Accuracy Is Not the Answer

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Before 1982, when the Compact Disc arrived, I didn't love LPs. Analog was already very old tech, and while every trick in the book had been applied to turntables and LPs, they still wowed & fluttered at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Vinyl's deficiencies were legion: warped LPs were more common than truly flat ones; surface noise, clicks, and pops sang along with the tune; LPs rarely had perfectly centered spindle holes; inner-groove distortions popped up at inopportune moments; and each time an LP is played, its sound quality degrades, if only ever so slightly. The LP format? Imperfect sound forever. So in the days leading up to the introduction of the CD, digital looked like an instant cure for all of analog's ills. It had to sound great. We would finally have a truly quiet format with dead-on speed accuracy, wider dynamic range, razor-flat frequency response, and no wear issues. Digital's implicit promise was of a 100% transparent recording medium that would add to and subtract from the signal nothing at all. Digital had no sound. Music was about to be liberated from analog's gross colorations.

Or that's what I wished for. A few minutes into listening to my first CD (footnote 1), my heart sank. It certainly sounded different—but not dramatically better than an LP. I was confused. Why didn't this hyper-accurate new format produce more realistic sound? Maybe some analog distortions still lurked in the pits of my shiny new CD? Yup, that was it—a lot of early CDs weren't pure, all-digital recordings. Recorded and mixed in analog, they were only mastered digitally: AAD. Whatever, my highly imperfect LPs sounded better. I smelled a rat.

I had to wait a little longer to hear an all-digital—recorded, mixed, mastered—CD. But when that day arrived, my hopes were again dashed. A DDD CD was no better than an AAD or ADD CD. Not only that, pure-digital discs weren't all that much quieter. The low-level noise was still there, but this time it wasn't tape hiss or record-surface noise—it was mike-preamp noise, or the ambience of the recording venue. It was clear then, and it's still true: LPs' musicality trounces CDs'. If anything, my pro-digital bias should have favored CDs, but their sound couldn't hold my attention.

No matter—CDs were hugely popular in the broader market, and a good number of audiophiles loved 'em. But naysayers thought "Red Book" CDs were deeply flawed from the get-go. Many were convinced that the Red Book sampling rate of 44.1kHz was much too low, and that the CD standard's 16-bit resolution was inadequate. That's why CDs sounded so . . . digital. The analog faithful judged the CD as unworthy of true high-end status. I never felt CDs sounded bad, just that they failed to deliver the promised great leap forward in sound quality.

Ten years later, with the debuts of the two higher-resolution digital formats, SACD and DVD-Audio at the turn of the century, it was déjà vu all over again. They clearly sounded better than CD, but didn't really get us closer to more believably realistic playback at home. If I had any lingering doubts that two-channel stereo was the reason recorded music never sounded realistic, the small but steady stream of 5.1-channel releases weren't any better. It took a while to dawn on me, but it was becoming increasingly clear that there was absolutely no correlation between higher-resolution digital recordings and more viscerally realistic reproduction of music. Differences, sure, but sound-quality preferences are just that: subjective preferences. Analog playback may be highly imperfect, but it still has that special something digital never quite achieves.

Then they said that jitter was to blame—digital was perfect, but jitter was messing with the steady flow of zeros and ones. We're quick to find a bugaboo—the one thing that's ruining the sound—and to pin our hopes on the new fix that banishes or reduces the gremlin of the moment. Well, the CD eliminated all of the LP's problems, and still we didn't have perfect—or even better—sound.

Next? Room acoustics were obscuring the sound, so a number of room-correction systems were developed to tame the worst offenders. But they can't make the room disappear. Then came those for whom the prime villain is speaker-cabinet resonances, and some manufacturers responded with massive, structurally inert behemoths.

Again and again, as we rush to identify the reasons why the sound isn't better, engineers poke around for a fix and find solutions. That's great, but it's the LP-vs-CD argument repeated ad infinitum. We're not really getting anywhere. We still don't have hi-fis that can fool the ear into believing we're hearing a live violin or solo voice or rock band or orchestra.

Maybe it comes down to this: Making gear that's more accurate and/or measures better isn't the same as making better-sounding gear. Today's best gear can play louder, with lower distortion, and has wider bandwidth than the best of yesteryear's "Recommended Components." That's true, but a hi-rez file of a new recording can't match the bloody realism of a 1960 RCA Living Stereo LP played through a well-set-up turntable, 1980s-era electronics, and a pair of Quad ESL or Klipschorn speakers.

We must have missed some essential aspects of sound reproduction. I have no idea what those aspects might be, but there has to be more to the pursuit of ultimate fidelity than eliminating or reducing imperfections. We need to learn more about capturing and reproducing the gestalt of music. Analog may be far from perfect, but it still seems to convey more of that hard-to-define stuff that brings recorded music to life.

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