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KIH #10 – Dead on arrival

  • DOA. This time we won’t reinvent meanings. Dead on arrival it is. With such a gloomy mood we’ll keep it short too if not sweet. The impetus for today’s installment? An email exchange with Amphion’s Anssi Hyvönen. Having designed a range of pro-audio speakers for demanding mastering facilities, our Finnish chap works with numerous recording engineers. Needless to say those have some of the best ears in the business. Not only that, they know what’s on their master files to tell instantly what a playback/mastering system omits or alters.


    Due to his personal connection with such mastering engineers, Anssi had ample opportunity to compare master files to their commercial releases. He’s even acquired numerous copies for personal use. He tells me that the difference between them and what us plebeian disc-spinning consumers listen to is very significant. The upshot is plain if disturbing. If you’re listening to polycarbonate, you’re not close to what the recording engineer and artists signed off on in the studio.

    Certain Japanese luxo pressings like XRCD24 & Co. assume more complete control over the physical disc manufacturing process. This minimizes one type of loss. But conversion to a material representation whose format restrictions impose bandwidth and dynamic sampling limits is lossy by design. With uncompressed 16/44.1 downloads we bypass material conversion losses. With true high-resolution files–not upsampled Redbook fakes–we finally have opportunity to hear what’s on the actual masters; or at least get far closer to their truth than being fed dumbed-down Redbook mass productions.

    Audiophile religion has a very reasonable credo. It says that any outcome can only be as good as what you started out with. Source is king paraphrases it. But in common parlance we think DAC or (SA)CD player when we think source. The obvious fact is, what we put into those machines is the actual source. Sadly here we have very little control other than perhaps the occasional choice between various remasters or access to ‘studio master’ files of hopefully true native resolution.

    As we know, any good chef works directly with local farmers to procure the absolutely best raw ingredients he can. No matter culinary skills and kitchen, inferior produce won’t create ultimate results. Yet audiophiles who place/pay such a premium on/for sound quality have all along done their grocery shopping at the local chain stores where produce sells wrapped in antiseptic plastic. It’s astonishing we’ve had any decent meals at all.


    Obviously we’ve all learnt which local grocery stores have the best of what. If we care about what we eat, we buy selectively. We don’t shop at just one stop. Just so audiophiles have learnt which labels tend to deal in better-sounding CDs. We’ve recognized that with near predictability certain artists release albums whose sound quality is well above average to outstanding. If we haven’t yet put this together, it’s high time. No matter how we polish our systems, they only process what they’re fed. Garbage in, garbage out.

    So inherent in the transition from physical to virtual media isn’t just the convenience of anytime/anywhere cloud access; or the vast WAV/AIFF libraries we may navigate at the tap of a touch-sensitive screen and distribute over our LAN to multiple locations and share wirelessly. Inherent in this transition is also the ability to process/decode files without lossy conversion to physical; to do so with magnetic rather than optical retrieval; and to transcend the dumbing down of high-resolution studio masters to 16/44.1 format limitations. With SDXC card readers or solid-state memory we even omit spinning bits. 24-bit/352.8kHz PCM or equivalent DSD files are available now, whether of music you want is another matter. Now our credo of ‘source is king’ has come closer to its actual coronation.

    That our hardware is playing ketchup (being red with embarrassment) goes without saying. The best of modern DACs are close to actually processing today’s densest files at their true resolution. Most downstream gear isn’t yet up to par. 24/176.4 PCM might arguably be the highest data rate we can presently appreciate at perhaps 21 bits. Anything above it might remain imaginary and empty numbers until converters get even better and preamps and amplifiers rise to the occasion with lower noise floors.

    Work on better hardware sources remains active. Metrum Acoustics’ Cees Ruijtenberg recently shared how they’re investigating “new techniques since we’re convinced that information buried in the noise floor remains relevant. I’ve attached a lab experiment. It shows a 1kHz stimulus of -135dB (related to 2Vrms) coming from a prototype DAC. On the left side you can see the 50Hz hum which is already very low and probably picked up from my soldering iron. In the middle you see this stimulus and the 2nd harmonic around -145dB at 2kHz. Assuming that we can hear such small details in the noise, we must assure that they won’t be masked by the electronics. This low noise floor of about -153dB helps a lot but it has forced us to go deeper and deeper. Our transformer gain solution is one of the ways to recover such very weak information.”


