Experience Matters

Where did it start? Not my love of music. Nor my pursuit of making it sound as good as possible with increasingly better hardware. Rather, at what point did I first sit-up and take notice that digital audio wasn't simply digital audio: perfect sound; forever; and for everyone?

Was it when I replaced a ten year-old Marantz CD-63 MKII with an Arcam Alpha 9 and heard more detail from Grandaddy's Sophtware Slump in the short-term but ultimately found that I listened to music less in the long-term?

Or was it when Howie Weinberg's super-loud 2002 remastering of The The's catalogue landed in that same Arcam CD player and I witnessed first hand just how excessive dynamic range compression can harden sound and render it unpleasant—nay, exhausting—when applied to an entire album?

Or was it when I purchased a Squeezebox Duet - just for its fancy click-wheel remote control—only to hear, when listening to LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver for the upteenth time, that the Duet's clarity was a step down from the (almost) outgoing Squeezebox Classic. Was it the change in DAC chip - the Duet ran with a Cirrus Logic, the Classic with a Burr-Brown—or was it something else?

Or was it the time I switched my CD-ripping regimen from MP3 (Lame APX) to FLAC because I'd consistently met with greater satisfaction when hearing Bright Eyes' Digital Ash in The Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake It's Morning encoded to FLAC than I did encoded to MP3 (or Ogg Vorbis)?

Mastering matters, the CD player matters, the streaming device matters, file formats matter. Four lessons learnt long before I began writing about hifi gear and sound and even longer before I took a closer look at the theory. I observe—and then I ask "Why?".

Some years later, hearing three USB DACs from three different manufacturers back-to-back, each running with the same ESS DAC chip and each offering marginally different takes on LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening, I heard how a DAC's output stage—its post-conversion analogue circuitry—can influence a D/A converter's sound quality just as much as, if not more than, the IC in use. Not all ESS Sabre DAC implementations sound alike.

Hindsight tells me that the USB receiver chip within each of these DACs would have also played a part in sound quality...but it would take a long email conversation with Wyred 4 Sound's EJ Sarmento to lend reason to my first-hand discovery. The lesson learnt: a D/A converter is far more than its chip; its input and output stages matter.

Looking back to 2010, when a Squeezebox Touch was regularly deployed by yours truly to feed review DACs via coaxial S/PDIF, I cringe a little. Why? Because just around the corner was another lesson. And this would prove to be a big'un.

Question: why did a Macbook loaded with a JKSPDIF or Audiophilleo, USB-S/PDIF converters both, sound markedly better than the Squeezebox Touch's coaxial output? Why, when feeding the same DAC with Joanna Newsom's Ys, did the souped-up Macbook sound more natural and less rigid than the naked Squeezebox?

Answer: lower jitter. Bits weren't (and aren't!) just bits. The arrival timing of those ones and zeroes—it matters. How much? Excuse the pun: quite a bit actually.

To this day, once I've heard a newer, lower jitter source, I find it near impossible to revert to the original. This also applies to network streamers where greater attention has been paid to audiophile sensitivities: AURALiC's Aries (Mini) and—more recently—Sonore's micro- and ultra-Rendu are good examples.

In-between, I've heard Wyred 4 Sound's Remedy and iFi Audio's iPurifier positively transform the likes of Google's Chromecast Audio or an Apple TV into devices that deliver more audible wholesomeness and nuance. These interceding devices' ability to lower jitter is likely the major reason why.

However, nothing discussed here is intended as an exhaustive list. The emphasis is on the lessons learnt and not the hardware doing the teaching: network streamers and re-clockers matter.

Furthermore, different power supplies applied to network streamers, like the Sonore and the AURALiC, bring forth different audible results, all the way from the lushly produced sounds of The Blue Nile to the ragged, rabble-rousing efforts of The Hold Steady. The conclusion: power supplies matter.

Another digital audio bogeyman is electrical noise. I didn't go looking for it. It found me, via Audirvana Plus. That Damien Plisson's playback software sounded better than iTunes came as quite the shock. Who knew that music software could be coded in such a way that it generates fewer CPU cycles during playback and therefore lowers the amount of electrical noise spilling from the host PC and into the DAC over USB?

It's not only PC/Mac desktop software that influences digital audio sound quality. PS Audio's DirectStream DAC has seen successive firmware updates since its 2015 release. The hardware has remained the same but the sound quality has changed with each new ‘operating system' installed. PS Audio's latest OS, Huron, unleashes the most dramatic SQ improvement to date.

Devices from AURALiC and Devialet permit field-installable software updates to existing hardware platforms in order to add functionality and elevate sound quality. In other words, software matters.

Joining PC/Mac/streamer to DAC is a USB cable. Ideally, the USB cable transports our digital audio signal from go to woah, untouched and without carrying electrical detritus. In the real world, a USB cable can introduce jitter and carry electrical noise. When data packets are dropped over USB they go unrecovered. But before I'd really given such issues a first thought, Light Harmonic's LightSpeed USB cable had shown me that not all USB cables sound alike. A difference hammered home by Australia's Curious USB but at half the price. First-hand listening experiences tell me that USB cables matter.

The theory tells us that Ethernet's in-built error-correction means audible differences between Ethernet cables are an impossibility. Unlike USB, dropped data packets are re-sent. So why do I consistently hear small audible differences between an AudioQuest-made CAT6 cable and Blue Jeans' own CAT6? One theory offered up by a music server manufacturer is that an Ethernet receiver's error-recovering circuitry, when engaged, kicks electrical noise up a notch. As per USB, electrical noise erodes sound quality.

