves as an objectivist as compared to someone who self describes as subjectivist. :-)

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For me given the level and consistency of today's digital tech and speaker systems, it's pretty simple. I need 20hz to 20khz response within 3db of flat. I need dynamic capability of 120db transient peaks at the listening position with all orders of harmonic distortion 40db or more down from the fundamental. I need a noise floor that won't compete with my own exhaling or inhaling air noise. I require a near constant directivity to the beginning of the modal region where the off axis response is consistent with the on axis throught the crossover points. I require a balanced power response. My main system does this all......and I could say beyond doubt that even 320MP3's sound spectacular in this environment.

 

Ok...a reality check. You CANNOT achieve this level of performance with two stereo full range speakers......EVER. You need DSP, multiple subwoofers properly implemented. You need acoustic treatments. You need speaker systems designed for constant directivity.....arrays, dipole, Cardoid,etc.

 

Once you've experienced a listening session like this, most audiophile solutions come off as cheap knockoffs or boutique experiences. It's the rare gems that can present you with the sheer power of an orchestra at home.

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Ok...a reality check. You CANNOT achieve this level of performance with two stereo full range speakers......EVER. You need DSP, multiple subwoofers properly implemented. You need acoustic treatments. You need speaker systems designed for constant directivity.....arrays, dipole, Cardoid,etc.

 

Thanks for the response. Unfortunately I can't see from your signature what your system consists of; would you be willing to enlighten us?

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Thanks for the advice, but I wasn't so much looking for feedback on my process as hearing what process others use. For example, I would love to see just how different this list is for someone who sees themselves as an objectivist as compared to someone who self describes as subjectivist. :-)

 

I consider myself objectively subjective. I have heard a fair bit of different equipment, and base my pursuits upon experience. This is what I have come up with.

 

1. Single ended triode amplifiers sound best, but only the good ones and only when working with a properly friendly load. I really have no love for push/pull or solid state in general.

 

2. Speakers are the most important part of the equation, and you just have to hear them to judge for yourself. The problem is that the best sounding speakers don't always work that well with the best sounding amps, so compromise is essential. This is the whole synergy thing that just drives me nuts.

 

3. The law of diminishing returns sets in very quickly with digital. The source tape, mastering, and resolution is far more important than the equipment. I don't fret too much or expect miracles here.

 

4. Differences in the sound of cables are real, but fairly unimportant. No point in going crazy over cabling. Spend your cash on the speakers, amps, or music.

 

In a nutshell, find the speaker you like best, and partner it with an amplifier, not only low in distortion, but also distorting in the most musical way possible.

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Speakers are the most important part. Most sound very different. Having done room EQ/room correction I find it makes one of the biggest improvements in audio systems I have ever heard. In the past if I couldn't hear a speaker I thought I might want I purchased it used. If it could be made to work, I kept it. If not I resold it which other than the bother cost me little or nothing. The experience was worth the bother.

 

Currently, I would seek out the best measuring speaker that fit my needs in terms of budget, size, loudness and bandwidth which has the best measured performance. Stereophile reviews are one source for some decent measurements of loudspeakers. The whole point being room correction is a great boon. Even more so if your speakers needs little correction. I won't get into the things I would look at in that sense (mayhem has touched on several of them).

 

I always advise working from the speakers backward. They make the most difference and you need to cater to those. So next is a suitable power amp. You can't quite just buy anything and assume it will work. But I would look at pertinent factors and select one fitting the budget for the speaker. I would strongly lean toward powered speakers were I doing this now. It mostly eliminates this issue.

 

From there on back we have it easy these days. I prefer keeping everything digital as much as possible. It simply is the highest fidelity in my experience. I have used, and it is still possible to get something that is digital right up until the power output stage of an amp. A big plus for transparency and low noise in my experience. Any analog sources I digitize with an ADC right from the output of the device.

 

I find modern DACs very good and above a fairly low price level simply not a big issue to good sound. So types of inputs, outputs, operating features etc is how I would choose something. Many are capable pre-amps for feeding right into the power amp.

