Archive for category Random Thoughts

Ken Rockwell knows nothing about audio

I don’t know as much about camera gear as he does, but when it comes to audio, he has as much clue as I do about cosmetics. He represents some of the greatest over-simplification of everything, and the biggest problem we have with the I-read-it-on-the-internet-and-now-I-know-everything attitude that’s so common these days.

Take this post for example.

“iPod and iTunes sound completely transparent (identical to the source CD) at the right bit rate.”

He goes on to suggest that 128k VBR is sufficient.

I’ve been in this industry long enough, and listened to enough systems to tell you that even through total blind tests, you can pick the difference between a 160k VBR and a CD (going through the same DAC) without having to so much as listen.

A number of years ago, my 74 year old mother came into our testing room one night. She had no idea the difference between a speaker and an amp let alone mp3 and CD. Her response when we switched mp3 over to CD was along the lines of “oh, that sounds much clearer”. Take into account that, this was a woman who casually walked into the room after a dinner, without knowing what we were testing or the fact that we were testing, without having being asked for her opinion, had poor hearing due to her age, had no interest in hifi or sound quality and had barely noticed that we had switched something over. She walked in to see what we were doing, listened to 30 seconds of music in passing, and mentioned this, in passing.

We certainly were using some of the highest quality gear around. The CD was ripped using EAC and lame.

I hate it when the ignorant over-simplify and assume things because they’ve read about it and deduced it from their 2 minutes of experience. There’s a reason why a great many still use vinyl over CD, and CD over mp3. The difference is not only measurable, it’s noticeable (if you’re not a crass fool, that is).

Ken Rockwell, in the spirit of this way of thinking, splashes words like “the greatest…in the world” and “the best…”. “The best” implies that you’ve sampled everything else. He hasn’t. Not by far.

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Real life HDMI cables

After my previous post on whether HDMI cables make a difference, I’ve been receiving endless emails on the subject.

Here’s what most websites will say on the matter (example).

- Cheap cables work 100% as well as expensive cables (note, 100%).

- HDMI cables are akin to printer/ethernet/other computer cables.

- Short HDMI cables will have zero (note, ZERO) errors.

- Long HDMI cables will need to be better quality than shorter ones.

I giggle to myself everytime I read some of these pages. Their own statements are contradictory. If, short HDMI cables have zero difference then why suddenly does a longer cable make a difference? What constitutes “long” anyway? Does a 5m cable need to be good quality? What about a 6m one?

It’s amazing how people are STILL comparing HDMI cables to computer cables. HDMI is a one-directional protocol, compared with a completely different system of communications used by computers. Someone who makes this statement, in my books, is instantly discredited as being an “expert”. It’s a stupid thing to say.

Most will still go on to say something about buying from ebay being a bad idea. I wonder why? If they’re all the same and have zero loss, then what’s the issue?

The internet is full of people in forums complaining that their $2 ebay cable doesn’t work or gets pixelated. Google it. Again, I’m not for the “high end” HDMI cable, but it’s so naive and stupid to just plainly dismiss all HDMI cables as “error free” and “the same”.

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High End Audio Sounds Crap!

High End Speakers

No, I haven’t gone mad. Yes, this is still a blog about hifi. Let me explain…

I was on the way to a dinner the other night in town, and I happened to walk past a restaurant with live music. I knew it was live music from the moment I heard it. Even though it was in the middle of the city, and there were cars and people and noise everywhere, and even though I could only hear it through reflected sound since the band was somewhere deep inside the restaurant and I was I was standing across the street and slightly down the road (and nowhere near line of sight),  I knew at the first instance that it was a live band.


Fast foward to some time later. I’m in my living room. On my couch, listening to some similar music through my expensive speakers, tube amp and a Michell Gyrodec turntable that cost me a kidney. I close my eyes, and no matter what I do, I just know that it’s a hifi system. In fact, I realise that never in my life have I heard music through speakers that has fooled me into believing it was real.

Now, let me add at this point that while I’m no professional stereo reviewer, I’ve heard my fair share of high end gear. Aside from the gear of my own and that of my friends’, I’ve been at trade shows and various demo nights and listened to everything from $50k speakers to $60k amplifiers to cables that cost more than my entire system. A former client of mine had a $150k system which included some flagship Wilson Audio speakers and a turntable with a cartridge that had more exotic materials than the space shuttle.

Yet, never in my life have I walked past a room with music playing and mistaken it for live music. This made me realise something quite disturbing. High end audio sounds crap!

One would think that when audio gets even to the astronomical level, it would approach perfection. But this is simply not the case. The next time you get a chance to listen to a “good system”, take a note of what it sounds like. Listen to the sound that comes from it and ask yourself, “Does that sound real? Does that actually sound like a real piano coming from a wall? Does that guitar actually sound like it’s 10 feet from your chair?”. Chances are, it does not. It may sound similar, but it doesn’t even compare with live music.

