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Audio foolery 2.0 - The rise and fall of objectivism

nimar

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#1
I've been interested in sound reproduction since I was a kid, and started to take audio a little more seriously about seven years ago when I bought my first "proper" stereo system. This comprised of an Audiolab M-DAC, a pair of Adam A7x monitors and some mid level AKG headphones (forget the model), all were purchased after extensive research on the many websites of the time. Around the same time I started buying CD's and did a clean sweep of any MP3/AAC music I had. Since then I've been content, after a few years I stopped listening to the headphones for one reason or another but the monitors and the DAC performed flawlessly.

Close the end of last year we had a child and my wife started eyeing my hard black angular Adam's with a certain look, after some time she informed me that they would be relegated to a dark corner of our home away from public gaze. The thing that was needed were some more home friendly speakers that had grills to keep prying fingers away from them. Thus the rekindling of the sickness began, the search for new HiFi equipment. As part of this search I stumbled across ASR and what began as a quest for some child friendly speakers turned into a full blown case of audiophile nervosa which demanded the full treatment, a completely new system.

Since my last bout of this illness there were now a lot more numbers. Everything was being measured. I read Toole’s book, I joined ASR and I started digging through the many threads to find the perfect setup. The DAC, amp and speakers to complete the system that would be the one true system, both child friendly and bring me closer to audio nirvana.

The Amp was pretty straight forward, a DIY Purifi Eval-1 kit. There was very little debate on this, both the objectivist and subjectivist were on the same page. Transparent amplification, ran cold and produced significant output. Measured well, sounded great. It has no buttons, no interface but its a power amp, it doesn’t need any of that.

Speakers, Revels. No questions asked. After reading Toole’s book I was already predisposed to liking them. I found a pair for a great price and couldn’t ask for more. Measured well, sounded great, again it is a passive component, it does what it is supposed to.

Before completing my perfect system I also purchased some Dan Clark headphones, measured great, sound amazing, do exactly what you expect.

DAC. The chart topping company with several products in the top ten was, you guessed it, Topping. Never heard of them before, and I was skeptical at first. But after reading through countless posts on a several threads on their top end DACs I won myself over. Surely, all these people praising these products couldn’t be wrong. They even had panthers on them playing golf, that’s got to count for something. I decided to go all out and get the best of the best, the Topping D90 MQA, using the latest and greatest chip on the market. The second best DAC ever reviewed according to the numbers at the time and still in the top five compared to the latest reviews. There were also some from Gustard and SMSL which looked promising but Topping had the longest track record of producing well regarded products so it seemed like the safe bet. In addition to the numbers on ASR there were plenty of more objectivist reviews using lots of random words praising this DAC.

As there were a few weeks lag between ordering and actually receiving the DAC in the interim period I ordered a second Topping DAC, the D70s as I decided that in addition to having a new family friendly system I would also replace my ageing M-DAC. Considering the design is almost nine years old and its limited to 24/96khz over USB it just had to be inferior to a new topping DAC and thus based on the numbers had to go.

The D90 arrived and what can I say, it sounded great. It produced beautiful music. Around this time I decided if I was going to replace my M-DAC, which has a built in headphone amp I also needed a dedicated headphone amp to use my lovely Dan Clark’s with, so I ordered an A90.

The A90 / a dedicated headphone amp was never a product class I had a need for before. It was only purchased to fill a gap in the D90 and allow for headphone listening. On paper it is in the top five headphone amps measured and can output deafening levels with almost any headphone.

Back to the D90. It sounds great but that’s where the pro’s end. Yes, the DAC sounds great, but it is inferior in every other way to my M-DAC which was designed nine years ago and honestly I couldn’t even say that’s a real pro as I’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. Its not a passive component, its something you interact with and it was bad at this.

