The quest for quality audio
Don’t waste money on things that don’t matter and focus on what actually can make improvements in your audio system. Boutique cables and hi-res audio are unnecessary.
Higher Audio Quality
Since the CD came out, most people switched to digital music, from analog. There were, however, holdouts that disliked the newer technology, and continued to use turntables to play vinyl records. Many in this camp also prefer vacuum tube powered amplifiers. What’s going on? Is this a story of analog vs. digital?
Meanwhile, there are many audiophiles who prefer hi-res digital formats, such as 24/96 rather than the CD standard 16/44. If CD was so good, why are higher-resolution files necessary?
Going further, in addition to high-priced equipment, such as amplifiers, external DACs, turntable cartridges, etc., there is a large market of expensive cables, with some claiming some percentage cost of a total hi-fi system that should be spent on cables.
Just what is necessary for high-quality audio?
Many years ago, typical consumer stereo equipment was expensive, and yet, you would have to spend more money to obtain higher quality sound. Analog equipment such as turntables or cassette decks could be vastly improved, but at vastly higher prices. Changes in equipment could make a huge improvement in the sound, say, in upgrading your conventional tape deck to a higher-end 3-head unit. Over time, specifications for amplifiers looked better and better (less noise in the signal and more power), and improvements showed up in more affordable consumer-grade equipment. With the advent of the CD, “perfect sound” seemed attainable. Perhaps people were somewhat conditioned to spend more money for higher quality.
Traditional cables between components use RCA-connectors, while speakers can use various connectors, such as banana plugs or spade connectors, or even bare wire. Don’t forget there are also power cables, and these days, even USB and optical cables. There are high-end versions of all of these cables being sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The truth of it is that spending hundreds on cables is completely unnecessary. You might be inclined to spend a bit more just to ensure it is well made, but there’s almost nothing tying price to quality. Even if one were to buy into some of the claims of esoteric cables, there’s no sense to the extremely inflated prices. For example, if you wanted interconnects made out of silver wire, even given the higher cost of silver, you’re probably talking about $30 to $40 of materials per pair - hardly enough to justify selling for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
When it comes to speaker wire, usually 18 gauge copper wire is sufficient for normal short runs. However, most cheap “zip cord” being sold today is not copper, but CCA – copper-clad aluminum, which has a slightly higher resistance. Given that, going up a bit in size is not unreasonable. I found a source that sells bulk 12 gauge copper speaker wire for about 70 cents a foot. Complete overkill, and still not costly. I bought some banana plugs, techflex sleeving, and heat-shrink to finish them off a bit.
Unlike with analog equipment in the past, digital equipment can sound very good at very low prices. While there is a point where you can find poor digital audio, even most higher-end phones have really good reproduction of sound. Even external DACs costing about $100 can exceed what is necessary. Most amplifiers have really good specs, and you just need a bigger amplifier if you need more volume or have unusual speakers that require more umph. I would still stay away from low-end budget equipment, but you very quickly get into diminishing returns, where spending a lot doesn’t actually improve things. For example, the iPhone “dongle” headphone adapter costs only a few dollars and yet measures well.
Some better receivers come with a “bi-amp” mode, which you can use with speakers that have separate woofer and tweeter terminals. However, for most setups, this will not change anything, except require double the speaker wire (which can be expensive, if you’re buying esoteric wire).
The CD standard of 16/44 is sufficent for human hearing. The 44khz sampling rate means that frequencies up to 22khz can be reproduced. This is above what is necessary for sound reproduction, and there’s probably not a whole lot interesting up that high anyway. The most important frequencies are going to be in the midrange. Nevertheless, digital can reproduce frequencies from low to high, and the old CD standard is simply good enough.
The 16 refers to the number of bits, and it is capable of reproducing sound with a signal-to-noise ratio of up to 96db. (See: digital bit depth) There is a technique called “shaped dithering” which can even increase this amount. In order to fully utilize that kind of range, you need to play at extremly loud levels (to bring the sound of the music above the background noise floor) and have the source material be dynamic enough to take advantage of it. Most music is mixed to be “loud”, but not dynamic, due to dynamic compression. This isn’t digital’s fault, but it is a fault of much of the music recorded in recent years. Even “remastered” CDs may be worse than earlier recordings.
So, what about those who prefer analog sources or amplification? Vinyl has taken on a renewed popularity, lately. It is possible to have equipment that is technically not as clinically perfect, but yet has an enjoyable sound. Also, there’s a tactile quality to holding a record and having to clean and set it up. Or perhaps it’s nostalgia. Regardless of why one prefers certain equipment, I don’t have a problem with it. We had to use analog in the past, because that’s all we had. It doesn’t have to be terribly expensive to sound decent, but may cost a lot to sound a lot better. Consider that even though cassette tapes often had a lot of background noise, humans see and hear through noise pretty well, to a point. I wouldn’t suggest abandoning digital, but if you want to have fun with analog, why not?
I think a speaker is the one area where you can still spend a lot more to get higher quality sound. This is typically where you have the most distortion, so it’s also the area which is more improved by upgrading to something higher-quality.
OK, so if spending money on wires or other esoteric gear is a waste, what should I spend my money on to make improvements? Room treatments (bass traps, area rugs, wall coverings at reflection points, etc.) and a subwoofer. Using a subwoofer allows you to set your receiver to not send low bass to your main speakers, thereby greatly reducing the overhead.
Wire info – http://www.roger-russell.com/wire/wire.htm
Audio equipment info – http://www.linkwitzlab.com/conclusions.htm
Digital bit depth – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_bit_depth
Hi-res audio – https://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html