The Emperor's New Server

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Music servers and computer audio
The Emperor's New Server

So much has been written so enthusiastically in this magazine and others about the manifest superiority of computer audio over “old-fashioned” optical-disc technologies (and, presumably, over even more old-fashioned analog ones) that even an LP hound like me couldn’t help but notice. 

Intrigued by what has been written and feeling guilty about letting what appears to be the future of high-end audio slip by without a hands-on tryout, I decided to take the computer-audio plunge and have spent the last twenty-four months auditioning “hi-res” files over a variety of pretty good DACs. Before I tell you what I’ve concluded, let’s rehearse some of computer audio’s putative advantages.

First, as has always been the case with new playback media, there is the convenience factor. Repeatedly we’ve been told that computer audio is much more convenient than old-fashioned physical media, that having a music library at one’s fingertips (or a computer program that actually chooses what it thinks you might want to listen to) is much more enjoyable than getting up off your ass and walking over to a shelf of records and searching for the precise piece and performance you actually want to hear, that pressing an icon on an iPad or an iPhone trumps all the labor and frustration that goes into hunting down a beloved LP, putting that LP on a turntable, cueing up a tonearm, and turning the record over when one side has been played (or, for that matter, slipping a CD/SACD into a drawer and pressing “Play”).

Frankly, on the basis of my experience, computer audio is more convenient; it does save time and effort; it can literally put entire digital-music libraries in the palm of your hand; and it can lead you to sample music and performances that you might otherwise have overlooked (it can also lead you in every direction at once). However, what its fans don’t point out (fans seldom do) is what this added convenience may cost you.

Ah, convenience. I sometimes think of it as the altar upon which the past is perpetually sacrificed. In our little world of high-end audio, convenience nearly killed reel-to-reel tapes; it is still (unsuccessfully) trying to kill the LP; ironically, it may now be killing the CD and SACD; and sooner or later it will kill computer audio and replace it with something even more convenient. Our hobby, which started off being so hands-on that earlier generations of hi-fi devotees built their own gear from kits or from blueprints printed in magazines, now seems to be fashioned for and dedicated to virtual paraplegics, people who can’t even be bothered to hunt up a record on a shelf much less lower a cartridge onto an LP.

Hell, I’m just as lazy as the next guy; in fact, I’m lazier. But the way I see it what’s going to kill this hobby isn’t the graying of the audiophile population; it’s the lure of the convenient, which continually puts greater and greater distance—physical, intellectual, and emotional—between consumers and what they’re listening on and to.

Putting aside the fact that convenience may be destroying our minds (there is evidence that the computer/Internet is starting to alter the way we think—that memory is being supplanted by search engines, which eliminate the mental effort required to attain knowledge, internalize it, and recall it), there is this: A hobby feeds on direct involvement, and direct involvement requires work. You have to have hands-on experience with a wide variety of the “stuff” (be it stamps, coins, watches, cameras, wine, cars, whatever) that the hobby celebrates and learn from that experience in order to develop expertise and taste. Why should anyone give a damn about high fidelity when he’s constantly being encouraged not to “put himself out” on its behalf, when he’s constantly being assured that less work, less hands-on experience, less knowledge equals greater pleasure? By such sad logic, listening to an MP3 played back on an iPhone is just as gratifying as hearing an LP played back on an Acoustic Signature Invictus or a Walker Black Diamond Mk V turntable. And for the larger public it probably is. What scares me is that the god of convenience is also making this the case for hobbyists.

Second, there is the matter of sound quality. Here the argument in computer audio’s favor is more technical. If I’ve got it right, the party line is that reading data off a hard drive is inherently higher in fidelity (which is to say, lower in distortion, more transparent to the source material) than reading those same “1’s” and “0’s” off an optical disc. In large part, this greater fidelity has to do with time—not just in a “jitter” sense but in a procedural one. A computer literally has more time to correct errors and a more robust technology for doing so, since it has a much larger buffer in which data can be stored prior to playback and more computing power available to check and re-check that data. In addition to this, with asynchronous USB DACs the transfer rate of that data can be controlled by the master clock in the DAC itself rather than by a jittery clock “derived” from the computer. With the datastream being clocked by the DAC’s ultra-accurate master clock, jitter is reduced by a factor greater than 100 compared to “adaptive-mode” USB.

The icing on the computer-audio cake is the availability of higher-resolution files. Computers can store and read back data that have been recorded at much higher sampling/bit rates than CD/SACD players accommodate. Here the party line goes that in digital audio higher resolution means greater fidelity to sources, because of the expansion of bandwidth and dynamic range that comes with higher sampling/bit rates.

Once again, in my experience, all this is true. Assuming that the digital files were recorded at higher sampling/bit rates (which, BTW, is not always a safe assumption) and stored and downloaded without alteration (ditto), playing them back at their native sampling/bit rates does mean higher transparency to sources.

But what if—if, mind you—the source we are being more faithful to, the digital master, is itself fatally compromised? What if, even at its best, it doesn’t sound more like the “real thing” but more like the digital one? What if, in this case, higher fidelity only reveals more clearly, nakedly, and inarguably that digital recordings sound like digital recordings?

After months and months of computer-audio listening, this, folks, is precisely the conclusion I’ve come to. It is a painful irony that higher fidelity does not guarantee (or does not just guarantee) more lifelike sound. What it does guarantee, provided that the fidelity really is higher, is a more accurate recreation of what was recorded, of what the tapeheads heard and what the mastering engineers subsequently did to the mastertapes. It is an even more painful irony that, in the case of computer audio, higher-fidelity playback (and I will concede that computer audio can be higher fidelity) exposes the flaws of digital recordings even more clearly and, in so doing, often makes them even less compellingly listenable and lifelike, IMO, than the playback of certain stand-alone CD and SACD players—and generally less listenable and lifelike than analog sources like LP and tape.

