Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

Audiophiles are music lovers who claim ordinary music fans are missing a range of high fidelity sound when playing music on ordinary equipment.  Audiophiles talk as if the difference between ordinary sound and high fidelity is like the difference between watching a TV show on an old black and white TV or on a new HD TV.  Are they on drugs?  Are we deaf to sounds only they can hear?  Are they just being snobs, sneering at us plebs for drinking $10 bottles of wine while they savior their $100 bottles?  Some people think audiophiles and their promotion of high-end audio equipment no more than modern day snake oil peddlers, and even if you had a degree in electrical engineering, you wouldn’t actual hear the difference between a $400 turntable and a $4,000 one.

maxell-ad

I have gone to a high end music shop and sat in a sonically ideal listening room and heard music from a $25,000 stereo and the sound quality was many magnitudes better than my $2,000 setup.  Few people want to be audiophiles if it costs a fortune, but what if you could significantly improve your existing sound system for a $100-$1000?  Maybe we’d all like to be junior audiophiles.

Most people just listen to their favorite tunes and never think about sound quality.  Few people even know that audiophiles exist.  Compare the two this way.   Most people are happy to get a meal at McDonalds, it’s filling, quick and reasonably tasty.  Those are your average music fans. Audiophiles are gourmets  that only dine at 5-star restaurants who then talk and write endlessly about what they just ate.

There are damn few audiophiles in this world, and I’m not one of them, although if I wasn’t so cheap, I’d like to be.  However, I’m intrigued by the idea of high fidelity and how music is recorded.  I would think anyone would be fascinated by how audio engineers record music in a studio and convert that sound into a very long streams of 1s and 0s, and then we convert those 00100111101100101001s back to music that goes into our ears.

It’s very hard to imagine how we hear Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” when we look at the microscopic pits on a CD:

cd-pits

Of course, this compares to the old days of cutting tiny but visible grooves into vinyl platters where a very small needle would ride along the groove and recreate the vibrations of the recording.  Neither recording technique sounds plausible to me, but then like Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any significantly advanced technology will seem indistinguishable from magic.”

And it’s no easier to understand how we’d hear Beethoven coming out of these squiggles.  It is magic!

record-grooves3

As a kid I wondered why stereo records didn’t require two grooves and needles, one for each speaker.  And I would try to imagine how they got so many instruments and vocals squeezed down to one physical squiggle that the needle would interpret.  Making all those sounds into ones and zeroes is just mind boggling!  How many people actually know how to re-invent CD recording?

Neil Young will be promoting in 2013 a new device called Pono that will deliver master tape quality to the masses, with the promise that record companies have already converted 8,000 albums to 192 kHz 24 bit files for his new system.  When you look at Young’s Pono player, you really wonder about the magic of audiophile technology in such a small device.

pono

When I think about sound recording I imagine a band on a stage with two microphones recording the performance, then taking that recording and decoding it so it’s reproduced by the two speakers in my den.  What I would like to hear is the same sound I would have heard if I had been in the audience at that concert.  We don’t actual hear the same sound, we hear an approximation.  The question of music quality comes from how close we can get to hearing what was performed.

We can all tell the difference between a sharply focused photograph and a fuzzy out-of-focus picture.  What audiophiles are suggesting is most people can’t hear the different between a good and bad recording.

Over the years audiophiles have argued millions of words over the superior sound quality of vinyl records versus CDs or vice versa.  Unless you want to read a tremendous amount of technical jargon its very hard to understand this discussion scientifically.  What I’ve decided to do is just use my own ears and make a subjective decision.

I love music enough to make the effort to improve my listening equipment.  I’m thinking I can be a cheapskate half-ass audiophile pretender and get more sound quality to enjoy for not much effort and money.  I’m willing to study a certain amount about improving high fidelity, and I’m willing to spend a little money.  Recently I got back into vinyl and I’ve taking a chance by spending $200 on a new turntable hoping it will get me better sound.  It’s like spending a few bucks on headphones to improve the sound over stock ear buds that comes with Apple and Android devices.

A quantum leap in sound quality can be achieved by going from an iPhone with stock ear buds to a  modest CD, receiver and speaker setup.  Adding a turntable adds a whole new dimension of sound from vinyl.  But is vinyl worth the effort?  Many young people are jumping from digital music  to old turntable stereos they’ve scrounged from their parent’s attics or found at flea markets or garage sales.  Would they be better off skipping the trendy record player and just getting a CD player?  If they’ve already set up a surround sound system for their TVs or video games, they might be interested to know that those DVD and Blu-ray players also play music CDs.  Or adding the right powered speakers to a laptop, desktop or mobile device can add significant sound quality to playing music from iTunes.