M-DAC
Pros
  • Produces beautiful music over speakers / headphones
  • Program default input to start on or start on last used
  • Has a display with a volume meter so you actually know if a signal is being sent to the DAC and you forget to turn the speakers/amps on.
  • Automatically switches volume when plugging in headphones to last used level and back again
  • Has zero pop/click when turning on and off, plugged into powered monitors / AMP.
  • Volume control works over USB, full two way volume when used with Roon / Computer
  • Has a great remote with buttons that all do something useful.
  • Bit perfect test
  • Balance correction
  • Has a decent headphone amplifier.
  • Lots of other features.
Cons
  • Limited to 24/96khz over USB
  • Limited to 24/192khz over SPDIF
  • No DSD.
The D70s arrived and it was the exact same story, sounds great but that’s it. The A90 arrived and again, sounds great but its rudimentary to use and only ever turned volume to a quarter of full. Couldn’t think of a reason I’d need to deafen myself. Both products really only useful if used at your desk.

D90/D70s
PROS
  • Produces beautiful music
  • Can play 32/768khz PCM and DSD512 over USB
CONS
  • Poor UX from top to bottom
  • Remote is silly, several buttons do nothing, have to be very particular when pointing it
  • Pops when turning on / off
  • Hardly any programmable features, can’t set default input, can’t rename inputs
  • Doesn’t do volume control over USB, not even one way.
  • No headphone out, requires separate unit

A90
PROS
  • Produces beautiful music
  • Gets stupidly loud
CONS
  • Doesn’t adjust volume when switching between speakers / headphones
  • Draws 2.5W of electricity even when mechanical switch on the front is set to off?

Both the Topping and my old M-DAC produce beautiful music, but the Topping can play back some seriously hi-res files so I must be able to get more out of it. Thats it though, in every other regard the Topping products which were amazing on paper, in real life felt inferior to a nine year old product. Nine years is a long time in the current technology landscape.

It wasn’t long before I spent more time on ASR and worked out that DSD was a waste of time, so that’s one plus taken away from the Topping. And a little while later, reading more about sampling theorem that I came to the bitter realisation that 16/44khz is genuinely enough for music playback, if you really want to stretch it, then heck, make it 24/96khz. Funny, that’s what my old M-DAC was capable of doing over USB, that’s another plus taken away from the Topping. Leaving it with a grand total of zero advantages and a whole bunch of negatives.

What happened? How is it possible that the highest regarded products on ASR could be so disappointing. Let me be absolutely clear, they don’t sound disappointing, they sound great, but so does my old DAC.

The madness of subjectivism, where audio hardware was spoken about like a fine wine, has simply been replaced by the new madness of objectivism and the pursuit of “better” numbers.

Either the ability to play back files that have no good reason to exist, or to produce a SNR that is 10 or 20 db better than its predecessor, which is already beyond the ability of human hearing. Or to be able to power headphones to such a level that they could be used as speakers. Why? Why are we chasing these pointless numbers.

And I know some of you are shouting at your screens, “its to show good engineering stupid”, I know that. I appreciate the value in showing that the $10,000 DAC is objectively worse than the $1000 DAC. That’s grand, but things are going too far, there’s a point where its just a game, and most likely it is a game that is being hacked. What design choices are being made by Topping et al just to get good numbers, without considering long term stability, energy consumption, safe design etc etc.

I appreciate that Amir states in his reviews that he is only recommending products based on the numbers and can’t speak for long term reliability etc. Though I don’t think its enough, somewhere on the front page of ASR should be a “Read this first” explaining that chasing numbers if entirely pointless beyond certain thresholds. To be fair there are several posts covering all these topics, they just take a bit of digging to find.

So where did I end up. I’ve sold all my Topping gear, returned to using my M-DAC and bought an RME ADI-FS 2. It has slightly worse SNR to the Topping products but has all the same great functionality of the M-DAC plus a whole lot more. The crazy thing is that it was even cheaper than the Topping stack.
 
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liu

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#5
Glad you find your favorite. The RME ADI-2 Pro is the best electronic device I've ever owned. Been keeping using it for years and still love it. My only complaint is the headphone amp is prone to burn out, and the encoder may fail, and the repair cost is high. Just keep those in mind.

