OK, I grant you that it has been a couple of months since the end of T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach. So, what the heck is your motley Part-Time Audiophile crew doing still writing about the damn thing?
It’s just how we roll around here. First, there’s the insistence on detailed, room-by-room coverage demanded by The Esteemed Editor. None of those two-paragraphs-and-an-iPhone-snap posts you can see elsewhere.
Second, the Taskmaster expects accuracy, entertaining prose and exclusives — you know, all that “journalism crap” — while at the same time specifying we PTA contributors bring back at least 10 worthy 35mm-shot photographs per exhibitor (somewhere on the spectrum from “congratulations, it’s in focus!” to “nice glamour shot of gnat’s-ass detail of Ortofon cartridge”). That task is one we handle in our spare time when we’re not goofing around listening, note-taking, interviewing, etc.
And, then, there’s the follow-up. This stuff doesn’t just write itself.
“I’d like 30 stories from each of you,” the Bearded One said firmly before downing the rest of his sandwich and ambling off to a “business-building” cocktail party.
Three days later, the bleary-eyed and jet-lagged PTA contributors touch down at home to resume their “regular” lives while searching for the hours to deliver nonstop audio-show posts on 140 total rooms.
In a not-so-brief nutshell, that’s why it takes roughly two lunar cycles to get from there to here.
That said, I’m finally ready to complete my work on Newport 2016 and invoice The Publisher so he can see how much spare change has accumulated under his sofa cushion. Hopefully, he’s been wearing his loose-fit Dockers.
Yes, it’s time for that old audiophile publication tradition: The Wrap Story. This is where I’m supposed to talk about all the fun I had, all the people I met, how cool the bartender was and then name-check about a dozen or so products that rang my bell. But as frequent readers of my byline might already be suspecting, this will be different. That’s because if you’ve followed our posts you really don’t need a Cliff Notes version (and if you’ve just discovered PTA, they’re all in the archives). Instead, I’m about to go off on one of my rants about an industry issue or trend that struck me during the show.
Death of a Transport
I’ve covered most of the major audio events for the past few years, but Newport was the one where, for some reason, this hobby’s ongoing transition to digital files really reached critical mass. There were tons of new music servers at T.H.E. Show; computers were about as ubiquitous as turntables; and CD players found themselves left out of the party invitations.
Indeed, some rooms had a beat-up old disc spinner or no physical transport at all. Others wanted to plug my demo CD into a PC and burn it. And, more than a few had impressive turntables doing little more than serving as a decoration.
If I had a dollar for every time I held out a jewel box and heard, “Sorry,” or “Do you have that on a thumb drive?”, well, I’d have a nice little stack of Washingtons.
Yes, it seems streamers, smart device-controlled music servers and even laptops are the “standard” thing. Like the shift to CDs several decades earlier, there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. CDs evolved into a respectable format — no matter what the haters say. They turned out fine AFTER people figured out how to record, mix and master properly in the new format — and AFTER high-end manufacturers worked through four or five generations of designing transports, D/A converters and digital cables.
Audio history shows us again and again that just as one technology seems to be maturing and reaching its sweet spot, another appears that promises more but also is just in its early stages of development. The learning curve has yet to be traversed. This happened with CDs (which were horrible at the start) taking over for vinyl (which was near its peak in sound quality), and now it’s happening again with CDs getting pushed into the garage-sale box while downloads, bulk storage and streaming catch everyone’s fancy.
The only thing is, I’m more than a little bit skeptical about this sea change to computer “rips” and purported “hi-rez” files. First, we’ve been down other roads such as SACD and DVD-Audio that effectively turned into, if not dead ends, then narrow bunny trails. Second, and perhaps much more significant, is that the (proudly) Loony Tunes bunch engaged in high-end audio always has delighted in obsessing over the smallest details of sound quality.
After all, we’re the enthusiasts who scrub our vinyl with special-formula liquids and blast it with anti-static guns. We rub green magic marker on the edges of our CDs and spray and polish the reflective layers to reduce “errors.” We buy gold-coated, remastered discs and exotic Japanese Super High Material, “HR cutting” and platinum versions. We hunt for first pressings of favorite vinyl albums, compare Mobile Fidelity releases and European imports, and study various releases of a title to find “hot stampers.”
The new digital age is disrupting all that — big time. But it was my perception that a fair amount of the streamers, servers and PCs I heard in Newport did not exhibit the mind-blowing advance in sonic performance you might anticipate from a vaunted next step in technology. Make no mistake: many were very listenable, at least as good as mid-level audiophile CD playback. But quite a few stopped short of ascending to the, “Holy shit!” level of, say, listening to an original vinyl pressing of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here on a VPI Classic Signature, the XRCD version of Dire Strait’s Brothers in Arms on a dCS stack or a first-generation tape copy of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean on a refurbished Ampex deck.
I observed significant differences in the sound of file-playing gear. Something like the $17,600 Aurender W20 server sounded very nice, but many others were wanting in different areas. Although dealing only with digits, things like parts quality, power supplies and circuit designs apparently still matter.
And, what about those high-end units that do seem promising, such as the aforementioned Aurender W20 and the new $20,000 Mark Levinson No. 519 digital player? No matter how great the electronics, there is the not-inconsequential matter of finding source material up to the task of fulfilling a unit’s potential.
