From The Editor: It's All Good

Music servers and computer audio
From The Editor: It's All Good

For some audio hobbyists, there’s only one true path to audio nirvana. That path is often exceedingly narrow—loudspeakers with first-order crossovers, or single-ended triode amplifiers, or DACs without an oversampling filter, for examples. These proponents of specific technologies claim that their chosen hobbyhorse is the only correct way to reproduce music and any other approach is simply wrong. The list of pet technologies I’ve encountered over the years is staggering: planar loudspeakers, single-driver speakers, horn speakers, output-transformerless amplifiers, high-mass turntables, low-mass turntables—ad infinitum. The list can get even more esoteric. I once heard an audiophile at a show say that he would never buy a speaker cable that didn’t have a layer of rhodium plating in the terminations.

This intransigent thinking could be called “audio fundamentalism.” If some aspect of a playback system doesn’t conform to the fundamentalist’s entrenched prejudice, nothing else about the system matters. The problem with audio fundamentalism—or any fundamentalism for that matter—is that it is exclusionary and obviates the need for critical thinking. The mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré could have been writing about audio in his statement, quoted by Bertrand Russell in his preface to Science and Method, “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity for reflection.”

When a new technology comes along, partisans take their positions and battle lines are drawn. The latest technology to engender the kind of divisive entrenchment usually reserved for Congress is Direct Stream Digital (DSD), the encoding format of SACD. DSD has come to the fore lately because many labels have started offering high-resolution DSD downloads. The format’s proponents claim that the PCM audio we’ve been listening to for 30 years is fatally flawed and can never sound good. PCM’s champions assert that the single-bit datastream of DSD is a non-starter, largely on theoretical grounds. Technical arguments for the superiority (or more to the point, the inferiority) of one format relative to the other abound.

When it comes from manufacturers, much of this rhetoric is simply posturing for commercial gain. Some companies which have achieved considerable knowledge and experience in designing PCM-based product platforms would like DSD to simply go away. Conversely, a few other companies would benefit from the introduction of a technology that disrupts the status quo. In the coming issues we’ll address the PCM vs. DSD debate in a way that sheds light, rather than heat, on the subject. Although it’s worth understanding and considering the theoretical arguments for one format’s superiority, what really matters is how the two formats sound. I have just received a hard drive containing advance releases of some titles from the wonderful Wilson Audiophile catalog that will soon be available for high-res download. The digital transfers were made from the original mastertapes, played back on the same machine (the unprecedented Ultra Master) on which they were recorded. Interestingly, I was provided both DSD and high-res WAV versions of the same music. I’ll have a full report in an upcoming issue.

But you can be sure that my report won’t dismiss one format or the other, even if one sounds better. Of course I’ll describe what I hear, but I won’t use those listening impressions to proclaim that one is right and the other is wrong. I’ve never understood the viewpoint that embracing one particular technology means rejecting all others. In my 25 years reviewing high-end audio I’ve heard countless technological approaches to music playback in my home and at shows. I’ve listened to music through loudspeakers with every kind of crossover slope and driver configuration imaginable; amplifiers ranging from low-power SETs, to solid-state Class A, to tubed push-pull, to behemoth transistor models, and those with a switching output stage; moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges; terminated speaker cables and non-terminated cables; LP and CD; and high-res PCM and DSD. You know what? I’ve enjoyed music through all of them. Had I taken the audio fundamentalist view, I would have missed out on a lot of great listening. It’s all good.