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Won’t Get Fooled Again - Computer Audio

We have NOT gone over the the Dark Side

I have been talking about streaming music here a bit lately. While bored waiting for CES to get here, I surfed around a bit and came across an article on Audiostream.

Audiostream,com is Stereophile’s new spinoff computer audio zine.

Some of the perspective there on this stuff got me to thinking that you all might think we’ve gone to the Dark Side.


Not us.

Not ever.

Not to pick on anyone in particular, but lets look at this article on the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II.

He does a excellent job describing the Musical Fidelity family sound and hints at their version-itus. But the overall context of the review reveals even more about how we are are experiencing yet another…

Worse is Better - Don’t You Clueless People Out There Get It?

… event in high fidelity audio.

Kool Aid Flavor #1 - If you don’t get it then you must be old or stupid

Now, about the AARP crack in the article… and that young people being are comfortable with ripping, no wait burning, no wait… downloading? streaming? digital music? computer audio? online music?

Heaven help me but I agree with Sam Tellig - “There’s so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads.”

First, I think young people, the under 23 crowd, think all this junk is for middle aged geeks who have a lot of extra time on their hands. The desktop is seen as old school and not seen as an entertaining piece of hardware.

Second, if one tries and follows where the big money is going, what is being invested in, it is not,… well, it IS really confusing.

Kool Aid Flavor #2 - There is no confusion

First, there is Amazon and Apple and Google investing in their cloud services - which are, in this context, essentially, places to store music and videos and photos on a website somewhere. This is all because they figure this is currently the best way to monetize music and videos [they can make money off of subscription services (my prediction as the winner of the end game) - but not nearly as much. I mean, otherwise, how are they going to sell you the same pieces of music, over and over again… DSOTM say, about every 3 years we have to buy a newer better one right? :-) ].

But you have all these blogs talking about ripping your CDs and saving them in some format or another across hopefully striped terrabyte drives on some noisy PC and playing it back using clumsy itunes or some such software. Seems like a big disconnect to me. Besides ripping being illegal [another stupid law written by corporate lobbyists, I agree, but…] and the RIAA and unscrupulous lawyers happy to use these laws to extort the most harmless of people, this is just a Transitional Technology - people making some money as we all make the transition from physical media to online media.

But on the hardware side, there is real confusion, IMHO. You have Google TV and Android TV versus Apple TV versus Smart TV versus the now ancient iPod and several thousand it seems boxes that sit on your network and pump music from place to place.

There IS a lot of confusion here because nothing is winning [although I heard that 9 million people have now permanently dropped cable and moved 100% online - aka cutting-the-cord - to netflix et. al…. so people WANT a solution now, they are diving in even without one], The idea being that music is online and coming back to the family living room from a long hiatus - and if 99.99% of people are going to be listening to music in their HT then that is the hardware source we maybe should be looking at making high-fidelity hardware work with.

Kool Aid Flavor #3 - The cheapest of the new sounds better than the most expensive of the old

Remember those $200 CD players back in 83 and 84? How they were better by far than any turntable? Well, they’re… back…. [here is where the horrified scream needs to be forcibly suppressed so as not to freak out Neli].

You really going to let yourself be fooled again?

Here is the quote [and I see this kind of thing said EVERYWHERE by the computer audio crowd, not just on this site] “That’s because I can enjoy a bargain as much as the next guy and the idea that you can buy a device for $349, connect it to your computer on one end and your hi-fi on the other and play music that’ll make your CD player weep with envy is cause for celebration. ”

[OK. Hard to hold back that scream huh?].

Be interesting to put up an $200 Oppo DVD/CD player [the cheapest player that is widely recommended] against this combination of several thousands $$$ [check audiogon if you do not believe. Well, when they get a category for this, anyway, until then search CD players and these show up] computer audio system with $349 external DAC. Interesting also to see which wins on the typical - usually bright sounding - solid-state system most computer audio people have and an ultra hifi system and see if the Oppo weeps or, perhaps, kicks ass. I think it would be close, but it would be a fun shootout, huh? :-)


In conclusion, We are Not Drinking no Darn Kool Aid.

