|June 7, 2005
In This eNewsletter:
By Wes Phillips
Break me a freaking give!
"Cunning leads to knavery. It is but a step from one to the other, and that very slippery. Only lying makes the difference; add that to cunning, and it is knavery."Ovid
You'd think I'd be used to it. After all, I work in an industry where exaggerated claims are the currency of daily intercourse. I mean, does any of us really need a new preamp?
Sorry, I forgot myself. Of course we dowe're audiophiles.
But even audiophilesand audio reviewershave their limits. And lately, it seems as though I've been reaching mine almost daily.
To quote The New Yorker's Anthony Lane paraphrase of Yoda, in his May 23 review of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith: Break me a freaking give!
Let's start with a frequent complaint: Downloading from the Internet is costing the recording industry sales. How do we know this? Because the recording industry tells us so.
Well, who could doubt that?
There's just one problem with that claim: It hasn't been proven. True, the recording industry has gone through some rough years. Also true, those have been the same years that downloading and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing have grown. However, correlation is not the same as causation, as my statistics professor used to say.
The recording industry's slump has also coincided with several other factors, such as the industry's own insistence on offering less and less variety and in the disappearance of traditional channels of distribution, such as wide-rotation radio and the tried and true mom'n'pop record shop. Let me see, if I'm a pre-driver's-license teen and I want the newest single and there's no corner record store I can walk to, where do I go for music? The computer in my bedroom? Why not?
And let's not forget that the software "slump" coincided with the rise in popularity of all computer-based entertainment. I'm not a gamer myself, but I can understand why my nephews would be readier to spend their cash on Halo 2 than on the latest piece of disposable pop from [insert generic band name here].
In fact, a 2002 study by Harvard's Felix Oberholzer-Gee and UNC's Koleman Strumpf designed to document downloading's impact on record sales ended up "proving" that downloading improves record sales. (Actually, the study seemed to indicate that the most popular recordsthe ones the industry claims are most adversely affected by downloadingincreased their sales by one CD per 150 downloads; the least popular 25% suffered negative sales from downloading.)
No, I'm not saying that we should all download music illegally because downloading is "good." But maybe it's not the end of the world that the record industry says it is. Maybe the record business is in trouble because its executives don't have a clue what they're doing and they're striking out at any available target because their business model is rapidly tanking and they're too craven to come up with a daring new one.
Feeling good because you download from a legitimate website that kicks in royalties to the artists? Maybe you shouldn't be. Take iTunes, for example. Even though we're audiophiles, we'll ignore the fact that everything you buy from the iTunes website is lossily compressed and so wrapped up in Digital Rights Management (DRM) that you might have trouble distributing your downloaded songs to all of the different computers and playback devices you legitimately ownthat just goes with the territory.
But that widow's mite that actually goes to the artist? It works out to about 812 cents per song, which is pretty much the same deal musicians have been getting all along from the major labels. Apple gets about three times that, and the label gets the rest. Is 10 cents better than nothing? Of course, but the artists would probably be better off if you recorded a friend's CD and sent them a buck. And at least then you'd get to choose how you used the CD.
Downhill Battle proposes an interesting alternative to iTunes, the newly legal Napster, et al: Musicians sign with the website and offer their songs for 50 cents (albums $3, previews for free); you buy the music directly from the band's website and the host company gets 3%, like eBay. The musicians get three or four times what they do now and volume goes through the roof.
A band could offer its music in restricted form, if it wanted toand consumers could choose not to buy it in that form. I bet most musicians wouldn't bother. I'd love a chance to find out, however.
While we're on the subject of downloads, I was talking to the executives at MusicGiants a few weeks ago. I'd been sent an e-mail announcing the site's intention to offer high-fidelity downloads. This was great news, of course, especially since MusicGiants said it would have the catalogs from all of the four major labels available.
There was a catch, however: "MusicGiants uses the Microsoft WMA 'lossless' codec (450kbps) to preserve 100% of the music." Ummm, I'm not so sure that music wrapped in Microsoft's DRM "protection" is what I would want, but I do understand that record labels are so leery of the Internet that not wrapping the data in DRM would be a deal-breaker. It wasn't for me, perhaps, but it was an interesting idea worth reporting.
