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Peter Qvortrup: High Fidelity, the Decline of the Decades

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This is an article that first appeared in our new online PDF, downloadable magazine The Occasional last fall in it’s inaugural edition. We’ll be rolling out articles from it over the next week in anticipation of our upcoming second issue which is scheduled for publication February 3rd. We hope you enjoy this new, exclusive content, and that you’ll check out the Winter Edition of The Occasional when it drops 140 pages of fresh high fidelity reviews, audiophile gear highlights, lifestyle stories, and editorial  opinion.

–Rafe Arnott

By Peter Qvortrup

Since the dawn of time music has played an important part in human life, whether at the top or bottom of society, people have participated, and listened to music in its many forms as it has developed through countless generations to the present day.

Instruments have developed to allow increasingly complex, and expressive music forms until the peak was reached sometime in the latter part of the 19th century, coinciding with Thomas Alva Edison’s invention of recorded sound. Before successfully inventing recorded sound, Edison must have arrived at a fundamental realization that sound can be entirely characterized in two dimensions.  His first cylindrical recording was nothing more than a rough approximation of the changes in amplitude pressure (caused by the modulation of his voice), plotted against a constant time base (generated by the steady turning of a crank).  Crude as his technique may have been, sound was recorded, and recognizably produced for the first time in history.

Edison

Thomas Edison, c.1877. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

The limiting factor in Edison’s first experience was not his idea, but his hardware; further improvements could only come from refinements in technique.

So here we are, just over 120 years after the invention of sound recording, and how much further have we really got?

When looking back over the past century of audio developments it is interesting to note that improvements in technique have not happened simultaneously in all branches of the ‘tree’ that makes up the music reproduction chain, as we know it today. Rather it ‘jumps’ where one part has suddenly moved forward, only to leave other parts of the chain badly exposed.  I could mention several examples of this, but suffice to say that a very clear example was when we went from 78rpm records to 33rpm microgroove LPs. The replay hardware left a lot to be desired, and eventually this inadequacy led to a severe reduction in the quality of the software.

Progress is not a straight line and this situation has repeated itself numerous times over the history of recorded sound, and as a result, music recording, and its associated recording, and reproduction equipment, has fluctuated greatly, and peaked in several areas of performance only for the improvements/developments to be reversed due to the limitations of another branch or branches of the system. It is, in my opinion, of the utmost importance to study the historical development of each branch of the music reproduction chain, in order to ‘glean off’ the best (most interesting?) developments, and then resurrect them to compare the overall result with what is considered the ‘state of the art’ today. It makes for an interesting comparison, and teaches important lessons in why methods, and technologies were discarded – mostly, I am sorry to say – due to economic considerations rather than qualitative ones.

To try to visualize the argument, I have constructed this chart to attempt to demonstrate how I see the peaks, dips and troughs of development in the five main areas of the music reproduction chain. Firstly to demonstrate the relative lack of real progress in sound quality in absolute terms (so much is, and has been made of the High-End Audio industry’s obsession with “State-of-the-Art” technology, that this serves as a potent reminder of the numerous areas where current technology is anything but “State-of-the-Art”), in order to analyze why, historically speaking, developments took a turn for the worse. Remember this is very broad historical/empirical overview, not a detailed study. A book will be written on the subject if ever I find the time, so here are the five “branches” as I would define them.

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To support, and understand the thesis it is important to stress that the positions of each branch represents what should be considered the best effort available at the time, not necessarily what was well known or prominently marketed. A view has also been taken on the ideas, and principles behind the equipment in question, so that advances in technique – when applied to the older ideas – have also been considered.

The points system is applied to simplify the overview, and allow for comparison between the decades in absolute terms, and as can be seen we have not moved forward since the 1950s. In fact, we have reversed most of the absolute peaks of development relating to the position of each branch wave on the above scale. It is fairly easy to see that the audio quality in its absolute form peaked around 1960, and that this was primarily due to the superior quality of the recording, and software quality, the decline since then has a number of explanations, some of which I will attempt to address in the rest of this essay.

