Complicated Stories

In my As We See It column in the January 2021 Stereophile, I wrote about stories we tell ourselves to make our lives and music better—personal stories like the one about my relationship to my Thorens TD-124 turntable, or about hanging out with your dad (or mom) listening to records. Also hi-fi stories like the ones about the types of audio components we prefer—analog, digital, tubed, solid state—and how they sound. "Stories deepen our relationships," I wrote, "including our relationships with our audio systems and the music they make."

Stories are useful like that, but such stories, while they may be based in fact, are never 100% true. At best they're oversimplified attempts to make sense of a complex world—of real, complex experiences. That's their virtue. They make sense—some sense at least—of a complicated world.

The ink on that piece was scarcely dry when I came across an interview in the New York Times with Rhiannon Giddens, focusing on her plans for the Silk Road Ensemble, which she took over as artistic director last July. As many of you know, that ensemble's original artistic director—for 16 years until 2017—was Yo-Yo Ma (footnote 1).

I adore that transition, from one of the best classical musicians who ever lived to a singer, fiddler, and banjo player for the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Giddens, of course, is more than that. She's a MacArthur Award–winning music scholar focused on cultural collision and the American vernacular. She's also a brilliant musician.

Giddens told Brian Seibert in the interview, "I've always been interested in the stories we do and don't tell about the railroad, about African-Americans and native populations." There it is: the stories we tell ourselves and others.

"There's a ballad about the Cumberland Gap that's been sung in white communities forever," Giddens said in the interview. (I remember singing that song in school as a child, far from Appalachia.) "Then these folks did this amazing research and found out it was actually about Black railroad workers. But that was erased, and a whole group of people were forgotten, and it added to the myth of a pure white Appalachia. You know, any time the story is simple, it's probably wrong."

Any time a story is simple, it's probably wrong. Reading that, I felt chastised. I knew Giddens was right.

Last month's AWSI was a defense of stories in hi-fi, even stories that aren't completely true. I'm safe, in that as I wrote, in hi-fi there aren't many victims: At worst, some undeserving businessman gets our money. In, say, history, and medicine, the stakes are much higher. Still, even in hi-fi, Giddens's message is a good reminder that we're better off getting things right.

"The more I dig, the more complicated it gets," Giddens continued. "And that's the beauty of it." More complicated stories—complicated, that is, by real research, knowledge, and experience—are more likely to be true. They're also better stories.

A few months back, I read The Chitlin' Circuit: And the Road to Rock'n'Roll, by Preston Lauterbach, about the impact of a network of African-American performance venues on the creation of that music. But then that's kind of an old story: Everyone knows that almost all of America's native music—blues, jazz, rock'n'roll—is largely African-American music. Don't they?

Giddens and other scholars have shown that even country music was shaped by African-American influences: Giddens's beloved banjo is descended from a West African lute made from a gourd. Woodie Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" was originally an African-American hymn (footnote 2). Cultural intersections like this make for much better stories than too-simple stories like the one that says Elvis invented rock'n'roll.

That's in music—what about audio? I can think of at least a dozen stories many of us embrace that, while not untrue, could use fixing up. "Tubes are soulful." "Digital is soulless." "Vinyl is more human." "Digital is mechanical." Horn speakers sound—well, a certain way. None of these claims is totally wrong, but they're not totally right, either. A story that's too simple, with too little evidence to support it, is a prejudice. It makes sense to enrich our stories with new knowledge, new experience.

Is there anybody out there who still thinks the output from a CD player or DAC consists of jagged little stairsteps? Well, if so, they aren't totally wrong: The output of a DAC that doesn't have a reconstruction filter does look like stairsteps. Irony of ironies: NOS DACs, so commonly embraced by vinyl fans as the most analog-sounding DACs, are the most digital of digital sources from this point of view. That's a better story.

Get past the oversimplified clichés, because in audio, the main victim of oversimplified clichés is us. If oversimplified stories guide our choices, our sound won't be as good as it could be.

