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Digital Audio & Audiophiles: Convenient and Inconvenient Truths

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Digital Audio, streaming and digital downloads, is more convenient than Analog Audio, turntables and records.

There’s a reason why I own two Denon DP-300F fully automatic turntables and am proud of it. They are my drunk turntables for when I am too far gone, tired or lazy to fully respect my VPI Prime Scout and its Soundsmith Carmen cartridge and I just have to listen to vinyl. I’m not proud of those moments as an audiophile but it happens. Now, in that state, I know that I’m pretty much good for only one side of an album, so while convenient, at best the satisfaction is short-lived.

On the heels of Capital Audio Fest (CAF) 2018, I took stock of my experiences in all the rooms and noted in far more than a simple majority the source of music was digital and by that I mean streaming services: Qobuz and Tidal. Mea culpa: I employ streaming services for the purposes of discovery and exploration, but if, given the option to listen to tracks via downloads or vinyl, streaming loses each and every time. It is not the same for me, not the same experience, the sound quality, in comparison, is just not there. CAF signaled a shift this year in the number of rooms employing servers/streamers over turntables. Now, even in those rooms where turntables were present and not the focal point/exhibitor of the room, I found them played less and less, if at all.

There’s a certain economics at play with respect to exhibitors partnering to make up the cost of a room. This can make for some strange bedfellows, but it also leads to some long-held beliefs that one cannot be an audiophile without the presence of a turntable. Chalk this up to tradition, complacency and an agenda on the part of some in the industry and the press to hold on to what they know, their bread and butter. The notion that Hi-Fi must be zero-sum, that it is either/or between Digital and Analog, is both misplaced and hurtful to the industry’s future. That this year at CAF I heard some exhibitors throw their hands up in the air at the slightest technical glitch and exclaim for all to hear, “I’m an analog guy, what do I know about digital?” is not what the public should be hearing, especially from a team member of the exhibitor manning the room.

I managed to do my own informal exit polling as attendees walked out of rooms. I asked a number of them what they felt was memorable, which rooms did they find most engaging? And the upshot, especially for the younger attendees: those rooms in which they could physically interact with the system. With digital, that meant navigating the digital audio server via a touchscreen. Wolf Audio Systems’ servers were in use throughout CAF and the tangible interaction cannot be underestimated. Apart from rooms where turntable(s) were the center of attention, i.e. VPI’s rooms, there was far less interest on the part of attendees in turntables on the whole. They were satisfied to listen and evaluate systems on the back of streaming services and digital downloads when the Internet (Wi-Fi) failed to cooperate.

I’m not here to bury the turntable and vinyl. It has a place in my heart and my systems. Just so we are clear about something, my record collection numbers more than 1,000 and there are six turntables upon which they can be played. I just wish those in the industry, the press, the hobby could take a collective step back and breathe and not regard every article, review, post, commentary praising digital audio solutions as a personal attack. Watching those nature documentaries, I’m reminded of how protective bears are of their cubs, and it can get vicious. While it need not get to those extremes and I’m all for freedom of expression, I remind all that actions and consequences go hand-in-hand and that for the Hi-Fi industry/hobby to persevere it needs to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The idea that in order to be audiophile one must bow to the Analog Gods is antiquated, misplaced, selfish and detrimental.

Facebook serves to democratize information and its flow. Facebook’s audio groups, which I scour for information and trends, are minefields of data. It is great that everyone gets an opportunity to be heard, but I’m finding that a great deal of the good-natured, well-intentioned advice lauding one platform over another is driven by agenda, taking the form of not-so-thinly veiled invective: value judgments and character assassination. It’s almost as if certain elements/actors are so stressed with today’s societies and realities that they take out their aggressions online, making use of Hi-Fi as a proxy for their worldview and socio-political commentary.

