Comparisons of Audio Sources

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Diana Krall is one of my favorite artists, as a singer and as a Jazz pianist. Her 1993 debut album Stepping Out took the musical world by storm and she has been building on it ever since. Apple did a remaster of the album for iTunes. I wanted to also try it in a high-resolution format so I downloaded a 24 bit, 96 Khz version from HD Tracks.

Well, wonder of wonders I stumbled into Barnes and Noble and found a vinyl reissue of Stepping Out on 180 gram vinyl. This was just too good to be true. Now I could listen to the album from three different sources, one vinyl and two digital downloads. I told myself that I would not prejudge the sources, though I could not help thinking that I was going to hear very audible differences between them.

Did I do blind tests? No. You want a blind test, then it would be better to go elsewhere. I get tipsy when I do not see. And I do extensive listening and no quick A/B switching. I need to listen to the music and see how it moves me emotionally.

I knew that, after a certain amount of time, I would know which format I enjoyed the most. The shocking thing is that the three sources sounded so much alike and I enjoyed them equally. At this time I was also auditioning the Audirvana Plus music player so I threw it into the equation which complicated things. The Audirvana made all the digital sources sound great. Apple did a great job of remastering the album for iTune. The Flac file I downloaded had the edge over iTunes, except when I was the Audirvana Plus player. When this player worked its magic there were very little sonic differences.

On to the vinyl. Barnes and Noble does not give away its vinyl. Have you notices? Well, superior sound can be a little pricey. And their pressing are usually quite good. They use files of original mastering where possible. All this is good. OK, so how did the vinyl sound? Very good. It sounded almost identical the the digital sources! I was amazed. They all sounded very analogue to me.

Has vinyl lost its edge? Well, further checking led me to understand that the vinyl record was a digital remastering of the original. That might be the explanation. Digital sounds like digital. It could be that both Apple, HD Tracks, and Barnes and Noble all used the same digital remastering as a source. I really do not know. But

Panicked, I went back to listening to some of my early vinyl records such as Mercury Living Presence. Now that is the sound of analogue. This was in the pre-digital era. Pure analogue still had the edge.

Now if you are using a five-figure or more vinyl record playback system the advantages of vinyl will probably be more apparent. In fact, even over YouTube, one can hear the differences in this type of playback equipment quite readily. Somehow, the quality of the first chain in the reproduction of music comes through, even using compressed sound sources like YouTube.

What to say about all of this? Digital is getting better. And there is more music in those bits than we thought.

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Spreaker Placement, No Cost Upgrade

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There are many ways to upgrade an audio system from buying a new turntable or tonearm to installing different cables or an outboard DAC. In most cases, we are speaking about an expensive upgrade. Nonetheless, if we want to make the greatest improvement in our home reproductive system, in many cases, it just means proper speaker placement. Proper placement can make huge differences and it will cost us nothing, except a little time and experimentation.

Notice in the photo above the loudspeakers have been moved out into the room and angled in slightly. Unless the speakers are considered just a piece of furniture that should not be moved, this is easy to do. Moving the speakers out will change the bass characteristics of the speakers, usually for the better. The bass will be lest pronounced but its overall quality is often greatly improved. There is less chances of standing waves which cancel-out or reinforce certain bass frequencies, according to the dimensions of the listening room.

Bookshelf speakers need to be placed on stands so that they can be moved out into the room.

If they are monitor speakers such as the AudioEngine A2+’s, they are not designed to interact so much with the room boundaries, but are designed to stand an open air environment. (Even though they are marketed as desktop computer speakers they are far more than that. They are truly monitor speakers. (See Setting up the AudioEngine A2+’s.) The stands I use are the ones pictured above. They allow for adjustment in height which is critical to aligning the speakers to ear level.

However, small speakers, including the A2+’s,  cannot escape an undesired rolloff in the bass region. This is where the use of a subwoofer is useful. The subwoofer or subwoofers will allow a great deal of flexibility because they can remain nearer wall boundaries and still be tuned to the overall bass response.

