The rise of the machines

February 13, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

If you’re as clueless as I am it might be helpful for me to remind you tomorrow’s Valentine’s day. I know, I know. But it’s important and really unpleasant if you forget. Just sayin’.

I’ve often written that USB is the worst of the inputs on a DAC. Just take a look at the number of add-ons and tweaks available to fix it. No other digital audio input has as many Band Aids required to get the sound right. But USB is also the most important input. At least for now.

Computers rarely have outputs other than USB and, increasingly, we’re dependent on our computers to connect us to our music. But I think computers are only a stepping stone. First it was vinyl, then tape, then little silver discs, then collections of silicon bits with power supplies, and soon, nothing more than a cable connected through a gateway device to some unseen cloud.

Here’s what I think is going to happen next. Home computers are going to be replaced by faceless boxes acting as gateways to the cloud. Like what’s already happened in television: cable boxes that interface TVs to the cloud. And, of course, it’s already happening in audio too: music servers–computers stuffed into Audiophile approved boxes.

But where I am going with this thought is more far reaching than what we have today. I am envisioning the not too distant future where interface machines sit quietly in the corner, connected to the outside world on one side, our high-end audio equipment on the other–and not through USB. The hard work of designers will focus on the interface, and clever engineers will eliminate the performance issues with streaming.

Yup. In a nutshell, and with all due respect to John Connor, the rise of the machines doesn’t mean enslavement of humans, but the gateway to all the music in the world.

I can’t wait.

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27 comments on “The rise of the machines”

  1. You took the words right out of my mouth.
    And over and above that an all-in-one audio device, e.g. like Devialet today.
    I see more companies already copying that concept.
    No more rooms full of preamps, bulky A/B poweramps, dac’s, transports and so on.
    That’s the future, whether you (and I) like it or not.

    1. I agree. Last night, I spent the whole evening listening to new music on Tidal. From that session,I put together a playlist of new songs I liked. While I was doing this, I thought more then once that it has been quite awhile since I have purchased a CD. My only concern with all of this is payment to the artist. We need a fair and equitable system to compensate them for their work.

  2. I have one thought, no matter how pure the source, the ingenuity of engineers will always add an extra dimension to what we hear. What is amazing is, what is ‘entry level’ before and now.. My 1980s Walkman headphones. ..
    I am just as sad and happy it took 40 years to find what music reproduced is capable of.

  3. On the contrary Paul, I rarely see computers without HDMI and digital outs. And even if a computer doesn’t have them, they are easily added. You can also buy a Firewire card with USB 3.0 for less than $30.00. You could even use Display Port if you have it. If one has a processor or receiver with HDMI, Firewire or Display Port switching, it can sound great.

    1. HDMI outputs do us no good. And digital outputs? Like S/PDIF? I have rarely seen those and when they are included they are typically nasty, highly jittered and limited in sample rate and bit depth. Maybe I am missing something?

      1. You are missing a lot Paul. What’s wrong with HDMI? Every processor has HDMI even the inexpensive ones. And if USB has so many problems how could it be better? There’s many more outputs better. Remember most computers have more than one HDMI out and one can be configured for pure audio with no video just like most Blu-ray players.

        1. HDMI requires an decoder and is typically used for multi-channel audio and, so far, I’ve not heard any processor, expensive or inexpensive, that decodes HDMI multi-channel and makes its output available to good DACs.

          1. I use an HDMI switch from monoprice to output digital audio from an AppleTV, a TiVo, and a Blu-Ray/SACD player to the S/PDIF on my Sprout. The USB is used for my computer or soon to be streamer.

          2. Well I wasn’t talking about going into a DAC from a processor, I was talking about going from a computer to a processor or DAC. But if a processor will send an HDMI signal to a monitor why wouldn’t a processor send an HDMI signal to a DAC? Most new Blu-ray players have two HDMI outs, one for video and one for second video or audio only.

  4. The field of artificial intelligence is gaining momentum. Work on it has progressed ever since I can remember. Ray Kurzweil predicts that in 2045 an event he calls “singularity” will occur. Others are no so sure when it will happen but it may be during this generation or by the end of the 21st century. When this event occurs, a machine, presumably a robot will be so smart, and so much smarter than the most clever human that it will be able to design and build other machines even smarter and more capable than itself. At that point there will be an explosion of increasingly smarter machines that will essentially obsolete humans. It will be the last machine humans ever build according to some experts. What will happen then? Will they serve us, destroy us, will we become part of them, no longer entirely biochemical? Will they conquer death? Nobody knows. It can’t be predicted. But it’s not that far off.

    Heart of the machine from “The Mind’s Eye.”