Since I’ve been getting back into playing vinyl records I’ve also been thinking about their sound quality as compared to CDs and .mp3 files.  Some vinyl enthusiasts claim vinyl sounds better, but I believe this is only subjective.  I’ve read a lot on this topic and I’ll have to call it a theoretical draw.

I decided to do my own very limited listening test.  I only have 16 albums at the moment, with only a few overlaps with CDs and songs available on Rdio.  For my test song I used “Dreamsville” from the Peter Gunn soundtrack by Henry Mancini.  You can hear the song here from Youtube.  Play it very loud if you can.

It’s a nice cut to use because it has soft and loud parts, and solos from several instruments, and a lot of different sound textures to compare.

Listening is a very subjective experience.  Everyone has different ears, hearing ability and musical training.  I played “Dreamsville” on my stereo system through floor standing Infinity speakers cranked up loud.  I had a CD input, an Aux input for the turntable and TV input for the Roku where I listened to Rdio for the streaming .mp3 version.  Admittedly I have an older turntable, with a cheap pre-amp, but I believe I’m getting a pretty good sound from my records.

Playing “Dreamsville” over and over, and switching between the inputs, it was pretty obvious that the record lacked the highs and lows that the CD had.  Even the .mp3 file was in the middle of the two formats.  The streaming music was much closer to the CD in sound quality.  One disadvantage of the LP is it plays softer than the CD and .mp3 file, so I would have to pump up the volume when playing the record.

No matter how loud I played the record I couldn’t get the complex sounds I heard on the CD.  I made my comparisons by concentrating on the brassy sound of the horns, the high tinkling notes of the piano keys, the range of textures of the brushes on the drums, the deeper vibrations of the trombones, the fuller twangs of the electric guitar and so on.  Records do sound warm compared to CDs, but that’s because CD have a lot more treble and more bass range than vinyl.  And I suppose that extra texture can sound harsh to some people.

Then the UPS guy delivered my new turntable, an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB and it proved the audiophiles are right – spending more money gets you a lot more sound quality.  Repeating the tests, the LP now sounded much more dynamic, with tons more bass, and a lot more textured sound than the older turntable.  This goes to show that a newer, superior cartridge with new stylus could make a lot of difference, and another factor was the turntable had it’s own pre-amp that might have been much better than the cheap one I had.  It makes me wonder what I’d hear if I bought a $400 turntable or a $900 one.

Look at this table I’ve copied by screenshot from Enjoy the Music web site, and the article “Fidelity Potential Index: iPod, MP3, CD, LP, SACD – What Sounds Better and Why” by John Meyer.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

Fidelity Potential Index

By the numbers the quality should be .mp3 then LP then CD, but I didn’t perceive things that way.  Their Fidelity Potential Indexes are MP3=3.2, LP=4.2-6.3, and CD=7.1.  In comparison, a SACD is 35.0 FPI and a 24bit master is 46.1.  This leads me to believe that my old record and old turntable might be far from optimal quality, and the new one closer to what a record can actual do.  I guess that’s why vinyl fans spend lots of money on turntables and pre-amps.

My guess is .mp3 files and CDs played loud on a good stereo (not audiophile, merely good) will sound better than the average old turntable on the same system.  So for casual music listening CDs or .mp3 files are plenty good enough, so pick whatever is convenient, although I do think CDs sound better and are worth the trouble to listen to when you want to do some serious listening.

For the average music fan formats don’t matter.  If you want better fidelity you’ll need to spend some money, but how much is relative.

I’m really enjoying getting back into records and my new turntable makes me enjoy them all the more.  I still think the CD sounds best, but I actual enjoy buying and listening to records.  I guess it’s part nostalgia and part ritual.

So Why Buy Vinyl?

The reason why I got back into vinyl is because I want to hear records that I can’t get on CD or from Rdio/Rhapsody.  And it’s fun to play records sometimes, to enjoy the old way of listening to things.

One thing I learned from this test is not to buy records if I have them on CD or from streaming music.  This means the fun of playing vinyl is shopping for out-of-print records.  But records are good enough sounding that if I found albums under $5 that I don’t have on CD they are worth buying.  Spending $5 for an album I have on Rdio is just wasteful.  It’s a hard decision if the choice is between a $5 used album and a CD a on sale for less than $10.

