At a "Meet the Designers" panel discussion at the 1992 Los Angeles Stereophile High-End Hi-Fi Show, I asked a group of successful digital designers (footnote 1) each to state how much of a digital front end's sound quality they believed was due to the transport, digital processor, and interface between the two. There was virtual unanimity: Nearly everyone agreed that a digital processor accounts for about 50% of a digital source's sound quality, the transport 30%, and interface 20%.
Choosing a loudspeaker can be difficult. Although it is easy to be seduced by a certain model's special qualities, that exceptional performance in one area is often at the expense of other important characteristics. Go with high-quality minimonitors for their spectacular soundstaging, but give up bass, dynamics, and the feeling of power that only a large, full-range system can provide. If you choose an electrostatic for its delicious midrange transparency, you may have to forgo dynamics, impact, and the ability to play loudly. Pick a full-range dynamic system for its bass and dynamics, but lose that edge of palpability and realism heard from ribbon transducers.
When I taught a recording engineering program at a California college, one of my first responsibilities to new students was to clarify for them what recording engineering was really about. Many of them entered the program with the impression that recording was nonstop glamor, with a significant part of the job devoted to partying with their favorite rock bands. It was my job to tell them the bad news: Recording was more about lying on your back underneath a recording console on a dirty studio floor with hot solder dripping on your face.
At a CES press breakfast in Las Vegas last January, a member of the "all amplifiers (and digital sources!) sound the same" school of audio journalism made an interesting assertion. He argued that if our society were studied by extraterrestrials, they would find an unhealthy obsession with the re-creation of experience at the expense of experience itself. This speculation was a vehicle to support his position that buying good hi-fi is a waste of money; for the same financial outlay, one can attend hundreds, even thousands of live performances. Moreover, this anti-high-end writer suggested that ETs would consider our quest for better music reproduction a bizarre folly when the real thing is so readily available (footnote 1).
Ed Meitner is one of those rare individuals who charts his own course in audio product design. From his platterless turntable of the mid-1980s to his new Intelligent Digital Audio Translator (IDAT, reviewed elsewhere in this issue), Ed Meitner's products have been distinguished by original thinking and innovative engineering. Although not all his designs have been commercially successful, in each he has attempted to advance the state of the art by rethinking fundamental principles.
Ed is also pursuing an ambitious project that would radically change the way recordings are made. It began when he recorded an electric guitar through a 10" guitar-amp loudspeaker and was dismayed that it was impossible to even come close to capturing and realistically reproducing this apparently simple sound through another 10" speaker. This experience launched his investigation into why reproduced sound is never mistaken for live music, a quest that may result in a radically new recording technique.
There are as many ways of designing a digital-to-analog converter as there are engineers. One approach is to select parts from manufacturers' data books and build the product according to the "application notes" provided by the parts manufacturers. This is the electronic equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit.
A more creative engineer may add a few tricks of his own to the standard brew. Bigger and better regulated power supplies, careful circuit-board layout, tweaky passive components, and attention to detail will likely make this designer's product sound better than the same basic building blocks implemented without this care. Indeed, the vast range of sonic flavors from digital processors containing very nearly the same parts attests to the designer's influence over a digital processor's sound.
Audiophiles constantly seek ways to improve the experience of hearing reproduced music. Preamps are upgraded, digital processors are compared, turntables are tweaked, loudspeaker cables are auditioned, dealers are visited, and, yes, magazines are readall in the quest to get just a little closer to the music.
In the April 1992 Stereophile, reader Hilary Paprocki expressed his belief that recording engineers are unconcerned about sound quality. Indeed, he went so far as to allege that engineers intentionally use inferior miking techniques so that they can bill clients for additional time spent trying to fix the sound. The example he used was the engineer who places a microphone directly in front of a guitar amplifier, a technique Mr. Paprocki felt captured only "4%" of the sound. Mr. Paprocki also likened recording engineers to "featherbedders."