In my sidebar to Mikey's review of the PS Audio Stellar M1200 monoblock amplifier, also in the January issue, I relayed a point about class-D amplification from class-D master Bruno Putzeys. Is class-D, sometimes called "digital amplification," really digital?

A class-D amplifier involves high-frequency fluctuations between two states: That's digital. Class-D amplifiers have distortion, an intrinsically analog problem requiring an analog solution. So, it's both. It's neither. It's complicated. That's a better story, and it gives us a reason to take another look at class-D.

Stories help connect us to our music. Embrace your stories but listen and learn. Reject conventional wisdom and audiophile clichés. Seek nuance. Complicate your stories with new experiences, new ideas, new perceptions, new information. Embrace new stories. Assess. Revise. Learn.—Jim Austin

Footnote 1: For three years, Silk Road's artistic direction was provided by a collaboration of three of the ensemble's members.

Footnote 2: Credit for these insights goes to Ken Burns, in his excellent series, Country Music.

jimtavegia's picture

I am part of a number of TT groups on FB and it amazes me how many people buy a TT and within a week talk about what upgrades to consider. My question starts with, "Why did you buy what you did?"

As an example: If you bought a P1 and now want to upgrade, you are now saying you have more money to spend, so why didn't buy a P2? Wait a little longer and buy a P3? That is the point of most turntable lines that you spend more and you can get more...of something. What is important to you?

If you claim to have a TT that is under $300 and tell me digital is awful you have to explain yourself to me very clearly, as in my digital world of 2496, 24192 and SACD/DSD digital is wonderful. HD tracks is great as is PrimePhonic, BlueCoase Records, and others. It is the best time to be a music lover in any format.

I would have never thought that I would be owning a Class A DAC until your magazine reviewed the Project Audio Systems S2 DAC. At that time it was $299, now $329 without the headphone amp. It upped the game in my CD/DVD players and now I have a couple that will not play SACDs anymore???, but I will replace one of them shortly. I do know that I am still not hearing all that digital can do.

Then the vinylists tell me they will never own a DAC. Why? So many improvements have been made and I will bet that the Halo May and the Weiss 502 are as superb as your magazine says. Keep your current CD spinner and add something to it and you might be amazed if the CD engineering was good. (Should all releases now days be at least 4.5 stars?) I am guilty of human error as well. Too often I'm afraid. The changes in digital are coming so fast that if one has not bought a CD player in the last 2 years we are probably behind in enjoying the current generation of DA conversion.

Thanks for all you and JA1 do. The writers are great and I have tried to push some of the "vinylists" to Stereophile as an educational source. I had to link some of them to HR's discussion of the AT-VM series. Preconceived notions are dangerous.

Jack L's picture


Sorry, I tend to disagree yr above across-the-board comment about "the vinylists""will never own a DAC".

Be it the case you commented, I should be one-of-a-kind addicted vinylist who owns all digital gears including a DAC.

Knowing too well vinyl music brings home for me music performances closest to live, I would not spend serious money on a DAC. I've played it smart: a no-name basic DAC with optical+coaxial digital inputs & unbalanced audio outputs dirt dirt cheap from a no-name web vendor. Guarantee exchange if arrived dead.

Yet to my pleasant surprise, this dirt cheap no-name DAC works OK with my 4K UHD wifi TV (optical feeding) & my wifi Blu-ray player (coaxial feeding), driving my tube PASSIVE linestage & tube power amp - NO sweat !!

Pretty analytical without the common digital fatigue of cheap digital gear, on very demanding classical performances on YouTube streaming, e.g. the well watched Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto played by Dr. Lang Lang, the piano guru.

I can't complain with the dirt dirt dirt cheap price I paid for this basic DAC.

Jack L

jimtavegia's picture

I did not mean to imply all. Many of us vinylists enjoy both and some like digital more. I like quiet backgrounds, less finicky operation, no static, no warps, and longer playing times between getting up and down to change the music. I also find it interesting with those who buy a turntable and within a short period of time ask up what upgrades to buy? I don't generally hear that from people who only listen to CDs.

