Grails, holy and hopeful

April 7, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

One of the more famous literary motifs is the idea of the Holy Grail, a metaphorical vessel with miraculous powers providing happiness, eternal youth or sustenance in infinite abundance.

Grails, both holy and hopeful, can apply to any number of aspirational audio goals. For me, that grail is to be found in digital audio.

We've long known that digits are digits and thus can be endlessly replicated without loss. That said, we've also known that digital delivery and processing are prone to differences that are most audible.

The Grail would, for me, be to design a series of digital audio devices that are agnostic to the storage, transmission, and processing of bits. That no matter how one gets those bits delivered and processed, the audible results would be the same.

We are a long way away from drinking from that grail vessel, though with PS Audio's recent innovations of galvanically isolating inputs and CPUs from the digital outputs we're more than one step closer.

Grails, both holy and hopeful are what keep most of us in research and development going.

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31 comments on “Grails, holy and hopeful”

  1. That would really be great. I think all the tweaks and tons of small equipment necessary and used in many setups to deliver a lossless or unmodified digital signal to the DAC can’t be the right solution.

    You questioned your sentence about “digits are digits and can be endlessly replicated without loss” yourself, and those who heard how different a simple disc or file copy can sound know, it’s also just a theory, compromised by the effects you try to suppress by your grail idea mentioned later.

    It’s a meaningful goal imo and I hope you succeed and we’ll have something like an integrated Bridge again some time, just without the disadvantages against a fully fletched multi box/multi cabling solution.

  2. Regardless of what Holy, or unholy, hopeful or helpful Grails are attained in home audio in the next three decades, it still comes down to personal preference both in sound & in price.
    (I cannot see the words 'Holy' & 'Grail' together without thinking of Monty Python;
    it's just impossible 🙂 )

    What's in a name?
    I reached out to the current manager, Mike Burn from 'Infidelity' in England who told me that the company has been around for thirty years & that 2 or 3 times a year they do receive inquiries about private investigators & occasionally whether the 'ladies' there do out-calls.

    1. Call me cynical but as 'Soundmind' has always said time & time again
      that apart from 'the digital breakthrough' there has been very little advancement
      in the field of home audio in the last 60 years, & I tend to agree with him.
      Yes there has been a lot of 'experimental futzing around', quadraphonic,
      5.1 channel, etc. but it's pretty much basically stayed the same.

      I for one will not be holding my breath for the next three decades in the
      hope that said Holy Grail of home audio will be unearthed in that time.
      But, then again, I could be wrong.

      1. There is no real innovation because this would require to completely redesign the marketing-propaganda for stereo resulting in a huge loss of credibility. The end user has to be told that the most important task before setting up a stereo system is establishing minimum standards for listening room acoustics and a standard for crosstalk cancellation. A small headphones and microphones manufacturer in Vienna (AKG) launched a real innovation some 35 years ago by introducing the AKG1000 headphones and a headphones processor which could be programmed by using the measured individual HRTF. Being later acquired by Harman Kardon this innovation was dumped. I see the real innovations coming soon in headphones offering both individual HRTF and crossfeed.

      2. By observing that at the last 2 venues of the biggest European Hi-Fi show, the Western Electric room with 60-70 year old equipment was one of the best sounding rooms and while record players and tape machines still rank somewhere at the top of the source equipment category, it’s hard for even the toughest marketing guys to pretend there was essential progress.

        1. Not a surprising observation to me Jazznut. 😉
          Some of the convenience of digital today is welcome, but as you point out (and others) a great innovation hasn’t shook the ‘audio world’ in quite some time. Still the hobby is fun.

  3. Today's comments are very depressing 🙁

    "there has been very little advancement in the field of home audio in the last 60 years"
    "There is no real innovation "
    "it’s hard for even the toughest marketing guys to pretend there was essential progress"

    So basically what you are saying is that all those years I spent my hard earned cash on nothing ?
    Time and time again I fell into the trap of manufacturers telling me their latest is their greatest and you just gotta buy it !
    All those years I couldn't resist. My God, what a waste of money.
    Thanks guys for this wake-up call.
    From now on I'll be more careful and won't believe everything "they" (with the exception of PSA of course) tell me 🙂
    BTW., did one of you already listen to the new amplifier of AFS ?
    From what I've I heard it sounds so much better than the previous model.
    Hmm, gotta make an appointment with my audio dealer for a listening session...

