The Beatles re-mastered

Since they finally made it onto Spotify and other streaming services, I have begun listening to the Beatles again, following a gap of a few years. The reason for the gap was that it was often too tempting to explore Spotify rather than getting up to place CDs in the drive or getting around to “ripping” them. Also, my Beatles CDs are fairly old, so not in the ‘re-mastered’ category, and this knowledge would no doubt have spoiled the experience of listening to them while not being a strong enough reason to buy new ones.

The experience of listening to the re-mastered Beatles on my über-system has been “interesting” rather than the unalloyed pleasure I was expecting. In years gone by, I very much enjoyed my Beatles CDs on lesser systems, listening to the music without worrying too much about ‘quality’ – although I always marvelled at the freshness of the recordings that had made it across the decades intact. I had built up such expectations of the re-mastered versions playing on a real hi-fi system that I was bound to be disappointed, I suppose.

What I am finding is that, for the first time, I am hearing how the tracks were put together, and I can ‘hear through’ to the space behind them. With the latest re-masters on my system, you can clearly hear the individual tracks cleanly separated, and the various studio techniques being employed – you can’t mistake them for ‘live’ recordings – and they are rather ‘dry’.

With the Beatles I think that we are hearing music and recordings that were brilliantly, painstakingly created in the studio to an exceptional level of quality, that still sounded great when ‘munged’ through the typical record players, TV, radio and hi-fi equipment of the day – mainly in mono. It is now fascinating to hear the individual ingredients so cleanly separated, but I wonder whether the records wouldn’t have been produced slightly differently with modern high quality playback equipment in mind; after all, we are probably hearing the recordings more cleanly than was even possible in the studio at the time. Maybe it really is the case that The Beatles sound best on the equipment they were first heard on. Other musical groups of the time weren’t produced with such a high level of studio creativity and in such quality and so, with their recordings already ‘pre-munged’ to some extent, are not laid bare to the same degree on a modern system.

For the first time, perhaps I am beginning to see the reason for the re-release of the mono versions. They are a way of producing a more ‘cohesive’ mix without resorting to artificial distortion and effects that were not on the original recordings.

 

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Beolab 90

large_bang-olufsen-beolab-90-speaker-hifi

[coolhunting.com]

I am sure everyone knows about these $80,000 behemoths by now. Like the Kii Three on steroids, they feature variable directivity based on multiple drivers and DSP. In fact, 8000W of amplification is provided, presumably because the bass drivers are in fairly small compartments and so high power is needed at low frequencies (as with the Kii and Devialet Phantom) and, I am presuming, the directivity control works partly by actively cancelling out the sound radiated by the drivers.

I am sure they sound fantastic, as described in one article, and there is much interesting information in a behind-the-scenes blog. Part of the appeal for me is that although they are an expression of the ‘the ultimate’ and are highly exotic, they are plainly built from utilitarian parts put together in an intelligent way.

What really fascinates me, however, is the looks of these things. I think that some of us may harbour a notion that when the best solution to an engineering problem is found, one of its characteristics is usually a simplicity and elegance that appeals to us on every level, including the appearance.

If it’s not too pretentious, this is the sort of thing that many of us possibly want to believe:

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

-Buckminster Fuller

These speakers may confound that notion – or possibly confirm it, depending on your point of view.

large_bang-olufsen-denmark-factory-beolab90-speaker

[coolhunting.com]

It may just be, that for this particular problem, it is not possible to make a practical solution that is aesthetically pleasing. Entirely concealing the enclosure in acoustically-transparent-ish fabric would have been possible I might have thought i.e. creating a ‘tent’ in a nice, sensible shape such as a cylinder or trapezoidal box. This could have been like a bigger version of the top of the KEF 105. However, maybe in this case it would simply have been too big.

The B&O solution, both inside and out, is… “distinctive”. The aluminium trim, black contoured fabric and pale wood grain are very B&O, but I just cannot believe that there weren’t several further iterations of ‘finessing’ possible. If you disagree, or could suggest a way to improve the appearance without affecting the basic design, please comment – I would be very interested.