We are not just looking for a better position of our speakers. We are looking for the ideal placement of our speakers. Experimentation is the order of the day. However, there are some underlying mathematical considerations that do seem to apply in order to avoid the standing wave phenomenon. Let us consider a rectangular shaped listening room for example.

If we wish to place the speakers along the short wall, then Diagram A will be helpful.

The distance from the rear wall to the speakers is .447 times the room width. Each of the speakers is located from the side walls .276 times the length of the room width. Why so?

Active nodes are the main concern when placing speakers in a rectangular room. A node, or the frequency where speakers and parallel walls interact, is proportional to the speaker to the wall distance. When you use this formula to set your room up, the speakers are placed so the three nodes progress or differ from one another which eliminates any unison or near unison resonance in the nodes.

It follows a Fibonacci progression. See the table below:

Distance Numerical
Speaker to side wall: RW x 5
Speaker to rear wall: RW x 8
Speaker to opposite side wall: RW x 13
Speaker to speaker: RW x 8

Excerped from Cardis Audio Website.

The above is all theory, but it seems to work, at least as a starting point. Please note that dipole speakers such as Magnepan do not propagate from the side. Thus, the distances from the side walls to the speakers are not as critical. Experimentation is the order of the day for all type of speakers.

Do not be discouraged if your room accommodations prevent you from following these ratios exactly. You can still find the best speaker placement arrangement in your room to achieve optimum music reproductions. Take your time and enjoy your music in the process. Your ears will hear the difference and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Now let us look at some practicalities. We probably understand that how much we separate our two speakers has an effect on their overall sound. The broaden the sound stage by separating the speakers laterally. However, if we go too far we will end up with a hole in the middle and lose stereo imaging. We want the two sources of sound to blend together in such a way that we will be able to hear the separation of musical instruments while at the same time have a good sound stage which involves not only the breadth of the reproduced musical performance but also its depth. Breath and depth need to be balance.

What we are looking for is a holographic like virtual image of the musical performance. When done right we lose a sense of right and left, front and back, but gain a sense that we have been transported to the performance. If we are considering a small ensemble or vocal recording we gain a sense that the performers are in our room. We want the performers to be suspended in space. Not every loudspeaker system is capable of this type of illusion. (The AudioEngine A2+’s are up to the task.)

The critical placement of speakers can be a matter of inches. Towing the speakers slightly inward can make a big difference. This varies with speaker design, however. Some designs have already compensated for tweeter dispersion and are optimized for facing straight forward.

Should the best sitting position be out into the room? Maybe. This position will reduce the effects of standing waves. However, the placement of furniture, rugs, and wall hangings will do much to eliminate standing waves. Sitting near a wall can also be effective. in this sitting position you will be sitting behind the standing waves for the most part.

Proper placement may take time. Do not be discouraged. Every listening room is different. Each room has an ideal placement and you will eventually find it. Once that placement is achieved, magic happens. The speakers are going to sound at their absolute best. Yes, there will be a sweet spot for optimum sitting listening. But the overall improvement of the sound of the speakers will be readily apparent to anyone who just walks into the listening room. My wife walked in and said: “What did you do to your speakers? They sound amazing.” I can assure that it is not often that she considers me a genius.

The little AudioEngine speakers keep amazing me. I knew they were good, but I had no idea that they were that good.

Great Sounding Digital for Less

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How would you like to upgrade your audio system to exceptional performance? I am not talking about expense speakers, cables, turntables, DAC’s, etc. I am talking about a very low cost and simply upgrade that you can do in the privacy of your own home.

Let me start with vinyl. I love the sound of vinyl as many audiophiles do. There is so much music recorded in those grooves. But to be fair, the get the best out of those vinyl grooves one needs some very expensive equipment. The turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phono preamp has everything to do with the sound of vinyl.

Over the years vinyl playback has improved significantly. We have discovered a lot about the proper setup of the playback equipment over the years. The quality of today’s vinyl has improved. More could be said, but suffice it to say that a long development time and greatly engineered products have restored the vinyl as a premium playback system. Much credit should be given to the wonderful audio reviewer Michael Fremer, who never gave up on vinyl.

