The Apophatic State of Computer Audio

still from "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", the fourteenth episode of the third season of Star Trek: The Original Series first broadcast January 10, 1969

If you walked around SSI 2012 and asked questions of manufacturers and exhibitors and listened to people talk to each other while sitting at the bar (purely for research purposes), you'd have come away with an array of (opposing) ideas relating to how to get the best sound from computer-based audio.

Here are my top ten favorite tips heard and overheard:

1a. iTunes is not as good as third party rippers.
1b. iTunes is perfectly fine for ripping.

2a. WAV sounds better than FLAC.
2b. FLAC and WAV sound the same.

3a. Network Attached Storage is a great option for storing a music library.
3b. Network Attached Storage is fraught with problems making it a pain in the ass for storing a music library.

4a. USB sounds bad.
4b. USB sounds good.

5a. USB does not sound as good as S/PDIF.
5b. S/PDIF does not sound as good as USB.

6a. 24/192 is overkill.
6b. 24/384 sounds even better than 24/192.

7a. Playing files in their native resolution sounds better than oversampling.
7b. Oversampling sounds better than playing files in their native resolution.

8a. ______ (pick one—Pure Music, Decibel, BitPerfect, Amarra, Audirvana, Fidelio, JRiver, Foobar 2000, MediaMoneky, JPlay, etc.) sounds better than ________ (pick another one—Pure Music, Decibel, BitPerfect, Amarra, Audirvana, Fidelio, JRiver, Foobar 2000, MediaMoneky, JPlay, etc.).
8b. Reverse order of 8a.

9a. Macs sound better than PCs.
9b. PCs sound better than Macs.

10a. It's best to get the computer out of computer audio.
10b. It's best to use a computer for computer audio.

In each case I can easily imagine a scenario where a and/or b are true (or not).

Which reminds me of a story I heard years ago on the radio. The speaker was an American Indian and I cannot recall his name or the context of the broadcast but I do remember he spoke about his father. Each night this father went through a long ritual of praying and paying tribute to Gods. Lots of them from all manner of religions and cultures; Yahweh, Jesus, Buddha, and more as well as the spirits that inhabit the world of some aboriginal people. One night after his father had finished his ritual the son asked, "Do you really believe in all of that?" And his father answered, "I don't believe any of it. But I could be wrong."

COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

my analog songs digitized, playing from a Mac that can run Windows and Linux, sending the bits to a system that converts back to analog, where my binaural ears and monophonic brain do interpretive post-processing.

(It helps to sing that to the tune of "Step Right Up" or any other similar Waits song.)

slim's picture

thus the ongoing battle of right brain vs left brain (or was that left vs right? anyway, both are, as Tom Waits observes on Bad As Me, "Talking At The Same Time") will perpetuate the FLAC-better-or-worse-than-WAV war.

I am happy to have most of Michael's "favorite tips" (= open questions) sorted out for myself (*) - the rest is being taken care of by the course of time, like golden ears turning into silver ager ears ...

So while I may "Get Lost" over the state of my listening capability, I present here the ultimate SPOILER (don't read on if you want ML's "Apophatic State of Computer Audio" to persist)

 

(*) SPOILER or: correct judgement on ML's top ten favorite tips for computer audio:

1 b 2 b 3 a 4 both 5 none 6 a 7 both 8 both 9 both 10 b

This old half brain believes all of it. But the other half could be wrong.

 

 

kavon yarrum's picture

This is all due to the computer audio "gurus" out thee, who being EXTREMELY opinionated, preach the gospel to their minions who worship every word they say.

There is the temple of Rankin, Pure Music, Amarra, Empircal, etc.

When one of the Gods proclaims that WAV is better than FLAC, the faithful spread the word.

When one says Ethernet and SDPIF "suck", the followers spread the gospel.

Only audiophiles could have created this ridiculous mess. And it IS ridiculous.

Great job on summarizing..well done...not an easy topic to coherently write about.

No wonder many are staying away in droves.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Like human nature for starters.

On every enthusiast/specialist blog or forum I’ve seen regardless of the topic – cigars, wine, art, photography, coffee, shoes, you name it – people exhibit the exact same behavior.

