Chickens and eggs

November 1, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

First, a quick note

DirectStream Memory Player beta units have shipped and you can begin reading what they find on our forums starting later this week. Limited numbers of finished production units begin shipping in December.

This means that this morning, November 1, we are taking preorders on a first come, first served basis, in the United States. You can go here to place your preorder. Outside the US, please get in touch with your dealer, or our staff here, should you need assistance.

Today’s post

You can’t have a chicken without and egg, and you can’t have an egg without a chicken—so which came first? It’s an age old riddle, one first recorded in 320 BC by Aristotle, but likely’s been asked for as long as people have been asking.

The question isn’t answerable because the logic is circular.

Circular logic questions are like magic tricks presenting impossible situations as fact: ladies being cut in two, people floating in the air. You can’t reason out the answer of how the magician did something, without first understanding he didn’t. It was, of course, a trick. The lady wasn’t cut in half, and people don’t float without the aid of invisible wires.

When we ask ourselves which is more important, the source or the output, we have created another circular logic question. It’s fun to ponder because it cannot be answered.

Like the magic we understand to be a trick, the source vs. output answer is equally obvious.

It all matters.

The real question comes down to one of efficiency, and that is something we’ll tackle tomorrow.

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52 comments on “Chickens and eggs”

    1. Exactly. Egg lying dinosaurs are the ancestors of chickens so obviously the egg came before the chicken. Amazing how competing viewpoints don’t usually get to the truth behind anything that is inclusive or adaptive in nature. Nor will they ever get to the bottom of the turntable vs. speaker argument. The truth might be important, but never as important as the argument itself.

  1. Audio systems used to be all-in-one – made by Marconiphone and the like to impersonate a mahogany sidetable. Whilst this persisted in Europe for a time, I think it was the US market soon after WWII that started bigtime the move to separate components.

    Now there is a move the other way. There are some seriously good systems built into speakers, the Grimm LS1 (initially designed for studio use and the Linn Exakt range. This is facilitated by small, cold class D amplification. Various other manufacturers are going this way, including everything from streamer to amplification. TEAC have a hi-end one on the way, £5,000 in the UK, perhaps $6,000 or $7,000 in the US.

    Why do we have to have a stack (or in my case a cupboard-full) of boxes littering our domestic space? Why not just leave the egg in the chicken?

  2. Actually, the answer to this question is pretty straightforward. After all, what are we, the end users of recordings trying to do? We are trying to reproduce the original event to the best of our abilities. More than once it has been said that if the recording has irreconcilable flaws, nothing downstream can truly correct it. Whether we can start with a near perfect recording or not, everything downstream is trying to wreck it. We constantly try to limit the downstream carnage.

    I think a limiting factor to this argument is where we begin; what we choose to call the source. The the DAC or the preamplifier is certainly not the source. The record, tape, cd, or computer file is not the source either. They all all downstream, just as is the loudspeaker. Even the microphones used in the recording venue are downstream. I would therefore consider the performance the source, and it comes first.

  3. There is of course no such thing as magic. Once believed to be the result of supernatural powers of a wizard we know these illusions are engineered visual fields that from one perspective appear to be a convincing facsimile of something entirely different. Even our electronic technology cannot recreate as convincing an engineered facsimile yet.

    First music was invented tens of thousands of years ago. During the age of the machine and even earlier devices that produced musical tones in programmed sequences through mechanical contrivances were invented. Early clockmaking was akin to this kind of machine. There are records of schemes to record and reproduce sound going back before Edison’s “talking machine.” But a synergy of technologies resulting from the invention of the telephone, the vacuum tube triode, and the invention of the electromagnetic loudspeaker made the cutting of shellac phonograph records possible. There were also magnetic wire recorders long before Germans invented magnetic tape recorders during WWII.

