Separating Fact from Fiction

Are LPs, as some people suggest, an inherently flawed medium? In theory and on some levels, sure they are. Does this fact matter? No, it does not. I say this with the utmost confidence and assuredness because I have been listening to and enjoying LPs for decades. Some of my most memorable and meaningful musical moments have been proffered by records. There are also countless examples of musicians being inspired by other musicians through listening to their records and if that isn't the highest achievement a music storage and playback format can offer, I don't know what is. So I count most of the comments regarding vinyl's inherent flaws as nothing more than a laughable indulgence in theorizing in the face of reality.

This same point of view holds for the debate, and it is a debate, concerning file formats. We have some people who hold that lossy compressed files are indistinguishable from lossless encoded files, that CD-quality is good enough and that 24-bit is a waste and 192kHz flat out harmful (see 24/192 Music Downloads...and why they make no sense), that DSD is fraught with problems, and so on. It's a wonder we don't get fed up with all the theorizing and stop listening altogether since listening itself, so we're told by the objectivists, is fraught with problems (it really isn't when it comes to listening to music for pleasure but that's beside their point). I know I'm getting near the boiling point.

The simple fact that I've also enjoyed listening to music in all manner of PCM and DSD formats is simply a fact. Nothing I learn will be able to go back and undo that enjoyment. It just so happens that some of the most musically engaging experiences in the digital world I've had, have come about when listening to DSD formatted music files. Does this mean anything more than what I just said? I don't think so but people tend to like easy answers to complicated questions that don't really need to be asked.

"Vinyl is inherently flawed like trees are monotonous."

When people tell me that vinyl is flawed I kind of feel sorry for them. Vinyl is inherently flawed like trees are monotonous. The same holds for file format haters. While I can understand, appreciate, and even have admiration for the people behind the products we buy who are passionate about the means to our ends, enjoyment is just not something that can be dictated and restricted by a point of view. Unless its our own.

Enhanced Enjoyment or the Trouble With Audiophiles
Audiophiles cannot leave well enough alone. It's kind of our job to strive for better than enjoyable and this is where our real troubles begin. We're never satisfied. We're always on the prowl for something better and sometimes we think we need to think instead of listen in order to determine better. So we come up with big swingin' oversimplified dictums like vinyl is flawed, or DSD is better than PCM, or tubes are better than solid state, and so on down the sinkhole we go forgetting about the primacy of listening to music.

As my friend and colleague Stephen Mejias pointed out to me in an email exchange over this very topic:

"What many audiophiles want is enhanced enjoyment - we're always looking for the next hit, something to take us a little higher. But what many engineers want is The Truth, or Greater Diagnostic Health, or Enhanced Linearity, or Greater Efficiency, or something like that. Those engineers are trying to achieve something other than what we want. It's only by accident, every now and again, that their success leads to our happiness.

All of the rest of the time, we’re just arguing about inconsequential shit."

What he said.
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COMMENTS
CG's picture

Well, maybe.

How about this... Ever read any of the research by Gregory Berns and other guys in his field? One of the things they think they have learned is that human brains have the equivalent of a huge lookup table or library of sound snippets and formations along with their associated meanings.  This allows for really quick processing of sounds and little things like which direction the hungry tiger is chasing you from.

These same scientists believe that part of this lookup table is innate or genetic, while part is learned at a young age.  As you get older, it becomes increasingly harder to rewrite portions of this table to provide new interpretations of what the ear detects.

OK, so what?

Ignore the innate aspect of this processing system for a moment and consider the learned part.  Especially, think of it in terms of music.

Imagine a little kid, whose exposure to music at a young age is from listening to Mommy practice her cello and play with her friends in a string quartet.  I bet that kid has a different sound library and set of emotions attached to it than a kid whose main exposure to music was a Victrola.  Or a car radio.  Or the sound from a video gaming system.

Think about the implications.  People naturally gravitate to what "sounds good" to them, whether it is the modern refinement of hearing a rock and roll 45 played over an AM radio or an MP3 file.  And, some people just plain may not be able to hear the difference between a kilo-buck home system and a portable eight track playback contraption.  That could be because they were paying attention to other things when they were infants. Who knows?

