I recently attended the launch of a yet another 'me-too' product attempting to out-Sonos Sonos that offered not only all the modern 'inputs' you could want: Bluetooth, Airplay, Wi-Fi, et al, but also a complete array of 'legacy' analogue inputs, including a phono input. Although I thought that including a phono input on such a system was unusual, since anyone buying such a system who did want to add a turntable would most likely buy a turntable with a built-in phono preamplifier, or one with a USB output, I could appreciate that including a dedicated phono input gave the marketing department more leeway to generate some powerful advertising slogans. Needless to say, on the digital side, the system handled all digital formats, right up to DSD.
After the usual talkfest during which time the presenter treated the assembled audience of audio journalists (and others) to multiple demonstrations, all of which showed that the system was very capable indeed. However, just before the demonstration concluded, the presenter told us he was going to demonstrate the hi-res digital capability (via USB), followed by the phono capability. I wasn't holding out much hope for this particular comparison because the company had obviously gone out and purchased (or borrowed) a very ordinary — though admittedly audiophile — turntable and had not even upgraded the standard cartridge that comes with that turntable (one that I'd expect most hi-fi dealers to talk their customers into upgrading).
The first demo was of hi-res digital music and, frankly, I thought the sound was truly ordinary... so ordinary it was barely adequate. I knew it was barely adequate because after a few bars, I wasn't even interested in listening to the music. Boring... Then came the demo of the turntable. The room was filled with glorious sound, full of depth, space and vitality. I had never heard the music that was being played, but I was excited to hear it and genuinely disappointed when the demo was stopped after only a few minutes. Just in case you haven't grasped the point, the equipment used for the two demos was identical: the only thing that changed was the source: 'hires' digital vs. LP.
Frankly, my opinion was that anyone who heard this demo would be rushing out and buying a turntable: The difference was chalk and cheese. Now obviously I know that vinyl is good...very good in fact, but it isn't that good, which made me suspect that in this case, the 'hi-res' digital signal they'd used must have been so bad that it was easy for the analogue signal from the vinyl to sound 'way better than it had any right to sound. How could this be? A little investigation showed exactly how it could happen. Unbeknown to me, some companies are selling so-called 'hi-res' digital files that have extraordinary provenances. The most extreme case I have so far encountered is an outfit that records ordinary CDs onto open-reel tape, then replays that tape and records the output on a digital recorder at 24-bits/48kHz PCM, after which it then converts the PCM to DSD64 and DSD128. I find this plain weird.
The signal isn't going to get magically better by virtue of it having become analogue at some point in its life. Why not just play the original CD? Speaking of which, the continuing rise in popularity (and thus sales) of vinyl, hi-res digital, downloads and streaming have caused record labels to drop the prices of their CDs, so music on the silvery discs is now bargain-priced. I've been buying heaps. Bring it on, I say!
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