Is accuracy overrated?

December 6, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

In response to yesterday’s post, Steven responded:

“If you take a recording and transfer it (a) bit perfect digitally or (b) by cutting a groove in a bit of plastic, running a small rock through the groove and amplifying the resulting signal hundreds of times, then it is a small miracle that they actually sound fairly similar.”

Brilliant.

You can see an extension of what Steven is suggesting in this graph of a Shure phono cartridge.

Compared to the ruler-flat output of a DAC, this looks more like what a loudspeaker might do.

I maintain that the single biggest sonic difference between vinyl and digital is the inaccuracies found in the mechanical transducers: first the mechanical cutting head of the vinyl lathe and the further modifiication by the playback cartridge.

What’s still fascinating to me is just how great vinyl sounds despite being inaccurate.

Perhaps accuracy is overrated?

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79 comments on “Is accuracy overrated?”

  1. As a child I thought that it was a big miracle that Fred Flintstone could get such good sound from a record using a bird’s beak as a stylus, completely ignoring the idea of using a rock.

    The short answer is; Yes.
    The long answer is; Yes, accuracy is overrated, depending on where the inaccuracies
    manifest themselves.

  2. Yes, no, it depends what we’re talking about. One thing I haven’t read recently in these pages is how theoretically with vinyl the sound deteriorates as the cartridge tracks towards the centre of the LP and also that singles sound better than LP’s due to their higher rpm. In practical terms I’m sure these differences are very small but surely deserve a mention in any discussion of accuracy.

    It’s also interesting why a technically superior method of reproduction (digital) is rejected by many in favour of an older model. As with so much in audio we’re back to subjectivity and a matter of taste.

    Meanwhile, I’m still wondering about yesterday’s dB’s. 😉

    1. Good post. The humidity in the room can affect the cartridge as well.

      There are many aspects to learn about with analog.

      I find digital to be the same way.

  3. I think those inaccuracies are the special ingredient that add emotions to the sound. Both in the source and further on the chain. Tube amps, loudspeakers

  4. I was early for a gig last night (a little melodrama by a guy called Puccini), so popped into the little shop at the venue and picked up a book that asks the question, what is music? It is written by a neuropsychologist who was a record producer and the opening sentence included the word “hifi”, but I bought it anyway. The introduction teases the questions considered by the author, including the need for technical knowledge to enjoy live or reproduced music, the role of science etc.

    One thing Music reproduction isn’t is the pure pursuit of scientific goals – more accuracy, more detail, more data, more power. How do you measure the accuracy of timbre? What is timbre, scientifically? We all know it’s why the same note sounds different on a piano or a violin, but it defies definition. According the the US Standards, it is everything except pitch and loudness.
    http://acousticslab.org/psychoacoustics/PMFiles/Timbre.htm
    This is one step from saying that if it sounds right, it probably is, which is pretty much what music is all about, always has been and always will.

    With regard to the melodrama, I saw the same production about a year ago with a legendary singer at the end of her days (I first heard her in 1994) and it left me flat. Last night was edge of the seat stuff. It wasn’t the supreme technical ability on display, that helped, but as much for the ability to change the emotional nature of sound at the flick of a switch. There was a TV program the other night discussing Mississippi Goddam as an example of music and politics colliding, Nina Simone was not a trained singer, you can’t judge the song technically, but it impacted a nation.

    Whilst some audio science may be of little or no value, like higher data rates, our brains are very sensitive to tonal accuracy. We know if something sounds right or not. For example, some products can sound too detailed. It’s not that uncommon. A technical achievement, but it doesn’t sound right.

    With some music vinyl sounds very right, especially jazz. As the aforementioned author says, most people he spoke to don’t want to know why lest it would take away from the magic. If you are only interested in how a magic trick is done, you will likely fail to be amazed it. If your brain is full of frequency plots, I don’t know how you can enjoy listening to the stereo.

    1. Good Morning Steven not to be confused with Steven

      Before attending a concert, you mentioned picking up a book on music. Would you please provide the title of the book? I would like to see if it is available at my local bookstore here in Canada.