With the benefit of hindsight both recording, and software technology reached a peak during the 1950s, so by early 1960s recording, and software quality peaked, which goes some way towards explaining why records, and recordings from this period are so highly desired, and prized by today’s music lovers, collectors, and audiophiles (don’t you just hate that word).

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The addictive Long Play microgroove.

Relative to the quality standards of recording, and software manufacture, the replay equipment was at a very crude stage in its development at the time of the introduction of the microgroove mono LP in 1948/49, and developed very slowly until the early 1970s. In my estimation, it really only reached its peak about 1985, with the introduction of the Pink Triangle, and Voyd three-motor turntables, the Helius tonearm, the van den Hul diamond stylus shape, and Mr. Kondo’s Io cartridge with its titanium cantilever. It is therefore fairly easy to understand why record companies could reduce the quality of the LP-software (in many cases this was actually an “improvement” in the sense that you could now play the record without severe mistracking) without noticeable quality loss.  Anyone who has tried to play a Decca or RCA opera record like the Decca recorded RCA release of “The Force of Destiny,” with the Rome Opera conducted by Previtali, and di Stefano/Milanov on RCA will seriously wonder how this could possibly have been tracked by an average 1959 tonearm/cartridge combination. No wonder Decca had such a high return rate of their LPs at the time.

Amplification reached its peak earliest of all in the 1920s or early 1930s, and only by 1989/90 had it re-established or exceeded the quality level with the re-introduction of the single-ended triode amplifier (SET).  As a side note here, it has always amazed me that no magazine has ever made a challenge of the decades, where they compare what could be considered the best amplifier at the end of each decade, to see if we have indeed moved forward in absolute terms. I have done this comparison on several occasions which is one of the reasons why I decided to write this article.  I can tell it is a more educating experience than any review.

A similar comparison should be made between older, and newer models of different manufacturers products, to establish whether their claims to have actually moved forward, or whether (as might be suspected) their claims of continual progress ring hollow.

Loudspeaker technology was only invented in 1924, and is considered to have peaked in the late 1930s. It has to be remembered that loudspeaker technology is by far the most expensive audio technology to research, and develop, and that most of the really serious development took place in cinema sound, not in home music reproduction systems.  It is only with the benefit of hindsight that this becomes really obvious. To me, a sole loudspeaker product stood out in the 1980s: the Snell Type A/III. This is why speaker technology did not drag the result down even further.

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Simple wooden boxes.

In reality, if you compare the very best products available during each decade from about 1930 on, very little progress has taken place. This is undoubtedly due to the widely disparate levels of development (or in some cases refinement?), in each of the branches of the “audio reproduction tree” at any given time, as well as increasingly commercial considerations regarding cost, finish, and appearance, as the audio industry started to aspire to commercialism in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Most of these later decisions have not benefited or furthered the goals of “Higher Fidelity.”

It is almost paradoxical that an improvement in one branch of the system has invariably been counteracted by a severe decline in another branch – or should I say “have allowed a reduction of quality to take place unnoticed in another branch” – thereby leaving a kind of “balance” which has meant that sound quality has not changed much over the past 30-40 years.

In order to try to understand why real development towards “High-Fidelity” has not progressed further than it has, the above historical diagram helps to visualise how I see the deterioration and improvement in quality that have happened since the introduction of recorded sound.

Our measurement technology has certainly contributed considerably to the slide in absolute quality, “the same for less” is the motto that has been applied time, and again when engineers have discussed measurements as a direct proof of sound quality. This approach invaded the industry in the 1940s, via David Theodore Nelson Williamson’s high-feedback amplifier design, and measurements used as a proof of better sound has become increasingly dominant to this day.

Every new technology that has been introduced has generally started its life just as another branch on the audio system “tree” has reached its peak, but there has always been another trough somewhere else to put the blame on when new technology did not provide the necessary (claimed) improvements in overall performance. Our belief in the idea of progress has most certainly supported this development.

