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Tassie Devil

Weakest Link(s) in the Audio Chain?

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This is probably the most frustrating problem facing an audiophile - which link is the weakest and should be upgraded?

 

FWIW here is a personal appraisal of each of these links  (not in any particular order) in a digital system - the more stars, the more likely it could be the culprit.

 

1. The recording    *

2. The item responsible for digital output of the  recorded media
      - if a CDP (omitting the DAC) **

      - if a PC music file  via USB  ****

      - if a music file from a server  *  and handled by a bridge  ***  tranmitted via SPDIF ****  or  transmitted by XLR ** [in both cases cable quality could be significant]

3. The DAC ******

4. The amplifier(s) ***

5. The speakers **** and room interaction [resonances etc] ****    OR   Headphone ***

6. The listener - anything from ** to ***** with the variation depending on the genetic link of ears [their structure] to the rest of the brain functions,  modified by the environment, meaning listening experiences leading to prejudices for or against bass etc etc.

 

Generalisations are dangerous but it can be helpful to seriously examine each of the links in the audio chain from the music file on disk or server right up to the end product, the music being appreciated.  And I've avoided mentioning balanced vs unbalanced as, it appears that balanced is superior.

 

From the above you can interpret that I consider the DAC to be the crucial link that is weakest in many systems.  And it is the very valid reason why many prefer vinyl or other analog media that avoid the digital transformation at all.  And it is the reason why most early CDPs sounded harsh and unforgiving.  But it does seem that we are finally getting there because some of the recent crop of DACs like the Schiit YGGDRASIL and the LKS-D004 [my current favourite] and turning the corner to make vinyl lovers sit up and take notice [of course that does not mean a digital conversion will follow!!].

 

It is far too easy to get sucked it to a rave product review, buy the item,  be initially overjoyed at how good it appears to be, but then later come to the realisation that just because the sound is a bit different, it does not mean it is better.  One has succeeded in enriching the retailer but in fact have only moved sideways and not forward.  Been there, done that, far too often.

 

Spending large sums on e.g. headphones, and expecting to hear all sorts of hidden musical nuances might in fact reveal more clearly all sorts of nasties earlier in the chain.  This can result in condeming the headphone as "bad" when in fact it is revealing those earlier problems, very possibly in the DAC.  So the disillusioned audiophile goes for a headphone that "sounds better" when in fact all it does is mask the problems!  And of course a similar situation can occur with revealing speakers who have the added challenge of careful placement.

 

And so the merry go round of audio upgrades goes on, and on, and ........

 

.

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Simple summary: speakers/room. All else is orders of magnitude less important.

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2 minutes ago, A9X said:

Simple summary: speakers/room. All else is orders of magnitude less important.

+1

Although the media being reproduced is the most important factor, everything else means little if running an MP3 (eekk)

 

Edited by 125dBmonster

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Front End and room.

Rooms not that hard to sort out without going overboard.

Some of the worst rooms I've heard have been over tailored.

Then, once again, its the other blokes room and he can live with it.

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Moderator

Speaker interaction with the room.

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Audiophiles should be reared from birth onwards in anechoic chambers and never exposed to anything but processed sound, preferably in the dark.

 

Do whales dream of flying?

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39 minutes ago, 125dBmonster said:

 

Although the media being reproduced is the most important factor,

But you have no control over that, and it's a constant irrespective of system.

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1 hour ago, 125dBmonster said:

+1

Although the media being reproduced is the most important factor, everything else means little if running an MP3 (eekk)

 

Not at all, the speakers and room will still be the weakest link by miles.

Even lowish 128kbps MP3 rate playback takes one hell of system to conquer.

Go on, compare MP3 playback between your Hi-Fi system versus your phone. :thumb::lol:

Edited by Satanica

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30 minutes ago, Satanica said:

Not at all, the speakers and room will still be the weakest link by miles.

Even lowish 128kbps MP3 rate playback takes one hell of system to concur.

Go on, compare MP3 playback between your Hi-Fi system versus your phone. :thumb::lol:

:lol: Generally don't listen to my phone, thanks. doesn't really rate to the flavour of the month which is Martin Logan CLS's. A treated room and a fine tuned system you can pick a lot of things out of the resolution being rendered. It's all a lot of fun

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40 minutes ago, A9X said:

But you have no control over that, and it's a constant irrespective of system.

The only control over the media being played is the constant search for better recordings :thumb:

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I have to agree with the speaker/room interface as the primary point.