I was talking to MusicGiant's CEO, Scott Bahneman, and he was hitting all the audiophile hot topics: no lossy compression, high-bit-rate transfers, logical customer interface. Actually, he nearly had me with high-bit-rate transfers, but he was so proud of the interface that he then insisted on walking me through it.
"The neat part is that you have the ability to complete your collection without having to rebuy what you already ownand anything that might have been, let's say, 'acquired' through the Internet at no charge, you have the ability to come clean here."
Wait a minutedid he really say that MusicGiant's interface was deciding which files on my computer were legitimately acquired? How does it do that?
"When you fire up the network, it will actually go in and grab all the music you've already pulled up through your Windows Media Player 9 or 10 and it will sync up with all of the WMA or MP3 files you have."
So I didn't mishear that. By subscribing, I invite MusicGiant into my computer, where it decides what I have and have not acquired "legitimately." And that's a feature, not a bug?
I think of my computer as I think of Las Vegas: What happens there stays there. If I need a music nanny, I'll call up Hilary Rosen, former head of the RIAA, who lately has been chiding iTunes for its proprietary nature. Ms. Rosen's pleas for Steve Jobs to open the iPod to download sources other than iTunes seems logical, until you remember that she was the one who demonized the Net in the first place, which is undoubtedly why Jobs had to wrap iTunes so tightly in DRM.
Then there's Red Rose Music's Burwen Bobcat. Because this product involves Richard S. Burwen, for whom I have immense respect, I want to think it offers a real-world solution to some genuine problems. But as much as I want to believe that, I have a hard time reconciling Red Rose's claims for the product with reality.
Claim: "By adding equalization and unique, patent-pending, high-frequency reverberation . . . Burwen Bobcat makes CDs, MP3s, and DVDs sound comparable or superior to analog or SACD."
I say it's an equalizer and I say the hell with it. MP3 is a lossy compression system. It throws away information on the basis that that information is less important than the storage space it takes up. That information is gone once you've ripped a file to MP3, and you can't reconstruct it with high-frequency reverberation, although you may very well be able to make a better-sounding compressed file.
I'm not an electrical-engineering genius, but I have never heard anything that leads me to believe that you can improve on a high-resolution recording of the original event by throwing away information and then manipulating what's left.
"Comparable or superior to analog or SACD"? BMAFG!
In my opinion, you rip things to MP3 when you have to choose portability over fidelity. I downconvert files every time I load my iPod shuffle, but I keep the music files on my computer (legally converted to AIFF uncompressed files from my own legally purchased CDs). When I want to listen to that music on the go, I listen to MP3 and hope the distractions offered by exercise or travel mask the crappy sound; when I want to listen to high-fidelity music, I listen to the AIFF file or [gasp] my CD.
There are aspects of the Burwen Bobcat that I don't question. Part of what you're buying is an outboard USB DAC designed by Daniel Hertz Advanced Audio Designs, which I'm sure is better designed and a far more benign audio environment than the average computer. Can you improve the sound of your computer files with a better DAC? I don't doubt it. Can you make your files sound more to your liking with selective EQ? I don't doubt it. Is that better than the original or SACD?
I haven't yet heard a convincing demonstration of the Burwen Bobcat. At Home Entertainment 2005, Mark Levinson's demonstration didn't include before-and-after demonstrationsand he acted insulted when people requested them. It does seem odd that he'd spend the money for an exhibition room to introduce the product to the audio faithful and then not offer such a basic comparison, but there you have it.
When I attended Levinson's demo, he played a selection, then demanded, "Does that sound like MP3 to you?"
"I don't know," said the man behind me. "I listen to vinyl." Hmmm . . . well, it was a room full of audiophiles, but if you were going to claim that you had a product that could make MP3s sound better than analog or SACD, would you expect people to take your word for it, or would you expect to have to prove it? Yeah, me too.
Just as I was writing the above, I received a phone call from Red Rose Music, inviting me to drop by and take in a formal demonstration, including A/B demos of treated and untreated files. I made an appointment and I look forward to itI may be cranky, but I'm fair. I hope. If I'm not, I'm sure you'll tell me about it.
Mark Levinson, established in 1972, is a world-renowned manufacturer of the finest stereo and multi-channel electronics. Products range from awe-inspiring monaural power amplifiers to the industry benchmark CD processor. For more information on all Mark Levinson products, please visit www.marklevinson.com.
