Best for you…

April 22, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

Today is Earth Day. Go plant something, be kind to our mother we depend upon for everything in our lives. For me, for you, for us. Thanks.

And another reminder. If you’re interested in getting your reservation in for a hand-signed BHK preamp from the first batch–we’ve only a limited number available–go here and grab one before they’re all spoken for.  If you’re outside the US please contact your local dealer or distributor and we’ll do what we can if they’re not already gone.

Over the hundreds upon hundreds of systems I have listened to over many decades one thing has stood out for me. Each system had been optimized for one source of music playback and, in every case, that source sounded best: tape, vinyl, digital, live (like in a studio).

The only consistent observation was that only one source sounded best and the second source inevitably sounded worse. Put in simpler terms, every vinyl-centric system outshone the digital second source. Every digital-centric system outshone the vinyl source. And in every case, the one source dominating the other had been the primary set up source.

It occurs to me this observation may explain one of the reasons we have such wildly varying opinions on the subject of which medium is best. Turns out, at least in my mind, the best medium is the one you set the system up with. If vinyl, then that will always sound best, digital worse. And the opposite is true.

In all my years of listening I have never heard any system where both mediums sound best – or even comparable. Granted I haven’t heard all systems, but I’ve heard a fair share.

Let’s put to rest the debate till another time and agree that each of us has irrefutable proof our sources sound best–and we wouldn’t be wrong.

But – and here’s where we’re likely to disagree – because our primary source–the source we set up the system with–digital or vinyl–sounds best does not mean it is the best.

Those of you waving one flag or another, me included, take a deep breath and realize it works best for you – and understand why.

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26 comments on “Best for you…”

  1. Yep, but it was those systems that delivered musicality of all available sources, beta hi-fi, cassette, cd, dat, dvd, fm, phonograph and reel to reel.

    The digital file arrived 60 years too late IMHO.

    Happy Earth Day!

  2. I started tweaking my stereo system by integrating better power cords and both sources showed improved sound quality mainly better resolution and staging. Adding a platform and footers to the power amp improved sound quality even further. But still the sound quality from the vinyl source remained much better. The crucial step for the digital part was the switching from my cd-transport to a hard disk drive based music server! And finally adding a better DAC. However there is still so much more room for improving my analog source by better cartridges, better tonearms, better phono preamps etc. But there are two main aspects that stop me from investing here: the mega bucks needed for tiny improvements and the fact that the turntable is the inferior player per se due to it’s mechanical (!) design weaknesses. This inferiority is most obvious when you play a vinyl record via a laser turntable originally designed by Finiial Technology in the US!

  3. I really still have no idea, why this setup problem towards different sources could be a question of vinyl and digital (except maybe for the last 5% of optimization) and not mainly a question of different tonality/extension/bass control etc., which could occure between turntables, between DAC’s and could be identical between a turntable and a DAC, too. In my hifi history I had several combinations, where sources (no matter if analog or digital) sounded from totally different in tonality to just the same (each manufacturer certainly claiming, his was neutral), which meant, a variety of “no” to “big” adjustments necessary in setup.

    If I had an indication that digital always sounds the same in certain aspects or tonality I’d be with you…but that’s not my experience except in less important areas for overall setup.

  4. You are doubtless aware that the Gramophone Magazine May edition has an article on “The vinyl Revolution”. This includes two statements that are interesting:

    “For the past seven years, vinyl is the only physical format that has seen consistent growth in sales across all genres”. Not altogether surprising because Vinyl can only be served up in a physical format.

    “Vinyl seems to appeal to wealthy people aged 40 plus. Some of the are returning to vinyl and some are establishing a first relationship with it”. This attributed to Barry Holden of Universal. That statement could invoke interesting discussion, I believe.

  5. Paul, you are confused. By your own prior postings you proved to your own satisfaction that you are wrong. You said that you could burn a CD from a vinyl phonograph record that sounds indistinguishable or nearly indistinguishable from the record itself….even when played on your best sound system. Same original recording, same equipment, same room, the only difference is that one recording is analog and the other is digital. The hypothesis you proposed is proven wrong. There is no such thing as a characteristic analog sound and a characteristic digital sound. There are other factors that account for the differences.

    What are the characteristics of the technologies? Vinyl phonograph records can record to 40 khz but are never used that way. Both the records and the analog source tape have relatively poor S/N ratio. Records have limited dynamic range capability and that has to take into account the tracking ability of phonograph cartridges. They are fragile and are easily worn, damaged, and affected by dust. They are fun to use, to watch, they and the equipment present a tactile and visual experience other media don’t. The best players are very expensive and require careful setup. No two phono cartridges sound the same. Optimize a system for one cartridge and you are no longer optimized for another.