      Cheers
      Bill

      1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/sep/29/featuresreviews.guardianreview9
        Apparently not a great book, but worth a read and I’ll be skipping a lot of the anecdotes.
        The reference to Sacks is this excellent book:
        https://www.oliversacks.com/oliver-sacks-books/musicophilia-oliver-sacks/

        Personally, the broader our understanding of music in social, historical, scientific, cultural and any other context – the better. It has always pervaded humanity and the first thing we sent into outer space for the benefit of any aliens was an LP with a load of Bach and Beethoven.

        It’s lucky Voyager was sent 35 years ago because if they sent it now they’d be arguing over whether to send mp3 or PCM.

    2. Good Morning Steven not to be confused with Steven

      Would you provide the title of the book you picked up before the concert? I would like to see if it is available at my local bookstore here in Canada.

      Cheers
      Bill

  5. Hi everyone.

    I have no biases towards either medium and I know for a fact that both digital and vinyl setups can sound terrific if no shortcuts are applied.

    Vinyl is definitely more expensive to do properly than digital, but the tech behind digital is way more complex.
    I chose to stick with a digital set up because of the practically of it and over the years I built up quite a nice library of CDs, which I have a feeling are coming to the grave with me. Lol.

    All in all. Both are terrific and both have limitations. Nothing is perfect, but I’m okay with that. 😉

    Have a great day everyone. Getting closer to the Christmas break. 🙂

    Also I wanted to share this. Kind had this on in the background watching and playing with my son, but it is always so nice to see when someone takes the plunge into a new medium for themselves. Those who are fans of CHRONOS turntables will love this video. It is long, but we’ve all been there. That excitement is really such a nice feeling. Music is everything.

    https://youtu.be/5a8mUlBTFIM

  6. If absolute accuracy in reproduction of live was what man truly desired, many forms of art would never exist.

    Stealing from the old art saying:

    “I don’t know if it sounds accurate, but I know what I like”.

    1. As far as I’m concerned Aeraudio, you couldn’t be more correct. That’s why a book like Stephen purchased is what we need to read in order to reinforce our own beliefs in the power of music and move away from all of these technical discussions because they’re distracting us from enjoying music. A book like this would help me to unfold the answer to the question of why music ‘draws us in’ and places us in a state of genuine happiness.

  7. …..or maybe we hear what we want to hear as a defense mechanism since all of us, to one degree or another, whether we will admit it or not, resists change. We tend to cling to what feels normal especially since many of us have huge investments in vinyl play back. Our nostalgia drives us to criticize anything that challenges the norms we have accepted over years of listening. Vinyl was king and now some new guy on the street is challenging our stereo way of life.

    1. I’m finding difficulty in agreeing with your comment melhughes. Most of this the commenters in our community have at least one other passion, like Formula One racing, e.h. an Auto Company e.g. Ferrari lives because of it’s ‘breeding and heritage’ or America’s Cup Sailboat racing which has already been stomped out after a 150 year old tradition of a ‘One Design Hull, And the huge number of regulations to a speedy Catamaran because I believe most people are looking for bigger, better and faster. There is a large population still love vinyl recordings as you can see by their resurgence over a long period of time now.

      Folks that love analog recordings have a similar type of passion. In my case, I listen via three different technologies, Two of which are digital and each one has a specific purpose for my musical enjoyment. There’s room for all three if anyone desires to go this route. Every audio enthusiast can do what they please. So, let there be a new kid in town. I have no issue with that but no one’s going to stomp out the older technologies for quite some time, hopefully never. And, what is normal for you may not be normal for me or anyone else. No one has any valid answers to questions like these.

      1. Hi Neil,
        Yeah, but does Ferrari still use carburettors, or have they moved to fuel injection?
        You see my analogy, right?

