Complicated

Even though I'm the editor of Stereophile, I sometimes struggle to get my audio system to play. It's a little bit embarrassing. Just last night, I put on a record and there was no sound. I figured out the problem immediately: I'd forgotten to turn on the amplifiers. But the reason isn't always so obvious.

Back in the day, our stuff was simple; it just worked. There were power switches, a volume control, a source-selector, maybe a Tape Monitor button. Turn it on, select the right input, set the volume, and put on a record. If there's no music, make sure the Tape Monitor isn't pressed. Easy.

Today, things are more complicated. There are levels of input selection. Most systems still have a preamp, but other components accept multiple inputs. My phono preamp has two. The DAC I'm using has eight hardware inputs, plus Airplay. Certain inputs automatically play music when you send a signal to them, but others must be selected manually. Streaming data can arrive through its Ethernet port from many sources: Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer, Apple Music, Amazon Music HD, podcast networks, thousands of internet radio stations. I usually control all my music with Roon (which—another complication—encompasses only Tidal and Qobuz among the music streaming services), but it also has its own supporting app (which I use to fine-tune the hardware settings), and you can use many other apps to play music.

Today, many components are little computers, their operation controlled by microprocessors. That means bugs. (It's not just hi-fi of course: I'm in the process of replacing my refrigerator mainly due to a computer malfunction.) Sometimes a component stops working and you have to reboot it. Just a few nights ago, after much pointless troubleshooting, I rebooted the DAC and got music.

Currently, three components in my system have mute buttons. Two of those—the DAC and the preamp—have volume controls. Both have physical knobs, but they're drive-by-wire: I can control the DAC's volume with either the knob or various apps.

A couple of weeks ago, my son, who was between apartments and living with us for a short time, had friends over. I stayed away. When I returned home just after midnight, his little party had dispersed. I looked around, decided I'd tackle the mess in the morning, and went straight to bed.

The next day, I put on some music—internet radio; WFMU I think—and cleaned. Background music. Later in the day, as I started to pay more attention, I realized the volume was lower than it usually is for the chosen volume setting. According to Roon, the volume in the DAC was set to "Fixed," as always. The DAC's maximum output voltage was set at 2V, same as usual. Everything seemed okay, but the music was definitely softer than usual.

Eventually I figured out that my son and his friends had been playing music with Spotify, connecting with Airplay, controlling the volume with the Spotify app. Roon considered the volume fixed, but Spotify was changing it behind the scenes. Switching in Roon from "Fixed" to "Device Volume," I saw it was now "fixed" at 80%. Silly me: I thought "fixed" meant "fixed."

A few months back, John Atkinson was testing a pair of expensive loudspeakers. He had his DAC's software-based volume control set to some modest level, but a glitch caused it to switch back from variable to fixed—full volume this time. The result: strained eardrums and blown tweeters.

Is there a solution to this creeping complexity? Manufacturers could start by creating software with fewer glitches. There's something to be said for components that do just one thing.

I suppose the industry could embrace a common control system, with apps to sort it all out, but, as much as I appreciate technical standards, I don't really like that idea: When those systems failed, which they inevitably would, we'd be in even worse shape.

Good, intuitive design would help; too often, I need instructions to set up a new component, which really should not be necessary. But I can't see an answer to the larger problem. To make things simple again, we'll need a breakthrough, one that's not yet visible (at least not to me) on the horizon. Meanwhile, at least with hi-fi—in contrast to, for example, my ailing refrigerator, which I never liked much anyway—there's a substantial, compensatory payoff.


The pandemic has been kind to Stereophile: Subscriptions are up; our issues have gotten thicker. But we have not been entirely immune to its negative effects.

As Julie Mullins reported in her August Re-Tales column, the industry has suffered from parts and materials shortages—microchips, steel, cardboard boxes, you name it—resulting in delays in building components and fulfilling orders. This has led to delays in the delivery of samples for review, so we've often had to hustle to get reviews done.

