How It Works: Audio Compression

The term “compression” is often a source of confusion when discussing digital music. There are two kinds of compression. The first is the kind used to compress the size of files; this is data compression. There is lossy compression, using with MP3 and AAC files, and lossless compression, used with FLAC and Apple Lossless formats.

But the other kind of compression, dynamic range compression, is the much derided method of limiting the amount of dynamic range in music. The point of dynamic range compression is to make less of a difference between the quietest parts of a piece of music and the loudest parts. Most music is compressed as part of the recording and mastering process, because it does sound a lot better, and keeps you from blowing out your speakers. But over-compressing music makes it sound like crap.

The best way to understand dynamic compression is to look at a couple of audio waveforms. The screenshots below were made using Rogue Amoeba’s Fission audio editor.

Here’s a song which is free on iTunes today. I chose this one because, well, any free pop single is likely to be heavily compressed, and this example shows that I’m not wrong.


You can see two things in this waveform. The first is that the song is almost universally loud; the waves show the loudness. The second thing to notice is that there is a lot of clipping; audio volume that hits the top of the available limit. This is bad. As Wikipedia says:

Music which is clipped experiences amplitude compression, whereby all notes begin to sound equally loud because loud notes are being clipped to the same output level as softer notes.

Excessive compression has led to what is known as the loudness wars. This is when record producers make their songs louder and louder so they stand out against other songs. Generally, the human brain perceives louder music to be better, so additional loudness can make a song more compelling. But, in the end, all this has done is made lots of loud, clipped songs.

Here’s an example of a song which is not compressed. This is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here:


You can see the difference in two places in this screenshot. In the overall timeline at the top of the window, you can see that the music has a shape; in the first screenshot of the free pop single, it’s just one long mass of sound. And in the actual waveform, you can see that there is modulation, and no clipping, in the Pink Floyd song.

The difference is that you may play your Pink Floyd song at a louder volume, in order to hear the quiet parts of the song, but the louder parts will be, well, loud. In the first song, the entire song is loud, and you’re likely to become fatigued more quickly after listening to music like that.

For good examples of audio that is not compressed – or only very slightly – watch a movie. In general, movie audio is not compressed; this is why the dialog is often too soft, but the special effects are too loud. This is why you often need to adjust the volume for movies with lots of explosions, otherwise your ears hurt. (You may have an AV receiver which has a dynamic range compression feature; if you’ve turned this on, you may not hear such large differences in volume.)

Dynamic range compression isn’t a bad thing; it’s just bad when it’s overdone, as is the case in much popular music today.

Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

iTunes Smart Playlist: Lots of Live Dead

I’ve made a smart playlist to group all of my live Grateful Dead recordings (just official releases). This uses a nested smart playlist, with a number of conditions. The first is Artist is Grateful Dead, and then I nest a number of conditions, beginning with Album begins with 1, since all of the Dead’s concerts took place in the 20th century, and I name them with the date first, like this: 1974-05-14 – Missoula, MT – Dave’s Picks Vol. 9. Here’s what the smart playlist looks like:


(To add nested conditions, press the Option key and click on the + button to the right of the first condition; when you hold down the Option key, that button becomes a … .)

For other live albums, I’ve just added their names; I could also do this more easily, by adding, say, “Live” to the Comments field of all these albums. But that means I’d need to remember to do this for each new release.

And here’s what I see when I view this smart playlist; this is in Grid view:

live-dead copy.png

That’s a lot of Grateful Dead!

By the way, if you want a full-size screenshot of the above picture, click here; it’s about 5 MB. You may need to click on the image to zoom to full size; I see I have to do that in Safari.

And how about a wallpaper? I’ve made a 2560×1440 graphic with a lot of my live Dead covers from iTunes. That’s the size of a 27″ Apple iMac, or Thunderbolt display. If you need other sizes, you’ll just have to make them yourself. Grab the wallpaper here (3.4 MB).


Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Book Notes: Miles Davis, Biography and Autobiography

As part of my recent Miles Davis binge, I bought two books about the musician. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, by Ian Carr (, Amazon UK) and Miles: The Autobiography (, Amazon UK). Both of these books give great insight into Miles’ career, and his music.