 

The biggest problem is the rapid rate of change and new features being added. Classes of equipment not possible before. All of this is the finest kind of problem to have. It is hard to keep up with variations on offer. Devices that stream over network, off a computer direct, or NAS device and many other combinations. One set of conveniences for me might not suit someone else. Devices to do other DSP beneficial to our hobby from one end to the other. Things keep getting better.

And always keep in mind: Cognitive biases, like seeing optical illusions are a sign of a normally functioning brain. We all have them, it’s nothing to be ashamed about, but it is something that affects our objective evaluation of reality. 

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Thanks Kimo & Dennis, that's exactly the kind of feedback I was looking for -- straightforward statements about what you like with a bit of explanation about why you have those likes. Dennis given your love for ESL's have you noticed any loss of transient response from your EQ work? I ask because I found that in playing with Dirac and my Magnepan's I liked the improved frequency response but really didn't like the sense of reduced prat/presence/air it seemed to introduce. It improved significantly by limiting the adjustments to lower frequencies, but it also convinced me that room treatments were (at least in my opinion) preferable to messing with the signal. Interestingly James Tanner of Bryston (the manufacturer of my chosen pre-amp/processor) feels similarly in leaving those room EQ capabilities out of the SP3.

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Thanks Kimo & Dennis, that's exactly the kind of feedback I was looking for -- straightforward statements about what you like with a bit of explanation about why you have those likes. Dennis given your love for ESL's have you noticed any loss of transient response from your EQ work? I ask because I found that in playing with Dirac and my Magnepan's I liked the improved frequency response but really didn't like the sense of reduced prat/presence/air it seemed to introduce. It improved significantly by limiting the adjustments to lower frequencies, but it also convinced me that room treatments were (at least in my opinion) preferable to messing with the signal. Interestingly James Tanner of Bryston (the manufacturer of my chosen pre-amp/processor) feels similarly in leaving those room EQ capabilities out of the SP3.

 

Interesting question about the transients, prat, presence and air. I owned a long time ago some MG 2 Maggies. Later had the MG 3.3R's which were a big step up. The transients and air were why I prefered electrostats. They simply seemed quicker. I am not so sure that apparent quickness isn't a result of chaotic panel breakup at high frequencies. Perhaps a bit of false excitement. The panels genuinely respond quickly and decay quickly with a bit of extended chaos at low levels after transients according to waterfall plots using REW or similar measuring processes. That may be averaged out somewhat by how our ears work.

 

Long way around to say the transients and air seem not to be a problem with room EQ. The EQ above 5 khz with my speakers and room isn't very extensive anyway. The target curve I shoot for is near what the speakers do on their own. Electrostats can sound ghostly or a bit threadbare in the midrange though still detailed. The Soundlabs I have are a bit different in they showed little of that character. EQ has only firmed up a good sense of presence.

 

A good counterpoint is Acoustat Two's I owned. They exhibited all that is stereotypically good about ESL's and their shortcomings. A ghostly midrange, with quick though diminished low end with lots of apparent speed. Tubes were a good match for that to fill in those areas. This was before I could do any room correction. The Acoustat Two's were great for acoustic guitar recordings. The setup I have now shows little of such problems being good on much more varied kinds of music. Really the kind of thing they still lack is the jump factor of dynamics like horns or other high efficiency speakers exhibit.

And always keep in mind: Cognitive biases, like seeing optical illusions are a sign of a normally functioning brain. We all have them, it’s nothing to be ashamed about, but it is something that affects our objective evaluation of reality. 

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It's a case of stored energy......or lack thereof in the case of ribbons and planars. The lighter diaphrams work well within the motor strength of the panel. Much of what makes these systems sound so good in the midrange is due to the lack of room mode excitation in the bass. The somewhat dipolar nature cancels around the sides of the panel so less energy transfer to undesired parts of the room. Sadly, that also accounts for their severe lacking of anything usefull below 80hz so subwoofers with steep slopes are essential for a full range experience.