So, I suspect that there is no single solution to providing life like sound reproduction that would suit everybody.  Of course, not so many are going to be comfortable with that concept.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...certainly accounts for a lot of interest in music and oldies stations of all shapes and sizes are living proof. I tend to think that if we listen to new music, even music we may initially have to stretch to enjoy, we can work to rewrite portions of that table.

So, I suspect that there is no single solution to providing life like sound reproduction that would suit everybody.  Of course, not so many are going to be comfortable with that concept.

I couldn't agree more.

junker's picture

This is a great piece! Thanks Michael!

A line had to be drawn in the sand against the insufferable know-it-alls enboldened by internet anonymity who feel compelled to tell everyone why what they like is wrong. Intolerance and closed-mindedness is always distastful.

I like blondes, brunettes, and red-heads; tubes and SS; DSD and PCM; digital and analog. We're all better for it, and i know my music today is more aceessible and sounding better today than ever before. Cheers!

Happy New Years!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

As time goes on, its my goal to enjoy more not less. I think some people view their inability to enjoy certain things as a sign of erudition.

Happy New Year!

Martin Osborne's picture

I have been eagerly reading Audiostream since launch and what keeps me coming back is the refusal by you, Steve, Jason and Stephen M to play guru, consumer guide, consumer watchdog or scientist and the insistence that music is a sensual pleasure and it is in the (trustworthy) senses that music is experienced. I think these are mighty virtues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Cheers and Happy New Year.

firedog55's picture

I think a lot of this is just due ot individual differences in taste. I like good digital better than vinyl, someone else doesn't. Doesn't mean either of us is right or wrong. 

Part of the problem is that lots of audiophiles seem to have a compulsion to turn their personal preferences into some sort of absolutely true religious belief - a belief that can only be true if they "vanquish" all the competing beliefs. 

It gets tiresome after a while and often makes me think about giving up on audiophile sites. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Personal preference doesn't need to be substantiated when it comes to enjoyment.

Cheers.

Willakan's picture

I am truly gratified to learn that you pity me and my ilk. It's such statements, completely devoid of confrontational attitudes and condescension, that really facilitate civil discourse.

Anyhow, you seem to be missing the point. For example, I own a fair amount of vinyl. That the former cannot contain the same amount of information as a CD is a statement of fact - "information" can be defined mathematically, and the numbers can be crunched (and no, just because they call it "information theory" doesn't mean that you get to claim it's a meaningless abstraction). Nonetheless, I have purchased records in the past, if only to obtain digital rips on high-quality equipment I have access to.

There are various reasons I might buy a record. There is an enormous amount of music that is only available on vinyl; similarly, sometimes the master used to press the record is manifestly obviously superior in quality to those used for the digital formats (much more dynamic range, for example).

When listening to my vinyl rips, I do not furiously gnash my teeth, or peer at instrumentation monitoring the elevated noise floor. I enjoy the music, which is a sentiment I might expect you to sympathise with (that is, assuming you can put aside your completely unfounded contempt pity...) Nonetheless, in an ideal world, and being a person interested in high-fidelity music reproduction, I would prefer it if I was able to stick to sensible digital formats (and that goes for things like DSD too. Have you any idea how effing hard it is to rip an SACD? I have absolutely no desire to buy an expensive SACD player, but one really shouldn't have to employ a certain model of PS3 running specially modified firmware just to get the data cleanly off the disk).

Now, grossly oversimplifying on multiple levels, vinyl acheives about 14 bits of resolution, effectively. As the popularity of the format amongst audiophiles shows, this is often perfectly adequate for serious listening. This does not mean that you cannot get better (CDs, for instance), and that the increase in quality, ceteribus paribus, will not be audible to some listeners. This is not a particularly contentious claim, and certainly does not count as a radical intrusion into some kind of serious "debate", unless you afford the authority of "serious" to individuals who are simply not qualified to discuss the objective merits of the formats involved.