Have we learned as much about the relatively new digital playback system. Probably not, but I believe that digital is starting to come into hits own. Early CD’s simply did not sound very good. Early digital playback equipment did not seem to help matter much, even on expensive machines. But over time the CD players have improved – better transport decks and digital to analogue converters. Very expensive players do sound a little better today, but they may have become obsolete.

Clearly, reading digital music files from static computer memory has an engineering advantage over any spinning CD. We can download digital files, even high-resolution ones, and get a better sound source. But there is another element which is now starting to be understood. And I believe this element will revolutionize digital sound in many ways.

What am I talking about? Bits, I am talking about bits. All bits are not the same. Theoretically they are. The are just a series of zero’s and one’s. Their timing, however, is critical. Jitter can ruin the musical waveform. We must extract all the bits carefully without smearing the digital information stored.

One way of doing this is through high-resolution digital audio. But hi. res. digital recordings are expensive. These recordings use oversampling of the bits as well as higher bit rates of processing power. It is easier to get better sound from the bits with these techniques. What about improving the sound of 16 bit 44 kHz? What about all of our legacy digital recordings? Can they be improved?

It turns out that there is much more music in those bits than we thought. Sophisticated processing of the bits can make a huge difference. Apple iTunes does not use hi. res. It does not even use CD quality playback. But Apple has shown that even its AAC recordings can sound much better careful attention to detail. What they are doing we are not quite sure, and they will probably not tell us. But Apple is asking for hi. res. signal sources from the music labels from which they do their “remastered for iTunes” sound.

I have a lot of Apple music files that I want to keep. I just want them to sound better. Here is the magic. There is an inexpensive product which will do the job and then some. Just download that latest software music player from Audirvana Plus. It will play high-resolution files, stream music from Tidal, and even play the latest rage files. (More about this later.) But, for me, even more importantly, it will play all types of digital files, including AAC files, and make them sound one hundred percent better.

It has some shortcomings, but not sonically. It will not steam Apple Music. But it will play all your iTunes playlists, provided the files are downloaded. It will not work with Apple Airplay. Airplay, of course, does not do hi. res. But Audirvanna Plus handles low res. so well that I wish it would do Airplay. Well, there is a work around. Just download the software app Airfoil. Airfoil is such an easy app to us. I like it better than Airplay. You see it in the upper left-hand corner on the screen shot below.

Audirvanna Plus is simply magic. In my opinion, it sounds almost analogue no matter what files are used. Why do I want expensive hi. res. files? Well I might want to buy a few of the extraordinary records, but I am quite content with most of my Apple AAC files. After all, the one of the primary purposes of Audiogram II is to save us money.

The music through Audirvanna Plus simply sounds gorgeous. The bass is very deep, solid, and articulate. Even boomy recordings sound better. Female voices sound like female voices. Choral music is not one big mesh. Voices are separated. The purity of the top end is almost unbelievable. Hi-hats and cymbals just ring, even on low res. Quite remarkable!

What does Audirvanna Plus do to the bits? Well they will probably never tell us everything. But here are some of the information that they have shared:

  • The DAC sample rate is automatically switched to the audio file original one to ensure unaltered signal is played.
  • All internal processing is done using 64 bit precision to eliminate information loss due to rounding errors.
  • SysOptimizer can be configured to stop the OS X background services potentially interfering with sound quality, and give to Audirvana Plus the extreme priority during playback to ensure the maximum signal streaming precision.
  • File loading, processing, converting to DAC native format are all done before playback to minimize any possible interference
  • SoX or iZotope 64-bit SRC best in class sample rate conversion technologies
  • MBIT+ dithering Volume Control (Dithering is meant to reduce the audible impact of the inevitable reduction in the audio signal precision when reducing the bitdepth, which happens when using a digital volume control. iZotope MBIT+ is the leading technology that pushes the noise way out of the audible spectrum.)

