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The best 'source' for music? Download 24 bit? Vinyl? Or ?

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My last vinyl setup was a Thorens TD-125 with a Decca London Arm and an A-T OC9 MC cartridge.  That fed an Aragon 47k that went to my Klipsch-upgrade ACT-3.  Then I discovered DVD-Audio.  IMO, 24/96k equals vinyl and 24/192k exceeds it.  Obviously a good recording is needed. 


Wanna buy a 47k? 

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Most R2R consumer decks can’t even erase pro-grade tape, much less exploit its superior sound quality. So don’t slap an ATR reel on the Sears Silvertone R2R you picked up for 10 bucks at a garage sale. This tape is designed for high-speed (15 ips) machines, like the UHA Phase 12. At $24,000, this modded out Tascam BR-20 is a ridiculously over-engineered piece of gear. The platform is a Teac deck that gained a reputation in the '90s as a studio workhorse. The UHA modifications, however, are so extensive, both cosmetically and mechanically, that the only thing the Phase 12 has in common with a stock BR-20 are its dimensions. From the "hyper pure" (99.99 percent) cast silver wiring, to the electromagnetic shielding made out of mu-metal (an exotic alloy used to make satellites), the attention to detail is nuts. Even the fuse is overkill squared. The Quantum Red is a ceramic fuse made with a rare alloy that’s been zapped with a Tesla coil running 2 million volts. UHA owner Greg Beron says it’s OCD engineering like this that make the Phase 12 superior to the world’s best turntables.


AKAI GX-747, William Franklin via Flickr.

It was Beron’s earlier Phase 11 deck that audiophile bible The Absolute Sound pitted against one of the most highly regarded turntables, the Proscenium Black Diamond V. When the shootout was over, and all the sonic dust had settled, the six-figure turntable — a linear-tracking, air bearing (yes, like an electron microscope) precision instrument with more industry awards than the Honda Accord — had been vanquished. To say this caused a stir within the vinyl-centric hi-fi community is putting it mildly. If your prized possession — a $120,000 turntable rig that TAS recently praised as "the highest-fidelity phonograph on the market" — had just been kicked to the curb by a tape deck, sedatives and grief counseling would be in order.

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38 minutes ago, Derrick said:

There is a reason why a Ferrari 250 GTO is worth $40 million versus a far superior (technically) modern day Ferrarri for whole lot less. Feel, life, human spirit. It's not just about the specs

I remember reading about it In road and track back when they were worth $250k over 30 years ago.  I couldn't afford one then either.  A lousy recording can't be made better by higher res files for sure!  Might be why hdtracks doesn't tell you anything about the source or mastering of their files.  It has been hit or miss for me.

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When we think of the history of audio, it appears to be a series of continuous improvements, from primitive origins to our current state of the digital art. The earliest recorded music, Edison wax cylinders from the 1890's, were indeed crude, just as iPods and iPads are extremely sophisticated. No one wants to use a television or computer from 5 or even 10 years ago. Yet somewhere in the progression of music reproduction technology in the 20th Century, the quality of sound did not improve and even declined. This deterioration is so counterintuitive it requires more than just an explanation. We need to look at the history of audio reproduction to understand what happened.


It's impossible to know when man started to make music. Perhaps it was even before man was human, or Homo Sapiens. It is safe to assume it was a very long time ago. Some conjecture that music is a defining quality of what makes humans human. But one thing is certain- for at least tens of thousands of years, when music was made, you had to be present to hear it. A much larger number of people played an instrument, or sang, because that was simply the only way to have music. The advent of musical reproduction should be seen as a watershed in human civilization, and a high point in the history of technology. And the history of musical reproduction turns out to reveal a hidden secret about technology in general, one that belies our implicit faith that technology is like evolution in the natural world.

Virtually everyone today is immersed in music. It may come from your iPhone or iPod, but you certainly endure it in nearly every shop, store or public venue. Music is everywhere, and for most, costs nothing. And what costs nothing, is often considered without value.