I also wouldn't necessarily place the blame on manufacturers since its kinda part of their job to be opinionated. If people choose to take what someone says as gospel, well let’s just say that also seems to be a matter of human nature.

kavon yarrum's picture

..to what you say, but as someone is into several esoteric hobbies, I believe Audiophiles take it to a completely new level.

What it make its more disconcerting is the smugness involved by certain "experts". There seems to be a certainty about things that are opinions, and a willingness to smuggle in opinions as facts.

FLAC is bad. Really?

USB is better than a $10,000 transport. Really?

WiFi sucks. Really?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Here's a quote from your comment on the Steroephlle website in Stephen Mejias' Kendrick Lamar’s “The Recipe” post,

But no rap and hip hop. None.

Why? Forget the long explanations..it sucks.

As I said,

On every enthusiast/specialist blog or forum I’ve seen regardless of the topic – cigars, wine, art, photography, coffee, shoes, you name it – people exhibit the exact same behavior.

I just left out music.

kavon yarrum's picture

ML, in your rush to produce some sort of Gotcha Moment, you read my post too quickly.

I said the reason I do not have any rap in my personal collections is because it sucks...to me. Maybe I should have been more explicit and add the "to me" at the end.

I will repeat what I said there, i believe the vast majority of Stereophile readers have no interest in that style of music.

Let's for arguements sake say that one proposes as a FACT that rap sucks..there is plenty to back it up

-almost no live albums available

-professional athletes like Shaq and many more dabbled in "music" careers and produced high selling rap albums, despite have zero musical training.

and more anecdotal...

NEVER heard rap at a hifi show, a hifi shop, or on any system that anybody spent more than a grand on...

My opinion is it is garbage...but I will not pretend it is a fact and I am the determiner of such things.

 

 

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Your anecdotal evidence is weak at best since a) it applies to many other genres of music, and b) your experience and tastes are obviously limited.

You don’t like ______ (this could apply to anything). I get it. But as you say, that does not mean _______ sucks or that its garbage even if that’s also what you say.

I suppose you could argue we’re disagreeing over semantics but we’re not. Other people like ______ so by saying it sucks and its garbage you are suggesting that your opinion is somehow better or more informed than theirs. Which gets us back to my original point in this post.
 

kavon yarrum's picture

Really ML? Been to a rap concert lately?

So what other genres apply to what I mentioned?

My tastes limited? I am going to see Anoushka Shankar from India perform with a troupe of Spanish flamenco musicians. Following that I have tickets to see Seal.

I just ordred Iron Maiden's new album. Limited taste? An absurd notion.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Your attitude toward rap and hip-hop illustrate a limitation. I thought that was kinda obvious.

But I'm happy to have learned more about the kinds of music you enjoy.

kavon yarrum's picture

i make to bones about the fact I think rap and hip hop are beneath me. So be it.

I repeat most Sphile reades will make a similar judgement about those genres. I am all for those who enjoy it to keep listening.

I must also repeat you did a superb job of crystalizing the state of computer audio. I have not see anything written so well.  I also commend you for covering such a wide variety of producs...streamers, DACs, servers, etc. 

I humbly give you a cool musical tip..Mark Lanegan's new Blues Funeral. Wow.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I try not to limit my coverage ;-)

I will check out that Mark Lanegan record - thanks!

i make to bones about the fact I think rap and hip hop are beneath me.

To quote a phrase from Mr. Dylan:

What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good,
you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom

kavon yarrum's picture

Amazing, I am on a Bobby D. kick at the moment. 

Show me a more potent One Two Punch than Blood On The Tracks and Desire.

Ok, I will heed the profits words....!

One last note on rap. I am not some purist.. I do love a lot of electronic based music..trance, trip hop, industrial, etc. 

One thing had me curious..does SM buy his rap/hip hop on vinyl???

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Running out of

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Michael Trei's picture

I have been know to spin plenty of old school rap, from Public Enemy and 3rd Bass to The Beastie Boys et al. It's shelved with the rest of my 10,000+ lps next to the Eric Dolphy and Ligeti records. I play them on a system with Quad ESL57s and an 18 watt Audio Note single ended amp.

