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At what point do we call this out?

Yorkshire Mouth

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Okay, before going any further, I'll lay my cards on the table. I think this objectivist community is excellent, necessary, and a breath of fresh air. More specifically, I think what @amirm has done here is to galvanise and focus the community with a rigour and purpose which I believe has changed the audiophile world forever.

But I think there's one more step which needs to be taken. It's touched upon. The implications are implied. But it rarely actually gets the full on attention which I believe it deserves.

I've just been reading a review at AVForums of the Astell & Kern SE180. It costs £1,399, and you can read the review here:


Now maybe you're similar to me, or maybe not, but my first thought was to ask why anyone would spend that much money, when their phone and a decent portable DAC/amp costing £200 or so would sound just as good.

And here's the thing. Amir is very fond - AND RIGHTLY SO - of calling out companies who sell speaker cable and ethernet switches which cost a fortune and add no extra benefit. So for me, the logical extension to that, is to do the same for everything. Okay, for the purposes of simplicity, I'll leave turntables, headphones, speaker amps and speakers out of the equation for the moment. But surely we now have DACs and headphone amps which are pretty much perfect at very low prices.

I read some of Amir's reviews, and he'll rave about some device with new, 'better' figures, but he'll also say in the review (or have said elsewhere) that above a certain threshold, humans can't hear a difference. Now look, I appreciate the hobby. I appreciate someone will want a DAC with the best SINAD, just because it's the best out there. And Amir is right to measure it, right to report it, and right to point out it's the best. But isn't it also right to point out when that level of performance can be achieved in a far cheaper DAC? I've been reading this thread again recently:


Once the limits of performance have been reached, isn't it right to note that anything above is, as far as audibility is concerned, as much of a waste of money as buying an audiophile ethernet switch.

Amir posted a review of sorts of the EtherREGEN ethernet switch, comparing to a generic switch. The former cost $640, the latter $20. Oh how he laughed, oh how we ALL laughed at the idiots wasting $620 for no extra audible benefit. Again, RIGHTLY SO.

Then Amir reviews the Topping D90SE. SINAD is 123 dB. SINAD on the Topping E50 is 121 dB. We can't hear any difference once we're past 120 dB, so why aren't we laughing? Because the 90SE costs $899, whilst the E50 is only $269, a full $620 less. That's exactly the same difference as the difference between those two ethernet switches. You remember, the switches where we laughed at anyone paying $620 extra for no audible benefit.

And looking through the measurements in the two reviews, I can't see any differences in the range of audibility. Yes, the 90SE measures a little 'better' in some areas, but I can't find any where that's within the limits of human hearing.

Still, if someone wants to argue that this isn't everything, I'll accept that point. But if it's not everything, it's definitely an extremely large something.

And yet, I never read Amir saying "Feel free to buy this DAC, but if all you're interested in is hearing the best you can, you'll be wasting $600. Save your money, unless you're just interested in numbers for bragging rights".

Isn't it time for every DAC (and other products, but let's stick with DACs for the moment), to be stamped as 'AUDIBLY PERFECT' as soon as they pass a certain limit in each of the categories measured, and then a table kept of all those with that badge?

And if someone comes in with a 'better' but more expensive product, that's flagged up.

Apologies. Rant over.
 

sgent

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I'm somewhat with you -- the left side of the DAC chart should stop at -115 or -120 and just have a list of DACs that are better than human hearing.

On another note, I'm unsure what the filters are supposed to accomplish that filter out noise above 22khz. I've seen DAC's dinged for allowing them to extend to 24khz, but then get praised that cut off early at 18khz. There are people that can hear to 20-22khz, and I don't understand why including a few khz above human hearing is a problem unless it creates other issues.
 

Blumlein 88

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I'm somewhat with you -- the left side of the DAC chart should stop at -115 or -120 and just have a list of DACs that are better than human hearing.