ASR's measurements are written in a way to make you believe their benchmark is the "right" rubrics to grade a device, which is not necessary the case at all:

1. It never put usability and reliability at top --- Most of their top rated devices fucked up seriously and in a lot of cases the companies who made them refuse to take responsibility (Example: Topping DX3 Pro version 1). Most Topping DACs I have tested are not reliable in that it may stop playing in a middle of track. This never happens once with professional audio devices (RME, UA, Apogee) that I used. I have tested more than 10 top performing products from China in ASR and returned all of them within Amazon's return window. I simply cannot use them --- weird design choices, serious QC issues, and in many cases simply do not work.

2. The measurements are by no means complete. Luckily I have a ADI-2 Pro so I can do simple measurements by myself. Top rated devices usually only perform good under @amirm 's test, but fail in the most simple and straightforward test. Example: SMSL M500 performs really bad unless it is playing mono music. When it is playing stereo, the SINAD is well below 80. standard tests amir uses just don't tell that part of the story that is more practical to normal music listening. In addition, companies these days are super good at achieving good scores in amir's test in a way that may lead to problems or simply don't make sense (Example: Topping's HP Amp's input impedance. SMSL DAC's elimination of output buffers. those tricks can make them top performing, but lose the ability to work together with other products). And let's be practical, for music lovers, who cares about things that beyond audible? And why should I own a product that has the ability to output 6W (which is not a good thing) to my headphone and produce a lot of heat constantly?

3. Official description of many top performing products are just scams. Example: SMSL M500 claims they use OPA1612 but they are not. confirmed by my teardown and other's.
 
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Sgt. Ear Ache

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#6
LOL, what tosh the above is. I own several Topping products. They have all worked just fine.

The measurements show that the product is or isn't doing what it's intended to do. ASR reviews lots of expensive stuff too. Some of that is shown to not be very good. Topping stuff is budget stuff that often performs measurably just as well as expensive stuff. From that point it's about features and build etc etc. Who cares about stuff that's beyond audibility??? LOL. I'll tell you who cares about stuff that's beyond audibility! Subjectivists! That's who! The folks who claim they can hear differences between cables and dacs that measure exactly the same and between high def formats etc etc. It's not ASR people chasing inaudibility lol! It's hilarious that ASR is somehow being accused of obsessing over the inaudible when much of what ASR is all about is defining the real level of audibility and exposing the reality that so much of this hobby is focused on chasing inaudible bennies...

btw OP, I think you have the words "objective" and "subjective" reversed...
 
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nimar

nimar

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Thread Starter #7
LOL, what tosh the above is. I own several Topping products. They have all worked just fine.

The measurements show that the product is or isn't doing what it's intended to do. ASR reviews lots of expensive stuff too. Some of that is shown to not be very good. Topping stuff is budget stuff that often performs measurably just as well as expensive stuff. From that point it's about features and build etc etc. Who cares about stuff that's beyond audibility??? LOL. I'll tell you who cares about stuff that's beyond audibility! Subjectivists! That's who! The folks who claim they can hear differences between cables and dacs that measure exactly the same and between high def formats etc etc. It's not ASR people chasing inaudibility lol! It's hilarious that ASR is somehow being accused of obsessing over the inaudible when much of what ASR is all about is defining the real level of audibility and exposing the reality that so much of this hobby is focused on chasing inaudible bennies...

btw OP, I think you have the words "objective" and "subjective" reversed...
Indeed re subjective/objective, damn binary choice. I blame lack of sleep (see small child). Updated title. Thanks.

I think we are making the same point though. Objectivist have come to the same point, where we care about things that are beyond audibility just like the subjectivist. Just instead of them being "sound stage" and "punch" they are SINAD, output wattage for headphones and bitrate for playback. Reaching for numbers that are essentially the new snake oil.