    The full animated film, “The Mind’s Eye” was the first of a series and IMO the best one. For some reason I can’t find it on a DVD on the internet. I have an original copy on VHS. The full version is available on Youtube. It will give your high end Home Theater quite a workout.

  5. Great post.

    Computing and its hardware/interfaces for humans are in their infancy. This era will be seen as embryonic in a hundred years. We are just now evolving from the extremely primitive inventions made in the last 30 years.

    For example, the effectiveness and workflows of email are extremely crude but companies like Asana are moving us beyond the low fidelity communication of email.

    I agree with you 100% Paul.

  6. I don’t see why you need wires at all. My cable modem and wireless router have been replaced by a wireless gateway. I have a wireless keyboard, wireless mouse, wireless printer. My phone connects wirelessly to my computer through Airdroid. My computers connect wirelessly to each other through my gateway. My next TV will communicate with all of it wirelessly. I can communicate with anyone in the world in text, video, and voice wirelessly with no problem. The only things I have that are wired to my computer are my camcorder and external hard drive and that is just for convenience because it was so easy. Oh yes, I have my monitor connect by wire to my computer but not with a USB cable, a VGA cable that works just fine.

    We all know there are wireless speakers, wireless microphones. Why will we need wires at all in the future especially since some audiophiles seem to regard them as such a terrible and potentially expensive problem?

    1. As Paul permanently emphasizes: but perfect transfer is not the problem of the audiophile dilettante. It is the improper shielding of the RF-sensitive audio circuits and the unstable design of the power supplies creating jitter (both created by amateur-companies) that degrades sound quality to a non-subtle degree.

  7. Is there a need like the coming MQA standard to get more the music? A delivery not speed dependant but internal meta data that controls the clock rate of a song, sets the tick tock, rather than the hardware fighting to corral differences? Or is the hardware the issue?

      1. “The Cloud” is far more than a remote server. It provides capacity, features, redundancy, reliability, and protection many users couldn’t possibly afford on their own. It does have some drawbacks however. Because so much is stored at any one provider, it must be a very attractive target for potential hackers. You don’t access direct control over its security yourself. But on the whole, it is certainly worthy of consideration of both individual and large corporate users. If nothing else, it is a bullet proof backup for your precious information. I understand it can also mirror your own computer and provides some software applications as well. I’d also expect 7 x 24 x 365 on site maintenance availability and Tier 4 reliability even large corporate users often don’t provide for their own sites. You do pay for this but the cost is shared among a large number of users and because of its size there is an economy of scale.

  8. At least things are getting funny!

    Why the hell should a HDMI connection degrade the sound?
    Why should HDMI be worse shielded against RFI?
    With the right interface you are able to transfer a picture up to 4K UHDTV which is much more complex and has has higher data-rate than the digital audio-signal.
    And you are not able to transfer the digital audio data as good as the video signal?
    Makes no sense to me.

    I use the HDMI outputs at my Oppo 105D.
    Please do not tell me, that this player is not able to give perfect digital audio data as well as video at the HDMI output.
    In fact HDMI offers all that SPDIF offers too and a lot more.
    For those who want to read:
    And HDMI 2.0 offers even more.

    1. A bit late…
      I think computer people have been sleeping too long. There is a huge market in audio for them. Google woke up with their chromecast audio (24/96) streamers which cost about nothing and replace 10x more expensive Sonos stuff.
      USB will not provide a quality, long term solution connecting computers to DACs. Any USB cable acts as an antenna for all kind of HF waves, it also emitts radiation – as you can easily detect with any shortwave radio, just place it close to the USB cable and listen. So does HDMI. Radiation issues should also be of concern since they affect your health. – And there is still the IEEE 1394 connection to be explored, designed for HQ video and audio. I have it in my laptop, and can not use it since no hifi component supports it (audio people sleeping,too?).
      Maybe the audio market seens to small for computer companies? They could figure out a solution without HF RF EMI etc problems. Maybe they tackle the issue one day and then wipe half the audio industry off the market. I have to stick to SPDIF optical (24/96) till then.

      1. CM8,

        you beat the wrong one.
        If there is a problem with HF-RFI it is not the cable. A cable is a “PASSIVE” component. And please keep in mind that all audio is within the digital data. If anything has to be done better then it is the transmitter and the receiver. BTW if you change the waveband of your radio/antenna setup you can get detect the same from SPDIF.
        Trying to get 24bit/96kHz from the SPDIF output of allmost any BluRay or multiformat player will fail as it is restricted to 48kHz. My Oppo player passes all up to 24/192 PCM through the HDMI. That is why I use it!


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