We audiophiles – “persons enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction” as Wikipedia defines us – are a weary breed.
Who could blame us?
In the 1970’s the Compact Cassette came out and while everyone was raving about its convenience and little size, we were oh so eager to dismiss it because it lacked that precious thing we cherish so much: sound quality. And even though giants like TEAC and Nakamichi were presenting marvelous machines capable of updating the cassette to being a real hi-fi medium, we just ignored all that and stuck to our vinyl records.
When history proved us right, we became even more suspicious towards technology’s next proposition for the future of sound reproduction: the Compact Disc. When the CD came out in the early 1980’s it took quite a while for it to take off and one of the reasons was us audiophiles’ reluctance to adopt it. This time, we were wrong, but it wasn’t entirely our fault. Early digital audio machines, both in the consumer and the professional realms, were cold, bright, harsh sounding contraptions that were so far from our warm, beautiful analog systems that we just didn’t choose to go the distance. Another problem was that, for many serious music collectors who already owned enormous amounts of vinyl records, the idea of replacing their collections with the same music on CD was just too big an undertaking to take on.
Now, facing the option of leaving the physical world completely behind to explore the new final frontier of computers, operating systems, folders, and files, we are reluctant once again. After all, now, most of the problems that plagued the CD in its infancy, are solved. Now, we have CD transports and DACs that possess such high sound quality and rich features, that they can confront our turntable beasts head-to-head and quite often emerge as clear winners. Why should we even bother with investing time and money on FLACs, WAVs, OS X, Windows, and Android? Why should we take on the enormously time-consuming operation of transferring our CD collection on a hard drive transforming their content into computer files?
Well, there are many arguments for it, and they are pretty convincing.
First, there’s the issue of the quality of sound. Choosing to play back an audio file instead of a disc gives us the advantage of reducing many mechanisms and the different types of distortion they introduce to the signal. Without a spinning device, all related distortions and digital errors relating to them are omitted. Jitter still exists but is far less when we use a computer to listen to music instead of using a disc, either a CD-DA or an SACD. Furthermore, in the realm of computers, we have more ways to fight jitter and more chances to be successful. Software like Audio Engineering’s Fidelia and foobar2000 can significantly upgrade the quality of the sound stemming from our sound cards while giving us many weapons to fight distortion caused by digital errors.
Second, there are the advantages of filing. Audio devices exist for the sole purpose of giving us the pleasure of listening to music at home, without the need to have real live players in our living rooms. Many audiophiles, if not all, are serious music collectors. And all collectors have, at one time or another, faced the task of filing and organizing their vast accumulations of albums and singles on Vinyl Records, CD’s, SACD’s, DVD’s (Video and Audio) and – more obscurely – Compact Cassettes, Reel-to-Reel tapes, MiniDiscs, and DAT’s. In the computer world, intelligent and intuitive software like MusiCHI and Serviio enable us to gather information about a collection of music files from the internet, organize them, and then access and enjoy them almost instantly. Imagine someone owning thousands of CD’s wanting to find a particular piece. It could take him quite a significant amount of time, couldn’t it? But with a computer things become easy. One would just have to type the name of the piece or the artist performing it to be able to enjoy it in a few seconds.
Third, using computing devices to listen to music is more flexible. Desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones can automatically collaborate with our expensively acquired DAC’s, Pre-Amps, Amps, and Speakers and integrate instantly with our systems. The only additional device that is required to incorporate a computing device in the audiophile world is a good sound card, and even that may not be necessary if your DAC has a USB port and the appropriate drivers. Furthermore, with the development of Internet cloud services, and with intuitive software like Serviio, you could leave your computer at home on, and access your music collection from anywhere in the world as long as you have internet access. It’s like having your own YouTube or Spotify but with your personal collection as a feed.
Quite a few years ago I began buying my favorite vinyl records on CD. It was the early 2000’s, and the CD was just becoming a commodity making back-catalog milestones as cheap as 6.99€. Because many of my records were quite worn out, I finally had the chance to seriously update the quality of my collection with a minimum cost. Now, I import my CD’s as .flac or .wav files using high-quality software like EAC. Serviio automatically imports the files’ metadata, that is their title, covers, and credits including the names of the composers, producers, etc. Then, I enjoy my collection on a media player or my Sharp Aquos TV, feeding my Benchmark DAC1. To my surprise, I found out that the quality of playback coming out from my TV (Sharp Aquos LC-40LE830E) was astounding. It easily beat my Marantz DV6600 universal disc player because its mechanism was simpler than the Marantz’s, and it incorporates better and newer chipsets that can handle digital audio data much more efficiently.
So, stepping into the world of digital files sounds better and is more convenient. All one needs is a computer with enough hard drive capacity, a good sound card or a DAC with USB, and the right kind of software. I suspect that most of us audiophiles have already jumped aboard. Your comments are welcome.
Note: Many thanks to my friend Dimitris Stamatakos for his lecture on the subject a few years ago. He was the main inspiration behind this post.