    To keep it honest, it’s important to remain cognizant of existing resolution bottlenecks. And we’ll admit in the same breath that better source material invariably sounds better even if we’re not yet ready to reap its fullest rewards. Those who trash-talk PC audio as being a mere crony to convenience and not quality won’t like this next anecdote. To do some comparisons with familiar tunes, I recently visited a friend with the 32GB SDXC card of my camera loaded with 60 WAV tracks. I’d also burnt those to disc. When we compared a €10’000 Philips CD-PRO2-fitted top-loading Italian transport whose I²S output fed the matching DAC against a $400 Japanese card reader with custom surrounding circuitry into the same DAC, the latter clearly won. For me that’s the chief argument why one really ought to pursue computer audio.


    Sure the conveniences are nice. In fact they seem impossible to do without once gotten used to. But even if 99.9% of your library is still 16/44.1 Redbook like mine, you can get better results with virtual rather than physical media. Of course proper PCfi is far more than running iTunes on a 6-year old laptop with a funky USB wire. It’s simply beyond today’s missive to go there. Our point was that to turn DOA into alive and kicking means to start out as high as possible. For that uncompressed Redbook to high-resolution files really are the gateway. That’s why with a move to new digs coming up, I’ve cleared out my overloaded CD rack and put it up for sale. All the discs are already stowed away in archival boxes. No need to have ’em take up room in the living space when they do just as well in the cellar gathering dust…

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. Forgive me for thinking of Pono when I saw the article title, Srajan.

      Fascinating read. Interesting that you bring up chefs and their pursuit for the best ingredients. In that sense we as music shoppers seem far worse off than the average Tesco/Carrefour shopping cook, don’t we?

    2. My sentiments exactly, this from the last remaining holdout of analogism (the religion that is.) Srajan has a fine way with words, and this time it was short and sweet.

      Which I prefer to the flowery and colorfully-descriptive.

      Meanwhile in other quarters the hangers on to vintage audio are still trying to convince the True Believers that a 1960’s TT with a 1770’s cartridge connects one emotionally to the “real thing.” New converts happen, like flatulence, but old timers who know better and have a little adventure left in their souls are jumping ship along with the boat anchors that cost them an arm and a leg…

      My suspicion is that some the analogous-afflicted anal-retentive obsessive-repulsive analog pundits have a Tummy Do problem.
      What is a Tummy Do problem?
      It’s when your Tummy Do sticks out more than your Dickey Do.
      That’s precisely the time to get off the computer and chocking one’s chicken, and get back on to listen to the music.
      And yes, DACs do make a singular difference, a few can actually decode the data on rips of that miserable silver disc we never knew was recorded. And it is there.

      • @agb – you may. I believe a pair of LCD-X are coming my way soon enough.

    3. I’m so glad to see this article (authored by an authority in the hi-end audio).

      Sometimes, it is so difficult to have a meaningful discussion on this subject with people, who are stuck in the dead-end area of analogue and/or Redbook-CD playback systems, or those who think that MP-3s give them enough fidelity… Now, I can just give them the link to this article. 🙂

      BTW, Srajan, I love your vast knowledge and experience in hi-end audio, as well as your way of sharing them with us mere audio-consumers. I just wish you would pay more attention to the punctuation, since that would result in easier reading and extracting the full meaning of your phrases. This is quite important – especially to folks whose English is not their native language – like myself.

    4. Rob,
      like you I’m not a native English speaker. Whilst I lived in the US, I modeled my use of punctuation on their conventions. Which meant plenty of commas in every sentence that was longer than 5 words. Once I moved to Europe and read more of the UK press, I noticed far sparser punctuation. That appealed to me so I modeled myself on that. In all honesty my English is from basic school in Germany as a mandatory second language. Beyond that I’m self-taught. I’m an ‘intuitive’, not someone with formal training beyond the basics. My apologies on that count!

    5. Unfortunately, this article relies on ‘appealing to authority’, a poor cousin of good thinking and usually a sign of [1] not wanting to do the hard yards of basing conclusions on evidence and thence preferring the short cut that goes ‘so-and-so is real smart and he says so’, or sometimes [2] being wrong and not wanting to know it and thence quoting someone else who is equally wrong but has unfortunately gained widespread respect.

      What’s left is just an opinion piece, with poor or non-existent argument.

      • Oh, c’mon Grant, ease up on us unfortunates. None of us are as smart as we look, but we get by with all our logical fallacies intact – especially with the help of a crutch. We all appeal to authority, sometimes to our own which is as good as it gets, which makes the appeal even more dumb than deaf.

        You had made no reference to basing what conclusions specifically to what missing evidence, or even what evidence you missed that we didn’t, so just speaking for myself because no one else would dare to speak for me, I have not the vaguest idea what you’re speaking about.

        If Srajan or John know what you’re speaking about, who’s wrong about what and so forth, I’d be interested to find out.