    The use of these technologies to engineer audible illusions has progressed unevenly. By far the one that has advanced fastest and furthest is the ability to store, retrieve, and manipulate electrical signals. From the standpoint of which is most important, of course they are all important in engineering the overall illusion. But this technology has been commoditized and made flexible to the point where there is little that needs to be done that can’t already be done and at a cost and with reliability that continues to improve at a astounding pace. The electronics for home recording studios are now within the reach of average people where just a few decades ago they were only accessible to wealthy enterprises. So where does the technology to create the convincing illusion fail if not electrically? The answer lies in the science to understand the acoustic field that is the illusion to be recreated, the capability and limitations of human perception of the illusion, and the ability to manipulate or engineer sound fields to recreate the illusion by other means. This is where basic research and clever engineering should be addressing its efforts if it wants to perform this magic trick successfully. But that requires real knowledge and real work. Far easier to do what has already been accomplished slightly differently and call it an improvement. As for the systems design and the speaker design that deal with the crux of the problem, except for a handful of intrepid experimenters working on entirely different technologies, most of those hopelessly doomed, not much has happened and the claimed improved products that result are laughable to those who at least have some appreciation of the problem as it really is. We are amused at pathetic efforts, ridiculous claims, and the shills who write magazine articles adulating their supposed achievements. That’s the only illusion about any of this that anyone is convinced of.

    1. The “pathetic efforts” of the audio industry provide me with a large amount of listening pleasure on a regular basis. Our host Paul plays a not insignificant part in that as well.

      “The answer lies in the science to understand the acoustic field that is the illusion to be recreated, the capability and limitations of human perception of the illusion, and the ability to manipulate or engineer sound fields to recreate the illusion by other means. This is where basic research and clever engineering should be addressing its efforts if it wants to perform this magic trick successfully. But that requires real knowledge and real work. ”

      This is exactly what the BBC is researching in collaboration with five UK universities, specifically to make 3D spatial audio accessible to consumers.
      We (as a UK taxpayer, it’s my money) are doing it over here, who else is doing it? And why not?

      1. Well, I sure hope them BBC guys got some ‘Merican engineers ‘cuz we learn’t the other day that them foreign trained guys ain’t smart enough to figger out nothin’.

        1. I reckon the boffins in Salford (which is in Manchester) like Mr Cox can work it out for themselves. Salford, besides being the home of Man U, is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. So there’s a track record. The Manchester Mark 1 designed under the guidance of Alan Turing, was the first stored programme computer. That said, the weather’s S**T and they talk funny.

      2. The Myth of 3D Audio is perpetuated by a vicious circle. There are subtle but consistent temporal, transient and spatial attributes of sound generated physically by air columns, skins, wood, cat gut and now metallic strings that are lost to microphones and mangled by speakers. Since 1932, the test subjects for audiological experiments and audio evaluation have been acclimated to the scrambled attributes of Radio and Phonograph because of their residential proximity to researchers using Radio technology for the apparatus.

        The test subjects also had an overwhelming selection bias for humans living within the post-industrial noise pollution of urban and suburban locations which masks teh subtleties and nuances of acoustic music and sounds of Nature, which traditional instruments mimicked to some degree.

        99% of the audiological tests utilized headphones, which suppress spatial information and warp frequency response by their approach to the ear canal, and the test signals are predominantly sine waves which are exceedingly rare in Nature. Music recordings all deviate from music by >90% reduction in information content, and this is distorted further by electronic manipulation to simplify the variables. Cognition thrives on complexity, and if you simplify you get the wrong answer EVERY TIME.

        SO, the real answer to the question “How do humans hear space?” is not found in any text book.

        Audio is then designed to stunted hearing. People learn to hear inferior illusions of “3D Sound” and the systems to extend this are remarkable in their novelty – but ultimately fatiguing to persons who are acclimated to hearing traditional instruments in the same room played by musicians with decades of aural training by a chain of teachers going back to the originators of the compositions and instrument design, and/or to the originators of the idioms in folk and improvisational music like Jazz.

