The Next Track, Episode #159 – Has Lossless and High-Resolution Audio Finally Come to the Masses?

Amazon announced a new lossless and high-resolution music streaming service. Has high-res music finally come to everyone? We talk with Chris Connaker, of Audiophile Style, to try to understand Amazon’s logic.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Problems with Apple’s HomePods

Apple released the HomePod in February, 2018, and the device has never seemed to catch on. There have been strong rumors recently about a HomePod 2 coming next year. But there are lots of problems with the HomePod, which Apple needs to address.

The HomePod is expensive. At $349, the price at launch, it was overpriced; at $299, its current price, it’s still not a good value. The HomePod costs $100 more than the Sonos One, which is a comparable, and some would say better speaker. (I think the Sonos One sounds better than the HomePod.) Apple was clearly targeting its core market, people willing to pay more for better products, but this isn’t a product that people are willing to pay more for, apparently.

The HomePod doesn’t have a clear use. Is it a Siri device, or is it speaker that provides “consistent high-definition sound?” If it’s the former, then Apple is trying to sell this to people who already have at least one Siri-capable device. If it’s the latter, well, Apple’s crack marketing team came out with lots of great adjectives, but the overall opinion among audiophiles is that it’s meh.

The HomePod doesn’t sound that good. Don’t get me wrong: it sounds fine, but not good enough. It’s better than pretty many Bluetooth speakers, but it doesn’t sound as good as it should for the price. It has a default sound signature that is very bass-heavy, which is not to everyone’s taste. And there are no EQ controls (as you have with Sonos speakers, for example), meaning that you need to adjust the sound on a device that you stream from, such as an iPhone. If you interact directly with the HomePod, then you can’t make any adjustments to the sound. And, one more issue with a stereo pair: you can’t adjust the balance. It’s not always easy to get two speakers positioned exactly where you want them so you are in the sweet spot. (To quote Chris Connaker, from his review on Audiophile Style: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an audiophile product. It’s a me too voice control product that happens to play audio.”)

The HomePod’s fancy technology is wasted. Apple touts the HomePod’s ability to adapt to any location. “Equipped with spatial awareness, HomePod automatically tunes itself to give you optimal sound — wherever it’s placed.” This may be true, but it’s a mono speaker; the only adjustments it’s going to make are to the tone of the music, and, perhaps, to the output of the various tweeters (there are seven, in a circle). Apple has an animation on its website showing what the HomePod does, but what does this even mean? It’s a mono speaker.

Homepod

The HomePod is unreliable. To Apple’s credit, the HomePod can hear you say “Hey, Siri,” even with music playing loudly; that’s pretty impressive. But set up HomePods in a stereo pair and be prepared to reset them regularly. After a while, the stereo pair stops working, and music comes out if just one speaker. Sometimes you can simply split the stereo pair and re-create it, but I’ve had to fully reset my two HomePods several times. This could be the fault of the HomePod’s software, or of Apple’s Home app, but it’s not reliable.

The HomePod’s design is mistaken. Who am I to question Jony Ive, right? But think about it: a speaker is generally directional. You point it to where you want the music to be heard. There are exceptions, of course. You may want one in the middle of a room, in which case the HomePod’s seven tweeters in a circle around the base of the device make sense. Sort of. Because you don’t put tweeters at the base of a speaker; ideally, tweeters should be at the level of your ears, because high frequency waves are smaller. Try it at home. Sit next to your speakers, and then stand up; you’ll hear a drop in the high end. In my bedroom, where I have a stereo pair of HomePods, I had to put them on a higher shelf than I would have wanted so I can hear music correctly in bed.

Apple tried to do too much with the HomePod. The company was falling behind in the smart speaker market, but they should have realized that they already have that market cornered: just say “Hey, Siri” to your iPhone (or Apple Watch, or iPad, or Mac…) And while their adaptive audio technology is impressive, it fails by not allowing users to choose the type of sound they want. By prioritizing the bass-heavy sound of rap and hip-hop music – the genre they push most in Apple Music – they created speakers that many people find unpalatable.

