Monday, November 19, 2012

Audiophile bulls**t & final thoughts about nine reviews

Hallo meine süßen Lieblinge!

During the last few weeks I´ve reviewed the following units: Kenwood DP-5090Pioneer DV-610Sony CDP-470Pioneer BDP-140iRiver IMP-550Sony MZ-R 55Sony MZ-R 37Sony NW-A 1000 and the Sansa Clip+. You might have wondered where I was getting at with all these reviews; I usually have an overarching theme or reason for my articles, haven´t I? Well, I planned to feature all reviews in just one article, in the end stating my conclusions - of course, that would have enlarged that article into gross proportions. So I seperated the already written article into ten singular parts, the one you´re about to read contains my conclusion and opinion.

For as long as I can think I wanted to read a review where units from different classes are compared to each other. Why not comparing a portable player playing lossy music to an SACD player spinning high resolution media? I mean their goal is the same: playback with a-good-as-possible quality. But have you ever read a review where something like that happens? I have not and I assume peoples' misconceptions about compression, size, weight, number of parts and price have something to do with it. Ask yourself: why should a tiny, portable player be worse than a much bigger stationary player? Can less available space really be a reason for worse sound? I also wanted to know how well ancient players would hold up to more modern devices, a universal disc player for example. You only have to take a look at eBay where more than 20 year old CD players are able to reach high prices; something that also applies for units that were not even top-of-the-line back then. Yet recent universal players are derided as being far away from high fidelity sound by magazines and the public alike. People seem to believe that everything was better in the old days... a curious thing really when you think about it: assuming modern units contain more advanced parts why should they be worse? Common conceptions therefore are:

  • old units have better built quality
  • they contain much more parts - good for sound, isn´t it?
  • ancient units are heavier - must sound better
  • small units with their space restrictions must sound worse
  • older technology sounds less 'digital'
  • huge, conservative power supplies are vital for perfect sound
  • lossy media cannot ever be competitive against high resolution material

I could extend this list to infinity but it wouldn´t make much sense in light of the contents of this article. I could for example mention the recent craze about NOS (Non OverSampling) D/A converters... there are so many things wrong with this approach that it´s very confusing that people even consider it as an option while ignoring 30 years of technical progress. Or tubes... no, I won´t start. I´d rather talk about audio magazines  seemingly confirming those conceptions about quality as stated above. You see, magazines only compare units from their respective classes, they also support the view that smaller gadgets must sound worse simply because of their size. But the biggest thing they are claiming is that High End audio sounds much better than 'normal', standard audio. For some years now I have the opinion that High End audio isn´t really better, only different. Expensive media players for example are more or less tweaked to sound a certain way, a sound pleasing to the common audiophile. Companies subsequently tweak their units towards sonic goals such as warmth, precision, punch, snap etc. Will those expensive toys sound like the original? Of course not. They will sound well with Rock or classical music and not so well with anything else - but that doesn´t matter since few audiophiles actually branch out of the musical genres they usually listen to. I have to admit though that heavy units look and feel better, you extend a considerable trust towards them by assuming that weight and complexity are good traits for players.

Let´s ignore my own and your prejudices and take a look at the actual thing. In this article you won´t have any of the prejudices or certain preferences with me because as I´ve stated many times before I don´t compare any unit to another one, I compare directly to the master used for the creation of the testing media itself. No one else does this and I believe my approach to be genuine and also to be the only methodology coming close the precision of DBTs without their disadvantages. Regarding my reviews I didn´t know what to expect or what I´d be ending up with. I thought it possible that all the conceptions above might be true while also accepting the opposite. Naturally, this article reflects my findings, with different hardware it could have turned out different. So you have to be aware that I don´t regard my conclusions as written in stone, they could change depending on experiences with other units. I also accept that you, dear reader, won´t agree on a comparison of high resolution to lossy material. But think about it: the advantages of high defintion might be swallowed by the imperfections from the device playing it back so that in the end lossy material coming from a superior unit might be the better representative.