It is almost certain that when the transition from triode to pentode was made, software quality can be at least partly blamed for the demise of the triode, the move from 78s to microgroove LPs helped conceal the real inferiority of the pentode. The result was the pentode being the victim when the transistor amplifier was introduced. This happened almost simultaneously with the introduction of stereo, a time when software, and recording quality was at its absolute peak, so the reduction in sonic quality that the transistor introduced was more than counterbalanced by the improvements in software quality.

As we approach modern times, the increasingly well developed “objectivist” technological dogma, combined with the growing post-war belief in the idea that progress is indeed a straight line, which, combined with better, and more clever marketing techniques originally used to “rally the troops” during the national emergencies of the 1930s, and 1940s helped create a shift in the market aimed at higher proliferation, and profitability to the detriment of absolute sound quality. To me, it is perfectly clear that the resources being invested in improving absolute quality had largely evaporated by 1965, as marketing men, and accountants took over the main budget in most commercially-successful companies, a fact that seems to have gone unnoticed by both the audio press, and buying public.

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The oft-maligned CD.

Remember the excuses for the Compact Disc in the early days? “It is too accurate for the rest of the audio chain, and is therefore showing it up…” or some such nonsense. How about the current speaker/room interface debate? The room is the “last frontier.” Speakers would sound perfect if only the rooms they were used in were better.  The fact that most loudspeakers (whether claimed to be of high-end quality or not) are designed under near-field anechoic conditions compounds the issue in my mind. What use is there in designing under these conditions when most people sit at three-to-six times the distance used to measure speaker response? On top of that, who lives in rooms with an acoustic complimentary to an anechoic chamber? These little truths do not seem to have impacted the designers of modern loudspeakers at all.

The list of creative excuses for the lack of real research, and thus the questionable or downright incompetent performance of much of the so-called high quality equipment sold is endless, and a strongly contributing factor to the early fragmentation of the audio industry into many companies: Each specialising in one branch (amplifiers, speakers, cables, cartridges, etc.) which allowed a kind of collusion, where the fault for the poor performance of any piece of equipment could always be explained away by a lack of compatibility with the other equipment in whatever system was used to pass judgement. Synergy became the illusory goal of disillusioned music lovers through endless “upgrades” until most gave up.

Which is another item that has always made me wonder why reviewers, and hi-fi magazines have not applied a review process that reduces this problem. The solution is simple, you ask the manufacturer of whatever piece of equipment you want to review to submit a complete system within which he believes that the specific piece will perform at its best, and then review the overall result, together with a conclusion on how the reviewer (or reviewers) feel that the manufacturer has achieved his stated goals with the product in question. This would remove 90 per cent of manufacturer excuses, and give the reader (end consumer) a much better idea of what to choose.

If more time had been spent investigating the fundamental problems, and less time on constructing a great marketing story, and subsequent excuses (where necessary), perhaps we would have better, and more satisfying music reproduction equipment today.

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Back once again: The Single-Ended Triode.

In 1948-49 the single most important negative development, after the abandonment of the single-ended triode, and the introduction of negative feedback – invented in 1928 by Telefunken – was the 1947 Williamson article in Wireless World that launched the foundations of the single most important theory now ruling audio design: Specifications as a measure of sonic quality.

This theory was quickly picked up by great marketers like Harold Leak, Peter Walker (of Quad), A.Stewart Hegeman, David Hafler and countless others.

This was, in my opinion, the most damaging single-theory to be imposed on audio design.  This suggestion that sound quality, and measured quality (as exemplified by distortion, bandwidth, and noise measurements as we know them) are directly related to sound quality became the most compelling theory going. Why? Because it is very simple, and its very simplicity makes it the most powerful marketing tool ever handed to the audio industry.  It provides the manufacturer with “proof” that his audio product is “better” than the competition.  What more could you want?

It has single-handedly created the ideological basis for thousands of minute, and incremental quality reductions. In part because it has made it possible to make products that measure the same at increasingly lower prices, often using technologies poached from other branches of electronics – which in the absence of any real research into music reproduction techniques – provides a powerful substitute, and excellent surrogate to feed an unsuspecting, and gullible public seeking a music system of quality. It is this public who can be easily fooled into believing that when two products measure the same then they ARE the same, and the buying decision then becomes a simple question of price. How brutally simple, and incredibly effective.