“Bringing acoustic perfection to the public”

club hi fi

Another audio-related article in the Guardian. This time about a hipster-ish trend for hi-fi systems in pubs and clubs.

Tucked away among the hustle and grot of the east London district of Dalston is Brilliant Corners, an initially unassuming little bar… where jazz, disco and electronic music can be heard over the kind of huge Klipschorn speakers that make sound enthusiasts and club historians go weak at the knees…

I have noticed this trend. There are even hints of it in my home town, with pubs and trendy cafés making a feature of vinyl-based sound systems. One café has a vinyl record shop in the basement which usually seems packed.

The dead hand of audiophilia and its need to validate the experience with high prices is never far away, however, with the article suggesting that this is all about bringing £500,000 of extraordinary performance within reach of the masses. In reality, surely, it’s all about a convivial atmosphere and something a bit ‘retro’. One pub I know plays music on an old radiogram that might have cost £50 on eBay and this, it seems to me, achieves the same objectives.

Light entertainment

Here’s a little controversy from the archives of Stereophile magazine.

Stereophile has an interesting policy whereby an equipment reviewer writes up his subjective experience of testing a device, and only then is it measured for distortion, frequency response and so on. It seems that the magazine has the integrity to publish the two reports whatever the outcome.

Have you ever seen a more polarised review than this one from 2005?

The reviewer says:

The CyberLights represent one of the greatest technological breakthroughs in high-performance audio that I have experienced in my audiophile lifetime….

…for the first time in your life you’ll hear no cables whatsoever. When you switch back to any brand of metal conductors, you’ll know you’re hearing cables—because what’s transmitted via CyberLight will be the most gloriously open, coherent, delicate, extended, transparent, pristine sound you’ve ever heard from your system…

The measurements person says:

If this review were of a conventional product, I would dismiss it as being broken. …I really don’t see how the CyberLight P2A and Wave cables can be recommended. I am puzzled that Harmonic Technology, which makes good-sounding, reasonably priced conventional cables, would risk their reputation with something as technically flawed as the CyberLight.

You’ll have to read the full review for yourself, because the contrast between the two opinions is almost comical. The measurements are quite something to behold.

You see, I sometimes worry that perhaps I just don’t ‘get’ this hi-fi business. £80,000 analogue systems don’t sound anything special to me. Vinyl doesn’t sound as good as digital to my ears but everyone else says it is much better. Designing and building my own system was really quite straightforward, yet the internet is full of intense discussion about how difficult it is; people spend their entire lives building their own speakers and are never happy with them yet it’s almost three years in and counting, and I haven’t felt motivated to modify mine yet. Are the experts hearing something I am not? Perhaps this review sheds some light on the answer.

Analogue enthusiasts often claim that the signal-modifying effects of whatever product they are listening to actually improve the sound. The usual line is that the indefinable magic of valves and vinyl is down to what those devices add: they are serendipitously restoring something that is supposedly missing from the recording. ‘Poor’ measurements are simply an indication of an harmonious combination of factors that enable the leap from clinical, neutral signal to real music. There is no argument possible against this assertion.

However, in the above review, the writer cannot make that claim. Clearly he has confused high levels of distortion and noise plus extreme frequency response variations as an absence of colouration. For him, replacing metal cables with “light” was all about removing “grunge” and other “well-known problems”. Because of his extreme analogo-philia, I don’t think he actually knew what ‘neutral’ sounded like. When he heard something that was different from anything he had heard before, he automatically assumed that it must be because cables really are the sonic quagmire he thought they were and that the product was doing what he assumed it was designed to do. For once, it actually was a “night and day” difference but his understanding of what he was hearing was 180 degrees wrong. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter, but it reassures me that 99% of the ‘expert’ opinion based on listening is very dubious indeed – I do think there are people out there who would find much to like in a pair of yoghurt pots linked with string as long as they cost enough.