4157FM2ZKTL._.jpgIan Carr’s biography is clearly that of a fan. He likes almost all of Miles Davis’ music, even the later albums, which, arguably, are greatly inferior to most of what Miles recorded. He also analyzes the music, somewhat. He discusses most of Miles’ recordings, describing the music. For example, regarding Bitches Brew, he says:

The ensemble pauses, then starts again, and Miles plays a few phrases and then stops.

Descriptions of music like this aren’t very useful, unless you have the music to listen to; and even then, I’m not sure what they add to understanding either a musician’s life or his music.

But Carr is exhaustive, and does seem to discuss every recording session, and every album. He paints a detailed picture of Miles’ life, presenting both the good and the bad without passing judgement. The book also contains a detailed biography, and a discography listing every session Miles recorded.

image001.jpgAs for the autobiography, this is Miles Davis creating his own story. Written with Quincy Troupe, the book was taken from interviews, and reads like Miles spoke. Which means there are lots of “fucks” and “motherfuckers.” Miles seems to tell things as they were, even many of the less respectable things he did in his life. However, Miles comes off as being fairly racist; he rails a lot about white people. If a white person wrote a book like this and said the same things about black people, it would be criticized. Granted, Miles had to put up with a lot of racism in his time, and he did work with white musicians, but it still comes off as angry.

Nevertheless, reading two sides of Miles Davis’ life is interesting. If you’re a fan, it’s worth checking these books out. The biography is more interested, but could have done with some editing to tighten it up. The autobiography, however, lets you hear Miles Davis in his own voice.

Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

My New Mono Listening Setup

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I have a thing about mono recordings. I wrote about my recent appreciation for these recordings in In Praise of Mono Recordings, and offered a list of Some Great Mono Recordings.

The problem with listening to mono recordings in stereo – on two speakers – is that there is a sweet spot, the point where the sound converges, just as there is with stereo listening. With mono, this sounds artificial. In addition, it’s possible that there are phase cancellation problems when you listen to the same music coming from two speakers.

I did a fair amount of research, and found that there is a small minority of people – audiophiles; I know… – who have dedicated mono systems. I didn’t want to go that far; I could buy a mono amp, but I see nothing wrong with using just one channel of a mono stream connected to a single speaker to listen to mono recordings.

So I decided to get a mono listening setup for my office. You can see, in the photo below, my new speaker on a stand behind my monitor; it’s a bit tilted; I need to work on that.

2014-04-09 11.12.29.jpg

My amp – a Cambridge Audio 651A (, Amazon UK) – and it has two speaker zones. So my stereo speakers are set on zone A, and I connected a single speaker to zone B.

My current speakers in my office are Focal Chorus 705v (, Amazon UK). I also have a pair of Focal Chorus 806v speakers (, Amazon UK) in my living room. I bought the latter about a year and a half ago in France, and I really like their neutrality. So when I was looking for new speakers for my office, I went with the same brand, just smaller.

So, when looking for a mono speaker, I checked out what Focal has to offer. I realized that the best thing might be a central speaker from a surround system, and I got a Focal Chorus CC 700 (, Amazon UK). It has two mid-bass drivers and one tweeter, and has a wonderfully balanced sound. The mid-bass drivers are slightly larger than those on the stereo speakers in my office; this center speaker is more adapted to a system using the 806s. But since I’m only using the CC 700 on its own, and not as part of a multi-speaker system, it doesn’t matter. (If there had been a smaller version of this speaker, I would have gotten it.)


This setup is certainly not a necessity, but I like the idea of listening to mono music on a single speaker. It wasn’t too expensive – I got it much cheaper than Amazon’s price – and it’s got nice, clean sound. Mono music sounds a lot better like this.

Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Do Vinyl Records Sound Better than CDs? (Spoiler: Nope)

I’ve been discussing a number of audiophile myths here on Kirkville, and today I’d like to address another one: the myth that vinyl sounds better than CDs (or downloads). Vinyl sales are booming, reaching the highest levels in more than ten years. To be fair, this isn’t difficult; as long as sales continue to increase, they’ll be higher than any time since the Great Vinyl Decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

People abandoned vinyl for several reasons: CDs were more convenient, less fragile, and sounded better[1]. Turntables were annoying and fragile, and you had to manually change sides of records; with CDs, you can play an entire album without flipping discs.

I grew up with vinyl, and, while I miss the bigger artwork, and the added room for liner notes, that’s all I miss. I don’t miss the clicks and pops of vinyl, or the way that, if you bumped into the turntable, or whatever shelf it was on, you could scratch a record, damaging it permanently. With older, scratched records, sometimes the only way to listen to them was to place a penny on the cartridge to add weight to it. Also, the quality of the plastic used for vinyl records was often poor, meaning that records wore out quickly. Oh, and you had to deal with dust, records that warped if exposed to heat or were stored flat, static electricity that could perturb things, the spindle hole that might be off-center, and wow and flutter that added noise to playback.

But the biggest problem with vinyl is simply that records wear out. Audiophiles tout the higher frequency response of vinyl over CDs, saying that vinyl can play back those frequencies that we can’t hear.[2] First, this is only true with a pristine record, a perfect stylus, and a high-end stereo system; in most cases, vinyl’s frequency range is lower than that of CDs. Bear in mind that needles used to play records are made of diamonds, a very hard substance, and each play of a record wears it out a bit. This wear results in lower frequency response and lower overall fidelity. Stereo separation is poor on vinyl; there is spillover from one channel to the other, which is an inherent weakness of the playback process. And, because of RIAA equalization[3], the sound on a recording is manipulated, both for pressing, to reduce low frequencies, and for playback, to attempt to restore them.

But there’s another problem with vinyl that most people don’t consider. The first grooves on an LP offer 510 mm of vinyl per second, but as you get to the end of a side, there’s only around 200 mm per second; less than half the resolution. This is similar to the difference in tape speeds dropping from, say, 15 ips (inches per second) to 7.5 ips. Anyone who has worked with tapes knows that this speed difference results in much lower fidelity. Back in the LP days, musicians would argue about who got their songs on the beginnings of sides, and the music you listen to on an LP gets lower in quality as you get closer to the center.

Most people, when discussing vinyl, talk about an “analog sound,” saying that vinyl sounds “warmer” or “richer” than digital. It does; because there is less frequency response (poorer reproduction of high frequencies), and more distortion. Just as tube amps may sound “better” because of the distortion they introduce into playback, the same is true for vinyl. That “warmth” you hear is simply the poor quality of the playback; the distortion caused by the analog chain, and its lack of detail.

“But the other part of it is that the experience of listening to an LP involves a lot more than remastering and sound sources. There’s the act of putting a record on, there is the comforting surface noise, there is the fact that LPs are beautiful objects and CDs have always looked like plastic office supplies. So enjoying what an LP has to offer is in no way contingent on convincing yourself that they necessarily sound better than CDs.”[4]

There’s a fetishism around vinyl, it’s about the process of listening. If you take more time to prepare for something, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy it more. If this is what you want, then by all means, go for it; but the sound of vinyl is actually inferior to that of CDs or digital audio.

So this is yet another myth that’s used to market products to people who don’t know better. You may like the idea of vinyl, but my guess is that, if you grew up with vinyl, you are probably aware of its limitations, and don’t want to go back into the past. I find it interesting that many audiophiles prefer a format that provides audio in a lower quality, and with more distortion.

Let me close with a few tidbits from turntable reviews in hi-fi magazines.

Each instrument and voice sat unambiguously in the soundstage with a largeness and roundness at its edges—the opposite of an analytic and etched sound.

Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine sounded brilliant on the Clearaudio Ovation, which lent just enough warmth and body to the sound to humanize this music while not obscuring its drive and pulse, its stops and starts.

the music was a steady stream of sound that quickly became a river, then just a few drops

produced a big, slightly warm orchestral sound. String tone was rich, with a pleasing golden glow. The piano’s lower register was cleanly rendered and remained well defined against the hall’s reverberant field. The upper keyboard sounded supple, with a rich, woody, yet sparkling bite. Image stability and solidity were never in question, and the system’s dynamic punch announced a turntable that seemed in complete control.

And, I’ll finish with another gem from What Hi-Fi?:

Play an album such as Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Point 5 delivers an energetic sound that combines fluidity, stability and authority brilliantly.

Where most rivals render a sharply etched sound packed with detail, the Point 5 has a more rounded presentation where the leading and trailing edges of notes aren’t overly emphasised, but the bits in between are defined richly.

The result is an immensely likeable presentation that’s big and muscular without suffering from a lack of agility or finesse.

  1. Yes, many early CDs sounded bad, because mastering engineers initially used masters created for LPs, and it took a while for them to, well, master the process for the digital medium.  ↩

  2. See Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.  ↩

  3.  ↩

  4. Pitchfork: Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?  ↩

Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Collecting Music in an Analog Age

In the early 1980s, I had a day job crunching numbers for a financial company in midtown Manhattan. But when the nine-to-five, suit and tie part of my day was finished, it was time for music to take over. I would listen to my favorite albums on my Sony Pressman (the ancestor of the soon-to-be released Walkman), on crappy headphones, wearing the long, gray tweed coat I’d bought used in Greenwich Village.

I was a fan of Joy Division, the seminal post-punk group from Manchester, England. Their two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, were part of the soundtrack for my life in those days.

After Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, the band morphed into New Order and recorded the last two songs Curtis had co-written. This first single contained two gray-tinged songs, Ceremony and In a Lonely Place, that were apt successors to Joy Division’s signature sound. This record, released on the small Factory label, was hard to find in New York City, where I lived at the time, but it was a must-have: this was the final statement of a group that would become legendary.


It took some hunting, but I managed to find it in the Imports bin of a record store on Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village. I don’t remember how much I paid for it, but I do remember the satisfaction I felt in having tracked this single down. I played it until I almost wore out the grooves.

High Fidelity

If you’ve ever seen the movie, or read the novel, High Fidelity, you’ll have an idea what my life was like for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I used to hang out at a tiny record store in Queens on my way home from work. A handful of us would hang out there, listen to music, and discuss it together with Stu, who ran the store. There was Richard, Chauncey, Clara, Roberto, and a few other irregulars. Somehow, Stu had a pretty good selection of imports for a tiny store, so we’d spin records and opine about them. On Friday evenings, we’d go to a Chinese restaurant and talk about music, literature and poetry.

From our suburban homes (we were part of the bridge and tunnel crowd), we tried to emulate the kinds of art and music that Manhattanites were showing off in the East Village. We listened to music, wrote, published a little magazine and a few slim chapbooks. We played music, and did something vaguely resembling performance art.

Each member of the group had their own favorites. We’d play each other our recent finds, and we’d trade cassettes. (Yes, home taping was killing music back then…) Or we’d go to Stu’s apartment on the weekend, gaze with wonder at his collection of a couple thousand LPs, and listen to a selection of his rarities.

For the most part, we had similar musical tastes. I had been a Deadhead (a fan of the Grateful Dead) for many years, but, at that time, I was leaning more toward punk, and the post-punk music coming from the industrial wastelands of England: The Clash, Joy Division, The Cure, and many other lesser known bands.

I missed out on a lot of local music. None of my friends went to the popular New York clubs where local bands were getting famous, so I never set foot in CBGB or Max’s Kansas City. I never saw Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones or Talking Heads in their prime (though I did see some of them a bit later). At the same time, we ignored popular music. For some reason, the European gray of the post-punk bands from England struck a chord in me.


A Song Is Worth How Many Words?

Since much of the music we liked came from England, we would buy and share the British music press: New Musical Express, The Face and Melody Maker were sold in the same record stores that imported these vinyl surprises. While these publications kept us abreast of new releases, you can’t describe music with words. You can discuss a mood or a feeling, but you can’t write what a melody sounds like.

