The bit conundrum
We worry about the timeliness of hot food delivery, but not so much digital audio data. Identical bitstreams will sound and perform the same regardless of how they are delivered. The 1,225 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace read the same when delivered over the internet or on a USB thumb drive.
Yet according to our discussions on the differences in streaming services like Tidal and Qobuz of the last few days, you’d have to conclude the obvious: the bits each sends cannot be the same.
One way to test this theory would be to download those bits of supposedly identical music and store them on a hard drive for later playback. This would have the advantage of reducing the possibility that differences heard were the result of the receiving and unfolding equipment wasn’t adding to the problem. I can make just such an experiment with Qobuz but I cannot with Tidal. Qobuz permits the downloading of their files onto a hard drive for later offline play. Tidal does not.
I have made some initial observations this weekend of at least the differences between real time streaming tracks and playing back the stored versions on Qobuz media. The differences are subtle but noticeable. The streaming version seems to have a flatness to its sound that the downloaded version does not. I attribute this to my setup, which is not much more than a simple Mac Mini that’s no doubt working hard with gulps of streaming data. The comparisons are not easy to make, either. Qobuz caches all media streamed so the second time you play the streamed media it is from the hard drive. Thus, I have to reboot the computer between experiments which may well skew the small differences I think I hear.
What I can report with reasonable confidence is that CD quality tracks played in real time between the two streaming services are different. This I attribute to actual differences in the files the services store.
It’s a fascinating topic and one you might be more interested in reading and learning from the comments section of the last two days of posts.
A master recording captured on 30-year-old magnetic tape won’t sound as good as it once did, but that is not true of virgin vinyl LP’s or digital audio of the same age.
Of all the virgin vinyl ever produced there was one that was head-and-shoulders better than any other: Direct-to-Disc recording. Many of us will have fond memories of the Sheffield and Crystal Clear Direct-to-Disc recordings of the 70s and 80s. These rare treasures were an extraordinary challenge to make but, done right, there were few examples of recording art better than they.
For those unfamiliar with this lost art here’s how it worked. An artist or band would perform music live in a studio, often with little more than a stereo pair of microphones fed directly into a mixing board. The output of that board was fed into a cutting lathe where the mastering engineer would follow along with the musical score, making on the fly adjustments to the lathe to compensate for dynamic range challenges (as opposed to doing the same on the mixing board which limits that range). These were true works of art—one of a kind and never duplicated because it was live, the stamping master capable of producing only so many copies before it was exhausted.
The results were often extraordinary: Dynamic to the point of the needle sometimes jumping out of the record groove. The first time you played one of the albums would be the best and each successive play just a little less exciting (as the playback needle polished the grooves into submission).
What made the magic wasn’t the technology of Direct-to-Disc because digital was (and is) far better in every respect. It was remarkable because of what didn’t happen: the mastering engineer couldn’t screw it up with limiters, filters, equalizers, and all the trappings that today rob the life from reproduced music. The impossibly difficult process had to be live and without hindrance to qualify as Direct-to-Disc.
Imagine what we could do with live music on good microphones fed directly into a DSD recorder with the hands of the mastering engineer kept off the bells and whistles available today.
Oh man, those treasure would be remarkable.