Digital Is Digital
by James Leahy
While talking with my #1 Technician again
the other day about the state of Digital in the Audio Industry and it's
associated performance limitations we came to the agree upon some of the
following misguided folly by the general public.
He has a very unique way of
explaining things to people that can make the most complex of subjects totally
understandable and interesting to the widest of audiences.
Far better than I
could ever manage to do. It is from this man that some of by best ideas have come
from so to borrow parts of our conversation I would like to share some of this
information with you
so you can make up your own minds before you next Hi-Fi purchase.
Unless you are chasing SACD playback, in
2010 there is no logical reason to continue with optical based Disc Players.
People who attempt to argue this fact with me, when I question them as to why
they consider CD Players to be superior to Lossless Music Servers, I find they
can never explain to me any compelling reason for this line of thought in any
technical way. DAC's today use 64 times oversampling. Data gets sampled against
a table of base data 64 times before it hits the output stage. When errors occur
they occur randomly. It is just about mathematically impossible for there to be
any errors with today's sampling technology that is used in even the cheapest of
DAC's on the market. Jitter is not the problem it once used to be 25 years ago.
When I question customers further about why
they think the way they do, it is painfully apparent to even the most untrained
eye to see they do not fully understand even the most basic fundamentals of the
digital processes in operation today. The whole idea of digital encoding,
digital transfer and the digital encryption process is to preserve Lossless data
in it's original form. You can transfer digital core data from a Hard Drive to a
Solid State Drive to a USB Memory Stick to a Flash Drive to a CD-R to a DVD-R to
a Pocket Drive and then back to the original Hard Drive with bit perfect
integrity. This is fact not fiction and it should be obvious from understanding
this process that the Optical Drive component of CD Players thus makes no
difference to musical performance. You could use a $30.00 DVD-ROM Drive as a
Transport and some Hi-End CD Players certainly do without any measurable loss.
Because guess what, it makes no difference because digital is digital.
This line of thinking would be a bit like
a photographer buying and using a memory card in the same old fashioned way we all
bought and used film. Taking a picture on your digital camera and printing directly
off the memory card and keeping the memory card with the original image as
recorded by the camera as a digital negative instead of just having one memory
card and transferring everything to a Hard Drive when it gets full because
transferring and storing digital information on a Hard Drive would somehow degrade the
original data. Crazy, yes.
When we transfer digital information from
our computer's optical ROM Drive to the Hard Drive (which is the same as a CD
Transport transferring information to a DAC) it does not matter which brand
Drive we use and we do not obsess over having the most exotic and expensive
optical Drive in our Desktop or Laptop. I have certainly never seen any computer
optical ROM Drives engineered with with Hi-End Audophile Transport build quality
and heard the I.T. Industry claim it makes a difference. Why..... well because
any company that tried to market such a product
would be the laughing stock of the developed World and risk bankruptcy overnight. The
product wouldn't sell because, it does not make any difference to the transfer
integrity and hence the final copy. The I.T. Industry make Optical Drives as cheaply as possible for a very good reason. Don't you think this is trying to tell you
something... The data still gets there in the exact
same form that is was on the original source CD. The Computer Industry's top engineers
would find the way some Audiophiles' think highly delusional and I
fully agree with them.
When the DAC receives the digital signal
for decoding it does not know, nor does it care what sent the signal and I can
assure you in no uncertain terms it will bare no prejudice or resentment if it
comes from the most basic $50.00 DVD Player or the top of
the range x tens of thousands of dollar Transport. It
will either receive and Lock-On to the digital signal or it will not. There is
no in-between with digital signal transfer. It is a 'Go' or 'No Go' type technology.
That is the most critical point to understanding digital. I find it highly amusing when
someone calls me and asks me to repair their $20K
C.E.C. Transports that no longer reads. When I take the units apart and show them the plastic $100.00 Sanyo laser mechanism from 1990 these units use you should see their jaw drop and hit the floor in no time flat. Most of these companies produce nothing more than
DAISy kit Players. DAISy can supply everything from the Laser Mech to
the Display Kits that will facilitate any 3rd party audio company constructing
and re-badging their 'own' CD Player and claiming it as their technology. You
think this doesn't and couldn't happen? Well think again. Some of the most
expensive CD Players on the markets today over $20K are built from DAISy parts.