Most of these bands got no radio play back then, and were never on TV: certainly not Joy Division or The Cure (in its early years). Definitely not A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column or Section 25. And you’d never, ever hear Throbbing Gristle on the radio, except, perhaps, on a college station very late at night. So we’d read about new bands then go in search of their singles to hear what they sounded like.

We learned that many of the bands we liked were clustered on small, indie labels such as Factory, Rough Trade, Fiction, Mute, or Les Disques du Crepuscule. If we’d come across a band we didn’t know on a familiar label, it could be worth a listen. Some of these labels released samplers or compilations that showcased their artists, and led me to discover bands like Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, Soft Verdict, Tuxedomoon, and the wonderfully-named Crispy Ambulance.

No matter what we bought, there was an element of the unknown which made the hunt all the more interesting. The thrill of finding a new single by a band we’d read about would be augmented if the songs were really good. If not, we’d just move on; singles only cost a couple of bucks, even for imports.

Collector’s Lust

I like collecting music, though I’m not a collector. I don’t seek out recordings just for the sake of owning them; I want to listen to them. I don’t search for records the way philatelists would look for EFOs (stamps with errors, freaks, and oddities); my interest has always been the music.

It wasn’t hard to find the first few albums by The Durutti Column, one of my favorite bands back then (and still now). They were released on Factory Records, which had decent distribution in New York, but certain EPs, such as Deux Triangles (on Factory Benelux) or Greetings Three (on Materiala Sonori), required some detective work. I scoured the record stores for anything I could find by The Durutti Column, occasionally stumbling on something new that I’d never heard of. It was harder to know what to look for back then, because you couldn’t Google an artist’s discography on a website, so you had no idea what had been released.

Some records were hard to find. The Normal – aka Daniel Miller, record producer and founder of Mute Records – only released one single: T.V.O.D / Warm Leatherette. Strongly influenced by J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash – a shared favorite among the record store group – these two songs become emblematic and influential (Grace Jones later recorded Warm Leatherette), examples of the early days of electronic pop music.


I remember hearing the first single by Theatre of Hate, called Brave New Soldiers. Finding the band’s first – and best – album, produced by Mick Jones of The Clash, was difficult. I eventually found a copy on cassette, and wore out that tape.

Another one that was tough to track down was I’m a Cult Hero / I Dig You, a single that bore the band name Cult Hero. This group was actually The Cure, and they recorded this as a test to see if they got along musically. Instead of having Robert Smith on vocals, they used their local postman Frank Bell, who is also on the cover in a Cult Hero t-shirt.

Analog and Digital: Two Different Lifestyles

In some ways, collecting music in the analog age was tiresome. You’d spend a lot of time tracking down records, and not always like what you bought. In the digital world, you can sample everything online, buy music in seconds, and download an entire album in minutes. The thrill is gone, but the ubiquity of instant access to most of what you want balances that out. There are still some CDs that don’t get released digitally, but even those are easy to buy. A few clicks on a web site, and you can order a CD from anywhere.

Collecting in a digital world is different. No more do you need to go to record stores and check out the used or import bins; you can just go to the iTunes Store, or Amazon, or google the name of the band you’re looking for. Do you want to get recommendations for bands you might like? You don’t need the music press for that any more; just try any of a hundred apps, or use iTunes’ or Amazon’s recommendations.

Or you can get music from your children. In an interesting example of the fluidity of music from my past to the present, my son comes up with occasional discoveries, such as Trent Reznor and friends covering Warm Leatherette, which he thinks are new and fresh. Until I get him to listen to the originals. But some of his favorites get me excited too, such as Psychic, the first album by Darkside, a band that could have existed thirty years ago, if only the technology had been more advanced.

Music is an important part of my life: I have a huge music library – both on CD and digital purchases – and I write about music and how to work with it on computers. I got rid of most of my vinyl collection a long time ago. But I still have about 100 LPs and singles, the ones that were the hardest to find, the ones that carry the strongest memories. I don’t have a turntable, but every once in a while I flip through them to take a brief trip back to the analog age. To a time when each new purchase was a conquest.