On the groups I speak with I hear more about issues than with the enjoyment they are getting. Most are about cartridge upgrades. Then it becomes the plater or mats or do they need a platform for their table. Many do post about what music they are enjoying and I find that interesting and informative about future purchases.

There are a number of folks who like digital and don't care about measurements, brand names, or specifications. That is fine by me. I have no problem with those who prefer the convenience of streaming, listen on their phones, want wireless rather than wired earbuds or headphones. They can even choose any brand or color of headphones that suits their style. It is all good.

It just seems to me that those who love vinyl go to great lengths and great effort to make it the best that they can afford. Those of us doing digital often do the same for our ones and zeros. I always do homework when buying audio and not take a chance that something might work and is a good price. Often it is hard to hear modest improvements or if something is a step back. What ever works for someone is fine with me.

As to the live music comment, I wonder how many really attend live, acoustic music presentations anymore. I have gone to many live performances, prior to Covid, at Schwartz Auditorium at Emory in their smaller hall hearing jazz, classical works, and even their $6 mil Jaeckel Organ. Maybe I have a bad vinyl collection, but many of my CDs come closer to those performances than my vinyl does, especially organ works.

I have sat close and far at the Atlanta Symphony and the designers of that hall have made even the back row seats sound very good. I have recorded many a university or high school/middle school band or chorus concert and know what I bring home at 2496 or 24192 is what I heard at the venue. I think over the last 20 year of doing that I have a pretty good sense of what real is. My noise floor is only limited by the venue. My 3 Rode NT-1A mics have a self-noise of only 5 db, the quietest mics on the planet. It doesn't mean they are the best, but I have never heard anyone who was not impressed with what I gave them on disc and not be what they heard at the concert. I have never charged for that work as it is a hobby and I want the students to be able to hear themselves perform. They work to get better when they do.

I have a -80db noise floor in my computer. I do not think that I could do the same with an affordable R2R, and being a mechanical device they require some maintenance and adjustments from time to time. There is no -80 db noise floor there.

It would be nice if Tascam, Revox, Tandberg, Pioneer, or anyone could come out with a new R2R at $1k as I think it would be fun to bring it all back. The sad part is that the price of tape is very high today as I just bought some for a friend. That like vinyl playback would not be an inexpensive hobby.

I still have my Denon DRS 810 cassette deck that still makes very nice recordings with my stash of TDK and Maxell tapes, about 80 blanks I have. It can be very enjoyable. I'll still take my 2496 recordings any day.

Jack L's picture

Hi Jim.

Please be more specific next time to avoid misunderstanding. Why did you not just state "Then SOME vinylists ...." ??

Me too. I still get my Aiwa auto-reverse cassette tape deck hooked up to my rig. I hardly play it at all though I still keep hundreds of old old music tapes sleeping on the wall shelf. It featires full record-playback function with +- 20dB tape recording bias adjustment & -60dB to +10dB LED peak level L/R indicator !!!!

I only use Maxell XL-1 normal bias cassette tapes as I found it records & plays back music more musically natural than chromium dioxide tapes of Maxell & any other brands. Music recorded on CR2 tapes sound like chrome plated - no good !!

For realisic organ music playback effect at home, powered subwoofers are a MUST for CD or vinyl irrespective. That's is why I started wiht one single active sub & am now settled down with 3x 100W subs for L, R & L+R channels. One single sub is not good enough to cover the total music performances musically & acoustically considering the multi-microphone array overhanging the stage platform. I've chosen the 3 subs with 10" driver instead of 12 " or larger size to ensure fast response of the subbass without undue overhanging.

With my 3 active subs hooked up direct to my design/built tube phono-linestage, set at less than half volume each sub, it virtaully shakes the concrete floor of my 700 sq.ft basement audio den on playing pipe organ music on one of my digitally mastered LP. No sweat !!!!!

For classical live concerts, I always go for the mid-centre front 10th row whenever available, strictly for acoustical reason. I don't want to sit too far back & let the hall reverberation and the hall PA screws up the live msuic.

With my frequent live music exposure, I will not buy whoever acoustic experts telling me seating distance from the stage platform does not matter at all !!!!!!!!!

