The traveler

November 30, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

We can download a digital file from anywhere in the world and it will sound the same regardless of where it came from or how it got to us.

Yet, once it safely arrives, delivering it even a few feet through different cables sounds different.

How could that be?

Is it possible that there’s more going on than meets the eye? (or the ear?)

Imagine for a moment a faraway view of transportation. You pick the medium: car, train, or plane. Passengers line up at the input of the transportation system and arrive at their destination at its output.

Just like our digital signal.

If we look closely we might discover that not every traveler’s trip was the same. Some went first class where it’s quiet while others flew coach.

The point of this highly stretched analogy is simple. It is true that digital audio can be sent around the world without changing one bit. But get it close to our systems and other factors enter the picture. Factors such as radiated noise, power supply and ground changes specific to the local system.

Travelers all wind up where they were intended to go but not all have the same experience.

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55 comments on “The traveler”

  1. A simple but different analogy. Some travel first class and arrive in a limo, as clean as when they left. Others pick up dust and dirt on the way, arriving looking a bit of a mess and in need of a clean. You can either keep the signal clean as it travels or clean it up at the end, or do both, all you will ever get is the same signal that left in the first place, it will never be better, only less dirty.

    1. But in audio this analogy doesn’t work, as the signal gets continuously contaminated (and defended against this) on the way and there’s no first class train-like shield to keep it clean until it arrives. The real world analogy would rather be, you travel with the dirty underground and have your butler aside who tries to keep you clean 😉

    2. QUESTIONS:: Best Transfer from Vinyl Records.

      Am attempting long hours enduring transferring vinyls, out on digital any (Suggestion., Best Software. Etc ) the outcome on digital from (what’s best software/etc.for) can achieve approximate prime sameness quality of record, sound onthe digital platform.

      QUESTION 2. for Audio cables. Matter vs hifi silver or gold?

      Any Input is useful.

        1. And you really don’t know how the recording sounded in the first place, so you don’t have a reference. What happens in the bit stream is unknown. As long as it still sounds fine to your ears when you play it back over your system in your room, that’s as good as it can get. So stop obsessing and enjoy the music.

  2. “ We can download a digital file from anywhere in the world and it will sound the same regardless of where it came from or how it got to us.”

    Mmm, I wonder if that’s really true. How come the factors that affect the sound locally don’t have an influence on the files journey to us. In particular I was thinking power supplies, different route, different power supply. We know the power supply makes quite a difference at home so why not on the journey?

    1. The way I view it is that transferring bits of data in cyberspace (the digital realm) is independant of time. As Paul mentioned, parts of your streamed or downloaded data can take different routes and different times to get to you. However, once they arrive they are re-arranged and re-assembled into a perfect replica of the file (or stream) that left the originator.

      It’s only in the ‘last little distance’ (between your server or streamer and your DAC) that timing becomes improtant, crucial infact. It’s the timing or ‘clocking’ of the bits as they are converted into an analog waveform (that is, ‘music’) that’s susceptable to corruption. That’s why, IMO, there’s so much effort that goes into providing super-accurate, super-isolated, super-clean clock pulses, because our ear/brain receptors are so sensitive to timing ‘mistakes’ in the analog rendering.

      1. Yes, but how can we really be sure it’s a ‘perfect replica’. How do we know that errors haven’t crept in and it’s the error correction that’s doing it’s work? We’re told that the less error correction involved the better the sound. We can be told things but we can’t easily check them, except with our differing ears. I know we’re splitting fine hairs here but sometimes that’s what these topics are about.

        1. Paul, MikeK, thanks for your response’s on this.

          By way of an aside, but in a similar vein, some years ago I read that CD’s pressed in Europe were preferred to those pressed in America because they sounded better. Fact or fiction?
          I guess if you’re in America you heard the opposite 😉

      1. Sometimes they escape the cargo hold. They are responsible for all the ‘MP3trails’ The government and military are controlling the music on a massive scale; plumes of white low bitrate geo-engineered musical data form behind the aircraft. The audibly translucent 128kpbs and below bits condense into lossy crystals and fall to the earth poisoning our ears!

        I mean, I wear tin foil ear muffs so I’m OK…

        1. Sayin;
          This REALLY ONGOING 24/7, HAPPYGNIN ??

          What this post says sound is reforming from dropping binary codes direct off plane,Ehhh??