        And Grant, I too speak English, albeit infrequently because no one who speaks English would want to speak with me; and English is my second language too, albeit unlike some others here and there, I tend to throw as many commas into my prose as the page can hold without self-igniting. I failed every English class I took, every history class I took and every math class I took and look at me now!

        This being an international forum among brothers and fans of the same things more or less, I had made an observation. Unlike Australians and Germans for example, we Hungarians are incorrigible, especially after all the nasty things people had said about us (all true by the way).

        On that note, do you know how you can spot a genuine Hungarian?

        They walk in a revolving door behind you and come out ahead of you.

    6. You think so, Grant?

      You’re entitled to your opinion of course. Me, I go by my own experience. The last legacy player I owned was an Alex Peychev rebuilt Esoteric UX-1 universal deck. Its transport mechanism was the best they made. It sold for $6’000 OEM cost to explain why only the cheaper versions of it ever were used outside Esoteric. It was quite the mechanical beast. Alex had completely gutted the power supply and output stage and replaced the latter with 20 x 32-bit AKM chips per channel and a transformer-coupled valve buffer. Esoteric heard the machine at a CES and as a result implemented certain changes to their own machines afterwards.

      My iMac as transport into this machine’s DAC section sounded better than spinning CDs or SACDS on it. That’s when I sold it.

      When you claim “not wanting to do the hard yards of basing conclusions on evidence”, I have no clue what you’re talking about. I’ve owned Audio Aero, Accustic Arts and Zanden digital separates to feel quite confident that I have some experience with traditional disc spinners of better quality.

      As to “being wrong and not wanting to know it”… again, the only thing relevant to me is my own experience. In my listening chair that’s all which matters. Which is true for everyone else. The only thing important is your own experience and whether you get the results that make listening to music enjoyable for you. Disagreeing with somebody else’s findings or their conclusions is par for the course. Being civilized about it makes this type of conversation more pleasant.

      And yes, this *is* an opinion piece, nothing else. Its purpose is to make people think.

      Lastly, what authority do you imagine does my article appeal to? Just curious.

      • “our Finnish chap who works with numerous recording engineers, some of whom have the best ears in the business….”

        It seemed to me that was “appealing to authority”. You rely on that piece of anecdotal evidence for the entire substance of your argument that polycarb disc sound is inferior.

        I don’t see anywhere in the article that the quality of your personal gear is intrinsic to the article’s claim. So, are you bringing it up now in order to strengthen the article? Or, trying to appeal to yourself as the authority? 🙂

        I did not mean to be scathing, but only to say I am not convinced by an article that has two parts: an appeal to authority, and stating as facts a string of ramifications, as if the appeal to authority was proof.

        My [1] and [2] points were prefaced by ‘usually’ and ‘sometimes’, because I am not saying they are definitely true in this case, but I can only wonder why the article is built on an appeal to authority. It is ‘usually’ [1], and ‘sometimes’ [2].


    7. Hey, Grant,

      The opinion of someone who has an extensive experience is sometimes as good (or better), than the one whose argument is based on a wrong interpretation of scientific facts (or, intentional twisting of facts). I see a lot of ignorant interpretations all over Internet…

    8. I was curious too what really it is which Grant takes issue with.

      I’ve owned and compared top-class digital transports to my iMac. In fact the last legacy spinner I owned was an Alex Peychev-modified Esoteric UX-1. Except for the transport he’d stripped out everything else. This made for a lovely comparison op. Spinning a disc on that €6’000 raw OEM cost massive sled into his 20 x 24-bit AKM per channel onboard DAC through his tube-buffered transformer-coupled output stage; or feeding the same onboard DAC from my iMac. The latter sounded invariably better, hence I sold off that APL Hifi deck. When one of the best-ever dedicated silver-disc transports was outclassed by a lowly iMac, I was done with silver discs.

      Grant is free to disagree with my conclusion (that spinning physical discs is passé) but he’s quite wrong assuming that I have no personal experience, solid experiments and investment behind coming to that conclusion -:)

      • I love a good argument as much as the next fellow, even if it takes us nowhere. I mostly love the jingle of change left in my pockets after all the hope has evaporated (but for a better understanding that’s just a local political matter here in these disUnited States.)

        The jingle of leftover change in ones pockets, courtesy of the iMac, sounds indeed musical to these pointed ears.

        Personal experience should be questioned, true, and it is supported mostly by personal experience itself, plenty of it.

        We can assume, reasonably, that an experienced reviewer has more of it than an inexperienced critic of the reviewer with a chip on his shoulders.

        Maybe Grant sees reality in a different logical context, be as it may, but appealing to the authority of mutual experience (unless Grant’s is different than everyone’ else’s) is as good as it gets.