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To oversample or not to oversample?

Digital Audio is the latest example of how the high-fidelity industry has distorted the concept of research, and improvement. Since the introduction of the Compact Disc in late 1982, the technology has entered into the usual numbers game. 20-bit is better than 16-bit, 96kHz is better than 44.1 kHz, 24-bit is better still, as is a 192kHz sampling rate, and so on. In addition to this, music is now becoming virtual, and very few customers actually know what level of quality they are downloading onto their computer. Claims from the file-providing services that their files are stored using the ultimate lossless, high-resolution codec, coupled with the convenience of a song at your very finger tips makes this path a rather compelling one for music consumers. And does all the necessary hardware, and software upgrades necessary to play back these new file codecs make manufacturers happy or what? Believe me when I say that a critical-listening session comparing high-resolution files to a well-recorded CD on a decent CD transport quickly dispels any claims of higher bitrates as just another marketing-based illusion.

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Peter Qvortrup at home, May 2017.

Conclusion, Or Some Such

I started writing this discussion piece in the first half of the 1990s, and it has stayed on my computer for years, being taken out, and “brushed off” from time to time. The piece you have just read was intended as a “taster” to a much longer series of articles discussing in much more detail each of the five branches of audio, and music recording, and reproduction. I still intend to write these articles delving into each of these technologies, so perhaps we will meet again.

Peter Qvortrup

September 17, 2017













About Rafe Arnott (390 Articles)
Editor of InnerFidelity and AudioStream

20 Comments on Peter Qvortrup: High Fidelity, the Decline of the Decades

  1. Nonsense.

    Nothing wrong with nostalgia, but to state as fact that not much has improved since the 1930’s is just ludicrous. Anyone who listens to the Andrews Sister’s recordings from the 30’s and to their ‘In HiFi’ recordings a few decades later can immediately establish that the later recordings are a LOT better.

    I grew up in the 70’s, hence with vinyl records, and I’m very glad to have seen the back of them, never to return. Yes, it took the recording industry a very long time to adapt and quite a lot of cutting masters were used to master CD releases, which is not a very good idea.

    The recording industry as a whole doesn’t seem to value quality in recordings a lot and tends to be very callous with all the creativity the artists pour into their work. This attitude is unlikely to change, as money seems more important than quality.

    But this essay sounds a lot like: Come on, Grandpa, tell us some more about the good old days!”

  2. Peter Qvortrup touts that AUDIO QUALITY HAS PEEKED IN THE SIXTIES, BUT WHY THEN DOES HE NOT HAVE SIXTIES AMPLIFICATION TURNTABLES & SPEAKERS ? instead IN THE PHOTOS ABOVE SHOWS INSANELY PRICE “AUDIO-NOTE” GEAR THAT HE NOW LISTENS TO….

    • Dear GS, I am not sure you have understood the central argument, or perhaps I did not do as good a job of explaining as I thought (?), the argument I make is essentially that we seem to learn little to nothing from history, most of what is perceived as progress is cost or technology based (progress is in Western thought a straight time based line, hence no need to look back at history) there is no historical revisionism anywhere, not in reviewing, not in the mind of audio engineers, by a large.
      What I argue for here is that if you apply the best practices/technologies of the past combined with best current knowledge to equipment designed and made now, take as an example amplification, what we learn from the past is that the best device, the directly heated triode, produces, when applied with current materials knowledge and understanding a level of fidelity unattainable any other way regardless of all the development since 1911 when the DHT was first introduced.
      This is essentially what you see in my system, yes it is expensive, but every part of the system is a reflection of what a careful study of audio history has taught me.

