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Meet the Editors: digitisation and colouration

  • the_show_newport_logo_2015At T.H.E. Show Newport last month I sat on a “Meet The Editors” discussion panel. Roger Skoff handled the introductions: (from right to left): Dr. David Robison (Positive Feedback), Michael Fremer (Analog Planet, Stereophile), yours truly, Chris Connaker (Computer Audiophile) and – chairing – Robert Harley (The Absolute Sound).

    Attendees were initially shy with questions. What do you ask an editor? No worries – I had a question of my own to kick-start proceedings. On my mind was the transparency (or not) of analogue to digital conversion. Specifically: 1) the A to D which takes place in the studio from which many vinyl releases are nowadays cut and 2) needledrops – vinyl playback encoded to digital in the home.

    Michael Fremer is probably the world’s number one authority on all matters vinyl and having seen his recent coverage of ADCs from the likes of m2Tech, Ayre Acoustics and PS Audio, I was curious as to how close those needledrops were to the original vinyl playback? Whilst not necessarily to my taste, the needledrops I heard Fremer spin in the PS Audio and Kyron Audio rooms sounded very good indeed. Does applying an ADC-DAC process somehow dilute what we might otherwise hear from the phono stage directly?

    Running a phono pre-amplifier’s output through the digital encoding (and then decoding) process Fremer says, “[the music] loses something in transparency but more than losing something it gains the sonic signature of the A-to-D”.

    Fair enough. If DACs have sonic signatures – they add colouration – then why not ADCs? The trick is to separate one from the other. What about when no D/A conversion is applied after the fact. Even when a record is cut from a digital master it goes straight to the turntable, no DAC required.

    Between Paul McGowan and Bill Leebens in PS Audio’s T.H.E. Show Newport 2015 main room sits Michael Fremer.

    Mr Fremer goes on to say that he can “almost always” pick when the vinyl itself has been cut from a digital source, even if it’s good. Fremer hears it on the recently issued Roxy Music vinyl box set about which he opines, “The reissue sounds better than a few original pressings”. One reason suggested by this expert is that the modern mastering process no longer applies dynamic range compression to accommodate the “crappy turntables” of yesteryear.

    “[The new Roxy Music box] is better in terms of dynamics and frequency response but the sonic signature of the A-to-D converter comes through really loud and clear”.

    “It has this particular coloration that you can’t escape”, he continues. Interesting, no?

    The ADC adds a digital ‘sheen’ (my words). Perhaps that’s similar to the sheen (aka colouration) that long-term vinyl listeners complain of when they first sit in front a DAC-fronted system?

    Entering the discussion, long-time DSD proponent Dr. David Robinson. He says that needle drops to DSD are “a different creature entirely”. “PCM sounds like PCM,” and “192/24 is better than 44.1 – generally,” continues Robinson.

    DSD instead offers “an ease, a naturalness, a roundness” that Robinson associates more with ‘analogue’ than he does with ‘digital’. We presume by analogue he means vinyl or tape and by digital he means PCM. This aligns with my own findings when comparing DSD and PCM versions of Steely Dan’s Gaucho. DSD sounds more supple and relaxed compared to the Duracell-bunny vibe of PCM. DSD’s natural roundness most likely lies at the heart of the PS Audio DirectStream‘s audible appeal.

    Robinson continues: a $1500 ADC isn’t going to sound quite as good as a reference level unit like the Hapi from Merging Technologies.

    Quad DSD needle drops might bring us closer to “listening to the groove”. Whilst Robison concedes that Pyramix software isn’t necessarily within reach of the regular Joe, Quad DSD rips are “essentially indistinguishable” from the source.

    Michael Fremer selects tunes in the Kyron Audio room at T.H.E. Show Newport 2015.

    Robinson complains that Redbook (16bit/44.1kHz) PCM encoding causes phase shift in frequencies above 1-2kHz. It’s apparently why CDs end up sounding “kind flat”. According to the Positive Feedback editor, this isn’t the case with DSD. Again – that’s interesting, no?

    Could DSD rival vinyl? With the DSD download catalogue being wafer thin when sat next to the enormous number of titles available on vinyl, the argument remains academic. As mentioned on the day at The Hotel Irvine, I can buy vinyl releases by David Bowie, Tom Waits or Neil Young with ease. On DSD? Nope – very few artists are coming to that party. DSD remains a marginal concern.

    At time of writing, Chad Cassem’s Acoustic Sounds web store offers a mere 500 titles as a DSD download. I’d bet more than 500 albums are released on vinyl in a week. Moreover, regional restrictions ensures Cassem’s downloads are only available to US residents. (For the sake of simplicity, DSD download provenance remains beyond the scope of this article).

    “But the promise is there,” says Dr. Robinson.

    Sure – but is it fair/reasonable to expect consumers to invest in technology on the promise of what might arrive down the line? Travelling back 3 years to when I first heard this very same promise, has the catalogue grown at sufficient rate to suggest a changing landscape. I have my doubts. The albeit fine work done by the likes of 2L Recordings and Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast is home brew compared to vinyl’s big liquor.

    As is common with panel discussions that take place at these kinds of shows, the whole shebang was committed to video. A copy was supplied to Michael Fremer and he’s edited it down from the original hour and uploaded it to YouTube. It’s Fremer’s 20 minute edit that you see below. The talking points covered above remain intact and I hope you find the discussion on digitisation and its attendant colouration as illuminating as I did. I found the insights offered by Michael Fremer and Dr. David Robinson to be particularly valuable.

