How Apple’s AirPlay Streams Audio

I got a question from a reader asking how Apple’s AirPlay streams audio. The question specifically asked about how audio files are converted, and whether AirPlay reduces their quality.

Apple doesn’t provide much information about AirPlay, and I found a number of articles and forum posts where people described complex testing routines to determine the bit depth and sample rate of music streamed to AirPlay devices, such as an Apple TV or AirPort Express. But you don’t need to go to such great lengths to figure this out. Simply open Audio-MIDI Setup on a Mac, and select AirPlay.


As you can see above, AirPlay streams at 16-bit, 44,100 kHz. However, what you don’t see is that AirPlay streams music in Apple Lossless format. What this means is that no matter what format your music is in, it gets converted by OS X – not by iTunes – to Apple Lossless, to ensure the highest quality. So lossless files will be streamed as lossless, as will AAC or MP3 files.

However, high-resolution files will be downsampled to 16/44.1. Interestingly, the Apple TV outputs audio in 48 kHZ, most likely because this is 48 kHz is the standard for movie and TV audio[1]. Movies sold by the iTunes Store contain audio at 48 kHz, but only at 160 kbps.

Is there a Right Way to Listen to Music?

There’s an interesting debate going on over at Cnet. Two of their writers are discussing how one should listen to music. In this corner, Geoffrey Morrison says listening to music in the background is fine; not just that, but that he listens to music in the background all the time. In the other corner is Steve Guttenberg, who claims that “The problem with background listening is that it leads to more background listening.”

The initial premise for these two articles was, as Morrison says:

One of the prevailing trends in audiophile circles is the notion that, to fully appreciate music, you have to stop doing anything else and just listen. I disagree.

I think there’s a lot that’s wrong in both articles. I have nothing against listening to music in the background. As I write this article I’m listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew; loud. I often put on music to accompany me in my work. I hear some background music, and I listen to some; in other words, in some cases I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing that I barely notice the music. In other cases, I’m so absorbed in the music that it helps set a rhythm to my typing. My foot taps, my body moves, and I’m listening to the music, making it a part of what I’m doing.

Guttenberg says:

Non-listening leads to more non-listening, including live concerts, where a sizable percentage of the audience is either talking or engaged with their devices. The music is over there, while the real focus is over here. So even when folks spend large amounts of cash to see Radiohead, Tom Petty, or Arcade Fire, the band’s music is background, being present for the fleeting experience of a concert is passé.

It seems that Guttenberg isn’t up on his history. It’s only recently that music listening at performances took on the reverence that he would like to see. For centuries, people would talk among themselves when listening to music in churches, and in concerts. Live music was, for a long time, a social event, where people would go to be seen. They would move around from box to box in theaters, or, if music was made at home, many of the people would be talking. Have you ever heard Bill Evans’ live recordings from the Village Vanguard in 1961? Did you notice the voices and sounds of ice cubes in glasses? There was no solemn silence in jazz clubs back then; people took in the music the way they wanted.

Some people want to turn music into religion. I understand that it’s important for many people (as it is to me), but there’s no need to tell people how they have to listen. I listen to music a lot when I walk; often when I read. But I don’t just leave music on like a running faucet to make sure there’s no silence.

On the other hand, I find Morrison’s approach to be a form of escapism. Silence is not just golden, it is part of the mystery of life. Guttenberg is right when he suggests:

So if you’ve never really focused on your favorite music, try this simple experiment: listen for 10 minutes in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Who knows? Perhaps the more you really listen, the more you’ll want to focus on the music.

The problem is that nearly everyone, in such a situation, will be so overwhelmed by their thoughts that they won’t even appreciate the silence. I’d wager that most people who claim to listen to music attentively are also flitting around in their minds, using the music as a soundtrack for caroming thoughts and ideas.

And then, yes indeed, Guttenberg pulls out the vinyl card. He claims that people listening to vinyl “stopped multitasking and listened.” Yep. Vinyl is better, it helps strengthen your mind and gives you firmer muscles. Come on!

