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Digital Audio Demystified: an evening at Len Wallis Audio

  • Horn tooting broadway. I don’t want to only write about (digital) audio, I want to talk about it too. Body language and tone of voice play into the spaces voided by the pixelated word running solo.

    At CES in January, I hatched a plan that I would later forget until revived some five months later by AudioQuest’s Taipei-based Shaun Schuetz. He was coming to Sydney town in late July to do NightHawk press promo (among other things) – would I be keen on giving a presentation about digital audio to a gathering of some local audiophiles? Sure I would.

    Perhaps Schuetz and I would co-present? Nope – in the interests of non-partisanship that idea was swiftly nixed. I would give a talk about my own experiences with digital audio and Schuetz would channel some of topics touched on by his Colorado-based AudioQuest colleague Steve Silberman, especially Ethernet cables. Put together in somewhat of a hurry, the title of the event took heavy cues from Silberman’s own seminars but was adjusted to accommodate DAR branding: Computer Audio Demystified became Digital Audio Demystified. I would represent DAR, Schuetz would represent AudioQuest. All we needed now was a venue to play host.

    DAD_#1_6
    Len Wallis [left] chats with Amber Tech’s Jamie Lewis [right].
    AudioQuest’s local handler Amber Technology set up the venue connection. Len Wallis Audio on Sydney’s north shore is one of the area’s longest standing and largest stores. Other high street retailers might have had the floorspace but not the central location. Wallis had both – we were set for the last Wednesday in July.

    One electronic missive despatched to Wallis’ customer base was all that was required to secure a full house. On the day I asked, “How many?” (I expected twenty or thirty, tops). “Over forty! Jamie Lewis is bringing additional chairs and I’ve been turning people away all week,” said Wallis. Facebook posts promoting the event only served to stoke demand that could not be met. A nice problem to have.

    Would we video the event and put it online for the benefit of those unable to attend? Doing so would undoubtedly remove the incentive to attend future events. It was agreed between Wallis and I that the value for all concerned (audience included) was in being there.

    As such, here are a selection of the themes that inspired this first DAD presentation:

    • The importance of pragmatism and perspective
    • It’s not a war: digital vs vinyl, lossy vs lossless, PCM vs DSD
    • Why digital transports don’t all sound alike and what we can do about it
    • How to improve the ‘sound’ of a Mac/PC
    • Why Sonos Connect is underrated system and how to make it sound better
    • How Roon reconnects us with our digital audio libraries / Tidal integration
    • Why we shouldn’t underestimate the Apple TV
    DAD_#1_3
    Shaun Schuetz of AudioQuest introduces himself

    It was via three of those latter Apple devices connected to an adhoc network that Shaun Schuetz conducted his Ethernet cable demonstration. Taking my place amongst the audience, I wanted to (hopefully) hear what everyone else heard. Some chins hit the the floor as Schuetz stepped through increasingly more expensive AudioQuest cable choices. Even the $25 Pearl bests a stock cable. Even more dollars down buys you greater silver content and with Diamond and Vodka, Telegartner connectors. It also nets better sound: a few faces could be seen silently mouthing expletives as increasing amounts of 3-dimensional (inner) spaciousness and timbral information was revealed. 

    Nose-diving from the AudioQuest Vodka to the slimline cable supplied with a Sonos Connect at the end of Schuetz’s presentation saw the soundstage flatten/collapse.Credit for Schuetz for suggesting that the higher end cable is only for a very specific kind of audiophile, one with multi-thou hardware and a wallet that goes deeper. Oh: there’s a also an audible benefit to be had from going from wireless to wired, even on a lowly Apple TV.

    This is my third time witnessing this demo and I mention the results yet again as evidential riposte to the forum-dweller snark being stirred up by Ars Technica’s supposed takedown of the same. My advice as always: go listen for yourself. If you don’t hear it, you don’t hear it. But playing keyboard warrior with nothing more than photos and a spec sheet at your disposal is the epitomé of closed-mindedness.

    Interestingly, when I asked for a show of hands on how many of the people assembled in Sydney didn’t accept that audible differences existed between USB cables, only one disbeliever (politely) stepped forward. I doubt such unanimity would have been seen when I kicked of DAR in 2010. Far more hands went up when asked about doubt surrounding Ethernet and still these folk turned up.

    DAD_#1_5

    Just like USB wire before it, Ethernet cable switheroos shouldn’t make a difference, but they do. I hear it, Audiostream’s Michael Lavorgna hears it. Part-time Audiophile’s Scot Hull is also a recent convert through empiricism.

    This may be something that informs my next digital audio-related presentation (for which Schuetz won’t be present). I won’t be using AudioQuest cables if I elect to go down this Ethernet demo rabbit hole. As per my own threepiece review assignment on Ethernet cabling, my primary interest lies in being able demonstrate a difference. I care not which brand of cable gets deployed. Perhaps something from QED? Chord?

    A presentation title change is also in order (for which reader suggestions are welcome). Digital Audio Demystified might be acronym friendly – DAD (!) – but greater separation from Steve Silberman’s talks will be required if I am to emphasise my own brand-agnostic approach. And especially if I am to transplant presentations to overseas audio shows.

    Over the weekend, possibilities for a similar Melbourne event were thrown around for later in the year and some significant interest was expressed by Sydney Audio Club. How lovely. (And I promise I’ll get better photos of the next event).

    In the meantime, a very large thanks goes out to Len Wallis and his staff, many of whom stayed with us even as the event extended well beyond its intended curfew.

    Each review uploaded to this site represents a narrow window on the audio world. A Powerpoint-fuelled presentation affords me an opportunity to reflect on those individual slices of time, to sum them and before labelling the result ‘experience’. From five solid years of the stuff comes the confidence to talk about trends and the many and different ways the end-user can facilitate good/better/best digital sources.

    Careful here: ‘best’ is largely subjective. Does ultimate sound quality or convenience matter most to you? A dedicated music server from Antipodes Audio will sound slightly better than a Sonos Connect, even when re-clocked by the Wyred4Sound Remedy. Cut and dried? Not when we factor in the not insignificant dollar difference and that the Sonos system has the better UI, integrated search (across streaming services and local content) and is easily extendible to more than one room around the house with other hardware models that are eminently affordable.

    For me, right now, best is whatever makes me want to listen to more music.

    Further information: Len Wallis Audio | Amber Technology


    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

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