        I agree with Mel.

        ps. It could be argued that it was Ben Lecxen’s digital winged keel that finally beat the Americans with their old analogue one 😉

        1. I sailed with one of the crew on the New Zealand team that took the cup from us in Newport, Rhode Island one summer on an evening cruise around Narragansett Bay. He was a monster about 6’5” built like steel, and a hell of a nice guy. The Australian team was the first to take the cup from us. I think it was Gretel, wasn’t it? Australia found a loophole in the rules and that’s how this disaster started. Not their fault they knew how to play the game and I wasn’t on the committee nor could I ever be. I spent many wonderful evenings on the sunset cruises during the 11 years that my family owned our second home in Narragansett.

          With regard to fuel injection in Ferrari’s, what auto manufacturer is using carburetors anymore? That’s an evolution not a revolution.

          The reason that I don’t agree with Mel is that I don’t fit into his description of the Audiophiles that he is espousing. He’s certainly entitled to make his comment(s), I just don’t fit into his profile of this entire community and beyond. He may very well be correct, but that’s not the way I’ve lived my life as an audio enthusiast so I took issue with his comment because he’s trying to lump all audiophiles into the same bubble, as if he had the final word and all the answers. He did use the word we, so I guess he put himself into the same package. I’m not fond of comments like this but I don’t think he meant any harm. I just don’t want to be part of the herd instinct.

          1. Even though Australia & America are bonded friends through democracy & war, it is always nice to beat you guys at your own game; as it is to constantly defeat the English at Cricket 😀

            You type, “With regard to fuel injection in Ferraris, what auto manufacturer is still using carburetors (sic) anymore?”…& that’s exactly my point Neil…’what audiophile is still using vinyl anymore?’

            You know that I’m just bustin’ your chops 😉
            If you like vinyl then you like vinyl; live & let live, I say.
            However, I would not go back to vinyl, even if you paid me ✌

            1. You’re always busting my chops, Martin. I’m totally used to it. I can take a joke with the best of them. Oh, I love the competition and don’t mind losing, let the best team win in this case but what I really detest is the fact that we are now old into catamarans and call it America’s cup racing. What the committee should have done in my humble opinion is to set up category one and category two Americas Cup that would’ve been a great New class of sailboat racing. Like I said, breeding and heritage, is very important, especially to me, and I’m sure a whole lot of other people. Call me, old-fashioned, I tend to think that I am a free thinker, even when I look in the mirror and ask myself that question.

              Did you eat breakfast yet or do you want to bust my chops a bit more? 🙂

              1. I’m surprised you didn’t say you had a roll in bed with Honey this morning. Heh Heh.

                You should buy the Coffee Cup that says… “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You drank my coffee, prepare to die”.

                On sale all over the world.

    2. I’m the complete opposite. I adopted streaming soon after it became available in 2009. I love to replace with cheaper devices, I just replaced a £6,000 conditioner with a £1,500 unit, it’s just as good and I got most of my money back on the old one. I have done this several times, including replacing a PSA DAC with another brand at a quarter of the price.

  8. Interesting that the phono frequency response reflects that of a speaker.
    Maybe that’s why vinyl can sound great and the flat response of digital is circumvented by the speaker.

    1. Possibly because they both are electromechanical devices that at present can’t produce a better frequency response that quality electronic components in our music system’s chain can.

  9. Maybe instead of justifying or using a single measurement we should go back to the ears or we should go back and look at everything it took to generate “the sound”.

    Maybe in the end, using a bunch of square waves to generate sounds isn’t what nature evolved its inhabitants to do. But then again humankind seems to be arrogant enough to say we know better.

    It’s not scientific by any means but when I spun vinyl, weird things like the the cows and horses would come stand by the open windows. The dogs and cats would always curl up in the listening area. When I switched to digital those occurrences became much less, even though the only thing that had changed was I had ”more accurate sound”. Another observation is when I playback in DSD the dogs curl right up in the listening room.

    I’m not going to start with vinyl all over again. I’m going to live with the “accurate sound of digital” from this point on instead of the “fascinating magical sound of vinyl.”