But, you have to define the audio chain and consider how to upgrade, which is the real point behind questions of this type.

 

I'd classify the chain as the components and cables, and the room to be part of the "environment" in which the chain has to work. In practical terms, you have to be very rich to change the room (I have a crap room, every room I've used has been worse than the last, not through choice). If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated room, you can treat it of course. My system is in the living room and I have limited options.

Simply because the speaker/room is the strongest influence, does NOT necessarily equate to the most important upgrade being speakers. Far from it.

 

If you have a working room/speaker interface, it is a real risk to change the speakers. I advocate getting the most out of existing speakers first, by improving the rest of the system, and then making sure that any speaker change is meaningful. Speaker sidegrades that require changes to amps and add little or nothing to the system can be great fun, but a distraction if you can only have one good system and not a collection of bits.

 

One thing I've learnt here is to ensure that each component is compatible with the next in the chain. Once that is in order, then I'd strongly support the old source first approach for a vinyl system. Digital? Not really sure about amp/source order, which is a shame because that's exactly where I'm at now!

 

A mistake that is sometimes made is to upgrade the speakers and blow the budget on a set that don't work with the existing amp. It may well be better to choose the speakers first, but buy the amp, if taking a two step approach.

 

 

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Interesting responses but no one comenting on how headphones overcome those two biggest problems most identify - speakers/room.  But then I guess that is a personal taste issue where some do not like the "in your head" sound from headphones and prefer a more social speaker system.

 

And in a headphone system that does eliminate that speaker/room problem, I feel it is much easier to detect that the DAC is the vital "brain" that controls how awful or how good digital sources can sound.  But then I guess many are convinced, as I once was myself, that digital sources can never ever sound as good as analog but I'm not wishing to open up that debate.

Edited by Tassie Devil
typos

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Room and speaker interaction is by far the biggest factor unless something else is seriously wrong. A few years ago< i had a pair of ATC SCM50A's in my smallish lounge. The addition that DEQX speaker/room correction made was far greater than I had expected- and the room was mostly at fault. (I am now a DEQX dealer for this reason, so please bear that in mind). DAC's can certainly make a difference, but for me, quite a way down the chain. As an orchestral cellist and keen recording engineer as well, The room for both playback and recording/live performance can make a huge difference. Some recordings I have made with the same ensembles/gear in different room are so completely different that this is another example. These questions also pop up in recording threads- is the microphone or preamp more important? Give me good mics and average preamps any day over world class preamps and 'good enough' mics. 

Regarding DAC's- I think that many audiophiles would be a little dismayed at the small differences DAC/cables etc make in the grand scheme of recording setups. (Yes, i'm a firm believer of good cables/tweaks and so on) I remember sitting in the Opera House studio many years ago comparing the stereo pair of mics to the return from a Panasonic DAT machine into the same desk (Prob early 2000's), so essentially hearing the difference that the A/Dand D/A converters plus all the extra cables, line amp etc in the chain. Certainly an obvious difference, but nothing compared to getting the stereo pair in the right position. 

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TD I agree with your assessment of the benefits of using headphones but there are downsides. You’ve mentioned the in head sensation of music which I personally don’t mind but that’s not recreating the sensation you get when listening to live music.  Speakers give you a more realistic recreation of live music.

 

Using headphones is also a rather unsocialable way of listening.  It’s not something that easily shared. Kinda hard to have gtg around a headphone system.

 

Personally though I just can’t stand to have things stuck in or over my ears for too long.  So if I have choice I’ll always listen to speakers over headphones.

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2 minutes ago, jt301 said:

TD I agree with your assessment of the benefits of using headphones but there are downsides. You’ve mentioned the in head sensation of music which I personally don’t mind but that’s not recreating the sensation you get when listening to live music.  Speakers give you a more realistic recreation of live music.

 

Using headphones is also a rather unsocialable way of listening.  It’s not something that easily shared. Kinda hard to have gtg around a headphone system.

 

Personally though I just can’t stand to have things stuck in or over my ears for too long.  So if I have choice I’ll always listen to speakers over headphones.

However, from a sound quality/bang for buck angle, headphones can be hard to beat. I also prefer not to listen to cans for long periods, but when one considers the fidelity of even a $300 pair of cans, it takes a very expensive speaker to beat the sonics.

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2 hours ago, henning said:

However, from a sound quality/bang for buck angle, headphones can be hard to beat

I've grown to love cans again. I got some AKG K7xx (x2, Supertex HD688, HE350 and Senn HD6xx - still waiting on these), and a cheap second hand Aune headphone amp and it's fantastic.