Also guess what... all these Laser
Mechanisms in C.E.C. TL-0 Transports are using obsolete analogue servo boards
from at least 15 to 20 years ago that are no longer in production for the one
reason and one reason only as far as I can tell. They are the only ones capable
of having their clock speed slowed down far enough to cope with a belt drive
optical pick-up system. Today's new digital servo
boards process the data too fast for such an antiquated system. Yeah, I thought you would all get a kick from
that one. So why does C.E.C. use a belt driven CD Transport? Because being belt
driven is analogue technology and analogue is known to be superior to digital so
logically it is easy to convince potential customers that having an analogue
optical Transport for what is essentially a purely digital technology (that
would be a hard sell if ever there was one and a contradiction of basic logic) is somehow superior to models of their competitors. BAHAHAHA some of these audio companies crack me up.
This is hardly an uncommon occurrence from
small boutique manufacturers. Why.... well because there are huge profit margins
that require extremely low engineering costs to produce the end product to be
taken advantage of and fully exploited. If there is a lot of money to be made
and it is not illegal you can bet someone will do it. Many overpriced 'Audiophile' CD Players on
the market today are nothing more than an over dressed and over priced fancy box
which houses nothing more than the cheapest of cheap laser mechanisms that can
be found in your bottom of the range Pioneer or Sony DVD Player combined with a
new generation DAC on-board to make it sound quite ok and decent. Little does the
buyer know why and neither will the manufacturer disclose these reasons to the
buyer in their glossy product brochures.
Because the Hi-End Audio buyer is coming
from a 'Hi-Fi Culture' which has been carefully cultivated over decades by
marketing Spin Doctors rather than a 'Computing Culture' where there are no such
false pretences or misgivings. These customers expect there to be a significant difference in
optical Transports and are willing to foolishly pay exorbitant prices to justify
their misguided dedication to their beliefs and they talk themselves into
believing there really is a difference without doing any blind testing to
justify their assumptions. This seat-of-the-pants testing and the level of spin
passed off as Urban Legend would never fly in the I.T. Industry but in the Hi-Fi
World it is common place and universally accepted and expected.
Instead of thinking in a digital domain
they are all still thinking with an analogue mindset which by it's very definition
must adhere to analogue engineering principles. There is a hell of a lot of
voodoo logic, snake oil and smoke & mirrors used in the Hi-End Audio Industry to
fleece uneducated buyers from their money which they obviously have too much of.
To be fair, the same could also be said of many other industries. Many Hi-Fi companies market their digital products that are pushed in the audio trash magazines with the same false ideology they use with their analogue products. Everyone reading this, get it through your head. Digital is Digital and Analogue is Analogue. They are not the same and the thus do not require the same engineering requirements. If manufacturers actually told the public the truth about digital technology, nobody would be able to make any money on it. Considering that digital products today represent a technology that is the bulk of the Hi-Fi market place, you start to get an idea of just how much money we are talking about here and you might begin to realize the lengths they will go to in order to protect their financial interests.
No, not all CD Players or DAC's for that
matter sound the same but it is not for the reasons that you might first think.
The differences one hears from good to bad CD Players come more from the power
supply, capacitors, wiring and circuit integrity, output stage and to a lesser
extent the DAC than anything else. Certainly not the Transport drive. I put the
DAC down the back end because I have tested external DAC's from some of the
industry's best manufacturers like Audio Research, Esoteric, Cambridge and Mark
Levinson and I estimate that unless you are spending well over the $10K mark (although not even confirmed yet) a, the
differences I have yet to encounter are fully non existent. So unless you are
talking about an extreme Hi-End CD Player I would think twice and to buy an
extremely good CD Player today in the age of Lossless Music Servers (eg.
Wadia 170i) is false economy of the largest
In the digital world the most critical
conversion is always performed in the recording studio from the analogue tracks
to digital data storage desks not the conversion done in your listening room
with your Digital to Analogue Converter. Do you honestly think that all CD's are
mastered perfectly and every record label uses the same State -Of-The-Art
equipment? Information that is lost at the source can never be recovered. The
original A to D conversion of data is more than 1,000 times more important than
the subsequent D to A conversion in terms of performance. By understand this
process and how music is recorded and encoded form a Sound Engineer's
perspective, you might begin to see why you are very much wasting your time and
money chasing the Holy Grail of Hi-End DAC's. We all have CD's in our collection
that are simply unlistenable. Now you know why.
This is the main reason why vinyl even
today in the age of SACD still sounds so much better than digital in so many
ways. Obviously you are skipping one and sometimes two full conversion processes
(depending on how the Record is cut) to start with. This is a huge advantage
that I am yet to personally see digital technology recover from. Analogue by
it's very nature is just getting too much of a head start in this race I must
say for it to be a fair comparison. The original A to D conversion process is
where the most damage is done to the sound source.