On another note, I'm unsure what the filters are supposed to accomplish that filter out noise above 22khz. I've seen DAC's dinged for allowing them to extend to 24khz, but then get praised that cut off early at 18khz. There are people that can hear to 20-22khz, and I don't understand why including a few khz above human hearing is a problem unless it creates other issues.
Filters that are slow can create imaging artifacts. What this means is a tone in the audible band can show up above the cut-off frequency for the sample rate. An example let us say there is a high level tone at 21,050 hz using 44.1 khz sample rates. You expect nothing above 22,050 hz (half the sample rate). With a slow roll off filter that 21,050 hz tone will show up again at 23,050 hz. And those tones can intermodulate creating a lower level tone at 2 khz where it might be heard. Typically music doesn't have high level tones at those high frequencies and you can get by with a lazy filter without audible consequence.

BTW, without a filter the entire 0-22,050hz signal is reflected in reverse at full signal strength between 22,050 hz and 44,100 hz. By reverse I mean that low frequencies are reflected up near the 44,100 hz end and high frequencies are reflected down near the 22,050 hz end.
 

Wicky

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Just my two cents... While your argument is logical based on what one can hear, I believe the purpose of the reviews here are (and should be) to primarily assess the gear based on what can be measured by the state of the art.

Granted, beyond a certain point the differences provide no audible improvement (as far as our best understanding of the science tells us) but some folks just want to own the "best" and are happy to pay for it, even if they chose to base their assessment of the "best" purely by a SINAD score. IMO many of the measurements here (beyond a certain point) provide a somewhat one dimensional way of assessing a product, there are many others, with price being an obvious one, that 'should' also be considered.

Trying to assess products on many of these other criteria is presumably difficult to do 'scientifically' so I think the approach here is to trust the audience to use their intelligence to weigh their own requirements against the measurements provided here alongside other sources of information that are available.
 

TK750

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Hmm I get where you're coming from but I'm not really sure if anything needs to be changed. I mean isn't that what is effectively already done? You just draw a line at whatever level you want on the various charts and everything above that is primo? I also think it's preferable to have the additional level of detail/information rather than just a sticker but I'm not too sure I understand exactly the change you are suggesting/desire?

There are also other reasons people buy products such as: looks, ins and outs, other functionality/signal processing aside from conversion, perceived quality etc. For example, currently it is very unlikely I will ever buy a topping product (heresy I know) as I think they look awful and the fonts/lack of consistency they have really bug me. A totally stupid reason for most but fortunately for myself there are other products that are as good/almost as good for a similar/small increase in price.

If I was the person posting the reviews/measurements I would be worried as to oversimplifying things so that people literally just look at a position on a chart and that's that, whereas in my limited understanding/experience there is usually a bit more to it than that. There needs to be some responsibility/trust placed in the reader to look at the overall picture and perhaps pick up on nuances that may not be immediately obvious in one or two measurements.

Just noticed @Wicky's comment and seen that they have already covered most of this and in a far more eloquent fashion lol.
 

pozz

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As long as readers have no delusions about switching gear for "improvements", it's no big deal. Buy a top DAC and you're done. You're set for life, whether yours or that of the device.

Learning what the numbers mean is the main thing. Especially thinking in terms of level and the whole chain of devices.

I guess it makes sense that this criticism comes up from time to time. But it's kind of myopic. The reviews aren't there in isolation. You have years of supporting commentary and lots of attempts to provide perspective.
 

pozz

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There needs to be some responsibility/trust placed in the reader to look at the overall picture and perhaps pick up on nuances that may not be immediately obvious in one or two measurements.
Well said.
 
OP
Yorkshire Mouth

Yorkshire Mouth

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Some great comments.

I’m not sure what harm it would do anyone to note what I’ve suggested. If you want to spend more for larger numbers, that would remain your choice.

What I fear is that we’ve escaped from audiophile snobbery, but that might be replaced by measurement snobbery. People lauding their ‘better’ kit over others, or people feeling they need to upgrade, even though what they already have is effectively perfect.
 

Jim Matthews

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This sliding scale is observable in most any pursuit of excellence.

I see the validity of publishing verifiable results, regardless of the small improvements - if it can be measured, it's noteworthy.

On the flipside, I consider the tactile feel (comfort and satisfying mechanicals) and "friction" of interfaces to be equally important in evaluating a product for purchase.