A good system should expand your music horizons, but far too many audiphiles end up with a rig that only sounds good when they play a breathy female jazz vocalist accompnied by just a stand up bass. Check out how many rooms at the NYC show are playing this type of music to see my point.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

A good system should expand your music horizons...

Hear, here.

kavon yarrum's picture

Nicely written post. The Beasties are going into the RR Hall Fame this year.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Great pic to go with the article, as we know audio is black and white, or is it white and black; there are no shades of gray. USB is better than S/PDIF, no wait, WAV is better than FLAC. It's nice to know there absolutes so that we can sleep peaceably at night.

Well, we know that there world is more nuanced than that.

Perhaps a better photo would be one from Rashomon....after all, what really IS the truth? 

The mystery lies in finding out.

Where is Akira Kurosawa when you really need him?

Or Toshiro Mifune, for that matter...

kenmac's picture

Was a similar war of words waged over cassette players? Remember when Nakamichi was all the rage? Three heads! 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Or like people who still argue over the 'best' way to spin a turntable platter, or tubes v. SS, or triodes v. pentodes, or do cables matter, or The Beatles v. The Stones, or Pollock v. de kooning, or Nathan's v. Ball Park, and on and on and on.

kavon yarrum's picture

I would like to not that debating art has been going for thousands of years...I find that quite different than debating tubes vs. solid state. In either there is no right answer, that is the hillarious part.

But i should note that even NON audiophiles debatte music, so it has nothing to do with our hobby. Audiophiles on the other hand will debate about "recordings"..analog, digital, multi miked, high rez, low rez....

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But in an earlier comment you suggest, “I believe Audiophiles take it to a completely new level.” My experience suggests otherwise.

whell's picture

Betamax is better than VHS....

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Would make for an interesting topic! For another day…

One thing had me curious..does SM buy his rap/hip hop on vinyl???

I cannot keep up with SM’s record buying, so your best bet is to ask him. My guess is most are on vinyl. I know that Drake’s Take Care which Stephen mentions in that Kendrick Lamar post is on vinyl because I have it. On vinyl.

kavon yarrum's picture

SM has probably had enough of me...lol.  I will assume he consumes his fix on vinyl, which I find ironic since most rap, hip hop, pop is generally recorded at 48 khz diigital.

Ok, for the hell of it...

Tommy/Who's Next

Let It Bleed/Sticky Fingers

Led Zeppelin I/Led Zeppelin II

In A SIlent Way/Bitches Brew

Abraxas/Santana III

Nevermind/In Utero

Give em Enough Rope/London Calling

War/Unforgettable Fire

Born to Run/Darkness On the Edge of Town

Seal 1/Seal II

1999/Purple Rain

Sex Machine/Sould Brother No. 1

Africa Brass/Ole Coltrane

Are You Experienced/Axis Bold As Love

The Doors/Strange Days

and a hundred more...but the mother of all One Two's...

Actually, I am going to call it the ultimate triple play...

Rubber Soul/Revolver/Sgt. Pepper.

Peace Out...

 

 

 

 

Stephen Mejias's picture

I will assume he consumes his fix on vinyl, which I find ironic since most rap, hip hop, pop is generally recorded at 48 khz diigital.

Though I understand your point, I don't get caught up in questions of format and resolution. I just want the music however I can get it. Once I have it, I let my system take care of making it sound as good as possible. At the moment, I'm listening to Kendrick Lamar's Section.80, which was released exclusively through iTunes. And I love it.  I've also recently been enjoying Danny Brown's XXX, another iTunes release. It, however, will be made available as a special Record Store Day limited-edition 2-LP package. If I can find it, I will buy it. Simply because vinyl is beautiful and I want it. 

I own Drake's Take Care on vinyl. I own Drake's previous release, Thank Me Later, on CD.

kavon yarrum's picture

I totally understand. You want the vinyl and that is that. Nothing wrong with that.

Just to give you a bit of a hard time, (honestly, in good humour) you are clearly a format fetishist. Nothing really wrong with that to be honest.

