Written by 4:37 am Digital • 9 Comments

Does the Multiplicity of Digital Formats Make Life Easier?

Paul Wilson looks at how digital audio has become more complicated…

Boy, what a conundrum we digital audiophiles must face in order to achieve a high level of musical enjoyment. As the various formats evolve and develop over time, as technologies change and purportedly become better, the variety of available methodologies audiophiles have at their disposal also increases. I’m curious, do all the new and supposedly superior than everything else ways to listen to digital music really make things all that much better? 

AR-bigdig pic1a.jpgI say with certainty that analog, and obviously in our lifetimes the humble LP, is the first format for better than radio played in the home. It absolutely was in my case. I started with a handheld AM / FM radio, the “iPod” of its day, and progressed to an integrated, turntable and two speakers. It was my introduction to high performance audio.

Analog has a certain simplicity. Put the record on the turntable, lower the tonearm, play music. Yeah, okay, I’ll allow that according to comparative audiophile dogma that description might be slightly over simplistic.  And regardless of what anyone will say, either positively or negatively about the sonic qualities of an LP, what cannot be denied is the simplicity of its usage and the knowledge of what the format will, and will not deliver. That wonderful smooth sound, pops and clicks and a more limited than digital audio dynamic range comes to mind. However it may be perceived, lots of people still love analog. Could it possibly be that in addition to actually liking the sound, analog proponents also like the format because they know what to expect? Is there beauty and sonic bliss in consistency? 

To say that digital music has been revolutionized would be a vast understatement. From a commercial perspective, CD’s started appearing to the general public, at least in the US, in 1982. Perfect sound forever. I wonder, if I could go back in time and ask the folks at Sony and Phillips, the companies credited with inventing the CD format, what they thought of digital today, would they be pleased or disheartened at how their perfect sound format has evolved? 

AR-MQAagain and again.pngLet’s start with MQA. This format has become one of the more hotly contested debates  swirling around our hobby today. Regardless of what is thought about MQA, positive or negative, lossy or loseless, unfolding, folding, audio origami, better or worse than Red Book CD, any of that, I would hope we can agree MQA does mean doing things differently as compared to a CD. First we need a streamed MQA certified format. In the US, just say Tidal. Secondly, to fully unfold the MQA signal for the highest level of musical quality, an MQA capable DAC must be used. Of course, any hope for better than a plain ole CD presentation is basically pointless if the music you predominately enjoy has not been reformatted as MQA compatible. Sort of a more complicated process requiring specialized componentry as compared to pushing the “open” button on the CD player, drop in a CD, and press play, right? 

My preferred digital format is a CD, or a high resolution download copied to a server.  Even that has it’s procedural drawbacks. I have to begin by copying the CD or download the HD file. In my case the server has multiple, custom, patented software solutions for things like jitter reduction, clocking methodologies, server operation, storage and playback so the copy process is longer and more involved than normal. Once the copy process is complete, I have to finish things by identifying certain metadata attributes to facilitate later retrieval of the selection. I tell myself this is not an issue when I hear the excellence that is likewise produced, but it does not change the fact that copying a CD, regardless of the server, is a more determined effort than, once again, load CD, push play. 

AR-digpic4a.jpgMany might think streaming is certainly easy and presents no procedural hang ups, especially when compared to a physical CD. Know what, that might be correct. Yet, however, streaming is likely significantly more difficult if there is not a viable Wi Fi connection that is both robust and seldom interrupted. Anyone with a WI Fi service of less than say, 20Mbps with multiple Wi Fi devices in the home may experience problems with slow service on something. Because let’s face, if your child complained their computer was painfully slow and as such they couldn’t do their homework, would you not turn off your audio system to free up available bandwidth? Of course you would. Now does that happen with great frequency these days? Ah, probably not so much. WI FI service has vastly improved in the last five years – but it would never happen with drop and push play. In any event, streaming might be legitimately viewed as equally convenient to a CD, easier or slightly more involved than the perfect sound way to play music. Any answer would be correct based on the opinion of the user. Of course, that says nothing about streaming’s sonic quality, which for some is great, others, like me, not so much. 

In the end, I am not confidently sure this is really a question with an identifiable answer. Audiophiles have the remarkable ability of making ways to play a song more and ever more difficult all in the name of better sonics. Needless to say, this is always acceptable because doing so is the basic premise of the hobby in the first place. We all want music to sound better. If it means going to various levels of extremes, if it precipitates decidedly more effort, if it makes us work just “that” much harder to achieve our sonic goals and be magically “wowed” by what we hear, who cares? I know I don’t.

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