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Article: My Lying Ears


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Funny, I mentioned on the CA forum the other day something that happened to me regarding one of these apps. I write for Macworld, and some years ago I was asked to look at one of these audiophile players for a potential review. I tried it out for a while, and found no difference between this app and iTunes, at least in sound quality. I contacted the company - who will remain nameless, but let's just say it's one of the Big Names in Audiophile Music Player Apps - and had a phone call with the lead developer. In about a 30 or 40 minute conversation, he was unable to tell me exactly how his app was supposed to make the music sound better. There were some things, such as loading files into RAM, hog mode, and the like, which have (IMHO) questionable value, but aside from that, he simply couldn't tell me why his app sounded better.

 

Needless to say, we passed on the review.

I write about Macs, music, and more at Kirkville.

Author of Take Control of macOS Media Apps

Co-host of The Next Track podcast.

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*This* ought to set the cat amongst the pigeons. :)

 

My own view is that both Michael and the "other side" are right. I think we can be easily fooled *and* that subjective experience can ferret out surprising amounts of valuable information. A long time ago I ran a blind test here, and promised to sum up what I thought it all meant, which I haven't yet done. What I'll say at this point about my view is that our perceptions and especially the brain's internal processing are both specific and complex, and broad generalizations are thus unlikely to be completely correct.

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> iFi NEO iDSD DAC -> Apollon Audio 1ET400A Mini (Purifi based) -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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Great article Chris. Thank you for sharing.

 

I'd add that I've also found my ears/brain to be temporally inconsistent with respect to preferences. There have been instances when I found a change preferable at the end of a long day of listening, only to reverse the preference with a "fresh" set of ears the following day; and vice-a-versa.

 

Oh well, it could be worse!

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This is great. More self-effacing anecdotes are sorely needed on audiophile forums. You know, the place where everyone has a golden ear? I also think if more folks worked with microphones and DSP/room correction they would more likely encounter strange placebo observations like the one described here.

 

Last week I thought the bass was shy on a few albums. I didn't get to listen much, but I just blamed it on bad mastering/recording quality. A couple of days ago, I looked at the Lynx Hilo mixer and noticed that my subs had been reduced to -12db. I set them back to 0 and the bass was great again!

"Things happen, that's all they ever do", Dawes.

THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

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I concur with the author's conclusion. And have been ending my posts since I joined CA in 2011 most of the time with "enjoy the music" for that has always been my highly-valued criterion among the many. Lately with "music's the thing; the equipment seduces", given the innovations of hardware and software combinations that have been introduced most recently. I do not dispute the value of measurements for shaping an auditory outcome for designing and calibrating etc.

 

However, for me, sensory specific feedback is the "measurement" I rely on and trust above all no matter what the complex of "objective" measurements reveal.

 

What I hear has merit; and what I feel about what I hear is my pathway to the enjoyment of music. Differentiation in hardware and software synergies exist and Change is the true consant in the service of Truth. Ultimately, I am the best (only) instrument for the measurement of my enjoyment of music.

 

Thank you, Chris for another angle of appreciation for what brings us together.

 

Richard

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I wonder to what degree the lack of a "common language" holds back our ability to interpret and discuss what we like and dislike about audio products. In my own mind I try to break sound qualities into the following general buckets:

 

1. Frequency response (is it flat or at least linear if tilted down and to the right?) Although easily measured, room response effects can mess up an otherwise pristine starting point, so how sure are you about what you actually hear -- maybe a nonlinear piece of equipment well matches my non-linear room and sounds horrid in yours?)

 

2. Phase response and coherence Am I being negatively influenced by the arrival time of different frequencies at my ears? Most comments about good or bad imaging or sound stage probably fall into this category. Similar issue as #1 if incoherences are created by different pieces in the signal chain then the end result depends highly on equipment matching as some may cancel each other and others may reinforce the error. These are also measurable at the source, but can vary by listener position and ignores rear wave effects, particularly from dipole speakers.