    Things seem to have gotten pretty arcane in this ‘age of audio knowledge’.
    Start with analog produced sound – record it in some ‘special form’ of digital – take that digital file and mechanically cut a disc – apply RIAA equalization curves – play it back using a vibrating rock assembly that doesn’t measure up for accuracy – then digitally record that ‘less accurate sound’ and say ahhh it sounds just like the vinyl when played back thru my DAC. Not only that, I now can add meta data to that vinyl sound. 😀

    When looked at that way, why not have a digitally driven piezo or some other device vibrate a cartridge instead of having a revolving disc with mechanically cut grooves?

    1. So far, converting streamed music by upsampling to DXD via a Roon algorithm has yielded some spectacular results and given me much more enjoyment streaming now that I have gotten into the bowels of the Roon platform. In the end, at the present moment (does that make any sense?) it still does not sound like analog as analog is missing some of the wonderful things that DSP can do with recorded music and vice versa.

      1. I assume you’re referring to Roon’s Sample Rate conversion. Would be curious as to settings you used? This could be a good starting point. I have HQPLAYER and never really found it satisfying. I have really enjoyed Qobuz and this is my one and only streaming service. Have lots of pcm and digital files.

          1. Please forgive my ignorance. When looking at DSD processing settings?
            Can you describe what settings you change?
            Do I turn “Parallelize Sigma-Delta modulator” to No?
            Can you tell me where to find “2X PCM max option”?
            Thanks

            1. Here are my settings when I’m on the Digital Signal Processing page.

              Headroom management is Disabled

              Sample rate conversion enabled and when you press the right arrow I set the sample rate conversion to DSD then if you press the down arrow you will see more options and I tried the max PCM rate (power of 2).

              Moving down the options so far I have left the sample rate conversion filter at precise minimum phase but I’m going to play around with this possibly today.

              Under DSD processing settings the Sigma Delta Modulator is set at 5th order (CLANS) which also needs some additional investigation on my part.

              SDM gain adjustment at 0 dB Another option that I have not fooled around with yet.

              Sigma Delta Modulator is set to off because I only have one core. I’m not using Roon for more than one area. I only have a two channel audio system in my condo.

              Enable native DSD processing is set at ‘no ‘but this is something that I definitely am going to check out.

              DSD to PCM filter is set at 30 Hz Low Pass for now as well

              DSD to PCM Gain +6 dB

              This is about it. I hope that this has been helpful to you because the way I am hearing things now is totally more than satisfactory as far as my this listening experience has been since making these changes.

              Please keep in mind that I just discovered all of these new settings which have made a tremendous difference in what I am hearing now. I’m afraid to try to make it even better.

            2. Besides changing the sample rate conversion settings to precise, linear phase, I turned on enable native DSD processing and that’s where I’m going to end these changes for now.

              Please understand that this is for my system and I have no idea what your system components are nor would I want to say that my changes are the end-all and be all. Suggest that you take each individual processing setting and Google DSD processing settings and adjust them to what sounds the best to your ear brain connection.

              GOOD LUCK!

          2. I just changed the sample rate conversion setting to precise, linear phase. I have been reading up through the rune community and manual and this seems to be the proper setting. It sounds more neutral and slightly more musical than minimum setting.

    1. From a man who is standing in front of what seems to be a large number of vinyl records.

      Does your handle mean that you own Cello equipment? If you do, you’re one lucky guy.

        1. Ha! Hopefully he got a good deal from ML. I thought she’ll always have a business. This is great news. I heard that Tom Colangelo is working in industrial electronics now in New Jersey. That’s unfortunate for the audio community. I know that John Curl did a lot of the design work for Mark as well as well as several other heavy duty, audio designers.

    2. Well, I would reply that like the Beatles song… “It’s getting better all the time“.

      It’s just that having to get up every 15 or 20 minutes to flip the record is getting to be a giant pain in the arse.

  10. I wish I owned a loudspeaker having such a smooth and “inaccurate” frequency curve as the Shure phono cartridge! Finally the loudspeakers and their interaction with the room are responsible for the highest degrees of inaccuracies in the reproduction chain.

