It’s been quite the summer for Darko.Audio’s reach: we netted our 10,000th Instagram follower, cruised past 40,000 subscribers on YouTube and joined EISA, whose annual awards dinner in Berlin next weekend will regrettably prevent me from attending RMAF 2019.
The biggest ‘celebration’ of all is reserved for tomorrow, 1st September: this website’s ninth birthday. Thanks go out to the Darko.Audio video team – Olaf behind the camera and Jana in the editing suite – as well as those penning written contributions, past and present. This year, that’s been Steve Plaskin, John Grandberg, Phil Wright and 6moons’ Srajan Ebaen.
Rather than go full ham on self-congratulation, I thought I’d look back on nine years of experience. What follows are nine personal observations about the hi-fi world, one for each year that I’ve been writing about audio gear:
1) When audiophiles get together in person, at shows and at audiophile societal meets, the conversation is almost always convivial and generous of spirit. However, audiophilia is largely a solitary pursuit with many of us listening at home alone. Between shows, many enthusiasts’ social interactions in the audiophile space are limited to forums, comments sections and social media. Similarly, the curious onlooker’s first exposure to the audio world in 2019 isn’t provided by shows in Munich or Denver but Google, where search results exposing a handful of
dudes wankers unpleasantly mass debating a technology’s pros and cons, or attempting to “correct” others’ preferences, is the ultimate repellant.
The frequency of ego-driven conflict online should be a point of shame for the audiophile community, especially with its apparent ambition to attract newcomers and break free of its marginal status.
2) Audio shows are drenched in jazz, classical, blues and female singer-songwriters. It’s the same now as it was in 2010. Little has changed in nine years. But it’s not the music genres themselves that I find frustrating – who am I (and who are you) to say what is ‘proper’ music and what is not and what should be played and what should not? I’d feel the same way if that narrow range consisted of 80s pop, techno, metal and funk from the 00s and 10s.
A narrow range of music genres, largely consisting of pre-millennium material, isn’t a drawcard for the younger demographic that many exhibitors claim they desire. If a hi-fi show is to attract and retain a younger audience, change to its exhibitors’ music programme is all but inevitable. That means a broader embrace of different music genres like hip-hop, RnB, funk, metal, house and techno. Change is a collective responsibility and comes pre-loaded with the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
3) For many of the uber high-end loudspeaker systems demonstrated at Munich High-End, we not only need the cash for the audio hardware but also the funds for a room to do it justice. And that invariably means larger—and more costly—real estate.
And yet the majority of people worldwide are being squeezed into ever-smaller apartments and townhouses where family rooms won’t accommodate the aesthetic intrusion of wall and ceiling panels. We only have to look to Asia, its shoebox dwellings and long commutes to see what the future holds for our listening habits and hardware choices in years to come.
Why do loudspeaker designers generally prefer an anechoic chamber for measurements? To eliminate the room as an ‘invisible’ component. A component that comprises around half of what we hear when sat across from a pair of loudspeakers. At home, that room is a constant. We have time to get to know its audible idiosyncrasies, to accurately determine its dimensions for room mode calculation and to measure the loudspeakers’ in-room frequency response in preparation for possible acoustic treatments or DSP adjustments.
Audio shows afford us no such luxuries. We know not how the hotel or exhibition space is filtering the loudspeaker and we have so little time to determine its negative influence. When presented with a static system and no whiff of an A/B demonstration, we hear the loudspeaker through the room, the amplifier/s through the room and loudspeaker, the source hardware through the amplifiers, loudspeakers and room. Impossible to separate one from the other, the audio show demo is relegated to a show and tell where hardware auditions and ‘best in show’ award assignation are play acted on both sides.
Instead, we attend shows to meet the men and women behind the gear; to get hands-on with it; to learn about its design and manufacturer and to hang with other audiophiles. See 1).
4) And let us never forget that the listening room exacts far greater influence over what we hear than the playback format. Alas, the conversation about hi-res audio online and at shows remains far louder than that of room treatment, bass management or DSP.
Further, we should learn from the past: that the promised expanded catalogue of DSD titles, so widely touted as DSD DACs came to the fore in 2011, failed to materialise. Just as we are dependent on studios for mastering quality, the number of hi-res masters coming to streaming services and download sites is wholly dependent upon recording studio work practices.
5) Vinyl offers the joy of tangibility and scratches our collector itch but put a turntable front-end next to a similarly-priced DAC/streamer and the difference is VERY rarely significant enough to be irrefutable. The heavens don’t open with a choir of angels when we switch from a file to a record. Instead, we note maybe a smidge more of this, a soupçon more of that. See 1).
6) The room isn’t the only glass ceiling being applied to the quality of what we hear at home. Mastering techniques and the unfortunate prevalence of dynamic range compression renders the pursuit of accuracy as paradoxically problematic. The more accurate the system, the more we hear the limitations in the recording/mastering. This is especially true for many modern pop, rock and electronic releases. This lends greater appeal to hifi components that add subjectively pleasurable colour.
7) When faced with a subjective (read: experiential) report on something they’ve yet to hear for themselves, a tiny but vocal minority of readers show up to challenge a site’s review methodology. The challenger demands blind tests (not here, not ever) and/or white papers. In other words, they demand proof.
My sympathy for their position is short-lived. Their disagreement is almost always built firmly on assumption, not on direct experience – see 7) – and where are these same complainants when a loudspeaker, an amplifier, a DAC, a turntable or a phono stage is placed under the same subjective review conditions? Elsewhere, that’s where. That’s somewhat ironic given their demands for ‘scientific’ consistency.
The few keen on doubling down with their negativity will assert that anyone claiming audible differences (reminder: that they’ve not personally heard) must be on the take from the manufacturer: the recipient of a bribe. That’s a serious allegation. And yet when pressed for proof of this alleged impropriety, the accuser clams up or misdirects. He has no proof. The irony, again, should not be lost on any of us. See 1).
8) Prior to starting this website, I thought that all digital audio sources sounded the same. That turned out to be an incorrect assumption but it took an open mind and a healthy dose of curiosity to get me there.
The last nine years of assessing streamers and re-clockers have told me time and again that digital audio is absolutely NOT simply a matter of getting ones and zeroes from point A to point B. If it were, all network streamers and digital interconnects would sound the same and their manufacturers would not be trying to convince us of the very real engineering challenges of minimising jitter and electrical noise. But they don’t and they are.
9) Don’t be fooled by the listicles. ‘Best’ is wishful thinking. If it weren’t, we’d see a convergence towards an accepted SQ standard among loudspeaker manufacturers allowing their engineering departments greater spend on R&D and the bill of materials (BOM). And yet, no two uber high-end loudspeakers sound alike. No two summit-fi headphones sound alike; and if they do, they will almost certainly be separated on comfort factor. No two high-end loudspeaker amplifiers sound alike: one might be a single-ended tube amplifier, immediately excluded from power-hungry loudspeakers for which a high-current solid-state design might be just the ticket. The ‘best’ loudspeaker for someone with a small listening room is unlikely to be a 2m tower. A small sealed standmount won’t satisfy the dubstep lover as much as someone whose musical preference leans toward string quartets.