Liquid or solid music?

I have always been an advocate that digital, although very convenient for so many things, forces us to rush and enjoy the product or art form only superficially. I have always maintained on this blog that my insistence on using analog tools when I can is due to a need to rediscover other, more human rhythms from time to time. So putting on a vinyl record to listen to music allows for greater depth, a more complete enjoyment of the artwork (if only because it is impossible for us to jump from one track to another for example, or to extract a “playlist with a different order from how the artist conceived it). But buying new records is becoming very expensive, and when I think that in order to buy an album I would have to spend 2 or 3 months of subscription to a streaming service, even I start thinking. Is it worth it in 2023 to insist on analog? Especially if you are not sailing in gold?

It is true that you buy a record once in a while and for a while you just listen to that one. That is why you go deeper into the artwork: you get few records and those are the ones you can listen to. A streaming service offers tens of millions of tracks, and in the end you waste more time choosing what to listen to than actually listening. Sometimes there is also the need to (re)discover certain albums, and with such a service it is much easier than buying the physical records. In these cases the possibility of choice is really useful. For example, I play guitar in a couple of cover bands and in order to study songs scattered in the catalogs of different artists it is unthinkable to buy all the vinyl records containing them, one would spend a fortune far exceeding the annual subscription to a streaming service. Even the free use of YouTube easily enables this kind of research and study. But if high fidelity comes into play, the matter changes.

My analog signal path
My digital signal path
Liquid music
Solid music
Shure M97HE Era IV cartridge with nude hyperelliptical stylus and stabilizer Tidal HiFi – app run in exclusive mode CD Cambridge Audio D500SE player used as transport
Thorens TD160 turntable with stock tonearm and OFC cables and ground wire Macbook Pro 2011 – optical output
Lehmann Audio Black Cube Statement phono preamp Consumer optical toslink cable
TNT-Audio U-Byte signal cables Pro-Ject DacBox E converter
Naim Nait 5i integrated amplifier
TDL Studio 0.5 transmission line loudspeakers

There are pages and pages on comparisons between digital and analog fruition, which is the best medium between vinyl and CD, etc. I am not going to repeat here how and why but the point is another: how the original recording is made and how it was remixed and mastered on the final medium. If it is done well it sounds good even in mp3 format! If we then want to have stereophonic reconstruction and 3D sound scene in width and depth first we need a suitable room with a stereo system up to the mark. Then the recording must be done properly otherwise everything is useless. And it is often not easy to know a priori the quality of the recording we are about to buy. As I have already written, today’s music is often recorded with absurd levels of dynamic compression. Perhaps it is different for jazz and classical, but rock, blues, and pop are recorded this way, exploiting even half the dynamic possibilities of a vinyl record, which because of the limited thickness of the groove walls has always had to limit the dynamic range by necessity. CD has no such limitations and neither does online streaming.

But it is now fashionable to compress much more than was once even necessary; it is believed and perceived that music compressed and turned up in volume is easier to listen to (perhaps from a cell phone with earphones is true). The result is that even recent remasters of old great rock records sound far worse than the 60’s or 70’s originals on vinyl; and very noticeably so, too, only you really have to have a Hifi system to notice it, and who still has one at home besides me?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it has kept me from subscribing to a streaming service for quite a while. My first attempts with these services had stalled at an initial comparison between an original vinyl and streaming in Hifi of the relevant modern remastering: no contest, vinyl wins big. But I emphasize that serious productions such as some brands specializing in jazz sound really good even in streaming. What to do then? Many people come to the conclusion that streaming, the format that is in vogue today, is one more method of music enjoyment to go along with the others. And they may be right.

CD sales and prices continue to plummet, vinyl prices to rise. The most widely used format is online streaming and is set to grow. Apple, Tidal and Amazon offer Hifi streaming at the level of the CD standard (uncompressed music sampled at 44,100 Hz and 16 bits) for about 10 euros per month. There has long been talk of Spotify’s Hifi offering coming to market, the most widely used platform. It is not known whether it will take advantage of its advantageous position to offer Hifi at a higher price (like Qobuz and Deezer). But instead of offering Hifi they planned to increase the regular subscription to 11 euros. Spending even more on streaming to higher standards than CD is not always cost-effective in my opinion. To hear the difference with “CD quality” you need a big time digitala system. Streaming has its own problems; it is not yet at the level where one can obviously discern the higher quality of a 24-bit, 196-thousand Hz file. If it were properly saved to disk it would be better, but even then its proper playback is not a straightforward matter (it takes a computer properly configured just to play files, with essential drivers, no fans, dedicated processor, optimized operating system – no joke).

Online streaming can be a viable HiFi option if it is a service that offers at least the quality of 44100 Hz at 16 bits (that of CD – which is the minimum standard to consider it HiFi yet going beyond that is sometimes practically useless). But it must be enjoyed with HiFi system, from computer connected to good DAC or streamer, otherwise it is not worth the money and the effort

Therefore, running after high digital resolutions when music is listened to on the go with a cell phone and earphones is like shooting a fly with a rifle. A serious Hifi system makes use of an analog digital converter of considerable cost (and size) compared to the miniaturized one in cell phones. How can the converter included in the cell phone accurately transform the digital stream into sound in a comparable way? Even more so if we have wireless earbuds or headphones that use the Bluetooth connection? It is not compatible with high resolution, even at the level of CD resolution, it has a lower bitrate. Practiccaly, you would pay for high resolution music and the bluetooth would transmit it back to compressed music.

