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Has "Redbook CD" Digital Sound gotten better over time?

MattHooper

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#1
Just curious.

I hear quite often these days (well, actually for years now) that good old Redbook CD files - 16 bit 44.1 kHz - sound better than they have have before due to advances in DACs etc. I see even vinyl die-hards saying things like "just got a new DAC and I can FINALLY enjoy digital sound!"

For my part, I've enjoyed CD sound for decades. I do remember when it first came out my first encounters were "wow listen to that clarity and silence!" but also "boy this sounds a bit weirdly synthetic and sterile." But I can't know from this vantage point if those negatives were not having adjusted to the new sound, or if it was actually something about the early DACs. In any case, in the early 90's I really enjoyed the sound from a Sony CD player as I replaced all my vinyl. I was skeptical even back then about differences between DACs/CD players but still investigated "upgrading" my CD player. I ended up by the late 90's using a Meridian 508.20 CD player which had the reputation for a CD player with "vinyl/analog-like sound." When I tried it in my system it sounded to my ears distinctly a bit different than the Sony player - actually, yes a bit more vinyl-toned. I was also evaluating a Mietner Bidat DAC as well and it too seemed to have it's own "sound" - darker, more lush and bigger soundstage than the Meridian CDP, where the Meridian had a lighter tone, smaller soundstage but more a sense of image focus and density. My skeptical side kicking in I did two sets of blind tests - (using a voltage meter at the speaker terminal I was able to match levels essentially perfectly). I identified each player with essentially a perfect score. I EVEN identified them easily from outside the room!

I ended up keeping the Meridian player (and for a while the Mietner DAC).

Even despite that experience, I maintained a skepticism about the differences between DACs and CD players. If only because it had been drilled in to my head by "objectivists" whom I respected who said any competent CD player/DAC should sound the same, when level matched. I tend to maintain my skepticism, so when it came to replacing the Meridian years later I just picked up a Benchmark DAC1 - good specs, by what seemed to be a straight up, no b.s. company who made professional products. Sounded great to me - I didn't expect otherwise. I haven't bothered upgrading for years and don't really see reason to. And I've seen some hard-nosed objectivists saying that the format was up to snuff since it came out, and one is unlikely to detect a sonic difference from an old competent player from the 80s vs one made now.

Ok, that was something of a winding road to get back to my question:

Does anyone here believe that 16 bit 44.1 playback is audibly better than some time in the past? Pick any time you want since the introduction of the CD. If so, what has improved and how?

(I'm not just talking about played off of CDs, but ripped, streamed etc)
 
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#3
Yes, it certainly seems so in the more than 30 years (sheesh, I'm old) since I started listening to CDs. My impression is that there have been big improvements in DACs even since the 2000s. But it's only an impression. It would be interesting to see how some representative older players measure. I'm afraid my last two CD players (a Cambridge Audio 840C and an Arcam Alpha 9 before that) broke down.

Certainly the recordings have improved as well with advancements in ADCs.
 

DuxServit

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#4
Does anyone here believe that 16 bit 44.1 playback is audibly better than some time in the past? Pick any time you want since the introduction of the CD. If so, what has improved and how?

(I'm not just talking about played off of CDs, but ripped, streamed etc)
Nope, nothing in CD discs has changed since the loudness wars of early 2000s. The only exception might be classical CDs (e.g. Deutsche Gramophone) and ECM in Germany.

Not sure about streaming.
 

617

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#5
The technology hasn't advanced that much, no. See measurements of this CD player from 1993:
https://kenrockwell.com/audio/sony/cdp-x303es.htm

-102 db THD
120 db SNR

Maybe things were a few db worse in 1982 and a bit better now, but let's be honest with ourselves. Redbook audio delivered 99.9% on its promise of a durable stereo storage format with more dynamic range than is ever needed and more high frequency fidelity than anyone can hear.

The differences are almost always in the recordings. Early CDs were mastered by people used to mastering for Vinyl, for playback on radio and in living rooms. CDs eventually became mastered for people in cars and wearing headphones. Similarly, the differences I've noticed in 'hi res' flacs and so on are not in the advantages of the format but due to the hi res file being marketed to someone listening on good equipment.

I suspect that a lot of audiophile DACs and CD players deliberately added different forms of distortion / equalization / crosstalk / enhancement to make them sound different from a strictly accurate cd player.
 
