Jim Austin

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Jim Austin  |  Oct 02, 2018  |  43 comments
The most notable aspect of Benchmark Media Systems' DAC3 HGC ($2195), which I favorably reviewed in the November 2017 Stereophile (footnote 1), is its low noise floor. John Atkinson's measurements corroborated Benchmark's claim that the DAC3 is capable of "at least" 21-bit performance. While significantly less than the theoretical potential of a 24-bit data format, 21 bits is still the state of the art, and corresponds to a dynamic range—the ratio of the highest achievable digital-domain volume to the DAC's internal noise—of 128dB. That's well above the dynamic range that most power amplifiers can achieve. A good-measuring high-end solid-state amplifier is likely to have a dynamic range—the highest attainable ratio of signal to noise—of about 100dB ref. its maximum power.
Jim Austin  |  Sep 18, 2018  |  70 comments
I attend at least a couple of dozen classical-music performances each year. I also read reviews of recordings and live performances, and have even dabbled in writing them. Why, then, do I find classical music reviews so frequently annoying?

It's the vocabulary. In these reviews I often see words that I rarely see used elsewhere: scintillating, irresistible, delightful. One venerable reviewer for Gramophone magazine has used the word "beguiling" 100 times in some 900 reviews. When I read such words, I envision the poor music critic writhing in his (occasionally her) listening chair, approaching an involuntary state of aesthetic ecstasy. It isn't a pretty image.

Jim Austin  |  Aug 21, 2018  |  45 comments
I listen to music in all formats, but my most ecstatic home listening experiences have always involved vinyl. It's probably something to do with the fact that, like most people my age and older, I grew up listening to LPs—in my case, played on a Technics SL-210 turntable, and through an Aiwa receiver with beautiful green tuner lights and a pair of early Polk Audio studio monitors. I'm drawn, surely, to an improved version of the sound I heard back then. It's a powerful sentimental connection.
Jim Austin  |  Jul 17, 2018  |  71 comments
It's after 5pm on Wednesday, and I'm finishing up the listening part of my review of Apple's wireless speaker, the HomePod ($349). On a whim, I've just asked Siri to play me some drinking songs.

I mention this because the HomePod's "smart" features—its integration with Siri and the Apple Music streaming service—is a big part of its appeal. In its natural element, the HomePod provides a way of accessing music that, although as old as our century, to me is still new and unfamiliar: Forget your hoary music collection, your Rolling Stones and Beethoven. Decide what kind of music you want to hear—a genre or a mood—then leave the choice to Siri and her algorithmic minions.

Jim Austin  |  Jun 19, 2018  |  45 comments
Photos: Jim Austin

I'm sitting in a rented Nissan just off Highway 61—yes, that Highway 61—looking out at a Shell station through the bug-stained windshield and across a litter-strewn, not-yet-planted cotton field. It's late March, and I've just left Clarksdale, Mississippi, on my way to Memphis. Leaving Clarksdale made me thoughtful, so I've pulled over to jot down a few notes.

Jim Austin  |  Jun 12, 2018  |  66 comments
It's not surprising that many people, like me, love nice cameras and good stereo gear. In my worse moments, I attribute this to mere consumerism: We love expensive stuff and the thrill of buying something new, whether for reproducing music or creating visual images. In my better moments, it's clear to me that there's more than that to this common taste for audio and photography, and more to the hobby of so-called perfectionist audio.
Jim Austin  |  May 29, 2018  |  14 comments
In the March 2018 issue, Art Dudley admired the sound quality of Ayre Acoustics' KX-5 Twenty preamplifier, but didn't love some of its operational aspects. I've staged this Follow-Up as a putative face-off between the Ayre and my current reference preamplifier, the PS Audio BHK Signature, which I reviewed in the June 2017 issue.
Jim Austin  |  May 17, 2018  |  159 comments
The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.—Joshua Harris

The sampling theory formulated by Claude Shannon in the late 1940s had a key requirement: The signal to be sampled must be band-limited—that is, it must have an absolute upper-frequency limit. With that single constraint, Shannon's work yields a remarkable result: If you sample at twice that rate—two samples per period for the highest frequency the signal contains—you can reproduce that signal perfectly. Perfectly. That result set the foundation for digital audio, right up to the present. Cue the music.

Jim Austin  |  Apr 19, 2018  |  47 comments
In an article published in the March 2018 Stereophile, I wrote that critics have been attacking MQA, the audio codec developed by J. Robert Stuart and Peter Craven, by accusing it of being lossy. The critics are right: MQA is, in fact, a lossy codec—that is, not all of the data in the original recording are recovered when played back via MQA—though in a clever and innocuous way. For MQA's critics, though, that's not the point: They use lossy mainly for its negative emotional associations: When audiophiles hear lossy, they think MP3.
Jim Austin  |  Feb 13, 2018  |  173 comments
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.—Yogi Berra

Over one busy week in 1986, Karlheinz Brandenburg laid the foundation of a technology that a few years later would upend the record business. Brandenburg, a PhD student in electrical engineering at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, was figuring out how to code digital music efficiently enough that it could be delivered over digital telephone lines. A patent examiner had concluded that what the application proposed was impossible, so over a week of late nights, Brandenburg produced the proof of concept and more. It was another decade before the technology—MPEG-2 level III, more commonly known as MP3—would find its true home, the Internet.

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