by Robert Cowlin
I often write about “good sound”, both at the source end and playback end, but what exactly do I mean when I speak of this? To me, the quest for good sound is what differentiates audiophiles from other music fans. Crucially, it isn’t about putting together a collection of hi-fi demo material, nor does it concern owning high ticket playback components. Rather, it is a collecting method one can apply to both music and component purchases that focuses on maximising sonic potential on a case by case basis.
The Good Sound method can be applied at either end of the musical spectrum, but I’m going to start at the end and begin with playback… I’ve written at length previously about vinyl set-up and playback so I’m going to concentrate on digital for the time being but the goals remain the same. In 2016, we find ourselves at a peculiar point for digital audio. Never has it been easier or cheaper than right now to get accurate transparent sound out of a digital device. Gone are the days of bright sounding CD players or inaccurate digital-to-analogue converters (DACs). An iPhone is capable of providing bit-perfect CD quality audio (assuming it’s fed CD quality files) straight out of its headphone jack, and the same is true of many other smartphones, portable digital audio players, and USB sound-cards. It’s also never been easier or cheaper than right now to measure the analogue output of a digital device (should you feel so inclined) to find out whether the product you are using is actually capable of providing bit-perfect audio or whether it’s colouring the audio. A multitude of excellent DACs for different needs at varying price points are reviewed here. Portable, stationary, with or without an inbuilt headphone amplifier, and packing all the digital inputs you might require, now is the time to get into digital audio.
The listener concerned with good sound needs only a few simple components to get themselves up and running. This could be as minimal as combining a low cost (but, crucially, bit-perfect) DAC with a high quality pair of headphones, such as the AKG K550 or something from the Sennheiser HD 6## range; to something more ambitious like a full blown hi-fi with accurately positioned speakers and a well matched amplifier. The point is not to get too preoccupied with gimmicks and woo but instead to focus on the components that really matter (source – amp – transducer) and chase accuracy wherever possible. If you want to manipulate the sound (for example, give everything a “warm” tonal quality) it’s best to do this at the end with your speaker/headphone of choice. Those interested in vinyl playback should note that my previous article was written from much the same standpoint as this one.
Once the playback end has been honed for good sound, it becomes very simple to drop recordings into the system and appreciate the way the recording sounds rather than how a component sounds. The problem now faced by the musically curious is simply the sheer amount of recordings available, especially when a title is reissued. Some recordings, like Kind Of Blue, are available in a dizzying array of varied releases each one sounding different to the last because they’re all mastered differently. With one’s playback components in mind however, it is easy to whittle down the possibilities by following some simple rules: mastering, format, price, availability:
- Mastering: For those interested in good sound, mastering is always the paramount quality. A good master will make or break your enjoyment of a recording and a bad one could turn you off something that you might otherwise have appreciated. A good mastering will maintain the dynamic integrity of the original mix, utilise a mastering chain that is sympathetic to the recording (for example, the 1992 Motown CD compilation Hitsville USA utilised a “specially restored full-track tube tape deck” for the analogue-to-digital transfers that mimicked the way in which those old tapes would have been mastered to vinyl in the ’60s), and only manipulate the sound when it is truly necessary or where such alterations have been requested by the artist. You need all three for this to work, there’s no use in having that tube tape deck in the mastering chain if the songs are then crushed to death with brick wall limiting. Similarly, an overly dynamic master might sound thin and lifeless. Choose something that clearly respects sound quality throughout.
- Format: This simply involves weighing up which mastering(s) is the best versus which format is best reproduced by your playback chain. There’s no point in buying an expensive Monarch pressed Sticky Fingers if your turntable isn’t up to the task of revealing why Monarch pressings are so revered. With a little research you’ll find there is generally a consensus amongst the audiophile community regarding the best example of a recording on each format. Identify the format that is best reproduced by your components and focus on it. I have written more about this concept here. If you’re lucky enough to have a system that reproduces multiple sources well, you might consider price as a way of dictating which edition to buy.
- Price: This is fairly self-explanatory. You might find that there are a number of good examples of the recording you’re looking for. A Japanese black-triangle CD, for example, is going to be more expensive than a run of the mill vinyl reissue from a supermarket. If both are proven to offer good sound, pick according to budget.
- Availability: This is linked with price. Unless you’re happy to wait, it’s often easier to pick up the edition that was/is pressed in the hundreds of thousands than a boutique rarity. Be aware that sometimes it is the boutique releases that have the best sound quality.
These four points can be applied to any album, old and new, and they aren’t reliant on the existence of a high quality recording. This is the crux of the good sound method. It is one hundred percent not interested in collecting things like Jazz At The Pawnshop (unless you happen to like those sorts of records). It is entirely about obtaining recordings in the best sound possible – regardless of the recording quality – and hearing those recordings in the best sound possible to you through clever system building and diligent set-up.
The music industry distracts consumers with formats, products, and remasters in an attempt to fool them into re-buying recordings and equipment under the illusion of better sound. In reality however, the music industry cares little for good sound as evidenced by its continuation of the loudness war, audible watermarking of classical music, and promotion of wildly inaccurate headphones. The vinyl revival is not about good sound, high-resolution downloads aren’t about good sound, active noise cancelling headphones can’t offer good sound, bluetooth speakers don’t have good sound. Sometimes it is possible to find a diamond in the rough but, more often that not, it is the responsibility of collectors and audiophiles to separate the wheat from the chaff when pursuing good sound quality. The truth is, most recordings are good and it doesn’t take much work to figure out which editions are worth buying. By exerting a little effort before making a buying decision, we music fans and audiophiles are more likely to get greater enjoyment from our music and perhaps even learn something about it along the way.