Changing the argument in modern audio – the digital sound

Asus Xonar U7

The DAC and digital sound – big quality at half the expense

Coming from an analog website it may sound as if we are doing a 180 here but the truth remains, we still have the analog versus digital argument.  Something which will never quite be put to bed, the digital war continues.

My first CD player was the Sony CDP1, a small, heavyweight, state of the art digital ‘icon’ to the audio world. In fact at the time I was not even aware that it was first commercial release, rather just wanting to get my hands on a CD player, a Sony, to impress my friends.

The vinyl years

Two things stood out at the time, one without doubt the easy way to play the media – damn but vinyl was finicky, and then you had the problem of friends playing disks which were so bad that it would damage the stylus (was I the only guy that had a freakin’ sound system) and the big one,  no crackles, pops, buzzing, clicks, jumping, feedback and of course,  the big one – lifting the arm to change tracks.

As time went by CD players dropped in price, had more functions and became quite a part of our lives. Everyone had one by the 1990s. Turntables were packed away or trashed, vinyl was dead. Or was it?

The CD years

I stopped listening to vinyl for about fifteen years, it was always cassette tape or CD and then DVD.  I gave away both my Sony turntables which I DJ’d with in the early 80s. The marketing machine was fine tuning us for the silver disk and they did a remarkable job except for one thing – multimedia computers came on the scene in the mid-90s.  (PCs and Windows, Apple was always the front-runner).  We suddenly could compress our 40MB file to 4MB in the form of MP3s. We became used to this,  piracy was no longer something we found on the high seas, it was in everyone’s home.  iTunes suddenly kicked in and we could buy individual tracks not the whole CD where the artist possibly had only one good track. CD prices started falling and before we knew it the audiophiles started reminded us of a couple of things that we had forgotten about.  CD quality is 20 to 20, vinyl is so much more.  In the last decade suddenly we found vinyl on the shelves again.

The shortest route between two points is the straight wire

The digital versus analogue argument is all about the shortest path, sampling frequency and DAC quality. Vinyl has two paths, de-emphasis at the RIAA amplifier (where disk cutting excursions on the lower registers uses a lot of space the engineers de-emphasise these excursions and boost the treble). On playback the reverse is applied. The second path is the amplifier itself.  Simply put, cut out the unnecessary and only amplify the necessary.  Add tone controls if you wish but make sure the amplification is flat, as close to dammit from 0Hz to 100kHz. Wishful thinking but yes, technology can allow this.  Makes one think how the NAD 3020 became so popular with an output stage using transistors from the Ark.   But let it be said that these amplifiers were very popular and indeed, more because of vinyl than anything else.

Vinyl supposedly reduces fatigue, is non-sterile, not compressed to hell and back and also, importantly, does not have the 20 to 20 limitation.  A guru even went so far as to say that music is something we also sense outside the audio spectrum.  He is a very good musician, who am I to argue. So what has made that incredible CD player now near redundant?  The DAC and the internet of course.  Breaking up an analog signal into parts and then re-assembling  these parts or as in a CD, taking 1s and 0s and then re-assembling to get a ‘resemblance’ of analog is just not on.

Technology has allowed us to push the clocking of a digital circuit into the hundreds of Megahertz, the Digital to audio converter now even runs at 384kHz or higher.  CD players, or rather the media is sampled at 44.1 kHz. Using the Nyquist–Shannon thereom, sampling frequency must be a minimum double the sample rate – 44.1kHz also encompasses anti-aliasing filters which reduce the bandwidth.  Lots more of that on wiki.  Bottom line is that all CD players run at 44.1kHz – man decided that our uppermost frequnecy limit is 20kHz so let it be. But DACs have improved in leaps and bounds over the years, high end DACs costing upwards of R30 000.00.  Ouch. But here’s the thing.

We take an analog signal, slice and dice so it can fit nicely onto your computer and then rebuild this signal through the DAC to reproduce a nice sliced and diced analog signal. Why not just copy your vinyl onto a high end tape recorder, preferably an R2R where the media can sit for 10 to 20 years and hopefully not be subject to degrading.  Oh, yes this happens.  The Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB Turntable sells for about R 7 500.00, throw in a RTR for about R 10 000.00 and Bob’s your uncle, or aunt.

Asus Xonar U7
Asus Xonar U7 – 192kHz A-weighted 114dB front at 24bit/96kHz freq response 10Hz to 46kHz

But no, not to be, not to be.  Just have a look at how long it takes to set up your reel to reel – your computer boots up in 20 seconds and then you have the Xonar U7 as I have. Exceptional quality and in only 60 seconds you have YouTube, access to free downloads, very good quality audio. And that’s the thing – if you want a no frills, high quality audio setup go the digital route. If you are looking at the pseudo-acoustic route go analog. Real analogue. In the real world a high quality setup of either can be expensive. For Sunday afternoon listening pleasure I opt for the analogue.  Day to day listening, digital. It’s all in the head any way.

The Internet of Everything

We have all heard this phrase and it’s not one which will go away quickly – the IoT or Internet of Things is going to change the way we react with the net and the universe.  At home you will have a menu listing trillions of songs and movies. You won’t need to keep a library – you will need to pay royalties but as the companies supplying this service become more popular these royalties will be measured in terms of cents.  It’s happening now already.  We live in a quick fix world – digital streaming media is the way things are happening.