        • Hi AGB, if I had time to put all my source material on my MacBook Pro, I would. Happy to save money on expensive players, too. It is the claim that disc players are audibly *inferior*, that I thought was based on an appeal to authority.

          Being a bit of a bit is a bit person, I think the claim that bits sound different when pulled off carbon bluray disc than silicon SSD or magnetized metal alloy HDD, needs huge evidence. If differences exist, I can see no reason for them to be large, so the ‘huge evidence’ would need to involve highly structured and controlled testing with rigorous statistical analysis.

          I am not aware of any such tests of these specific factors, but the controlled tests that have been published, of the audibility of digital errors in transmission generally, certainly support the notion that a bit is a bit.

          However, there are any number of anecdotal reports from audiophiles and reviewers to contradict this, but then they all contradict one another too. Should we accept their reports, if so, which ones? They all have fabulous equipment, vast experience, etc.

          Not a chip on anyone’s shoulder IMO, I am happy with both disc and computer audio from a sonic perspective. My comment was not about that, neither directly nor by implication.


          • Hi Grant,
            Bits are bits, as you say. I say, everything is so unless it isn’t. The problem is severalfold. The bits on the CD are correct. What happens after optical extraction of the bits is not correct. The CD seeks and searches in the error correction scheme that puts the cheap DAC chips used in CD players (and even high end CD players) under severe stress because the DAC chips and the logic circuits have to do more computations to correct the errors inherent in CD playback. In other words, there are more computations required as a result of error correction that do not for some reason exist in magnetic drive or SSD streaming. There are many causes of jitter – mostly measurable – that are less corrected with optical playback. Put another way, error correction is simpler for other means of data conversion.

            There are likely a whole lotta’ other issues with respect to power supply-induced problems and the conversion process itself that I won’t get into; and admittedly my knowledge, as that of others reading this, is limited and there may be many questions we can’t answer. All I can tell you is that if you have not heard proper playback of digital data which is not possible with CD playback, you simply have not heard what is possible and all manner of logic wont’ stand up to inexperience.

            On that musical not, since you’re into logical fallacies, consider that contradiction does not compute to both sides to the argument being wrong, but rather to the real probability that one side is right and the other is wrong.

            That is precisely why there’s a huge disagreement about anthropological global warming – or as our Dear Leader in the USA said: It’s settled science.

            I ask, what science is settled? Medicine, physics, biology, astronomy?

            If it were settled, then why are we still talking about it?

            • You must have missed my last sentence, or need to read it again. No need to go there. My point, which you have left miiiiles behind, is about appealing to authority.

    9. With out any doubt the best source’s I have are my Blu-ray concert and music disks played back on my Oppo 105 sending a coaxial digital signal to either my PS Audio PWD MkII for stereo play back or an optical digital signal to my NAD M15 pre/pro for surround sound play back. I select DTS -HD MA or Dolby TrueHD Not LPCM stereo. In the audio format setup I select bitstream for the pre/pro and 48k LPCM for the PS Audio and have all my surrounds selected in the speaker setup, even when I’m playing stereo.
      There is absolutely no comparison any way I listen with my ears, or any of my visitors ears, on my system, on any disc I own. LPCM sounds flat and like HiFi. DTS or Dolby sound and feel like there is a show and musicians in my room or I am at the live concert. I have several sets from 2L and others that include a Blu-Ray and SACD and the Blu-Ray sounds and feels better and more real and lifelike in every case. All my guests say they feel like they are at the live show and usually that it sounds better than live. None of my Hi Rez 24/96-192 music on my computer sounds anything like the DTS-MA HD or Dolby True HD, there’s something going on here that all the theorizing and rationalizing in the audiophile world doesn’t explain. I’ve learned to try and listen to every possible option and set-up on my system and not take anyones word for what sounds best and recommend everyone else trust their ears and experiment. Unfortunately it seems the general public hasn’t embraced Blu-Ray concert and music discs, and I’m guessing most audiophiles aren’t set-up to play them or are unfamiliar or misinformed about the new technology and vastly superior sound. That’s the only reason I’m guessing why so few Blu-Ray concert and music discs exist. When I first started buying and listening to them 4 years ago I thought there there would be lots more of them out by now, lots more.
      The master tapes are available right now in the form of DTS-MA HD and Dolby TrueHD on Blu-Ray, most people just haven’t discovered this amazing format. Thank you for your awesome commentaries, knowledge and insights. 6moons and DAR inspire and educate me and I am starting a consulting business to helps music lovers get the most out of their current set-up or buy a new system that meets their needs.