One little near-secret of this whole trend seems to be that not all “hi-rez” files are equal. Just go back and read some of the Absolute Sound’s reviews of high-resolution downloads and note how many times the writer is disappointed with the sound, especially compared with CD or vinyl. So, even if you can find hi-rez versions of some of your most beloved albums, the results may not blow your hair back like in that old Maxell ad.
On top of that, also note that lower-rez files are the mainstream standard — and could stay that way. Even Mark Levinson took this into account when designing the No. 519. The unit includes a circuit created to enhance compressed MP3 files to make them sound like a more advanced format. While it’s admirable — and probably practical — for the Levinson folks to take this step, the fact they deemed it necessary for a product intended for six-figures systems shows how unstoppable this trend is.
Why spend the long green on your rig and then feed it compromised media? This is what worries me; it seems like we’re teetering on the edge of a slippery slope to “good enough.”
I understand the appeal of servers and streaming. The ability to access — in seconds — any track from a vast library is seductive. For me, being able to put together playlists would be especially fun. Except for a few dozen albums, including Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Dire Straits’ first LP, I rarely want to listen to a whole album without skipping a few duds.
For that reason, I admit I was seriously smitten with the Aurender W20 and mentally could picture the Levinson No. 519 sitting between my 380s preamp and the 30.5. But even if a lottery windfall put me in the position to buy one of those, I wouldn’t dump my CDs and vinyl. For one thing, I regard those as my “masters.” They are the hard media that, at minimum, is a trusty backup. More so, these “masters” are carefully acquired items that I still will want to play — at least occasionally — on gear I’ve painstakingly chosen and in which I have a substantial investment. Switching back and forth between files and hard media would be no different than alternating between vinyl and aluminum copies of the same album. Each has its charms.
I can see that for some, moving exclusively to iPad-selected remote song selection is attractive. For one, the listener wouldn’t have to get off his or her keister to flip a record or feed another piece of aluminum into a player. Heck, if the listener could also get a significant other to bring them a beer as well, so much the better.
All snarkiness aside, this hobby always has been about sweating the small stuff. Why do I keep romanticizing the way we traditionally have obsessed over the tiniest differences in sound? Because, like the Geico commercials might put it, “If you’re an audiophile, it’s what you do.”
Likewise, I think we have learned that if your source material has any deficiencies, all the tubes and horns and silver cable in the world aren’t going to restore the lost textures and emotional connection.
I’m not trying to be a Luddite, or imply that hi-rez files never will bring the magic. Indeed, there’s much available today that is stunning — when you have a properly curated file playing back on equally top-notch gear. But, like anything else, there’s that learning curve. We’re at the part right now where the rainbow is just starting to arch up into the sky. That pot of gold still looks to be a ways off.
In truth, I think there’s room for all formats to exist far into the foreseeable future — particularly if the industry doesn’t freak out and stop making CD players. (Interesting side note: the final VHS machine was produced recently.) Turntables likely will continue their revival as well, especially if the hipster crowd can pressure record producers to ease off on those $30-per-album price tags. And, don’t look now, but reel-to-reel is on its way back as well.
In the meantime, if you’re a particularly discriminating audiophile, you shouldn’t be too surprised if adding a top-quality server/streamer turns out to be a bit more expensive than you expected. Just like doing CDs, vinyl or even analog tape on the cheap never worked very well, you’re going to have to pay up — at least at first — to chase that last degree of digital-file sound quality.
I’m confident we will be able to get great sound from computer audio and prices will eventually fall, but right now — like any other format — you’ll have to commit to doing it carefully and doing it right. You should audition servers just like you would any other component. You’re also going to have to be persnickety about how you convert all your existing music into files and about which files you download.
There are upsides to this tech trend. People who have bought dedicated servers or set up PC rigs tell me they are listening to more music than ever before. The interface and ability to finger-stroll through a grid of brightly illuminated album covers can make for a very enjoyable experience. It can encourage you to rediscover old albums that otherwise may have been languishing at the bottom of your record shelf or buried in the closet under the stairs. Proper “needle drops” from treasured vinyl can be terrific and some downloads indeed may get you very close to the sound of the original tape. And new ideas such as Meridian’s MQA could take us to previously unimagined levels of in-home reproduction.
But while this latest revolution gets going, let’s not impatiently go the thumb-drive and Bluetooth routes. Let’s also not dump all our existing media in the landfills next to the videotapes, rotary phones and Atari games, either. One music format doesn’t have to exterminate the others. They all can co-exist, and we can appreciate each for its own merits.
So, enjoy the new digital-file world. Embrace it — carefully. But, occasionally unplug your USB cable and dig into the actual physical treasures you spent so much time hunting down in all those dusty record shops. Admire the illustrated triple-gatefold LP sleeve of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, carefully clean that 180-gram pressing of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or pop in your Japanese import K2 CD of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Then go back and similarly obsess over your computer audio.
It’s what we do.
Best in Show
Best-sounding rooms: Brian Berdan’s Audio Element (Wilson Audio/VTL/dCS), MSB Technology/YG Acoustics, Sanders Sound Systems.
Most intriguing product: Aurender W20.
Comebacks of the year: Mark Levinson brand, Technics SL-1200 direct-drive turntable.
Trending: Music servers/streamers, large woofer/horn speakers, big-ticket cable.
Most unwelcome trends: Soaring gear prices, disappearance of CD players.
Biggest pleasant surprise: The Natural Sound 1, a beautiful Altec Valencia-channeling speaker made in Slovenia.