    Adding colour to the discussion itself was a (somewhat tense) exchange of words between Messrs Connaker and Fremer. Skip to the 14-minute mark in the video above. Sat between these two distinguished gentlemen in Newport I attempted to reconcile their differing opinions on the magnitude of vinyl’s resurgence. Since T.H.E Show wrapped these two ordinarily convivial chaps took to escalating the disagreement via posts on their respective websites (here, here and here). I won’t offer further comment other than to reiterate what I said on the day: that Connaker and Fremer are possibly seeing the same thing but from different angles.

    Irrespective of these editors’ differences of opinion, the resurgence in vinyl is real. The uptick in record sales might be attributable to a record’s tangibility, artwork and associated collect-ability – of increasing value in the digital age – but it also tells us that people buying the black stuff might also dig it for its inherent colouration. I know I do. And I hope we can all agree that this applies equally to digital audio – everything in the chain, from studio mic to lounge room speakers and headphones, adds colour to some degree. And each of us is on a quest for the colouration we enjoy the most. Maximising enjoyment is what being an audiophile is all about.

    Further information: Analog Planet | Computer Audiophile | Positive Feedback

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. John, your final sentences nail it. Everything adds coloration, listening pleasure is the key. And there are many ways to get there from here.

    2. An excellent potted encapsulation of the presumptive drivel that has for so long poisoned any rational audio discussion since the late 70’s. Whoever managed to get all of the most toxic players onto the one panel, must have been inspired. Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, Positive Feedback, Computer Audiophile, and Analog Planet. Tip me ‘at to the organizer: we can now see at a glance how the audiophile’s thoughts and topics are ‘guided’ by media mouths, whose business it is to make sure the reader is constantly thinking about changing his (yes, it’s nearly always a man) equipment, and buying re-issues of old much-hashed music on every format, new and old.

      I realize, John, that you might feel a bit reactive to my comment, being part of the industry and even staffing for 6Moons and TONEAudio, but this article does a service for the dispassionate questioning audiophile, who will notice how the proclamations by the various players read like a religious text: everything is assumed, nothing is tested. That’s informative.

      What *do* you ask an editor, you ask? Try “What have you ever designed, built, developed, evolved and tested under controlled conditions, for audio customers at a non-exotic price point?” Or to put it in other words, “What gives you the right?”. Let’s see how they look like politicians and priests in trying to worm around the point.

    3. Great post, pity about the panel… John you did your best to lift the mood…kudos. But it didnt take long for that guy on the left of Mr Fremer to bring in the negativity, drag down the mood…why do these audiophile types do this? Thank god it was edited down to 20 mins…. I nearly poked my eyes out after 10. Arrghhhh… “high end”audio is not dead, its a safe haven for angry old men – and ther eis no shortage of those. sigh.

    4. I’m not sure if I agree with Fremer about ADCs.

      IME a very good ADC will make a vinyl rip that is indistinguishable when played back over the same system as the LP.
      Note John Atkinson’s review of the Ayre ADC a year or so ago: he said he compared the 24/192 rips of his vinyl to the original – on his system, where he made the rips – and he could not tell them apart when he compared them, even though he listened “until blood came out of my ears”.

      • Yup, I recall that very review. It stuck with because of this: I’ve used a PS Audio NuWave Phono Converter to make 24/96 PCM needledrops and when routed through a Resonessence Labs INVICTA DAC I find them pretty much indistinguishable from the NuWave’s phono stage output. With the NPC packing S/PDIF digital output I can even do these comparisons on the fly. Same results present – they sound almost identical. That said, it’s entirely possible that a different phono stage, ADC and DAC would provide different results.

    5. I like to leave this sort of passion for global warming and third world starvation. I used to dig vinyl when I didn’t have an option. I’ve moved a few times during the past years and got rid of the vinyl when Cd’s came out. Don’t really miss lugging the weight of it around. Living in a city where starter homes cost close to a million $’s and 500 square foot shoe boxes cost oodles of money, who has the space for it all? 3 years ago got rid of most of the CD’s and love that I’ve got the equivalent of 1000’s of LP’s on 2 hard drives. With the current selection of DAC’s I don’t lack for emotional experience from my system. When the current crop of hipsters move out of their parents’ basements into their own shoeboxes, maybe they’ll discover the joy of space saving technology. Also, have well over a couple of thousand DSD files ripped from SACD’s – so no lack of choice there either. Find a friend who’ll share with you.

    6. While I agree that all equipment adds coloration, I believe the only technological advances in audio come from trying to reduce as much coloration as possible. When tube amps were being developed in the 50’s and 60’s it wasn’t because people enjoyed the color that tubes added, it was because it brought them much closer to high fidelity sound. People really didn’t know about the coloration until they had transistor amps to compare to. CDs and digital technology were also major breakthroughs to get us closer to realistic sound and democratized hifi in the process. It wasn’t until the 90’s that improvement stalled and technology concentrated more on convenience (mp3s and ipods) over quality. Although now I believe the war of hard drive space on portable players is over and companies now have to differentiate themselves with quality again.

      I have no issue with the top audio companies but in my opinion they tend to refine an old process rather then innovate new processes. No company is really making a clear leap in quality and it’s about subtle differences and taste. Kii audio is one of the few companies I can think of that is closer to behaving like a top F1 racing car rather then a luxury brand. Their latest speaker not only involves deep bass in an all-in-one package, but also is meant to work independently of the room space. These innovations come specifically from concentrating on reducing distortion (ie coloration) and wouldn’t have have come from just refining the old process.

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