Following suit

January 26, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

A few weeks ago I mentioned that one great test recording to measure your sound system’s ability to disappear was the Rutter Requiem recorded by Keith Johnson on Reference. Properly outfitted and set up, highly resolving systems should get out of the way so this beauty can envelop the listener. If not, then you need some new equipment.

One comment that struck me was this one from reader, Alan:

“I’ve got SACD’s that don’t sound half as good as this CD. Totally blown away, thank you.”

Yes, of course, we all do. I can’t tell you the number of higher resolution recordings and mediums in my possession that do not hold a candle to a number of my CDs.

Just because a medium has greater bandwidth and resolution doesn’t mean much if the source material doesn’t warrant it. The highest resolution copy of a mediocre recording doesn’t somehow magically make it better in the same way a lovelier shade of lipstick doesn’t help the looks of the proverbial pig.

The challenge we all face in perfecting our systems is systemic. Not only do we have to get the setup dialed in, the recordings chosen wisely, but it’s incumbent upon each of us to make sure the elements within that system are up for the challenge.

It doesn’t matter how great one piece of your stereo chain is if the others don’t follow suit.

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19 comments on “Following suit”

  1. The crux of the matter “stereo system” is that there are so many objective and subjective variable parameter influencing the perceived sound quality. Thus it is a lottery finding a great sounding system. I always use some ten tracks when checking new systems recommended by my dealers. And I never found a system which rendered a most engaging presentation of an old recording from Sheffield’s Lab: Thelma Houston: “I’ve got the music in me”. Even in my system this track only sounded most pleasing when playing the vinyl version. I now recently got the same PRAT experience from the CD version when listening to a top tier system in my dealers room. Changing only a single component (power cable, interconnect, preamp, amp or speakers) and the sound quality collapsed to “not engaging”. And the crux is: nobody can give an explanation based on hard facts. And even the young designer of the system didn’t know the track. Thus having voiced the system using this track wasn’t a valid explanation.

  2. It’s a bit like saying the bigger the stage, the bigger the orchestra, the more scenery, the nicer the costumes, the more dancers, the greater the choreographer the better the ballet will be. Put all those things together and you probably will get a great show, but it is not necessary. You can do great stuff with a small stage, a solo dancer, but you need good material well performed. That said, you can’t do Swan Lake in a space the size of a kitchen, it would get a bit congested and Odette would hit her head on the ceiling. The fact is that there is dance that could be performed in a space that small. One of the best pieces I know could be performed in a cupboard. The dance space is confined to about 2 square metres and it is in almost complete darkness. Great music by Portia Graves. It was performed worldwide to great acclaim. I saw it three times.

    That’s why we don’t listen to MP3 at home, because of its limitations, but if you look at the FLAC bitrate of some great music by Paart and Hurtag, MP3 would be more than sufficient to encode it.

  3. Following on from a recent ‘ask Paul’ that you may not have seen yet, this is included below as I feel it’s so important…

    I managed to track down, they are still available, an HDCD of the John Rutter Requiem that’s on your hit list.
    Now this really came alive on my system, as you described on your list’, when compared to the stated ‘audiophile’ FLAC 96KHz/24 recording from a well known download website. Obviously, this is a different set of artists, venue and recording which makes any comparison very subjective if not invalid. I feel, however, that the following raises the very important topic of “Music ‘digital’ recording/playback seems be a bit of a mess, is that why you’re going to record your own?”

    FLAC 96KHz/24 John Rutter: Requiem (2016) COLCD 139
    The Cambridge Singers, Aurora Orchestra, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London, conducted by John Rutter.

    HDCD 44.1KHz/24 (1993) Reference Recordings RR-57CD
    The Turtle Creek Chorale, Timothy Seelig conductor.

    Paul, (An Ask Paul)
    Music ‘digital’ recording/playback seems to be a bit of a mess, is that why you’re going to record your own?
    There are confusing quotes like:
    “ PCM 44.1KHz was the standard to put aliasing errors in less critical audio frequencies, so why did the music industry start using multiples of 48 and not 44.1KHz – i.e. 96 and 192KHz. Surely, 88.2KHz and 176.4KHz should be used? “ Do you agree with this?