    10. George,

      I’ve heard about the great sound of BD music discs (never experienced it myself, unfortunately). I think that the fate of the BD music is similar to that of the CD/SACD – namely, it’s a physical disc which is on its way out, to be replaced by a computer audio file. That’s why there is very short supply of an equipment capable of taking advantage of the superior BD sound (for example, HDACC by Essence, which includes HDMI input/output).

      And BTW, who (looking at you, Srajan and John) and when is going to be the first reviewer of this kind of equipment? 🙂

    11. George:
      Your angle is very interesting – concert videos in surround sound. As has been my contention for a long time, the loss of visual data during music listening is grave. Restoring them with video fills in lots of holes. Surround sound of course requires more than two speakers. That’s where many with living rooms doubling as listening rooms put their foot down – particularly when you rent not own and can’t do clever in-wall wiring to the rears. On my staff only David Kan has gone that way but like you would never go back. He too insists the rest of us don’t know what we’re missing.

      That said, I heard a 2, 2+ and 3-channel demo at Munich run by Swiss company Illusonic. They were showing how their own software algorithms can ‘enhance’ vintage stereo playback from standard 2-channel material in ‘+’ mode, then really change it in a 3-channel setup. I sat smack in the central hot seat. 2+ was subtle but I’d call it an improvement. 3-channel was very different but I wasn’t at all sure it was better at least not in my already ideal seat.

      Still, it was interesting enough to have me commit to looking into it further. Illusonic expressed interest to visit with their processor and do a comprehensive in-house demo on what it can do for me.

      Obviously it’s not what you’re talking about. But it could be a quasi step in your direction, for those of us stuck with (or stuck to) just tolerating two speakers in our crib -:)

    12. DTS, 5.1, 7.1, Scheiber (which I was involved with) surround sound provides for an envelopment that is a remote synthesis of the complex reflections we call ambiance in a concert hall. It is similar to, to uninitiated ears, but it is not the same. It is a mimicking of reality, given that all reproduction by electro-mechanical and electronic means are artificial. The microphone does not, cannot hear the same way as the organic ear. It is what the mic hears that was recorded. And most of us do not have four or seven ears. Some of us have three.

      Reproduced sound is artifice. We might leave it at that.

      Given that almost ALL reproduced sound was recorded stereophonically, it is logical that it can only be played back with any remote possibility of accuracy with stereo equipment.

      If recorded using surround sound, it should only be played back with the mirror technology to whatever surround technology the recording was made.

      Surround sound is not better than stereo, it is merely different, providing a different perspective and to some a pleasurable sense of envelopment. However, because of the complexities of phase, frequency and other factors, the more complex the recording is, the more artifice will be added to it.

      It is an incredibly complicated matter. That 99%+ of the musical library available to us happens to be recorded in stereo provides only one sensible option.

      Whether that option is a fortunate or disturbing matter doesn’t matter. It is what is.

      Blue Ray players have notoriously poor built-in DACs using similar technology to what’s inside cell phones, at least they are not comparable to quality outboard DACs. They’re fun, the same way technicolor is fun. Accurate, they are not.

    13. Any thoughts on the upcoming Benchmark AHB2? The THX association had me less than chuffed initially and I dismissed it altogether as gimmicky. However, I have seen some glowing reviews of the DAC2 HGC and the lure of such low noise floor claims on the AHB2 keeps calling me back.

    14. Just wanted to add my 20c to this fascinating discussion. I too agree that digital audio is exciting at the moment, though I’ve had the reverse occur in my system. Redbook CDs sound better that their digital rips to my mac on my setup, but this is entirely due to hardware. I bought a PS Audio PWT, which, no doubt you’re all aware, rips the content to an internal computer before sending it out to my dac (Metrum hex) – the better electrical and rf isolation perhaps lowers noise floor? My mac setup sounds veiled in comparison, though it’s by no means optimised. Just a MacBook with external hdd, puremusic and an audiophilleo. I’m eager to try a dedicated music server to see if these positions can be reversed.

      On the subject of Srajan’s command of the English – it’s extraordinary that he speaks and writes so well in another tongue. Until you have truly tried to master another language one can never appreciate how fiendishly difficult this is. I too, know about this.

      6moons’ reviews take time to read and digest, and I think this is the point. Whether florid language appeals to you or not, there’s no denying that these articles embody many levels of interpretation, confluences, divergences, contradictions. Just like Audio does. Straight shooting, short and sharp reviews often cannot reflect the complexities found in this mad hobby of ours.

      I look forward to more contributions on this fascinating and rapidly evolving subject.

    On the road with Qobuz and Astell&Kern, Sony, smartphones

    Demo or die – New York, Tokyo & Munich