    1. Love it jb4, hilarious as is often the case, had me lol. I think the progress over the years has been incremental rather than groundbreaking and we’ve probably both enjoyed experiencing that. Like time, money well wasted is not wasted money....I think.

      1. Hi Rich,
        From yesterday (6th April), your 3:51pm reply:
        "As for 'Audiovile' I've already got a whole product range in my head".
        Gee, you don't muck around do you!
        (Thanks for the chuckle) 😉

      2. Richtea, on a more serious note...
        I love every penny I spent on this phantastic hobby we call "audio".
        I love the hobby for more than 50 decades (man, I am getting old) and today still as much as 50 years ago (when I was just a schoolboy).
        And I totally agree (most) improvements are... well, improvements.
        Not groundbreaking, certainly not an epiphany of some manufaturer.
        It's evolution, not revolution.

      1. Fat Rat...which speakers do I use.
        I'm glad you asked.
        Well, after careful repositioning, (distance from the walls and each other, less or more toe-in) I found the "right" place for my newer speakers (Thiel 2.4), speakers I bought in 2006.
        It's trial and error.
        And they never sounded that good to me.
        The (in)famous synergy with the room, amp, ls-cables (!), everything falls into place.
        Go on. laugh some more that it took me almost 14 years to reach this point 🙂
        Yes, we discussed this before, but really, acoustics and positioning of the speakers are more important than the quality of the rest of equipment (assuming this equipment is not crap).
        Well, you're never too old to learn.
        So the oldies (not me, the speakers) are back to the attic.

  4. The problem is not on the consumer listening end; it begins way earlier in the recording/mixing/mastering stage and culminates in the compression and equalization applied by the streaming companies. The Holy Grail of digital audio already exists. Not enough people care.

  5. And as to where those bits come from in the first place is just as important as how they are converted back into sound/music. But the recording process is a vast subject for another day. Bits is bits, but they are just the center section (all analog recording/playback is "something complete different" (yet another Monty Python reference).

  6. In my opinion those of you who think that the only significant improvement in home audio in the last 40 years has been the introduction of the first digital format available to the consumer (i.e. the CD ) are being very jaded. What did the CD really give us? A more convenient format compared to tape of vinyl. It certainly did not sound better that RTR or vinyl, and my old Sony cassette with Dolby S NR sounds better than CD's do.

    There have been great advance in material science, finite element modelling and laser interferometry measurements that have made drastic advances in speaker linearity ( especially for dynamic speakers ).

    Improvements in design and material science have improved both turntable and cartridge performance and 3D printing has improved tonearm performance.

    Higher sampling rate digital formats have significantly reduce digital fatigue.

    Finally, advances in semiconductor technology have such as JFETs have given us solid state amps that sound musical instead harsh.

  7. "...It certainly did not sound better that RTR or vinyl, and my old Sony cassette with Dolby S NR sounds better than CD’s do..."
    Haha, your sense of humor is priceless, tonyplachy 🙂

    1. jb4, So when is the last time you actually sat down and listened to great music on vinyl or and RTR?

      Paul, Thank you so much for the darker font

      1. tonyplachy,
        So when is the last time you actually sat down and listened to great music on cd ?
        In the past I've had a Tandberg RTR and Nakamichi Dragon cassettedeck.
        One of my audio buddies still has a Nakamichi ZX7 deck. I know what they sound like.
        No company made better machines than these 2 companies.
        But compared to well recorded cd's (99% of my cd's) in a high end player these tape machines sound mediocre at best.
        I think you're confusing nostalgia with really good sound.
        But...we both know that you are not going to convince me and I am not going to convince you.
        So, end of discussion.

  8. Paul,
    Thanks for the private messages. I do want to discuss one topic you said to me. With your permission, I will quote you:

    "Actually, while I do know those numbers and what they mean I still stand by the imperial results of what I wrote. 0.1% THD/IM stands at the threshold of audibility."