And they forgot one thing that might have sold more HomePods: you can’t send audio from a Mac to a stereo pair of HomePods. You can send music from iTunes, but not system audio. So if someone wants to use a pair of HomePods on their desk, as computer speakers, they can’t. Here’s an image from Reddit, showing how it would look:

Imac homepod

There are two problems. The first is that this is only usable with iTunes; you can’t stream audio from, say, QuickTime Player if you want to watch a video, or from Safari if you’re watching or listening to something on YouTube. And see where the tweeters are, there at the bottom of the speakers? That will not sound good in this sort of setup.

Apple should have done the necessary to sell the HomePod as computer speakers, but the design is wrong; even with speaker stands, the tweeters at the bottom mean you would need very tall stands to balanced good sound from that distance.

In any case, the market decides for products like this. The HomePod just seems like it wasn’t thought out for real-world usage. It has powerful technology, which is wasted, and its price is way above what people want to pay.

Apple continues:

With two HomePod speakers set up as a stereo pair, this soundstage gets even wider, delivering room-filling sound that is more spacious than a traditional stereo pair from a speaker that’s just under 7-inches tall. Using spatial awareness to sense their location in the room, each HomePod automatically adjusts the audio to sound great wherever it is placed and sound great together, using an Apple-designed wireless peer-to-peer direct link to communicate with each other and play music completely in sync.

This suggests that the “spatial awareness” is used to control which tweeters send audio. The HomePod knows it’s, say, a foot from a wall, and can tell that the other HomePod is at a certain direction, allowing it to figure out which way is intended to be the front. This probably doesn’t work if you set two HomePods, say, at ends of a table in the center of a room.

How To: Position Desktop Speakers

Audiophiles spend a lot of money on useless items like cables and wires, but you can make a huge difference in the way your stereo sounds by paying attention to how you position your speakers. There are plenty of articles that go into great detail about placing speakers in a living room environment – you can read three such articles, in increasing complexity: here, here and here – but few of them discuss positioning speakers on a desk. There are a number of points to consider for desktop, or “nearfield,” listening, which is very different from “room” listening.

Here’s a photo of my desk:

Position your speakers at least a foot or two from a wall: If you have a wall behind your desk, don’t put the speakers too close to the wall; if necessary, pull your desk out a foot or two. Sound doesn’t only come out of the front of your speakers, and if speakers are too close to a wall, low frequencies can boom. Try to make sure the speakers are both the same distance from the wall, and try to avoid putting a speaker in the corner of a room, if possible. Don’t put them too close to you either; I find that setting my speakers at the back of my desk is fine. It’s generally not a good idea to have speakers lined up with your monitor.

Raise and/or insulate the speakers: I strongly believe that, for good sound, one should use “real” speakers, not speakers designed for computer listening. (Though powered monitors, such as Audioengine’s A5+ (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) are also a good option.) In this case, your speakers will be fairly large, and it’s best to raise them on stands rather than angle them upward. Speakers of any kind sitting on your desk will cause problems: either from vibrations, or from things in the way on your desk (unless you keep your desk very clear).

To dampen vibrations, use some sort of insulation under the speakers, or use desktop speaker stands such as these from IsoAcoustics (see my review; Amazon.com, Amazon UK). If you do want speakers at the level of your desk, you can use these Audioengine Desktop Speaker Stands to both insulate them and angle them toward your ears (see point 4). (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Separate the speakers: You don’t want your speakers just sticking out from the edges of your monitor; spread them as far apart as you can on your desk, ideally about 4-6 feet, for good stereo imaging. Make sure they are equidistant from your head.

