I am often asked for a recommendation on a piece of digital audio equipment that a person could simply drop in and hear how it is better than vinyl. A simple, easy, demonstration of one format’s superiority over another.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do that. Sure, we can all agree on digital’s technical superiority in terms of noise, dynamics, frequency response, transient attack, distortion, etc. Yet, replacing one piece into an analog ecosystem won’t demonstrate anything other than how alien it is.
Think of it as making as much sense as dropping a piece of modern furniture into a living room decorated in a completely different style. You’re unlikely to get a good feel of how that single piece would play out in a surrounding more acclimated to its style.
When we set up a system we’re doing so in a way that honors and accentuates the virtues of one format at the expense of another.
In the same way that plopping in the world’s best turntable into my digital optimized kit won’t tell us much of anything—other than it’s out of place—dropping a state of the art DAC into an all analog setup is doomed to failure too.
I wish I had an easy solution to help people experience the benefits of one vs. the other, but alas, drop-ins just don’t work.
They are about as welcome as uninvited guests at the family Thanksgiving dinner.
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.