        1. What with SoundSmith, I feel I’ve walked into the Annual Convention of the Society of Audio Nihilists.

          I’ll phone the BBC and tell them to stop wasting my money NOW.

          1. I was just thinking along those lines. I was listening to the LSO and LSC perform Verdi’s “Requiem” in Geffen Hall and musing how they FIRED THEIR RECORD LABEL TO MAKE BETTER RECORDINGS, specifically live recordings in DSD with no splices, mixes or overdubs.

        2. I pondered this very thing at a jazz club last week. We sat right at the stage edge with my chair against it sideways. I could even put my little deformed head beyond the plane of the stage. Patricia Barber sets up with the drummer across from her facing downstage, bass in the middle so the drummer was in my right ear and at arm’s length. My acoustic “home” after playing trombone in a big band for a number of years. To sum up, I would characterize the sound from any stereo as grossly directional relative to this. Grossly. *Despite this, I enjoy the sound at home just as much.* Knowing this does not reduce my enjoyment of “canned” music at all. I should be disappointed, right? I guess this is a symptom of audiophilia nervosa. Just to be clear, acuvox, I am in agreement with your comments above.
          The overall experience at the club much better, though. 1) It was live. 2) It was live. 3) A young lady brought me alcohol at regular intervals. 3) It was live and 4) I got a gratuitous selfie with Barbara.

          1. There are many attributes of live sound that can’t be replicated. First, the dynamics. A snare drum is at least 20dB hotter than home speakers can handle, that’s 100 times the sound energy. Imagine a 10,000 Watt amp and a speaker that will handle it.

            Second the frequency range. Live goes to zero (again, think about a snare hit) and up to 100KHz if you could hear it. What it does offer is infinite time RESOLUTION, no time quantization errors.

            Third, it has a hundred times the spatial cues. This means “the mix” becomes non-critical because you can easily hear things happening 50dB BELOW the mix by their spatial differentiation- assuming you are not listening to a stereo PA or a rectangular concrete room. Your ears can tell what angle the sounds arrive at and triangulate the point of origin, which for speakers at home means only two places in the room. Live every drum has a characteristic spatial pattern as it reflects around you.

      3. Clueless groping in the dark. Speaking about groping I’m surprised anyone at BBC has time for this given they spend so much time committing and covering up pedophilia. When they aren’t doing that, they’re usually engaged in spouting vitriolic anti-American rhetoric. I think the world would be a better place without the BBC.

  4. I’ve now spent my first up of coffee trying to decide if there are a logical differences between Begging the Question, Vicious Circles, Chicken/Egg dilemmas and Catch-22 logic. Paul, I wish you had simply used magic tricks as your jumping off point. 😉

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s post. — Mark B

    1. What happened to cart and horses, or horses before carts? Besides banning people who can’t tell one cable from another, perhaps a metaphor ban should be instituted? I’m running off now to stone some crows, or should I learn to walk first?

  5. I think we have to approach this from a practical stand point in setting up one’s system. This is more important than trying to figure out the chicken and egg issue. In today’s modern era, it is easy to get a good and decent source like the just announced Paul’s Direct Stream Memory Player. In the past when only turntables were available, it was much more difficult. With the good digital source already set up for you in the factory, then you can work on the rest of the system to retrieve and output it. Of course, we know both source and output are equally important as one without the other will not give you a good output. But without a good source first, one can be wasting one’s time in trying to set up the rest of the system to get a good output. Hey, this looks like I am advertising for Paul’s DirectStream Memory Player.

  6. Look up Percy Wilson and the Zanzibar Fallacy. Percy was the technical editor of Grammaphone decades ago and a revered British audio man(he did a lot of work on pickup alignment and was an expert on horn design). This speaks directly to circular reasoning.