          Re: Request Clarification on post.

          Ask why cause am half sound engineer important asknwhy..

  3. So one of the take aways from todays post could that it’s the last few feet or meters of the journey that have the biggest impact. Did the bits travel by snail mail 1/2 way around the world on a Disc and then were spun off into the chaotic world of D/A conversion or did they arrive at your DAC via high speed optical fiber before being thrown into the chaotic world? Noisy grounds, inconsistent clocks, radiated emf and rf from the power supply one shelf over, and a host of other obstacles. Sounds like a gauntlet from hell.

    Maybe it’s better for a bit to give its life valiantly and transfer its soul to vinyl…. (With 2 min 2 to go and After reading Barsley,) or not…

      1. I guess it’s assumed that they start out well, not perfect, but as good as they can be. Interesting to know what effect those initial transitions might have though.

        1. The argument that somehow the path a file travels affects how it will sound, in relationship to the file’s digital content, is about as sound as questioning will a firmware upgrade from PS Audio for a device, after download, will end up the same as it started and not present BS Audi in the display upon load on some devices and not others, depending on how shiny the packets were in the uber-expensive Ethernet cable, USB or SD card.

          1. I never said or even thought it wouldn’t work. I just raised a genuine question on the basis of what I’d read. From what I’ve read previously files can sound different. Obviously most of that is down to the individual system at home but I wondered if other parameters were at play? Others here, rightly or wrongly, clearly have similar thoughts. We need to remember that contributors and readers will have varying degrees of knowledge on the many topics covered.

    1. No, definitely downloading of a known file. Or uploading. When we send the digital masters to Sony for an Octave release we upload them to a server in Austria. There are check sums used to make sure the transfer is bit perfect. Same process for the reverse, which is downloading.

  4. It seems obvious to me that the music signal is altered along the entire journey, not just the last several feet. Of course, we only get to hear the last few feet of the journey’s alteration. Why does live music played right in front of you sound different? Partly because the sound waves (the music signal, as it were) have not been highly altered yet by distance. As a wise person once said: It’s physics.

    1. I would take exception to the idea that in a digital signal the music’s being altered in any way. If someone in China gets a download of an Octave recording vs. the person next door to me the files will be identical.

      1. Paul but we do know we can hear things that cannot be measured. There are fundamental differences between digital and analog. The best digital can do us sound as analog as it possibly can. Some feel there’s something missing in that attempt to do so.

  5. Ok, here it is!
    I read Paul’s early morning post.
    And I also read all the comments that came after it.
    But here is something you all over looked.
    But I’m gonna take you all back in to digital internet time with this one.
    We’re gonna go way back to 1995 when all this streaming and downloading music got started.
    Some 26 years ago, all the computers in the world, were connected to the internet via phone modems.
    I’m talking about dial up internet.
    Lets just say, you wanted to download a song that wasn’t available in your country yet.
    But it’s climbing the charts in and all over the United Kingdom.
    But you’re either somewhere in North America, or South America.
    But you have to rely upon your very slow dial up internet to get that song on your computer.
    I believe that the modem takes the bits, and chops them up to even smaller bits.
    Your computer’s job, is to put all those bits right back together as they were.
    But along the way, something happens that, something goes wrong.
    And it doesn’t sound right to you.
    so you find out, the downloading of the song, was just a waste of time.
    And so, you opt in to getting in to your car, and driving to the maul to see if you can find that song on a CD.
    Today to a certain extent, that’s still happening.
    Sure we have all kinds of internet connections, and some of them are super fast.
    My point is, not all internet connections and modems are equal.
    Just set back and think about it!

  6. Paul, Your first sentence is not correct.

    “We can download a digital file from anywhere in the world and it will sound the same regardless of where it came from or how it got to us.”

    This should say:

    We can download a digital file from anywhere in the world and it will arrive bit perfect regardless of where it came from or how it got to us.

    As Mike pointed out, the sound of this bit perfect digital file depends on the playback system.

    1. Well stated Tony.

      It just dawned on me that the initial A/D conversion has to be considered nothing but bit perfect.

      What can it be compared with to ensure it is or isn’t? Another A/D converter? What if there’s a difference? Which one is correct, or are they both correct?

      It’s how those bits are manipulated farther down in the mixing / production environment …

      From there what we receive had better be bit perfect, regardless of the digital format.

