Is optical playback better ?

johnny p. -- Wed, 01/25/2012 - 19:31

In an editorial this month, Alan Sircom of HiFi+ stated that CD "outperforms" computer-based audio in sound.
Does it really ? Based on numerous reviews (in recent years), it looks like the opposite - hard-disk and memory players are beating optical CD. There's less jitter-based artifacts for one. And without constant reading, direct-drive servers can focus more on transmission and less on error-correction.
I wonder what other listeners think.....

Mr Plus -- Tue, 02/07/2012 - 12:33

Er, no I didn't. 
What I said was as follows:

Beneath the calm surface of the audio world, there are dark stirrings. The backlash is beginning. It’s starting slow, and starting at the very top of the top-end of hi-fi, but there are people in high-end audio who are comparing CD or SACD with the equivalent computer files, and consistently prefer the spinning disc.
You see, when you compare the very, very best of what CD and SACD replay has to offer (we are talking Accuphase, dCS, Esoteric, Metronome, Wadia and Zanden-grade disc replay, here) and do the same with the latest and greatest in computer audio in all its guises, CD and SACD often come out on top. At less breathtaking levels of audio expenditure, the differences are not so clear-cut. But the fact remains that in many of these tests, CD outperforms its computer audio replacement. It is LP vs. CD all over again.
I have performed such comparisons on several occasions and in a number of different contexts, and I have begun to conclude there is no simple answer. In many cases, the sound of disk and computer audio are on a par with one another. In some cases (and even, with some listeners) computer audio sounds distinctly more natural than CD, and also the reverse is true. But once you breach that top-end barrier, the more people you test, the more you come up with preferences toward the spinning disc, even under blind conditions. In fairness, these differences are fairly subtle, and I still maintain that well-handled computer audio is not ruined next to spinning disc, but the preferences are distinct and consistent.
I guess the next two interlinked questions are why? and what can we do about it? While we could do precisely nothing and hope our resolve will grant CD the same longevity as LP, I am more a of a prepare for the worst, hope for the best kinda guy. I think the Why might stem from the computer itself; the better USB converters invariably take great pains to galvanically isolate the computer from the audio-side equipment, and the really outstanding server-based music replay systems have been computers that were broken down into separate subsystems, each one EMI and resonant/acoustically isolated from the next. Swapping out the standard power supply for a linear supply from a lab bench, replacing any form of HDD for a hedgehog of USB memory sticks and endless RAM have also all been touted as a path to computer audio salvation. But such options are impractical, expensive and are unlikely to receive approval from the computer know-it-alls.
It may be that the high-end is creating something out of nothing, or that we are falling into the trap of comparing a mature format with a nascent one and criticising the new one simply for being new. But the fact remains that CD and SACD still have loyal followers among the audiophile community and that is not going away, no matter how good computer audio gets.

Taking all of that and squashing it down to "outperforms" is pushing the whole context envelope rather a lot, don't you think?
The fact remains there are people who claim they prefer the sound of optical disc to hard disk drive to such an extent, they think our migration toward file-based audio of any description undermines high-quality digital sound. Speaking personally, I disagree - I have heard good file-based systems and bad CD-based systems. Neither represents a panacea, neither represents the automatic end of good sound. But, at the risk of repeating myself, we need to investigate why these people are so dismissive of file-based audio, to see whether they have a valid point, or are merely rejecting the new because they are nuphobic.
Moreover, if they do have a valid point, and it's something that we've all missed in the rush to migrate, maybe what we missed that they spotted can be used to make file-based audio even better.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

johnny p. -- Wed, 02/08/2012 - 03:02

"Once you reach that top-end barrier, (the) more prefer spinning disc."

Maybe in your experience - but not with many others.

With the buzz at trade shows (and opinion of a number of equipment reviews) a majority seems to favor hardisk and memory. And this includes comparisons to "top-tier" optical drives. Preferred - probably due to less jitter and error-correction.

I can only send you to reviews that back this up - like the Nova Physic's Memory Player, the VRS (from 2004 !), the QSonix and Soolos servers which Robert Harley has been with ever since, and not looked back (on optical).

I don't know where you're getting this information. Is there a certain optical player that is a standout among others ?

Mr Plus -- Wed, 02/08/2012 - 21:07

Once again, you seem to be confusing the reporting of a thing with supporting that thing. Having been harangued time and again for supporting computer audio long before it was fashionable to do so, I have no desire to be harangued for not supporting it when that isn't the case. These things have a nasty habit of being blown out of all proportion and pretty soon I get called a luddite for simply spotting a trend.

Last year, I predicted there would be a CD backlash, as CD approaches its tipping point. There is a small CD backlash among the top-enders. I am reporting that backlash. By doing so, I'm no more pro-backlash than a weatherman reporting on a hurricane is pro-hurricane.