Audirvana Plus can play all major Audio File Formats :

  • PCM Audio Format read by iTunes: WAVE, AIFF, Apple Lossless, M4A, MP3
  • PCM Audio Format not read by iTunes: FLAC, WavPack, APE, Cue Sheets
  • and the New High Res Audio Format : MQA (Master Quality Authenticated)
  • DSD Audio Formats: DSF, DSDIFF (including DST compressed), SACD ISO

The sound of Audirvanna Plus is far superior to BitPerfect and Amara. While BitPerfect plays (integrates) better with iTunes than any other player, Audirvanna Plus does dovetail fairly well with the iTunes interface. As a stand alone music player it is very user-friendly and elegantly minimalistic.

I cannot recommend this product more highly. It has brought a whole new dimension and enjoyment to my digital audio music. I can now say that digital audio has moved into a new era. Who knows? Maybe it will catch up with vinyl. This much is true – it is much cheaper to buy and play. Then there is the convenience and file storage. But yes, I still love my vinyl.

Audirvanna Plus software may be download here. Try a 15 day free trial period and then pay $74. Otherwise, do not, before you get hooked. Airfoil costs $29 and may be downloaded here. They will also give you a two-week trial period as well. Better not do this either if you want to save money. I would say that great sounding musical reproduction is well-worth the expense of a night out at a good restaurant for two.

Cybershopping for Audio Bargains

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https---blueprint-api-production.s3.amazonaws.com-uploads-card-image-299226-shopifyleadIt should be no secret that AUDIOGRAM II is not just about cutting edge. It is also about cutting costs. Yes, choosing the right audio components will make a remarkable improvement in the sound of your playback system. However, this blog is for those people who do not want to spend an arm and a leg for such components. There is so much more to the enjoyment of beautiful music in the home than how much money one might have spent. Today’s prices are insane.

How I miss the early days of Saul Marantz and William Z.Johnson. Their stuff was expensive, but their components were so much better than anything else available. Considering the life expectancy of these components and their resale value, they were often good investments. Today, nearly everything is outrageously priced and very few products standout as significantly better sounding than others. If I am being asked to spend that kind of money it would have to be someone like David Berning.

So I have been looking for bargains in audio products – affordable bargains. I wanted to buy online and save money. Yet, what good is buying online when you cannot hear what you are buying? If you are spending a relatively small amount of money it may be worth the risk. If you are spending big money, by all means buy from a reputable audio retailers. They need our support.

For my cybershopping experiment I set a price between $40 and $100. I chose a pair of Grado Headphones as my first buy because of their reputation. Joe Grade was a matchmaker who invented the moving coil phono cartridge, but he made his reputation building moving magnet cartridges. He built them by hand in Brookline, NY and sold them at reasonable prices. His family is still selling these cartridges in Brookline. Today, they are also making and selling headphones in Brookline. They do not advertise. Word of mouth is enough to keep this company in business.

Thought I should check what all the fuss was about. I bought a pair of Grado SR 80e’s for $99, just under budget. They are a remarkable product.

I have owned expensive headphones, including ones made by Stax of Japan. The Stax phonesare still probable the most revealing set of headphones one can buy. They are electrostatic phones with incredibly low distortion and a silky smooth response. But the Stax suffer, as do any other set of headphones, a lack of true bass response. We hear low bass not only with our ears but also with our gut. Headphones bypass the gut. Thus, many headphone makers boost the bass response to compensate. Stax does not and neither does Grado.

A second problem for headphones is that the sound can seem to be contained in between one’s ears. Grado does a good job of getting around this problem by making their phones open backed. Sound does leak out from the phones but the musical stage is so much more realistic. The there is the legendary Grado midrange. Female voices are very convincing because the Grado’s have very little coloration.

The Grado’s also have a sound that is lively. The remind me of the old Decca Mk. V phone cartridge. It sounded like no other cartridge. It did not provide the best tracking of the grove, but it extracted a sound that made almost everything else seem lifeless. Some said the Mk V had a ringing problem in upper frequencies. That is why we bought expensive damped tonearms at the time.

The Grado’s makes piano keys tinkle. A hint of sibilance is apparent on some recordings. I like this sound, but over an extended period of listening I am afraid that listener fatigue might set in. Graphs of frequency response do not always tell the tale. But in the case of the SR 80e’s, they help explain a few things.

