The Power of Ideas… to enrage audiophiles

I just had a somewhat abrasive online encounter. I had the temerity to comment on some blog articles about digital cables and found that what I was saying seemed to send people apoplectic with rage.

treknorman

Basically, I asked: if digital cables are responsible for changing the sound in any way, then how could high quality online streaming services work at all? The signals are sent over long distances of dubious cable, non-audiophile optical fibres and satellites not even made of silver, and yet, supposedly (and actually), the signals emerge in real time, utterly perfect – except, that is, for the deleterious effects of that pesky final cable…

As always with this sort of idea or thought-experiment, I was told I was “missing the point” – the articles were primarily about cables’ effects on noise injection, hum loops, jitter and so on, so such “philosophical” arguments were irrelevant, they blustered.

But if we accept the notion that high quality online streaming is possible (audiophiles have no trouble accepting that TIDAL is “CD quality”), and that it is independent of the types of cables in the global internet (changing dynamically from moment to moment), and indeed is indistinguishable at the DAC from a network-based CD drive (for example) on our local network, then the implication of the ‘noise’ agenda must be that all the ‘noise’ from the thousands of miles of bog-standard cable and bog-standard digital gubbins along the way can be removed before it even reaches our network. So why can the DAC not incorporate this 100% noise blocking function itself? If it can (and it can) then the final cable in the chain takes on only the same significance as any other of the myriad cheap, long cables in the chain i.e. demonstrably none whatsoever. And, indeed, that was the whole idea of digital audio in the first place – an idea that has somehow become forgotten along the way.

Of course I accept that some digital audio implementations are poorly-designed and could, indeed, be susceptible to noise injection, hum loops and so on. Some may even suffer from power supply noise related to the digital signal and “how hard the chips have to work”. But if so, then messing around with cables is a red herring; trying to fix a fundamental problem with a sticking plaster. But even this overstates the case: at least a sticking plaster is designed by clever people who understand the problem. It is effective at what it does and doesn’t pretend to work simply because it is made of a certain material or incorporates an ancient Celtic weave. A common mistake is to believe that audiophile hardware is ‘higher quality’ than standard, but that rationalists don’t believe it is worth using. No. The truth is that rationalists don’t even believe that it is ‘higher quality’. Probably the opposite. It may be more expensive. It may use materials that are sacred to audiophiles. But it is just a manifestation of ignorance and magical thinking, and is worthless or worse. A more expensive cable can/will not fix the problems with your defective DAC. The only way to fix the problem for real is to design the electronics competently, and to design the last digital node to block ‘noise’ in the same way as earlier nodes can, apparently, block all the noise of the entire internet.

The unpalatable truth is that if you hear differences in your system when you change your digital cables you are either:

  1. imagining it, or
  2. the owner of hardware that is defective (by design).

I would bet that (1) is the more common. Given a suitable measurement setup whose resolution equalled or exceeded the resolution of your audio DAC, you could verify your system’s immunity by feeding in known digital test waveforms and checking that what came out of the DAC was always the same regardless of cable and any other upstream hardware. This idea, too, was met with seething fury!

Maybe I have realised something: many people simply cannot process “philosophical” ideas. The only way they can get a handle on them is for someone first to ‘downsample’ them into a form they are comfortable with:

  • brand names and products
  • industry gossip and hero-worship
  • low level engineering trivialities as a substitute and/or smokescreen for genuine ideas
  • shop-floor nuts and bolts

But this is a lossy process. It is impossible to ‘upsample’ the low level tittle tattle back into the world of ideas. Any attempt to do so, or a refusal to ‘downsample’ in the first place, causes panic, abuse, then meltdown.

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