When music was first reproduced, the situation was entirely different. The fact that you could hear music without being present for its live performance was nothing less than magical. Before electronic microphones, musicians and singers had to perform into long conical horns, which fed a mechanical transducer that cut the signal onto a cylinder and later, a record. It was the actual force of the voice or instrument which physically moved the transducer which created the signal on the recording medium.

Electronic microphones arrived in the 1920's, and changed everything. A voice or instrument could now be electronically amplified, and anything could be recorded, such as a symphony orchestra.

The 1920's were a period of unprecedented prosperity in the United States and Europe. An enormous amount of money and effort was expended in the US, Germany, and elsewhere to develop the technology for advanced sound reproduction- meaning the telephone, microphones, recording technology for records, radio, and of course, talking motion pictures. Movies were an integral part of life like television or the internet are today. There were newsreel theaters in major cities that functioned like television, and ran 24/7. The invention of the “talkies” or movies with sound was an enormous event. It immediately and permanently changed film and all media.

Two huge corporations would literally dominate American and even worldwide communications technology for most of the 20th Century: RCA and Western Electric. These companies were responsible for nearly everything we take for granted today- the telephone system, RCA (at the time Victrola) invented record technology, created television, the VCR, and both were responsible for virtually all of the seminal development of sound for motion pictures, which is the reason for this essay.

It's useful to remember that in the 1920's and early 30's, when the most significant theoretical and engineering work was being done by W.E (Bell Labs) and RCA, there were no computers, no space program or nuclear energy or weapons, and WW2 was not even on the horizon. The best minds in the world were working on the problem of how to reproduce sound effectively and realistically, and one of the most difficult challenges was how to make sound work in movies. It obviously requires a lot of sound, and that was a problem.

Theaters were not the small multiplexes of today. They were usually enormous caverns often holding thousands of people. Theaters have lots of upholstered seats, heavy drapery, and the audience themselves absorb a lot of sound, making sound reproduction even more difficult. The demand for loudness was great, but the first generations of amplifiers, which used the simplest type of vacuum tube, called a triode, produced very little power, usually not more than 10 watts per amplifier. Even if you had multiple amplifiers, which were very large and expensive, the total power available to produce credible sound for a big audience was tiny, much less than any mass produced audio amplifier made today. How did they turn so little power into so much sound?


The answer was horns. Not that horns were a new thing- since antiquity, horns were used to make music, to communicate over long distances (those long Swiss ones) and to destroy buildings (Jericho, the Old Testament.) Engineers at Bell Labs and Western Electric (Wente, Thuras, Fletcher) and RCA (Volkman, Masa, Olson) took horns to a new level. These new horn loaded loudspeakers, which were very large and located behind the screen (see the essay “Why Horns”) were so efficient that they could convert the tiny electric power of the triode vacuum tube amplifiers into plausible, realistic sound levels in even the largest theaters. Without the aid of computers, in an almost miraculous way, these engineers mastered problems in acoustics and psycho-acoustics which are difficult even today, with our battery of modern technology.

Even die hard audiophiles, including the people who write audio magazines in the US like Stereophile or The Absolute Sound have never heard (or have any idea) about this combination of low powered triode amplifiers and large, horn loaded speakers. It has become the secret domain of a tiny group of advanced audiophile collectors, mainly in Japan and Asia, who have bought most of the vintage equipment that remained in North American theaters after World War II. There are only a few hundred such systems in use in the world today. What happened to make something that sounded so good simply disappear?


Most of us measure technology by its benefits. Computers get smaller, thinner, lighter, cheaper and more powerful every year. Those computers now allow us to store inconceivable amounts of information for a tiny sum, including music. Convenience and economy would seem to be the end of the story for most people, who now view music as wallpaper, background, or just distraction. Music is no longer an event, an end in itself, or most importantly, a source of deep pleasure and spiritual renewal. It can't be, because it has been hollowed out at the core. This destruction has happened in several distinct ways. Let's start by looking at why those great cinema loudspeaker systems from the 1930's disappeared.