 

3. Distortions (does one product seem to remove a haze that hides fine detail when compared to another?) This can include jitter, analog line noises, filtering artifacts, etc. so it's a big category but it seems clear that taking these away can "improve" the sound we hear). For example the "tighter bass" reported by most users here upon inserting an Uptone Regen in their system, I would interpret as having removed some form of clouding distortion. Similarly, a lot of the upsampling/filtering discussions appear to be about moving possible noise artifacts out of the audible range.

 

4. "Other" which can include stuff that is measurable and should really be its own category above (known others) and stuff that we think we hear but can't seem to either measure or define (unknown others). I would generally put comments like "more air," "smoother sound," "more analog sounding," "better prat," and "wider, deeper soundstage" into the unknown others category because we aren't really speaking to something that we can tie to a known or measurable equipment issue.

 

I would think that the more often we can assign a positive or negative experience to an identified bucket rather than the "other" category, the more likely that we can (a) agree about what we are hearing, and (b) address it. Stuff that stays in the other, and especially the unknown others category is likely to remain the subject of strong and often incoherent argument...

 

What other "defined" categories should be on my list above?

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I wonder to what degree the lack of a "common language" holds back our ability to interpret and discuss what we like and dislike about audio products. In my own mind I try to break sound qualities into the following general buckets:

 

1. Frequency response (is it flat or at least linear if tilted down and to the right?) Although easily measured, room response effects can mess up an otherwise pristine starting point, so how sure are you about what you actually hear -- maybe a nonlinear piece of equipment well matches my non-linear room and sounds horrid in yours?)

 

2. Phase response and coherence Am I being negatively influenced by the arrival time of different frequencies at my ears? Most comments about good or bad imaging or sound stage probably fall into this category. Similar issue as #1 if incoherences are created by different pieces in the signal chain then the end result depends highly on equipment matching as some may cancel each other and others may reinforce the error. These are also measurable at the source, but can vary by listener position and ignores rear wave effects, particularly from dipole speakers.

 

3. Distortions (does one product seem to remove a haze that hides fine detail when compared to another?) This can include jitter, analog line noises, filtering artifacts, etc. so it's a big category but it seems clear that taking these away can "improve" the sound we hear). For example the "tighter bass" reported by most users here upon inserting an Uptone Regen in their system, I would interpret as having removed some form of clouding distortion. Similarly, a lot of the upsampling/filtering discussions appear to be about moving possible noise artifacts out of the audible range.

 

4. "Other" which can include stuff that is measurable and should really be its own category above (known others) and stuff that we think we hear but can't seem to either measure or define (unknown others). I would generally put comments like "more air," "smoother sound," "more analog sounding," "better prat," and "wider, deeper soundstage" into the unknown others category because we aren't really speaking to something that we can tie to a known or measurable equipment issue.

 

I would think that the more often we can assign a positive or negative experience to an identified bucket rather than the "other" category, the more likely that we can (a) agree about what we are hearing, and (b) address it. Stuff that stays in the other, and especially the unknown others category is likely to remain the subject of strong and often incoherent argument...

 

What other "defined" categories should be on my list above?

 

I agree - I think this is hugely important. I wish reviewers, developers, and we listeners together would try to come up with verbal descriptions for the effects of various filter characteristics. Can we describe the sonic difference between a filter with group delay and one without? Linear phase and minimum phase? Aliasing/imaging vs. ringing? These are central to the sound of our DACs, yet we try to make do with a vocabulary developed to describe tubes and turntables.

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> iFi NEO iDSD DAC -> Apollon Audio 1ET400A Mini (Purifi based) -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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Great article, thank you Michael. It's so good to hear the voice of reason here.

 

"So to bring things back around: if some bit perfect audio players have devised a way to improve their sound they have presumably done so through careful testing, in which case they should be able to provide measurements (whether distortion measurements on an analog output, digital loopback measurements, measurements of the data stream going to the DAC, or something) that validates that claim."

 

That is the bottom line. There is no "other side" to a scientific result.

"The gullibility of audiophiles is what astonishes me the most, even after all these years. How is it possible, how did it ever happen, that they trust fairy-tale purveyors and mystic gurus more than reliable sources of scientific information?"

Peter Aczel - The Audio Critic

no-mqa-sm.jpg

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Nice story. And he is correct in what he is saying.