With the November issue, for the first time, we were impacted directly. After the issue had been put to bed, we learned that a shortage of paper was delaying printing and shipping. As a result, you probably received your November Stereophile as much as two weeks late. This could not be helped; nevertheless, we offer our sincere apologies.

As a way of addressing the problem, Stereophile will be changing shape. Starting with the January 2022 issue, the magazine will be the same height as always but a little wider than before. This change will allow us to secure a more reliable paper supply.

COMMENTS
pbarach's picture

I empathize completely, but a universal remote (Logitech Harmony One, unfortunately nla) has solved most of these problems for me. I do have a bucket o' remotes around in case of trouble.

If only I remembered to unplug my headphones from my AVR before getting frustrated that nothing is coming from my speakers!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Try adjusting the volume of one component by remote, only to discover that you've changed everything on multiple components and everything needs to be reset.

pbarach's picture

Your system might be more complicated than mine. The only components with volume controls are the AVR, the DAC that feeds it, and my headphone amp (which has no remote). The AVR and DAC volumes don't change simultaneously.

cgh's picture

I am in a loaner car right now from audi and it's only served to confirm that I will never buy another car made since maybe 2017 by a major maker (that isn't somehow bespoke). Driver assist, adaptive volume control, auto shut off and start, endless bells and whistles and prods to adjust my driving distracting me from actually driving. None of this is progress, just software-based doodads with non-falsifiable merit. One of these days I will write a book about how most real progress stopped in maybe the 90's and the last truly great advances came from great people at places like Bell Labs. App dev for Android and iphone (the cell phone is 40+ years old) don't count as progress; rather the accelerated heat death of the universe.

Jonti's picture

But I had to rent a car a while back. I received a brand spanking new BMW - great, I thought, a luxury drive! Cue sensory overload from a cluttered infographic display and being told by the car to indicate/not to indicate/being auto-braked/beeped/harassed/generally patronised. The laughable denouement: I was told off (by "Hal", as I'd now started calling this computomobile) for drifting across the lanes on a completely empty stretch of highway, a lane change only permitted if I indicated for the benefit of no one but Hal and his insane autocracy.

Herb Reichert's picture

of the non-stick pan ruse

ht

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

That's all that need be said.

Jonti's picture

Well put.

pbarach's picture

I have a Subaru with all of those bells and whistles, along with a separate 100-page manual on how to use them and turn them on or off. There is one periodic BEEP that occurs with no indication of why. Annoying!

Jack L's picture

Hi

I am a loyal Subaru Forester AWD SUV owner for last 22 years.

The first Forester lasted me 17 years before I traded in for my current 'basic' model (still full of electronics) for LESS than I paid for my old one 17 years ago. Much heavier sturdier body-built with all auto features I need !! Incredible deal !!

I am still a happy camper considering it nevigates securely the snowy icy roads up here in the Great White North (-40C with windchill) !!!

Yes, electronics is prone to malfunction intermittantly due to the outdoor weathers. But it returns back to normal pretty soon.

So if it is a loaner, why not change it to other makes if you stick to zero-tolerance !

Jack L

ok's picture

..make it 50's. DNA was the last scientific breakthrough and only marginal progress in materials engineering has happened since then. AI's growing strong for its own sake though while common cold is still at large.

Sinikill-One's picture

I constantly have to tell my genius kids that just because something is new doesn't make it better, especially if we stay focused on what it is we are really trying to do......

MatthewT's picture

The only software problems I have are in my head.

Anton's picture

Well said.

jimtavegia's picture

I am still relatively simple with 2 systems in my main room, one 5.1, the other stereo. The the computer added two usb dacs, one for DSD with my Project S2 and my Focusrite Scarlett 3rd gen 2i2. Each one feeds a different system, but you must select the right source you want from the options menus, and then the record function with the Focusrite adds another selection process. JRiver does a nice job for me.

My Sony BluRay player feeds a Schiit DAC in PCM 2 channel mode and my other DVD players feeds a Pioneer Elite by optical for MC. My ROKU box is another HDMI I/O.