No, there’s no one way to listen to music. Listen any way you want, with good headphones or crappy earbuds, with titanium alloy cables or a boom box; just listen to the music.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 7: An Audiophile Shelf

Just in case you thought What Hi-Fi? was the only magazine out there spewing out reviews about magical hi-fi equipment and accessories, here’s another one I found on the Stereophile web site. I have a feeling that the shelf is going to become the next cable; an audiophile device that contains pixie powder and makes everything sound better.

Here’s a review of a shelf. You don’t need to read the whole thing, but the last paragraph I quote may be the best I’ve read so far:

The Pagode Master Reference HD07 rack really did work–at least with components that had an onboard power supply. Each such component I tried, from the lightest line stage to massive, two-chassis CD players, sounded better sitting on the FE rack than on my Bright Star or Merrill stand. Their focus, resolution, and dynamic precision were all slightly but consistently improved; my listening comments were peppered with such phrases as “faster, cleaner dynamics” and “sharper, more dimensional images.”

Alain Lombard and the Paris Opéra-Comique’s recording of Delibes’ Lakmé was a good example. As I moved each component in turn onto the HD07 rack […] the image of soprano Mady Mesplé became clearer and more solid. Her vocal nuances were more apparent, and I was able to better hear the trailing edges of her phrases. The rear and sides of the soundstage opened up a bit as well, and the space surrounding the performers seemed more transparent.

Repeating the exercise with two different digital systems and Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations,” from Love Over Gold, produced a similar result, but what I really noticed was the improvement in detail resolution. As each component moved onto the HD07, a bit more low-level detail emerged from the background. Distinguishing the multiple echoes around the scuffing shoes traversing the stage was one great example; another was the emerging presence of several different, distinct effects around Mark Knopfler’s speaking voice.

But it gets better. The reviewer added special feet under the shelf.

On the other hand, installing a set of Ceraball or Cerapuc feet under a component was a huge, jaw-dropping change. The differences were the same–improved focus, transparency, resolution, and dynamic precision–but their magnitude was much larger. Slipping a trio of Ceraballs under the VTL TL-7.5 wasn’t like demagnetizing a cartridge; it was like upgrading to a really good moving-coil. And dressing cables? Forget it–this improvement was like replacing all of my freebie and Home Depot wire with a good set of high-end cables.

There he goes, talking about cables…

But I’ve saved the best for last:

Like a kid in a candy store, I kept adding more and more Cera feet. The effects were similar with each step, and similarly dramatic. The biggest improvements came when I slipped Cerapucs under my VTL Ichiban power amplifiers and between my turntable stand’s steel frame and marble top plate. The soundstage became significantly cleaner and the picture snapped into focus. Images inflated from two dimensions to three. The performers on Lakmé felt more like real performers in a real space than like a portrait. And when I played the Oscar Petersen Trio’s Return Engagement I noticed several dramatic improvements. Dynamic transients sounded 10–20% bigger, and the piano had much more inner detail and complexity and a richer, more distinct tonal balance. The bass was more powerful and much tighter.

“Images inflated from two dimensions to three.” The guy’s on acid; that’s the only explanation.

The reviewer is quite precise here: “Dynamic transients sounded 10–20% bigger.” Can we see measurements please?

Oh, the shelf costs $6,195. The feet another $2.200. But the reviewer has “about $100,000 worth of gear,” so it’s no big deal.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 6: MP3 Files

In this episode, we discover that What Hi-Fi? actually likes MP3 files. In an article about the new Sony Music Unlimited, they use adjectives generally only applied to expensive cables.

And then comes the major problem with the quality on offer. On the one hand, its 320kbps high-quality streams are among our favourite sounding on test, with impressive detail levels, precise note formation and a warm and exciting character.

Reading the above, it sounds like Sony’s MP3s are somehow better than others. “Precise note formation…?” Give me a break.