Right now, probably the most outspoken of the 'not convinced by computer audio' in the UK is Ricardo Franassovici of Absolute Sounds. As he's the distributor for QSonix among others, he's not exactly unaware of what good computer audio can do. Here's his take on this (especially from two minutes in; they cut to the Continuum turntable, but he's not solely focused on LP here):

There are also several dealers who reject file-based in favour of optical drive. Here's a pretty bold statement on the subject:

Here's another, on the forum of a Manchester-based high-end retailer:

The cynical conclusion from this is these people don't have a computer audio solution, but that doesn't seem quite right. Anyone supplying dCS equipment has potential access to one of the best computer audio front ends available and the dCS computer audio knowledge base. And, given the current state of the CD landscape, not having a dog in the computer audio fight is like being a Ford dealership that refuses to sell cars. So unless these people are on a sales suicide mission, they must be making these statements because they feel strongly about it.

As to specific optical players, some CD systems are so distinctive it's conceivable that those who dismiss computer audio are rejecting something that isn't as distinctive as what they currently own. I would imagine Zanden owners would struggle to find any device (CD or computer-based) that would come close to the Zanden sound, for example. I also discount those who dismiss computer audio because they try to stack the deck (say by comparing the sound from a base model Cambridge Audio DACMagic to the sound of a four box Metronome player). Those caveats aside, I don't see any repeat offenders on the optical player side. The pro-CD set do typically seem to have a top-end CD player, so it's conceivable that their feelings are tempered by the heavy investment they already have in CD replay. But similarly they are also likely to have a pretty good computer audio rig too, so the investment is often on both sides of the debate.

My take on this is there is a lot of hype on both sides. A good CD player sounds good. Good computer audio sounds good, too. If you rip a CD with care and compare the resultant files stored on a computer with the same played on a CD player, I am unconvinced that one will be intrinsically, consistently and significantly better than the other in all cases. I'm also not swayed by arguments on either side of the debate, because there are always arguments to be found to support any position. Error correction? Jitter (both could claim that one as a win)? RFI? I'm not really sure whether these are arguments with any foundation, or simply the result of scrabbling round for a legitimator to shore up a personal choice.

Regardless, there are those with decades of experience of listening to good systems who feel that CD has no place left in a modern audio system, while some who feel computers have no place in audio systems whatsoever. My reason for stating this is to ask why. Is the reason people choose one over the other down to the system, or the listener? Is it just hot air, or is there something in it?

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

johnny p. -- Thu, 02/09/2012 - 00:16

Well, it would have been nice had you mentioned specific (optical) drives instead of making a sweeping statement.

And dealers support optical drives ? Of course, they're priced much higher. And just like turntables, (solid-state) power amps and cone speakers, it's thought that the more you spend, the more you get. And this would be true in all those cases - but *not* digital. Here in the States, word is getting out that an Empirical or Bel Canto DAC can sound (overall) as good as a very expensive unit (like MBL).

Finally, it's common sense that memory introduces fewer problems in the signal chain. Solid-state has no moving parts. But the proof is in the listening - and review after review are favoring (cheaper) servers. That said, it's perfectly fine to spring the cash for a Metronome transport - I'm sure it sounds wonderful..........

Mr Plus -- Thu, 02/09/2012 - 06:44

I am reluctant to cite specific optical drives, simply because there is no one optical drive that repeatedly appears as CD's champion. As discussed, most are decidedly esoteric (including, naturally, Esoteric). However, one name that does come up a few times that isn't at the top table is the Opera Audio Consonance CD player range. That being said, I don't discount the notion that in this case people are preferring the laid-back sound of the players like the Droplet 5.0, rather than CD's intrinsic performance.

I know review after review are preferring cheaper file-based solutions, because in the UK, I've written most of those reviews. And from my own tests, I wouldn't say you need to go quite as far up the ladder as an Empirical or a Bel Canto. Something like a HRT Streamer II+ can deliver a performance that is every bit the equal of many extremely good CD players. But it's also those tests that made me question the notion that computer-based audio is universally better than its predecessor, or at least can out-perform CD on a regular basis. I don't see that in most cases. I have run public comparisons between the two formats at shows, and the results aren't 50:50 (that would be uncanny and suspiciously convenient) but they don't show a strong preference either way.

There are, however, outliers. Those who have a strong preference either way interest me, because it's unclear whether they represent bias in action, or are legitimately hearing something they particularly like in one format, and something they dislike in the other. If it's the latter, what is it, and in identifying it, does it hold a key to improving sound across the board?