 

Only thing, my scope doesn't enjoy the music, I do. So if my ears tell me that this or that sounds better, then I am pretty much going to go with the ears. Why be discontent with an expensive music system? Sure, you can always make it better, but the cold hard facts are pretty plain- most of what we do to "improve" the sound is either just accounting for room distortions, equipment distortions, or distortions that only occur inside our heads.

 

Any of the three can ruin your enjoyment of the music. :)

 

-Paul

Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat DAC.

Robert A. Heinlein

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*This* ought to set the cat amongst the pigeons. :)
One of my favorite British expressions!

And a great work by Agatha Christie...

 

As to the original topic ... its always been my opinion that we have to be careful to divide observations (listening "proof") over what we enjoy, and observations that we present as evidence.

 

I have no problem with people saying "I enjoy listening to Music Player X more than Music Player Y" and that statement is there as their opinion and is not open to being questioned or requiring any justification. However when someone makes a statement along the lines of "I listened and Music Player X is clearly producing a better sound quality than Music Player Y" then I think that is being presented a "fact" and therefore is open to challenge over methodology used to come to that conclusion.

 

As an aside, I always feel such proof should include the fact that you can tell when things having changed. For example if you are "blind" testing two software players by having someone switch back and forward and asking you if can hear a differences, sometimes when they say they have changed, they should stick with the same player. Of course so many audiophiles will say any form of blind testing is too stressful and therefore the differences will always fail to be noticed...

 

Eloise

 

PS. measurement can never tell you which of two products sound "better"; it is simply a starting point for confirming that two products are even different in the first place (IMO).

Eloise

---

...in my opinion / experience...

While I agree "Everything may matter" working out what actually affects the sound is a trickier thing.

And I agree "Trust your ears" but equally don't allow them to fool you - trust them with a bit of skepticism.

keep your mind open... But mind your brain doesn't fall out.

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An interesting story, but I do not see how the bit perfect players relate to crossovers and EQ. In the article, the author got "lost in the weeds" and no longer had a good sonic reference point. Once things are askew, it IS hard to get back, but BP players do not do that. This could almost be read as an op ed for why JRiver lost the shootout.

Forrest:

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Thx Chris. I agree with you on this. However, I'd like to point out the following: I am a physicist by training (PhD in high energy experimental physics) and I believe that everything that can be heard in an audio system is measurable. The catch is you might not know what it is that you need to measure. Consider for example the MQA claim about time-correct response: the concept (talked about infinitely) of higher frequencies being subjected to a phase shift (akin to a time shift) as a source for a big difference in audio quality perception is something that is not entirely obvious. That is, even though the frequency response is "flat", the phase shift causes our brains to dislike the result. In other words, there might be subtle things that we are very sensitive to and less subtle things that don't matter as much. It might well be true that the reason higher res sounds better is because of the lack of phase shifts in the audible part of the spectrum than the actual frequency extension (obviously I am not saying anything new here). Bottomline: every true (non-placebo) effect must be measurable, it's just it might be tricky to figure out what to measure.

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great article - i suspect that most of the audio companies are aware of this phenomena and a lot of them use it to their advantage. however i feel some people will keep buying stuff no matter what. also we are contantly bomarded from all sides about products and the never ending tweaks. it is a real tough issue.

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Thx Chris. I agree with you on this. However, I'd like to point out the following: I am a physicist by training (PhD in high energy experimental physics) and I believe that everything that can be heard in an audio system is measurable. The catch is you might not know what it is that you need to measure. Consider for example the MQA claim about time-correct response: the concept (talked about infinitely) of higher frequencies being subjected to a phase shift (akin to a time shift) as a source for a big difference in audio quality perception is something that is not entirely obvious. That is, even though the frequency response is "flat", the phase shift causes our brains to dislike the result. In other words, there might be subtle things that we are very sensitive to and less subtle things that don't matter as much. It might well be true that the reason higher res sounds better is because of the lack of phase shifts in the audible part of the spectrum than the actual frequency extension (obviously I am not saying anything new here). Bottomline: every true (non-placebo) effect must be measurable, it's just it might be tricky to figure out what to measure.