Fitness Tracker Review: Fitbit One, Fitbit Flex & Jawbone UP24

Fitness trackers are motivators. While, on the surface, they claim to record data about your activity, the real reason people buy them is to motivate themselves to be more active. None of them are perfectly accurate, and they all have drawbacks. Some have good hardware and mediocre software; some have excellent software and poor hardware. But, if you want this kind of device, there is certainly one that will fit your needs.

I’ve tried three fitness trackers: the Fitbit One, the Fitbit Flex, and the Jawbone Up24. I’ve had the Fitbit One for about a year and a half; I tried the other two recently. Here are my thoughts. (Note that all three of these devices sync to a smartphone by Bluetooth; the Fitbit devices also come with a USB dongle to sync to a computer. Also, each of them uses a proprietary connector to charge; it goes into a USB plug, but it’s yet another cable to worry about.)

Fitbit One

The Fitbit One (, Amazon UK) is a tiny tracker that you can either clip onto your pants or belt, or carry in your pocket. It tracks steps, and a built-in altimeter counts the number of floors you climb. At night, it can also track your sleep, both in time and quality. The latter assessment is based on how restless you are at night.

pnl1_fitbit_one.jpgAs I said, I’ve been using the Fitbit One for about a year and a half. I bought it for two reasons: to motivate me to become more active, and to lose some weight. The Fitbit software takes the data from the tracker and calculates the distance you’ve walked, and the number of calories you’ve burned each day; you can set goals and try and reach them.

I’ve been using this in conjunction with Fitbit’s Aria wi-fi scale (, Amazon UK), which records my weight and syncs to the Fitbit website, where that data integrates with data from the tracker, and displays in the Fitbit iOS app.

The Fitbit One is discreet, and doesn’t get in your way. Since you wear it on a waistband or belt – or even stick it in your pocket – you don’t have to worry about it being visible, which is not the case with the wristband trackers I’ll look at below. However, I lost the first Fitbit One I bought, when traveling; its clip wasn’t as tight as I’d like. The replacement I bought is tighter, and I’ve had it for about 15 months.

The Fitbit One is very accurate at counting steps; it’s in the best location to do so, right around your hips, where you would wear a simpler pedometer. Fitbit’s iOS app lets you watch your steps live, and I’ve tested the One walking on various types of ground and at different speeds, and it always registers steps. As for floors, however, that’s not so precise. It counts a floor if you go up or down ten feet in altitude; your floors may be more or less than that, and I’ve found that the floor data is pretty useless.

I don’t use the Fitbit One to track sleep. It comes with an elastic wristband, into which you slide the device, to wear at night. It’s uncomfortable and annoying. I tried it for a few nights, then gave up.

Overall, the Fitbit One is a good device, as its step count is extremely accurate. Fitbit’s software – both on iOS and its web-based dashboard – is useful, though relatively simple. It doesn’t offer reminders and nudges as the Jawbone UP does; it essentially offers just raw data. While I want more – the inactivity alert the Jawbone can provide would be useful to remind me to get up and move during the day – it’s good enough for now.

Fitbit Flex

The Fitbit Flex (, Amazon UK) is a wrist-worn Fitbit device. Offering the same tracking data – with the exception of floors – this device is quite limited in its ability to convey information. While, with the Fitbit One, you can press a button on the device to cycle through the day’s data, the Fitbit Flex only shows a few LEDs to tell you if you’ve reached your goal.

61YRYwYtSJL._SL1500_.jpgUnlike the Fitbit One, the Flex is very inaccurate. It records around 20% more steps than the One, and during a 15-minute drive to a grocery store, it recorded about 100 steps (tested in both directions). Since it’s worn on the wrist, it cannot be as accurate in counting steps; using Fitbit’s iOS app, which shows a live step count, I can see that it records steps when, for example, I reach my arm to a bookcase to the left of my desk to grab a book and place it on my desk.

If you wish to use it for sleep tracking, however, it is a lot easier than the Fitbit One. The idea of wrist-worn trackers is that you wear them all day, so you don’t need to change the device from your belt to your wrist. However, you do need to tap the device in a certain way to engage sleep tracking (five quick taps just below the LED display), and remember to disengage it the next morning. Last night, I slept, according to the Fitbit iOS app, from 12:29 to 8:28. Yet the software tells me I slept 7h 41mins; the math isn’t that hard, and the difference doesn’t even correspond to my “11 restless minutes.”