My family thinks this is complicated, but I tell them this is nothing compared to many of you and all of your I/O from digital sources.

I have failed to do the one thing I never said I would never do and that is keep hard drives too long and not replace them when they appear to be running fine. I now have a bad drive that has kept all of my music files and now the process to having a shop try and recover them for $200 is the issue. The money is not the problem, but hoping than can be recovered is, and then moved to my new WD Caviar black 2TB drive might be. My old drive at 11 years was tempting the devil. So I will also add a 2nd SSD 1TB drive and back them up twice. My boot up drive is already SSD.

While all this is going on my turntable waits in silence, almost mocking me, offering its services while my high tech hold me up.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Analogue audio started with triode vacuum tubes in 1915 on sound-on-film in Berlin. Now its over 100 years & its perfected versions are now in our audio amps!! Likewise for turntables!

Digital is ever evolving & we can see no end of it in getting to 'perfection' at the expense of digital consumers' nerves & hard-earned money.

As a sorta kinda wise consumer, I stick with pure analogue music media:
TT+vinyl & tapes as prime music source, keepimg digital:CD/DVD/streaming as backburner.

Basically, vinyl, when done properly, sounds sooo much better than digital todate without all those digital hassles of uncertainty.

Why not ????

Listening is believing

Jack L

jimtavegia's picture

I still use both of my TT everyday. I also still use my Denon DRS 810 cassette deck as I still have hundreds of cassette here along with about 60 blank TDK and Maxell tapes; my Sony Mini disc and DAT recorders still work fine as does my Mini Disc portable and my portable Sony CD player. My Tascam SDHC hi rez recorders (3) have never missed a beat.

I was just less than diligent about my computer storage with the 3 hard drives and the 4th SSD for boot up. When my son and I built this Ryzen based 4GHZ machine last year I should have thought about the drives, but when things are working I tended to be too complacent about it. I have learned.

Much of this was due to the pandemic and I have not been recording anything in nearly 2 years at schools and local universities. Still not sure if this will restart at all at my age of 74.

Poor Audiophile's picture

Hi Jim,
Sorry I'm late to this party, but if you haven't had a shop look at you're drive yet, may I suggest checking out Steve Gibson's "SpinRite"? It's a very well known hard drive recovery software. He has lots of info there about SpinRite. I'm not a real tech guy(just a wannabe), but he's had many customers write him with stories of bringing hard drives back from the edge. He sells it for $90. Larry

jimtavegia's picture

I have installed my new WD black 2tb drive and it is ready to go. I thought that I could try transferring the files from the old 500 Gig drive, but luck would not be on my side.

There is a good computer shop north of ATL that will do it for $200, but I may give SpinRite a try. I thought that if I went to MicroCenter north of ATL I would buy a new 1TB SSD drive for my last slot in my computer and have them move the old files to the new drive as a last result.

I should have known better in trusting HDs to keep working, which they were, while I had no fear of impending doom. I am sure one way or another I will get them saved.

It would be nice to get back all of my recorded files from location work over the last 10+ years. Not sure with this pandemic that I will be doing anymore location recording, but I will sure miss it.

My background acting work has set up a burdensome testing protocols for working on set. Most productions require 2 PCR covid test prior to being allowed on set, and many a rapid test early on arrival to the set. I will bet I have had 200 covid tests this year alone, with no end in sight if one wants to keep doing it. After working 14 hours yesterday I had another test today for work next Tuesday (30th), with a 2nd test on the 29th. And this is after vaccination with the booster at 6 mo. Some actors are refusing shots and will not work any longer.

Thanks again for the tip.

Poor Audiophile's picture

And you're welcome Jim. I hope it all works out for you.

jimtavegia's picture

in light of all that is going on staying engaged in a positive pursuit is a good thing. 2022 may bring new opportunities I hope.

Poor Audiophile's picture

Here's hoping 2022 brings new things!

