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Digital Audio Essay

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.


What happens when a technology gets as good as it can?

It’s an interesting question, and not necessarily as far-fetched or ill-timed as you may imagine.

Consider the world of digital audio. As a musician, music lover, former music equipment industry journalist and self-professed audiophile, I admit to caring a lot more about audio than most, but there are certain facts that are interesting for anyone to think about. We can now record and playback audio, particularly music, at a level that is arguably beyond what most any human can actually hear. Today’s HD Audio equipment supports 24-bits per "word" at recording resolutions of up to 192 kHz (and sometimes even higher). To put that in perspective, uncompressed CD-quality audio is 16-bit at a recording rate of 44.1 kHz.

In other words, today’s highest-resolution stereo formats have about 6.5 times more data than what many consider to be at the upper end of what the average person can discern. Also, bear in mind that many people happily listen to 128 kbps MP3 files, which stream at a rate that is less than one-tenth that of uncompressed CD-quality audio (1,411 kbps).

From a purely technical perspective, recording resolutions could go even higher, but for any applications involving people, there’s no point: Digital audio recording technology has peaked. So, does that mean developments in digital audio have stopped? No, but they have gone off in lots of interesting directions, some of which could prove to be interesting predictors of where other technologies might follow.

First, as with many technologies, price points for higher-quality audio components and technologies have come down. You can now find reasonably high-quality audio outputs on toys and other low-cost items. However, because the highest level of quality — HD Audio — is seen as a technology focused on a loyal yet relatively small audience, it can still command a premium.

Audio components have also been miniaturized to fit into a wide variety of devices. In fact, there’s been a great deal of speculation recently about Apple and other vendors offering high-quality, wireless in-ear buds for the forthcoming iPhone 7 and/or any other device that chooses to forgo a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

But this could easily prove to be a case where the technology actually gets too small. Can you imagine how many people would lose tiny earbuds that easily pop into and out of your ear? I think we may discover that, in certain cases, cords and other elements that seem to unnecessarily increase the size of some technology products are actually more useful (and important) than most people realize.

Even more interesting is the conscious decision to return to audio formats and audio quality that are arguably or unquestionably worse than what’s possible. For example, the resurgence of recorded music on vinyl has proven to be much more than a fad, particularly among millennials. Now, debates about the quality of analog vinyl versus digital recordings is essentially a religious one that’s been going on since the introduction of the CD. However, you can now make an argument that digital versions have become more accurate than vinyl.

In the case of musical equipment, analog synthesizers have seen a remarkable resurgence over the last several years, being integrated into an enormous range of musical styles. In addition, some of the most popular recording effects are variations on what are termed "bit crushers" — effects that intentionally reduce the number of bits in a digital audio stream in order to create a lower-quality but unique-sounding signal.

What’s interesting about these last few examples is that they have brought audio out of the more conceptual, purely digital world back into the tangible, physical world. You can hold and flip vinyl; you can turn lots of knobs on analog synthesizers; you can make enjoyable sounds that aren’t the best possible quality. In short, you can physically interact with the technology in a very pleasing, very human way.

It’s a feeling that many people realize they’ve missed with their soulless touchscreen-based devices. I think it’s also a feeling that many other product designers are going to incorporate into their future products, across a wide range of technology-driven categories.

At the same time, the advancements in digital audio technology are allowing a higher-quality experience than we’ve ever been able to enjoy. With the right kind of digital music files, recorded, mixed and mastered in high-resolution form (unfortunately, a tiny fraction of available digital music), played back on the right kind of HD Audio equipment, you can experience a level of audio fidelity, sense of space and overall musicality that makes the technology completely fade away. In a word, pure audio bliss.

Taken together, it’s the ability to both achieve a level of technological perfection and force the exploration of a new means of interaction that makes digital audio a potentially interesting proxy for where other technologies may head. In both instances, it’s driving a more human-centered approach to technology, which is bound to lead to some interesting developments to come.


Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of Technalysis Research LLC, a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. Reach him @bobodtech.

Digital

Digital, since the ballyhoo and bravado of its introduction in the late 1980’s, has spent most of its twenty plus year history, at least in the world of high end audio, fighting (or defending itself from) what many analogue fans characterize as ‘the problem of digital.’ Most agree that even at its best, which of late can be very good indeed, digital CD’s take somewhat of an analytic slant on things. If we like it, we hear it as stunning clarity and transparency and are drawn to the crispness of its leading edges. We admire its speed and transient response. Its fans tend to call all of this “accuracy to source.” Its critics hear instead a relative starkness, a lack of roundness and fullness; a sense that instruments have had some of their rich timbre stripped away. At its worst, which is rare these days, it comes through as edginess and/or glare. Those who speak of digital’s presentation as having a ‘problem’ attribute it to many things – too low a sampling rate and jitter chief among them. Based on my experience with some extremely good CDR’s made by recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo, I have come to believe that what the critics of digital are talking about can be attributed at least in part to the manufacturing process, which is why so many tweak treatments to CD’s are at least to some degree effective. Recording engineers are frequently dismayed by the degeneration in quality from their masters to the CD’s we buy. Optrix, Auric Illumiunator, Vivid, Bedini’s Clarifier, even copying commercial discs onto CDR’s all seem in varying degrees to relieve edginess and glare, softening things up a bit and rounding them off appealingly. Upsampling, noise-shaping, and more radical nostrums aimed at CD’s allegedly too modest sampling rate strike me as less successful. Having heard redbook CD’s sound extremely good without any of this (and somewhat artificial with it) persuades me they are dead ends. Filtering, in both the analogue and digital domains on the premise that distortion is the root of ‘the problem’ have also demonstrated to me, through its absence in Audio Note dacs, that it too is a false path.