What is wrong with digital audio, be it computerized or not, has been wrong from go. No matter what the bit rate, no matter what the digital delivery system, you simply cannot “sample” the continuous-time sound of instruments or vocalists, turn it into discrete-time numbers, and then turn those discrete-time numbers back into instruments or vocalists without losing some of the very continuousness of presentation—the dense, constantly renewing, uninterrupted flow of articulations, dynamics, and timbres—that is the very breath of musical life.

Yes, I’m aware of all the real advantages of digital audio in dynamic range, greater frequency extension (at least in the bottom octaves), lower noise, higher resolution, etc. over analog. But I positively dare you to listen to any well-recorded piece of music turned into a digital file and played back from a computer via a USB DAC and then listen to the exact same recording on an LP played back via a really good turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phonostage and tell me, with a straight face, that the digital recording sounds more like the real thing than the analog one. It doesn’t—even when the LP is mastered from a digital file!

Before you start throwing rocks at me—and I expect to get pelted good and proper—let me point some things out. First, many of you have not heard a really great analog rig. I have. Until you do, don’t jump to the conclusion that because it’s a near-seventy-year-old technology LP playback has stood still. While digital audio has continued to try to turn beef tartare back into beefsteak, analog has reached a peak of transparency that is astonishing. Today, we hear so much more of what was actually pressed into the grooves—and do remember that what was pressed into those grooves are the actual soundwaves that struck the microphone’s diaphragm, not a sample of those waves but the waves themselves—that it is difficult to find a recording that doesn’t reveal an abundance of previously hidden treasures. Second, many of you are not concertgoers. Unless you have experience with the sound of the real thing, I’m not at all sure how you can objectively judge a facsimile. “Sounds good to me” listeners will not be troubled by this, and if they’re happy with digital playback I’m happy for them. But those of us who know the sound of actual instruments in a concert or recital hall cannot help but note the artificiality of digital playback—its persistent inability to capture fully the dynamic, harmonic, dimensional, and ambient liveliness of instruments and vocalists. Digital is to analog as a butterfly pinned and pressed under glass is to a butterfly in an open field. In some fundamental and unmistakable way it is fixed, inert, inanimate. In spite of its undeniable dynamic clout, its low noise, its excellent bass extension, its plethora of detail, it also often sounds a bit mechanized, denatured, put together from parts. And nowhere is digital’s fundamental nature more apparent than through a computer-audio pipeline.

This is not to say that computer audio doesn’t have advantages, beyond the convenience factors I’ve already mentioned. One important area where digital exceeds analog playback (and has done so from the start) is pitch stability. Personally, I think this is the prime reason why certain classical music lovers were among the first to hop a ride on the digital deathcab. Many of my friends with relative or absolute pitch found the minute pitch fluctuations of vinyl playback literally intolerable, and though turntables have come a long way in maintaining speed stability since the 1980s they still aren’t as rock-solid in pitch as digital devices.

A second advantage of computer-audio playback vis-à-vis analog playback is, for lack of a better word, consistency. In order to fit longer programs onto an LP side, analog mastering engineers have to lower signal-cutting levels, which changes the sound during playback, depending on the length and dynamic range of the music being recorded. Digital playback (computerized or standard) does not suffer from this problem.

A third advantage that digital audio has is lack of surface noise. Never mind that this lower noise floor is also a brickwall beyond which nothing can be heard because nothing has been recorded. The fact is that the tics and pops that we analog lovers have grown so used to (and that even brand-new records can have in shocking abundance) simply don’t exist in the digital realm.

A fourth digital advantage—allied to the third—is that computer playback of digital sources is not affected by physical warpage, as records always are to some extent. Grooves don’t get pinched; discs don’t turn concave or convex (or both); playability is not dramatically affected by physical defects in the storage media.

A fifth advantage may be price. Of course, this will depend upon how deep you go into digital/computer audio, but generally speaking a really good analog setup (turntable, tonearm, cartridge, phonostage, and interconnect) will cost you more than what the digital setup costs. (There are numerous exceptions to this, of course.)

A sixth is the availability of contemporary music by contemporary artists, which, even with the LP’s astonishing resurgence, is still far greater on digital media than on analog. Though new vinyl releases are much more abundant than they were a decade ago, there is still a huge disparity between what you can buy for your CD/SACD player or computer-audio setup and what you can buy for your ’table. On top of this you can’t “download” an LP. You actually have to buy it from a store, brick-and-mortar or on-line. It’s just so damn much work.

I don’t want to conclude this testy little piece on an entirely negative note. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time listening to downloaded files, I haven’t come close to hearing every permutation of hi-res computer audio. I still have many unanswered questions about the compression schemes that certain Internet sites use; questions about how the latest digital darling, MQA, sounds vis-à-vis CD/SACD and “standard” high-res; and questions about how the best physical-media playback compares to the best data-file playback. (I do have fond memories of the dCS Scarlatti’s 3-D performance with Red Book CD, which remains a highpoint for me in “lifelike” digital reproduction, while the Berkeley Alpha DAC Series 2 and DAC Reference 2, the dCS Vivaldi, the Boulder 2120, the Nagra Classic and HD DAC, the Constellation Cygnus, and the CH Precision C1 have also impressed with both Red Book and higher-res sources—and are easily recommendable, even by me.) All in all, it’s probably best to look at this editorial diatribe as a minority report from an Old Fogey.

Still, I repeat my dare: Compare, at your peril, a really good LP on a really good analog setup to a really good data file on a really good digital setup, and you tell me which comes closer to sounding like the real thing, and which makes for a more enjoyable long-term listening experience.