Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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“That sounds analog.”

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“That sounds analog.”

Let’s start by saying that I am not an average listener. I estimate that many people assume that a reviewer at an audio magazine is an obsessive maniac, looking for the “perfect sound. Well….

Rooting around in the digital earth

For me, that’s not the case. The “obsession” is more that I like to understand why the same source material can sound different depending on the streaming setup. The differences are often vast and – to me at least – still elusive.

Pick any discussion among audio enthusiasts on the Internet and there is always someone who believes that streaming “doesn’t sound as good as analog.” Perhaps it is also true for many of our readers that ‘an analog sound’ is a holy grail to strive for and in which digital technology frustrates us.

The ‘analog’ playback chain has been around for a long time: a turntable, with amplifier and a pair of speakers. If that is your quest, then the solution is also clear: buy a turntable!

It’s all digital

Anno 2024, the recording and processing chain of audio is all digital, even for ‘reissues’ on vinyl of originally analog recordings that are polished for reissue. Still, it’s clear that a record sounds different from the album’s Tidal or Qobuz stream, or playback of the files on your hard drive.

There are many reasons for this: different (re)master, different medium, different amplifiers, different transport and conversion chain, different power supplies, different distorting influences on those devices in the chain, different properties of a component: a needle is not a DAC.

We audio enthusiasts understand the differences between components in the vinyl chain, such as a cartridge, and we have accepted that those differences are simply audible. This is not (yet) the case in the digital chain, where “it’s all 1’s and 0’s anyway” argument is repeated ad nauseam. To make a lame joke, it feels like a broken record.

Organic digital

In preparation for an in-depth review of playback software for digital streaming sources, I compared a lot to a Rega turntable. Why? I heard “something” and I couldn’t quite place that “something”. I went on a quest to find out what I was actually hearing and experiencing. In comparison with the Rega turntable, it became clear to me: yes, it sounds different, but the similarity in crucial aspects is strong.

Does that software sound “analog” then?

No. What strikes are the similarities in the character of the reproduction: the way high and low frequencies do not have a clearly defined edge but soundly merge into the space, the way instruments “merge” into the sound and the degree of relaxation in the sound. For lack of better words: the same organic feel.

So does all other software on streamers sound worse? Not that either, but there is always some aspect somewhere that makes me think ‘oh, I’m listening to a digital source’. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s simply a feature of the playback method. This is the first time I have experienced that a simple streaming solution might go past a good CD player in terms of feel, but with more depth of detail and soundstage as only streaming digital files can because of the lower noise floor.

Is it exceptional software then?

No, not that either, without wanting to detract from what has been made. It is not exotic and can be used by simple means for anyone who wants it. Keep in mind that I added a circus of power devices in the digital chain, and that circus has an effect.

It is not a widely accepted fact among audio enthusiasts that power supplies in streaming have a big impact, but that may be coming. In any case, I am going to find out why this combination of hardware and software has the effect on my listening experience, so you will hear about that in detail. And then you’ll hear what software it is, of course; I’ll keep that to myself for now.

I realized during the listening sessions: digital is starting to come of age and we are starting to understand why. Hooray!

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