Point the speakers toward your ears: To get the best sound, you need to find the right angle for your speakers. They should point toward your ears, but to find out how much, start with the speakers facing straight ahead from your desk. Listen to some music you’re familiar with, then turn them inward a bit, and listen again. Keep doing this until you find the sweet spot. One rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t see the sides of the speakers when you turn your head to look at them; the speakers should more or less be pointed toward your head.

speaker-position.png

Position the speakers so the tweeters point to the height of your ears: High-frequency sound waves are very short. A 4,000 Hz sound wave is approximately 8.5 cm; that’s shorter than a cigarette. While the sound wave spreads out as it leaves a speaker, higher frequency sound waves spread out much less quickly than lower frequencies. For this reason, you’ll find that, if your tweeters aren’t at the height of your ears, you’ll miss out on much of the high-frequency sounds. This is less of an issue in a living room, but when you’re listening on your desk, the speakers are only a few feet from your ears. If you have small speakers sitting flat on your desk, pointing straight out, you’ll be missing much of the high frequencies when you listen to music.

tweeter.png

If you use a sub-woofer, you can put it anywhere you want: In general, since low-frequency sound waves are very long – a 300 Hz wave is about 114 cm, or more than three feet – you can put a sub-woofer anywhere you want. (This is also why you only need a single channel for a sub-woofer; you wouldn’t be able to hear the stereo image because the waves are too long.) Stick it under the desk, on either side, but not too close to a wall or corner, to avoid booming.

The Next Track, Episode #147 – Kirk’s New Sonos Amp

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxKirk bought some new audio equipment: a Sonos Amp. We talk about how this amp works, and how it has allowed Kirk to minimalize the equipment in his home office.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #147 – Kirk’s New Sonos Amp.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Audio Engineering Matters, Not The Format – Computer Audiophile

My personal philosophy is that I am format neutral. For me, the format of the digital file is one of the least significant factors in getting true audio fidelity in the home. Assuming that one has competently engineered and manufactured electronics, which I find to be generally the case, the most significant and most often overlooked factor by audiophiles, is the room itself.

This cannot be stressed enough.

As for the format of the recording, I find that the quality of the recording itself to be far more important than the format. The skill of the recording engineer, the microphones used, the placement of same, the recording venue, the placement of the musicians in that space all trump whether the format is DSD or PCM or analog tape. With great engineering and or course, a light touch by the mastering engineer, all of these formats can yield spectacular results.

This too.

Source: Audio Engineering Matters, Not The Format – Computer Audiophile

The Next Track, Episode #135 – Christmas Gift Guide

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxDoug and Kirk make a list, and check it twice, presenting some ideas for music-related Christmas gifts.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #135 – Christmas Gift Guide.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.

The Next Track, Episode #110 – Requiem for the Stereo

The Next Track Blue Flat Button2 400pxIs the home stereo dead? It certainly looks like it.

Listen to The Next Track: Episode #110 – Requiem for the Stereo.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.

Why Do People Equate High End Audio with Snake Oil? – Archimago’s Musings

I believe there is very much “snake oil” salesmanship going on in many areas of “high end” audio. Remember though that fraudulent products and sales tactics happen in many places, not just audiophilia (for example, think of fraudulent pharmaceuticals, naturopathy, homeopathy, the local psychic, etc.). However, like most things in life, it’s a bit more complicated and it would not be fair to classify everything as black or white.

A good examination of how many audiophile products can be considered snake oil, and how audiophiles get wrapped up in this type of thinking.

Source: Archimago’s Musings: MUSINGS: Why Do People Equate High End Audio with Snake Oil?

Speaker Cables: Can You Hear the Difference? – Sound & Vision

In the early 1980s, esoteric high-end audio as we know it today was just taking off as an alternative to the mass-market equipment offered in neighborhood TV/appliance stores. Fueled by an underground audio press that included magazines and newsletters such as Sound & Vision sister publication Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, International Audio Review, The Audio Critic, and others, a cottage industry emerged, one populated by small manufacturers of low-volume, high-priced exotica claiming greater faithfulness to the music than the gear reviewed and advertised in the pages of Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Audio, et al. Some of these claims were founded–true advances were indeed being made by start-ups run by technicians with first-class bonafides and good ears. But the High End also attracted its share of half-baked products and at least a few charlatans looking to cash in selling accessories that had little higher performance than a dime-store engagement ring.

