Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reflecting sound

A few observations from the Capital Audiofest I attended last weekend. (Last year's was described in this post.) 

Almost every demonstration setup had a turntable as the source player, although most kept on standby a token CD player for retrograde types like me who listen to silver discs. It is now an article of faith in audiophile circles that LPs, or "black discs," are the ultimate playback medium. Mostly this means special high quality vinyl records (list price: $40 on up). However, the Audiofest also had a swap meet -- like an audio yard sale -- where dozens of vendors flogged old record albums at prices ranging from a buck to several hundred.

These turntables have no resemblance to the ARs and Garrards some of us recall from the '60s. Today's luxe models come with science-fiction design. Cartridges, which house the stylus that reads the record groove and its associated circuitry, go for a few hundred dollars up to infinity. 

So I had plenty of opportunity to listen to high-end turntables and LPs in a variety of high-end systems. Some provided impressive music reproduction quality. I have to confess I found no special magic, no extra "soul" in LPs compared with CDs. Dollar for dollar, CDs or sound files made from CDs offer far more value in my view. If this be treason, make the most of it.

The other standard opinion among audiophiles today is that tube electronics are better than solid state. They could be right; I have no basis for a preference, having never owned tube equipment.

But I distrust these absolutes. There has always been an element of one-upmanship among the audiophile class. When I worked at a CD/audio store in the late '80s-early '90s, we had a species of customer who hated that the masses could enjoy superb sound from CDs for a fraction of what the elite had spent on their systems. They didn't have much choice then, with LP production having virtually ceased. 

Now that Gen X and Y listen to rubbish MP3 sound, the audio industry has had to find a hip and costly product line for Boomers with cash to blow. Clever companies got the message there's a large, affluent market keen to pay up for reassurance of their superiority. That means records, turntables, and tube equipment.

I would have preferred not to get into demographics, but it's hard to avoid when writing about something like the Capital Audiofest. The attendees were overwhelmingly male, primarily in the age range of 40 to 60. They are religious about audio technology, but their tastes in music seem pretty narrow compared with my customers at Santa Fe Sight & Sound back then, when audiophiles mostly belonged to a different generation.

Based on the recordings they made available for listening, the manufacturer representatives loved all kinds of music -- why else would anyone get into or stay in an industry that's barely hanging on? But they knew their Boomer potential customers, and while they might have wanted to demo their systems using Bach or Elgar or gamelan, they opted to play it safe with a diet of jazz and pop. 

And not always good recordings or record pressings, either. A first-class system will make a bad recording/mix sound worse, not better. Could anyone have been impressed hearing the record of The Eagles in concert performing "Hotel California"? (Possibly it was a request from an attendee.)

Look, I don't mean to sound dismissive about the show. I enjoyed myself no end. Many of the systems were just remarkable in their ability to reproduce the sound of live music, which is my criterion. (Systems, not amps, digital-analog converters, turntables, or recordings: what you hear is the product of a chain of components; there is no easy way to analyze the quality of individual items of equipment.)

But in case you don't know already, here's a secret the high-end audio industry doesn't want you to understand: While you can't build a high-quality sound system from junk at Best Buy, some mass market companies that audiophiles sneer at (Sony, Panasonic, Yamaha) have mid-price lines you won't find at the big box stores that provide good value for money. Serious companies such as Onkyo, Cambridge Audio, and Marantz have excellent units at reasonable price points.

Even if you can't splash out on high-end audio (and I doubt there was anything, including cables and AC cords, at Audiofest that I could have afforded), you need not settle for a toy system. Check out, for instance, AudioAdvisor (with which I am not affiliated in any way). Time you spend on research will be rewarded.


Anonymous said...

I believe you have limited experience with true high end audio which led you to the most general of conclusions. I can't afford it so it a waste of money.
I can't afford $40 records or a good turntable so of course an $8 CD is better.

I have a $15,000 SACD / CD player / DAC and I have the best super high quality CD's and SACD's discs from Japan to play. Frankly they don't compare with a $10,000 turntable, arm, cartridge, phono preamp, set up at all.

Believe me I have tried all the high resolution downloads and what have you, still analog is better.
Unserstand, I would mutch rather stick in a disc or press a button on a computer and have the best sound available, but it simply is not.

I do agree with your point that there is low cost equipment out there that can sound great. However usually that stuff does sound better with tubes, take a look at the Jolida equipment. Great bang for the buck.

Rick Darby said...


I did not dogmatically claim that digital is better than analog. But I listened in room after room to demonstrations of expensive turntables, cartridges, played through varied high-end electronics and speakers. I heard no sonic miracle ingredient that struck me as obviously superior to a digital source.

Your own experience with analog is more extensive than mine. Audio shows aren't the best environment for auditioning equipment, and it's possible that with greater exposure to analog I might come around to your viewpoint (or hearingpoint).

I do believe there is an element of trendiness in the current favoritism for LPs. But whatever our preferences, we few, we happy few, we band of audiophile brothers have more in common with one another than we do with the iTunes cohort.

Anonymous said...

I can hear people whispering at the other end of the house but I'll be jiggered if I can hear the difference between a vinyl and a good CD recording.


Anonymous said...

These days, one can measure the quality of reproducibility quite accurately.

Spectrum analysers, scopes, transient measurements, attack, relaxation, and other parameters can be measured very accurately. A good speaker system or a good pair of headphones, the last to one component in the chain, is important.

In the end though, the music one hears is what goes through the ears, and then on to the brain. This particular path, the most important one, varies from individual to individual, and cannot be scientifically characterised by any means I know.

My opinion is to start with the cheapest equipment, and work upwards till you have a system you like.