Digital Audio Review has just stumbled into its third year of operation. It’s always a tough time of year this, getting over the post-US trip fallout (swindled by Dollar Car Rental…again) and following up on conversations with exhibitors at RMAF – still the most popular dedicated hi-fi show in the USA. T.H.E. Newport Beach Show might steal RMAF’s crown in 2013. We shall see.
I still feel the majority of attendees want to hear their own music in these show rooms. Sure, there will always be the guys that are happy with Barber, Krall and that Nils Lofgren tune. But I know from talking to attendees that they also want to hear the likes of Radiohead, Bill Callahan, Talking Heads and Trentemoller. These three artists get specific mention because they were already on the playlist in some rooms…and no-one left. Progress! I also talked Pixies with John Schaffer (of Wadia) – how refreshing.
For some exhibitors playing host to attendee musical choices with a computer-fronted system can be a challenge. A computer transport can make you lazy: too easy to just flip from one track to the other from your own collection. This is where RMAF’s CanJam comes into its own: BYO tunes on a USB stick, slap on some headphones and really get stuck into music that you like.
Say what you like about the music being played at these shows – and I often do – but the people behind the gear are terrific.
Mat Weisfeld of VPi is a new kind of exhibitor. He encourages attendees to bring their own music, sit down and take the weight off. There’s no hurry up and no sharp words if your record of choice doesn’t meet traditional audiophile standards. Play what you want for however long you want (within reason). Weisfeld’s youthful enthusiasm and wit is just what these shows need.
Talking of vinyl, with a broken arm hindering my mobility during the closing weeks of 2011 I did what any dedicated computer audiophile could/would/should do: I bought a turntable. A few Talking Heads records that I’d picked up during the preceding months from various Sydney market stalls were calling for a casual spin around the block. I went for the most basic of setups – a Rega RP1 (AU$550) – to which a Graham Slee Communicator (AU$400) was added. The phono stage inside a vintage Sansui AU-517 will only get you so far.
What does he know of England who only England knows? That’s how Billy Bragg penned it back in 1991. Moving that sentiment into an audiophile context: what does he know of digital who only digital knows? That was the motivation behind this analogue diversion.
On a crazy-ass trip to Portland in June I bought a truckload of my favourite albums (of all time) on the black stuff. Portland has some of the best records stores around: 2nd Avenue Records, Jackpot Records, Everyday Music and Music Millennium.
Later that same week I entered Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood with the intention of buying “one or two” records. I left with an entire boxful. It’s easy to go crazy in there: The Decemberists, The Blue Aeroplanes, R.E.M., Tom Waits, Thin White Rope, Kraftwerk, Bob Dylan, (more) Talking Heads, Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Robyn Hitchcock, The Hold Steady, The Smiths blah blah blah.
I wanted to know how these records sounded against their CD-ripped-to-FLAC counterparts. I’m not just another guy moving from analogue to digital (and feeling slightly disappointed). Moving from digital to analogue is a much rarer proposition.
Differences vary depending on recording and mastering quality. Early Neil Young CDs (that haven’t yet seen the remaster treatment) are shocking. Put up a FLAC of Rust Never Sleeps against an original vinyl pressing and you’ll howl with laughter at how bad the CD transfer is. The difference isn’t subtle. I remember hearing the same some twenty odd years ago in a mate’s university dorm room: his vinyl pressing of Joni Mitchell’s Blue owned my CD.
Even this week I witnessed the chasm between an original Australian pressing of Nick Drake’s Bryter Later and the early 90s Ryko CD re-master of the same. The CD’s soundstage was tightened to a 16:9 letterbox and lacked both air and depth. Having heard the record the CD was pretty much unlistenable, even when factoring in the usual surface noise caveat. My point here is that vinyl can sometimes give you access to better (re-)masters.
More modern music fairs better. (I don’t want to get into Loudness Wars commentary here). Arcade Fire records sound pretty damn average on either format – vinyl provides no out on The Suburbs’s compression. The 2009 Kling Klang remasters of the Kraftwerk catalogue sound more similar than different when comparing digital to vinyl. That is, they both sound INCREDIBLE. I double – and then triple – checked this conclusion on a variety of systems. I even took the A/B to a friend’s far more luxurious rig and reached the same conclusion.
“Oh, here we go”, is possibly what you’re thinking at this point., “Darko’s gone to the dark side”. Nope. This isn’t some conversion to born-again status as a vinylphile. I remain sufficiently pragmatic not presume that either format reigns supreme. Turntable/cart flavours vary as greatly as DAC flavours. If you describe vinyl as ‘warm’ or ‘rich’, I ask which turntable/cart and phono stage? There is no one catch-all phrase to describe digital either. You might pull up in front of any number of $500 DACs and describe them as emotionally distant or ‘cold’. I can think of just as many DACs that don’t attract that adjective.