Before WWII, all cinema loudspeakers, which were mounted in horns, used a speaker “driver” which is essentially an electrical motor. An electrical signal (from the movie soundtrack) is turned into mechanical movement (of the drivers diaphragm) and this produces the sound, which is greatly increased by the horn. In the early days of cinema sound, permanent magnets powerful enough to make the driver work properly did not exist- the metallurgy after the war made them possible. The early drivers all used “field coil” technology, which was electromagnetic. These field coils were very expensive to make, and because the permanent magnets were so much cheaper, the early technology was discarded as soon as possible (after WWII.)

Equally important, the triode amplifiers of the first generation of sound systems, being low powered, were quickly replaced by pentode and tetrode type vacuum tubes, which were acknowledged to sound inferior, but again were cheaper and produced far more power.With the economic boom in the US after WWII, and the introduction of the LP record, and a lot of men trained in electronics by the war effort, home audio enjoyed enormous popularity. Because sound was monophonic, only one speaker was necessary, and they were always large, and virtually all of them used at least one horn, a vestige of the work done on cinema sound decades before. These speakers were all high efficiency, because amplifiers for the home rarely boasted more than 20 watts of power.

Power in audio is of the utmost importance, because it dictates how efficient, and thus how big, your speaker must be. Low power means a big speaker, which is a more expensive speaker, but a better sounding speaker. With more powerful tube types, speakers could be reduced in size and cost. The tipping point came with the introduction of solid state amplifiers; transistors replaced tubes entirely. If a watt of tube amplifier power cost $10, a watt of solid state cost 25 cents. Suddenly, loudspeakers did not have to be large at all- you can engineer a tiny speaker to produce the same sound pressure level as a big speaker, if you hit it with 100 times the power. Since power was cheap, and efficient speakers were expensive, the combination of cheap power and cheap, small speakers drove the audio industry into a downward spiral of sound quality from which it has never recovered. Solid state amplifiers continue to increase in power and decrease in cost. In turn, speaker manufacturers reduce the size of their product to conform with the perceived desire of the consumer for a speaker as small as possible. The actual result is ever worsening sound, with most people today having no real stereo system at all, and a tiny, insular “high end” audio industry which is dying.


Few things are more deceptively simple than the vinyl record. It has been around for over a century, so how could anything that old work so well? Just as the original patent for the moving coil loudspeaker of Rice and Kellogg (1924) nailed the design of every cone speaker ever made since, the record was a stunning technical achievement which is still unsurpassed for audio quality (excepting master tape, from which records are cut.)

It sounds vaguely Luddite, but the earliest vinyl format, the 78rpm record, is still technically by far the best. Almost all surviving 78's have a lot of groove damage (played by countless steel or cactus needles) and surface noise, but if you listen past that, something amazing happens. There is a lifelike quality, which is no mystery- 78's spin much faster that 33rpm records, and with faster playback speed, more sonic information is conveyed. But 78's only contain a few minutes of music per side, and were quickly replaced by the LP or Long Playing Microgroove record, the monophonic precursor to stereo sound.

Records, whether 33rpm, 45 or 78, contain musical information in the “analog” format, which means the signal is continuous. A little tiny diamond point, sitting on the end of a tiny stick of aluminum, sapphire, boron or other material (the “cantilever”) literally traces the musical signal in a record's grooves which look like squiggles and bumps. That tracing movement is turned into incredibly tiny electrical signals inside the cartridge, by the movement of magnets or coils at the other end of the cantilever. It's like an electrical motor, but in reverse. This is all taking place at a physical scale so small it belongs in nanotechnology, with electrical signals that can be so infinitesimal that they are nearly on the molecular scale (pico volts.) The fact that this works at all is remarkable, but that it works better than anything we have today, in terms of sound quality, is mind boggling.

The problem with records is that they were expensive to make, as were record players and everything associated with analog reproduction. The compact disc was supposed to take care of that- no more scratched or dirty records, broken needles, and of course, the CD was far cheaper to make, about 20% of the cost of making an LP. The original marketing slogan for the CD was “Perfect Sound Forever” TM even though it was understood by Philips and Sony, the creators of the CD, that the sampling rate was far too low, with the final irony being that the material from which CD's were made is now decomposing quickly, rendering many, if not all CD's worthless in the future. The unintentional byproduct of making music digital, for the music industry, was its own destruction. The major labels used the introduction of the new format and technology to both raise the price of music for consumers (CD's were more expensive to buy than LP's, even if much cheaper to manufacture) and force people to abandon their analog music collection to conform with the new market reality. What they never anticipated was a Pandora's box- with music now a stream of bits, it could be easily and endlessly copied, destroying the market for the physical purchase of music.

