[SoundStage!]Planet Hi-Fi
Back Issue Article

June 2002

2012: Technology Renders High-End Digital Obsolete?

Opera Man loves e-mail

I have an audiophile buddy who also works for a bank. He’s a classically trained pianist with a passion for opera -- go figure. Although Opera Man’s specialty is information systems and my forte is marketing, we both manage to communicate without despising one another. In my experience, IS and marketing people work together only because they have to; neither group enjoys interacting with the other. It’s based on old stereotypes. You know, the soft-skills marketing guy blabbering away about top-line growth, promising the world to the client without determining the feasibility of what he or she is proposing -- essentially, the typical sales guy who writes checks with his mouth that his rear end can’t cash. Then, on the other side of the building, you have the information-systems geek who has difficulty communicating to the rest of the team without stating the quantitative research that surrounds the results, followed by, "Shatner rules!" or "Damn, X-Files is a repeat this week." Typically, he or she is the nay-sayer who only reacts to direct inquiries and always with a "yes" or "no" answer. Want a recommendation or an elaboration? Good luck.

So with all these barriers in place, how can a marketing guy and an IS guy become so friendly? As always, it all revolves around women. Opera Man’s sister and my wife are co-workers. Both are extremely intelligent and rational, and at the same time, they are befuddled by the world that is high-end audio. When Opera Man purchased his pair of Wilson Watt/Puppy 6 speakers, he asked me not to mention the cost to his sister. She would freak out. And luckily my wife has no idea what they cost, so no bathroom conversation could spill the beans on his hi-fi secret. My wife thinks my Merlin VSM-SEs are expensive. Imagine her reaction if she knew his speakers cost more than our car!

One time I got an e-mail from Opera Man regarding his acoustical wall treatments that lined the space between his new loudspeakers. Apparently, his sister didn’t see the reasoning behind placing bed pillows on the wall. I can hear it now:

"They work pretty well," claims Opera Man.

"But they look awful and stupid. Who puts pillows on the wall?" asks his sister.

Well, audiophiles do, and we’re not crazy, are we? I mean, we aren’t so caught up in the equipment and technology that we are blinded by the reality of the music and sound itself, are we?

Thought-Provoking Message Drives Audiophile Insane

I like getting e-mail from Opera Man because it's always regarding music or audio, two of my passions, and somehow always manages to stir some interesting thoughts about the hi-fi community. A few weeks ago, he sent me an e-mail with "Digital Comparisons" in the subject line. He was concerned because when inserting his new Audiomeca DAC into the audio stream and using his existing Denon CD player as a transport, he did not hear much improvement in sound quality when compared to running his Denon CD player on its own. He wrote:

"Even though the DAC is better, the difference is very subtle ... sometimes, it's even less than the difference between Cardas GR and NR speaker cables.

"My question is, are differences in digital gear as you go higher up really much more subtle than in amps and speakers? Or maybe I don't know what to listen for in front-end components."

Opera Man’s statement got me thinking about equipment, the inherent technology behind it, and the progression of modifying and improving upon the inherent technology itself, traditionally through hardware modifications and upgrades. I responded with the usual wordy response in marketing speak:

"Could be that pure technology is catching up to the art form. In other words, the benefits normally associated with innovative design, meticulous craftsmanship, high ancillary parts quality -- all the advantages you would get from a high-end piece -- are providing less improvement to the sound (on a percentage basis) than the basic technology itself (the technology that is available to everyone in the marketplace). Maybe ten years ago with 18-bit CD players, copper-shielded chassis, point-to-point silver wiring, high-end caps, connectors and oversized transformers all added substantial improvements to the sound, maybe 50%, compared to ordinary, off-the-shelf "mid-fi" 18-bit players. Perhaps today, advancements in the broader market technologies (chips, the software, manufacturing processes) have eroded the advantage that the high-end manufacturers were usually able to enjoy by "tweaking" the existing off-the-shelf technology. Maybe the improvement percentage is now only 10%. Compare a Sony SACD player with a "high-end" SACD player. I would argue that the difference in sound quality between the two is much less than the difference in sound quality of your basic 18-bit Sony CD player circa 1992 and a high-end 18-bit Red Book unit of the same vintage. Why? The retail price differential remains about the same.