This is, obviously, not to say that someone couldn't derive, for whatever reason, greater happiness from listening predominantly to vinyl, or silly 'hi-res' digital, or DSD. Then again, another might derive far greater happiness from eschewing traditional hi-fi and listening to medium bit-rate MP3s of Katy Perry through the headphones that came with their iPod.

We thus come again to the deeply dubious issue of "absolute subjectivism", whereby you earnestly endorse a belief system which reduces all claims about audio as inherently illogical. I don't mean that as an insult: the way you seem to insist we must look at audio makes all claims about audio inherently unfalsifiable, which removes them from the province of logic (Incidentally, I had a very pleasant discussion with Mr. Hertsens on this very subject, in Innerfidelity's comment section, which was helped immeasurably by Mr. Hertsens being perfectly capable of writing articles which don't insult people with whom he might disagree.)

For those that believe that audio and logic are not inherently at odds, the issue of what is "better" or "worse" in the audio world holds some reasonably solid meaning. As such, it would be better, for example, if the extraordinary effort made to push "hi-res" formats (relative to the usual engagement of the consumer electronics establishment with hi-fi - c.f. the involvement of the CEA in this instance) was expended somewhere that would bring genuine improvements. The same goes for a lot of silliness in hi-fi.

Should such opinions evoke your pity, the loss is regrettably not entirely yours, as people such as yourself serve a role in propogating information about hi-fi. There is perhaps a striking correspondance, first identified by a certain J. Gordon Holt, between the "absolute subjectivists' " pondering of angels on illusory pinheads, and a certain lack of credibility, for many, in high end audio.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And I thank you for putting a finer point on my point.

Cheers & Happy New Year.

Willakan's picture

A happy New Year to yourself also. Just remember, objectivists like music too, regardless of what box it comes in. smiley

jim tavegia's picture

It does not mean that I do not love digital and as we all know it is not a perfect medium, but often that is due to careless recording or mastering. If the beginning is wrong, nothing can fix that.

I have truly enjoyed 2496 and not really listened to enough 24192 to make a decision, but the math teacher in me know is "should be better" if the source is great.  I love my SACD, well most of them and only wished that format was really alive and kicking.  There is still a wide range of SACD discs for sale to last me quite a while.  

I'm still not sure if I wlll get into the digital download thing yet, especially with DSD.  I really like to own physical media when paying $30.  You know old curmudgeons like me are hard to change.

I am in the beginning stages of my Dual 502 refurb with the painting of the plinth and installing a Rega/Moth 251 arm on it which should be a huge improvement.  The platter, spindle bearing,  and motor are in great shape.

I love your site and will keep reading and hoping to become convinced downloads need to be a part of my future. 

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Some of the music I'm interested in is only available as an LP, CD, or download so it makes sense for me to have the ability to deal with all three.

Good luck with your 'table refurb!

Cheers & Happy New Year.

Wguyll's picture

The decision to enjoy music is the crucial step.

The very ritual involved with LPs is important.  Taking the record out of the jacket, inspecting it, placing it on the turntable, cleaning it, gently lowering the tonearm into the groove and settling back primes the mind for the connoisseur experience.

The very investment in time (not to mention the expense) causes one to pause and listen.

Personally, I've become allergic to the fussiness surrounding LPs and find cds and mp3s much easier, but, of course, that's just me.

I've had wonderful times listening to car radios and old phonographs with a nickle taped to the tonearm. The human mind is the last and greatest audio processor.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...all good.

Cheers & Happy New Year.

notany's picture

 In spite of our constant complaints it just keeps getting better.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Cheer & Happy New Year.

rexp's picture

Subjectively one might prefer one format to another but the FACT is that certain formats ARE objectivley more faithfull to the original live experience than others. If you go to a concert and come home to listen to a good vinyl reproduction of the same music, it's pretty close to the real thing. CD doesn't come anywhere near close. Hi-rez - I'm yet to be but hoping to be convinced. Nice to see all formats being considered here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

agb's picture

I threw that question out to provoke, not to offend. In science and commerce we look for the better, the prettier, the more efficient. Whatever we design, we need to measure. What we measure winds up on spec sheets and form the basis of our discussions, as pink can be any shade of. As one of the last to hang on to analog, I suppose I have some creds on this matter. For what counts ultimately, as in all objective as well as subjective matters, is which is better, where should our dollars be spent. Personally, I go for the efficient and better sounding.