It has been 30 years since the CD format was introduced, and by now, even in the high end audio industry, no one is saying that digital is better than vinyl. If you open an audio magazine, it's common to see ads for extremely expensive digital players which suggest that their product is “as close to analog” as possible. It's also useful to note that although there are many technical theories as to why vinyl and analog are better than any digital medium, there is no proof as to why this is so. Human hearing is so complex and so accurate that science has not been able to fully understand why we can hear what we hear.

With digital file sharing, the MP3 format, Apple and iTunes, an already poor situation was made much worse. To enable easy and fast transmission of music files, not to mention ease of storage, compression was employed resulting in the (permanent) removal of as much as 80% of the original information. If we were to look at an image which had that much information removed, our impression would be negative. But the brain is very adept at filling in missing sonic information, based on a set of presumptions about what the unaltered musical signal should be. Thus even though low bass may not be present in an MP3, or on our headphones, our brains make believe that it exists. This wondrous ability comes at great cost, however, which is known technically as “listener fatigue.” Because hearing is such an unconscious activity, we are unaware of the brain's work in restoring damaged or altered sounds. And since virtually no one sits down to seriously listen to music anymore, instead using music as a soundtrack to other activities, listening fatigue isn't much of a problem. It does help explain why most people don't own real stereo systems today- with digital, it's not much fun to really listen to music.

On the professional side of digital audio, an equally disturbing phenomenon occurred in the middle 1990's. With analog, a vinyl record can only be cut so loud, because if cut too loud, the needle will literally jump out of the groove. The record will not be playable. The CD has no such physical constraints, but until 1994 with the introduction of digital limiters, digital music was still recorded with dynamic range, which is defined as the relationship between the quietest parts of a recording and the loudest parts. Because record producers wanted their acts to sound louder over the radio than the competition, with the new technology they could eliminate dynamic range and make their music “seem” louder- by destroying a vital aspect of what makes music music. By the 2000's, this phenomenon was referred to as the “loudness wars” and defines most digital music production today.


Technology is now advancing at such a rate that the amount of literature generated by it doubles every few years. Increasing specialization in the sciences and engineering has become necessary because no person can master even a single discipline with the proliferation of knowledge and information in any field. If you wander around an A.E.S. convention (the Audio Engineering Society, the worldwide professional association for audio) you can see the problem. Everyone is focused on a solution to their particular area of audio, improving digital algorithms, or reducing jitter in clocks, but the big picture (how does it sound?) is lost.

Scientists, engineers, and industry professionals furthermore are ignorant of the history of their field, and harbor a prejudice that with time, knowledge is both increased and perfected. In other words, history is irrelevant. In audio this is clearly not true, but to even acknowledge the possibility that prior art was superior would be epistemologically destabilizing.

We assume that technology is a progressive force, continuously improving and making our lives better. Looking at the history of sound reproduction belies this belief. Yet there are glimmers of a countermovement. The sales of vinyl records are growing enormously every year. That has led an avant garde of enthusiasts to discover vintage audio equipment, and even more esoteric horns and triode tube electronics. These are the people who listen with their ears, not their minds.

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Too Good to Be True

By J. Gordon Holt • Posted: Dec 8, 2015




Two letters from readers (see below) started us thinking again about something we've mulled at, off and on, for the past year or so: Does today's high-fidelity equipment, for all its vastly improved performance, actually sound that much better than the best of the early components?

Certainly, the best of today's pickups, amplifiers and loudspeakers are objectively far superior to anything available ten, or even five years ago. Pickups trace more cleanly at lower forces, amplifiers have lower distortion and higher stability, and speakers have wider range, smoother response and lower distortion than ever before. Yet increasing numbers of long-time audiophiles are complaining that today's sound reproduction is not as natural as it used to be during the golden age of monophony.