Four stationary players: Pioneer DV-610, Sony CDP-470, Pioneer BDP-140, Kenwood DP-5090
For better comparison of all the reviewed units I have calculated the average of the points they earned, these are subsequently used for a ranking (this is a first for my blog). Be advised that those averaged numbers obscure the differences between the units, a unit like the MZ-R 37 for example might not have a sonic character suitable for you despite receiving a high number of points. For the described details and difference please have a look at the respective articles linked on the top of the page. The results were surprising on some occasions, on others however they were not:

1st place

Pioneer DV-610, SACD:
4.6 Points

2nd place

Pioneer BDP-140, CD/SACD:
4.4 Points

3rd place

Pioneer DV-610, CD:
4.0 Points

4th place

Sony NW-A 1000
3.8 Points

4th place

Sansa Clip+
3.8 Points

5th place

Sony MZ-R 55
3.6 Points

5rd place

Sony MZ-R 37
3.6 Points

6th place

Kenwood DP-5090
3.0 Points

7th place

iRiver IMP-550
2.6 Points

8th place

Sony CDP-470
1.2 Points

If you´re a believer in high end units you are probably crushed now, right? A multidisc player playing SACDs is the winner (it really sounds close to the reference) while another multidisc player follows closely. Both multidisc units are lightweight, not manufactured that well, have very few parts and cheap plastic drives. Their power supply doesn´t seem to have received much care at the design stage, they 'only' have those dreaded and efficient switching power supplies supposedly known for causing bad sound quality on PCs. Likewise, small portable players are not necessarily worse in sound quality - as proven by the two 4th places, the Sony NW-A 1000 and the Sansa Clip+. The NW-A 1000 is especially interesting since it has to use lossy material - who would´ve thought that mp3 would sound that well? Most disappointing were the results for the iRiver IMP-550, the Sony CDP-470 and the Kenwood DP-5090. The latter was surprising because it contains many parts (some of high quality), has a decent power supply, a well built CD drive and a good overall built quality. It also received favourable reviews from magazines when released in 1997. But its sonic signature favors 'shrill' and 'piercing' way too much, it´s not neutral and introduces very audible differences though all of these could be pleasing for a certain target audience. The Sony CDP-470 was supposed to have a good old school sound... it does indeed sound old school - but in a bad way. It´s a very digital and harsh sounding player, the numerous parts on the PCB and the reliable drive are not helping. The Sansa Clip+ is beloved everywhere but doesn´t hold up to its reputation, due to age related imperfections it shows enormous amounts of audible distortions. The best gadget for the price would be the Sansa Clip+; while it´s not perfectly balanced its dynamic and slightly more aggressive sound signature will appeal to many people.

What does these results tell us then? Not as much as I´d hoped but nonetheless they pose some interesting questions: when a cheap multidisc player sounds close to the reference how can a high end unit have superior sound? Answer: it can´t. It probably changes sound into something different with a more charming character, appealing more to the intended audience it was designed for. When a player using as few parts as possible can sound so well and refined why are many, high quality parts even necessary? Answer: they aren´t. Both Pioneer players achieve their goal of good audio quality with a layout that only seems to lack sophistication, yet in reality it works well. If lossy material (mp3 or MD) holds up so well against lossless or SACD, are those even necessary? Answer: Yes and No. High resolution is indeed able to extract the last little detail and crispness - the real question is if it´s audible for everyone which I´d answer with a 'No'. It certainly isn´t audible on every unit as proven by the BDP-140. Generally, sonic disadvantages of lossy audio are exaggerated as well as advantages of lossless or high resolution audio. Are portable personal players worse than their stationary counterparts? Answer: not necessarily. The NW-A 1000 or the Clip+ perform well while the two stationary players (DP-5090 and CDP-470) really fucked up. Are ancient players any better than more recent counterparts? Answer: No. The last place is occupied by the oldest player, also sounding 'old'. If you want to listen to an example of the supposedly digital and distorted sound of the CD go for that model. Can units playing back lossy material be superior to units playing back lossless quality? Answer: Yes. Three players, using mp3, AAC or MiniDisc are superior or equal to four others using lossless material. The codec therefore doesn´t decide about sound quality, the device itself does (provided that one uses well encoded material).

All of this should prompt you to think carefully about purchasing an ancient unit, it should also create skepticism regarding fantastic reviews of high end gadgets and their supposedly gorgeous sound quality. Many parts or heavy units don´t automatically guarantee perfect sound. You should also regard the recent craze about high resolution with serious doubts; it can have an advantage and better sound quality but the differences are so small that many people won´t ever hear them. The Pioneer BDP-140 comes extremely close to the sound of the Pioneer DV-610 (using SACD) with CDs only. So please, think twice before you buy something or trust someone, go out there yourself and don´t stop comparing and being skeptical.

Last update: 17.06.15
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