  11. If you’ve ever had an audiogram, you’ll understand why signal accuracy is overrated. Not only do the loudspeakers alter the signal in a very audible way, your ear-brain system adds additional significant alteration to the signal. On top of that, music is an art and a science. If “accuracy” to the signal is your thing, forget listening to music; listen to white noise!

  12. We’re talking accuracy vs. euphony.

    Listen to a violin in a studio; record it.
    If the digital playback sounds sterile, it is not accurate.
    If the vinyl playback sounds more beautiful than the live violin, it is not accurate.

    But with the right digital source and marvelous audiophile equipment, one will get closer to accurate.
    Closer.

    But many prefer euphony – and who would deny them?
    Enjoy your music.

    1. The term “Sterile” needs to be put in to the audio files encyclopedia of definitions. That word is the same word I use over and over again when it comes to most digital recordings. Some of them do come close to bettering analog, but not close enough IMHO Tom.

      1. Anything in audio that brings you pleasure is a good thing; I fully understand why many prefer euphony in their systems. Exceeding few digital playback systems will deliver the euphony of great analog.
        I have been lucky to experience wonderfully recorded and properly mastered digital through source components capable of delivering it.
        I’m happy to say that we both found what we want. Enjoy!

        1. Thank you for your considerate reply Tom. We all need to enjoy all of our passions as we please. You seem to have a good understanding of where I’m coming from.

          Enjoy the holiday season. Hopefully we will both get a chance to sit in our listening chairs today and any day we choose for the sheer enjoyment of the music we love and nothing more.

  13. Perhaps a dumb idea….but maybe the graphed response of that Shure more closely matches what the response of our ears is, and therefore is preferred by some?

    PS I was never a fan of the Shure sound. I was a Peter Pritchard guy all the way.

  14. I have no way of testing this, but I suspect that some of the systems I’ve preferred over the years aren’t as “accurate” as others. Certainly I prefer warm and euphonic over bright and forward.

  15. I think accuracy is maybe overrated, but for sure it is misused as an argument.

    Misused, because for long time it was and is used as the central argument for digital’s superiority in technology and sound over analog. However one might think about that in general, since the first CD and the corresponding hardware already was more accurate than any analog counterpart…it sounded clearly worse (I think for everyone) than good analog media and rigs. Which makes clear, that accuracy alone is the wrong criteria to judge sound quality. Anyway it was and still is implied the opposite way by the typical lobbyists until now, which is at least misleading for those without own experience.

    Misused because accuracy implies digital equipment sound neutral..accurate while in fact it is voiced towards a preferred sound as most other equipment (otherwise digital equipment wouldn’t sound as different as it does).

    Misused also because it is used to imply, that those who don’t prefer digital over analog want or prefer the opposite of accuracy… like euphoric coloration, pleasant, smooth and recessed sound etc.

    IMO the actual fact is, that everyone prefers as much accuracy as possible from either technology and (given a high fulfillment of technical sound quality related criterias) finally the overall measure for sound quality is, how natural and realistic the sound is at the end. As long as the highest accuracy doesn’t mean the most realistic illusion, it still means something, but it’s not the essential criteria. Accuracy makes the more sense, the more perfect and accurate the surrounding is. Is our recording environment accurate? Are our speakers and rooms accurate? Do you choose your gear by its measurement data for accuracy? Answer yourself.

    I prefer the most accurate of the most realistic sounding equipment (digital or analog). I don’t prefer euphony.

    1. What even is accurate?

      Reverberation is a critical part of the sound and Jordi Savall has made it a point to record only in appropriate venues or the venue whether the composition was originally performed. This is not uncommon and Lang Land did the same recently, with a double issue of the Goldberg Variations recorded at St Thomas in Leipzig and in the studio. This is not an issue on many recordings because most classical labels have tried and trusted venues. We were discussing in the forum a small Spanish label that is an offshoot of a studio operation and did a quite poor (pure DSD) recording (criticised in reviews) because of the imitations of the venue and possibly the mic’ing and lack of mixing choices.