    Will your DSD recordings be edited and stay DSD, also is this DSD64/128 or 256? I understand that DSD is very difficult and expensive to edit, hence most recordings are still in PCM 24 bit at 96KHz or 192KHz – which seem to have quality issues. There’s a DSD-wide which is really a PCM at 5bits with ultrahigh sampling frequencies, viable to edit and great quality. So if this the future of music recording how do consumers play this without compromise when delivered as DSD64/128 or what PCM format or other? Surely not 96KHz or 192KHz which is what the high-end music providers want to sell me.

    The need for delivering synchronised high quality audio and movie film(multiples of 24) signals via HDMI seems to be the reason for 48KHz multiples. Audiophile music is therefore suffering from this decision with compromises at playback. Do you agree with this? If so what can be done to make folk split audio delivered for audio/visual media and for pure audio?

    My system does a good enough job for music for me, seems to try and do what it can with DSD64/128 inputs for music files. I then found that many ‘common DACs’ are now only single bit DSD, so will have issues with any PCM inputs when they have to convert to DSD before then to analog. Also that some SACDs and now DSD files come from questionable masters old and new, including PCM 24bit 96 and 192KHz.

    I use my ears to decide if I like how music sounds, but it’s becoming unpredictable with better kit – some CDs/SACDs/DSD/FLAC files, old and new, sound great while others not as good.

    1. Alan, finding the provenance of the original recording basis of any piece of music can become a real detective job but is worth doing if it’s a work you really care about and are interested in – but the bottom line is the care in recording and mastering put in at the start, PCM, DSD, analogue tape whatever are not the primary reason something sounds good or not….

    2. DSD is IMPOSSIBLE to edit. All editing, mixing and mastering operations require multiplication and addition, which does not work on one bit signals. Even splicing requires decimating the splice points on expensive workstations.

      A native DSD recording can only be done by playing pieces or movements from beginning to end in the right acoustic environment, with 100.000% of audio engineering done before hitting the record button. A proper DSD recording is also strictly one microphone direct to each output speaker, with no mixing or other processing in between.

      Somewhere along the way engineers forgot how to do this, then musicians forgot how to do this and the musical truth got lost in endless hours of fiddling, hundreds of tracks and thousands of steps after the musicians stop playing. I need to connect to the instant of creation, with real humans playing together in a real room and preferably a live audience. Every knob and button takes us farther from the musicians.

      Studios are the WRONG place to make records. It is like trying to experience a savannah by a video of elephants and lions in a zoo. If I wanted fantasy, I could read a book or get spoon fed by the movie biz.

      One positive trend is orchestras that fired their record label producers, tonmeisters, mixing and mastering engineers and record live to DSD.

  4. The more accurate the “focus” that your system can achieve, the greater the difference you will begin to reveal listening to lossless and lossy material. I’m not a real fan of compansion or format changes, as each time you convert you insert loss.

  5. I most certainly cherish the pristine recordings in my possession. However, there are many more marginally recorded albums in my favorites list. My system went past what was needed to reproduce them a bit ago. A good example is Paul Pena’s “New Train”. It’s recording quality is “ok”, but the music is awesome. Edwin McCain is another artist. The recordings of his are better than average, yet I listen to them frequently. Probably 2/3 of my collection falls into this category. Many of these lesser recording actually benefit from a less resolving system. I have often thought of getting a separate, less resolving, DAC to play these recordings.

    There are many audiophiles that listen to the same awesome recordings over and over again. They listen to music that they don’t even really like, because the recording is clean. There is a local group of folks I listen with on a regular basis. When they came over a couple weeks ago, each one commented on what great music I have. It’s not surprising. They have the same basic music library as last year, yet have turned over a component several times through the course of that same year.

    I think this is where the snobby audiophile image comes from. The phenomenon of “recording worthiness”.