I’ll play CDs, SACDs, LPs, and MP3s.  If absolutely everything was available on streaming music services like Rdio and Rhapsody I’d probably abandon all physical media.  I tend to believe 10 or 20 years from now everything will be streaming and physical records will only be played by folks sentimental for quaint technology.

What If Ripping Music Never Had Happened?

If music was still just a physical medium how would things be different now?  My guess is SACDs would rule.  If MP3 had never existed and people still bought CDs, I think vinyl would have disappeared just like 78s.  We’d still have LP collectors like we do with 78 collectors, but CDs would dominate, and maybe the newer Super Audio CDs (SACD) would have caught on.  When music became free because stealing songs became so easy and widely accepted by the young, it ruined more than just the music business.  I think it ruined the high fidelity concept.   Even now when more people are paying for digital files, their convenience has kept Hi-Fi sound quality from being an issue.

iTunes and the other digital music services have also ruined the concept of the album.  If we had never gone down the downloadable road, I think we’d have SACDs or better formats, with artists creating super-sized concept albums.  And without physical media I’m not sure if we’d have audiophiles.  It is possible that iTunes, Google and Amazon could sell 24-bit FLAC files , and Rdio, Spotify, Rhapsody and other subscription services could stream them, but there’s little demand.  People have gotten used to lo-fi convenience of .mp3 files.

Most people do not know about audiophiles and high end audio equipment.  It doesn’t matter to them.  An iTunes song played on an iPhone with stock ear buds is good enough.  If the hip young are rediscovering records and how much better they sound, maybe those same kids will become audiophiles and rediscover CDs, SACDs and 24-bit FLAC files.  Pirated music led a generation of music lovers down a dark tunnel of lo-fi music, and I hope the resurgence of vinyl is an indication that hi-fidelity is the light at the end of that tunnel.

How to Hear High Fidelity Without Buying the Equipment

One way to hear music at its best is at a movie theater.  Most good theaters have excellent multi-channel stereo systems.  Have you ever wondered why songs sounded fantastic at the show, but ho-hum at home?  What you hear at the theater is the high fidelity that studio engineers work so hard to record.  What you hear is closer to the 100% of the recording that Neil Young talks about when he complains that fans only hear 5% of the potential music when they are listening to a .mp3 file, or 15% when they listen to a CD.

JWH – 11/20/12

13 Responses

  1. I remember how astonished I was at a concert hearing some notes I never knew existed at the beginning of The Waltz by Ravel. When I baught a HiFi device, I carried this LP to the shop to do the testing! And when CDs started, there was no turning point for me : not only for the quality of the sound but because I could hear the whole piece whitout interruption (you don’t have to go up and turn the LP in the middle of the concerto!).
    Having said so, I must admit even CDs can’t do justice to percussion. I like to listen to African or Japan drums, but it’s a far cry from a live performance.

    • I’ll have to get a copy of The Waltz by Ravel. I wish I could test your experienced ears against SACD and 24-bit FLAC recordings to see if they are worth the upgrade. Can any recording technology ever compete with live performances? By the Fidelity Index, a SACD is 7 times better than a CD, and 24bit FLAC is 8 times better.

  2. Jim, I know that hearing ability varies, but as a skeptic, I just can’t accept your conclusions about that $25,000 setup without a double-blind test.

    After all, you knew that it was an expensive setup in a high-end audio shop. And it was in a “sonically ideal listening room,” not where you normally listen to music. So of course you’re going to think it was “many magnitudes better.” How could you not?

    Here’s my suggestion: Buy that $25,000 audio equipment and set it up at home, in addition to your current setup. Fix up a switch, so your wife can select one or the other, without either of you knowing which is which. Then compare the sounds.

    Don’t worry, I’ll accept the conclusions of a double-blind test like that. And sure, it will cost you $25,000, but science is worth a little expense, isn’t it? :)

    • I wish I could conduct such an experiment Bill! I wish I was rich enough to compare a $25,000 system against a $100,000 system.

      The Amazing Randi has challenged some audiophiles over their claims, and the manufacturers have backed down.

      But I have easier way to prove my assertion for the price of a movie ticket. Go see The Silver Lining Playbook. At one point in the movie they play “Girl from the North Country” from Nashville Skyline with both Dylan and Johnny Cash singing. I’m guessing the stereo system in a movie theater costs more than $10-20,000 and maybe a good deal more. I bet even old skeptical you would say the high fidelity of the theater is several magnitudes greater than an iPhone or what you hear on average computer speakers. I think it’s at least 10x better than my system, if not more.