Notice the incredibly smooth midrange. At the limits of the human voice range, however, the response begins to tick up. This is audible. The Grado is simply a little hot at the extreme top. However, it is quite listenable for the most part. One would have to spend significantly more money for an improved top end.

My only real complaint with the Grado’s is their low end. The bass is solid and well defined, but it is not extended enough to satisfy organ lovers. But I would take them over a pair of Beats any day.

I bought another set of headphones by Koss because of the discount through Amazon. Koss invented the full frequency spectrum headphone. Before that started in business the only headphones in use were made for the military. My first set of headphones were the Koss ProA. Updated versions of these are still being sold by Koss today, I owned the first pair of Koss electrostatic headphones before I moved to Stax. Now I have settle on another pair legendary headphones the Koss PortaPro’s.

I bought them for $41.00 from Amazon, just over the lower limit of my shopping range. There are worth very penny! They are light weight, portable, and comfortable. Yes, they leak sound as well but they also have a natural sound stage, though not as extended as the Grado’s. They are not as articulate as the Grado’s, but in some ways they are more listenable over a longer period. Let us check out their frequency response:

Their midrange is not as flat as the Grado’s but they appear to have a more extended bass. This extension is audible. Their highs are never fatiguing, but the high end rolloff is audible. On the whole, however, the PortaPro’s have a well-deserved reputation. They are not as transparent and defined as the Grado’s but they are very smooth and quite impressive. A fun pair of headphones.

Now let us look into low-cost ways to improve the sound of digital music. My MacBook Pro laptop has a reasonably good sound card for converting digital sound to analogue. The builtin DAC in my AudioEngine A2+’s is a little better. But I was wondering how much sonic improvement an outboard DAC might make. I would have chosen a Audio Quest Dragonfly Red or Black but they were a little out of my price range. So I settled an AudioEngine D3 DAC which was on sale for $79.00.

The DAC is straight forward. Just plug it into your socket on your laptop and plug in some earphones and chick it out. It is better than listening through the tiny analogue connector of your laptop. Yes, indeed! The D3 sounds better than the original Dragonfly but AudioQuest has moved on with their products. The Red version of the Dragonfly is a significant improvement over the original, but it costs $200. The D3 falls behind it but provides a very listenable experience, particularly after it has been broken-in. AudioEngine suggests a forty to fifty hour break-in period.

I have saved the best buy to last, but it is certainly not for everyone. This is the Sonic Studio’s Amara 4 software.

What does it do? It makes digital music sound like analogue. It does this even for iTunes AAC compressed files. The sound from iTunes or Apple Music can be almost beyond belief, especially if Apple has worked some of its magic on the original studio master (for .) The music is clear, open, defined, and non-fatiguing. Solid bass and sweet highs are not what one expects with compressed music. Somehow Amara gets back to the bits and makes them sound better. I compared Amara 4 to Bitperfect and Bitperfect fell short. It has a little too much grain.

There are problems with Amara 4. It does not play well with iTunes. The predecessor of Amara 4 was Amara HiFi. It was a solid product which meshed well with iTunes. I owned this product and loved it. It was set and forget. Not so with Amara 4 which almost seems like a beta version. One must now scan iTunes files for music in order to form entirely new playlists in Amara 4. Forget making playlists from Apple Miusic. That music would first have to be downloaded in order to be available for Amara 4.

By the way, the Amara 4 will work with Apple’s AirPaly. I  am sitting here enjoying controlling my AudioEngine A2+’s from my laptop while listening to some gorgeous music.

The amazing thing about Amara 4 is that it only cost $50 online, Buy directly from Sonic Studio. One can download a trial version of the software for evaluation. I recommend it for those who might not mind the hassle. For me, I am looking for user-friendly. But the sound is beguiling!

Everything I have mentioned would make great stocking stuffers for impoverished audiophiles and those new to better sounding home audio. (The Grado’s might require a larger stocking than normal.) These products are outstanding bargains and each one can make a significant improvement to one’s listening experience. Happy shopping.