I was sick last week and stayed in bed and had a 24hr movie watching session (closer to the bathroom) with no fatigue issues at all. Also means I can listen at whatever volume at whatever time without annoying the neighbours.

Edited by A9X

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On 11/15/2017 at 4:22 PM, A9X said:

Simple summary: speakers/room. All else is orders of magnitude less important.

 

Orders of magnitude - not in my view - but overall about right.

 

IMHO it goes - speakers, room, dac, amp then cables.   But a very experienced audiophile I know recently changed his view - he now goes speakers, room, dac, cables then amp.   Interesting isn't it.

 

Thanks

Bill

Edited by bhobba

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11 minutes ago, bhobba said:

 

Orders of magnitude - not in my view - but overall about right.

Oh, definitely. Ignoring the room and just looking at the non linear distortion of the various components; a very good speaker driver had THD in the order of -50dB. A really crap modern DAC is >-110dB. SS amps are regularly >-100dB. Non stupid (without boxes or batteries etc) cables should be almost immeasurable. So just this one aspect shows speakers are by far the weakest link, and that's before factoring in diffraction, time alignment, polar patterns (H&V) or their effects at the MLP when actually placed in a room.

 

16 minutes ago, bhobba said:

interesting isn't it.

Not really.

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On 11/16/2017 at 12:10 AM, A9X said:

Oh, definitely. Ignoring the room and just looking at the non linear distortion of the various components; a very good speaker driver had THD in the order of -50dB. A really crap modern DAC is >-110dB. SS amps are regularly >-100dB. Non stupid (without boxes or batteries etc) cables should be almost immeasurable. So just this one aspect shows speakers are by far the weakest link, and that's before factoring in diffraction, time alignment, polar patterns (H&V) or their effects at the MLP when actually placed in a room.

 

Yes - true.

 

But raises all sorts of interesting issues.

 

For example you would think power cables make no difference wouldn't you - I mean providing they are half resonably made with decent copper plugs etc.

 

But low and behold I have recently been at listening sessions with just changes in power cables and the difference wasn't what I would call subtle.  Present was also Rawl99, an honors electrical engineering graduate - so he knows his technical stuff.  Why - don't really know except as I point out to people there are many many things we don't measure that affect sound as demonstrated by the famous Carver challenge:

https://www.stereophile.com/content/carver-challenge

 

Carver got them to sound the same, proving conclusively there is objective reasons for differences in sound, but he couldn't do it by actually measuring this or that parameter and duplicating it in the other amp - he had to resort to a nulling technique.

 

With regard to power cables a well known audiophile, and forum sponsor who I will not name, but those that know me can easily guess who I am talking about, has very very expereinced ears.   He can listen to a speaker and say - its 1 db down here - measure it - and low and behold its one db down where he said - I have witnessed this personally.

 

Anyway that is just to set the stage.  He decided he wanted to design some power cables and got a hold of the well known Yarbo power cable to test against some cables he made.

 

He failed miserably - the Yarbo beat his efforts easily.   But of relevance here is he walked out of the room, asked the others with him to randomly plug the cables in, then came back in.   He named each cable with 100% acccuracy.  

 

Why do they sound different - I don't know - but for some reason they do.   And its not voodoo either - as I said, as proven by the Carver challenge, there is a reason - its just not enough investigation has been done into why - investigation in the public domain anyway.

 

One thing we do know however is distortion measurements alone are pretty meaningless.   The reason is global feedback is often used to achieve spectacularly low distortion figures.  An electronics magazine many moons ago published the design of a class A amp with distortion figures so low they had to purchase special equipment to measure it.   Even the terminals they used affected the measurement.  Yet when you hear it, it was as if the life had been sucked out of the music.  Why - I think companies that design amps know why because these days do not use huge amounts of global feedback and keep it as their proprietary knowledge, but the general conjecture is that there is a slight time delay for feedback to work and this leads to time smear.

 

There is so much in this hobby we do not know.

 

Thanks

Bill

 

Edited by bhobba

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15 minutes ago, Sir Sanders Zingmore said:

I actually suspect that there is far far more about this hobby that we do know. 

Now that's an interesting point isnt it.

 

There are many things we certainly do know, and some we do not.  Does the do not exceed the do know?  I don't even know that one.