      Peter

  3. Words fail me. And politeness censures me.

  4. Peter, this all reminds me of the old Edison road-show where Tom would (blind to the audience) play a scratchy acoustic vocal recording and then have the singer perform live. The audience couldn’t tell the difference (Google it). Audio from the 1950s, recorded onto analog tape with vacuum tube mics, can sound stunningly gorgeous. But take that same talent, same mics, and same room and record it with today’s best ADCs into a digital recorder, and played back with today’s best DACs, amps, and monitors, and you’ll find that it sounds profoundly more lifelike and real. Granted, today’s DACs, especially, have poor low-level linearity. Low-level DAC signals get granular and jaggy (see some of John Atkinson’s DAC review 24-bit -90dBFS sine wave images). Yes, you CAN hear (perhaps “sense” is a better word) these gross non-linearities in quiet audio playback environments. This may be one reason some people prefer the “sound” of analog tape — as a waveform drops into the noise floor, it doesn’t get “jaggy” — it simply looks like the same waveform disappearing into a random sea of tape noise.

    Let’s set the record straight. There have been three paradigm shifts in audio history. After Edison invented audio playback, the first paradigm shift happened in 1925 with the Western Electric invention of electric recording and reproduction. This gave us 25-30dB more dynamic range than Edison acoustic recordings. The next paradigm shift was Ampex’s commercialization of magnetic tape in the 1950s, which gave us another 25dB bump in dynamic range. The last historical paradigm shift was realized by the shift from analog to digital recording, which also gave us an additional 25dB of dynamic range. These three historical events are where you’ll find the greatest objective -and- subjective improvements in audio recording and reproduction. The audio world is anxiously awaiting the fourth, and final, dynamic range paradigm shift, where our systemic noise floor (mic => preamp => ADC => DAC => power amp) is reduced by another 30-40dB, so that noise is, finally, no longer part of the audio conversation. I think that shift will be realized before 2020.

    Peter, if you’ve never had a chance to sit in a state-of-the-art scoring stage and recording room, I encourage you to do it. This is where the greatest care is being taken in recording the finest music today. When you sit in these rooms and hear the immersive playback at the highest levels of technology, you will realize that such acoustic brilliance was never approached in the 1950s, 1960s, etc.. We, today, are realizing the greatest objective and subjective audio performance in human history. Here’s one place to start (see the video): https://www.synchronstage.com/en Be well. JL

    • Dear John,

      I have and do spend time in recording studios, as we regularly supply monitoring equipment to studios, I am also an associate member of the Music Producers Guild here in the UK, Audio Note sponsors the aspiration and innovation award, all I can really say is that I broadly disagree with what you say and I would be more than happy to host you carrying a stack of what you consider the best of todays recordings and do a comparison on my home system with what I consider the pinnacles of the past (including some 78 transfers!).
      Over the last few years I have had my fair share of recording and mastering engineers and well known musicians through my music room and so far none have disagreed with me, so be my guest.

      Peter

  5. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful page. We all make and live in our own realities. Especially evident in this strangely compelling hobby/business. I’ve only been in the industry for four decades. Driven by a love of music it’s fascinating to hear folks talking about greed as a driving force for those of us who sacrifice so much for very little remuneration relative to the level of truly hard work we do. It’s hard for me to understand the actual point here. There are over hyped nonsense products, like any other industry. The “ultra high end” uber expensive gear is as much of a puzzle to me as the as the attachment to the SET or any other tech fetishes. If the love of music drives one to try to find gear which provides a deeper connection to the soul of the performance, there are plenty of folks who share that love enough to have made it their life’s work to be there for them.

  6. This should be a mandatory read for anyone interested in HiFi. Suppliers, rags, and those who benefit from consumer dollars will just try and nitpick it, take out of context, etc. Well summarized.

  7. I couldn’t disagree more with the positions taken by the author. As a recording engineer, record producer, and professor of audio recording, it’s simply not true that the recording fidelity — both recorded and reproduced — peaked in 50-60 years ago. The potential exists to produce and release recordings of exquisite fidelity, no noise, real world dynamics, extended frequency response, and fully immersive surround sound unlike the highly compromised fidelity produced during the vinyl LP halcyon days of the 50s. In fact, it’s not even close. PCM digital technology has done more to advance recording fidelity than decades of tweaking turntables, cartridges, and phono preamps.