      Our brains are highly sensitive to midrange tonality. When we get to higher frequencies above say 4Khz, we can hear them, but we can rarely discriminate them. Who can tell the difference between 6kz and 8hkz? One problem with measurable accuracy is that it does not discriminate between what is important and what is not. That is why certain products, like QUAD ESL and Harbeth speakers, are very popular, because they are extremely good at what we are most sensitive to.

        1. Accurate to the recording performance?
          Accurate to the acoustic of where it was intended to be heard?
          Accurate to the instruments that were used?

          1. Exactly that’s the point.

            What I said is what’s possible (to design equipment being accurate to its compromised input signal).

            What you said is what it should be to sound realistic.

            The gap is compensated by inaccuracies of equipment that leads to a more realistic sound than accurate equipment would. 😉

  16. Paul, possibly you post your Posts too early in the morning? Even with Shure spelled correctly in the graph you didn’t. ;^)

    Seriously, two comments:

    I do feel that accuracy can be overrated. Sometimes excessive detail overshadows the essence of the musical message. I remember borrowing an early model Mark Levinson preamp from a friend to try in my system. At first I was amazed by the added clarity and detail it produced. But that was quickly overshadowed by a lack of simple musical enjoyment I had in my system.

    Second, your point regarding the mechanical transducers, possibly that explains why there are so many sonic variations among cartridges. We all tend to have different tastes for sonic satisfaction and that has supported the large numbers of different cartridges purchased. So there is no consensus for preference between MC/MM/MI, let alone the variations within each type.

    1. I really enjoyed my ML – one Preamp for a while But after about two years, I discovered the Audio Research SP 3A–1 and that made all the difference. The Levinson was musical but a bit too accurate for my ears when compared to the Audio Research which was reasonably accurate, yet quite euphonic. I never expected that from a John Curl design.

  17. I agree that accuracy of a sound playback system is very hard to define and that most systems are put together to sound “good” to the owner of the system.

    I do wonder what Shure cartridge that frequency response curve was from? I found one of my old Benz-Micro cartridge’s frequency response curve ( every B-M cartridge is tested and the actual response sure is included with the cartridge ). It is almost flat, vary by +/- 1dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

  18. We calibrated our mastering reference cartridge to the RCA test disk that became the RIAA curve. The Stanton was way flatter than the cartridge shown in that graph to begin with, and we tweaked it to within under a half dB variation.

    1. So did the in this way monitored records you mastered end up sounding too recessed in highs/mids on normal consumer cartridges with a less flat FR? Should be logically, right?

    2. That Shure cartridge looks like it was chosen for the graph in the header of this post precisely because it is a low-end ($99) cartridge with a seriously compromised top-end compared to something an audiophile would buy (it is unusual for any good cartridge to stop short of 25,000 HZ, and most can surpass even that by a large margin).

  19. Whilst reading these comments it struck me that if ever there is a system that translates the performance perfectly to the listener, this part of the hobby, what we discuss here, would be over, along with many strands of the hi-fi business.

    So as those various businesses strive towards perfection, they must secretly be hoping they never actually achieve it. 😉

  20. If you ignore frequency response unless it’s totally out of wack there are other things that create the sound we love in an analog signal that digital cannot touch.

  21. “What’s still fascinating to me is just how great vinyl sounds despite being inaccurate.”

    With sufficient fascination, next on the drawing board is the PS Audio Cutting Lathe? Turntable? Cartridge? 😎

  22. There is no such things as too much accuracy … but what many seem to find hard to wrap their heads around is that both vinyl and normal digital are inaccurate … whaaa ?? Digital inaccurate !!?

    Of course it is! Forget the nonsense about perfect THD figures, and perfect FR – if digital replay *was* accurate, then every DAC would sound the same – which of course they don’t …

    A good example is this company’s Mk II DirectStream – a major jump up from the original version. So, are the Mk I and Mk II both accurate – or not?

    People in the audio world have a strange idea of what accuracy is – are numbers “accurate”, or are what your ears tell you the real deal?

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