As I listen to New Order’s Ceremony and In a Lonely Place now, the music, like a madeleine, brings me back to a time when music represented freedom from the world I was trying to understand as a young adult. With a small group of friends, I scoured record stores across New York City looking for musical portals to a different world. Sometimes, we actually found them.

This article first appeared in issue 17 of The Loop Magazine.

Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Is there a Right Way to Listen to Music?

There’s an interesting debate going on over at Cnet. Two of their writers are discussing how one should listen to music. In this corner, Geoffrey Morrison says listening to music in the background is fine; not just that, but that he listens to music in the background all the time. In the other corner is Steve Guttenberg, who claims that “The problem with background listening is that it leads to more background listening.”

The initial premise for these two articles was, as Morrison says:

One of the prevailing trends in audiophile circles is the notion that, to fully appreciate music, you have to stop doing anything else and just listen. I disagree.

I think there’s a lot that’s wrong in both articles. I have nothing against listening to music in the background. As I write this article I’m listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew; loud. I often put on music to accompany me in my work. I hear some background music, and I listen to some; in other words, in some cases I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing that I barely notice the music. In other cases, I’m so absorbed in the music that it helps set a rhythm to my typing. My foot taps, my body moves, and I’m listening to the music, making it a part of what I’m doing.

Guttenberg says:

Non-listening leads to more non-listening, including live concerts, where a sizable percentage of the audience is either talking or engaged with their devices. The music is over there, while the real focus is over here. So even when folks spend large amounts of cash to see Radiohead, Tom Petty, or Arcade Fire, the band’s music is background, being present for the fleeting experience of a concert is passé.

It seems that Guttenberg isn’t up on his history. It’s only recently that music listening at performances took on the reverence that he would like to see. For centuries, people would talk among themselves when listening to music in churches, and in concerts. Live music was, for a long time, a social event, where people would go to be seen. They would move around from box to box in theaters, or, if music was made at home, many of the people would be talking. Have you ever heard Bill Evans’ live recordings from the Village Vanguard in 1961? Did you notice the voices and sounds of ice cubes in glasses? There was no solemn silence in jazz clubs back then; people took in the music the way they wanted.

Some people want to turn music into religion. I understand that it’s important for many people (as it is to me), but there’s no need to tell people how they have to listen. I listen to music a lot when I walk; often when I read. But I don’t just leave music on like a running faucet to make sure there’s no silence.

On the other hand, I find Morrison’s approach to be a form of escapism. Silence is not just golden, it is part of the mystery of life. Guttenberg is right when he suggests:

So if you’ve never really focused on your favorite music, try this simple experiment: listen for 10 minutes in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Who knows? Perhaps the more you really listen, the more you’ll want to focus on the music.

The problem is that nearly everyone, in such a situation, will be so overwhelmed by their thoughts that they won’t even appreciate the silence. I’d wager that most people who claim to listen to music attentively are also flitting around in their minds, using the music as a soundtrack for caroming thoughts and ideas.

And then, yes indeed, Guttenberg pulls out the vinyl card. He claims that people listening to vinyl “stopped multitasking and listened.” Yep. Vinyl is better, it helps strengthen your mind and gives you firmer muscles. Come on!

No, there’s no one way to listen to music. Listen any way you want, with good headphones or crappy earbuds, with titanium alloy cables or a boom box; just listen to the music.

Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Which Hard Disk Makes High-Resolution Music Sound Best, or What Makes Audiophiles Tick?

Following up on yesterday’s article about expensive Ethernet cables used in audiophile audio systems, and related to a recent article about why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I toss out a question for audiophiles. If things such as cables make a difference, what about hard disks? Has anyone done testing on hard disks, to see which makes music sound better? Do SSDs sound better than spinning-platter hard disks?

What about system busses? They must have an effect too. They could introduce jitter, even when playing music on a computer. And RAM? Is there any audiophile-grade RAM to ensure the proper “tonal neutrality” and “strong dynamics” of the music you listen to?