    The real problem is that the music and consumer electronics industries choose — for creative or financial reasons — to release recordings that don’t live up to the potential that we have available. The potential exists to make amazing recordings but the commercial marketplace doesn’t produce or release them and consumers don’t want them.

    I started AIX Records, my audiophile record label, back in 2000 to demonstrate that it is possible to produce and release recordings that surpass all previous HiFi standards using new high-definition audio standards — and many believe that I succeeded. One listen to Jennifer Warnes singing “So Sad” in the midst of a circle of acoustic musicians will convince even the most ardent vinyl advocate that high-resolution PCM audio and surround mixing is the ultimate expression of a music performance.

    Audio enthusiasts may prefer the fidelity of a certain format, but there’s simply no arguing that the entire production chain from source to delivery is at its peak today. Engineers, producers, and listeners have the ability to deliver fidelity that matches or exceeds the sounds of real life — something that was impossible in the 50s. If you haven’t heard it, you simply cannot express a position.

    My new book “Music and Audio: A User Guider to Better Audio” lays out the case for high-resolution audio. One recent reader wrote, “This is a staggeringly extensive but balanced and insightful work of outstanding merit. I would not say it will become a standard in its field but THE GOLD STANDARD.”

    • Dear Mark, with respect, I have not heard any of your recordings, so I may be speaking out of turn here, but I think you need to get a better turntable/arm/cartridge perhaps, in order to fully appreciate the best of yesteryear’s efforts, they are highly prized and sought after for good reason.

      Fidelity is a loaded word, as it means different things to different people at different times, most of what is recorded today outside of the commercial sphere focusses on what I call sonic packaging, where positioning, imaging and whatever other such parameter are optimised in the belief that this is what enhances the musical experience and transmits the emotional, intellectual and artistic beauty of a performance, to be brutally honest I would rather listen to a 1951 recording of Furtwangler conducting Beethoven 9 at Bayreuth than any of the enhanced recordings of the past 20 – 30 years.

      Sound that matches perhaps (although i would question that), but exceeds real life?

      Hmmm, it is claims like this that makes me wonder about the sheer power of imaginary thinking.

      I shall get a copy of your book and one or two recordings nonetheless.

      Peter

      • Thanks for your comments Peter. I must admit that I don’t own a turntable, cartridge, or state-of-the-art phono preamp — although I do still have a small collection of vinyl LPs from my analog period. I have no interest in spending any amount on that type of equipment when I get superior reproduction from cost friendly gear. However, I have heard what was claimed to be “among the best” systems at trade shows, demo rooms, and audiophile club meetings. I’ve experienced the best analog has to offer and a number of occasions. And as I stated previously, I certainly agree that vinyl LPs can produce wonderful, euphonious fidelity if the source recordings were made with care.

        I take fidelity to mean faithful reproduction of the original (is there another definition that skews that definition to include the subjective tastes of the listener?). The acoustic energy entering the signal path at the microphone should be delivered to the listening space without degradation or modification of any sort (although commercial recordings deliberately alter the raw sounds to appeal to a specific niche). An ideal analog system (choose your format — tape, vinyl etc), I hope you would acknowledge, does this less well than an ideal PCM digital system. Whether one prefers the listening experience from one format or another is a matter of personal preference, past experience, and expectation bias. I had a prominent cable maker listen to some of my best recordings in my studio and state, “it was just too clear and transparent for my taste”. He knows and is familiar with the sound that he likes (analog vinyl) and what I played for him was simply too different — although it was of higher fidelity than anything he had ever heard before.

        The specifications of high-resolution PCM digital (96 kHz/24-bits or better) exceed the frequency range and dynamic range of human hearing but not the physics of acoustic energy as produced by music. That’s what I meant by “exceeding reality”. Our capture and reproduction systems — for the first time in the history of sound recording — are as good as our sense of hearing. That’s a major milestone IMHO. However, it is unfortunate and true that the commercial recording industry hasn’t embraced the potential of the new technology.

