Looking in the wrong place

January 15, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

A quest for answers often has us searching in the wrong place. Like trying to figure out how identical groups of digital audio bits can sound different. No matter how close we look they will always be identical if we look no further than the data themselves.

But, we’re looking in the wrong place. It isn’t the veracity of the bits in question, but their timing or levels of noise that makes them sound different.

I am reminded that it’s easy enough to be fooled. Driving a new car I thought perhaps I had a bad tire. Every time I changed lanes on the highway the steering wheel vibrated like crazy. I pulled over and found nothing wrong with the tire. Odd. It took me several stops and inspections before I realized I was looking in the wrong place. It wasn’t the tire at all. It was a new-fangled feature called “lane assist” that activated whenever I changed lanes without using the turn signal.

As soon as we’re convinced something’s wrong, or right, or different, we should pause before making uninformed declarations as to the cause.

Because sometimes we’re looking in the wrong place.

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15 comments on “Looking in the wrong place”

  1. There are not only inherent distortions but also a lot of unwanted random disturbance factors influencing the final sound of a stereo system. In the end it is all about processing a source signal. And the quality of the process determines the outcome. Recently the manufacturer of my music server replaced the software player by a proprietary solution via an update. The improvement in sound quality was jaw dropping. No new DAC being inserted in my system before ever showed such an improvement. It would be interesting to know the list of disturbance and distortion factors a manufacturer is actively addressing with his design.

  2. Interestingly around the „bits are bits“ dogma probably most ignorance was built up to in digital history. May it be the opinion that digital is or was perfect just from its invention while essential improvements continue even nowadays, or may it be the difficulty of accepting that pens, demagnetizers, cables, anti jitter measures or whatever influences do play a role for digital sound quality.

    I always wonder which kind of personalities have the most difficulties in accepting or at least taking into account circumstances that possibly overrun their own current horizon.

  3. Not only were you looking in the wrong place, you didn’t need to stop the car and get out to investigate. If the car had lane departure warning, it also likely had tire pressure sensors which would 1) give you a alert on the dash if a tire was down and 2) usually have a display option on the dash that shows you all four tire pressures – so no need to get out of the car to check a tire any more. 🙂

  4. Golden advice. I have a hard time making comments on this forum. Usually when I do comment on forums I implicitly or explicitly want to correct something someone else has posted, and I get few opportunities here. However, this observation is so good I have make a positive comment 🙂 Trouble-shooting in the semiconductor equipment industry I have frequently noticed when *others* get locked onto a hypothetical solution after which they have a hard time seeing other reasonable alternatives. I *think* that I am largely invisible to myself, however I do suspect that I have often fallen into the same trap !-) “…we should pause…”.

    Actually this topic brought to my mind the same reference that “Fond Memories”, of a few days ago, suggested. “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain” by Tali Sharon, shows how optimism is a critical part of who we really are, e.g., saying that the old days were really better than today, or that some hypothetical cause of a critical problem is *the* cause. Optimism bias is a critical part of ourselves, our human being, that we need to kill if we are to truly make progress towards high fidelity audio reproduction. Or we can take the happier route of telling ourselves that *this* is it….

  5. To combine this thread with the previous post about Methodology, hearing scientists and audio engineers have been looking in the wrong place for over 150 years. The human sense of hearing can extract an amazing mount of information from sound fields from extreme sensitivity to direction, timing, transients and changes using methods that are beyond all machine capability. Ears that are properly trained to acoustic stimuli can hear at least ten times better than a theoretically perfect fixed microphone array in multiple parameters according to double blind experiments by scientists who circumvent the biases of the last 85 years of audio.

    Two channel stereo and up to 500 channel surround can’t possibly create “three dimensional sound”. Humans have one degree angular resolution, which is roughly 40,000 different directions on a spherical surface. We can also correlate discrete echoes to the direct sound to triangulate sources, reflective objects and acoustic boundaries.

    BUT, we are so adaptable we can learn to perceive an illusion of spatial sound coming from dumbed-down spatial information (near coincident microphone arrays), dumberer spatial information (coincident microphone pairs) and even super dumbed-down spatial information (pan pots). Note that the latter is 99+% of recordings made in the last 50 years.

    The jitter problem is analogous. Audiologists and engineers can’t believe that humans can hear picoseconds. They have trouble with the idea that microseconds matter in Inter-Aural Timing Differences when there is almost a century of good data. Gearheads argue it is impossible to hear a difference between 24/192 and 24/384 (they can’t, so you can’t), but it is audible to the best ears and more time resolution is definitely closer to reality. Again, they are looking in the wrong place, a concept space that models hearing as if it were scalar microphones and a DSP or any linear machine construct.

    It is true that beauty is in the ear of the beholder, but that ear has to go to the beauty of live acoustic sound to LEARN to behold it, because none of our machines can bring that beauty home in its full euphoria.

    AND, this is the vicious circle. Audiologists and engineers are looking at responses of ears to sine waves, noise and music reproduction. Those ears are trained to music reproduction and hardly ever hear real music, so all that is in the journals and text books are data comparing third rate illusions.

      1. Which is why studio and PA chains that use a plethora of microphones 3″ from every mouth and instrument and then force all those signals through the same two speakers or headphones are just wrong.

  6. “Looking in the wrong place” aptly describes the behavior of all humanity. It is a universal reality, from medical diagnosis to determining the source of a roof leak. But unless we patiently continue to look, we will not likely eventually find the answer.

  7. “Like trying to figure out how identical groups of digital audio bits can sound different. ”

    The first thing to do is to find out if they really are the same. Not verifying that can be the fatal error after which all other efforts are invalid.

    1. SM. I think the data will be transferred using a packet/frame protocol with CRC checks. This should be handled at link level and retry requested if there is a mismatch. Such transfers are *very* reliable. When picking up data from memory or an HD drive there are similar checks and error correcting codes. How you turn the bits into sound is more of a problem than the integrity of the bits themselves.

  8. Bits are bits, and getting bits from point A to point Z is a problem that has been solved; but bits are NOT music. The best we can hope for is bits that remind us of music, so fill up your memory banks with musicians playing live in the room. Now that’s an inarguably worthwhile “tweak”.

  9. I am about to replace an external CAT cable, when the weather improves, to one that has a weatherproof outer cover. It also has grease in it and the conductors are foil wrapped. There was a thread on a forum over here asking about CAT cables, and in about a day there were about 50 professional network and related engineers saying it doesn’t make an iota of difference for audio and they all use the most basic cables available. One said he accidentally ran CAT 5 for 1,000m instead of 100m and it made no difference.

    My digital started to sound analogue in a bad way – popping and clicking. Other pizza box owners reported the same. The cause was quickly identified. Some pizza boxes use a newly installed streaming card which has a reclocking chip. Some of us are using beta software, and those of us with popping were using streamers with internal reclockers. I have two streamers (Aries, Aries Mini). I replaced the former (with Femto chip) with the latter (no Femto chip) and the problem disappeared. I have just sold the Aries, am using the Mini in my system and steam upstairs from my Kindle.

    The lesson learned, specifically for digital, is that too many competing technologies from different brands and unnecessary complexity and tweaking can make matters worse, not better.

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