I agree entirely that the measurement can show if a product is broken or not, and that's great. The problem is when these products are ranked suggesting one is better than the other. All the DACs in the green section of amir's graphs should just get a green tick instead of a position. There are hundreds of people on here that have A. either bought a device because it was one position further to the left, or B. swapped from one device to another to get to a position further to the left. While potentially losing great functionality.

I've nothing against Topping as a company, and it is not just Topping that is playing "the numbers game". I just fell pray to the new madness and came out the other side to tell the story. The worst of it is that the Topping "stack" which one has to compare directly to a single RME DAC is more expensive than the RME. In $ CAD it ended up costing around $1800 while the RME was around $1450. So in every way that could mater I got a superior product for less money.
 

Sgt. Ear Ache

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#8
except that we really don't care about things that are beyond audibility. None of us claim that we can hear a difference beyond a certain point. Nobody here told you you needed to go out and buy any new dacs to get better sound. If you'd asked you'd likely have gotten an answer such as "well, some of those dacs may measure a little better but you can't hear that anyway so it's really more about form and function." The measurements reveal the truth that money doesn't necessarily buy better sound and some of the expensive stuff actually measures poorly enough that the impact could be audible. However, it's worth noting that no subjectivist reviews of audio products ever state that such and such an expensive item "doesn't actually sound any different/better but it does have some nice features." Sound quality is the thing being sold. People aren't paying thousands of dollars for a dac that sounds the same as a $100 Topping dac because they want all the buttons to work on the remote. The money is being spent because they've been sold better sound...and the measurements show that isn't the reality.

Why shouldn't they be ranked in order?? Who cares? lol...I certainly don't have any problem interpreting the graphs...they'd be a mess if they weren't in order. I'd wager most of those "hundreds" who bought those items were well aware of what they were doing and what they were getting. The features are always very well hashed out in the threads about the items under review.
 
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Pluto

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#10
SMSL M500 performs really bad unless it is playing mono music. When it is playing stereo, the SINAD is well below 80. standard tests amir uses just don't tell that part of the story that is more practical to normal music listening
How on earth does the SINAD vary whether playing mono or stereo content? Some listeners cannot even tell whether they are listening in mono or stereo.

You need to explain this particular point in far greater detail.
 

abdo123

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#12
I feel like this forum is very Electronics focused (since it started out with DACs measurments) which is giving people the impression that electronics matter as much as (or more than) transducers and room accoustics.

They don't matter as much, they never did.

Nevertheless, just because i can't taste it doesn't mean i wouldn't mind if a waiter spat in my soup.
 
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BDWoody

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#13
What happened? How is it possible that the highest regarded products on ASR could be so disappointing. Let me be absolutely clear, they don’t sound disappointing, they sound great, but so does my old DAC. They don’t sound particularly better than it.
You had unrealistic expectations.
 

Sgt. Ear Ache

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I feel like this forum is very Electronics focused (since it started out with DACs measurments) which is giving people the impression that electronics matter as much (or more) than transducers and room accoustics.
That would be a mistaken impression. There are entire sections of ASR dedicated to transducers and room acoustics...in fact the importance of those things is emphasized here more than most other audio forums I've found.
 
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Mart68

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#15
I agree entirely that the measurement can show if a product is broken or not, and that's great. The problem is when these products are ranked suggesting one is better than the other. All the DACs in the green section of amir's graphs should just get a green tick instead of a position. There are hundreds of people on here that have A. either bought a device because it was one position further to the left, or B. swapped from one device to another to get to a position further to the left. .
Nothing there suggests one sounds better than the other, they are just ranked by SINAD. Okay, so you have to know what that is and what it means and that's not explained on the chart, but just a little research would reveal it.

It's not a buyers guide, it doesn't claim to be. If someone interprets it that way, that's their mistake. I know we live in a world where packets of nuts have a warning on them saying 'May contain nuts' but does everything really have to be spoon-fed to us?
 