If this trend is more than bias in action, and represents the interests of those who actively dislike the sound of computer-based audio, we need to determine whether this is an almost irrelevant tiny subset of the audio community, or the vocal contingent of a larger group grumbling about file-based audio in silent discontent. If it's a dozen malcontents, it can be effectively ignored, but if it's a dozen malcontents expressing the feelings of hundreds or even thousands of less vociferous audio enthusiasts, we should take such things seriously.

It might explain why so few of those who bought good CD-based systems in the past have reappeared to investigate computer audio. If it's because they have gone 'post consumer' and have all the CDs they need, have no intention to make that computer-side jump with the rest of us, then fair enough. However, if the reason comes down to them hearing - and not liking - computer audio sound, we need to know why, rather than dismiss them out of hand.

And no, I don't think the motivation behind this is to sell someone a better CD player. Yes, faced with the prospect of selling someone a $1,000 DAC or a $10,000 CD player, the sales person would prefer to make a $10,000 sale, but if the reality today is losing both the $10,000 and the $1,000 sale, because the prospective customer takes their custom elsewhere. So, I don't see the rationale for someone saying this, unless they feel strongly enough about it to actively lose business.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

johnny p. -- Thu, 02/09/2012 - 17:57

So optical vs. server is more "50-50". Fine. *If* this is the case, I see no reason to mention the (very few) players that outperform servers. And this might be why you cherry-picked the Opera - not terribly expensive.

If we can save thousands on a drive, get the best performance - and added convenience - then most listeners should go with a server. Those older folks who don't want to fiddle with a computer (and don't mind springing for a great optical deck like MBL) are fully approved to do so. As I stated before, I'm sure they sound wonderful.....

Mr Plus -- Fri, 02/10/2012 - 10:37

You see no reason to mention players that outperform servers? Why? What benefit would there be in suppressing this nugget of information? Are you saying if someone seeks to find the best in reproduced digital sound, they should not be informed of their options?

If those who still prefer CD over file-based playback are on to something, maybe that something can be incorporated into the file-based playback systems of tomorrow, and perhaps we can all benefit. But not if everyone thinks they should be ignored.

You asked for an example. I gave you one. Cherry picked? Not really, but from the emails I have received since that editorial hit the streets, it was the one player that came up twice. As of now, I get a little over two CD-supporting emails for every one file-based fan, but this potentially reflects the audience. The cheapest file-based beater was a 20+ year old Rotel that saw off a Squeezebox, while the most expensive casualty was an unnamed $10,000 player that was replaced by a PC with an Arcam rDAC.

This is why I continue to suggest there is no clear winner. To my mind, playing the CD does not automatically better the ripped version played through a computer, and vice versa. But not everyone agrees. Some (I would suggest... you) feel that on-the-fly CD replay has been confidently bested by a file-based, computer audio solution. Others feel exactly the opposite. Rather than sit at opposite ends of the room and throw rocks at one another, surely a better reaction is to ask 'why?'

A tipping point is coming when CD will largely disappear from view. What then? If the dislike of file-based audio is built on blind prejudice, it will fade with time, but if it is a genuine need for some currently-intangible element that file-based audio should supply but doesn't, do they just go gentle into that inky-black silence?

But regardless, I'm glad those 'older folks' are now 'fully approved' to continue to enjoy CD replay. There's been an ever-shrinking army of coffin-dodgers, shuffling slowly from slippered foot to slippered foot, CD in hand, waiting for johnny p's flag to go down on this one. Let's just hope the arthritis won't stop them pressing 'play'.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

blackfly -- Mon, 02/13/2012 - 18:29

With all respect Alan, it is obvious why dealers would prefer optical disc. The players/transports cost far more than a brand new iMac, and the markups are larger. These are the same people who most likely do not suggest to get a spare laser and belts with the player so it has many years of life in it once the laser dies, which it will.

My own CD transport is a TOTL Denon player with a Nordost Silver Shadow cable, and has EVERY advantage to sound better. It sounds very, very good. But the digital stream from my iMac is better; better soundstaging and better, more detailed, airy treble. This is the case with EVERY CD I play.

Mr Plus -- Tue, 02/14/2012 - 14:55

Well yes, and no. Yes, because a dealer stands to make more money from a sale of an expensive CD player over a less expensive streaming option, but no because they stand to lose both sales.

I think there has been a tipping point in music lovers, and their preference for computer-based files. Most who are still actively buying music are at or have passed their inflection spot where the flip from playing CDs to using CD as a one-time file carrier. But 'most' is not 'all'.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

kamen -- Fri, 02/10/2012 - 06:22

 You refer to the computer audio so what is that?
any kind of computer sending files thry USB to some kind digital to analog converter? 
What about something  else, for example Embla a Silent Player from Bladelius?

