The soft effect
A very kind HiFi Family member generously sent me a few Sheffield Labs Direct to Disc CD’s. These treasures are hard to find and I was extremely grateful to have received them.
Upon playing the Lincoln Mayorga and Friends disc I was reminded of just how direct and dynamic they were. There’s a clarity here that you just don’t find on even the best vinyl products.
That clarity comes not so much from the direct to disc mastering process but rather from the lack of the tape recording process.
Tape recorders have a softening effect and every generation of tape gets softer and softer. Cutting out the tape and going direct to disc, while a pain in the keester to make happen, really demonstrates just how soft tape can be.
We get that same softening when we run our audio through analog electronics. Each pass through the circuit rounds off ever so slightly the transient edges, blurring the lines just enough to hear it.
It turns out one of the main advantages of digital is the elimination of the softening effect. No matter how many copies or generations of digital we never lose any resolution.
Tape was an essential medium. Without it we’d never have gotten to where we are today. But I am reminded of how much I do not miss its softening effect.
I prefer the direct dynamics found in the music—regardless of how they got there.
Sheffield Labs in a great music label and makes both LP’s, as well as CD’s. Their recordings sound terrific and what Paul is writing about today, has seen the same thing happen here, especially with the new T+A electronics I use and have become a dealer for. And, unlike many labels, their music selection is varied.
The first time I listened to a Sheffield Labs direct to disc recording I experienced a dynamic surprise. A kick drum that seemed to come out of nowhere to pound my chest. Oh my gosh that was an amazing experience, one that’s stayed with me all these many decades.
Modern recordings seem to have forgotten the joy of dynamic surprises. Instead, many producers want constant loudness and drama, forgetting (or maybe not being aware of) the sheer delight rapid changes in dynamics can bring.
Very few recordings in my stable of treasures have those dynamic surprises, something we fully intend to change as we produce music.
If you have a few favorite recordings with dynamic surprises, please do share it with us.
There’s always an appetite for the unexpected.
Except for a few of my audiophile customers, none of the people that I have worked with care about audio cables and audio tweaks. I do, but mostly because Its a hobby and I enjoy it.
That being said, I’ll say it again, a few basic rights and wrongs and you’ve got most of what you need to accomplish with cables taken care of.
I’m not convinced
Boy oh boy, my simple post about our lunchtime conversation concerning cable elevators has once again let all the worms out of the can.
Of course, the controversy is to be expected. Anything involving cables, tweaks, isolation bases, fuses, and whatever manner of heresy I write about will naturally draw ridicule. And that’s alright. I can remember when the notion that electronics sound different or the idea that CDs sound different than vinyl were thought to be subjects worthy of burning one at the stake. Today, that’s mostly accepted.
What truly tickles me is when I get notes from readers announcing they are not convinced. That my words and opinions did not sway their opinions. Thank you for those comments. Anytime someone reaches out and connects it’s welcome.
Here’s the thing. I am not attempting to sway opinion or convince anyone of anything. What I do is to openly share my thoughts with you, our HiFi Family—our community. Think of it like standing at the bar of our local pub, mug of frosty white in hand, chewing the fat about what we believe and why.
We’re community. Family. Friends. I am not out to change the world nor sway others to my thoughts.
Mine is about sharing.
More than bit depth, to me, the type of digital file and how its delivered to our DAC’s make the biggest difference. I compared a FLAC file via Qobuz vs a ripped WAV file of a Lee Ritenour 16/44.1 CD last night and there was no contest. Qobuz is great, but just not nearly as good sounding as music ripped from a standard CD and off of my hard drive. No contest.
There sure is a lot of controversy over bits and depth. One group feels that dividing 96dB of dynamic range into 65, 535 slices (16 bits) is enough, while others are more comfortable dividing 120dB into 16,777,215 slices (24 bit).
Bit depth: the difference between the softest and loudest captured sound. How important is it?
We know that CDs have a dynamic range that blows the doors off analog recordings of any kind. And we know that we’re not limited to just Red Book standards, that it’s trivially easy to get better.
Does it matter?
Of course, the arguments fly as fast as manure at a political rally. The truth lies somewhere in the middle (doesn’t it always?).
It’s all in the hands of the recording and mastering engineer, not the technology. If the engineer decides to use 24 bits but then shoves all the audio in the upper 16 bit space, ignoring the lower 8 bits, then nothing’s been gained other than a marketing advantage when they print “24” on the label. So, it’s rarely the technology at play and more in the hands of the engineer.
Which is a shame because most engineers aren’t interested in the highest fidelity.
We have the means, just not the will to use it.
There is one picture with this post that shows people listening with their eyes closed. I wonder if any of them are asleep. With much of the music at shows being simple things that sound good on almost any stereo, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are one or two!
Vinyl exceeds CDs
Yesterday we learned that sales of vinyl LP’s have outstripped CDs for the first time in decades. An article posted in Rolling Stone Magazine made the rounds at RMAF, yesterday. I haven’t yet figured out if this means sales of CDs are continuing their downward spiral or vinyl’s picking up steam, but whatever the implications, it’s certainly a twist of events.
And speaking of vinyl, one of the great treats of a consumer trade show like RMAF is the chance for our Hi-Fi Family to gather together and enjoy what we all are interested in, music and 2-channel audio.