    RBCD is ideal for recording and playing music. It is inexpensive to produce recordings, its capabilities exceed the requirements for recording music. It can do anything vinyl can do as well or better except that it cannot record and reproduce sounds above 22khz, sounds that are inaudible even to most youngsters. Most CD players sound alike except for exotic and expensive high end players. Optimize for one CD Player and you’re no longer optimized for another if they don’t sound exactly alike. Fortunately the vast majority sold are entirely satisfactory and sound just about identical.

    What about so called high resolution audio. It exceeds the FR capabilities and dynamic range capabilities of RBCD but the added capabilities are unneeded or inaudible. My go to guru for understanding the technology and realities of hi rez is Mark Waldrep, Dr. Aix. By his own admission he says that you cannot hear the difference of the same recording in high rez and RBCD. He’s tried it with respected people in his own industry and they can’t hear it either. I quoted his own words from his lecture where he admitted it. See my posting on his site. “The honest truth is that at the end of the day if I played a 44.1,16 bit recording in here and I played my 96K 24 bit originals none of you could tell the difference. My friends in the mastering community can’t tell the difference.” His words verbatim, not mine. He also says and is undoubtedly correct that all but a few thousand so called high resolution recordings sold on the market have no content beyond conventional recordings, you just pay extra for a lot of zeroes, it’s a marketing scam. Dr. Aix DOES make high resolution recordings.

    So why the difference? It is because of the way the technologies are used differently. Even CD re-releases of recordings originally sold as analog vinyl sound different for many reasons including different mastering methods and deterioration of the original tapes during the decades between the vinyl release and CD release.

    Audiophiles not only gravitate to a specific technology of recording, they restrict their library, at least what they listen to, to a small fraction of that library and tend to buy recordings that are most compatible with their sound systems. That is why out of a library of 40,000 tracks, most of the tracks listened to are restricted to about 200 at P&S according to you Paul. Those are the ones that show best.

    So there is no ability to re-optimize the system from one recording to another and all methods open to audiophiles that they accept are ineffective at widening the range of recordings that sound best, only shifting them to a different group. This is why I can say that my systems can produce more pleasing and more convincing sound over a far wider range of recordings than audiophile systems.

    When Paul was at my house, he heard my experimental system optimized for the EEAS mode it was playing in. When I switched off the reverberant field he listened to the modified AR9s and pronounced them as poor. That in fact was at least in part because in that mode the system was no longer optimized for that recording and I did not readjust the system. Among other factors for example, those speakers produce all of the deep bass for the entire sound system. By turning off the other part of the system, among other defects the bass was then relatively much too loud for the rest of what came out of the AR9s so they didn’t show very well.

    IMO the lack of provisions to optimize sound systems to produce acceptable and pleasing results from different media and different recordings as well as not being able to optimize them for different acoustics of different rooms is a sure indicator of poor system design. But then the people who sell this stuff don’t engineer the system. That’s what you do when you select it, buy it, and put it together.

    1. I have to argue with your logic Mark, and I am always hesitant to do so because it’s mostly perfect. This time not. 🙂

      Your statement: “Paul, you are confused. By your own prior postings you proved to your own satisfaction that you are wrong. You said that you could burn a CD from a vinyl phonograph record that sounds indistinguishable or nearly indistinguishable from the record itself….even when played on your best sound system. Same original recording, same equipment, same room, the only difference is that one recording is analog and the other is digital. The hypothesis you proposed is proven wrong.”

      That statement of mine is absolutely accurate but does not counter what I have written.

      Take my system for example. It is digital-centric. Play a well recorded piece and most people are startled with the musicality. Play the same piece on vinyl, on my system, and most remark it “sounds nice” but nowhere near the qualities they heard with digital.

      Digital is better on my system.

      I set my system up for digital and every decision I made, from cables to speaker placement were based on that setup.

      If I then make a recording of the vinyl and play it back on my system, it sounds identical. Identical to the vinyl – which is not as good. The same qualities remain. But you knew that… and perhaps your point is that because it is now digital it should sound “better”. But of course, we both know that’s not the point.

      My digital music collection has all the advantages of digital’s superior specs: dynamic range, frequency response, separation, etc. – specs that I have taken advantage of when I setup my system.

      Digital will always sound better in my system, even if someone brings over their expensive tweaked our vinyl rig.