    I don't know if you consider noise in this number or only distortion. Anyway, this is a SINAD of 60 dB below the signal (I will assume noise too for now). Based on your premise then, anything that is more dBs below 60 will be inaudible.
    Let's assume then that you have two identical amplifiers. Power, damping, frequency response etc. Identical except that one has SINAD at -61dBs and the other at -80dBs. Based on your premise, the measured difference between these two amps will be inaudible. They will sound identical to "audiophiles". Now, let's assume that you have two identical amplifiers with SINAD below 100dBs. You feed them two identical signals (music, whatever) one with distortion components at-61dBs from the signal and the other with distortion components at -80 dBs. Based on your premise, the difference will be inaudible and both signals will sound the same. identical, in your premise.

    [As an interesting digression, it is difficult to find transducers (speakers or headphones) with distortion below -60dBs so it makes it very hard to develop a testing environment to check threshold of audibility. But if the speaker has distortion at -40dBs, I don't know how you can have limits in the electronics of -60dBs.]

    So, if the two amps sound identical, or the two signal sound identical, then anything that modifies the signal below -60 dBs will be also inaudible. I am assuming NO change in timbre. No change in frequency, only noise and distortion.

    The AP machines today can measure SINAD up to -140 dBs (or somewhere close). They are much more sensitive that YOUR audibility threshold by around 80dBs. That is many, many times.

    If you change a wire, or interconnect, you will not be able to measure noise or distortion within the 60dB threshold that you stated. So, if you are right, then any change that doesn't measure within 60dBs is inaudible. Like wires or interconnects.

    One exception would be a very long run or a very capacitive speaker wire between a high output impedance amplifier and a low impedance speaker. But this would be a frequency change, not noise and distortion.

    You cannot argue the 60dB threshold and also argue that you can hear changing wires or interconnects or any other mythology change in the system.

    In addition, 16/44 or CD sound has a distortion and noise factor well below the 60dB that becomes inaudible to you. Anything that measures better than this would not be audible. Yo can't claim superiority of DSD or Hi Res PCM if the measured parameters are below what YOU call threshold.

    Something has to give. We either show we hear more than this or the rest is snake oil. If the latter, then don't spend $$$ in wires and devices and just focus on music or better speakers. This is where we can still achieve audible improvements. It is in speakers where we can barely make your 60 dB audibility threshold. And they have other complications too, like frequency response and improved spinorama response.

    1. CtA,
      Even though PM has deleted our replies from yesterday it was evident that you are still reading my posts; even though you have stated several times here on this site that you find my posts "mediocre & uninteresting".
      If this is so then why do you keep reading them?

  9. If I may say where the advancements or ground breaking levels have come in audio is definitely outside the home. Portable or transportable audio has hugely advanced in the last 7 years. Some would say holy grail level. IEMS, portable amps/Dacs and DAPS are on an incredible level, especially IEMS. Just look into the driver technology alone. The advancements are terrific.

    Home audio has plateaued a little bit. Refinements are being worked on more I think, especially in home theater set ups.

  10. The D/A converter and audio output section creates the sound quality period. If the Data is received accurately it should sound the same through the DAC being used. If a person with poor vision can read what's before them they have the ability to process the information through their mind. If they cannot process the information it's not the fault of their bad eyes it's the fault of their brain, the human D/A converter. Not to say transports are not important but if a cheap transport reads it properly and sends it to the DAC the sound should be as good it gets through that DAC.

  11. AH, but hearing sound is real, continuous in time and three dimensions of space, and something we have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to gather maximum utile information regarding our environment and the mega-fauna from.

    Bits have no more substance than our imagination and delusions; and we can't yet capture and transmit enough of them to adequately represent a 3D sound field.

    Consider that in a rectangular room, there are 6 first order reflections from a given source; 30 second order reflections; hundreds of third and fourth order reflections, and thousands of fifth order reflections. Well trained hearing can triangulate the time delay and direction of arrival of these reflections out to 80dB down, added to the frequency and phase and transient information of the sounds for every sound source. There are experiments with 500 speaker channels that still can't reproduce this complexity - at 24/384, this is ~5Gbps.

    I can settle for 5.1 or 7.1 DSF, which is about 10X Redbook; but for spatial accuracy you need a separate, dedicated, optimized speaker for every sound source in the recording. The location, construction and geometry of those speakers supplies the missing information to sonify your listening room like the real thing.

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