Mr Plus -- Fri, 02/10/2012 - 10:40

As far as I can determine, most of those who dislike computer audio focus in particular on the PC+DAC combination. I don't know if that means memory or silent players like the Embla, or network players like the Linn DS fall into the same category.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

johnny p. -- Fri, 02/10/2012 - 21:55

I doubt that people who prefer optical are "on to something". Most of the evidence I've seen says servers are better. This includes a recent report from Hi-Fi World, regarding the Aurender memory-play unit. Reviews about the Nova Physics, Soolos and Q-Sonix ring the same.

You are *clearly* cherry-picking - making a statement about the "top-tier" when you only mention the Opera - a middle-priced unit. And what servers did these "top-tier" use to compare optical to ? IPods ?

This time the haranguing is justified...........

Mr Plus -- Sat, 02/11/2012 - 16:11

I mentioned the Opera because you wanted more examples. Ricardo from Absolute Sounds is a distributor for Qsonix, so it's a little unlikely he used an iPod in his comparisons. Others don't want to be cast as luddites for expressing a preference, but there are those who are not convinced that computer-side and server-side systems are a step forward.

I am not one of them, which is why I felt could make this small movement public. For my part, the best audio performance I have yet heard comes from a Linn Akurate DS media renderer into a Devialet D-Premier DAC/Amp. I pretty much stopped using CD in the mid 2000s, except as a one-time data carrier and to review CD players. My reporting of this falls into "I disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

johnny p. -- Sat, 02/11/2012 - 19:20

It's just that (in your piece), you stated that "we're back to optical vs. LP, all over again". In another words, as a matter-of-fact that servers were not in the game.
They are - as you state now. And as other writers in audio are discovering (many years after dedicated servers came out).

Mr Plus -- Sun, 02/12/2012 - 06:13

Oh, now I see where the confusion comes from.

The "It's back to CD vs. LP all over again" comment recalls the time when, a few years after CD first appeared, audiophiles would turn up at stores to hear the difference between the two... and often ended up buying a better phono cartridge, some more LPs and no CD players.

That same "CD vs. LP" question now hangs over whether people stick with their CD players or move on to something more file-based. The main difference between the late 1980s and today is those audiophiles aren't turning up at stores in great numbers anymore. When they do turn up and get the file-based vs CD comparison demonstration, more often than not people choose the file-based option. But, according to my sources at the coal-face, up to about a third end up deciding that they will stick with CD. So, what's going wrong with those demonstrations?

My concern is two fold. First, while the whole issue of computer-based audio (in all its guises) is a paradigm shift, I am not entirely convinced that the improvements in audio quality are as significant as we suggest. Granted, the best sound from an audio system I have heard has come from a file-based system, but even on that system playing 16bit, 44.1kHz PCM files ripped to FLAC (or even uncompressed AIFF or WAV) isn't an order of magnitude better than playing 16bit, 44.1kHz PCM from a CD. I know of a few demonstrations that backfired as a result of overhyping the audio improvements server-side audio provides. In most cases, it's better... but not astoundingly better.

The other is that I am concerned we are facing a second lost generation. There is already a 'good enuf' generation of people both uninterested and disinterested in what the audiophile world has to offer. If there is also a generation of existing audiophiles that has decided it will stick with optical disc (for whatever reasons), that seriously limits the pool of people engaged in this hobby going forward.

This last might not be a big concern; twenty or so years ago when the CD vs LP debate raged and raged hard, pragmatism won. The comparison demonstrations faded in direct proportion to LP's widespread availability and people bought CD players without a thought for LP, out of the sheer practical necessity to keep playing new music. The chances are, the same thing will happen as CD's wider presence begins to wane over the next few years.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

blackfly -- Mon, 02/13/2012 - 18:34

I agree you are afraid basing sound on a computer might make "poor sound" more common since by default the best sound possible is what a CD player is about. But the cost of an Accuphase player, for example, is not small. Moreover, we are now in an era where there is a generation that knows of NO medium at all. Not likely to gain converts unless they are really retro or esoteric to begin with.

I think that the question of the quality of the computer and its hardware is equally as important as the quality of the CD player, and must be referenced moreso than the file, which is easy to assume is not compressed or MP3.

Mr Plus -- Tue, 02/14/2012 - 15:00

The generation that knows of no physical medium at all is considerably more likely to invest in vinyl than CD it seems. The generation who grew up with CD are in the main making the transition to file-based audio relatively smoothly. Not all of them are making that transition, though.

The next few years will be interesting to follow on this front, I believe.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

johnny p. -- Tue, 02/14/2012 - 16:31

So in the future - everyone is happy. If LP survived this far, it will still be around. CD will be with us - maybe not new issues, but most (serious) listeners opt older discs anyway. And file-based - perfectly suited for generation "y" who grew up with computers.
All three of these sound fantastic now - never mind in the future..........

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