      So, the fact I can perfectly capture analog’s limitations on a digital recording medium and have it sound identically mediocre, should be no surprise and proves nothing but my original two points.

      1. Paul, I think you missed my point entirely. The gist of it is that the two technologies have been used differently. CDs are not recorded or mastered the same way vinyl records were. That’s where the main difference lies, not in the technology itself.

        There have been some wonderful recordings on analog vinyl made on analog tape and I’ve duplicated many of the ones I like best by buying the same recordings on CD for the convenience and durability of them. These performances by some of the greatest musicians of all time cannot be omitted from my library because IMO they are among the most valuable recordings we have. And many can be made to sound excellent on my sound system by optimizing it for however it was put on vinyl or on a CD. As the Delos recording showed, when the CD is made in the same way from the same master as the vinyl, the sound can be indistinguishable if the recording does not exceed the capabilities of vinyl. Why don’t I listen to more vinyl since I’ve got so many of them? Because it’s a PITA and I’m too lazy to even sort them let alone fiddle with them. There are about 3000 of them in my basement.

        I have pointed out why there is more consistency among old stereo vinyl records than CDs so that optimizing for vinyl will mean a higher percentage of vinyls will be enjoyable on a given system that cannot be adjusted for each recording. There are also factors inherent in processing vinyl that mitigate the limitations of the current stereo recording and playback technology. For example, in the way recordings are played, dynamic compression is actually an asset, not a detriment.

        The capability of electronics to manipulate sound and the skill to use it effectively is something that has to be acquired that money alone cannot buy. IMO most audiophiles don’t have this skill. Since some have tried and failed, they dismiss it just like everything else they can’t do….like correctly design an amplifier with negative feedback to improve rather than degrade performance.

        When you say “play a well recorded piece,” you mean a recording whose characteristics are coincident with the way you have optimized your sound system. But that way is fixed. Short of replacing equipment or moving your speakers around, there’s nothing you can do to change the way it performs. And if the recording is not suitable to that fixed optimization, then by definition it is a bad recording. That may explain why every time I go to a trade show like Axpona, everyone is playing the same recordings in every room and why when I bring my CDs to hear through their equipment, the prospect scares the life out of them because they don’t know what to expect from it. It is not optimized for my recording.

      2. Exactly what is involved in “optimizing” a system? Are you saying that particular components….cables, speakers, amplifiers (tubes vs. transistors vs. hybrids), vibration control devices etc .etc…..sound better reproducing a digital source than analogue vinyl? Never read any review that says that.

    2. “Most CD players sound alike except for exotic and expensive high end players.”

      Do my eyes deceive me or is this a ‘breakthrough’ moment?

  6. I read a lot of useless discussions between members of the vinyl gang and members of the cd gang on this site.
    There are distinct vinyl lovers and distinct cd lovers, and never the twain shall meet. Not in a million years.

  7. I listen to the same music (different media) on everything I can, from my car to the high-end Avalon speakers and Ayon tube gear in my living room. I found that lower resolution music actually can sound good (not wet my pants good, just “good”) on systems that are not highly revealing. High resolution music sounds better than low resolution especially on a highly revealing system. In other words, where there is missing content it sounds better to stick to less revealing gear. Vinyl is a different situation for me, my decent Marantz TT15 sounds quite good on my Parasound-based gear stack which has a nice PS phono stage. That TT also sounded very good when I ran it through a Rogue tube amp.

    What I am saying is that I see the question digital or analog “sounds good” on a system as needing more information about the characteristics of the gear in question. …Especially in how the gear reproduces detail from the content. I have only had access to high end tube gear, not solid state gear …but my solid state gear is pretty decent and from this experience I would say that high end tube gear can deliver a better all around musical experience from both analog and digital sources, but that the resolution of the source is as critical.

    …does this make sense in your experience?

  8. Unless ceteris paribus conditions are realised and double blinded listening conditions a comparison is absolutely useless and the discussion here will make no sense at all. I doubt that a valid comparison is possible. The main obstacle will be the fact that the mastering engineer optimises the original recoding for his personal preferences of a “good sound quality” – depending on his own specific listening conditions. Insofar the mastering engineer acts as a photoshop designer. A photo never ever will give the visual impression we had when taking the picture. Photoshop now allows to “optimise” the digital data for finally getting a picture that best fits our memory. Same procedure for the sound engineer. But what if my friend has a different colour printer or monitor display? 🙂

  9. Do reviewers optimize their systems every time they review a vinyl front end and then a digital front end ? Would be interesting to know. And what is optimization ? Placing the speakers correctly, damping the room correctly etc. Why such optimization influences the sound ? It should be the same for both unless optimization involves altering the frequency response and vinyl does not require that unless the front end is not very good or the record is of very poor quality. Regards.

