Friday, September 13, 2013

My Journey into Streaming Audio

I am a child of the vinyl era transitioning from tubes to transistors to cassette tapes to digital. Source material has always been a two edged sword where one type offers convenience (e.g. CDs) while another type offers quality (e.g., virgin-pressed vinyl). But along the way, the convenience of digital music for everyday or background listening has become more prevalent for me and I thought it would be interesting to relate the journey to those just getting started into high-end streaming. Hopefully, the lessons I’ve learned can help you not to repeat them.

As mentioned, my love for music began with tubes and vinyl consisting of a Sansui integrated amp, an Acoustic Research AR-XA turntable, and a Shure V-15 Type III cartridge. While this playback system "worked," I was not truly happy with the realism and abandoned the low-budget electronics in attempts to find a higher quality experience. A reel-to-reel appeared one day and I did a few unsuccessful attempts at live recordings so I fell back on vinyl as my reference signal source.

Tolerating its limitations, I amassed a large collection of albums and found that recording quality varied greatly from one label to another. Studio recordings sounded - in general - uninteresting with fake echoes and a production lean to sensationalism emphasizing one part of the audio band or another, favoring one instrument over another, or just creating chaos in blending all of the instruments in a band together. Vocals took a back seat to instruments and sounds became more meaningful than thoughts. It seemed that although it was the medium of choice, it was also filled with junk.

In 1983, Sony and North-American Philips introduced the first digital playback systems and called them CD players. For the first time, pops, ticks, and surface hiss was absent from the source material and I was intrigued by its potential attracted mainly by its technology. Buying a Magnavox player and a few CDs, hacking into its electronics to coax more sound out of an apparently compromised playback system, I soon found my hopes for this medium dashed upon the digital rocks. The screeching and annoying ringing made the music sound unbearable and I became quickly intolerant of “digital” sound preferring the magic of analog in comparison. Abandoning the digital media in its entirety, I waited for it to come of age believing that like cassette tapes it would take about 20 years for engineers to produce something worth listening to.

As the handwriting on the wall foretold, it didn't take 20 years for this to happen, it took more like 30. Only within the past decade has digital music begun to sound like the vinyl albums they promised to replace so long ago. After auditioning a serious investment in a streaming media system at a friend’s home, the hint that digital music had finally come of age was confirmed and my hopes for this media as a reference source was again rekindled. Although not the equal of the best analog, the digital medium has made huge strides in understanding many things about how to properly preserve a performance.

Preferring not to invest as much as my digitally-hooked friend, I started with a Pioneer Elite 300-disk carousel to house my growing CD library. While it "worked," it kept me listening to the initial 16/44 standard and the unit itself was really clunky. On occasion, it would "forget" everything I programmed into it, a truly frustrating feature for a “perfect” reproduction system.

My next step was a Western Digital TV Live streamer and a Buffalo 0.5TB RAID-1 NAS. Using a Windows ripper, I saved my CD library in a lightly compressed format and streamed it with the WD unit. At the mercy of the built-in DACs, this system provided good background listening and a few steps up from elevator music and i-toys rampant in the audio realm at the time. With this system I also streamed Pandora and, well, I got the streaming bug.

After hearing another friend’s OPPO BDP-95, I realized that streaming was not the only reason to listen to digital music and also that it had potential as more than background noise. I presently own an OPPO BDP-105 that streams from a USB 1.0TB drive on which is replicated my audio library from my Seagate Black Armor backup NAS. This system is “decent” in that the Sabre-32 Reference DACs sound pretty good even when the music gets dynamic and complicated. The toroidal transformer provides adequate power to the system components without collapsing too terribly. I just wish the analog output board was better designed as to eliminate the embedded ground loops. 

One word of caution I have discovered in networking streaming systems: all DLNA is not created equal. The Seagate uses a mini-DLNA version and the OPPO software cannot yet talk to it directly so I advise getting a NAS with known compatibility to whatever your streamer of choice is.  On occasion, I'll pop in one of my old live master tape recordings to remind myself of the value really good source material makes when evaluating any kind of playback system.

Streaming is a really convenient way to listen to audio and keeps me from getting up and spinning vinyl for everyday convenience. The DACs in the OPPO do a decent job and my wife appreciates the fact that the component count in the system is low and easy to use. While I still prefer spinning vinyl as my reference source, the new high-res audio formats are slowly creeping up to what really good vinyl playback systems offer with none of the hassles of analog.

There is another caveat needed here beyond the normal one about wasting your money on snake oil: Each step you take in climbing the audio-perfection ladder reduces the number of recordings of which you prefer to listen. After reaching a certain crest in quality, most recordings sound ho-hum and the value you once placed on them quickly disappears. You "favorites" library shrinks to a precious few and searching for more of those magical moments in recording engineering becomes one of your primary quests in supporting your audiophile addiction.

Sometimes I think that the boneheads who believe that MP3s are the bomb are in fact correct in this way: the less you know, the happier you are. After regaining my digitally-swayed sanity, I still reach for those master tapes or a really good high-res analog or digital recording, sit back, and just listen to the magic...the music.  After all, that’s what it’s all about, right?

In summary, high-end digital audio has come a long way from the first 16-bit DACs and the glaring overbearing noise they created. Things are starting to sound like music and if I were to give it a rating the reference being a well-engineered analog master tape, vinyl is about 75% as good and digital a close 60%. In 1983, these figures were 60% and -20% respectively. While SOTA analog is still ahead of SOTA digital, the gap is narrowing and with DSD and other high-resolution playback media becoming available, I see the gap closing far more quickly than in the previous 30 years. Who knows, maybe it will only take another 5 years or so for digital to surpass analog – unless another analog breakthrough occurs.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

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