    1. Blimey, you’ve got a good memory. Here is Mr Wilson on alignment in JANUARY 1925:

      ‘There is one important subject to which we wish to draw the particular attention of our friends the manufacturers of gramophones. In the course of the last few months the question of needle-track alignment has been thrashed out in these columns. It is a question which does not interest nine out of ten gramophone owners, but which is vitally important to all of them if they are also record owners. Upon it , more than upon any other condition of manufacture and use, depends the life of each record. There is no reason why a single gramophone should be sold to the public which has not got its needle track alignment as nearly correct as is possible. The articles of Mr. Wilson are there for everyone to read, and we beg all manufacturers to go into this matter carefully, and if necessary to amend their ways. We promise on our side to do all we can to help them and to make this condition of alignment ,one of the essentials upon the strength of which we shall advise enquirers to buy or not to buy any particular make of gramophone.”

      This was in response to a three page dissertation authored and published in September 1924 on needle alignment, full of formulae and alignment tables. It’s something else. The issue of tracking error seems to be more one of wear and tear of records than audio fidelity.

      He opined with regularity. In March 1925 Gramophone published the design for a home brew “Wilson Protactor”. Sound familiar?

      1. Pwercy Wlson was one of the early great guys in audio. Unfortunately for most of us his career was over by the 70s. I was lucky enough to meet him about then one time.

      1. We have been in contact a few years ago when I mentioned the Zanzibar fallacy. I’ve cited it a few times. I was lucky enough to meet percy and be told the Zanzibar fallacy by him while driving him and his wife back to their hotel in Philadelphia in the early 70s.

    2. Googling that, I found this little beauty on the DIY Audio forum.

      A joke involving an astronomer, a chemist, a mathematician and a statistician on a bus
      during their first visit to Scotland. They see a black sheep grazing alone
      in a pasture as they drive by.

      The astronomer excitedly exclaims, “Ah, this shows Scottish sheep are
      The chemist didactically corrects him: “No, no, it just shows some Scottish
      sheep are black.”
      The mathematician then says, “Actually, we can only be sure there is at
      least one Scottish sheep of which at least one side is black”
      The statistician caps it off with, “We know that one side of one sheep is black. However, we can also see that several thousand sheep are at least half white. Therefore, the
      occurrence of black sides on a sheep is so close to zero as to be
      statistically insignificant. Therefore that sheep does not exist. (He
      will then, as Douglas Adams said, go on to prove that black is white,
      and get killed on the next zebra crossing).”

      1. Almost as good as the “assume you have a tin opener” joke involving an economist with a tin of baked beans on a desert island. You can guess the rest.

        Do they call you “wag of the Glenn”?

          1. A “wag” was someone who told half-amusing stories, now a WAG is a “wives and girlfriends” (a.k.a. sports star gold digger partner with fake everything). Glenn of course (nothing to do with the Wichita Lineman) is a Scottish valley, with or without black sheep. So wag of the Glenn is someone who tells vaguely amusing Scottish yarns. Simple really. A bit like audio.

      2. That’s a good one!

        And love Douglas Adams as well. Reminds me that somewhere I have a very nice production of Hitchhiker’s Guide on vinyl, full on deal with sound effects, full cast, etc. Gotta dig that one out…

  7. If I’m not mistaken, a whole new sport of indoor sky-diving has been born where people float in an upward blast of air–without strings attached. Such social diversions pose intense competition to young people who might otherwise be attracted to high-end audio. But that’s taking the discussion into a whole new direction. 🙂

  8. Since the question is system optimization while avoiding local sub-optimization, there are no simple answers. Choosing the wrong source (music storage), or the wrong destination (room) will throw off your comparisons. And, as my colleague Soundminded reminds us, there is no choice of fixed format that captures a room or musical forces larger than chamber ensemble.

    My solution is to make the output mirror the input with one speaker per microphone, and make the system mirror the stage setup with at least one speaker to represent every instrument. As for those who cite “studio artists”, I offer this quote from legendary Southern Rock producer Jim Dickenson: “A pop band tries to make the live act sound like the record, but a REAL band tries to make the record sound like the live act.”