      • Ah, but that has the same problem, Jim. It’s not a double-blind test, and you’re not going to have the same setup in your living room, anyway (unless you buy the movie theater and move in there). :)

        Now, obviously it’s going to be better than an iPhone. And I’m not saying you wouldn’t be able to tell a $25,000 music system from a crystal-radio set, either. But we are influenced by what we expect to hear, so I’d just really like to see someone accept The Amazing Randi’s challenge.

      • The Amazing Randi challenge I heard about was over some $7500 audio cables.

        I do suppose a lot of high fidelity listening could be mental, but I doubt it. But there are mental factors when it comes to listening to music. The more you concentrate the more you hear. The more you listen the better you hear. Practice makes perfect kind of thing. But loudness is a factor. If music is played louder it’s obvious the quieter parts standout, but I think there’s another mental factor at play. If you play music loud it tricks your brain into paying more attention.

        I’m positive my new turntable creates a greater range of sound. For one, the bass stands out. It stands out in my ears, but it also makes the windows rattle, which is didn’t before. It stands out because I can feel the bass. And all I did was unplug the old turntable and plug in the new one. No settings were changed on the receiver.

  3. Jim, granted that it appears that you have plenty of time for your aural explorations, but isn’t this getting a bit out of hand? I mean, these recent posts are about sound, not music, and there’s a hell of a difference there. I remember listening to an old favorite cassette through a vintage Philips player and single mono speaker and being blissed out by the stuff. So what if it didn’t cost thousands of dollars? As I have often emphasized, it’s the experience of listening to the MUSIC more than anything else – music resonates on physical, psychological, emotional, and, often, even spiritual levels. And no piece of outboard equipment can improve on how our individual brain truly perceives (and processes) the sounds entering it, whatever the medium. If you are just comparing sound and its aural qualities in reproduction, you don’t need Henry Mancini soundtracks or Neil Young – why not just some test tones generated from a digital software test source…? http://www.nch.com.au/tonegen/index.html

    • Lee, it does sound like I’m focusing purely on sound, but that would be wrong. When I first got into music I listened on an AM clock radio. I also had a portable 5 transistor AM radio. Those were were the best music years of my life That’s how I imprinted on music. But over the years I’ve gotten better and better stereos and gotten hooked on fuller fidelity. Think of it as starting out by smoking pot, and then getting hooked on heroin, and now all I can think about is the purity of product because of how it makes me higher.

      It’s all about the music. The last album was J. J. Cale. Before that Merle Haggard, before that Genesis.

      I spend a lot of time at a computer, either at home or work, and I listen to music through decent speakers while I program or write. But what I love is to sit in the den with the lights down low, and play music loud and devote all my attention to the music.

      I always love music, but I love it best when it’s fat and full and lush.

      Hearing Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash sing “Girl from the North Country” yesterday in the theater made my day. The sound was great. Theater owners might make more money playing music than showing movies – I’d pay $10 to listen to music on their stereo systems cranked up loud for two hours.

      I can’t believe Lee that you don’t have a much better sound system than I do since I think you love music more than I do. Doesn’t the quality of the sound mean something to you?

      • Boy, is THAT ever a strange question for me to respond to – well, here goes:
        At this very moment I am listening to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ Cold Roses album on vinyl. I am also enjoying a chalice of Golden Monkey trippel bock ale, and occasionally stirring a lentil soup started earlier in a crock-pot. My family is enjoying this scenario as well. The LP is playing on my decidedly vintage (1980s) stereo system with decent amp, turntable, and two sets of speakers, all residing in my living room, and thus using the ambient resonance of my living room walls, etc. It’s loud enough to be heard throughout a two-story house, but not ear-splittingly so. From my study, where I am typing this, it actually sounds like a band is playing somewhere in the house – clear enough to make out all the words, instrumentation, etc. but not necessarily up to “audiophile” standards. And… I am enjoying the hell out iof it! ‘Nuff said.

      • I can dig that. I clicked on Rdio and put Cold Roses on too. I wish I had some lentil soup. I’m going to go poke through the Thanksgiving leftovers to see what I can find to eat.

        By the way, I went to Goner Records today and found a Roger McGuinn solo album, Barry McGuire’s album with “Eve of Destruction,” an early Janis Ian album, Robin Trower with Jack Bruce album, and several others.

        Jim

  4. My only problem is finding an mp3 player that will go seriously loud.

    I go for FLAC recordings on an ordinary MP3 player. Toss out the free earphones and get some earbuds in the $50 range, but burn them in with a pink noise mp3 recording set to repeat for 10-12 hours.

    Hard to beat.

  5. [...] Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity [...]

  6. [...] Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity [...]

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