Some have even suggested that maybe we need a bit of distortion and peakiness to make things sound right, but good sense would seem to suggest otherwise. After all, fidelity is accuracy, and distortion and peaks are inaccuracies. Yet by comparison with yesterday's systems, today's crop is often accused of sounding rather gray and flat and, somehow, not quite realistic.

Reader Burks claims electrostatics just don't sound natural, despite the fact that the best of them measure better than anything hitherto available. Reader Vanderbilt harks back to an old Brociner-Brook-Fairchild system that he recalls as having been more natural than anything he's heard since.

Of course, it's easy to dismiss all this as the embellishments of memory, which can turn a 15" snowfall during our childhood into the biggest blizzard in history. No doubt, this does account for some of it, but it isn't the whole answer. There are still a lot of excellent, old monophonic systems in use today, several of which we have heard recently. We must admit that some of them do have a certain quality of realism that is lacking in many of the "best" modern setups—a quality that not even stereo can provide. They may have rather muddy bass, and be a bit spitty at the top, but voices and musical instruments sound so natural and alive that you feel as if you could reach right out and touch them.

Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is the number of times we have observed this intangible quality of realism from crummy little table-model radios that could not qualify as high fidelity by any of the standards we normally apply.

Does this mean our standards for evaluating components are all fouled up? Not basically, because distortion is still distortion, whether it makes the sound worse or better. However, it is possible that we have been forgetting or ignoring some "minor" factors that are actually more important than we suspect.

Hearing is simply our reaction to a pattern of pressure waves in the air around us. If we can get exactly the same set of air vibrations to our ears in the living room as would have reached our ears in the concert hall, we will hear a perfect replica of the original sounds. Hence, the search for smoother response, lower distortion, wider range, better transient response, and all the rest of it. Many loudspeaker designers, for instance, have long claimed that their field was an art as much as a science, which is another way of saying that their speakers somehowseem to sound better when they're designed with a couple of response deviations in them than they do when they're made to be linear by measurement.

In other words, perhaps it is necessary to compensate for some peculiarities of room acoustics or of amplifier coloration in order to produce linear response at our ears.

We won't attempt to volunteer any provocative theories about this at this time, but we will bring up a couple of points that might bear looking into. High fidelity started in movie theaters, and horn speaker systems became the standard of quality because, when used with contemporary amplifiers, they provided just the right amount of brilliance and "presence." But when audiophiles brought these components into their living rooms, the sound was far too brilliant and shrill.

Some slightly insane audiophiles, including the partially deaf, liked that kind of sound, but musically oriented listeners soon concluded that, while homs were fine for auditoriums (and palatial living rooms), they had no place in the average home. Direct-radiator speakers became the accepted standard for in-the-home use, because of their "smoother, sweeter" sound.

"Presence" became a dirty word, and most of the improvements in components that were made in subsequent years were aimed at "smoothing out" and "sweetening" their sound. We may have overshot the mark though, hence the recent complaints about the "sogginess" and "muted" quality of modem systems, and the upsurge of interest in speakers with more "presence."

We can't advocate a return to the sound of yesteryear, but we would like to know what it had that most of today's equipment lacks. Does anyone have any ideas on the subject?—J. Gordon Holt

The Letters that Triggered This Essay:

Backward View? 
Sirs: I have been waiting for a publication such as The Stereophile to come out! There are and have been publications that have given unbiased ratings of audio components (Consumers Union and Audio League), but I always felt that their reports were for the mass market rather than for the audio perfectionist. Top-quality equipment was seldom tested, presumably because the average audiophile would not be interested. Those of us who were interested in the finest equipment had to be content with superlatives, and very little in the way of comparison or criticism of the equipment.

One of the things that sold me on your publication was the statement in your announcement, "...we began to realize that there was a real need for some source of forthright, down-to-earth information for the audio perfectionist who wasn't satisfied with being told that 'all amplifiers sound pretty much the same.'" I have heard this statement, and have even read it in a high-fidelity magazine recently.