    Even during my Rock phase, I preferred live albums. I am now so sensitized to the difference I can hear the INTENTION to splice. Accordingly, I start by using recordings I know were made live with a minimalist mic setup, preferably a near-coincident pair of figure 8, omnidirectional with a baffle (Jecklin, Schneider, Kimber, Diament, de Martin) or small diaphragm cardioids with flat off-axis response (Schoeps). This produces the maximum amount of stereo information that can be encoded in two channels. Mixing, pan pots, compression and digital reverb are an instant turn-off.

    My capture and playback rooms have heavy side wall diffusion and bass leakage to minimize standing waves, comb filtering and discrete echoes. The rule is if you can place a mirror on any boundary and see a speaker from any seat, that sight line needs to be interrupted by an acoustic absorber or diffuser. I build socially acceptable acoustic devices for this purpose. If you have a co-habitant who insists on seeing the walls or uses them to frame paintings, let them have the rest of the house – but it is incompatible with music.

    My drivers have oversized diaphragms and radically reduced inductance, and my speaker cabinets all have rounded edges. Most of them are dipoles which maximizes the bandwidth of consistent polar response; reduces room modes and comb filtering; and the projection pattern approximates the spatial characteristics of orchestral strings, horns, human voice and even piano to some degree.

    These critical changes have far greater affect than anything in the middle of the chain (cables!). Different input and output choices are going to be more fake stereo than real, an illusion that is learned by “breaking in” your ears to compromised recordings, speakers and rooms.

    Which brings us to the ultimate “chicken and egg” metaphor: if you don’t train your ears by regular audition of live acoustic music, you don’t know what an audio system is supposed to sound like. You keep chasing the relativism of fakery, like trying to judge which artificial blueberry flavor is the best, having never tasted a blueberry, or which painting of an ocean storm is most realistic having never seen a large body of water. 99% of recording is the “photoshopped” version. We are all walking around with virtual reality goggles watching cartoons if we listen to commercial recording. (pardon my metaphor!)

    As to electric bands, the traditional Rock stage format has been lost. Back when I was a roadie, we had separate amps voiced for every electric instrument (dedicated guitar, bass and keyboard amps), the drums where not miked and the only thing in the PA system was vocals.

    PA speakers are evolved for speech intelligibility. They accentuate the lyrics and typical horns approximate the spatial and transient characteristics of human voices. They are poorly suited for bass and guitar, atrocious for piano and drums. They also have a problem with feedback so they are pointed away from the band, and usually hung far overhead or off to the side, for the “Wizard of Oz” effect.

    Large halls require stage monitors so the band and singers can hear the vocals, which creates sonic mayhem on stage. I know, because I spent a year trying to record on stages with PAs and it was impossible to find clear sound. Stage PAs resemble a funhouse mirror version of bathroom sound – except it is NOT fun trying to capture it!

    Here is a pop/rock album recorded live on a stage without a PA. It is so radical, it probably won’t make sense the first time through. If you “break-in” your ears to it, you may come to like the sound as much as I do:

    1. How do you avoid that the microphone for the guitar catches the singer’s voice and vice verse that the singer’s microphone catches the guitar sound otherwise getting phase shifts between the microphones?

      1. 99% of stage microphones are cardioid and supercardioid. These have response that is down 5-10dB on the sides depending on frequency. If you have a front line, these mics pick up the sounds on either side and the backline. They are not directional at all at bass frequencies.

        I use mostly figure 8 mics, which have a deep, flat cancellation null on the sides. This is used to reduce bleed, also getting the mics as close as practical. The bleed that remains blends into the acoustics of the stage area and increases the reverb amount and delay to make the room sound bigger. The room is tuned on the dry side for Classical music so some amplification is optimal.

        As a rule the loudest instruments are not amplified. The speakers are used to balance unbalanced orchestrations like cello and drums, and to incorporate electric and electronic signals like samples, synthesizers and processed live sounds. The extreme diffusion (650 ft2 in a 10,000ft3 room) prevents comb filtering and phasing effects.