Listening is believing

Jack L

JRT's picture

Follow the link (copy/paste the URL address into your browser) to a worthwhile brief/succinct introductory digital audio show and tell demonstration video by Monty Montgomery.

Jim Austin's picture

The DAC is the excellent HoloAudio May (Level 3) operating in NOS mode.

There are many similar examples. I'll show you just one more, the AudioNote DAC 2.1x

Jim Austin, Editor

JRT's picture

Both examples are R-2R ladder DACs. Those steps in the output are artifacts introduced by the stepped nature of R-2R ladder DACs. The steps are artifacts added by the R-2R ladder DAC, are added ultrasonic content above the sample rate frequency, at frequencies that are in the stop band of the anti-aliasing low pass filter, and not existing in the bandwidth limited digital audio entering the DAC. Watch the video.

Jim Austin's picture

I'm not seeking conflict here. Please tell me, which part of this is misleading:

The output of a DAC that doesn't have a reconstruction filter does look like stairsteps. Irony of ironies: NOS DACs, so commonly embraced by vinyl fans as the most analog-sounding DACs, are the most digital of digital sources from this point of view. That's a better story.

I watched the first 18 minutes of the video. I heard him say that the final, actual output of a DAC was always smooth. (I'm paraphrasing.) I don't doubt this fellow's technical expertise, but IMO, that is misleading. I've just posted two counterexamples, after all.

Is R-2R DAC a special case? Maybe, but this is the most common type--the only type?--that commonly doesn't use a reconstruction filter. Are there other types of DACs that could be used without a reconstruction filter, against which my assertion could be tested? Is "NOS delta sigma DAC" even a coherent idea?

Anyway, it's irrelevant to the larger point of the column, which is about hi-fi and our too-simple stories and how we can make our systems sound better--and our lives more interesting--by embracing complexity. I intend to do that here. While it isn't directly relevant to what I wrote, the reason why NOS DACs have stairsteps is interesting.


Jim Austin, Editor

Archimago's picture

The "steps" is not just due to R2R DACs. Any DAC without proper filtering and just plays the quantized 16-bit data will show that whether R2R or delta-sigma or combinations.

For example my old TEAC UD-501 is based on the TI PCM1795 chip which is not R2R and will show this when the filter is turned off:

Obviously, the "stair steps" will result in large amounts of ultrasonic artifacts when analyzed:

I'm no fan of the "NOS" sound but to each his/her own... :-)

Jim Austin's picture

I enjoyed your analysis. Thanks for sharing.

Jim Austin, Editor

LTig's picture

Every DAC without a reconstruction filter shows those steps. I measured the output of my RME ADI-2 PRO fs with a digital scope, setting the DAC's filter to SD Sharp and NOS. SD Sharp is clean, NOS shows steps.

The real problems with a missing reconstruction filter are the image frequencies at multiples of the sampling frequency, especially at 44.1 kHz sample rate. A 20 kHz tone appears also at 24.1 kHz, and both tones show up as well every 44.1 kHz higher up.

Here is SD Sharp; in the upper part you see the 20 kHz tone and below the spectrum up to 90 kHz with a single peak at 20 kHz:

And this is NOS (same bandwidth as SD Sharp above). What you see is not a clean 20 kHz tone but the sum of 20 kHz and 24.1 kHz (plus the higher images to the far right):

NOS with higher bandwidth up to 206 kHz; now you can see 3 more image tone groups. Of course no human can hear them but they should not be there in the first place since it's not a good idea to violate the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem.

By the way: here are the frequency responses of the different filters in the RME:

jimtavegia's picture

I can understand why folks complain(ed) about digital in the 80's, but now with high resolution it sounds amazing to me. It is always being discredited. There are issues with every audio medium.

I can sit in my studio and make some great sounding, digital recordings, even if my playing is not that great. I don't own any disc cutting equipment, R2Rs are now pricey as is the tape; and require maintenance, and I own no plating equipment to make stampers, so even if I did I can't share it and make LPs without a press. Digital and computers are game changers.

