How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 17: Hard Disks

It’s been nearly a year since my last article in this series (which I find surprising; the time has gone by quickly). A reader contacted me last week with a delightful story of a website called EnjoyTheMusic.com that ran an article saying that:

Listening tests reveal significant sound quality differences between various digital music storage technologies.

Oh, my, where does one even begin with this? The fact that 1s and 0s are 1s and 0s? Or the fact that that hard drives in the tests are connected to all sorts of other components, such as data busses, connectors, cables (yep), and more.

Nah, not even worth suggesting such things. Instead, let’s marvel at this comment:

QNAP1 was found to serve up music with a similar level of rhythmic drive and image soundstaging as a good CD transport playing directly into our system’s DAC. If anything, there was perceptibly more ‘drive’, in the sense of bass euphony and articulation, but this came with increased level which made the sound a tad bass heavy.

I mean, if you think about it, the hard drive should provide exactly the same sound as a “CD transport” playing the same music. But here, there was more “drive” and it was louder (which, you know, is physically impossible since 1s and 0s don’t have loudness).

Nevertheless:

Also, QNAP1 did not sound as clean as CD in the higher registers. Some edgy grain exaggerated the sampled horns that sets the scene in the opening of Primal Scream’s Loaded, adding to the color but nudging it off neutrality. Splash cymbals lived up to their name.

Yes, the 1s and 0s were a bit clipped in the high frequencies. Those would be the frequencies higher than 0, I assume.

But then the Keystone audio testers tried using different hard drives in the same NAS. This is an interesting test, because it could should that EVERY HARD DRIVE SOUNDS EXACTLY THE SAME, but, somehow, through the magic of audiophilia, they didn’t.

In our initial listening tests, I couldn’t discern any tangible difference in sound between the two hard drives. Harris thought the Hitachi sounded very ethereal, almost out of phase, and rated it lowest; the Seagate was sharper with a more thumpy bass, slightly brighter with a slight tendency to sibilance. Both lacked much drive in presenting the Madonna track, and were certainly ‘mushy’ compared with the best sound quality we’d heard from the QNAP stable.

Because some 1s and 0s have sharper and more thumpy bass. Now, one could suggest that the sharper and more thumpy bass comes from storing the music files on the outer edges of the disk’s platters, and our team of reviewers should have known that…

Then they moved to a couple of SSDs.

Drive three (a solid state type) gave a far from subtle shift in tone and soundstaging. I thought that here this Kingston SSD spread the stage wider, could really pull apart the multi-track layers, and certainly led in blackness too, sounding agreeably quieter than it had any right to. Yet there was also a dull flatness to its presentation, even a graying of timbre.

It could “pull apart the multi-track layers,” you know, the 1s and 0s. And it “led in blackness;” as you know, 0s are blacker than 1s. But it was dull, gray. Sigh.

What about the other SSD?

If the Kingston SSD stood apart from the disk drives for its mostly good yet quite alien character, drive four made itself known for entirely the wrong reasons. This Corsair drive (another SSD) conspicuously highlighted vocal sibilants, and had a hard, relentless quality that was impossible to miss. Strangely, it also robbed the music of pace; it was the least engaging on any emotional level thanks to an enveloping tunelessness that appeared to carve up a song like an MP3 rip.

Well, I won’t be buying any Corsair SSDs for my computers. It sounds like it’s rubbish!

To conclude:

This initial trial was not intended to be an exhaustive study into all the factors that can affect the sound quality of network and computer audio, only to confirm or deny the suspicion that digital bitstream coming from hard disks are not all equal. Which has to be somewhat surprising, to say the least.

Really now? The bits are different? Hmmm, and how might one prove that… I wonder if there are ways to, you know, copy files and compare them to PROVE THAT THEY ARE EXACTLY THE SAME.

By now we should know better, and acknowledge that digital audio is very far from immutable.

Now, by now we should know better than to trust anyone who actually comes to this type of conclusion.

Post scriptum:

Why do these people never understand that the difference is between their ears? They were seeking differences, and they used the good old confirmation bias to find it. Also, humans are not the same all the time. As the day goes on, our ears and our brain change in the way they interpret sound and other stimuli. Maybe they had a cup of coffee before they listened to the drive that sounded “alien,” or maybe they only tested the SSDS after lunch, or after a few beers. This sort of subjective test is simply dumb. These “hypotheses” can be easily tested to prove that data out equals data in, but as long as there are fools willing to be parted with their money, they will keep on testing for unicorns.

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