Mr Ray Purchase offers an alternative view of the High End. (Part #1 of 2)

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Introductory note:

This is the third in Ray's excellent series. Finding him and is idiosyncratic (iconoclastic?) views so cogently and thoughtfully reproduced was, frankly, one of the best things to happen to us here last year. Once again, if you are on of his growing band of followers, or a novice re his work, you’ll not be disappointed with what follows below and tomorrow. You can read his previous contributions HERE.

Thank you

Howard Popeck / contributing editor

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It seems to me that compared to the 1970s and 80s ...

the audio industry is in a strange place. Absolute progress seems to have all but ended, and instead we have a 'high end' that has turned back on itself, with a general assumption that vinyl & valves are best, and only a grudging acceptance of digital audio as a secondary source. Prices have risen improbably high. The non-high end seems to be concerned mainly with home theatre, portable audio, and various ways of distributing audio wirelessly.

My theory is that there is an alternative high end waiting to be exploited if certain psychological hurdles can be overcome. I think that a combination of digital sources and active speakers can provide a step change in the sound quality we can achieve in our homes while maintaining some of the look and feel of  the 'old school' high end, and still enabling us to tweak and mix and match components. Audiophiles may think they know what digital audio sounds like, but how many of them have heard a system completely optimised for it like the Meridian DSP series? And of those, how many have had those systems in their homes for extended periods, allowing them to listen to a wide variety of material, including recordings that they previously dismissed in digital form – as they sounded when 'dropped into' conventional high end systems? How many might give such a system a chance if they had some control over the choice of components it was assembled from, and its tweakability in general?

The Vinyl Bandwagon is Rolling

I can appreciate the appeal of valves and vinyl and I accept that digital technology and solid state amplifiers often have zero connection with the general 'aesthetic' of music. It is entirely understandable that the music lover may feel instinctively that he doesn't wish to contaminate the experience of listening with hardware that inspires the wrong kinds of thoughts. An anti-digital movement is gathering, with seemingly daily <a href=“http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/dec/26/how-i-taught-my-son-to-love-vinyl”> articles</a> on the boom in vinyl sales, how youngsters are eschewing iPods in favour of turntables, and how their favourite bands are now releasing albums as LPs. I think we have reached the point where it is taken as a given by most people (including professional audio engineers) that digital formats are for convenience and file sharing, while vinyl is for true quality. Of course digital is still winning in terms of sales and turnover, but vinyl has siezed the 'moral high ground'. I am sure that albums will always be released in digital formats, but it is no longer inconceivable that producers will begin to change their recording methods with vinyl mastering in mind, or that digital releases will be mastered deliberately with non-audiophile processing specifically for better audibility when jogging with earbuds. I think it is an example of where an apparently harmless 'meme' could spread to such an extent that it begins to reverse progress and spoil things for the remaining enlightened few!

Digital is Transparent

I believe that digital is (or should be) the way of the future. With digital audio, I would claim that the engineers have created a system that is basically transparent, and indeed this, rather than convenience, was the prime motivation for developing it way back in the 1970s when the first digital recordings were made. There was no indication at that time that there would ever be a way to distribute the results directly to the public in digital form, but it was considered worth persevering anyway, merely to take analogue tape out of the equation. Classical music labels chose the early digital recordings over the analogue recordings they were making in parallel, and digital never looked back – until now. Even at this time before CD, the digital recordings mastered to vinyl were well received by classical music enthusiasts. While modern audio folklore tells us that early digital audio sounded terrible and is still hardly acceptable, it doesn't seem to have been noticed as a problem thirty-odd years ago, using prototype equipment and long before 24 bit, 192kHz, and oversampling.

So why should digital now be so despised by many in the audiophile community? Aside from the obvious but often-overlooked psychological bias aspect, I would suggest that the problem lies in considering the source in isolation from the remainder of the system.

Passive Conformism

Regardless of their position on digital audio, many audiophiles do not question the supremacy of valve amplification over solid state, and very few question the supremacy of passive speaker crossovers over active (some prefer single driver or flat panel speakers which have their own foibles regarding bass response, maximum SPL, size of sweet spot and so on). Active crossovers are thought of as a 'professional' solution appropriate for studios, sound reinforcement in theatres, cinemas and pop music venues, supposedly adding extra complexity in the signal path and robbing the music of finesse.

I beg to differ on both these counts. I cannot help but wonder whether the standard 'high end' lineup of vinyl/valve/passive speaker is simply a product of their mutual dependence – and also a dead end. Digital audio is rarely heard at its full potential in the higher reaches of the audio world because it is 'dropped into' systems that are really only capable of vinyl playback i.e. featuring valve amplifiers and/or speakers with passive crossovers.

Vinyl, Valves and Passives are Dirty

Valve amplifiers suffer from many drawbacks on paper, such as higher levels of distortion than solid state amps. The claim is often made that, nevertheless, an indefinable magic occurs, so that while distortion can be measured, it is of the 'right kind' of harmonic distortion and therefore benign. Valve amps have graceful overload characteristics and this can even be “euphonic” people claim, enhancing the recording and making it sound more dynamic. But while harmonic distortion may be inaudible on solo voices and instruments in sparse recordings or against an already-distorted signal, the notion of harmonic distortion goes out of the window on, say, clean orchestral recordings, where the distortion becomes dominated by the intermodulation variety, muddying the instruments together in a general mush. With a stereo recording the distortion products are different for left and right, so while the distortion may not be obvious per se, it is having pernicious effects on stereo imaging. As regards the graceful overloading, wouldn't it be better to simply arrange to not overload the amp in the first place?

Passive crossovers are a throwback to the very earliest days of home audio, and their detrimental effects are well-documented. They place a great burden on the single amplifier, presenting awkward loads and drawing surplus power simply to be wasted as heat. The amplifier has to cover the full frequency range. It is not possible to repair the damage wrought by a passive crossover through the use of  high end components or cables.

And vinyl recordings are different from digital. If you look at the many web sites advertising vinyl mastering services and  read their typical <a href=“http://www.saemastering.com/VinylMasteringFAQs.php”>FAQs</a>, you will find that there are several differences between a typical master for digital compared to vinyl. The would-be vinyl producer should avoid: sub-bass content (particularly in stereo), high dynamic range and high levels of treble. If the producer doesn't avoid or fix these himself, the mastering house will do it for him through high pass filtering, mixing bass to mono, compressing and 'de-essing'. This is necessary in order to avoid problems either with the cutting machine, or playback.

Compared to the dynamic capabilities of digital recordings, vinyl automatically reduces the stresses on the amplifier and speakers in terms of dynamics and high frequencies. Unfortunately, the effect on the sound and the stereo soundstage must be somewhat arbitrary. I can hear howls of protest already, but as Hi-Fi World <a href="http://www.hi-fiworld.co.uk/vinyl-lp/70-tests/103-cartridge-tests.html?showall=1”>describes</a> vinyl channel separation:

“Cartridges can be relatively poor in this area, and the LP too, often with just 20dB separation, a pathetically low figure compared to other sources... Yet the stereo illusion is still subjectively maintained. “

That's about as good as vinyl stereo gets: “the stereo illusion is subjectively maintained”. It almost seems unfair to mention the other drawbacks: pops, clicks, inherent distortion, surface noise, groove echo and diameter loss.  Nevertheless, if the rest of the playback system is suffering from various kinds of distortion exacerbated by highly dynamic stereo signals, then using vinyl as a 'pre-processor' might make sense.

Part #2 tomorrow

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