Digital Test # 1
(Analogue Out) vs Esoteric D-07 (Analogue Out)
(Analogue Out) vs dCS Paganini (Analogue Out)
I have proven this time and time again. When connecting a Digital source to
multiple DAC's simultaneously and then all to my
VTL TL-7.5 Series II Line Stage
Reference System 1 it provided for a very
interesting comparison. The TL-7.5 Series II allows for each input to be level
matched and all DAC's were connected via their respective Balanced outputs.
Trimming the levels of each input to it's corresponding source is vitally
important for a far and equal comparison to rule out any obvious volume
differences that may otherwise affect the outcome.
The famous dCS Paganini Ring DAC
The Digital World's best effort?
This allowed me to switch inputs
Cambridge Audio DacMagic
D-07 approx $5,000.00 and a
Paganini approx $20,000.00 in real time and observe the differences.
Sonically, there were none. If I did not set this test up myself I would
seriously question the results.
The outcome was so shocking to me
the first time I did this I went back and fourth, switching between the
inputs to be faced with what could only be described as one of the Audio
Industry's greatest hoaxes of all time.
I compare everything to a base level DAC
that uses a standard DAC chipset. I use a Cambridge Audio DacMagic that costs only $599.00 as a modern reference level of an affordable product. Now you know why I also use it in my Reference system as opposed to something more exotic.
With the DacMagic you are not really paying for the performance of the DAC but
the convenience it offers. USB, Balanced Outputs, sampling frequency between
32-96kHz and up-converting to 24 bit/192kHz.
Digital Test # 2
(Analogue Out) vs Marantz SA-11S2 (Digital Out) > Cambridge DacMagic (Analogue
(Analogue Out) vs Pioneer DV-410V (Digital Out) > Cambridge DacMagic (Analogue
(Analogue Out) vs Pioneer DV-410V (Analogue Out)
To take things a step further I also set-up
a comparison test between the DacMagic and two Disc Players. The first being a
Pioneer DV-410V DVD Player. It's list price was about $200.00 when new. The
second was the
Marantz SA-11S2 at around $5.5K. A test CD was played on the Pioneer and the
Marantz and their analogue audio outputs run to my VTL TL-7.5 Series II Line
Stage again through my Reference System 1. The digital output of the CD Players
were also connected to the DacMagic and then that was connected to another input
on the VTL TL-7.5 Series II Line Stage. Once again switching between the CD
Players analogue outputs and DacMagic analogue outputs there was absolutely no sonic differences. Did this
secondary revelation surprise me? No, not really. After the first comparison
between the DacMagic and other DAC's on the market up to the value of $20K I was
subconsciously prepared for anything that might seem like an unpopular and
We now live in an age of very advanced DAC
modules that have been perfected over decades of engineering development and
through trickle down technology these can be picked up from around $500.00.
Today DAC's in this price range sound fantastic. If your system sounds bad with a DacMagic, let me be the one to break it to you. Guess what, "It's not your DAC, it's the rest of it!"
These simple comparison tests have proven to me that there is no difference in
any of the DAC's under $20K that I have tested so far in terms of sonic
performance. Probably not all that surprising knowing that they all use
basically the same off the shelf DAC modules with extremely similar technology
benchmarks in their respective output stages'. The exception being dCS who
run their own proprietary Ring DAC circuit which is made up of around 40 chips,
none of which are DAC chips. You can read all the other techno mumbo jumbo on
their website rather than e-mailing me about it asking me why why why.
Basically, the biggest differences will be
found in Amplifiers, Line Stages, Loudspeakers, Subwoofers, Turntables,
Cartridges and Phono Stages. In other words; anything that is analogue in nature
will make a considerable difference to the overall performance. Spend your money
in these key areas. Digital components reveal the least differences per dollar
spent. This fact is very clear and has been confirmed in numerous tests. At the end of the day it is just as easy for me
to sell expensive digital products to a customer that I know will make little to
no difference to their system then it is for me to recommend something that will
really work and give maximum value for money spent.
Just like you can buy even the cheapest
mobile phone today that has more than twice the features of the top models 5
years ago, DAC technology is the same. It is of course all computer based and
just like the computing industry according to Moore's Law that dictates
computing power will double approximately every two years. This trend has
continued for more than half a century and is not expected to stop until at
least 2015 or later.