Reviewer Micahel Fremer of Stereophile and Analog Planet fame was generous enough to bring his collection of prized vinyl to our room and play it to a packed house for an hour. Just check out the crowd. I could barely squeeze into this standing room only group outside the few prized seats in our listening area to get this picture in the first place.
What a treat! Mikey pulled from his arsenal a prized copy of Joni Mitchel’s Court and Spark to start the afternoon off, and I don’t believe anyone in the room had heard such glorious music. All were transfixed with the vinyl he played. I had chills running down my spine listening to his last track, Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven. Holy Moly! I am so used to the flat and lifeless digital version that I had no idea of what the recording really sounded like.
Fremer and Stellar Phono designer, Darren Myers, worked well together to make this a seminal event. In the second picture down, we were also honored by the presence of Sharyl Wilson of Wilson Audio fame in the front row.
Here are a few more pictures from the event to enjoy.
The percentage of music lovers tapping into the wealth of artist information is minuscule compared to those simply listening. We know enough of the artists we love to refer to them, to seek out their work, but do we really get as invested in knowing bands as we once did in the days of physical media?
Streaming from online music sources brings with it an unexpected blur. Instead of hand selecting albums and CDs, online music libraries offer such an endless thread of tunes that we tend to connect with only a few standouts.
This double-edged sword means more music with less interaction. I enjoy more varied music at the expense of less connection.
In the album/CD day, I knew precisely what I was delving into. Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle with Mingus and Roach explores the bandleader’s piano chops. Knowing the players changes the way I think about that performance. If it were simply part of a streaming playlist I would never be as connected as holding the album cover in my paws and reading.
On the flipside is the wealth of music and information through the use of a good music management program, like Roon, or PS Audio’s upcoming Octave.
That’s when we get the best of both worlds.
Users vs. listeners
Interacting with a front panel has always been important, but rarely how we judge a piece of audio equipment. Even the klunkiest front panel layouts were tolerated if the unit’s sound quality was up to snuff. The user interface took a distant second to performance.
As we rush headlong into the age of the user interface that dynamic has been flipped on its head—out of phase if you like. Increasingly, we judge a server’s performance by its user interface first, its sound quality second.
I think this is a fascinating development because it more closely mirrors the way we used to interact with the music in hi-fi’s heydey, through the album’s cover, liner notes, and back cover.
Once we entered the digital audio era of CDs, and later downloads and streaming, we were disconnected from the user interface and left only with the performance and sound quality. While this may have been a more expedient way to consume music for some, it was a letdown for others.
I, for one, welcome the return of the user interface.
We’ll likely never know what happiness was to John Lennon but we can get a glimpse of his wry humor when he wrote the song Happiness is a warm gun. The title, taken from the cover of a gun magazine, was so outlandish he said, “I just thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you just shot something.”
In our world of high-end audio happiness can come in so many different forms: finding a forgotten piece of music, installing new gear, relaxing with a glass of red wine to the serenade of a treasured album, cleaning a record, thumbing through rows of CDs, reading liner notes, appreciating all that we have.
Of all the day-to-day activities and interactions I have, I believe the closing of the door to the music room, the magical sense of that special place, the smell of the system, the moment the first note engages and the world melts away is what happiness is to me.
Sure, there’s plenty of other things that make me happy: a smile, a hug from my grandkids, the touch of Terri’s hand, finishing a long project, hearing a great story. But the consistency of the musical experience keeps me coming back for more.
Happiness is different for all of us.
What makes you happy?
Say what you will about vinyl’s good and bad points but it’s hard to deny the joy of holding a 12″ album cover while you’re playing the treasures inside.
Album art and liner notes on the back cover are perfect in this format, something CDs and digital of any kind really lack. The closest we might get is on the iPad when we’re streaming through a well-designed music management app.
Still, the visceral feel of that album cover…the big front cover…the often well-written prose on the back. More than the special sound quality unique to vinyl, album art imparts a connection to the music we just don’t seem to get with digital.
My readers will know I prefer the dynamics, life, and sound quality of proper digital on a system specific to the medium.
But I don’t want to ignore the look, feel, and magical connection afforded by the album cover and its art.
Some things are just so right they cannot be improved upon.
Album art qualifies in spades.
Marking our spot
Marking our spot, staking our claim, drawing lines in the sand. These are all euphemisms for setting boundaries when we build frameworks—and frameworks help us work within structure.
My framework for assembling a system has changed over the years. When I first started my HiFi journey I included everything I could to wring as much as possible out of the system: tweaks, voodoo, science, and lucky guesses were all fair game in the quest for audio’s holy grail. What did it matter if half of what I tried barely worked? As long as I got great performance that was all that mattered.
Over the years I’ve mellowed and matured, eliminating as much clutter as possible. I suppose that’s the old man’s curse—we can’t deal with as many variables as before so we delete them one by one.
Which is why I rarely find myself using tweaks. Years ago I had every color green pen made to help my CDs and you know what? They worked. Probably still do. Yet, my enthusiasm level has vanished.
I am more interested in building firm foundations than polishing weaker ones—which is how I view tweaks: helpful aids for inadequate structure.
There’s far more satisfaction in building a solid framework of the best equipment possible than aiding and assisting with tweaks and frills.
Yes, they work but not without clutter and distraction.
I’d rather mark my spot on solid ground.