When the towers fell on 9/11, I was in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I saw the news coverage from afar on television screens, thinking it was some action-movie, only to learn the horrible truth when my mobile phone started heating up. I landed the following Saturday, earliest flight I could get, back home in NYC to a city not immediately recognizable. I could still see plumes of smoke from my eighth-floor terrace in Forest Hills, Queens. When I arrived at work on Monday in lower Manhattan, the stench pervaded. It would last for some time to come, and with all the news coverage and reporting it just got to be too much. I had to get rid of that stench, so I immersed myself in something that, at the time, was apolitical: sports. Hours upon hours were spent listening to sports talk radio, a refuge from the horror. Sadly, sports talk radio has been compromised, it has become political, a casualty of today’s society and political climate. Thus I turned to Hi-Fi and music.

All too often we forget what led each of us into Hi-Fi. It is nurture over nature, as nobody is born genetically predisposed to being an audiophile, an enthusiast. We should take to heart our earliest memories of who made the introduction and how we bonded that with that someone, how they made it special for us, so we could make it special for future generations. The phrase “enjoy the music” is at times hackneyed, banal and inappropriate. Music is subjective; imperatively imploring someone to enjoy something alien to them is fruitless. Rather, have people “appreciate the experience of listening to recorded music” regardless of both platform and content.

I wrote about Room 323 at CAF. Was it the best sounding room at the show? No. Was it the room to which I returned time after time? Yes. Why? The experience, the people, the smiles on their faces, the tapping of their feet. Was there a turntable in Room 323? Yes. Can I remember how many times it was put into action? No. Does it matter? No!


Copy editor: Dan Rubin

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4 Responses to Digital Audio & Audiophiles: Convenient and Inconvenient Truths

  1. audiofool says:

    right church, wrong pew. I’ve attended CAF for the past 5 years. Digital has dominated for source because of convenience both for audience and smaller exhibitor. But the bigger difference this year was more rooms sounded good, had moved on from the ubiquitous Mac laptop to quality streamers and servers.

  2. Brett Laven says:

    Well said. Very well said.

    I enjoy spinning vinyl and love my Aurender and Roon as well. I even find certain albums I prefer digital vs vinyl source. Even may change based on mood and convenience factors.

    Bottom line – music causes dopamine release and gives us pleasure. As long as others are happy with their music then I am happy. The more people that are happy = better world for all of us.

  3. David Snyder says:

    Another great piece by my friend and colleague, David Blumenstine!

    Expansion of scope beyond the title was fitting and welcome given contemporaneous contentious times. Bringing things back to the topic of digital and audiophiles, where there is a format preference, the reasons behind it are likely more varied and complex than we realize. I would argue that in 2018 “sound quality” has far less influence over format preference than “qualities of the sound”, and as David pointed out, quality of the experience.

    For example, a young women posted this about her experience playing vinyl, “I also feel like the time it took to select your album, make sure it was clean and the needle was clean, warm up the preamp and set the needle in place, it was all kind of like musical foreplay.” Streaming and digital downloads offer convenience in exchange for this level of excitement and engagement. But is the sound quality also inferior? Objectively, no…of course not. By the numbers, uncompressed and lossless streaming and downloads (eg. Qobuz, TIDAL and HDTracks) outperform any analog source short of a live microphone feed. Practically? It’s complicated.

    There are many explanations for how the same album on vinyl or tape can sound better (or worse) than a stream or download ranging from mastering intent to system optimization and personal preference. Rather than obsessively optimizing for one format over another, I suggest that we follow David’s advice and take an inclusive approach to music playback experience, discovery and sharing.

  4. Joe says:

    Yes, very well said. Unfortunately the internet and social media gives the crusaders the perfect forum to educate us poor, ignorant folk. I have little hope that will ever change. I gave away all my vinyl and my turntable years ago when I switched to CDs. Now I get my music from streaming services and FLAC files ripped from my CDs. It would cost more money than I am prepared to spend to go back. Meanwhile my millennial niece has put together a system for vinyl and I don’t begrudge her the pleasure one bit.

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