How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 21: Misunderstanding Digital Data

I’ve been browsing hi-fi equipment lately, thinking about upgrading some of my stuff. As is often the case, I have encountered some egregious bullshit, both in what manufacturers say, and in the way publications review products.

Case in point, this CD transport. First, you need to understand the difference between a CD transport and a CD player. The former merely reads that data on an optical disc and sends it to the next element in a chain – either a DAC or an amplifier or receiver that has its own DAC – over digital outputs. These are generally either Toslink or coaxial connectors.

A CD player, on the other hand, contains its own DAC, so it outputs analog audio. Some CD players also have digital outputs, allowing them to be used as transports.

You would use a CD transport if you have an external DAC (or your amplifier or receiver has its own DAC) and want to benefit from its audio quality. If you do have an external DAC, there’s really no point in paying for an expensive CD player, because all it is is a standard CD drive – with some extra electronics – and a DAC.

In other words, a CD transport has no real effect on sound quality; it is just a passthrough device to send data from a disc to a DAC.

So. This CD transport, according to the manufacturer, actually:

Pulls more data from the disc than typical disc-reading systems

Because, you know, your cheap CD player can only read the audible part of the disc; this one gets the bits that you can’t hear; or something.

One of the key elements of a CD transport or player is the error correction it provides. This helps “fill in” missing bits, when the CD is not read correctly. It’s entirely possible that this CD transport has better error correction; the manufacturer says:

• Up to 5 times fewer data errors
• Reads more data ‘right first time’ than any other CD system

This said, CD errors that are corrected are miniscule. There are two types of errors, C1 and C2 errors. There are also CU errors, which are those that are present after error correction, and generally make a disc unplayable (making it skip, for example). The CD is a mature technology, and manufacturers know how to make CD players – and transports – that reduce error correction. Suggesting that there are fewer data errors doesn’t mean that it’s not detecting errors on disc, but rather errors in the device actually reading the data. A $20 CD-Rom drive can read data without errors quite well; you can see this whenever you copy data from a CD to a computer. If there are read errors, then the files are corrupted and cannot be copied. Unlike with music, data needs to maintain integrity; error correction works on CDs because music has extra data allowing it to be corrected, to adapt to discs that are damaged or smudged. So the above is most likely an exaggeration.

However, What Hi-Fi, that audio publication that is the gift that keeps on giving, goes much further. They claim that this CD transport:

never sounds clinical or forced. It’s a truly accomplished performer that you could listen to endlessly.

Because they somehow think that the CD transport and its bits somehow affect the quality of the sound that comes out of their speakers. Again, error correction does matter, but how would that equate to this description:

Florence + The Machine’s You’ve Got The Love sounds crystal clear, astonishingly nimble and with a staggering amount of detail. The CD t breezes through the upbeat rhythm, while Florence Welch’s soaring vocals sound refined and smooth with no hint of clipping or brightness.

Or this:

The Inception soundtrack shows off just how nuanced and subtly dynamic the CD t is. It’s not just about the deep bass, but also about revealing the varied textures and layers of that rumbling bass note.

Or this:

It’s a remarkably precise performer, ripping through the rapid-fire drum intro on Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher with effortless speed and accuracy. Each instrument is easily placed in the spacious soundstage, and we love how musical and fluid the transport sounds.

What Hi-Fi thinks that the bits that this device sends to a DAC are better than average:

Its level of transparency, clarity and insight is unrivalled [sic] at this price, and is an effortless and musical listen.

In other words, this CD transport has better bits.

Uh, okay.