The Fitbit Flex comes with two wristbands, in a small and large size. I found the large to be comfortable, and not too tight. However, the clasp that holds it shut is just a piece of plastic that you push through two holes in the wristband; it’s hard to put on, and I can’t see this staying on during, say, a basketball game, or ever when you pull off certain clothes. At the cost of these devices, and given that I’ve already lost a One, I don’t trust this type of clasp.

While it’s comfortable, the Fitbit Flex’s inaccuracy makes it essentially useless. I’ll have more to say about that in my conclusion below.

Jawbone UP24

I was very attracted by the concept of the Jawbone UP24 (, Amazon UK), because, unlike the Fitbit, this device nudges you to be more active. This can be through notifications from its app, and you can set a reminder to warn you when you haven’t been active for a certain number of minutes (the wristband vibrates).

JawboneUp24-582_size_blog_post.jpgI bought the large Jawbone UP24, after measuring my wrist to be 19 cm (the large size is for 18-20 cm wrists). Surprisingly, the Jawbone is tight on my wrist, even though I don’t have fat wrists. I am big-boned, but the size I measured, following Jawbone’s instructions, should be fine with this model. It’s tight enough that the two ends of the device don’t lie flat as they should (as you can see in the photo to the left). The device should also be loose enough to allow air to flow under it, especially if you’re wearing it when active and sweating; this isn’t the case for me.

I took the Jawbone for a walk. I have a treadmill in my house, and walked for a half-hour with the Jawbone on my wrist: it recorded a total of 38 steps, compared to the Fitbit One, which recorded a bit over 2,000 steps.

I looked on the web, and saw this is a common problem with the Jawbone. It measures steps by the movements of your arms, so if your arms aren’t swinging – such as when you walk on a treadmill, or when you’re carrying something – it won’t count that activity. Apparently, it also doesn’t count steps when you walk slowly, such as in a supermarket.

I’ve seen recommendations that you should put it in your pocket when walking on a treadmill, but if you have to do that, it defeats the purpose of using this type of device. So I tried that; the same half-hour on the treadmill, and the same 2,000+ steps with the Fitbit. The Jawbone, in my pocket, recorded 260 steps.

So, an activity tracker that can’t count your activity is not very useful. Add to that the fact that it’s uncomfortable. When I’m typing, the Jawbone gets in the way. The heels of my hands rest on my desk – I touch-type – and the Jawbone is in a position where it touches the desk. I can’t put the jawbone any higher on my wrist, since there’s no extra room; when I try, I can feel that it constricts my wrist a bit. The Fitbit Flex, on the other hand, is as thick as a standard watchband, and doesn’t bother me when I type.

One more thing

I would have liked to try the Fitbit Force, the most recent Fitbit product. This is a wrist-worn device, like the Flex, but which offers more options, and a real display (it can display numbers, not just LEDs, and also shows the time of day). However, this device has been recalled, because of a large number of users who got rashes from its plastic. Also, it has a similar clasp to the Flex, and I’d probably be afraid of losing it.


What’s the point of an activity tracker if it’s not accurate? Of the three I’ve tried, the Fitbit One, because of its location, is clearly the most accurate. If you have set a goal for your activity – most people use the arbitrary round number of 10,000 steps per day – you’ll hit it a lot quicker with, say, the Fitbit Flex than the One. Which means that you won’t be as active as you want.

The software for these devices also counts calories. If you’re trying to diet with a specific calorie restriction, the incorrect step count will also give you a very skewed calorie count. For a difference of +/- 20% in steps, this leads to a similar difference in calorie count. (And I won’t even go into how arbitrary calorie burn numbers are…) For example, I’m wearing both the Fitbit One and Fitbit Flex right now. It’s early in the morning, and I haven’t walked much yet (I work at home). The Flex shows that I’ve taken 582 steps; the One has counted 367 steps. That’s a huge difference. (A few minutes later, I haven’t taken any steps, and the Flex counted another six of them; because of my arm movements.)