The CD standard set by Philips and Sony was an audio signal sampling rate of 44100 times per second. Each sample is saved with a binary number of 16 bits. This is for each of the two stereo channels. The amount of bits that an audio file encoding system transfers per second is called the bitrate. For CD (the minimum resolution that can be considered Hifi) you have:

44100 x 16 x 2 = 1411 kbit/s (or mbps)

The problem with streaming is that the used transcoding protocol does not always result in a “bit perfect,” error-free transmission. CD transcoding is called PCM and should have no problems. The errors may be those of the laser as it reads from the spinning disk. This is why it is good to keep the player on a horizontal hard surface, damping it and isolating it from vibration as much as possible. For liquid music, that is, playing a file from hard disc or flash memory the reading errors are very limited but it is then the transcoding protocol that may not be up to the PCM of the CD (Tidal is supposed to offer streaming in PCM it seems). So it is plausible that the big streaming companies in the future will work to improve and/or enforce their codecs. For now it seems that the best way in Hifi is to play high-resolution files on Raspberry PI systems optimized with a Linux system dedicated to music (in short, not with online streaming).

Vinyl or CD? They can both sound bad or good – it’s all in the original recording (same goes for streaming)

At this point a high-fidelity enthusiast like me is faced with the thought: what makes me do it? I work at the PC all day configuring software and programming. After the work day is over, what do I do? Do I relax and configure and program another PC to listen to music? No way. Do I put on a vinyl record? Maybe, but it costs an arm and a leg to buy new ones. Today vinyl is hip, it’s cool, and the market raises prices that those who want to be cool spinning black records are willing to pay. Those like me who have had black records for 40 years and play them with 40-year-old turntables that make a mockery of any modern turntable under 1,000 euros are forced to limit their use for economic reasons.

The much maligned and hated CD (even by me) still sounds very good in the end, records are really cheap precisely because of the fact that expensive vinyls and streaming have cornered it. One can take advantage of this to buy a lot of low-cost, high sound quality music and dust off an all-in-all still viable format when enjoyed through a serious, well-tuned player. A relatively modern, high-branded CD player actually sounds great, but does it really sound better than a network player that will stream Tidal or Qobuz Hifi to you, because of the available bitrate transmission protocols that are still not up to snuff? I don’t know. In my system the old Cambridge Audio D500SE player used as a transport connected to the Pro-Ject Dacmagic E is comparable to the Macbook playing Tidal via the toslink output connected to the same converter. But you have to configure the Tidal app in “exclusive” mode. I must admit that even compared to vinyl, the quality of Hifi streaming of comparable recordings is very similar (again, unless you compare streaming of modern remasters with the original vinyl albums pressed when it was the only medium).

An optical cable is certainly not the best thing to get digital output from a Macintosh, it would be better to get USB output but I have no such input in the DAC. On the other hand, the readout mechanism of my Cambridge is not 100% and it is already fine. What could I get if I could afford the Naim CD 5 that would go with my Nait 5i? They can be found used around 500 euros. Even a Rega Planet or other good quality players would greatly improve my “solid” digital delivery of music. Many claim that any properly configured computer sounds better than any CD player. OK, streaming is convenient, the mode of use is inconvenient though: turn on the computer, connect it, open the app, select the album, etc….. Unless you find a Cocktail Audio that can both play CDs and rip them to internal hard disk and connect to various streaming services. The X14 is around 650 euros, the other models cost significantly more. I don’t know if it would sound better than a Naim player but it does a little bit of everything and would be the ideal solution.

The mad rush to vinyl has brought down the cost of CDs, which are absolutely a HiFi medium and can sound really, really good if well made. One can also rip the contents to hard disc and have a computer or streamer play the tracks to minimize reading errors (which on optical media can be many)

Maybe so, but perhaps for someone who still plays vinyl I am not yet ready to liquefy it via ADSL and abandon physical media. I prefer vinyl records, of course, but at that cost a CD can do. Streaming via USB (I would only need to upgrade the DAC to the Pro-Jext DacBox S) could achieve considerable quality, and at the moment the only choice that seems plausible to me is Tidal HiFi at 10 euros a month, the cheapest offering in serious audio quality. Apple Music and Amazon also offer the same quality at the same price but my old MacBook Pro cannot install the Apple Music app (any old Windows PC can), so it stays out. Amazon does not convince me as a music provider; it does enough too much on its own.

Tidal is the streming service that pays authors the best. It’s still a pittance compared to revenue from physical media sales, but it’s still much better than Spotify and company. So Tidal Hifi for discovering new music and for aslistening freely, in the car, on the go. And it is also very good from computer through Hifi system until I can afford a good streamer. For the rest there are physical media when I really appreciate an author and want to support them better. The reality of the shameful fees paid to artists by streaming services makes me wonder how much future this system may have before artists get fed up and start abandoning them. They are super convenient but they don’t convince me. I will try to keep Tidal HiFi but I will not get rid of the analog part of my system….