Of course we will see lots of reviews on gizmos that barely differ from the last generation - that's what happens in mature designs.
 

tonycollinet

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There is more to the purchasing decision than pure sound quality.

The D90 has Bluetooth, full size XLR, and a built in PSU. Probably build quality/feel is better, and the display is more functional. Whether these features are worth the extra money is obviously up to some significant debate.

I've no idea what the competition offers with those features at a better price point.
 

JSmith

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That's exactly the same difference as the difference between those two ethernet switches.
Actually... I feel it's not. The point of calling those out was the more expensive one claimed to do more with the 1's and 0's than the other cheaper product and a subsequent large sonic improvement. Testing showed there was no difference at all... I've seen some that are literally rebadged products 10 x cheaper. The DAC's and companies you mention who produce same don't make such wild claims... they may offer a product that has more features, more connections, differing features, better build quality, different or higher spec'd parts etc. It's then up to the consumer to decide which model suits them based on their usage requirements and expectations. People get annoyed when some companies make outlandish claims about their products which they tend to use to justify the high price. So I honestly feel you're comparing apples to oranges here.



JSmith
 

Jimbob54

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I would argue the reviews and rankings arent intended as a buyers guide but I can see the benefit for newcomers of what you are suggesting. But ultimately I agree with @pozz and others
 

Vict0r

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I get where you're coming from, but it's not Amir's job to protect us from ourselves. He just presents us the facts and measurements. He often states that the benefits of product X aren't audible compared to the cheaper product A, but his "work" focuses on measurements. If the facts show that product X measures better, it IS factually better, sonically, than product A, even if our ears can't hear the difference.

It's different with cables or ethernet switches, where both the snake oil cable and the cheap Monoprice cable measure the same.
 

solderdude

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Okay, before going any further, I'll lay my cards on the table. I think this objectivist community is excellent, necessary, and a breath of fresh air. More specifically, I think what @amirm has done here is to galvanise and focus the community with a rigour and purpose which I believe has changed the audiophile world forever.

The same was said when NwAvGuy was popular and about Archimago.
Amir provides measurements and insights.
The audiophile world is still exactly the same. Overpriced audiojewelery. None of the usual suspects sell any less tweaks, cables or expensive tube amps.
Yes, some brands do put out some better measuring gear.

Now maybe you're similar to me, or maybe not, but my first thought was to ask why anyone would spend that much money, when their phone and a decent portable DAC/amp costing £200 or so would sound just as good.

Glowing reviews of people with a 'high end reputation'. Nice flowery wording. Great pictures. Wonderful marketing and plenty of people that want to believe, have money to spent and like the things on offer.
And here's the thing. Amir is very fond - AND RIGHTLY SO - of calling out companies who sell speaker cable and ethernet switches which cost a fortune and add no extra benefit. So for me, the logical extension to that, is to do the same for everything. Okay, for the purposes of simplicity, I'll leave turntables, headphones, speaker amps and speakers out of the equation for the moment. But surely we now have DACs and headphone amps which are pretty much perfect at very low prices.
cables have been called out since the early days of audio. We live in an age where it is realtively easy to produce well measuring equipment. 99% of the worlds population does not care. Most want something they believe is the best or what they want and like to show it to others.


And yet, I never read Amir saying "Feel free to buy this DAC, but if all you're interested in is hearing the best you can, you'll be wasting $600. Save your money, unless you're just interested in numbers for bragging rights".

That's because the reviewed product is good or less good. That's all they need to know. They can read other reviews and see what they value more.
There is no need to tell which one is 'better' in specific measurements for the money.

Isn't it time for every DAC (and other products, but let's stick with DACs for the moment), to be stamped as 'AUDIBLY PERFECT' as soon as they pass a certain limit in each of the categories measured, and then a table kept of all those with that badge?

And if someone comes in with a 'better' but more expensive product, that's flagged up.

Apologies. Rant over.

That would require hard limits for audibly perfect. It would also mean every headphone and speaker would not get this label.
DACs can. Amps is more difficult. They could test excellent on some dummy loads but be less perfect under specific loads. And here too.. what are the audible limits ?