It’s not just the inaccuracy of some of these devices that bothers me; it’s the fact that they are even on the market. If a device that claims to count your steps is not accurate, then it’s not performing it’s most basic task correctly. I understand that this is a difficult technology to perfect. The Fitbit One, worn in the correct location, is the most accurate; as for others, perhaps you simply can’t make an accurate wrist-worn tracker. Many people will buy these because they are very visible gadgets; but they’re little more than fashion accessories. If the basic information they give you is flawed, then there’s not much point.

Note that I could use my iPhone 5s to count steps, as it has a special chip that counts and records such information from its accelerometer. But my phone isn’t always in my pocket when I’m walking – when I walk on my treadmill, I put it on a window ledge – so it wouldn’t count everything. And when I walk around the house during the day, I often leave it on my desk.

As I said earlier, these devices are motivators; they can help you be more active. If you simply want an idea of your activity relative to other days, pretty much any device will give you that. If you want more accuracy, I’d recommend the Fitbit One, which counts your actual steps.

(I’d be interested in comments from readers who have any of these devices, or any others, as to their accuracy.)

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 4: Ethernet Cables

I really wasn’t planning to write about this any more, but the What Hi-Fi? journalist who believes in magic has doubled down, explaining in detail the testing process and why he is convinced that it works.

His explanation includes things like “We run all cables overnight if not longer,” the myth that all hi-fi gear has to be “broken in,” even digital cables. And he admits that the tests aren’t blind:

We’ve experimented with blind testing over the years but it’s not part of our standard review process for any products.

And, regarding Ethernet cables, he says:

I understand what’s being said. But, I’ve recently been part of a listening session where, in my opinion, I heard differences between such cables, so I can’t really agree.

This is just sad.

Let’s assume there’s something going wrong with an Ethernet cable, and some packets get lost. It would – at its worst, with a lot of packet loss – sound like a damaged CD. You’ve probably had a few, where you get noisy clicks when playing an old, worn CD. That’s the worst that could happen.

So imagine the difference between, say, a cheap Ethernet cable, and a very expensive one. The most difference there would be is a lack of errors, which wouldn’t manifest as clicks in an Ethernet transfer, but probably very, very tiny dropouts. (The cable itself does not manage error correction, but the TCP/IP protocol used on data networks does.)

I actually can’t find any reviews of Ethernet cables on their site, but I did find some of USB cables. Here’s one for a £50 USB cable:

The gains in low-end body and punch, midrange spaciousness and detail, and high-end smoothness alone are significant.

This is simply bullshit. If there is zero packet loss because of this more expensive cable, at best the music will sound exactly the way it sounds at the source. If there is packet loss, there may be some dropout, but no loss in “spaciousness and detail,” or “high-end smoothness.”

The best way to understand this is to read this Cnet article, Why all HDMI cables are the same. Geoffrey Morrison explains – and shows with pictures – what happens if there’s something wrong with an HDMI cable. You can see the sparkles in the images with bad cables; this is what you’d get from a bad USB or Ethernet cable, and you can imagine that it would affect music. As the author says:

If you’re paying more than $5 for a 2-meter HDMI cable, you’re overpaying.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 3

In two previous articles I showed how hi-fi magazines write about cables. They make things up, say things that make no sense, and sometimes copy and paste reviews for different products from the same company. I don’t want to harp on this too much, but I thought it would be interesting to look at how multiple cables can make your audio system sound like it’s powered by unicorns.

In a standard audio setup, there are four types of cables you can upgrade to audiophile versions and prices. There’s the AC cable, that goes from your wall socket to your amplifier, CD player, etc. Then there’s the interconnect, the RCA-plug cables that connect, say, your CD player to your amp. Finally, there are speaker cables; they run from your amplifier to the speakers. If you have a DVD/Blu-Ray player, there’s also the HDMI cable that connects that device to your amplifier, or to your TV.