 

For example capacitors sound different - and have heard it on many occasions personally.  There are those that dispute that, and that's fine, we have, and respect all sorts of views here, but the conjecture of why they sound different is detailed in Humble Hi Fi great capacitor comparison:

http://www.humblehomemadehifi.com/Cap.html

'In the past capacitors were just capacitors and sound quality was determined by the dialectric material with polypropylene considered by many as "the best" seeing as this type of capacitor had the lowest losses. But technology of the 21st century has brought us new measuring techniques and insights and there seems to be more to it. We can now measure things that were not possible a few years ago. In a nut-shell: microphony is the keyword - the mechanical resonance, a key feature of audio capacitors. This is a physical deformation of the capacitor plates which occurs as a result of the audio signal passing through the component, in some ways like how an electrostatic speaker works. This resonance is dependent on the size, shape, materials and manufacturing parameters of the capacitors. This effect has been known about for years as it plays a part in the impulse strength of capacitors. However, the effect has never been considered to be significant enough to affect a hi-fi system's audio reproduction due to the low energy involved. For more indepth information read the Clarity Cap white paper on mechanical resonances inside capacitors. Another interesting article was written by Martin Colloms back in 1985 in which he tested several capacitors on their sonic differences. Also look at the equivalent circuit diagram of a capacitor at the top of this page, this also explains a lot. A capacitor is more than just capacitance C!'

 

Is he right - I think he is - but I don't think anyone knows for sure.  So we may know more than we think - or not - its maddening isn't it.

 

Thanks

Bill

Edited by bhobba

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22 minutes ago, bhobba said:

Now that's an interesting point isnt it.

 

There are many things we certainly do know, and some we do not.  Does the do not exceed the do know?  I don't even know that one.

 

For example capacitors sound different - and have heard it on many occasions personally.  There are those that dispute that, and that's fine, we have, and respect all sorts of views here, but the conjecture of why they sound different is detailed in Humble Hi Fi great capacitor comparison:

http://www.humblehomemadehifi.com/Cap.html

'In the past capacitors were just capacitors and sound quality was determined by the dialectric material with polypropylene considered by many as "the best" seeing as this type of capacitor had the lowest losses. But technology of the 21st century has brought us new measuring techniques and insights and there seems to be more to it. We can now measure things that were not possible a few years ago. In a nut-shell: microphony is the keyword - the mechanical resonance, a key feature of audio capacitors. This is a physical deformation of the capacitor plates which occurs as a result of the audio signal passing through the component, in some ways like how an electrostatic speaker works. This resonance is dependent on the size, shape, materials and manufacturing parameters of the capacitors. This effect has been known about for years as it plays a part in the impulse strength of capacitors. However, the effect has never been considered to be significant enough to affect a hi-fi system's audio reproduction due to the low energy involved. For more indepth information read the Clarity Cap white paper on mechanical resonances inside capacitors. Another interesting article was written by Martin Colloms back in 1985 in which he tested several capacitors on their sonic differences. Also look at the equivalent circuit diagram of a capacitor at the top of this page, this also explains a lot. A capacitor is more than just capacitance C!'

 

Is he right - I think he is - but I don't think anyone knows for sure.  So we may know more than we think - or not - its maddening isn't it.

 

Thanks

Bill

And as per usual on most white papers is that there is never any real data or measurements to say what they have really achieved by going to this current process for there now listed products.

What I think about white papers these days especially for audio components is that it's all hypothetical marketing to justified there products, and there current infrustructure that produces there products! 

The best caps in the signal path is no cap at all, it bypasses BS distorted colorations.   But if you must @bhobba  nearly all the polyprops MKPs that I've purchased over  the years and this includes "audiophile caps" recommended by http://www.humblehomemadehifi.com/Cap.html.  Is that now I don't even read that BS anymore!  That's just his subjective evaluation that doesn't correspond to mine.   The best cap I'd have ever played with was a MKP 18uf power correction factor (starter cap)  cap of an AC motor out of a friggin printer!  When we stuck this thing into a XO for 1st order for a ribbon tweeter, it was clear!   No fancy copper plating bees wax,  submersion in oil costing $xxxxx.xx,  just a standard MKP made in Japan! 

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49 minutes ago, bhobba said:

But low and behold I have recently been at listening sessions with just changes in power cables and the difference wasn't what I would call subtle. 

Is there a list of showrooms in Australia set up to demonstrate "non-subtle" differences from changes in power cables?

 

Any chance one of the premium international manufacturers of quality gear could be encouraged to send a rep to one of these showrooms to listen to a good aftermarket power cable and then choose it as standard for their top-line equipment? 

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