    1. It’s a great question and one I am pretty confident I know the answer for – no. I have known many a reviewer and they, like us, all have their biases and they simply insert what they’re reviewing into the mix and judge it.

  10. As usual, we are arguing about how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Everyone seems to forget a really important aspect of enjoying music. It’s the music! I can be happy listening to my unoptimized car stereo if I love the music. Or, I can be bored to the point of being comatose listening to my great home system if it’s a harpsichord. My point now as in the past, is that we focus too much on kit, and not enough on to what we are listening. Just sayin’.

    1. For just enjoying music nobody needs a stereo system! A mono FM-Receiver should be enough. But I guess we are discussing here audiophile highend stereo concepts, isn’t it?

      1. Paulsquirrel,

        You’re absolutely correct and since I have been spending too much money for way too many years, I would also want a great high end system to get the most of my 1000 CD’s, 1500 LP’s, 700 45’s, and 40000 flac/MP3 files. However, as a early older (mid-70’s) audiophile on a fixed income, I have to focus more on the music than optimizing kit. So, with that said, I spend as little as I can doing minor tweaks to try to get the best sound that I can.

  11. I’m going back to the point Soundmind made about different record and mastering techniques involved with cd vs vinyl. This is just an observation, but in the last 10 years my system has seen a lot of changes and is probably more optimized for digital playback. Telarc records(more specifically CD’s) were recordings that did not sound great on my system 10 yrs. ago. They now sound great. Your probably thinking it’s because I simply have a better system. Yes it is better, but I now have other record labels that sound noticeably worse. Is my system more optimized for certain record labels ( different mastering and recording techniques) ?

  12. Great discussion and arguments here. I think we all know we could optimize a setup for Blue Note or Living Stereo records, Grundman or Doug Sax Masterings, 2L or 2xHD digital recordings, morning or evening music taste etc. with partly clearly bigger differences than between digital/analog.
    All the digital and analog gear I experienced was at least as different among its own category as against each other sounding or partly very similar.
    Until not long ago I had the experience digital (while having certain strengths and limitations) can sound very different (richer than vinyl or opposite, brighter or too recessed, more or less controlled in bass etc.)
    What I begin to learn from other arguments is, that maybe the better digital gets, the more it tends in a certain direction and while certain aspects are getting better and better, strongly Improving in former pure vinyl domains like openness, treble extension, resolution, ambiance, transparency etc., possibly a totally different demand regards voicing of other components arises due to certain technical factors , which when those demands are perfectly met, results in possibly superior performance.
    Just my attempt of an explanation to myself.

  13. Optimizing my system in listening room 2. Listening room 2 is a garden like room abut 14 x 14, windows covering two walls, a pair of french doors, a cathedral ceiling, a factory made Persian style rug covering most of a linoleum floor, and an outdoor swing with a canvas seat and canopy over it about 8 feet wide. It is a bright cheerful room. Installed in it is a conventional stereo sound system I use for listening to phonograph records and CDs.

    Optimization requires two steps, one fixed, one variable. The fixed optimization involved choosing and modifying speakers and controls to create a specific acoustic effect, an actual technical performance goal. The sound had to sound flat, that is tonally accurate. It had to produce mostly reflected sound. The reflected sounds had to be flat too taking into account the speaker system characteristics and the room’s acoustics. It had to produce a substantial amount of reflected sound to create a wrap around enveloping effect from the front, and side walls and from the ceiling and the sound had to appear to not come from the speakers themselves. There also had to be no sweet spots.

    Instead of designing a speaker system from scratch it was easier to start with the speaker every audiophile loves to hate, original Bose 901. It’s an acoustic suspension speaker system that meets some of the criteria above but certainly not all. It has several major performance defects which is why most audiophiles hate them. My conclusions are 1) it cannot produce the top octave of sound, 2) it has a serious broad peak of about 7 db centered at around 250 hz in my room, and 3) its low bass falls off far too fast having a system F3 deliberately set at around 250 hz but only equalizing 6 db per octave instead of 12 as is the well known linear falloff of an acoustic suspension speaker. The factory set boost is 18 db at 30 hz. Correcting that last problem increases power demand enormously. The last two problems were the easiest to solve, simply with a ten band equalizer. The treble was the killer. It took four years to get it right to my satisfaction. This involved adding six 3/4″ mylar tweeters per channel, one facing forward, two facing up, and three facing to the back and back sides angled the same way as the 4″rear drivers. the crossover network was tough to get the system to match up seamlessly and achieve the desired goals. The tweeters do not produce the same sound frontally, vertically and laterally from the back. Each direction is different and at least 95% of the radiated sound above 9 khz is indirect aimed at the walls and ceiling. the system is bi-amplified. It is optimized in this way for the spot it is in and the room acoustics it confronts. Bringing the rug in over the linoleum resulted in it taking several days to get back to where it had been before.