"Still working on this one, but philosophically, it brings to the surface some interesting thoughts."

McIntosh, Krell. Oh my!

I’ve been listening to music since 1984, when I received my first cassette: Blue Oyster Cult's Fire of Unknown Origin. I stole it from my brother, who at the time was shifting into Madonna hell after her debut album, Like a Virgin, went quadruple-double-triple platinum. Then, boomboxes ruled my family’s home, with my father’s Pioneer shelf system reserved for the occasional Bette Midler or Barbara Streisand LP. My brother and I duked it out after school, with his Panasonic box screaming and my Magnavox radio groaning.

Four years later, with my brother now in college, I was pumping Ozzy Osbourne's Blizzard of Ozz into the backyard through my Kenwood rack system. At the time, I had no idea that McIntosh was anything other than a mushy apple. But my bandmate’s (wasn’t everybody in a garage band in high school?) father had an "old"-looking stereo that he called "a hi-fi" and it sounded to my ears "f*#king rad!" I wanted one too, but working at the local A&P gets you gas money and a Slim Jim, not a McIntosh receiver.

I waited four more years before I got my next taste of high-end audio, at a local shop in NYC, Sound by Singer. I already had a Pioneer PD-57 CD player, but a wonderful salesman introduced me to California Audio Labs, Krell, and Wilson Audio. I brought in my Pioneer and compared it to a "specialty" unit from Krell costing ten times as much. I could see my Pioneer disintegrate from the comparison and my perception of great sound turned upside down. The Krell sounded vastly superior in every category.

Hi-Fi Chasm Widens; High-End Audio Blames Big Business

Recently, Opera Man’s e-mail reminded me of a few experiences that seemed to support his inquiries regarding digital’s improvement to sound quality, and the overall question of whether or not the sound-quality gap between "off-the-shelf" mid-fi and "specialty" hi-fi is decreasing, perhaps rapidly, even exponentially.

One of my best friends used to work for a prominent high-end audio manufacturer. He called me asking for recommendations on DVD players. His boss just purchased a "fierce" high-end system, everything except a transport. His client wanted something to hold him over until the unit he really wanted became available. When he received his Sony DVP-S9000ES, he was "impressed" and "didn’t at all mind waiting" for his high-end transport to finally go into production. The Sony unit cost one-tenth the price of the high-end transport, but to his ears, sounded good -- so good that he was satisfied for the time being. A stop-gap turned into a permanent fixture inside his audio cabinet.

Yeah, you could say that this is just one instance of budget satisfaction, perhaps an isolated case of trickle-down economics at its best. But, from what I have seen, read, and heard, the big trend in high-end audio is "more for less," giving better sound for less money. This trend is a reaction to pressure from mass-market companies and their ability to improve upon the inherent technological basis of digital hardware and the software format. This allows Philips, Sony, Matsushita, Pioneer, and Toshiba to produce machines that come closer and closer to the threshold of what the population is willing or able to perceive in terms of sound quality and improvement.

Again, compare a $300 CD player from 1992 with a $3000 high-end CD player of the same vintage, and I will argue that the gap in sound quality is much greater than the gap perceived when comparing two similarly priced units from 2002. Finally, perform the same comparison, this time using a $300 SACD player and a $3000 SACD player, and you will find an even smaller discrepancy in sound quality between these players.

When I think back on the improvement that the McIntosh unit provided over my Kenwood player, the improvement that the Krell provided over my Pioneer unit, and my experiences with the current crop of mega-buck and budget players, I see a progression that highlights a decrease in the sound-quality gap between mass-market and high-end units. Projecting forward ten years from now, 2012 may be the year that technology advances beyond the means of the high-end industry to further improve upon the sound quality of digital components, even for discerning audiophiles.

What do you think? E-mail me at the address below.

...Greg Kong


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