        You and I will likely continue to disagree on the fundamentals of your argument that audio capture and reproduction peaked in the past and that we’ve learned little in the intervening years. I hope you do have a chance to experience some of my recordings in an optimal setting. They may not be to your liking but plenty of others have lauded them as ground-breaking and worthy or the highest praise. Andrew Quint, a senior writer at The Absolute Sound, wrote, “the multichannel audio, emanating from five B & W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format.” And he’s not the only reviewer that expressed this sentiment.

        Peter, there are a number of my recordings available for download free of charge through my blog site at http://www.realhd-audio.com. I’d be happy to recommend a few of my favorites if you like.

        Mark

  8. WETTLAUFER // January 26, 2018 at 4:58 PM //

    :o)

  9. It’s always refreshing to read how holistic systems bring the goods. The idealized world never existed, however, so compartmentalizing the various eras as “best” for a given type of gear or technology is fraught with examples to the contrary.

    This is why my system might make better sound than yours, and vice versa, and both disparities can be true.

    Case in point: The author would have to do the very thing he despises in others, at my house. He’d have to “explain away” why I can play some hi res files that clearly better their 16-bit counterparts, even those hi res files created from an LP rip.

  10. Marc De Togni // January 26, 2018 at 7:54 AM //

    Very interesting subject and very well developed.
    I totally agree with this article.
    Passionate about sound reproduction for more than 40 years, I am sad to see the direction this sector is taking.
    Its evolution is unfortunately greatly compromised by the financial aspect.
    There is no more passion, no longer trying to evolve in quality, the only target is to make profits.
    The power of marketing is to make us believe otherwise.

  11. Michael Kaupert // January 26, 2018 at 12:53 AM //

    I agree with some of the above comments. I enjoyed the article, but i do have to disagree a few of your points. However, I would mostly add (or reemphasize) that while the majority of the industry is succumbing to the decline of quality components to settle for more feature based products rather than quality/high fidelity components, this is certainly not an absolute occurrence across the board. There are still manufacturers that are pushing the ticket (be it amps, speakers, source, or what have you) to achieve higher fidelity. As a whole, the industry has slowed in it’s progress, and in some instances even back tracked. But the progress is still happening, albeit with less leaps and bounds than in the time periods suggested. And while objective specs are the norm for buying decisions for most people, there are many manufacturers that push in home auditions, suggesting that there’s still a belief in letting your ears decide quality, not numbers.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. I enjoyed it 🙂

  12. Matt Schmidt // January 25, 2018 at 5:09 PM //

    Peter makes some interesting points, but I find his chart to be a bit troublesome. Since he uses the phrase “best effort” to assign his numeric values, he’s saying that EVERY loudspeaker (I presume this would also include Audio Note) manufactured today sounds quite poor compared to the best loudspeaker made in the 1930’s/40’s? This claim seems a bit dubious, as the technology has existed for 75+ years to replicate those designs. It implies that no speaker manufacturer today is remotely interested in reviving those designs, or that no manufacturer feels it can do it profitably. Given the plethora of six-figure speakers out there in today’s marketplace, either reason seems unlikely. If he had used the phrase “typical effort”, it would seem much more plausible.

    What Audio Note should do is reserve a suite of hotel rooms at some audio show and put various eras of equipment in each one, plus another room with the best of each era… 1940s speakers playing 1960s records played on a contemporary amp and turntable. Or just have two rooms, one with all Audio Note, and one with 40s speakers subbed in.

    • Dear Matt, best effort is correct as late as 1995, since then, if I had to make a judgement on the 2 decades since then the speakers would shift up, at least one step, the best drivers use field coils, there are very few being made, even now, although that is changing.

      I like the idea of showing a historicval system and a modern one, my problem is that over the years i have sold off 95% of my collection of 1930’s – 1960’s speakers and amplifiers, where a demo like that would fall down is the replay part, turntables of 1930 or 1950 vintage are really not very good, I am not sure I would take a pristine 1955 recording and play it on a gramophone from 1955 when i am honest and that would to a large extent go to prove the point I am trying to make in the article.

      Peter

  13. Seems grumpy, but he’s mostly right. Ironically, listening to some his gear help me understand how overpriced some of this stuff is given the antiquainted technology.