One commented above that LP has at best 14 bits...maybe direct to disk, for analog tape it is said maxes out at 13. So the commenter was rather generous in his own way.

There are many problems with both analog and digital. We have a very good handle on the analog, noise, distortion, tracking, tracing, limited bandwidth (in real terms.)

Digital is another rmatter well covered here...we know a lot already, massive sonic gains have been made especially during that last few years. But we don't know everything about digital...that too is well covered here.

What we do know, setting aside minor differences we hear with different digital input schema, noise shaping and other "packet jitter" problems, is that digital can be a very high resolution medium, surpassing the resolution of human hearing in the same sense that modern digital cameras (using similar technologies) had surpassed the resolution of film cameras of the past. And no, the print from two equally adept camera brands may not look exactly the same (as in bits are bits?) But they can both prove the level of resolution and ability to capture more information than what came before.

Given that we can record the range of man made noises and music, that the recording medium can surpass what we can hear, can we assume that it is possible to make perfect recordings in the sense that all that can be heard can be captured (setting aside for the moment dimensional information - at least with current playback technology?

I think the possibilities are near, maybe here. The fact that digital has competed so well at far lower cost and in many cases surpassed the capabilities of analog is hardly arguable these days. What we can, should, accept is that both can be fully enjoyable, but the enjoyment gap between analog and digital is surely to widen as progress is being made in one that the other cannot possibly keep up with.

cundare's picture

FWIW, it appears to me that any serious audiophile who has a broad range of musical tastes ought to own gear capable of reproducing multiple formats.  As others have said, the trick is to be able to play the music you want to hear, and sometimes that means that you don't have a choice of medium.   I mean, why is nobody debating whether it's better to consume video content by means of broadcast television, an auditorium movie, or a Windows notebook-computer displays?  This debate makes me want to press a fast-forward button.

But however one feels about the reasonableness of debating the merits of various media formats in these contexts, I unequivocally take issue with the comment that vinyl offers resolution of approximately 14 bits.  Huh???  In a forum of presumed physicists and audio engineers, how can such a silly comment be accepted without question?  One possibility is that the original poster is a bit confused about parameters.  One might, for example, argue that vinyl is capable of producing a dynamic range that can be represented by a digital number of approximately 14 bits (and I'd argue that statement too, if it was offered without qualification), but how does one conclude that a vinyl recording is capable of capturing only 2**14 possible amplitude levels?  Is Big Ben capable of displaying only 2*14 times of day?  C'mon.

agb's picture

Accordingly, I post this link at PS Tracks; and my article there covering the same theme:

http://www.pstracks.com/music/hang-cupcake/12211/#comment-9140

 

Most interesting is the comment above about people who grew up listening to live music for many years BEFORE they got involved with audio...in my case from the crib. And before that in my mom's embryonic sac. Today, as a regular guest at master classes by world class musicians. A pretty good comp, eh? Live music is the standard, the rest is narrative. At live music venues one hears no rumble, swishing noises, wow&flutter, tape hiss, ticks and pops, azimuth dislocation, crosstalk imbalance, hum, dynamic compression, or mechanical distortions. You will hear, what Gordon Holt spoke about, the natural blat of a trumpet and the silky sheen of violins.

Reality becomes a daily reminder of our shortcomings and successes.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...I listened to Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Robert Pete Williams, Warpaint, Penderecki, Nico, Burial, and many more. If I could replicate that playlist live I certainly would but its obviously impossible. That's one advantage recordings have over live and its a doozy.

Some of these recordings exist as LP-only so I listened to the LP. Its as simple as that for me. Comparing live music to recorded music is like comparing a painting of an apple to an apple. I talk about this here.

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