High end followers go to extraordinary lengths to make their systems “more realistic”. They spend exhorbitant amounts of money on gear, they change their floors into carpet, they line their walls with curtains and they use rulers to ensure that their speakers are absolutely the same distance from the wall. Yet, I catch a small glimpse of music, partly amplified by cheap mobile PA equipment, reflected numerous times off walls, around corners, across a busy city road and barely finding its way into my ears…and the difference is so obvious.

Hi-fi stands for high fidelity. The purpose of hi-fi is to reproduce sound as accurately as possible. And naturally the best hi-fi would be something that is accurate. Something that sounds like the real thing. A high end system should be able to fool you into thinking that what you’re hearing isn’t actually recorded.

But this simply doesn’t happen yet.

Most men who walk into a hifi store ask for speakers with a lot of power and bass. Audiophiles may laugh at this, but essentially they are the same. Audiophiles want gear with low (amplitude) distortion, low noise, and low capacitance in cables. But they seem to forget that these things probably don’t matter all that much, since figures are hardly a sign of true quality. The sound I heard from that restaurant was distorted and noisy beyond any reasonable factor, yet it sounded real.

In the process of improving on test results and obtaining more bragging rights, we’ve forgotten the purpose of high fidelity.

These days I have a chuckle to myself everytime I hear of someone describing sounds as “warm”. In the process of trying to produce undistorted treble (IMHO the most difficult thing to achieve in a system), we’ve grown accustomed to manufacturers simply giving up and dulling the high end, inventing the term “warm” to cover for their inadequacies. I do believe that “harshness” exists: in the form of distorted treble. But “warmth” has simply become an excuse for the inability to produce accurate high range.

Next time you’re at a gig, take note of the snare drum and high hat. Close your eyes and ask yourself: “if that was a loudspeaker, would I say it was warm?”. The answer is almost certainly, “no”. Real life never sounds “warm”, because it is accurate. Some may even say that it’s “harsh” or “bright”. But if real life sounds like that, how is warmth a good thing?

High end audio is commercial, and business is based on delivering what we desire. If what we desire can be manipulated by the very people who fulfill them, then unfortunately, the results will be crap.

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Admit it Apple, you’ve c*cked it up!

It’s only been a couple of weeks since Apple’s release of the latest iPhone, but already the number of problems with the device are flooding in. Apart from their controversial iPhone antenna problem, users are reporting that the device is freezing, calls randomly dropping out, and the latest: it’s catching fire!

Since the emergence of the antenna problem, Apple has stated that the problem is not caused by hardware, but a flaw in software calculating the signal strength.

What a load of bollocks! Does Apple really take us all for idiots? Not to mention the couple of people from this site alone who work in the industry, there are hundreds of specialist antenna designers and consultants who’ve laughed at Apple’s trivial design error in putting the antenna on the outside. Yet, their best response is that they didn’t calculate the number of bars correctly? I won’t even justify that ludicrous claim with an argument.

It seems to me that Apple started off producing excellent, user friendly and excessively tested products to ensure that bugs and flaws are essentially non-existent before release, unlike their industry counterparts. But it appears that their hectic product release timeline really has started to catch up to them. A company like Apple which has products as widely distributed as the iPhone really needs to ensure that they’ve covered absolutely all bases before releasing something as popular as this. But they’ve clearly dropped the ball here.

The thing that ticks me off the most though, isn’t the fact that they’ve clearly designed a lemon. It’s the fact that they have the tenacity to tell us that the problem isn’t what it really is. Apple seems to have forgotten that we’re not all pimply faced teenagers who use their products. They need to accept responsibility and acknowledge that they’ve really c*cked it up.

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Headphones For Air Travel – What’s Best?

So I’m a month into my engagement to the west. I must say I miss my music weekends. However the beaches down this side aren’t so bad and neither is my ever increasing budget for more hi-fi.

I’ve done a fair deal of air travel in the last few weeks, and thought I’d write a brief review of headphones for the purposes of air travel (and earphones/canalphones, which I will categorise as headphones from here on to save wear on my keyboard).

I have a number of headphones, all with certain strengths and weaknesses. However, the effectiveness of headphones is much more dependent on the listening environment than the headphones themselves. Listening to headphones in a quiet room is a completely different experience, and requires different gear, compared with using headphones in a car, or on a plane.

The key factor here is ambient noise.

If there was no ambient noise, nearly all headphones would be open, medium/large in size and nobody would bother with earphones/canalphones. The choice of headphone design is essentially a matter of where it will be used.

So, what’s best for a plane? I tested a number of my headphones:
- Apple iPod stock earphones (free, with iPod)
- Random Audio Technica canalphones (Not sure of model, bought a few years ago for $30 at an airport)
- Audio Technica ATH-ANC3 (Noise cancelling, canalphones $250)
- Alessandro MS-2 (Open headphones, $300)
- Bose Quietcomfort 15 (Noise cancelling, closed headphones $400)

Here’s what I found.

