Audio Streams #5

Hi-fi is serious business—at least, for the people whose business is hi-fi. For listeners, among whom I count myself at least some of the time, I'd say that the serious-business aspect of hi-fi is less so. Our sole job, after all, is to enjoy music. The deeper our enjoyment, the richer our experience—and the richer the experience, the deeper our enjoyment. Therein lies the quest: to deepen our enjoyment of music.

Enjoying the reproduction of music is easy. Kids do it. When we play music for children, we typically look for one of a few responses: singing, dancing, or sleep. As we get older, our enjoyment of music becomes more complicated. We also look for an emotional connection: we want to be moved and engaged. I would argue that the quality of the listening experience plays a direct role in this emotional connection—and, further, that this notion of sound quality is entirely subjective. Therein lies the rub.

There's no better way to determine what we enjoy listening to than to listen. Just as two people looking at the same scene will see different things about that scene, two people listening to the same music through the same system may very well perceive different aspects of the reproduction. Arguing over these differences in perception is an exercise in futility.

Years ago, I was in a hi-fi store, auditioning two pairs of speakers. At some point in my listening, two new customers came in, also hunting for speakers. After a while, they asked if we could listen to a CD they'd brought with them. It was a disc they'd just recorded: one of the pair was the lead singer, the other was the recording engineer. We played their song first through speakers A, then through speakers B. The singer declared that speakers A captured the recording more faithfully. The engineer felt that speakers B did the better job of reproducing what he'd recorded. Who was right?

They both were. Hi-fi is not a competitive sport, with the same finish line for all participants. Hell, I'd suggest that we're not even all playing in the same stadium. Some people love the sound of tube gear and high-efficiency loudspeakers, others stream music to whole-house systems via WiFi, while still others are content with their favorite headphones and portable player. Some feel that LPs best capture the soul of music, while others feel that vinyl's imperfections—every medium has them—are too intrusive to overlook. The enjoyment of listening to recorded music is a multifaceted endeavor.

The beauty of this intrinsically subjective exercise is the fact that there's no minimal price of admission. You don't have to spend at least x dollars to join the fun, and anyone who says you do is either bragging or trying to keep his or her job. My job as editor of AudioStream.com has me reviewing all manner of digital gear, with a focus on file-based playback. I've reviewed and enjoyed digital-to-analog converters starting at $149 and $189—respectively, AudioQuest's DragonFly and iFi Audio's Micro-iDSD—that can play both PCM and DSD files. Both of these DACs can also power your headphones, or be used to play files through your hi-fi. Both deliver a healthy helping of musical enjoyment.

I've also reviewed, and thoroughly enjoyed, Totaldac's d1-dual, a $12,200 DAC from France. The Totaldac has been one of my favorites so far, offering a supremely musical sound that was a snap to lose myself in. Music eased out of this machine so effortlessly and naturally that listening became a completely immersive experience each and every time. The Totaldac costs 82 times more than the DragonFly, but to ask if it's 82 times better is like asking how much better the Mona Lisa is than a Rembrandt.

Quantitative judgments don't apply to subjective experiences—especially where emotions are concerned. If the Totaldac d1-dual delivers what I find to be a more musically engaging sound, then it does, in fact, deliver more enjoyment than the DragonFly—to me. How much more is ultimately up to the listener, as is how much it might be worth.

Of course, the accompanying equipment and listening room will play roles in how easily one can hear and fully appreciate sonic distinctions. So, in that way, better reproduction of recordings does come at some expense. And here the trouble begins. When we perceive gains in performance, we also perceive a hierarchy of enjoyment. Even though I enjoyed my old DAC, this new DAC is better. As we invest more time and money in the pursuit of greater and greater enjoyment, we become more vested in our hi-fi

I've met some people who have become so heavily attached to their hi-fis that music has become of secondary importance. Listening to the same few audiophile recordings over and over again is no cynical audiophile cliché. I know—I've met people who play the same audiophile recordings over and over because they highlight those aspects of sound reproduction that those listeners most value. They've lost sight of the purpose of hi-fi, and have begun to value things that to me have no musical value. Some people also make the mistake of believing that their particular preferences are universal values. If you visit hi-fi forums or blogs, you'll see the postings of a subset of audiophiles who believe that their personal preferences and necessarily limited experiences constitute sonic scripture: audio commandments that everyone should follow, presumably so that you can be as miserable as they appear to be.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
markbrauer's picture

It seems that the techniques explained in this New Yorker article could be used to measure listening enjoyment. Could be applied to AB testing or to long term sessions. Could be used to "quantify" differences in equipment, or differences in sampling rate, or system setup, or the affects of the same music on different listeners. Possibilities are endless. Someone should be pursuing this.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/19/know-feel

michaelavorgna's picture

Thanks for the link!

I was just watching this video of Oliver Sacks again yesterday on YouTube. If you are not familiar with it, neuroscientists from Columbia University measure Sack's brain's response to music by Bach and Beethoven. Sack's is a Back lover, while Beethoven leaves him "flat". The interesting thing about this video is after one A/B comparison, Sack's is not sure whether he was listening to Bach or Beethoven. He was confused. Yet his brain clearly knew which was which. Great stuff.

Michael Lavorgna

Editor, AudioStream

BradleyP's picture

I would submit that those who are obsessed with their hifis and five songs don't actually like music. They like toys and superciliousness. Let's just leave them to their miserable hobby. You will never talk sense into them. The music lovers among us are acutely aware of the fetish side of hifi and run little risk of going to the dark side. If only the fetishists would go away and the music lovers would wake up to what a serious sound system can do, we'd have a whole different landscape and a healthier industry to support it. Preaching to the choir, I know.

Catch22's picture

You can't improve your system if you can't listen critically, but you can't enjoy music if you always have your critical hat on.

I think most people who get stuck in the critical listening mode have not yet figured out the nature of music reprodcution and all the parts and pieces that do and don't matter and to what degree.

There is a lot to learn about music, sound and reproduction and nobody is born with that knowledge and not everybody gets to the point where they are satisfied by pure accident. There is clearly a very long learning curve and journey.

I'm not going to be critical of either camp to the extent that I would say anyone is doing "it" wrong because I'm not in a position to know where they've been or where they want to go.

A number of years ago, I was at a HiFi shop and talking to one of the sales staff. We were discussing various combinations of gear and I gently asked what he used at home. His reply was that he listened to a table radio with a cd player. He went on to say that he had fallen on hard times some years back and had to sell his rig in a divorce and wasn't interested in getting anything until he could achieve that level of HiFi again. In other words, he knew how good music could sound and couldn't enjoy compromising for a modest system having heard so much better.

Laugh at him, but how many of us would be very interested in going back to a 19" BW television?

corrective_unconscious's picture

You can be an audiophile for both the music and the toys. These things don't have to be either / or.

I tend to listen to more live, acoustic music than to recorded music, so I shall remain smug....

dalethorn's picture

There are better systems that can provide a richer experience. People can debate the emotions of that experience all they want, but the bottom line is the bottom line in hi-fi as much as it is in having an ocean-front property or driving a Rolls. Once you've tasted it, going back to peasant-ware is dreadful - depressing even. I suppose the best answer for those who don't have the money or have fallen off the gravy train is continued improvements in technology, and reading reviews that point out where the best values are.

rssarma's picture

As a photographer I can tell you this, there have been times when I've bought a new piece of equipment like a lens, strobe or even a camera and that has rekindled some excitement within me and actually allowed me to make some good photographs. I perceive HiFi to be no different.......sometimes you just lose the excitement and the connection that you've had and the equipment that seemed perfect for so long now appears flawed. The new gear probably has nothing to do with being better, but just invokes new excitement allowing one to "re-enjoy" what's been lost. Sort of like having a mistress....

Bottomline, I feel audiophiles crave newness.

jtshaw's picture

rssarma wrote, "Bottomline, I feel audiophiles crave newness." I don't entirely disagree, but my system remains stable for years at a time. Part of that is just the expense and effort it takes to confidently upgrade. But I also find that it takes a long time to take the full measure of truly excellent loudspeakers. I'm into my fourth year with Joseph Audio Pulsars, and I still discover recordings that highlight something they do exceptionally well. I feel no boredom with them, and little curiosity to explore others (well, except the several Rockports...those loudspeakers are beyond boggling.)

Joe Whip's picture

Yes, for my money, too many audiophiles crave newness. Other than the DAC I purchased to get into computer based audio, my stuff is at least 20 years old. I keep it because they are high quality but not high cost and sound fantastic. Just because it is new doesn't mean it is better. Many audiophiles keep changing equipment and never seem satisfied. They seem to think I am crazy as I am satisfied. I attend countless live events a year, classical and jazz and use live sound as a reference, not some insanely expensive speaker or component, that more times than not, sounds nothing like the real thing. I would rather spend the money on adding music that I love to the collection or better yet, seeing it live.

dcolak's picture

with valab DAC and Virtue Audio Two amp give me more "pleasure" than JBL Array 1400 with NAD M51 DAC and NAD M3 amp.

Sometimes you just want some grit in the music and that bass shaking everything, screw the transparency! :-))

drblank's picture

just to see what the hype is all about. My biggest complaint isn't necessarily with Tidal itself, it's with my ISP and the crappy service I have, but am reliant on and I can't change it due to the service that i have. It just doesn't give much bandwidth as it's being shared with other people and I can't change that.

Otherwise, it seems to be pretty good, but I haven't put it through a lot of comparisons as of yet. I hope to be able to get better bandwidth so I can perform better tests, but to me, the biggest issue is ISP related.

I also was disappointed in that I searched for an artist and what came up was several different artists that had a similar name, but weren't the artist I was looking for. I think it could have done a better job with the search results in this particular case. The player seems to be just OK, there is room for improvement.

drblank's picture

just to see what the hype is all about. My biggest complaint isn't necessarily with Tidal itself, it's with my ISP and the crappy service I have, but am reliant on and I can't change it due to the service that i have. It just doesn't give much bandwidth as it's being shared with other people and I can't change that.

Otherwise, it seems to be pretty good, but I haven't put it through a lot of comparisons as of yet. I hope to be able to get better bandwidth so I can perform better tests, but to me, the biggest issue is ISP related.

I also was disappointed in that I searched for an artist and what came up was several different artists that had a similar name, but weren't the artist I was looking for. I think it could have done a better job with the search results in this particular case. The player seems to be just OK, there is room for improvement.

earwaxxer's picture

All of us 'philes' have been guilty of over-analyzing the 'sound' that emanates from our cherished kit. I think I can safely say that, and I dont feel there is anything wrong in it, or something to be ashamed of. It is something we can grow out of and mature. A part of life if you will. Its like being able to appreciate nature. To appreciate its subtleties there requires a patience with oneself and our place in the universe. That comes with maturity. With that said, all of it is life and all of it has equal value.

Doctor Fine's picture

In my world it is possible to obsess over the one and only correct way to build a system and at the same time be intoxicated by the piece of music you are hearing.
The two concepts work TOGETHER in my world.
It takes a properly built system that is tuned to the room---THEN I can get the sense of the music and it moves me greatly.
At the same time you can watch "Apocalypse Now" on a 13 inch Black and White TV and "get" the gist of the plot and the music.
But watch it at a proper Dolby movie theater and it's like seeing it for the first time.
Make sense.
They work TOGETHER.
Proper system and good music.

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