So yes, the big question is: At which point do we call a product category out as 'perfect' and what degrees of 'less than perfect' should there be. What should they be called and who decides the thresholds for all aspects. Are listening sessions involved or numbers only ? (Rtings style)
 
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dominikz

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Some great comments.

I’m not sure what harm it would do anyone to note what I’ve suggested. If you want to spend more for larger numbers, that would remain your choice.

What I fear is that we’ve escaped from audiophile snobbery, but that might be replaced by measurement snobbery. People lauding their ‘better’ kit over others, or people feeling they need to upgrade, even though what they already have is effectively perfect.
While I agree that for regular HiFi use even most reasonably cheap DACs are audibly transparent, we should keep in mind that there are other use-cases where SOTA performance is very important, and buyers looking at those use-cases now have a much easier job than they did before finding such devices due to excellent work by @amirm (and others).

Let me give you a few examples where SOTA DAC performance can be very important:
  • Audio measurements - to facilitate quality measurements you need a very clean signal generator, and a DAC can act as one. However it should be at least 10dB (or so) better in THD and/or SNR performance than the gear you are trying to measure to get precise figures and avoid ambiguity - which can quickly get you into SOTA DAC territory.
  • In audio production a common method for recording guitars is called reamping - it means that you record a dry signal right out of the instrument output jack, and then send that recorded signal via a DAC into a guitar/bass amplifier.
    However if you're recording high-gain/distorted guitar sounds you need very high SNR DACs to avoid increasing the amp's baseline noise level in this way. E.g. my RME soundcard DAC can achieve ~115dB SNR (with parallel outs) and the DAC noise-floor still becomes slightly audible in this case - which is why I'm now thinking about moving towards some of the +120dB SNR DACs to get even cleaner results
In summary - while I understand that the detailed technical information easily becomes overwhelming for many enthusiasts, I think it is great that we have access to this much objective data. It is however also up to the reader to decide on their priorities when buying equipment.

For HiFi listening I personally wouldn't obsess too much about the SOTA figures (talking about electronics here), as long something is not severely broken. For HiFi most of the sound quality gains in my experience come from better transducers (loudspeakers/subs and headphones), acoustics (mainly optimized loudspeaker positioning and integration) and EQ.
 

martijn86

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Hey. Good topic! But I think there is value in reporting the numbers above human hearing and this is why:

A DAC is part of a chain to get recorded audio into your ears but it isn't the last link. Because the output of the DAC is being processed and amplified by other devices in the chain, it pays for the output to be as transparent as possible. Even inaudible noise and distortion get passed through a processor, amplifier etc. Now hopefully, this remains inaudible but that's highly dependent on the other devices in the chain.

I mean you can't tell the difference, with your eyes, between a RAW photo and a JPG. Still, if you process the image and boost the shadows, the compression becomes a limiting factor. I

I get that there is very little difference in audible performance above -115dB sinad and that for consumer purchase advice, it makes sense to compare anything above as equally good, but I think it's good to know where the advice is based upon so people can draw their own conclusions.
Not everyone would be satisfied with the cheapest DAC that meets a certain spec, there is difference in filter attenuation, features, compatibility, connections, jitter, design, build quality... Any one of those properties can cause a DAC to be worth more than another to an individual buyer.

I personally like a DAC with a built-in pre-amp (and so volume control), that is compact, has balanced outputs and a 12v trigger. It should also preferably have an internal power supply, not look out if place on a media console and (what would get me really exciting is) Dirac Live. So I don't agree that every DAC above a certain sinad only has a reason to exist if it is among the cheapest.
 

Chester

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I agree with your observations @Yorkshire Mouth and my conclusion is it’s human nature to a point.

A good example is the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC. We like Bruno around here, he’s popular and well respected. So when this was reviewed, while some did point out the very high cost, there was not that strong an emotional reaction about the cost. Now, if that had been a Rob Watts DAC, the emotional response to the cost would have been far greater, as he is less popular here.

I’m not blaming anyone, it’s just how humans behave. If we align with someone’s views and values, we’re much more willing to let our principles flex a little.
 
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