Apple iPod stock earphones
These were the first I tested. They weren’t exactly horrible, but it was obvious that they were hardly adequate. Sound quality is rather poor and noise reduction is lacking. In fact, I have some of those little foam “socks”, which I put on and improved noise performance tremendously. Still, I wouldn’t bother with these. Even the poorest quality canalphones would be an improvement.

Random Audio Technica canalphones
These were a significant improvement on the iPod stock earphones (as expected). However only in the form of noise reduction (clearly). Surprisingly the bass performance on these earphones was quite disappointing and was even beaten by the iPod stocks. If I had to travel I’d choose these, but only as better-than-airline-headset earplugs…

Audio Technica ATH-ANC3
Now we’re getting somewhere. The active noise cancellation is a stark change from the “leaky” noise supression of the other headphones. The sound quality is good and noise cancellation really works. If you’re travelling at night, just leave your mp3 player on with some quiet music. The noise cancellation really helps to reduce the sound of the jets, which, after about 4 hours of travel will sound like a roar when your breakfast comes and you need to take them off to talk to the stewardess. Yummy.

Alessandro MS-2
Don’t even bother with these. For an hour flight they’d keep you entertained, any longer and you’d have trouble justifying wearing them. On an aircraft, comfort in being able to move is key, and these won’t allow you to rest your head sideways, or really in any position other than sitting up straight. Open headphones are nearly useless on aircraft. I love these headphones otherwise, but leave them at home…

Bose Quietcomfort 15
I borrowed these off a friend after he raved to me day and night about them. So I tried them on. They’re extremely good. The roar of the jet goes to a dull murmur in the background, and Diana Krall really sings. The sound is albiet, a little dry, but I suppose that’s the effect of extreme noise reduction. There’s little ambience to it, but it’s a good compromise. One annoyance, despite the excellent sound performance, is the fact that these headphones are as big as the Alessandros. While I found them better fitting and much more comfortable around the ears, they still don’t allow you to rest your head. Only use if you’re not sleeping.

Audio Technica ATH-ANC3 by a clear margin. Canalphones do a lot to reduce noise, and adding noise cancellation makes air travel much easier. The Bose headphones have a nicer sound, but if I was to choose them on sound I’d be going for the Alessandros. Open headphones are completely useless on planes, and while active noise cancellation works quite well, insulation from noise works better. For pure comfort and noise reduction, canalphones with noise cancellation are the way to go. If you’re not going to be sleeping or resting your head, you could also consider the Bose headphones.

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Analogue vs Digital, the Great Debate

The analogue vs digital debate has been around for decades now. And there’s some promising news up ahead for the digital generation.

Since the advent of the T amp, digital amplifiers have really taken a step forward and progressed to proper audiophile territory. Never before have enthusiasts seriously considered class D amplifiers in the same league as class A, or even AB. Now, even the top brands are turning towards digital amplification and it’s not looking to stop. Given the massive power and cost savings, analogue amplification is finally at a stage where there’s serious risk of obsoletion (well, to some extent anyway).

But amplification tends to be the simpler (you can murder me later for saying this) stage in the sound reproduction chain. What about storage? Purists are still going at vinyl as hard as ever, even with the availability of what I’d consider “generation 2″ of digital audio storage in the form of SACD and DVD-A.

More surprising still, many purists are still sticking by a quality CD. (Well, perhaps this isn’t so surprising. Quality sometimes comes from quantity rather than technology. The argument is if we produce enough of it, for instance vinyl and CD, we get really good at mastering and recording for these mediums.)

So what about digital sources “gen 3″?

Blu ray certainly seems to be the next step. On paper the figures pack a punch. No longer can analogue worshippers make the “it’s just guessing” argument. The bit rates and resolution is now monumentally high, especially compared to CD. I must admit, upon my first listen it did sound like it could be the next revolution. A real revolution, that is, like the tape to CD revolution.

But then I had a thought about my experience over the years and how new technology has changed the audio industry.

Personally, I’m not certain we’re arguing about the right thing. For me, audio is, and was never about resolution or clarity. From the late 1950s onwards, we had more than enough technology to produce immensely realistic and detailed recordings. I still don’t think our ears discriminate sound by its accuracy, but much more by how it’s recorded.

In the heat of the analogue vs digital debate and in the wake of the digital blast-off, I really think we’ve forgotten about the fact that sound still cannot be recorded in same way that we hear things. Even the slightest microphone positioning mistake can greatly affect the quality of a recording. Yet, I’ve not read a single blog or forum post where someone has raved on about such an key stage in audio reproduction. There are endless posts on “digital cables vs analogue” and “silver vs copper”, yet very little on recording, microphone selection, placement, mastering techniques, speaker placement, room setup…just to name a few. We’re putting way too much emphasis on one thing, and ignoring the rest of the system.

Yes, vinyl does sound different to CD, and Blu Ray is unquestionably better than both. But I honestly believe that to achieve realism, you would need to consider many more factors than just the one thing.

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