I was beginning to think that I had the world's only 24-karat golden ear, because I can hear a difference between amplifiers, especially preamplifiers. I now own the supposed "best" in amplifiers, Marantz, but I and most of my friends agree that it doesn't sound as good as the mono Brook equipment I had previously. Nor is the Marantz Model 7 stereo preamp as transparent-sounding as the Marantz monophonic audio consolette. I understand that the real perfectionists are buying up the Marantz mono preamps and using them in pairs for stereo, with the Marantz stereo adapter.

My goal in stereo, ironic though it may be, is to have the quality of sound I had 10 years ago with a Brociner-Klipsch corner horn, the 30 watt Brook amp and preamp, and a Fairchild 220 cartridge. It had a realism which made you unaware that you were listening to a sound system. Even in mono, it had depth. Perhaps the new transistorized components are what I'm looking for. I hope I will be able to find some of the answers in The Stereophile.—Richard Vanderbilt, Rumson, NJ

Musical Paper 
Sirs: Re Irving Fried's pronouncement of doom for the paper-cone loudspeaker ("The Forum," Sepember–October 1962): I've spent hours listening to full-range electrostatics. Fine transient response and clarity, but the piano didn't sound like a piano, the clarinet didn't sound like a clarinet, the cello didn't sound like a cello. The characteristic timbres of the instruments were missing.

I've spent hours listening to expanded polystyrene foam speaker systems. They are extremely accurate reproducers but, unfortunately, unmusical reproducers.

Listening to paper cones and live music has ruined my ears. Pity, really.—G. E. Burks, Denver, CO

If transient response, clarity, and accuracy are unmusical, then why fidelity? Back to the acoustical horn?—J. Gordon Holt






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There is no one best source.  This is highly dependent on what you listen to and and what era.  Many things from 30-40 years ago are not available on digital.  Like wise some of the more recent things are not made on vinyl or RTR.  I can't disagree if you like German Chocolate cake or pecan pie because it may not be my favorite..  Pick what makes the hobby fun for you.


I am all digitial and have a foot planted in the sand not to change without some earth shattering event in this hobby.  Yes, it limits the available material.  I don't know much about RTR, or a TT.  It's Ok, I get to play the stuff I like on the system that I like.  I like the sound and don't care much how some of the other Klipsch speakers sound.  Not that I have not heard some of them and like them but, I'm not one to stay on a fence for long.  I pick my yard a work with it.

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10 hours ago, Marvel said:

Who wrote that? As much as I like analog, there is quite a bit I disagree with in this article...



It's a courtesy to provide a link when copying material from another site verbatim.  Usually just the links are better since the clutter from the copy-and-paste using a phone significantly reduces readability. 


FYI: I have a great deal of trouble reading copy-and-pasted material using the standard dark theme here: the text simply disappears if it is not "default" color.



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12 hours ago, derrickdj1 said:

There is no one best source.  This is highly dependent on what you listen to and and what era.  Many things from 30-40 years ago are not available on digital.  Like wise some of the more recent things are not made on vinyl or RTR.  I can't disagree if you like German Chocolate cake or pecan pie because it may not be my favorite..  Pick what makes the hobby fun for you.


I am all digitial and have a foot planted in the sand not to change without some earth shattering event in this hobby.  Yes, it limits the available material.  I don't know much about RTR, or a TT.  It's Ok, I get to play the stuff I like on the system that I like.  I like the sound and don't care much how some of the other Klipsch speakers sound.  Not that I have not heard some of them and like them but, I'm not one to stay on a fence for long.  I pick my yard a work with it.

yes there is ....one source...to be there live.... 


the problem starts in how they are recorded...it does not matter

the medium ...   open space recordings is where it's at....


PWK told us that every thing before the speakers


he wanted to bring live music in your home...


and that does not happen in the studio any more..


just someone's interpretation of what it should be...


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"and that does not happen in the studio any more.. "


There is a lot of live/in the studio recording being done, as well as lousy/good/great live performances being recorded.