Audiophiles think that changing any of these cables can make a huge difference in the quality of the music you hear on your stereo. So what happens if you change all three of these for pricey audiophile cables?

Start with the power cable, or mains cable, as they say in the UK. According to What Hi-Fi? magazine (all of the quotes below come from their reviews[1]), a £150 mains cable:

took everything we could throw at it without stumbling. Images were pin-sharp, and exquisitely revealing, colour was natural and rich, while motion was smooth.

It made our reference kit sing, too, with its ability to apply dynamics on tap, combining a taut sound with seamless integration.

I find it hard to imagine how a mains cable would “stumble” with different types of content; after all, it’s only supplying AC power, which the various hi-fi components convert to DC power using transformers. But I love how it can “apply dynamics on tap,” and provide a “taut sound.” Of course none of those statements mean anything at all.

The What Hi-Fi? reviewer does not, however, say which components used this cable. Was it the TV, or a DVD/Blu-ray player that got the cable, which give “pin-sharp” images? For the sound, did it go into the amp? Mysteries.

Let’s move on to an interconnect; I’ll just stay with an analogue interconnect, used to pass audio from a CD player to an amplifier. There’s one at £731, more than I paid for my player:

In every system we tried, their effect is the same. The leading edges of notes are as sharply defined as you like, and pack a mighty punch when the music demands.

More than that, the sound delivered is timed immaculately. This means not only that the hard-charging rhythms of Radiohead’s Kid A are punched out in all their glory, but also that the interplay between instruments is preserved and easy to appreciate.

These cable majors on control, insight and agility, not on making things sound nicer. It will help a system communicate the drive and enthusiasm in a piece — it’s all about communicating the drama and passion of music.

I think it’s important that the “leading edges of notes” be “as sharply defined is you like,” but I’m not sure what that means. It’s great that the “sound delivered is timed immaculately;” I wouldn’t want a cable to hold back and delay sound. And that third paragraph, aside from its grammatical incoherence (don’t they have copy editors at What Hi-Fi?) is confusing. It’s all about “control, insight and agility,” rather than “making things sound nicer?” Does that actually mean anything in English?

Whatevs. On to an HDMI cable; one that sends digital information, that in no way can change the sound of anything. Cables don’t influence the ones and zeroes of a digital stream, they just move them from one end of the cable to another. For £300, you can get a cable that:

really does impress with its clear, detailed, realistic picture. Even more apparent is the sonic ability of this cable. It sounds controlled and composed.

The level of refinement and finesse that it encourages is there for all to hear. It’s capable of delivering the explosive adventures of Rambo with gusto and is equally adept at creating a tense atmosphere during Batman Begins.

What’s confusing here is that I always thought it was the TV – and the source, the DVD or Blu-Ray player – that were responsible fro a “clear, detailed, realistic picture.” The cable is just something that passes the bits from one device to the other. As for the sound, it’s good to know that it is “controlled and composed.”

Let’s end this brief tour with speaker cables. This type of cable is the most varied and exaggerated. Here’s a £148 cable (the review does not specify how much you get for that price):

In every system we tried, the effect was the same. The leading edges of notes were as sharply defined as you like, and packed a mighty punch when the music demanded.

More than that, the sound delivered was timed immaculately. This means not only that the hard-charging rhythms of Radiohead’s Kid A were punched out in all their glory, but also that the interplay between instruments was preserved and easy to appreciate.

This cable majors on control, insight and agility, not on making things sound nicer. It’ll help a system communicate the drive and enthusiasm of a recording — it’s all about communicating the drama and passion of music.

Isn’t it interesting that the review of this cable, just like the interconnect I cited above, says that “the hard-charging rhythms of Radiohead’s Kid A are punched out in all their glory,” and that “This cable majors on control, insight and agility, not on making things sound nicer,” getting the grammar right this time? And not only do these vapid texts show that these reviewers just make things up, but that they have no shame in copying their texts for products from the same company.[2]

And that begs the question: if, for a given company’s cable, the results are exactly the same for an interconnect and a speaker cable, why buy both? What exactly are they reviewing? A set of cables – i.e., the interconnect and the speaker cable – or each one individually? If they both do the same thing, you’d be better off just getting the speaker cable, as it’s about one-fourth the price.