Jack L's picture

Hi

One new thing for the 2022 new year for sure:

'Omicron' the new deadly COVID-19 variant virus !!!!!

Jack L

Awsmone0's picture

I am afraid Jim, your issue is of a world that has passed you on, and the rest of us as well
We live in a free market economy, and the manufacturers wouldn’t make it or be successful, if the market didn’t buy it
There is a whole generation that are used to this complexity , and that’s the norm for them , my five year old can run a smart TV, and an iPad with few issues

When BMW introduced Idrive in the 7 series 20 years ago the world changed , and I doubt it’s changing back unless we are all going back to typewriters …heaven forbid!

Kal Rubinson's picture

The money is not the problem, but hoping than can be recovered is, and then moved to my new WD Caviar black 2TB drive might be. My old drive at 11 years was tempting the devil. So I will also add a 2nd SSD 1TB drive and back them up twice.

Not money nor age (of the drive) but the lack of a back-up was the problem. Sooner or later, we learn that lesson.

ednazarko's picture

I set up universal remotes for the two systems I use most often. For our main AV and audio system, we had SEVEN individual remotes. Now there's one universal remote. But sometimes one of the tasks it executes doesn't actually execute. All the steps for watching cable TV run, but somehow the step that switches input on the preamp doesn't execute.

The universal remote also doesn't solve the problem Jim talks about, which is that for any given audio chain, you can probably adjust volume at almost every component in the chain. For listening to streaming music in my system, volume can be adjusted in Roon, the streaming endpoint, the DAC, and the pre-amp. Someone futzing with any one of them - or, some instruction set sent from the universal remote doesn't cause the right exception to happen - there are four potential culprits for things being lower volume than usual. Sometimes everything comes on but there's no sound... but when we turn it off, and back on... everything works.

So we've found the universal remote is often just another layer of trouble shooting. But... it's worth it to not have those seven remotes occupying half the coffee table.

Joe Whip's picture

A Tesla Model 3. No bells, whistles, beeps etc. love the screen. Not all change is bad guys.

MatthewT's picture

Gear that lacks a volume knob is junk, Art Dudley said so.

tonykaz's picture

Once again you bring brilliance.

Tony in Florida

Herb Reichert's picture

called remotes the "devil's playthings"

lol

hr

Jack L's picture

Hi

There are tons of brandname power amps in the marketplace built without any knobs, including my beloved USD125,000 Audio Note 'Kegon' all-triode power amp.

So are they all "junk" ??????????????

Jack L

tonykaz's picture

My Jamis Bicycle has manual shift gears, 100 psi tires, goes 10 miles on a McDonalds $1.00 Cheeseburger and can carry 4,000 cubic inches of groceries in it's two panniers.

.... and I'm digital and not fully manual Analog.

Audiophiles can make life as complicated as they want it to be.

Still, we can ( and will ) embrace the irresistible forces driving us with Tesla's persistent technological advancements, it's the very same scientific brilliance that created our recorded music.

Our lives are becoming ever more complex Socially, Politically, Medically, Internationally ! Isn't it for the better ?

I've had a clear view and memory of these last 7 Decades and studied all the decades of the preceding 12,000 years ! , I'll take now-a-days compared to any recent time period.

We are winning Life's Lottery

Tony in Florida

jond's picture

I learned a long time ago that remote controls on analog gear are evil, reading Listener undoubtedly, so I currently have zero remote controls. Well not counting the Ipad on which I run Auralic's LDS app as I am strictly streaming. Three swtiches, variac, preamp, then amp and I am ready to roll Dac and streamer stay on always.

And heard on cars I recently retired my 2003 VW Passat after 15 years, my new, to me, 2017 GLI has actually caused me to consult the owners manual and I still don't know how to set the clock luckily for me daylight savings took care of that.

remlab's picture

..or get poked(Wes Phillips), it always seems to be the really, really expensive ones.;-)

RH's picture

Oh I empathize!