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28 minutes ago, Marvel said:

"and that does not happen in the studio any more.. "


There is a lot of live/in the studio recording being done, as well as lousy/good/great live performances being recorded.

in open space ? is the vocalist in a seperate room..or the drummer

in a drum room ???


and the technology to help it..

with all the new technology to make things easier..doesn't mean

it's better.


they still can't figure out how they built the pyramids..

or even replicate it..

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I agree with so much of what was said in both articles that I won't bother to enumerate all the points.  One, however, which has formed the basis of my design work for many years is this from the JGH article:


"Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is the number of times we have observed this intangible quality of realism from crummy little table-model radios that could not qualify as high fidelity by any of the standards we normally apply."


The tubes used in such radios, especially when used in combination with good circuit design, offer a level of sound quality which can't be duplicated.  




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The problem with using "live music" as the be-all, end-all reference for audio reproduction is that not all music is made by musicians playing together in the same acoustic space at the same time. Music made by artists that put it together from disparate sources inside of a recording studio control room (such as The Beatles did when creating Tomorrow Never Knows) are creating art just as much as a string quartet that plays Beethoven live in a concert hall. Any argument to the contrary is nothing more than musical snobbery.


In our area of interest, the actual work of art that is created is the master recording that is created by the artist. In the case of Tomorrow Never Knows it is the mono mixdown of the song that was created by Sir George Martin and all four of The Beatles who were present during its creation. In the case of the string quartet playing Beethoven it is the final stereo mixdown of the original live recording that is approved by the producer of the recording session. In both of these cases, it is only that recording that is the work of art. Any subsequent versions that are created to enable mass distribution (vinyl master/mothers/stampers, digital copies — unless the original master recording is digital and those copies are created bit-for-bit) are only copies of the work of art, the same as a lithograph is only a copy of an oil painting.


The notion that anyone can use "the sound of live music, played in real-time in a real acoustic space" as the ultimate goal of all audio reproduction really doesn’t make sense. Now, before getting all up in my face and insisting that Recording A makes a perfect live-music reference, answer these questions:

  • Were you present at the original recording session? If not, how do you know what the music sounded like in the room? If you don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like, how can it serve as a reference for the sound of the original event?
  • If you were present at the original recording session, where did you sit? An acoustic event can sound very different depending on where in the studio/hall/room you’re seated.
  • Were the recording microphones located only a few inches above your head? If not, they likely heard something different from what you heard, which means that the recording does not represent the event you experienced.
  • Were you present at the mixdown session that produced the final master recording? If not, it’s possible — if not likely — that the producer made modifications to the sound (subtle changes in microphone balance, the addition of small amounts of EQ or compression, etc.) before the mix was finalized. Once again, this means that the recording does not represent the acoustic event that you experienced.

Of course, the answer to all this is that recordings serve as useful references for equipment evaluation not because they are true representations of some acoustic event, they are useful references because we’ve heard them enough times on enough of a variety of audio equipment that we know what the essence of that recording is supposed to sound like: Those are the sonic elements that continue to be present no matter what equipment it is reproduced on. When those essential sonic elements are somehow changed, we know that it is the reproduction equipment that is changing them, and that what we’re hearing is an attribute of the equipment and not of the recording. That’s why unfamiliar recordings are useless as equipment evaluation tools: We don’t know if what we’re hearing is caused by the equipment or by the recording because we’re unfamiliar with the recording.


So, any recording can serve as a reference if you’re familiar enough with it. Of course, to be an effective tool for evaluating if a piece of audio equipment is suitable for your listening system, the recording should be representative of the type of music that you will play through the audio equipment when you’re listening for your own enjoyment. If you listen mostly to recordings of acoustic jazz trios it makes little sense to use Van Halen’s 1984 and 5150 as your reference recordings.


No audio system can allow us to travel through time to witness a live event that occurred in the past. The best that any home audio reproduction system can do is to create an illusion that satisfies its owner. Some owners will be satisfied with the illusion that Gabor Szabo is playing guitar in their living room; other owners will be satisfied with the illusion that they’re looking over Sir George Martin’s shoulder during the final mixdown of Strawberry Fields Forever, others may want the illusion that DJ Shadow is performing in their living room. All three are the same goal.


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