Silly audiophile claims … 1

I’ve been into HiFi since I was a callow youth, well before digital audio was even being recorded by the major studios, let alone made available as a consumer format. I was thrilled with the introduction of the compact disc. So thrilled, I understand that I was the second person in Canberra to buy a CD player — a Sony CDP-101. I never even seriously considered the rival Philips unit, because I felt that settling on a 14 bit DAC was a betrayal of the format.

This little monster cost $1,200 … in 1983 currency! And it was worth every cent.

There were problems. Some of the early CDs had clearly been ported from tapes EQed for LP, and so had a sharp upper midrange that could almost part your hair, and accordingly felt rather bass light. In addition, most high quality stereo systems had been ‘voiced’ to sound best with LP, and often again added a decibel or two in the same upper midrange area.

But the freedom from surface noise, wow!

And, of course, things have just gotten better.

But there were digital naysayers right from the beginning. One thing soon became clear: some were totally clueless about the technology, and entirely irrational.

The most egregious example that I came across was one well regarded UK hifi writer who produced a lengthy article on one of the magazines. I cannot now recall the name of either the writer or the magazine, and it never occurred to me to retain it over the last quarter century. So you will be quite entitled to doubt what I write since I can’t prove it without devoting an enormous amount of time to finding it.

Anyway, the author was bemoaning digital technology for removing all musicality from the music. If I recall correctly, he was experimenting with the Sony PCM-501ES. This was an interface that allowed 16 bit, 44.1kHz stereo digital audio to be recorded using a VCR as the recording device. Pretty clever bit of kit, really.

So he’d done some live recording, and was totally unsatisfied when he played it back. I seem to recall that he used adjectives like ‘sterile’.

I don’t know. Perhaps he was right. 16 bit/44.1kHz was still pretty cutting edge stuff then, and arguably ADCs and DACs couldn’t do a decent job (which is why Philips started off with 14 bits of resolution).

But I also know that he was wrong. Because he fixed the recording (he reported).

How? He dubbed it onto analogue tape using a Revox reel-to-reel recorder, and this very act restored the musicality that had been lost by the digital process.

That’s what I mean by irrational. You can’t restore something that doesn’t exist. If this musicality wasn’t there, somewhere, in the digital recording, how could a dub restore it?

Clearly the non-linearities and phase shifting inherent in analogue magnetic tape recording had introduced a type of distortion that made his recording sound more like what he was used to.

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7 Responses to Silly audiophile claims … 1

  1. Victor says:

    Well, I actually concur with his view. I recently took some amateur home movies with my digital camera, but the results were too sterile. The movies were too digital and had lost their “amateurishness”. So, I dubbed them to a VHS tape and the “amateurishness” was restored. I can definitely recommend this process if you want to look like an amateur.

  2. Stephen Dawson says:


  3. Michael Cuddihy says:

    Stephen – your cynical tendencies seemed to have come to the fore recently. Perhaps from all the Xmas advertising…

  4. Stephen Dawson says:

    Nah, I’m always cynical. I’ve reviewed several thousand products, and goodly proportion of them have been proclaimed by their manufacturers’ PR reps as the greatest advance in the history of home entertainment, or some such. Which is always crap.

    So it’s test, test, test. Including testing myself. I’ve fooled myself on subjective impressions before, and I hope have generally caught myself in time. Too many people in my line of work think that they have god-like powers of perception.

    I would like to goad some of them into putting themselves to the test. I’m pretty certain of two things:

    1. they will fail the test (ie. be unable in double blind conditions to pick the difference between, say, two sets of cables); and

    2. within hours begin to rationalise their failure as being some problem with methodology, or the presence of a sceptic being off-putting, or indeed anything other than the possibility that they, like everyone else, are capable of fooling themselves.

    The reason for this rash of stuff was a claim by someone I follow on Twitter than they had listened to an AudioQuest USB cable, and it was ever so much better than a regular one. I demurred (in 140 characters or less), they responded with a straw man, and so on. All this made me recall some of the more ludicrous claims I’ve come across in the past, which I thought I might as well record here.

  5. Craig says:

    I’d like to see someone who thinks 44.1k/16-bit is PCM ‘not good enough’ compare it in a double-blind listening test to AAC 256 kbs (VBR) to see if they can hear a difference.

  6. Craig says:


  7. Stephen Dawson says:

    I’d second that Craig. 24 bit is useful as a recording format, because you can allow several bits for headroom, just in case, without resulting in an objectionably high noise floor. But after any processing and mixing, output it at 16 bits. There is arguably more in favour of extending the sampling speed, but even so concerns about phase shift in the top octave due to hard anti-aliasing filters for 44.1kHz are probably overblown.

    I actually use MP3 rather than AAC for my portable audio needs. Ensures wider compatibility. These days, since storage is so capacious and cheap, I encode at 320kbps. Generally the results are excellent. The killer for MP3, though, is solo harpsichord.

    What’s often amusing is when some people describe what they think are the deficiencies of MP3, AAC or other lossy formats. They talk about loss of musicality. They talk about ‘missing’ elements or even instruments in the music. When in fact the clear deficiencies of excessively compressed audio manifest in very different ways.

    All you have to do to work out what they are is to use your favourite MP3 encoder to compress something to 64kbps or less.

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