Casual Listening

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fullsizeoutput_16fcAudiophiles are often fiddling with their system to wring out the very best sound possible. I know the drill. And it can be frustrating. But let us not forget why we have all this expensive hardware. It is for the software – I mean the music. There are days when you just want to sit back and enjoy the music without any fuss. (I will always clean my vinyl and dust the stylus.) Let us call it casual listening.

Can casual listening be enjoyable? Yes! Can such listening compete with high-definition sound? Well, not quite. But I have found that it can come very close to the point that I can imagine myself at a live concern if I turnoff the super critical OCD mindset. Yes, casual listening can be fun. And it can reproduce realistic sound with a little experimentation. (There goes that OCD again.)

I finally upgraded my audio system. I bought a used MacBook Pro laptop at a very good price from my local computer store. What a beauty as you can see. I still like to use a mouse though. (Old habits are hard to break.)

I love iTunes. It is easy to use. I love Apple Music even more. It is now easier to navigate after some recent tweaking by Apple. I subscribe. It is a great way to discover new music or get re-acquainted with some old classics. I have been able to locate some wonderful classic recordings.

What Apple has done is significantly improve the sound of iTunes. Yes, it is compressed. If, however, the original master tapes or digital recordings are carefully transferred, the sound can be quite good. Apple has done that with its “Mastered for iTunes” program. In fact, Apple has asked that all music producers submit their recordings in a high resolution format. This has enabled Apple to improve the sound on many recordings, whether labeled as “Mastered for iTunes” or not.

Now here is where the fun comes in. I just upgraded my audio system for the unheard of price of ten dollars. (Well, I did spend $650 on the used MacBook Pro. I already had an Apple Airport Express which connects to the AudioEngine speakers. This is needed to establish a home network so that one can airplay directly from a laptop.) Remembering that we are still talking about casual listening, I have discovered the joy of having great music at my finger tips for an unheard of price.

With a Mac laptop, using the latest operating system, one can airplay his or her music to the great AudioEngine A2+’s. This could be done from an iPad or iPhone, but the laptop provides more flexibility and the use of additional software.

The audio playback can sound wonderful, even from iTunes.  But first a little tweaking is necessary. (Always the tweaking!) The bits need to be cleaned up. This is where a $10 program comes in. Download the BitPerfect app from the Mac App Store. The beautiful part of this app is that it is compatible with airplay (after a little fiddling) and that it just sits in the background without changing the iTunes user interface in any way. But what is does do is to, somehow, play any type of files whether high-resolution or not. The amazing thing is that it greatly improves Apple’s AAC files as well.

Just using it plug and play, one will discover a significant improvement in the sound. There is a little digital glare so to speak. However, this can almost be eliminated with a little playing around with app’s preferences. Here are the settings I arrived at for my particular system for music recorded in ACC at 256 kbits/s:

screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-8-27-30-pm

I did not do this scientifically. Do not ask me why I chose certain settings. It was all done by ear. I encourage you to do the same. Your settings might be different.

What about the sound with this app in the system? Bass is more solid, resolution seems to be improved, and the high-end is sweeter. Coloration? Maybe, but a significant improvement to my listening experience.

I reviewed this app along with several others. See iTunes Audiophile Software Comparisons. The Amarra HiFi was a bit better at a cost of $50 (no pun intended). Nevertheless, what we are talking about here is casual listening. The Amarra app is not as easy to use and it does not play as well with iTunes. Not only that, but the latest version of BitPerfect has been significantly improved from the version I reviewed previously. It just sits in the system in the background and stays out-of-the-way, while it busily cleans up all those little bits. It is nearly bit perfect.

It will work with high res. downloads, but the beauty is that it will greatly improve the sound of iTunes and Apple Music. Try this for a test. Download or stream:

screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-9-27-23-pmI know what a live cello concert sounds like. Emmanuelle Bertrand plays beautifully and, on my AudioEngines’s, she is right in the room. If you love the sound of the cello and you love great playing, get this album. The wonder is that this music is reproduced in ACC at 256 kbits/s.

Good luck with your own experimentation. You only have ten dollars to lose. Let me know in the comments what you think. I encourage your sharing of info and insights.