        1. Thanks! That sounds most conclusive. Thus the microphones used are selected due to their distinct cocktail-party effect. 🙂 And the musicians are placed accordingly. It would be nice getting such information for each audiophile recording.

  9. “… which is more important, the source or the output …”?

    I don’t think the problem here is that the question invokes a circular argument. From a logical point of view the question flounders on the inadequate implied definition of what comprises “more important”. Clearly, if I want Dire Straits coming out of my loudspeakers I don’t want to be feeding Eminem into the inputs. From that perspective, it is self-evident that you can’t get something out of the speakers that wasn’t put in in the first place.

    The situation in audio is that the best we can hope for is to feed into the system something that is an approximation of what we want to hear at the output. Likewise, what comes out of the loudspeakers is, at best, an approximation of what goes into the input. Even so, with this line of argument you cannot get any sort of grip on Tiefenbrun’s “source first” logic with which to dislodge it.

    The place where the “source first” rubber meets the road is a place you don’t see discussed as much these days as it should be, and yet it is a primary concern for virtually all of us. This is the question of how to optimally allocate the individual component budget within an overall system. If I’ve got, say, $10,000 how much of it do I spend on the source? How much on the amplifier(s)? Speakers? Cables? Furniture? Room treatment? Every dollar spent on the one is a dollar less available to be spent on the other. This is where the chicken and egg argument gets to match up against real-world solutions. By and large, the “source first” proponents will argue for a greater percentage of the budget to be spent on the source than the “speakers first” lobby might.

    Back in the day, though, the gospel according to Tiefenbrun was a truly enlightening one. The difference between a “source first”-inspired system fronted by a Linn Sondek coupled with a good pair of speakers at a fifth of the price, and an identically-priced system with the budgets allocated to speakers and turntable reversed …. well, it wasn’t even close. I heard this many, many times with consistent results. I think today the same sort of experiment may not lead to such a clear-cut result, mainly because the difference between a [insert your $5,000 DAC of choice] and a [insert your $500 DAC of choice] is not nearly as large as that separating a Linn Sondek LP12 from a Pioneer PL12D. Similarly, the quality of loudspeakers across all price ranges is massively, massively better today.

    1. Things have changed, and quickly. Never mind $500 DAC, the Asus Xonar U7 at $100 and the Chromecast at about $50 are very good DACs. Feed that through an Onkyo integrated 100wpc amplifier and for less than $500 you have a complete audio input and amplification. You could stick that on a pair of speakers up to $5,000 no problem at all. Speaker cost ratio almost 90%, 10% everything else. Vinyl replay was, and largely remains, expensive relative to quality. Digital is very good and very cheap, driven by market forces. Pioneer could no longer make money and Yamaha barely, only Onkyo and TEAC doing OK. TEAC make some incredible units like the UD-503, they must sell millions of them. So Ivor made a good point, no longer valid, I just hope the same happens to cables one day.

  10. Is the question of input and output circular ? If it is then everything is circular by the same logic and that is not so. If there is no input there cannot be output but the output does not influence the input making them independent. No question of which came first. It is obvious which came first. Regards.

  11. My two cents worth:

    The source is where the magic starts in the home end of the audio reproduction chain. I’m with Tiefenbraun on this one. No sparkle and immediacy captured off the disk, no communion with the artist down the line.

    On the other hand, speakers are like your ears, something you can adapt to. Once you get used to them as instruments you know how to imagine the original performance, based on experience. Imperfect, but at least in our minds, realistic. Speakers also are convenient to hold constant while you evaluate other components.

    Of course sources, amps and speakers act together so excellence pays off on either end. And don’t forget synergy, which is often the product of trial and error. I’d say if you have to compromise, put your money into the source, record spinner, cartridge, CD player, DAC. At least you’ll know you’re getting the goods even if it takes a while to get to hear it fully.

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