 

The 'problem' with large panel type speakers such as Logan's and Maggie's is they're anything but a point source which is how sound is created in nature. Billy Joel's mouth is just not 4 ft high! Lol. For me it's a serious problem that limits Maggie's and similiar to a boutique presentation.....fun for a while, but not a long term solution. Just my opinion.

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My generic advice, for what it is worth, is to get the best speakers you can afford, and as they are the one component where differences in how they sound is uncontroversial, spend a lot of time listening.

 

For other components, such as an amp, DAC, etc, use the specifications and any published measurements to eliminate as many contenders as possible. If you have inefficient speakers in a big room, you need, for example, a lot of amplification.

 

For alternatives that sound similar, take a hard look at manufacturing quality and warranty, and reports of customer satisfaction. Pay close attention to compatibility. Be very cautious about buying used stuff as the warranty usually is non-transferable.

 

If you look at threads here and elsewhere when some new piece of equipment comes out, there is a love affair stage followed by disillusionment or even abandonment in some cases. If something has been around for 3 years, look at the most recent customer evaluations first. (eg: look at the NAD C390DD thread. It goes from orgasmic ecstasy to buyer's regret over the course of the thread, when in fact presumably nothing actually changed in that time period.)

 

In the end, the only thing you can trust are customer satisfaction surveys, specifications (assuming they are presented honestly) and objective measurements. That isn't to say they are the whole story, but it is hard to evaluate the veracity of anything else.

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The 'problem' with large panel type speakers such as Logan's and Maggie's is they're anything but a point source which is how sound is created in nature. Billy Joel's mouth is just not 4 ft high! Lol. For me it's a serious problem that limits Maggie's and similiar to a boutique presentation.....fun for a while, but not a long term solution. Just my opinion.

 

I promised to try to make this thread a list of people's suggestions and not be contentious about any such suggestion, so just PM me a response if you like. Though I completely agree that Billy Joel's mouth is a point source, we generally don't have a separate point source speaker for each voice and instrument the various microphones are picking up and our speakers are then supposed to recreate. In recreating the localization of various sounds across the width and height of a stage is there a reason a pinpoint source (along with its dispersion characteristics) would do that better than a line source?

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It's a matter of power response and how each part of the response is presented on multiple axes. Below 700hz or so, things go Omni and its either very expensive or impractical to do anything about it.

 

But since we were talking planar type speakers and point source, I'd add that Maggie's and similiar are not line sources so I'm not sure how to answer your question.

 

Yes.....you're corrent....there is no individual speaker for the vocalist. BUT, in the case of a male vocalist such as Billy if we have a three way speaker with a dedicated midrange who's passband is 500hz to 4khz then we've pretty much created a point source for the vocal range. A similiar two way can get close too but we all know the limitations of that single, small midwoofer being asked to do to much......the most aweful compromise introduced to audio in the last 50 years.

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It’s different for me. I live in a town about 4 hours away from Toronto. That makes it impossible to audition any equipment, I have better things to do than drive back and forth.

 

The problem is compounded by the fact that I don’t know of any other stereo enthusiasts in the area, although I’m sure there must be.

Mind you, things have improved, it’s certainly better than living in northern Manitoba a twelve hour drive away from Winnipeg.

My process is to firstly identify something that I may want that is either a stock item or could be at one of the dealers that I have done business with in the past and that I trust.

 

Here’s a good example – I went from a VPI Scout to a Classic I. With the Classic, I had the outer ring, center weight and SDS. But I never cared for the unipivot tonearm – I never had confidence with being able to adjust it exactly the way I wanted, especially with azimuth.

That’s part one, deciding that I need a new turntable. I look at the dealer’s web site and I see they have a Rega P9 on special. I spend some time researching and looking for reviews of the P9, it seems to be very well thought of.

 

I call the dealer, negotiate a trade-in, drive down and come back home with the P9. It’s a great turntable, I like it a lot. But I never listened to it until it came home and I set it up with my cartridge.

 

I’ve done that with everything I’ve bought or upgraded in recent years. There’s no opportunity to audition or to do a home trial, so I don’t worry about it.