I am honestly glad you enjoy your musical selections..though we differ in taste, I am not some chamber music ninny.

Stephen Mejias's picture

I don't understand. Why do you keep trying to make me fit into some mold of who you think I am? Why don't you just read my words and listen to what I'm saying? I just said: I don't care about the format as much as I care about the music.

I get excited over music.

Yes, if I could have my way, I would choose vinyl. But I have nothing against other formats. I'm happy to own the music on whatever format the artist chooses to use. In the last few days, I've happily and eagerly purchased iTunes downloads, CDs, and LPs. (No cassettes, unfortunately.) 

I wouldn't care if you were a chamber music ninny. I enjoy chamber music, too.

kavon yarrum's picture

I believe you do consume in multiple formats. 

Your column persona certainly differs. I totally undertstand that you embellish and use lots of artistic liscense in the column, and expertly, I might add. 

In your columns you have talked about a "love" for vinyl..the physical aspect, the feel, the rituals..and you have stated in your last column or so you bought LPs based on the cover. Would you do that with a CD?

Again, I get these are probably embellishments. 

Hey, there are guys who are "high resolution download" fetishists.

I happen to love the feel and sound of tape. Go figue.

I did mean there was anything wrong with chamber music, I meant I am no parlour audiophile sniffing at amplified music. 

 

kenmac's picture

For all those who think they don't like hip hop or rap, I would like to play them the music of A Tribe Called Quest (serious jazz sampling), DJ Cam (MIles Davis samples), Public Enemy (James Brown samples), The Grey Album (Beatles samples), or if that doesn't do it for you, then remove the music and dig the poetry of Eminem, Jay Z or Public Enemy. Sure, most of the genre is crap, but that's true for most music.  I too hated rap and HH for years, then it's sheer lunacy and comedic slant got to me. Is it melodic as we think of melody? Maybe not, but Charlie Parker was once considered noise. UNclog your ears, open your mind. 

kavon yarrum's picture

If you were attempting to get someone who thinks rap  and hip hop is a joke to resconsider, you blew. 

You brought up sampling. Eh, next.

deckeda's picture

Hey, I bought an LP recently with all tracks recorded 24/48. Honestly, I was sorta concerned since the artist was advertising a hi rez recording. His email response to me was that for future projects he'd most likely be recording in a more audiophile-friendly format. Actually, he was very nice about it, not snarky at all. But he was within his rights to be. In other news, that's still higher rez than CD. Regardless, I wanted the LP. I suspect others that buy vinyl also want vinyl even if it wasn't birthed from 2" analog tape running on a vintage Ampex ATR.

The immediate gratification I received soon gave way to well-deserved sheepishness, for presuming I had any right to dictate how an artist capture their craft, let alone that it should have much bearing on my enjoyment of same. If this site has taught me anything in a remarkably short time, it's that only a fool obsesses over that crap. Yes, you focus on what you can change or improve about your system or the music buying choices you have --- and you let everything else go. The alternative is frankly not appealing to me. The philosophical and theoretical aspects of this hobby quickly become a bore.

Some of the titles mentioned above would have benefitted greatly from something other than the noisy, low res 4-track and 8-track recordings the '60s saddled them with. Many of those iconic recordings mentioned above mean nothing to today's listeners (even if they should understand why they are important recordings.)

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Thanks deckeda, I enjoyed that.

kenmac's picture

Sampling is bad. Rap is bad. HIp hop is bad. Why bother with muisc at all...so pesky those annoying instruments... where did I put my jew's harp...

kavon yarrum's picture
Michael Lavorgna's picture

...about some of this exchange and her response was, "Sure some rap sucks but you could say that about any kind of music."

And I agree and believe her attitude displays a level of maturity that's absent from your point of view on this matter, 'kavon yarrum'.

kavon yarrum's picture

In my opinion, a total oversimplication. I repeat my offer..take a pole of Sphile readers and see how many listen to rap on their systems. 

I am not alone in believing does not qualify as music, but entertainment. 

If I WAS the only one who thought that, then I would have to believe I am just missing something and let it be. 

I know exactly one person who listens to rap from my wide circle of friends. A late 20 something who has never owned or purchased a piece of music, a CD player, a turntable etc. He "consumes" strictly through his laptop or car.