  6. We should never seek out music that will sound good – we should seek out electronics and software that make the music we love sound good. PSA does this REALLY well.

    If I were in charge of the world, 100% of music played at audio shows would be provided by the attendees. There would still be a lot of stunt tracks played but at least they would be selected by attendees.

    1. I, personally, at this juncture, prefer having a system that adds no color. It allows me the freedom to, if I choose, add in on the digital side just about any coloration I wish. I can get past content that may not be of the greatest quality, but the point that it will more apparent was my intent to convey.

  7. Thanks Paul for the quote from my post regarding the Rutter Requiem recorded by Keith Johnson on Reference.
    In return I’ll mention a couple of my favourite recordings ‘The special magic of Paul Robeson’ on vinyl Verve 2317 070 (Stereo). There are so many poor Robeson recordings around but this one is truly goosebump material.
    Another one that shines through is the track ‘You look good to me’ from Oscar Peterson Live in Japan 82 Vinyl on Pablo 2640-101
    I could go on of course.. I hate to mention it but just looking through my vinyl collection I’ve got nine Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and didn’t realise it lol.

    1. I will comment on this one, it is not good. The bitrate offered by YouTube will not be at any kind of a level of resolution to do much of anything. In my mind this is true of any music. I guess YouTube does offer some kind of upgraded stream but still I would not think it’s anywhere near a bitrate level to mean much in regard to the point being made in today’s post.

      I take it you do not have access to Spotify (which is only 320kb max but still much better than YouTube) or Tidal? I listened to the referenced recording myself this morning, but by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and found it a very good recording although not to my music taste. I do plan to use the recording to tweak my system a bit though.

      To my point, above, for those of you who swear by this recording what exactly do you listen to/for that gives you such joy? I certainly can hear the voices and the instruments and the sound stage, but, don’t really get the “hair stand up on the back of the neck” feeling like I do with a good electric or acoustic guitar solo (“Keith Don’t Go” as an example) or a good vocal ballad. Help out a heathen here who generally prefers studio created music 🙂

      1. Paul, I wondered what you thought of the HDCD version I mentioned in my commet above, as RR suggest it was recorded at 44.1KHz/24 bit or perhaps higher?

        1. The Reference Recordings using HDCD (a process they were instrumental in designing) were excellent and I use them. The actual recording I have from reference is a 44.1 though I don’t have an HDCD decoder.

  8. Finally! You’ve nailed it. The most important thing to good sound quality is the source…the actual recording itself and then the way it was mastered. I’ve heard high bit rate mp3’s sound way better than hi-rez downloads, sacd’s and lp’s that were from a bad source or poorly mastered or heaven’s forbid…remastered. That said a great recording well mastered sounds exemplary in a hi-rez format or a great pressing.

  9. Every process that changes the sound is is inherently TIME DISTORTION. It doesn’t matter whether it is in the analog or digital domains – mixing, equalizing, compressing, expanding, gating and worst of all added reverb all change the temporal information for the worse.

    Even panning is changing the relative strength of the time delays through the left and right channel; and hearing exactly the same track waveform from two different points in space is a totally artificial, physically impossible sound that audiophiles imagine has some relation to a physical aural image after enough hours “breaking in” their ears. It is missing the reflection timing and direction of arrival information of a real stereo soundstage.

    If listeners spent enough time in a good chamber hall or a residential music room with live music or player piano, they develop a completely different hearing mechanism that locates individual instruments in space, invalidates the whole of studio craft and multiplies stringent criteria of speaker design (flat frequency and phase response at all angles) and listening room acoustics.

    It seems the archaic practice of recording finger strokes is seeing a renaissance, with acoustic piano makers Yamaha and Steinway competing in mechanical music reproduction.

    Meanwhile, I am moving forward with a project to reproduce a double string quartet from eight close microphone tracks using two cello speakers, two viola speakers and four violin speakers. This is REAL soundstaging – placing the individual sounds on a stage.

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