In the midst of all this, the premium cable business emerged, driven in no small part by the success of the early Monster Cable products that followed the company’s founding by engineer/audiophile Noel Lee in 1979. The editors of our precursor Stereo Review were suspicious of the benefits of such speaker cables and interconnects, which were suddenly being proffered by an ever-widening mix of high-end specialists, often at prices far higher than Monster’s. The highly objective measurement-based testing approach employed by Julian Hirsch and his colleagues already ran counter to the high-end community’s subjective reviews, which focused solely on claimed sonic differences that SR’s instruments couldn’t detect. It wasn’t long before Stereo Review began positioning itself as the skeptical voice of reason in what its editors deemed an audio industry gone mad.

It was no surprise, then, that in 1983, the magazine jumped at the opportunity to conduct a double-blind listening test, which editor-in-chief Bill Livingston and his colleagues hoped would reveal, scientifically, that high-end cables were indeed a hoax and provided no higher performance than the everyday lamp cord in common use at the time.

Interesting reprint of a 1983 article examining speaker cables to see if listeners could tell the difference between average cables and premium wires.

Source: Speaker Cables: Can You Hear the Difference? | Sound & Vision

How the Audio Industry is Deceiving Consumers with High-Resolution Audio

Hi resUpdate, May 2021: Apple has just announced the arrival of lossless and high-resolution audio on Apple Music. In addition, there will be “spatial audio,” which is a term for audio recorded – or remastered – using Dolby Atmos, which is today’s equivalent of 5.1 audio (sort of). This makes it a good time to revisit what high-resolution audio means, and who can benefit from it. tl;dr: most people don’t care, won’t hear the difference, and don’t even have the gear to play it back correctly.

I’ve been writing about music and audio for more than fifteen years, and I’ve always been of the opinion that music is more important than sound; that what matters is what we listen to, rather trying to only listen to music that sounds perfect (or nearly so).[1]

If you read about audio equipment in the hi-fi press, you’ll see that much of the audio equipment mentioned in these magazines is more expensive than most people would ever spend on a stereo setup. There are cables that cost more than my car, and speakers that can cost as much as a small home.[2]

A few months ago, I came to a realization. I don’t recall which article I read that pointed this out, but this type of audio is not just high-end, but it truly is luxury hardware. It’s the Jaguar and Porsche of audio. The amplifiers, speakers, and cables you see in these audiophile magazines are not targeted at the average listener, but those who have a great deal of disposable income. This is fine; there’s nothing wrong with people spending their money on what is often hand-made hardware from small, dedicated companies. But it’s only something that a tiny percentage of people can afford, or even appreciate. Audiophiles will scoff at people like me; in a recent forum discussion, I was told that, by purchasing a Yamaha amplifier, I was buying a "lifestyle" brand. I hadn’t been aware that this is an insult: it’s the audiophile equivalent of "philistine."

If you consider high-resolution music, which is widely discussed as being essential to make music "sound like the artist intended," you may, at first, think of this as progress; a better quality format, going beyond the pokey LP, the limited CD, and the underperforming MP3 file. But it’s not. Most people cannot hear the difference between a CD (or even a good-quality digital download) and a high-resolution audio file. And, even if they can, they need expensive, nay, luxury equipment to appreciate it.[3]

And here’s where the problem lies. The audio industry has lost so many consumers at the low end – it used to be that most people had a stereo system in their homes; now they are satisfied with Bluetooth speakers – that it is trying to convince everyone, not just luxury hi-fi fans, that quality of the music they listen to sucks. There are economic reasons for this, of course. If they can convince some people that their audio files aren’t good enough, then they can perhaps get them to buy more expensive hi-fi equipment. In recent years, the mid-range hi-fi market – those "lifestyle" brands – has collapsed, and these companies only really survive because they sell lots of other products. So there’s not a lot of choice between Bluetooth speakers – or the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, etc. – and higher-end audio equipment.[4]

Read more