Audio Note. Blue Circle and Resolution Audio digital are virtually free of the qualities critics object to in the medium. And on truly good CD’s, treated with one of the elixirs – my latest find is Nanotec Systems’ Intro Project 8500 CD-DVD Coating Liquid – the ‘problem of digital’  seems no problem at all. In my house we find ourselves choosing music, not media.

Analogue

The truth behind the truism ‘if you have to ask yourself whether or not you’re in love, you’re not,’ is that, like grace to which it often likened, love comes unbidden. This is the kind of talk we frequently hear in talk about vinyl. It is true that with CD’s, we sometimes find ourselves reaching out with a willful effort at belief. The music itself can sometimes seem to have a forced quality about it.  With most vinyl, we more often find ourselves in a passive mode of acceptance. There is a perceptible ease about the proceedings and the issue of ‘belief’ seldom comes up. What does come up is a tendency to talk like this!

This lack in CD’s of ease and solicitousness, what some call appropriately “liquidity” in contrast to the somewhat dry sound they attribute to digital comes across to digital fans – to repeat myself – asobjectivity or transparency. It can sometimes sound like that. But extended time spent listening to live music tends to challenge this belief. CD’s almost deathly silence and uncanny separation of instruments can sometimes give digital reproduction a distant, unorganic, unworldly, astral character. Especially on pianos and most especially on harpsichords. It takes one hell of a good digital front end to handle, let alone capture the beauty of, a harpsichord. And then there is the difference between hearing the initial breaking of silence by an instrument – the first vibrations of the air which precede the impact – and the last vibrations fading away; and not hearing them. Coming to an analogue LP from a CD, this first arrival and final departure can sound like touches of softness, for which vinyl is both praised and criticized. Because CD’s generally don’t capture either of these as well as vinyl, dithering notwithstanding, they deliver a crispness, for which they are both praised and criticized. A clarinet’s reed must start out at very few milli-Bell, even if it only remains there for a millisecond. That is part of why we find even the most raucous clarinet appealing – it enters on a cloud. We notice that. We sometimes call it “air.” Digital adherents call it euphony or color. Its adherents tell us it is actually the difference between what a real clarinet (or violin) sounds like contrasted with a brilliant but incomplete imitation of one. This aspect of real sound reproduction can be mimicked by playing with output curves, filtering, up- and over-sampling, richer and softer output devices. But once you grow accustomed to the real thing or an excellent analogue of it, the vinyl fans tell us, you will not be fooled.

And then there is the sheer physicalityand meatinessthat many hear in analogue sound. Peter Qvortrup calls it “the medium.” Music coming from an analogue recording has  avoirdupois, a substance, a body, a roundness that we generally miss in digital.

Closely related to this physicality and the entry and exit quality I spoke of above and perhaps drawing on them both, is beauty – not prettiness but the savor, the quality of the sound of musical instruments that we respond to immediately at concerts of live music. This is the aspect of sound that makes even the raucous clarinet appealing in the midst of its rancor. It is what audiophiles are referring to when they praise an audio system for being ‘engaging’ or ‘involving.’ It is a feeling of satisfaction. Exceptional digital recordings can get some of this quality. I have heard it in some of the record engineering of Tony Faulkner and Da-Hong Seetoo. Good analogue recordings do seem to get it as a matter of course. It is, in the end, what music lovers come to analogue for.

Bad vinyl? Some LP’s can have a peculiar brittleness or dryness and also a hemmed in quality that reminds me of bad digital actually, though without bad digital’s excessive assertiveness or brightness. Only the most radically sentimental of audiophiles will deny that there is such a thing as bad vinyl. Vinyl is not a holy material: even analogue recording requires good engineering.

Gear? I have heard very few analogue rigs. My own of a generation ago was a Linn LP12 with an Itok arm and Kharma cartridge. I loved it at the time, or rather took it for granted. It had a seemingly natural warmth we all raved about. Next was an Audio Note TT2 with an Arm3/Vx, S-4 step-up and IO1 moving coil cartridge. Great rig, great value. Then a 20 year old Voyd Reference with a new Audio Note AN-1s/ANSgon arm mounted on it with an IO Gold cartridge. Twice as good. Both the TT2 and the Voyd sounded better to me than (my aural memory of) the Linn, mainly in seeming faster and more resolving. I am now enjoying an upgraded Audio Note TT2 Deluxe with external power supply and couldn’t be happier.

All of this said, I will not be giving up my digital front end. There is a great deal of music, mainly by contemporary musicians and composers, which is simply not available on vinyl. Also, unless I am in super critical A/B mode, digital in my house is so good at minimizing the ‘problem of digital,’ I am only occasionally aware of it.

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