BDWoody

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#16
There are hundreds of people on here that have A. either bought a device because it was one position further to the left, or B. swapped from one device to another to get to a position further to the left. While potentially losing great functionality.
There are others of us who took the time to understand what all those charts and numbers mean, and went the other way. Meaning...theres a lot of very good, very functional vintage gear that doesn't need to be dismissed because of a sub 90 SINAD for example.

This isn't the place to be spoonfed, but if you want to learn what's what, it's hard to beat.
 
OP
nimar

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Thread Starter #17
You had unrealistic expectations.
It seems so, for some reason I thought a brands flagship model would be better executed. That there was some value in getting the best they offer over their $99 product. That I wasn't paying ~10X to have balanced outputs, turns out I was wrong.

There are others of us who took the time to understand what all those charts and numbers mean, and went the other way. Meaning...theres a lot of very good, very functional vintage gear that doesn't need to be dismissed because of a sub 90 SINAD for example.

This isn't the place to be spoonfed, but if you want to learn what's what, it's hard to beat.
I did the research and I _do_ understand the data. This is how I am here now, writing of this sad story of misadventure. As you, and if it wasn't clear I have said. The right information is very much inside these walls, but it takes quite a bit of looking to find. While at the same time there is very much an air that better number == better product.

Take the Eval-1 for instance, because of the review suggesting bypassing the buffer stage results in a 5db better number. I guarantee you that some not insignificant number of people went and pulled those jumpers out without a moments hesitation. Not considering that it also bypasses RF filtering and that their DAC doesn't have nearly enough power to provide the ~10V required to reach max output. Likely leading to a worse overall experience than just leaving the thing as is.

I appreciate the take it or leave it mentality; that a review is a balanced presentation of the numbers that can be easily measured but whether intended or otherwise that's not seeing the whole picture. If something gets a SINAD of 105 its "recommended" and 120 its "highly recommended" why?

The current state of things reminds me a lot of a story from Solzhenitsyn about soviet manufacturing. To start the factory overseers decided to quantify the productivity of a factory producing different types of nails based on the number of units produced. The managers at the factory, inspired by this bad incentive realised that if they only produced tiny nails that they would be able to triple the number of units produced and they would likely get promotions or better for a job well done. The overseers found the factory was producing only tiny nails that hardly anyone needed and decided instead that productivity would be measured by the weight of nails produced. Another bad incentive, this time the managers switched to only producing railway spikes, by the new measure production increased again but again the factory made something that hardly anyone needed.

Perhaps something akin to a preference score needs to be developed for DAC's as in speakers. Where features can provide a + / - number used in addition to raw measurements to come to an overall number. This way manufactures would at least have an incentive to design good products.
 
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nimar

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Thread Starter #18
Continuing the last thought on a preference score. There are things that can be objectively measured that would be good for the market / consumers and hopefully encourage manufactures to do more than chase pointless numbers.

1. Power consumption on / in standby. -- RME does very well at this, its < 0.5 W in standby, Topping is 2.5W+ (each so ~5W+ for your stack).

2. Length of warranty. -- Shows faith in a product being produced. Topping is 1 year normally, 2 from Apos**. RME is up to 5 years in certain countries.

3. Length of product support -- How many years back does a company release software fixes? No idea for Topping, a heck of a long time for RME

4. Plenty of additional features but I agree this becomes difficult as some bleed into subjective qualities.


Ps. I am only using Topping/RME as examples as I have used both products. There are lots of other companies is group A and group B. My M-DAC was about half the cost of a Topping stack from a rather expensive UK company. How did they manage to design/produce something so good nine! years ago at almost half the cost of the best Topping is doing now.

** I don't know what the fine print is like, got stung on their "easy return policy" as the fine print is you'll take a 20% loss
 
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Jim Matthews

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#20
Then why would you expect it to sound better?
This is an important point.

The limiting transducer in the replay chain acts as a gate. The highest noise floor is what we can hear. For those gentle readers closer to retirement than our first day - our hearing inexorably deteriorates.

It's still a tough call - higher performance for a small additional charge.

I liken this to owning a high performance car to haul groceries.
 

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