      1. The only thing that can be considered a personal absolute is how your central nervous system processes the incoming pressure wave trains created by musicians and your mental cognitive functions interpret the nerve impulses as music. This will be unique to you at that instant in time. Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves as individual cells die and are replaced (or not; “Done got old.” — Junior Kimbrough, via Buddy Guy in my case). Biology; it’s an enormous kludge, but it’s what we’ve got. Our personal central nervous systems as human beings have general similarities, but they are not identical. Even if they were, what we would hear in different locations in a recording/performance venue will not be the same, maybe subtly different, maybe radically so.

        The results of the recording and playback process is but a facsimile of the original musical event, regardless of the best efforts of the recording engineers to the playback equipment manufacturers and the final listener’s set up skills. This not to say that they should not try their best to capture and reproduce the musical event. But reality is that playback will be different from said original musical event. As long as you enjoy listening to the music playback, with the understanding that it is not the fabled “Absolute Sound”, that is all that really matters. That is the final reality in your listening space. And it will be different the next time you replay that recording.

      2. Hi Mike,

        I look at this way. Once a performance is ‘recorded’ (captured by the ADC process) it becomes ‘perfect’. By that I don’t mean that the performers were necessrily perfect, the recording engineers selected or positioned the microphones perfectly or any of the myriad other technical recording factors about which I have little knowledge or understanding. What I contend is that once a ‘performance’ is consigned to cyberspace it becomes ‘perfect’ in that it is and will remain a perfect replica of what was originally fed into the ADC. (Various error detection and correction algorithms applied along the way ensure that that is the case.) Certainly I agree that digital manipulation of the ‘original’ during the editing and mixing processes may lead to ‘bit losses’ but they are ‘intentional’, that is, they were caused by human interference. I contend that transferring the bits between any downstream processes is lossless while it remains in the digital realm. The critical part of the bits’ journey is as they leave cyberspace, passing through our DACs into our (analog) equipment and thence to our ears.

        1. I would fully agree Mike. I guess the point I was trying to make is once music is in the digital realm then the ‘bit perfect’ starts. What reaches the DAC should / has to be exactly what was encoded digitally. Your earlier comment concerning timing also makes total sense. As does noise jitter and all the other things that make up digital playback. There seems to be such a huge emphasis on the consumer playback side concerning all this, that the thought that entered my mind is the recording side being held to the same or higher standards? It would seem they would have to be? If the recording side have tighter tolerances or less jitter noise etc then why? If not, then why not?
          Personally I’m very pleased with my digital set up and until discussions like these come up don’t give playback, downloading or streaming a second thought. The bits all show up, the music comes out and most of the time I’m a happy camper.

          1. Yep. Totally agree. And I think that’s why Paul is so keen to apply his and his team’s skills to the task of doing just that – holding the recording end of the chain to at least the same high standards he’s championed for the consumer audio end for all these years. 😉

  7. In Star Trek episodes the transporter hardly ever failed. But when it did malfunction, strange things happened. On one episode Captain Kirk split into two Kirks, a good one and an evil one. In another episode he, Uhura, McCoy and Scotty were sent to another Enterprise in a Mirror Universe. In Star Trek: The Next Generation the crew rematerialized as children, a young Lieutenant Riker got doubled, and a crew got stuck inside the transporter’s buffer. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine a temporary surge sent a crew to a different time period. But all in all, the transporter system was remarkably reliable. You never saw Kirk or Spock lose an eye or limb.

  8. Sure, the file will be identical but so what? I can fly to Tokyo with an LP and when I get there the information available in the grooves will not have changed. What matters is the playback system. With internet streaming, the file may remain identical after the journey but what about the noise that’s added along the way?

  9. Since I have been in the computer industry for over 4 decades, you are saying that digital files get ‘dirtier’ along the way thru transmission? How many times have you submitted a transaction to deposit money in a bank, make a purchase, issue a stock purchase, and the transaction got jumbled up? For example, did you make a $300 bid to buy something but it got ‘dirtier’ so it ended up as a $3000 bid? There are billions of transactions made every day to banks, stock markets, and other institutions throughout the world and if the data has the ability to get changed from I’m what was submitted, we are all screwed.
    But I do agree the last foot of transmission of any audio data makes the biggest impact and this could be said of any source: cd/computer file. The cable makes a difference feeding the dac and of course the dac plays a major role on how digital sounds

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