I like vinyl, but it is fraught with TT adjustments and set up criteria that make many people frustrated. Many love that part of it.

I will not forget what records did for me while I played countless 78's for my late, young father while he suffered from Polio in 1952-55. I was only 5-7 years old and had no idea or appreciation what that might have meant to him. It was a new donated RCA flip-top record player with a ceramic cartridge, 8 inch duo-cone speaker that seemed like a miracle to me. From that I learned to appreciate any audio, even with all of the possible flaws. Compared to that, the audio we live with seems perfect to me, in any format. I would bet my late father would have even loved MP3s. I am grateful for all of the science that created all of this.

PeterPani's picture

because of its warmth and your thoughtful childhood memories.
But I have to add: I am into vinyl and r2r (and analog Laserdisc). Why? Music in Live is different from music at home. Live music has a human touch. And at home a 1:1 reproduction cannot transport the human touch. So human touch has to be added again, somehow. Digital reproduction cannot do it. I get bored or nervous listening to pure digital.

Good vinyl or r2r tries to control everything as digital does. But a good turntable platter (e.g. idler wheel driven) or a good r2r drive (as in a Studer) relieves the medium from its restraints and gives the music freedom to establish itself in your listening room in another way as recorded. It can breathe with the vibrations and the air the listener is sitting in.
I cannot express it in another way.
Our senses are connected to the world, but the world ist connected to our senses, too. The digital format cannot interfere with the listener in his music room. Running mechanic can.

Sorry for my esoteric thoughts.
I am a technician in profession and a solid mathematican, but I love music. And that is already deeply esoteric, too.

Jack L's picture sitting in." quoted PeterPani.


You have expressed it the right way! With "good vinyl" AND good TUBE amps, music lovers can sense the "human touch", ambience "air" of the music performances.

Listening is believing

Jack L

PS: I'd been a "solid' electrical engineering guy for decades & I don't take anything for granted without first trying it, including unfounded hearsays.

Jack L's picture

........listening to pure digital." quoted PeterPani.

Well, I would not share your same indifferent feeling to "pure digital".

That said, my top music priority is classical music on vinyl. So I have put all my digital gears on my back burner, for convenient & casual listening which analogue music cannot offer.

I often update myself on the latest musical performances worldwide by streaming YouTube on my 4K UHD wifi TV, with music hooked up to my tube amps via a DAC. Analogue can't beat digital on convenience alone.

Jack L

PeterPani's picture

by supporting the music with a movie screen you add the humanity of the performer to your eyes. So you will need less magic for your ears.
But this effect comes with a price. You cannot dream the music by yourself anymore, because of the pictures.
To dream we need analog and - yes, tubes! Tubes breathe, too. And spools and transformers.

Jack L's picture

......any more before of the pictures" quoted PeterPani.


As I already posted above, Streaming music performance on TV screen is strictly for conveniency & casual listening.

For seriously music enjoyment, which I do it a few hours a day on my day off from work, only vinyl, may be a little CD randomly, playing without any TV on, of course.

Yes, I fully appreciate your insight of true music enjoyment - DREAM the muisc. WE are on the same page of music audio.

When the music is on, I hate any noise, let alone trivial chitchat around. I want to be totally focussed.

That is the reason why I installed my audio den down my house baseement 3 decades back when we first moved in. So home sweet home upstairs & music sweet music downstairs.

Jack L

Anton's picture

Those DACs that are currently all the rage are now old enough to be allowed to sound good. (Watch for the great CD comeback in 4-5 years.)

Like Thorens/Garrad tables, certain speakers, direct drive turntable, etc.

Wide ties, narrow ties, long hemline, short hemline, cuffs, all comes and goes.

Just be sure not to sell your current gear. In another 10-15 years, it will sound better.


Jack L's picture


Yes & No!

Yes, advanced electronic technology will improve the audio reproudction chain performance & will therefore sound better.

No, our hearing will deteriate with age instead of getting better. So after 10 -15 years, we may not hear as well as 10 - 15 years ago.

Listening is believing

Jack L