    The second part is optimizing for each recording whether vinyl or CD. These involves several equalizers and sometimes one channel is different from the other out of necessity. There are a total of four equalizers per channel.

    I played two recordings on this system for Paul. First was a vinyl of Linda Ronstadt singing some old Gershwin standards I bought for ten cents at a garage sale. While he listened I went out of the room to check on the pizza in the oven. The second recording was a CD of Evgeny Kissin playing the Busoni arrangement of the Bach Chaconne (highly recommended, a sonic rollercoaster.) I had timbre matched the sound of the 9 foot Steinway D on the recording as closely to my own 5′-6″ Steinway M as I could get it. Did it sound big? You bet it did, in fact overwhelming, a piano designed and played to fill 900,000 cubic foot Carnegie Hall in a room only slightly more than 2000 cubic feet. Paul said it sounded too bright so I reluctantly cut the high end back. I do not think he was impressed. I should have played a Dixieland Jazz band instead. I think he would have enjoyed it more.

    The Bose 901 easily eats up 128 watts per channel available from the Marantz receiver playing CDs due to the 30 db of bass boost at 30 hz and the below 40 bass switch on the Bose equalizer is necessary to prevent acoustic feedback even on the well suspended Empire 698. The current draw is so great that when there is heavy bass the lights dim. To equal the performance of the AR9s in bass output would require at least 3 to 4 pairs of original or series II 901s and at least 600 to 1000 watts per channel, maybe more. The problem of getting a two way system to cover the entire audible range requires drastic and radical measures and even 3 way systems almost inevitably have difficulties somewhere in the audible range. Adding a subwoofer to a 3 way system makes it a 4 way system. Variants of the Infinity IRS are reported to have problems matching the bass and midrange. IRS Beta, a 4 way system adds a lower midrange that solves the problem. That was the same problem and the same solution AR used in AR9 to overcome the problem with AR3 and its descendants.

    1. How long does it take you to optimize your system for a particular recording? Do you do this for each track? Do you get the equalization correct the first time & do you write down the parameters when you get it right? It sounds like you may be spending as much or even more time diddling with your gear than listening to music.

      1. It can take weeks, months, and for my EEAS prototype even years. The worst parts are that I think I’ve got it right, go away for a few days, nothing has changed, listen again, and it’s wrong. My ears became adjusted to my mistakes during my last effort. Not until I repeat this process where it still sounds right after giving my ears a rest a number of times do I think I’ve got it right. Other problems are that the right settings for a given recording on a track are different from one of my systems to another. Still another is that if I make changes to the systems, none of the old settings are right anymore and I have to start all over again. Of course I write them down…and erase them, and write them over again. Change one setting and everything else seems to change with it. Cut a db off at 4 khz because it is too bright and suddenly sound at 320 hz is obviously also too loud. BTW, loudness settings count too.

        EEAS multiplies the problem by orders of magnitude. In addition to all of the other FR variables from various equalizers, I have control over first major time delay, RT at mid frequencies, RT at high frequencies, relative distribution of sound in all parts of the room, and more. I’ve tried to lock in as many of about 100 variables as I can so they remain fixed. These include secondary delays, delay density, rate of density increase. That leaves me with about a dozen that are interdependent with each other. Increase the HF RT and suddenly there is more space but the tone is too shrill. Gotta fix that next. All of the settings I used to demonstrate EEAS for Paul for specific recordings 2 1/2 years ago are obsolete and have been replaced by others. There is no one right answer for this system, no reference of the original live performance to remember let alone refer to. Memory of similar music and experience flying the controls is all I’ve got to go by. Doesn’t do much good to have no controls to adjust. What if you want to bank left or fly at a different altitude. When it comes to controls to deal with variables more is more, and there can be so many that it can become unmanageable and useless. I think I’m just short of that point. It’s gone as far as I want to take it. I’m satisfied. Nothing has changed in the system for many years and hopefully never will again.

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