So add up all these extraordinary results, and what do you get? Exactly the same music you’d get with standard cables. But, in my example (and I did not choose the most expensive cables), this is more than £1,200 spent on cables.

Well, I think you get the picture here. Save your money; instead of spending money on expensive cables, buy music. After all, that’s what your audio system is for, right?

  1. I’m not picking on What Hi-Fi? magazine specifically, but they are an easy target.  ↩
  2. When I pointed out in an article yesterday that What Hi-Fi? had the exact same text for two different cable reviews, they replied on Twitter “That’s a tech error with our CMS, which pulled in the same copy as product names identical. We’ll correct. Thanks.” One day later, and they haven’t fixed it; because it’s not a tech error with their CMS, but rather their reviewers. The copy is not exactly the same: one has a header, and there are differences in capitalization. Just as, in this example, it’s obvious that the copy is not the same: one has a grammatical error, and the other has corrected it.  ↩

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 2

I recently posted an article about a hi-fi magazine and how it reviews cables. I thought it would be interesting to look around and see how some other magazines describe audio cables. This is quite edifying. Rather than analyze each of the excerpts I list below, I’m just going to toss them out, and let you try and imagine if they actually have any real value, or if they’re just buncombe.

From Stereophile’s 2014 Recommended Components Cables. This includes interconnects – cables that connect components, either analogue or digital – and speaker cables.

uses an RCA plug of tellurium-copper alloy with a single, small contact point, meant to reduce the formation of eddy currents

lacked some midrange body and warmth but produced a pleasantly forward, detailed sound with an unusually wide soundstage

produced a larger, more present overall sound, with deeper silences, longer decays, cleaner highs, more realistic bass, and richer tone color

lacked body and warmth but was more muscular, insistent, and precise

offered clarity without brightness, and reasonably good amounts of color, texture, and touch

offered a more organized and forceful portrayal of the music, with rounder bass, cleaner highs, and faster transients

the … interconnect is built into a hermetically sealed, helium-filled tube and terminated with proprietary solid-silver connectors. The overall sound was open and clean, with lightning-fast attacks, generous sustains, and long decays.

an air-dielectric–evacuated interconnect with noninsulated conductors … benefited from an enormous addition of lushness, texture, and warmth, along with major extensions of air, detail, and transparency.

infusing music with more low-level resolution, transient speed, clarity, and physicality

presented music with even greater urgency, drama, and purpose

was tonally neutral and produced well-defined images, powerful and fast transients, and incredible transparency

tended to smear bottom-octave pitch relationships, resulting in a less natural overall sound

had a richer, warmer sound, with a softer attack for a slower overall musical flow

Bits may be bits, but you’ll be gob-smacked by the improvement in sound quality

was quieter and produced blacker silences

Two points. Regarding the last excerpt, “blacker silences” is something that should be measurable; it is, most likely, a lack of noise. So I’d like to see the measurements. And, second, a lot of these cables – at least from what I can understand from the above excerpts – seem to alter the music, change it, which, I always thought, was something that audiophiles did not want. Things like “generous sustains, and long decays” are created by reverb; if a cable does that, isn’t that a bad thing?

In attempting to understand the above – and audiophile blah-blah in general – one may wish to seek out this book.

Which Hard Disk Makes High-Resolution Music Sound Best, or What Makes Audiophiles Tick?

Following up on yesterday’s article about expensive Ethernet cables used in audiophile audio systems, and related to a recent article about why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I toss out a question for audiophiles. If things such as cables make a difference, what about hard disks? Has anyone done testing on hard disks, to see which makes music sound better? Do SSDs sound better than spinning-platter hard disks?

What about system busses? They must have an effect too. They could introduce jitter, even when playing music on a computer. And RAM? Is there any audiophile-grade RAM to ensure the proper “tonal neutrality” and “strong dynamics” of the music you listen to?