 

And BTW... I want to add to this that, although I perceive differences in my system, for example with upsampling vs no upsampling, it is almost always the case that I cannot nail down the reasons for the differences (like frequency extension or bass authority or what have you). I just find I enjoy the music more with some configurations vs others.

NUC10i7 + ROCK > dCS Rossini Apex DAC + dCS Rossini Clock 

SME 20/3 + SME V 9” + Dynavector XV-1s > vdH The Grail

Audio Note Kondo Ongaku > Avantgarde Duo Mezzo

Signal cables: Kondo Silver, Crystal Cable phono

Power cables: Kondo, Shunyata, van den Hul

system pics

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Thanks for posting this. Being new to the "audiophile" world, I was perplexed by this article when I read it last night:

 

 

Two USB Cables | The Absolute Sound

 

 

Specificaly, how can the physical properties/quality of a usb cable specifically target "the middle range of the musical spectrum" of a digital signal? How can the "analog" electrical pulse that travels down a USB cable be effected in such a way (and it is of course influenced by its physical environment as all physical/"analog" signals are) that specifically targets digital information only in "the middle range of the musical spectrum", and in such a way that the buffer/DAC is "influenced" by said information change and passes it on down the chain? It defies any explanation that I am aware of - and I suspect it is all in the reviewers head.

 

 

Again, thanks for the perspective this essay provides...

Hey MQA, if it is not all $voodoo$, show us the math!

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Bottomline: every true (non-placebo) effect must be measurable, it's just it might be tricky to figure out what to measure.

 

Agree completely.

 

Those of us of a certain age recall when jitter was not yet a well known phenomenon outside the research community, when people who didn't like what they heard were told they were just being stubborn in refusing to accept the new format with superb measurables (vanishingly low wow and flutter!). Or before oversampling came into wide use, how they were ignoring the mathematical proof of the Sampling Theorem, and thus subjectively disliking essentially perfect reconstruction of the original sound.

 

Before even figuring out what to measure, you have to be aware something is there *to* be measured.

 

None of the most foregoing is to say that we aren't well capable of fooling ourselves.

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> iFi NEO iDSD DAC -> Apollon Audio 1ET400A Mini (Purifi based) -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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Just to make this more controversial. John Swenson has said that his Uptone Regen reduces ground plane noise and packet jitter which in turn reduces the reduces the jitter in the DAC clocks all of which are measurable but require very expensive equipments to measure. He believes these differences is what causes the audible sound improvements. What if the 3 different bit-perfect players happen to generate different amounts of ground plane noise on the USB bus... But then maybe it's all placebo...

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Just to make this more controversial. John Swenson has said that his Uptone Regen reduces ground plane noise and packet jitter which in turn reduces the reduces the jitter in the DAC clocks all of which are measurable but require very expensive equipments to measure. He believes these differences is what causes the audible sound improvements. What if the 3 different bit-perfect players happen to generate different amounts of ground plane noise on the USB bus... But then maybe it's all placebo...

 

Actually, John posted on another forum discussing different ways bit perfect software would affect sound, and Gordon Rankin chimed in to agree. And Damien of Audirvana Plus has written a white paper on it which is hosted on the website of the company that has the iFi line of products.

 

But what do they know? :)

 

Nevertheless it is fair to ask for confirming measurements, which are something I'm very curious to see as well.

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> iFi NEO iDSD DAC -> Apollon Audio 1ET400A Mini (Purifi based) -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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Actually, John posted on another forum discussing different ways bit perfect software would affect sound, and Gordon Rankin chimed in to agree. And Damien of Audirvana Plus has written a white paper on it which is hosted on the website of the company that has the iFi line of products.

 

But what do they know? :)

 

They know how to sell stuff.

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They know how to sell stuff.

 

Yes, John and Gordon were just preparing for the day when they would get into the software business (which hasn't happened yet - perhaps in the next decade, eh?). And Damien started out with his software open source and free, until he was ripped off and unfortunately had to close it. You or anyone else could have gone through the source code to see what it was actually doing, but somehow none of the "experts" who now confidently proclaims it cannot work ever bothered during the long period when it was open to examination.

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> iFi NEO iDSD DAC -> Apollon Audio 1ET400A Mini (Purifi based) -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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