He feels there is no point in "owning" a rap album since it is so disposable..three months later and it is "out", and the next hot track is in. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Your experience is obviously limited and in my opinion you are in fact missing something. Mainly that your opinion is no more or less valid than the next guy. And depending on where you are and who you're hanging out with, that next guy may like rap. Get over it - would be my unsolicited advice.

Besides that, you've got two Stereophile readers, Stephen and I, to add to your poll in the plus column for people who read the magazine and listen to rap on their systems.
 

kavon yarrum's picture

I don't think you two are representive of the average reader in any way. (But I cold certainly be wrong!)

Let me tell you, many of my friends who read Stereophile really don't like Mejias or his column. They could care less about the plots concerning the girls, and they have never heard of the music he references, and when they google it, they are exteremely underwhelmed.

I totally disagree with them. The don't like his wanna be urban hipster persona, and I say I LOVE it as a counter point to the AARP club we normally see every month. I'm just a few years aheaed of him, and his position really reminds me of when I was buying what I could afford until I became financially more stable. 

There also seems to be a bit of a back lash in some of the letters to the editor, but also some praise there as well.

I don't think I am missing anything to be honest. 

I appreciate the open forum and the spirited debate.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And when you say they don't like Stephen, I'm guessing none of them actually know Stephen. They’re basing this opinion on his writing and the person they’ve come to imagine is associated with it. In which case I don’t believe these friends of yours could pay a writer a higher compliment.

So thank your friends for me for Stephen.

kavon yarrum's picture

My apologies, I was referring to SM's persona via his column. My friends have certainly never met Stephen and don't know the real man. i am sure he is a gentleman.

When I said they did not "like" him, again, I ment his literary personality.

And again, for the record, I toitally disagree. I look forward to his column and I have even considered buying some of the products he writes about.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Go figure.

kavon yarrum's picture

...is that he is on top of the world...30 something and single in the tri state area...oh my lord...forget speakers and amps....!

slim's picture

is why you need to reiterate unprovable and unrewarding allegations about Stereophile/Audiostream readers/personnel.

Relax, refrain - or better yet: Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar

jrsanko's picture

The problem I have with most rap.  There are no instruments involved.  Scratching an LP on a turntable is not talent, nor is it comparable to playing a real musical instrument.  I am not a a big fan of Rap or Hip Hop but I do occasionally listen to a few 'artists'.  Eminem, Will Smith, Run DMC, The Beatie Boys to name a few.   But the vast majority that produce this genre are a bunch of talentless posers that never had an original thought in their life.

kavon yarrum's picture
deckeda's picture

Loved the scene where the hapless dad comes in, asking to pick up a song for his kid:

Customer: Hi, do you have the song "I Just Called To Say I Love You?" It's for my daughter's birthday.
Barry: Yea we have it.
Customer: Great great... Well, can I have it?
Barry: No, you can't.
Customer: Why not?!
Barry: Because it's sentimental tacky crap that's why. Do we look like a store that sells "I Just Called to Say I Love You"? Go to the mall!
Customer: What's your problem?!
Barry: Do you even know your daughter? There's no way she likes that song! Oh oh oh wait! Is she in a coma?
Customer: Oh, okay buddy. I didn't know it was Pick on the Middle-Aged Square Guy Day. My apologies. I'll be on my way.
Barry: [sarcastically] Buh-bye!
Customer: Fuck you!

But real-life knowledge hoarding never impressed me much. Share with me the great unknowns; the alternative behavior is simple selfishness that taken to its logical conclusion will kill that band. Yawn. Remember, it was Rob who turned a customer on an unknown band ("I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.'s by The Beta Band.") and got a sale.

Guardians we've never needed. Knowledgable curators on the other hand, are always welcome.

kenmac's picture

To me, the joy of Mejias column is not the gear, not the 2 Ns, not even his taste in music. It's his love of music. It's about the joy of finding a new LP and sharing it with friends, about how music gets us through the highs and lows of life. It's an example of a person who is always curious and open to hearing something new, something that might alter his perceptions and preconceptions. I read his column, like I read Dudley's, for his talent in describing the experiences surrounding music. A life fully lived !!        