The ridiculous claims made by audiophiles do more harm than good to the audio industry in general. They allow companies to produce hugely overpriced equipment, and sell it to credulous people, but they also influence the entire audio equipment market, making us low-end people think that we don’t know how to listen to music, with a fair amount of contempt at times.

Yes, there are audio elements that make a difference. No one can deny that speakers and headphones sound very different[1]; that’s no surprise, because they actually create sound (i.e., they convert electrical signals into air waves, which we, in turn, perceive as sound). DACs can make a difference: the cheap DAC in a $30 CD player will be bested by a standalone DAC, or one in a more expensive player, because they are responsible for converting digital signals to sound signals. And there are certainly valid reasons, other than sound, for purchasing a more expensive amplifier: it may have more features, more inputs and outputs, or may be esthetically pleasing.

But what about all the other elements of an audio system? There sure are lots of them, and, according to audiophiles, altering any of them should have an effect on sound.

Assuming that you listen to music on a computer – which is the most complex audio chain – here are the elements that come into play:

  • Power supply
  • Power cable
  • Computer (I won’t isolate all the elements inside a computer that should influence sound, if audiophile theories are accepted)
  • Sound card (if using an analog output)
  • Digital interconnect: USB / Toslink / Ethernet cable (if using a digital output)
  • DAC (digital-analog converter, if used)
  • Audio interconnects: cables from DAC to pre-amplifier to amplifier, or from computer to pre-amplifier or amplifier
  • Pre-amplifier (if used)
  • Amplifier
  • Speaker cables
  • Speakers
  • Headphone amplifier (if used)
  • Headphones (if used)
  • Listening environment (which has much more effect on sound than most people realize)

According to audiophiles, changing any one of those items should affect the resulting sound. And they claim to be able to hear the difference between, say, a power cable or an audio interconnect among that complex chain.

There are two ways of testing such things. One is a purely subjective test; you hook up a new item and decide whether it sounds better. This is clearly influenced by many factors, notably differences in volume, or simply a desire to reinforce beliefs that a new cable, for example, really does sound better. The second method is ABX testing, where listeners hear different items, but don’t know what they’re listening to. While the former method is almost entirely subjective, the latter is fairly objective. Dozens of ABX tests have shown that people simply can’t hear the difference between different components, showing that, in most cases, the difference in price does not translate to a difference in quality. There have been tests that show that coat hangers sound as good as expensive speaker cables, and that all amplifiers sound the same.

So when these ABX tests show such results, and challenge audiophiles and their expenditures, they come up with another explanation: that the concept of ABX tests is flawed. “The answer is that blind listening tests fundamentally distort the listening process and are worthless in determining the audibility of a certain phenomenon.” They have to defend their choices to spend a lot of money on audio equipment.

You would think that, if all these elements made such a difference, recording engineers would use them to ensure the best possible capture of music. But this isn’t the case. As I recently wrote, I found it interesting, when attending a classical recording session in a church, that no expensive cabling was used, just “miles of copper.”

I care about music; a lot. I care about sound; only if it is in service to the music. I don’t have cheap audio equipment, but my setups are around the high end of consumer audio pricing. Because that’s what it’s worth paying; when you pay more, the quality differences become miniscule. I have a full stereo in my office, with good speakers, and I use several different headphones. But it’s a shame to keep reading reviews of things like cables that are simply made up. If all these elements made a difference in sound, then it would be easy to tell them apart. The fact that one can’t tell the difference in blind testing shows that this is an industry built on feet of clay.

  1. Several months ago, I went to a hi-fi store to listen to a number of headphones. I listened to several Grado headphones, and there was a clear difference in clarity across different models; the more expensive ones sounded better. But that doesn’t mean that any headphones at the same price would sound good. I also tried out Bower & Wilkins’ P5 portable headphones, which were nearly as expensive as the best Grados I tested. I disliked their sound very much; it was too bassy for me. So there’s a lot of personal taste that goes into things like speakers and headphones; it may not be the most expensive that sound “best.”  ↩