First, I listen to both digital and vinyl records. I often find it ironic when some audiophiles have dismissed vinyl as too much fiddling, digital being simplified. Could have fooled me!

Back when I was burning my CDs to stream from a hard drive it was like a second day job, it took so long and so much hassle (meta data, anyone?). My raspberry pi/logitech server is great when it works, but when something goes wrong - Tidal stops playing nice, favorite radio stations stop being accessible, record art disappears etc - it can be mind bending trying to trouble-shoot the problem.

Look at all the forums filled with people setting up, trouble-shooting, spending ages on the Roon systems etc.

Sometimes it's playing a record that feels blessedly simple. Just turn on the turntable, drop a record and the d*mned thing just plays.

Then there's subwoofers!

Having read the raves about subwoofers transforming 2 channel audio systems for years I finally gave in and bought a couple of subs, crossover, DSP unit. After an initial try they sat forever unused. Because it was Such A Hassle. More cables. More speakers. More boxes. More trying to find space to place everything. More studying on how to set it up, fiddling. It's no wonder that in enthusiast forums it's common to see people say "It's been months/years...but I think I've finally got my subs dialed in just right!"

After giving it all one more big try I decided that the results were not worth the hassle and added complexity in my system (not to mention I find the aesthetics of subwoofers to be awful).

So I recently sold the subs and related boxes. It was like a weight off my shoulders, and being back to a simplified it-just-works system is a relief.

Everyone's mileage may vary on all this, of course...

Jack L's picture

....." After an initial try they sat forever unused."

Hi

Subwoofers are huge game changer, my friend.

No, repeat, no so called 'full range' loudspeakers, irrepective of design/price level, can ever reproduce the subbass notes of any cathedral/auditorium pipe organs & synethetic bass notes of any rock bands realistically. Only active subs, designed specifically for such subbass reproduction, can do the job right IMO.

As I mentioned many times in Stereophile forums, I am probablly the only audio nut on this planet to have installed 3 active subs (l, R, L+R) to suplement my home stereo system.

Without these active subs installed, I never realized I missed soo much music before. My 3 active subs work hand in hand like chimes !!! NOooo hassle for me at all !!

In yr case, it was the DSP that worked with yr subs screwed up the whole thing for you. Thanks to the salespersons who sold you the subs/DSP.
Yes, it is a pain to set up the DSP properly with the subs.

In my case, my 3 subs hooked up directly to my design/built tube phono-preamp which I installed dedicated subwoofer signal feed outlets. NO need any DSP which only makes connection & balance alignment more complicated & ruining the sound, IMO.

Any active sub get its own built-in adjustable low-pass filters. No need any external outboard low-pass filter or DSP boxes.

I got none of such outboard low-pass junks. The subbass comes out from my 3 subs is sooo clean, so real, enhancing the entire music performance
reproduction.

No hassle at all !! Better sound indeed !

Listening is believing

Jack L

RH's picture

Glad subs worked for you Jack. As I said, I'm familiar with plenty of enthusiasts concerning subwoofers. I've heard many systems with subs. For my pro sound work, the studios are all pinked and calibrated for full range sound. So I'm familiar with the sound of many subwoofer set ups.

As I said, in my particular situation they were a hassle, and even going through all the music I love, which included plenty of low bass info, I simply didn't find it added much to the sound or music.
You may be more enthusiastic about hearing the effects of sub bass than I am.

(I also tried integrating the subs various ways, running them full range, crossing over between floor standers, using DSP and not using DSP etc. Just didn't blow up my hair - I preferred the tonality of my speakers without the subs. Also, remember what might not feel "no hassle" for you may be a pain in the arse for someone else. I mean, even just finding a place for 3 subs, and dealing with the cabling would be a significant hassle in my room. In any case, again, it's wonderful that you get so much out of adding the subs to your system).

Jack L's picture

Hi RH

Sorry, maybe my wordings misleaded you.

Active sub(s) is to ENHANCE the music reproduction, not intended to "blow up" whoever's "hair".

IMO, studio recording & live performance attendance are 2 different things.