  14. sdolezalek // January 25, 2018 at 12:13 PM //

    This is a well written, thoughtful and melancholy piece that left me halfway between longing for a return to better times and depressed about the state of where we are. Fortunately, I think reality is actually quite different. The difference is what software has done to digital. The arrival of the CD did signal an over-reliance on one set of “specifications” that clearly were not the only specifications needed to achieve high quality sound. But, in the last 5 years we have made so much progress in allowing software to improve where hardware fell short. We have arrived at a point where we can a) put a microphone where each of our ears is, b) compare what those microphones hear to what the same microphones would have heard in the original recording space, and c) make a whole series of adjustments such what we hear and would have heard had we been there “live” are much more similar than ever before.

    The result is that the lowly CD can be brought to life and that 16/44 recording turns out to not to have been all that far from optimal. Unfortunately, getting CDs to sound that good is not a function of installing a single piece of hardware or software and calling it done. Getting there requires licensing at least a half dozen different software packages and spending a fair amount of time measuring and fine-tuning. To start with, you probably don’t want the CD at all but a digital or streamed file of it at 16/44 resolution. Next, you need to do very careful room and head measurements involving your entire music chain from digital file to loudspeaker (software like REW will do it). In those measurements you need to capture not only frequency response anomalies but also phase anomalies. Once those are captured, we now have software that can create a convolution file that will make the necessary changes to the digital input to adjust for the anomalies. That, in turn, can be done in a different piece of software like Roon or HQ Player. Next, you need to pay much closer attention to the digital-to-analog conversion process than is true of virtually all CD players. Typically it involves “up-rezzing” the 16/44 file to 24/392 or to DSD512 levels and doing so with a carefully chosen set of filters (HQ Player is one of, if not the absolute best, at doing this). This is not to somehow add missing information or improve response rates at inaudibly high frequencies, it is to provide room for the digital filters used in the conversion to do their stuff at frequencies that don’t leave artifacts in the frequencies we can hear. Doing it right makes the right compromises between eliminating the ringing that the D-to-A process introduces and the phase shifts introduced if you just try to optimize for ringing. Exactly how that is done, what filters are used and whether the output is high-res PCM or high frequency DSD depends on what DAC you are using. After all that is done, you get even better results by using a personal service managed by a young french company, homeaudiofidelity.com) that will take your detailed head measurements and construct for you the precise convolution files needed to get the optimum sound to each ear, making both frequency and phase adjustments.

    What I left out of the above description was what software can now also do in providing much more satisfying crossover networks and filters than the hardware-based ones employed in most speakers. That, in turn requires more measuring and work and often rewiring, but can have similarly stunning positive effects. It is what has made the KEF LS50 wireless speakers so very popular because there the speaker manufacturer does it for you.

    Carefully and properly doing all of the above can result in a stunning level of audio accuracy and realism that make up for so many of the pure hardware system shortfalls we typically live with. It is also cheaper than what we would normally be willing to spend to get anywhere near this level of improvement from a new piece of equipment.

    The problem is that it takes time and learning and patience at a level few audiophiles are willing to spend.

    Most would rather just drop another $1,000 and hope that fixes it (which is one of the biggest problems this industry has, because it is what we have educated the customer to think — “instant gratification now available by just adding this new …”). In fact, working with these software tools takes us all the way back to old world custom craftsmanship, because the right settings in my listening room and with my equipment will be entirely different than yours. There is no quick fix, no silver bullet.

    But, that was and is the magic of an instrument like a Stradivari violin, a slow careful selection of parts, careful combinations and treatments, repeated careful testing, custom craftsmanship applying years of experience, etc. Yes, this is software we are talking about and not a piece of Apple or Cherry wood, but it also means your end result is not one anyone else has. Instead it is the very best music that can be made by optimizing the combination of hardware we were each able to afford through a very careful overlay of software tools. And those tools suggest to me that we are today much better off than ever before.

  15. Andras Szamek // January 25, 2018 at 10:09 AM //

    Amen to that. Great article, thank you.

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