From Wes Phillips
Now that I've been banging on my drum all afternoon, it's your turn: www.kenbrashear.com.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
By Ken Kessler
The Intelligent Chip: Mumbo and, Indeed, Jumbo
Quite unbeknownst to me when I was auditioning the Golden Sound Intelligent Chip for Hi-Fi Newsin the UK, John Atkinson was launching a full frontal assault on it in the March issue of this very e-Newsletter. This was followed by equally unequivocal attacks by Jim Austin and Sam Tellig in the May and June 2005 issues of Stereophile. It would seem that the GSIC is the latest in a long line of audio caca (read: tweaks and gadgets) with spiritual links to the work of Peter Belt, Harmonix, Shun Mook, and far too many others to list here. But personal experience and support from unlikely quarters makes me loath to reject the Intelligent Chip just yet.
At the Home Entertainment 2005 Show in New York City, one of the vendors selling the GSIC asked me about it, expressing his own skepticism but admitting that he hadn't yet tried it. Knowing that I'd undergone a major anti-tweak satori so strong that I'd sworn in print that I would never again review audiophile cables, said vendor (he wishes to remain anonymous) was shocked when I didn't simply pooh-pooh the GSIC. Had not an engineer as prestigious as John Curl's prestige come out in defense of it?
My encounters with the GSIC had been simple: I'd conducted listening tests with a dozen seasoned audiophilescivilians as well as members of the tradeand they were, to a man, able to distinguish treated from untreated discs with alarming consistency. In fact, they were the most successful listening sessions I'd ever witnessed, which is why I'm not yet ready to dismiss the GSIC as total codswallop.
Let's back up a second. I had decided that, as I can't completely escape tweaks, it would be churlish to deride ones that cost little or nothing and cause no permanent harm. The GSIC, which costs $16, satisfies the low-cost exemption, and even if it proved bogus, it couldn't inflict any permanent damage. So when I found one at the bottom of my luggage after the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show, I figured it wouldn't hurt to try itespecially with access to so many willing guinea pigs.
Those guinea pigs included seasoned high-end distributors, a couple of journalists, an editor, a handful of audiophiles without trade connections, and a former audio retailer. None were told what they would be assessing, only that they had to listen to two CDs. The system included the Quad 99CDP and Marantz CD12/DA12 CD players, both used with the GSIC; a McIntosh C220 preamp and MC2102 power amp; and Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7 loudspeakers. All cables were Transparent Audio Ultra or Reference.
I had two copies of one Chesky release. I treated one copy and left the other untouched. I also rationed the GSIC's 10 "charges" so that I could treat a disc in the presence of each group of listeners. One volunteer, an audiophile of long standingan Ongaku owner, no lesshad brought along a CD compilation he'd produced for a charity. He had more copies at home, so he A/B'd the copy I treated with a virgin copy from his stock at home. Within 24 hours of his visit, he sent me an e-mail to express his astonishment.
Of course, once the listeners were told what I'd done, they were bemused and mildly incredulous. After all, every one of them had been through the warsBelt, cables, tables, spikes, what have you. But they all heard the effect of the GSIC. And while not all of them thought it was an improvement, all but one felt categorically that they could hear a change each time.
This in itself was enough to motivate me to write about the GSIC for Hi-Fi News, though I didn't include my own opinions in my interpretations of the results because I'd conducted the tests and knew which disc was which. Suffice it to say that the vicious Stereophile attacks did not reinforce my confidence. But then something happened.
Given the responses of JA, the other JA, and ST, plus a reader's letter suggesting that I had "lost the plot," I invited one of the listenersthe most important oneback to my studio. That was Steve Harris, editor of HFN, whose own ears had led him to publish my findings. Steve possesses a fine pair of ears and is as cynical about tweaks as I ama perfect candidate. So, after a couple of months, Steve returned for a rematch. Five times out of five, he identified the treated and untreated copies of the Chesky release.
He didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe it. John Atkinson, Jim Austin, and Sam Tellig certainly won't believe it. But I was there. I witnessed a 100% perfect score.
Make of it what you will, but I think it's still too early to write off the Golden Sound Intelligent Chip as mere audiophile drivel.
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