As we explore various approaches and solutions for incorporating online music into our casual, or exploratory, focused, or ultimate music experiences we will do the following:

1. We WILLfocus on fidelity fidelity fidelity

2. We will NOT lie and tell you it is Better than what it is not better than [ *sheesh* ]

3. We will NOT say people are stupid if they do not see how obvious all this non-obvious stuff is

4. We will NOT throw away the good of the past [but we do expect to see a lot of very cheap CDs at yard sales in a few years. Can’t wait. :-) ] but we will NOT hang on unnecessarily to past assumptions that are no longer as important [ultra flat screens now allow video to be brought into the high-end audio listening room, similarly the tablet/smartphone now allows more interactivity with our music in the listening room, etc.]

7 Responses to “Won’t Get Fooled Again - Computer Audio”

  1. Leonard White Says:

    I promise not to drink the kool-aid!

    Well redbook and higher resolution quality music (missing most album art/literature) may never materialize. The elephant in the room is how will artists and producers be compensated if a downloaded master file equivalent is shared or sold outside of the legitmate retail environment.

    Easily configured computer/audio hardware is uncertain from matching the sound from redbook and higher resolution physical media. There are simply too many opinions currently as to how to attain great music reproduction using computer based media.

  2. Bob Walters Says:

    You cover a lot of ground in this rant, and seemingly dismiss significant developments in digital reproduction.

    That said, your core point that “computer audio is confusing and too hard” is well taken.

    But can’t the same be said for all of “high performance audio”? It too is confusing and too hard.

    Don’t think so? Well, how do we (the industry) answer the following questions?

    As a new audiophile, how do I…

    * Choose between MM, MI, and MC cartridges? What’s the real difference?
    * Tube vs SS amplification?
    * Cables????? Ag, Cu, teflon…..
    * 2-way or 3-way speaker?
    * CD vs LP?
    * How many watts?

    …we (the industry) may think that we’ve made these choices simple. If so, we are deluded.

    The only difference between computer audio and the rest is that we’ve had decades to try to explain the former and the latter is new.


  3. Mike Says:

    Hi Bob,

    My thesis, essentially, is that the parallels between Computer Audio and the introduction of the CD player are quite striking - yes, as a ’significant development’ as well as the ‘not at all high-fidelity’ [for the most part. The systems that were laptop-driven at CES sounded, by-and-large, like 1983 digital. It is spooky as in Amityville Horror spooky. ‘Their Back…’ :-) ]

    High-end audio confusing? :-) You have a good point.

    Although… Computer Audio puts a layer of complexity ON TOP of the already somewhat complex high-end audio landscape - since CA is more or less just another source [so perhaps a better comparison would be to compare the complexity of CA with that of turntables, cartridge compliances, RIAA curves, the different approaches of phono stages with respect to how they handle different cartridges, MM, MI, and MC cartridges - like you mentioned, etc.].

    The real complexity of CA comes from the fact that things are rapidly evolving and tomorrow will not likely look much like today - that CA as we know it today is just a transitional technology between where we are today and whatever CA will look like tomorrow - whereas turntable technology, continuing with our analogy, has pretty much not changed in decades [we just get better and better refining and implementing the associated technologies]…

    There is little doubt that the CD is joining the LP on the heap as another example of “yesterday’s technology that sounds better than today’s technology but most people do not care”. CA is fun and exciting - and definitely more convenient - but it does not ’sound better’ [yet]. It does not need to ’sound better’ to be wildly successful, and people who say it sounds better are either salespeople or addressing their own insecurities about the their choice of convenience over quality.

    Personally, seems to me that, when one can afford it [and has the space! and time!] CDs, LPs, reel-to-reel, streaming audio, and CA - are all welcome in the listening room, it’s all good.

    Oops. Hope I wasn’t ranting again :-)

    Take care, Bob.

  4. Bob Walters Says:

    Thanks for rounding out your thesis, Mike. That helps me.

    I even agree with the vast majority of your points! lol

    Keep bloggin’ - you have one of the most intelligent and well-considered POV’s out there.

    Were you not a dealer, you’d have a future here! ;-)


    PS Next time you’re in the Bay Area, maybe you can swing down and hear my CA rig….

  5. Mike Says:

    Hi Bob,


    Yeah, yeah, everyone loves to hate dealers. :-)

    Funny, though. In actuality, I think magazine writers and distributors are tied for highest percentage of unethical members / corruption among their ranks.

    Then comes dealers, I think.

    And then manufacturers.