 

Mind you, I’m not going to take just anything that’s on offer. I’ve had an Audio Research preamp since the mid-80’s and see no reason to change – currently with an LS-25 and waiting for a good used LS-26 or 27.

Likewise, when going back to MC I needed a phono preamp – the Audio Research PH5 was something that I had little concern about and it works well with my system.

 

When it comes to things like DAC’s or CD players, I’ve done the same thing – find a reputable and recognized manufacturer who is represented by a dealer I trust and then make a deal. Preferably, on used equipment if there is something available.

When looking for reviews online I will definitely consider the bona fides of the reviewer, or the publication. If it’s Stereophile, no problem. If it’s an enthusiast posting on Audiogon, not so much.

 

What would my system sound like if I had different equipment from different manufacturers? I don’t know, and frankly don’t care much. We’re all on a budget, and I have so many other things that I want to do. I am fortunate in that I’ve had the same speakers since the early 80’s. They have never failed to reveal the most subtle change in sonic nuances or coloration and throw a great soundstage. Perhaps not having to worry about that makes things easier for me.

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On the issue of planar vs conventional speakers, one is not "better" than the other. They have different characteristics that may or may not appeal to you. Most Maggie owners wouldn't consider anything else. A classical concert musician friend of mine loves his Martin Logan electrostatics. At the risk of stating the obvious, choose what sounds best to you, regardless of speaker type.

"Relax, it's only hi-fi. There's never been a hi-fi emergency." - Roy Hall

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." - William Bruce Cameron

 

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Although I would completely agree that choice of speakers is the most important determinant of overall system sound, I find it really interesting that on a "Computer Audiophile" site, virtually no one has commented on how they go about choosing the digital and digital to analog equipment they have decided to own.

 

Of all the folks that have commented so vociferously on objective-versus-subjective choices and on double-blind testing, it amazes me that only four of you have made any comment here and of you four, only Mayhem 13 and esldude have come close to saying:

 

"Here is how I go about choosing what I will purchase for my own sound system."

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I find it really interesting that on a "Computer Audiophile" site, virtually no one has commented on how they go about choosing the digital and digital to analog equipment they have decided to own.

 

I'm sorry that I didn't make it clear, but my initial reply to your post essentially was my approach. The method of choosing digital equipment is, in principle, no different from that for choosing analog equipment, speakers aside. There is no magic pill. IMO, you have to decide how much you are prepared to spend, create a short list accordingly and, if possible, listen before you buy. Today, there are a number of DAC manufacturer's who sell directly to consumers and offer a money back guarantee if you are not satisfied. In choosing a DAC I would recommend that you purchase one capable of playing both PCM and DSD formats, even if your initial plan is only to rip CDs. Downloading hi res files in both formats may very well interest you in the future.

"Relax, it's only hi-fi. There's never been a hi-fi emergency." - Roy Hall

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." - William Bruce Cameron

 

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Although I would completely agree that choice of speakers is the most important determinant of overall system sound, I find it really interesting that on a "Computer Audiophile" site, virtually no one has commented on how they go about choosing the digital and digital to analog equipment they have decided to own.

 

Of all the folks that have commented so vociferously on objective-versus-subjective choices and on double-blind testing, it amazes me that only four of you have made any comment here and of you four, only Mayhem 13 and esldude have come close to saying:

 

"Here is how I go about choosing what I will purchase for my own sound system."

 

Basically even though some of replies haven't been in the format you'd hoped for, there is in fact no replacement for experience. I've been fortunate enough to be in the music industry in several capacities over the course of 35 years to have had MANY experiences relating to SQ quality and choosing the right equipment or acoustics for a particular need. I've also been able to realize when my ears or aural abilities were not the adequate tool to get the job done which leads towards my bias that there are no substitutes for accurate measurements and equipment.

 

My current area of interest is obviously home speaker system design. I can without reservation say that there is little to no chance of developing a multi way speaker without measurements........this simply couldn't be done by ear with any success beyond chance.