Stereophile, it appears, doesn’t normally measure cables when they are reviewed. I think we can guess why: there is nothing to measure. Each and every review would feature the same distortion and noise measurements at the very lowest depths of the test equipment’s range, plus a ruler-flat frequency response when using the cable in normal circumstances. It wouldn’t matter if the cable cost £1 or £10,000 – which, absurdly, they sometimes do. To arrange anything different would actually be quite difficult. It is this complete, boring neutrality that Michael Fremer and other cable mythologisers are convinced is plagued with “grunge” and other problems. The justification for the Cyberlight product, so appealing to Fremer, is that it replaces a short section of metal with light and fibre optics, and is analogue – you still connect to the input and output with those awful grungy wires. It is no different from becoming excited about the audio quality of headphones that use an analogue wireless link rather than a cable. Just as with those headphones, there is a little “background hiss” but this is a small price to pay, apparently. And just like those headphones, the signal goes through a link of dubious quality. Very dubious. At least there is a valid justification for wireless headphones, though.

If you gave me about £20 to buy a few parts, I could build you this device in an afternoon, probably. But if I did, I would try to make it work properly. I would certainly try to convince you that the whole product was unnecessary and was corrupting the signal, and that if we really had to use fibre optics we should digitise the signal and send it as pulses. I might also point out that the commercial product is a mess: various “wall warts”, $400 battery packs and “pigtails” that could, depending on what equipment you’re using, destroy your speakers.

And don’t ever unplug or plug in the power to the cables with the amplifier turned on or you’ll send a horrendous THUMP through your system.

For people who might dismiss active speakers and DSP as too complex, there are no limits to the Heath Robinson-esqueness that they can tolerate in the name of ‘analogue’.

Digital Audio’s PR Problem

If you’d never heard of digital audio, but were told that it was now possible to store and play back audio signals on a computer, I don’t think you would raise an eyebrow. After all, how difficult can it be? An audio signal is no different from any other ‘wiggly line’ that computers seem to manipulate with ease: graphics, high quality fonts, CAD drawings, maps etc. for all intents and purposes at infinite resolution.

But somehow, digital audio is seen as a special case, where no one quite believes that it works. Looking at various forum discussions it is apparent that, in fact, it wouldn’t matter how many bits, how many MHz of sample rate, how few femtoseconds of jitter was specified, audiophiles would still be convinced they could hear the ‘1’s and ‘0’s, jitter, quantisation distortion and so on. The noise and distortion inherent in tape and vinyl that is many orders of magnitude greater gets a free pass; the noise in digital audio no matter how minuscule must always be portrayed as ear-bleedingly offensive. Why?

I think there are several reasons:

  1. Digital audio is mathematically-based. Long after real world signals have become buried in noise and distortion due to unavoidable physics, the theoretical numbers associated with the maths remain pristine and, quite unambiguously, show errors! Clearly we need better numbers. And so it goes on. In other words, no matter how high the resolution, you can always zoom in and see a theoretical error that looks just as big and clear on the screen or page.
  2. From the outset, the theory behind digital audio was discussed openly, but very few people actually understood it fully (including me). Thirty-odd years later, the misunderstandings persist. These vary from assuming that digital audio cannot know, or fill in, what is in “the gaps”, to failing to understand the significance of dither.
  3. Digital audio provided a complete mathematical solution, in many ways superior to other computer-based wiggly lines. The system is so elegant and simple that people just don’t believe it can work the way it does. [03.03.16 just saw an article that says exactly that“The intriguing aspect is that those who do understand refuse to believe”]
  4. Digital audio must always be chasing its tail, because as soon as a new performance level is achieved, it becomes possible for every Tom, Dick and Harry to buy the hardware for a small number of pounds, and even to start measuring signals at that level. Suddenly we’re all experts for whom -110dB is an average spec and must therefore be highly audible – although no one has ever heard a signal that quiet. No matter how good, digital audio will always seem mundane.
  5. Digital audio hardware is too complex to build using discrete circuitry. Integrated circuits are cheap. Audiophiles need to know they are buying better stuff than the hoi polloi, but digital audio doesn’t play the game. It remains persistently cheap enough for the masses to buy exactly the same measured performance as the most expensive fancily-boxed version of the same chip. (We are talking £30 versus £30,000, say). In the audiophile mind, this proves that measurements mean nothing and that “bits are not bits”, whereas in reality it shows the opposite.