The ridiculous claims made by audiophiles do more harm than good to the audio industry in general. They allow companies to produce hugely overpriced equipment, and sell it to credulous people, but they also influence the entire audio equipment market, making us low-end people think that we don’t know how to listen to music, with a fair amount of contempt at times.

Yes, there are audio elements that make a difference. No one can deny that speakers and headphones sound very different[1]; that’s no surprise, because they actually create sound (i.e., they convert electrical signals into air waves, which we, in turn, perceive as sound). DACs can make a difference: the cheap DAC in a $30 CD player will be bested by a standalone DAC, or one in a more expensive player, because they are responsible for converting digital signals to sound signals. And there are certainly valid reasons, other than sound, for purchasing a more expensive amplifier: it may have more features, more inputs and outputs, or may be esthetically pleasing.

But what about all the other elements of an audio system? There sure are lots of them, and, according to audiophiles, altering any of them should have an effect on sound.

Assuming that you listen to music on a computer – which is the most complex audio chain – here are the elements that come into play:

  • Power supply
  • Power cable
  • Computer (I won’t isolate all the elements inside a computer that should influence sound, if audiophile theories are accepted)
  • Sound card (if using an analog output)
  • Digital interconnect: USB / Toslink / Ethernet cable (if using a digital output)
  • DAC (digital-analog converter, if used)
  • Audio interconnects: cables from DAC to pre-amplifier to amplifier, or from computer to pre-amplifier or amplifier
  • Pre-amplifier (if used)
  • Amplifier
  • Speaker cables
  • Speakers
  • Headphone amplifier (if used)
  • Headphones (if used)
  • Listening environment (which has much more effect on sound than most people realize)

According to audiophiles, changing any one of those items should affect the resulting sound. And they claim to be able to hear the difference between, say, a power cable or an audio interconnect among that complex chain.

There are two ways of testing such things. One is a purely subjective test; you hook up a new item and decide whether it sounds better. This is clearly influenced by many factors, notably differences in volume, or simply a desire to reinforce beliefs that a new cable, for example, really does sound better. The second method is ABX testing, where listeners hear different items, but don’t know what they’re listening to. While the former method is almost entirely subjective, the latter is fairly objective. Dozens of ABX tests have shown that people simply can’t hear the difference between different components, showing that, in most cases, the difference in price does not translate to a difference in quality. There have been tests that show that coat hangers sound as good as expensive speaker cables, and that all amplifiers sound the same.

So when these ABX tests show such results, and challenge audiophiles and their expenditures, they come up with another explanation: that the concept of ABX tests is flawed. “The answer is that blind listening tests fundamentally distort the listening process and are worthless in determining the audibility of a certain phenomenon.” They have to defend their choices to spend a lot of money on audio equipment.

You would think that, if all these elements made such a difference, recording engineers would use them to ensure the best possible capture of music. But this isn’t the case. As I recently wrote, I found it interesting, when attending a classical recording session in a church, that no expensive cabling was used, just “miles of copper.”

I care about music; a lot. I care about sound; only if it is in service to the music. I don’t have cheap audio equipment, but my setups are around the high end of consumer audio pricing. Because that’s what it’s worth paying; when you pay more, the quality differences become miniscule. I have a full stereo in my office, with good speakers, and I use several different headphones. But it’s a shame to keep reading reviews of things like cables that are simply made up. If all these elements made a difference in sound, then it would be easy to tell them apart. The fact that one can’t tell the difference in blind testing shows that this is an industry built on feet of clay.

  1. Several months ago, I went to a hi-fi store to listen to a number of headphones. I listened to several Grado headphones, and there was a clear difference in clarity across different models; the more expensive ones sounded better. But that doesn’t mean that any headphones at the same price would sound good. I also tried out Bower & Wilkins’ P5 portable headphones, which were nearly as expensive as the best Grados I tested. I disliked their sound very much; it was too bassy for me. So there’s a lot of personal taste that goes into things like speakers and headphones; it may not be the most expensive that sound “best.”  ↩

Share this article:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn