July / August 2021
Editor's Lead In
There are facts and there are facts. Or, as the Kellyanne Conway would have said, 'alternative facts.' Oh no, wait, she did actually specifically state that there were such things as alternative facts. And there are words and there are words, as Lewis Carroll pointed out in his book Alice in Wonderland. "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
These are all thoughts that came immediately to mind when I read a list (on the internet, of course) that purported to identify 'Ten facts about digital'. I say 'purported' because if you google the phrase and discover the particular list I ran across, you will discover that several of the ten so-called 'facts' have nothing whatsoever to do with digital at all, so the list is not, and never could be, 'Ten facts about digital'.
But accurate or not, the list identified several issues related to audio that are good topics for 'please discuss' audio sessions. For example: "Is the listening room the largest influence on sound quality?" It is certainly a huge influence, as anyone who's ever listened to a pair of Wamm Master Chronosonics in a bathroom would already know. But if we assume that your listening room has a reasonable acoustic signature, I'd have to disagree that the room is the largest influence.
How about: "The quality of the music is more important than the quality of the recording?" The author of the list says "Yes". Which could mean that he would prefer to listen to Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1 played by the composer himself rather than to, say, the same work played by any competent modern pianist. You can decide the answer to this for yourself by listening here — www.tinyurl.com/brahmsquality — although in this clip I am cheating somewhat, because it's Julius Katchen who's playing, so we're talking about a virtuoso pianist rather than one who's merely competent. But I think the clip makes my point anyway. If you watch/listen to it right to the end, you'll hear Joseph Joachim playing violin, which even though a much better recording, should further reinforce my point.
How about this so-called 'fact' included on that list? "The quality of the amplification is more important than the DAC." If you have ever heard the sound of an eight-bit DAC, I think you'd be saying that the DAC is far, far more important than the quality of the amplification. On the other hand, if you've heard a high-quality 24-bit DAC played through a five-dollar amp from e-bay and then through an Audio Research pre/power combo, you're very likely to reach exactly the opposite conclusion. It's pretty much the same difference as you hear between low and high bit-rate MP3 files. Try this comparison for taste of the flavour: www.tinyurl.com/low-bit-rate.
Another 'fact' from that list: "CD-quality files created from 24-bit masters are lossy." This is one for Humpty-Dumpty: What exactly is meant by the word 'lossy'? It's usually used to describe music files where an algorithm has analysed the music and removed sounds at specific frequencies it has determined would not be audible. However, when you convert a 44.1kHz/24-bit file to a 44.1kHz/16-bit file there is no decision-making algorithm in place and absolutely no frequency data is removed at all. All that is changed is the number of different volume levels able to be played back, from 16 million down to 65 thousand.
If you think this difference might be significant, sit down at a piano (it doesn't matter if you can't play on) and push down a key as hard as you possibly can. That's the loudest you can play. That's 1. Now do it again, but a bit softer. That's 2. Then again, a bit softer. That's 3. Keep going, and keep count. If you manage to press that key 65,000 times and you can still hear any sound at all at the end, you should only listen to 24-bit files.
Another failing of the list is that it doesn't take into account the findings of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton who surveyed nearly half-a-million people to find out if having money created happiness. Their survey proved that happiness increases with levels of income until our basic needs are met. Poor people are unhappy because they can't afford food, shelter and health care. Once these are provided, they're just as happy as the wealthiest amongst us. Their conclusion? "Once our basic needs are met, happiness plateaus."
The same is true of sound quality. If signal source quality and/or system quality and/or room quality are inadequate to provide enjoyable sound, listeners will be unhappy. But once each and all of these three factors in sound quality is lifted to a level that enables music playback to be enjoyed, then that level of enjoyment has reached a plateau that can be elevated only by publishing your theories on the internet.
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