    I think it is this way because manufacturers, once they go bad, they really limit their market.

    And dealers usually do not make so much money that they are corrupted by the temptation to be bad [and when they go bad, they cannot usually carry good gear, which further limits their abilities to be bad].

    Distributors go bad because they have opportunities to be bad and can hide it from everyone for a long time and manufacturers can feel ‘locked in’ to a particular distributor and/or their dealer network.

    Magazine writers / press go bad because they have nothing invested in the industry - rarely do they make their living this way - and they just don’t give a hoot. For a past or future discount or long term loan they will say anything. There are some honest writers - Bob Neal, Fred Crowder, Larry Borden… and Mike Fremer and some of the established writers - but 90%+ are bad IMHO.

    Where does that leave us? If we were somehow not dealers and if we, somehow were not distributors [and not manufacturers] then would we not be joining the ranks of the press? And then we’d REALLY be keeping bad company! :-)

    I know, I know, people think we are incentivized to say good things about the products we carry that are being exhibited at shows. It really doesn’t work that way - long sales cycles of the ultra high-end being what they are. Because we try to carry only the ultra high-end, and the ultra high-end does have a tendency to sound best (funny, that), we do sometimes like the sound of the gear we carry at shows. We are thinking about moving to a “never put any system that has something in it that we sell on a ‘Best of Show’ list” approach. This is, however, misleading if one of these systems IS the best - and Nordost et. al. are in a LOT of systems. So we’ll see.

    It is a quandary. What to be when we grow up. [Assuming we want to grow up :-) ]. Other ideas are ‘what if we carried all high-end products?’. Then we would be incentivized to like everything and nobody could accuse us of favoritism [well, I am sure some would accuse us of liking the highest margin products best. There will always be some people out there like that…]. ‘What if we were Audiogon?’. Similarly raising us above the fray.


    Thanks! We’d LOVE to visit and to hear your rig. Keep hearing that Bob Seger song… ‘get out of Denver baby, go! Go!’ :-) [tho we will miss the area - and everybody being so physically fit - and something like 75% of Boulder’s populace above 22 having a college degree. But it is time…]

    Take care,

  6. Bob Walters Says:

    Interesting analysis, Mike.

    I was just kiddin’ you about being a dealer, BTW.

    That status matters little to me as I read your work.

    Anyway, keep up the great work. This industry is often a beech, but love of well-played music makes it OK.


  7. Mike Says:

    Hi Bob,

    Yes, I knew that. And thanks. But others do care…

    But I was really just using your question as an opportunity to address some of the deeper issues. Sorry about using your comments as a foil :-)

    … and here I go again…

    Essentially, we are looking at a possible massive expansion of Audio Federation… But can we keep doing the things we love… playing music for a living, doing show reports and maybe a magazine, meeting people for private auditions, helping people design their personally perfect system, shootouts, etc.; be financially viable; AND still keep our ethical standards [i.e. follow the Golden Rule…aka not being ‘bad’].

    Many people tell us no.

    But I say - let’s think outside the traditional solutions box…

    An axiom here is that, say, 90% of people would like to have a nice system in their home.

    Support for belief in this axiom comes from the fact that most people have some kind of system now.

    I personally think that the reason why these are not higher quality systems is because of the rampant incompetence [systems at dealers sound bad, sales people can be obnoxious] and corruption [audiophiles are treated as ‘marks’, the press is bought and paid for, etc.] in our industry. We are seen as the ‘used car dealerships’ of the consumer electronics world.

    So a 2nd axiom would be: if we can fix these problems among at least a significant percentage. easily identifiable part of the industry - and change/update people’s perceptions of this part of the industry, then this industry could do as well as, well, smartphones for example :-) [I do think we will have to be more copacetic with video being in the system as well].

    The sound at shows if often quite good on a price-performance basis. People will like this stuff if they can get to hear it. But how to get it to them? What percentage of the public wants to go to a show to hear this stuff? [and separating the wheat from the chaff, i.e. finding the good stuff, requires a lot of walking and really good shoes :-) ]I went to the Denver Auto Show once - not all that many people went… certainly much less than even 1% of the car-driving public. Shows can be inspirational but not the greatest sales vehicles in my opinion.

    I’ll write full posts about all this when the show report is over, in about 4 weeks or so… :-)


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