Now we're down to the tiniest of audible deltas. Slightly beyond Ethernet and USB cabling in its audible amelioration (that can vary with recording) sits MQA, about which more ink and pixels have been spilt than any issue encountered by this commentator in eight years as a (digital) audio reviewer.

With MQA's catalogue still narrow and the magnitude of its deltas relatively marginal, one might reasonably ask: have we audiophiles lost perspective when loudspeakers, their size, their position and the room in which they sit, its size and its sonic make-up can make or break any and all of the aforementioned upstream changes?

Here experience plays a larger role. Relocating a loudspeaker, even by a matter of inches, can make a significant difference to overall sound quality, one more pronounced than heard from MQA or digital cables.

If I move my KEF LS50 Wireless 50cm closer to the front wall, the bass becomes stronger but also muddier and midrange clarity suffers. After I'd added three large rugs to the floor, a second well-padded listening chair to one corner of the room and hung acoustic panels and pictures on both side walls, the earlier liveliness of my Berlin listening room took a turn for the better. Better than anything heard from a hardware change-up or tune-up. Such was my experience. There's that E-word again.

Mastering matters, file formats matter, DACs and their input/output stages matter, network streamers matter, power supplies matter, software matters, USB cables matter, Ethernet cables matter, hi-res/MQA matters, amplifiers matter, loudspeakers matter and the room matters.

However, underpinning these discoveries is what matters most: first-hand listening experience.

oolaioolai's picture

A well written article about the bleeding obvious. Of course changing components make a difference. Where have you been all these years? This applies to all audio components and of course reduction in jitter makes a difference. Duh! Haven't you experimented with cables and speaker wires over the years?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
And it's not welcome or tolerated, here.
mdminc's picture

I also like to read John's articles. Why make ignorant comments?

FransZappa's picture

it is just the bleeding obvious that people need to be reminded of to get them out of the woods. Personaly I always love to read JD's observations and am very pleased to see him here.

jimbo's picture

John wrote an excellent start to this topic. Among other things that matter: non-magnetic materials surrounding the circuits and absence of magnetic materials in connectors, good shielding of cables and cabinets, thermal management of each circuit, type and methods of solder procedures used, circuit board layout and routing, feedback or lack thereof, open loop bandwidth, oversampling and filter topology (analog and digital) absence of current limiting, and many more. Bravo for making these points, as they are all too frequently described as unimportant.

Fetuso's picture

When I first got my current speakers, vandersteen vlr woods, I positioned them toed in toward the sweet spot, because that's what I thought you did with all speakers. After several weeks I noticed that I wasn't enjoying the sound much because I thought it was too hard and bright. Not at all what I was expecting from them. Then, for some reason, I decided to reposition them firing straight ahead and the sound improved immensely. I don't know why, but that's how they remain and I love them.

ron@rongordon.com's picture

I like your articles and also this whole webzine, which has been extremely helpful and informative on numerous fronts. I tend to replace things every 10 years or so, and just replaced an 11-year old Naim-based system with the new PS Audio Stellar separates, fed by an Auralic Aries Mini with the linear power supply. Because I had nothing better to do, I dropped a Samsung SSD (on sale at Best Buy) into the Mini and started pushing Apple Lossless CD rips to it. The artwork doesn't always carry over correctly (I'll have to fool around with that), but the sound! Oh, baby! I would say that the Mini + power supply + SSD qualifies as an "audiophile" front end. I'm using USB into the PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC, and AQ Jitterbugs both on the USB out cable and in the unoccupied USB port on the back of the Mini. I didn't want to fool around with other USB options noted on this site because I like having a cloud-based UI, and don't want to pay for Roon. Once I start playing music, I turn off my iPad screen, anyway. Thanks for the consistently strong and useful content!

Michkhol's picture

USB asynchronous protocol does not have jitter, there is no clock transferred and both source and sink clocks are free running. Clock-wise the audio is as good as the receiver chip clock implementation. SPDIF protocol however has the embedded clock and is susceptible to jitter of all kinds.

mncmnpmna's picture

Seems to me the underlying implication is the effects of the loudspeaker-room interaction are more musically significant than all the other differences mentioned.

agentsmittie's picture

This article seems to describe about confirmation biases rather than experience. The only "experience" I catch is that experience tells us that changes that cost money should make a difference.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...I'm not willing to take.

In other words, your guess re. bias is itself based on bias.

agentsmittie's picture

My point exactly, we all have biases.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...is that trying to explain away people's experience with "confirmation bias" based on things you are skeptical of is not rooted in reality (or science).
rt66indierock's picture

Well written as usual by John. And he asks a good question that is worth answering. Have audiophiles lost perspective about MQA? Absolutely and without any good reason to even give it much thought. The catalog is just not big enough to follow John’s advice and have first-hand listening experience.

nick's picture

good article john, it's been my experience as well. i often wonder should the quest for better sound take a back seat to buying new music, or attending shows, or other spending on music? we only have so much money to spend on a hobby. love my rig, and upgrading it (the singxer su-1 is phenomenal btw) but at what point have i crossed the line and am no longer a "music first audiophile"?

gefski's picture

John's views and reviews are always tempered by the realities of what is (or is likely to be) successfully marketed.

Much more valuable than pure audiophoolery.

jwh9's picture

Yes, I had to go through this exhaustive journey myself once i ditched my cd transport (with little council at the onset), but John's article will save new entrants much of the labor in the process so they can simply enjoy listening. Why.. because they'll trust their oracle.