What has pulled on my nerves in 2012 is the notion that at the heart of many digital audio listeners, reviewers and designers is the desire to replicate (or at the very least closely approximate) the vinyl ‘sound’, itself held up as the pinnacle of sonic reproduction in many quarters – highly debatable. Again I ask: which sound?
Having said that, even with a humble Rega RP1 and Graham Slee phono stage I can hear the essence of what they are driving at: a sense of ease. One rarely hears this from a similarly priced digital front ends. Budget DACs are good with transient attack and teasing out details. However, they come up shorter on tonal colour and fleshiness. The RP1’s manner with such qualities – over and above transient incision – is presumably why some prefer the black stuff to the invisible stuff. The Rega lacks the imaging specificity of (say) the Micromega MyDAC but is more supple and insouciant. Switching out the stock Ortofon OM 5E cartridge on the RP1 for a Blue from the same manufacturer took the overall resolution up several clicks.
In August, shifting over to a Rega RP3 and PS Audio GCPH phono stage still couldn’t elevate the Kraftwerk vinyl SQ above that of ALAC via PS Audio PerfectWave MKII. I swiftly sold my vinyl copies of The Mix and Tour De France Soundtracks – the surface noise of those records detracts from the Teutonic man-machine meme. Here, and on nearly all electronic music, I swing towards the iTunes library. Clicks and pops detract from the stillness of Brian Eno’s ambient landscapes. To put my imagination on the moon I have to first mentally suspend the reality of sitting in a chair in front of a hi-fi. Surface noise in this context is far from charming. The emotional disconnect of Autechre or Plastikman demands a dead silent background. In space no-one should hear your scream.
I’ve no intention of writing about turntables or phono pre-amplifiers or cartridges. Every reviewer needs some private hi-fi space fenced off from review land – a Rega RP3 with Zu Audio DL-103 is mine.
Twelve months of vinyl playback running alongside digital reviews has undoubtedly informed my understanding of (and ability to better write about) the audible characteristics of digital audio products. To hear the sense of ease that leaks from the seams of a vinyl front-end combined with the inner detail trawl and definition of a good DAC, all without ANY surface noise, would be pay dirt for this reviewer…
…and we’re getting close. The Metrum Hex DAC is up for review shortly and it’s something very special indeed: a knockout with front-to-back spatial cues and inside-out tonal body. There’s that T-word again.
This was the year I ditched the Squeezebox and moved lock, stock and two smoking barrels to a full-time MacMini computer transport.
There’s no doubt good software players dial back the tension in the digital audio chain. BUT…as good as they sound the Audirvana betas remain buggy. Having endured several weeks of random reboots (from 22.214.171.124) and occasional playback stuttering (from 126.96.36.199) I moved to Amarra (2.3.4). There really isn’t much to separate it sonically from Audirvana; I’d peg Amarra as slightly fuller. Both sound considerably better than standard iTunes and are well worth the US$50 outlay. A shame then that Amarra can’t do gapless unless you 1) explicitly tag the files as gapless in iTunes and then 2) load said files from iTunes into the Amarra playlist. I don’t think any of these iTunes-proxy players are 100% functionally “there” yet.
Under my MacMini sits the rather cool-looking Mac Platform from Atomic Audio Labs (US$299). With MachIIMusic having gone to the wall earlier this year there aren’t too many solutions out there for improving a stock MacMini. The idea behind the Mac Platform is to minimize vibrations. The sonic amelioration is super-subtle but I couldn’t live without it. If you’re the kind of computer audiophile who lives to banish doubt it’s money well spent.
The final words in this annual review must go out to Magnepan. Their MMG loudspeakers are possibly the biggest bargain in budget hi-fi. If you’re in the mainland USA you can take a pair on 30-day home trial for a mere US$600. In Australia they’re AU$999 with no trial but well worth the punt. You won’t get a wall-of-sound like this from a traditional box speaker. The MMGs are fast and clean and work well in trickier rooms. The soundstage is HUGE. Just make sure your amplifier is up to the task; you’ll need a couple of hundred watts into 4 ohms to bring out their best. Mind you, I’m running mine with a NAD 3020 and they sound glorious – what a discovery! This is possibly the best bang-for-buck system I’ve compiled to date.
It might be a population size thing but US readers of DAR now outnumber Australian readers 2:1. I might be a British dude living in Sydney but as my now regular attendance at US shows and my new writing gig for TONEAudio attests, DAR is no longer aimed squarely at folk Down Under. Besides, it’s a website and its reach is intrinsically global.
Like I said: what does he know of England who only England knows?