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Nice.

MADDOG95's picture

...that has been raging for ages? Everyone has their own favorite form(s) of music and have debated that for generations. That clearly explains the diversity we all enjoy. 

Consider the various instrument makers of the Middle Ages and their products. I am certain the superiority of each were hotly debated.

We are always searching for something new, different, exciting or completely outside of our experience. The musically and technically creative amongst us do their best to assist us with that search and fulfill that need. That same diversity exists here as well.

I just upgraded my components and then, with some help from Michael here and others, put together a home audio/video/data system that serves me well. It may not be the approach you would take, but then again, it might. In any event, it works for me and that is my ultimate goal.

My point is that your "audio nirvana" may not be mine. There are too many variables to factor to find that perfect sound that pleases everyone. So while the debate is fun, the music is the reward.

Vigna ILaria's picture

Dynamic thread, Michael!  You have illustrated a very important characterization of computer audio - namely that it is a constantly and rapidly moving target.  Also, I have learned a new word...

As someone who spent some time talking with you at SSI, and who offered positions on many of the topics you mentioned, I must be clear that what is right today in my system might be wrong today in yours.  And it might be wrong tomorrow in mine.  Computer hardware is in a permanent state of flux.  Likewise operating sytems and playback software.  Neither I, nor anybody else who may have expressed opinions to you, have properly auditioned even a small fraction of the various permutations out there.  It is important to keep an open mind - many things in computer audio seem to fly in the face of how we perceive (and how some of us believe we "know") computers to function, and not all of them are absurd.

It is true that I do hold to some firm opinions on certain of the issues you mention.  For example, I routinely state that a Mac will sound better than a PC.  However, I usually qualify that by observing that I consider OS/X on a Mac to sound better than Windows on the same Mac, so should my fundamental point be that OS/X sounds better than Windows?  Also, the beta version of Mountain Lion sounds better than Snow Leopard (I think I demoed that to you!...), so maybe my fundamental point should be that Snow Leopard sounds better than Windows 7.  And so it goes.  At some point Windows 8 will come out, and if I think it sounds best of all then I must shift my position accordingly.

I recall an issue of (I think) Stereophile many years back, where the cover loudly (and sardonically) proclaimed "If (Product X) is RIGHT, then (Product Y) must be WRONG!".  I should have kept that and framed it.

deckeda's picture

I remember that cover and that issue. And Stereophile has used that image in advertising for several years afterwards. I'll bet JA would reveal it to have been a big seller. 

It was one of the first times a fundamental tenant (in some people's eyes) had been "outed" so explicitly. We'd read for years about differing characteristics between the two approaches, typically couched in verbiage that said it's "OK" for listeners to like one over the other. But that issue put it out boldly: if you like X, then Y, and by extension, everyone who likes Y is wrong.

Damn, I don't mind an amp being wrong, but I don't want to be wrong! Would Stereophile actually TELL ME which kind of amp to buy --- finally!? As we would later say on the Interwebs, "LOL."

That's the grievous flaw in this hobby. Internalization, and attributing choice with personal character, intelligence and above all self-esteem.

robpriore's picture

1. Rap is music just as a urinal in a museum is art, e.g., Marcel Duchamp;

2. Jitter is a scientific reality and timing errors from jitter appear in the audible spectrum;

3. USB is not designed for precision hi resolution audio streaming;

4. If you want bit and timing perfect hi resolution audio from USB your software on a PC should have the specific ability to export all the data without corruption, i use Jriver set to wasapi, and thereafter you must employ precision clocks - and i mean plural - to present accurately timed data to your DAC.  Your DAC or USB/SPDIF converter must tell you if you're receiving the intended bit depth and frequency, this is to ensure your settings are correct;

5. If you can't hear the difference between the same song encoded in MP3 and 16/44 then consider yourself blessed - you'll save a lot of time and money;

More to follow...

wdrazek's picture

Thank you for such a helpful article. It's great to find a source that cuts through the hype to provide meaningful insight.  What a breath of fresh air. 

 

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