For studio recording, the prime object for recording engineers is to ensure accuracy - what comes out from the monitor loudspeakers sound as close to the performance inside the studio.

But for attending live performance, we enjoy the performance on the podium + the overall acoustical atmosphere of the hall. totally different perspective vs studio performance/recording.

Personally, I only take LIVE performance as my yardstick to judge the performance of any audio system at home.

I may be one of a kind to demand my home audio rig to reproduce ALL types of music reallistically, from Hyadn Trumpet Concert to Saint Saens Organ Symphony, & from Acker Bill's Stranger On the Shore to Beach Boys Fun Fun Fun - on vinyl LPs !!!!!!!

So for a music performance in a cathedral involving pipe organ music, I want to hear the deep bass effect rolling around where I sit. At home, I want my audio rig reproduce same deep bass effect close to what I heard in the cathedral.

So active sub(s) are therefore indispensable to get me back there in the cathedral. Likewise for rock band music where we hear deep powerful synethic bass from bass guitars etc. Agian, only active sub(s) can do the job right.

Well.... Am I too demanding ????

Listening is believing

Jack L

dc_bruce's picture

Somewhere, Mr. Austin, you might find a photo of the front panel of an early 70s Japanese receiver, say a Pioneer. There's complexity!
In other news, glad to hear the magazine is doing well!

Archimago's picture

Yeah, intuitive design is essential.

However, as Einstein might have said:
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

If a person wants simple, then definitely there are all kinds of audio devices without remote controls, and one could just stick with physical vinyl/CD playback and analogue outputs.

Times have moved on though and I personally appreciate complexity because it allows for personal customization. The ultimate model of complexity for an audio device I think is the modern multichannel AV receiver with all kinds of analogue and digital inputs (plus video). Plus potential for analogue pre-outs, multi-zone playback, DSP, bass management, room correction, etc...

While this kind of thing might be over the top for many, and for sure can be simplified to reduce redundant options, there's only so much simplification certain users would tolerate ;-). [Maybe this is also why I much prefer Windows to the Apple ecosystems which simplifies some things for consistency and interoperability but at the same time forces a certain amount of jumping through hoops.]

Depending on what kind of audiophile one is, I think complexity can be a blessing which allows the expression of one's obsessionality to achieve a kind of "perfection". As simple as possible, but no simpler if doing so sacrifices useful functions for the target consumer.

PeterPani's picture

I use Applemusic ($10/month) for internet-music. That serves me well.
But on my main system I gave up on digital. I keep losing my digital content, because of my lack of interest (or lack of spare time) to stay tidy on my many digital devices. Many many dollars have been lost on digital files I will never rediscover on laptops, hard drives, ipods etc.
If I put a vinyl record or a tape or a Laserdisc away - it will always be there to be found again. It will surprise me, after many years in the dark. Not so a digital file. That will be lost forever.

Nidri's picture

You only need one max-volume incident to put you off software volume control for life. My ears are too important to me to risk it ever happening again. I enjoy Roon, but I'll let my amplifier manage the volume level, thank you very much.

rt66indierock's picture

One of the most important things for a satisfying audio system is how you interact with it. The interface needs to suit you. Easier said than done because as you noted the lack a transparent ubiquitous interface for audio equipment. The idea is to create an ambient experience “in which technology is simply part of the environment.” (Deloitte Insights January 15, 2020)

I recently moved and took the opportunity to rethink how people will interact with the home audio system. I few changes will make it easier for others to use it.

As dc_bruce noted even in the old days there could be more complexity than needed.

Maybe rethink the complexity of your interface it doesn’t seem to suit you.

MatthewT's picture

There is nothing in my house that has an app to control it. What's more satisfying to use than some nícely made tactile controls?

Jack L's picture

Hi Jim

The reason for forgetting things, like switching on the amp, is always not so obvious to the person involved. It happens to me too !!

But the "obvous" reason for such simple forgetting is aging !

We are getting old......

Jack L

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