Digital Revenge

Many audiophiles will look back on the summer of 1982 as the year the creeping cruds invaded their hallowed halls of hi-fi. In the Conrad Hilton hotel, where most of the high-end contingent gathered at the June 1982 Consumer Electronics Show, one exhibitor was featuring a videodisc presentation with wide-range audio and insisting that this was the way of the future. And at least three others had managed to smuggle in digital tape recorders (all Sony PCM-F1s), and were giving many CES visitors their first taste of real, unadulterated, digital reproduction.

This was most unsettling to those who harbored strongly anti-digital biases, because what they were hearing was convincing evidence that they might have been wrong all this time. It is no secret that a lot of perfectionists feel about digital the way a fundamentalist feels about sin. Digiphobia is, in fact, one of the ways many purists demonstrate their unswerving dedication to The Cause. (International Audio Review's J. Peter Moncrieff was wearing a Sheffield Lab T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Stop Digital Madness.") But digital audio may well prove to be the touchstone that will, at long last, take the anarchy out of analog.

Before proceeding, I should reiterate my own stand on the question. As the only "underground" magazine editor who has had anything nice to say about digital, I wish to make it very clear that I do not, nor have I ever, asserted that digital reproduction is perfect. What I have said, and still say, is that it is a helluva lot more-nearly perfect than any analog record/playback system, with the possible exception of a direct-cut disc. (I shall explain the "possible" subsequently.)

If there are any problems with digital recording and playback (and I still consider that as "not proven"), they are limited to the high end in frequency response (and are in most cases too subtle for most people to detect) and to the low end in dynamic range (and are inaudible unless you listen at rather high levels).

And please note well: I am not referring here to the sound from digitally mastered analog discs. These often do sound very bad at the high end, but for reasons that I suspect may have nothing to do with their digital origin. (See "The Digital Dirties Explained?" in Vol.5 No.5 (July 1982).

In all other respects, though, digital recording and playback shows up analog disc reproduction for the primitive mechanical process it is. Name any performance parameter you can think of which affects the sound below 10kHz and digital will do it several orders of magnitude better than analog. It may do it better above 10kHz, too, but since that is still controversial ground, let's let it pass for the time being.

I mentioned direct-cut discs. A recent Sheffield Lab LP such as Tower of Power, Italian Pleasures, or West of Oz may have the potential of sounding as accurate as direct-from-the-console feed. (And I do not mean "good," which means only that you like it; I mean accurate, which means the signal coming from it resembles the signal going to the disc-mastering recorder.) But chances are you will never begin to tap that potential.

How does one get ultimate accuracy from a disc? Easy! You just use the best playback equipment, bien entendu! But what is the best playback equipment? What about the stuff that the highest of the high-end manufacturers choose for the purpose of demonstrating their own equipment? Certainly, the folks at Acoustat and Audio Research and Berning and Electrocompaniet and Precision Fidelity wouldn't compromise when it comes to choosing associated components that will show off their best products to best advantage. And that, chilluns, is why the high-enders at CES were using 15 different phono cartridges, 10 different tonearms, 7 different preamps, and 5 different turntables. And sneering at each other's choices.

The simple fact is, there is practically no agreement anywhere within the industry as to the best of anything. There are almost as many interpretations of "accuracy" as there are components to choose from.

Take a look, for a moment, at the things that a serious audiophile must consider, merely to select and set up a phono unit: Arm mass, cartridge mass, stylus mass, stylus radius, elliptical styli, conical styli, line-contact styli, Van den Hul styli, Shibata styli, low-compliance, high-compliance, tight coupling, controlled coupling, viscous damping, no damping, airborne feedback, floor-borne feedback, hard mats, soft mats, squishy mats, fuzzy mats, no mats, metal turntables, glass turntables, plastic turntables, T frames, H frames, force gauges, tangency gauges, VTA adjustments, preamps, prepreamps, RIAA accuracy, rumble, wow, flutter, click filters, hiss filters, dbx, Dolby, CX, needle bearings, ball bearings, knife-edge bearings, unipivots, pivoted arms, straight-line arms, plastic arms, rubber arms, wooden arms, fiberglass arms, titanium arms, aluminum arms, carbon-fiber arms, straight arms, curved arms, cone warps, wave warps, pinch warps, eccentricities, German vinyl, Japanese vinyl, CD-4 vinyl, recycled vinyl, belt drive, direct drive, record weights, record clamps, vacuum holddowns, high torque, low torque, dry cleaners, wet cleaners, antistatic cleaners, and soft, non—polluting, restorative anti-static sleeves.

Now ask yourself, honestly: If you had known, before you got into audio, what it would take just to play a ruddy record, would you ever have taken the plunge?

Digital audio will put an end to all this madness. With digital, there is nothing to diddle, tweak, or fudge. It is cut-and-dried. You connect the player, insert the disc or tape, turn it on, and what comes out is an almost-flawless replica of the original sounds. If you don't like the way a recording sounds, it may be the recording. Even digital recordists get the blues. If you don't like the way anything sounds, a little soul-searching may be in order.

You're hearing the masters—or as close to the sound of the masters as you're likely to come—and if nothing sounds "good," then there's either something the matter with your choice of electronics or/and speakers or with your concept of live musical Sound.

If the idea of all this has little appeal to you, don't lose heart. Just because digital discs or tapes are available does not mean that a 50-year recorded heritage will dry up and blow away. That primitive mechanical analog disc will continue to be the standard medium for home music for at least another 10 years, and we still have all those analog discs we already own. But audiophiles who don't own one of the cartridges and preamps we have been recommending are going to find that their analog discs sound very different from the digital playbacks. And the first question they are going to ask is "Which is correct?"

Normally, a record company won't commit itself about such matters but if they are planning to ask $20 apiece for laser-read digital discs and $50 each for digital tapes, they will have to do better than shrug and say "Draw your own conclusions, Buster!" They will be forced to admit that the digital playback is the more accurate. And eventually, some astute souls will suffer the revelation that digital playback is the key to maximally accurate analog playback. With parallel digital and ungimmicked analog recordings of the same thing, the former can be used to zero in on the cartridge, arm, turntable, preamp, and what have you that makes the latter sound the most like the former (below 10kHz, of course). And the anarchy of analog will be replaced with some semblance of order.

High-end manufacturers and perfectionist audiophiles will still disagree as to what are the best phono front ends because different people will always be most critical of different things. But if perfectionists are really as devoted to the pursuit of accuracy as they claim to be, we can expect the appallingly colored equipment that is so highly favored today to disappear as speedily as beer at a house party. For the first time, analog disc reproduction could become almost as accurate a replica of the feed to the cutterhead as anyone chooses to make it. It will have become a reliable source, and all because of hated, maligned digital. And won't that be ironic?—J. Gordon Holt