 

So yes, there is value in listening or auditioning gear before purchasing. But unless the small signal sources are auditioned through the identical front end as your own ( speakers and amp) or in an acoustic space very similiar to your own ( not likely) then not unlike designing speakers by ear, your success will be no better than random. Ever wonder what drives the arrival of new items and tweeks to audiophiles? Could it be that most are never really satisfied with their own systems? Ever wonder why that is?

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Ever wonder what drives the arrival of new items and tweeks to audiophiles? Could it be that most are never really satisfied with their own systems? Ever wonder why that is?

It's called progress. If there was no progress , you would be still using Philips tweeters like the

AD 0160 T8 in your boxes?

 

How a Digital Audio file sounds, or a Digital Video file looks, is governed to a large extent by the Power Supply area. All that Identical Checksums gives is the possibility of REGENERATING the file to close to that of the original file.

PROFILE UPDATED 13-11-2020

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It's called progress. If there was no progress , you would be still using Philips tweeters like the

AD 0160 T8 in your boxes?

 

Alex, I know it's difficult to resist responding to mayhem, but the OP wrote:

 

"Please no, arguments about what works or doesn't. I'm just really curious what the most avid posters here actually use to make your own purchase decisions. AND PLEASE DON'T COMMENT ON ANYONE ELSE'S ADVICE, JUST POST YOUR OWN."

 

I would expect that you may have some suggestions for him after reading his post #17. :)

"Relax, it's only hi-fi. There's never been a hi-fi emergency." - Roy Hall

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." - William Bruce Cameron

 

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... unless the small signal sources are auditioned through the identical front end as your own (speakers and amp) or in an acoustic space very similar to your own (not likely) then not unlike designing speakers by ear, your success will be no better than random.

 

Allan: Yes, thank you, you were one of very few that gave your approach.

 

Sandy: I actually think the interesting part of Mayhem's comment was not the part you quoted, but the first part of that same paragraph (see above). I do believe that both system synergies and in-room behavior is now so much of the "ultimate" sound that Mayhem is spot on in saying you really need to audition a piece of equipment in your system and listening environment in order to figure out whether it makes sense. We have made significant progress since those Phillips tweeters, but as a result the room and the interactions between equipment have probably become a bigger part of the overall equation.

 

The main reason I asked for people to respond rather than comment on each other's responses is that I assume there are a huge number of visitors to this site who want to learn, who rarely post and who are frightened off when the experts here get into hypertechnical arguments over who is right and who is wrong. But all of you have a huge amount to contribute to a newcomer in terms of what to listen for, how to evaluate, maybe even whom to listen to. :-)

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I would expect that you may have some suggestions for him after reading his post #17.

 

I find it really interesting that on a "Computer Audiophile" site, virtually no one has commented on how they go about choosing the digital and digital to analog equipment they have decided to own.

I have yet to see worthwhile advice in that area from the vast majority of the Objective crowd.

I can't offer that advice either,as much of my own gear is DIY. The choice in that area is obviously linked to what source material they wish to play. e.g. RB CD, high res LPCM or 128 DSD. Do they want analogue volume control, or do they want digital volume control ? Do they want surround sound, or are they happy with very good 2 channel ?

 

How a Digital Audio file sounds, or a Digital Video file looks, is governed to a large extent by the Power Supply area. All that Identical Checksums gives is the possibility of REGENERATING the file to close to that of the original file.

PROFILE UPDATED 13-11-2020

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I also like that you are suggesting that there may be different choices depending on whether you are trying to optimize, redbook, hi-res PCM or DSD inputs and that they may not be a single solution that does all three "best." On the surround vs 2-channel, I would, for purposes of this thread limit it to really good 2-channel. Thanks

Synology NAS>i7-6700/32GB/NVIDIA QUADRO P4000 Win10>Qobuz+Tidal>Roon>HQPlayer>DSD512> Fiber Switch>Ultrarendu (NAA)>Holo Audio May KTE DAC> Bryston SP3 pre>Levinson No. 432 amps>Magnepan (MG20.1x2, CCR and MMC2x6)

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