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#6
Certainly the recordings have improved as well with advancements in ADCs.
One of my best sounding files is a CD rip of Ray Charles - Genius Loves Company in 16/44100 Flac format, I put it down to my new DAC.
 
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Blumlein 88

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#7
Low level linearity is most definitely improved. How audible that is will be another question. Some of the very best gear is better by a bit. Otherwise good earlier gear was good, but not everything of course. More recent recordings and many remasterings suffer from the loudness wars. I think the loudness wars have more than stolen any advancements in playback.

I really don't think early masterings were a problem from people having previously done LPs. In the mid 90's I got together with friends and we compared the same albums on pre-recorded reels (including some high speed), LPs, and CD. All the gear was of very good quality. Reels and CD were very similar in balance. LP was each and every time the odd man out on sound. LP is a much more compromised format. I would also note everytime some advance allows a more direct experience most people find it too bright and harsh. They'll prefer it softened and toned down. Real music isn't always smooth and can at times be very brash. Which means some DACs may be toned down as well.
 
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#8
I would also note everytime some advance allows a more direct experience most people find it too bright and harsh.
Probably why my wife says that some high resolution files I have sound "screechy" compared to the same as CD rips.
 
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JJB70

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#9
The technology hasn't advanced that much, no. See measurements of this CD player from 1993:
https://kenrockwell.com/audio/sony/cdp-x303es.htm

-102 db THD
120 db SNR

Maybe things were a few db worse in 1982 and a bit better now, but let's be honest with ourselves. Redbook audio delivered 99.9% on its promise of a durable stereo storage format with more dynamic range than is ever needed and more high frequency fidelity than anyone can hear.

The differences are almost always in the recordings. Early CDs were mastered by people used to mastering for Vinyl, for playback on radio and in living rooms. CDs eventually became mastered for people in cars and wearing headphones. Similarly, the differences I've noticed in 'hi res' flacs and so on are not in the advantages of the format but due to the hi res file being marketed to someone listening on good equipment.

I suspect that a lot of audiophile DACs and CD players deliberately added different forms of distortion / equalization / crosstalk / enhancement to make them sound different from a strictly accurate cd player.
I still use an X303ES CD player, I found it rather satisfying to read Ken Rockwell's review as I honestly don't think that there is any point changing it while it works and in terms of audibility I think its DAC is transparent and as good as anything I'd get today.
 

Frank Dernie

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#10
For me whilst the measured low level linearity of DACs shown in reviews has improved IME the recordings have in many cases been ruined by being mixed to be listened to in cars, trains and planes.
One of my finest sounding CDs was one of the first I bought at the dawn of the CD era when only one CD player was for sale near here. Some recent ones have been unpleasant to listen to at home.
Having written that I still feel that properly engineered CD players have been transparent reproducers for over 20 years. There is generally FAR more SQ difference between the actual recordings than the equipment we use to play them IME.
I actually still own Sony’s first ever domestic DAC the 702ES. I will reflect on if I can set up a level matched comparison with a modern DAC using kit I still have here...
 

bravomail

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#11
gotta confess, I don't listen to CDs since the advent of Mp3. The short time of CDs in Russia in 1990s we had sometimes a very questionable quality CDs, ripped from tape, vinyl or some other not very good source, and sold cheaply to masses. The players I used were Philips, Sony, Sharp and Samsung. Sharp and Samsung sounded most pleasing to the ears. I remember when Roxette's Crash Boom Bang album came up - the quality WAS astounding. And in this era of FLACs and MP3s - I do agree that DAC and AMP will make all the difference in the world to squeeze every last bit of sound out of that 16/44 format.
 

jsrtheta

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#12
Low level linearity is most definitely improved. How audible that is will be another question. Some of the very best gear is better by a bit. Otherwise good earlier gear was good, but not everything of course. More recent recordings and many remasterings suffer from the loudness wars. I think the loudness wars have more than stolen any advancements in playback.

I really don't think early masterings were a problem from people having previously done LPs. In the mid 90's I got together with friends and we compared the same albums on pre-recorded reels (including some high speed), LPs, and CD. All the gear was of very good quality. Reels and CD were very similar in balance. LP was each and every time the odd man out on sound. LP is a much more compromised format. I would also note everytime some advance allows a more direct experience most people find it too bright and harsh. They'll prefer it softened and toned down. Real music isn't always smooth and can at times be very brash. Which means some DACs may be toned down as well.
A lot of old school engineers continued to hype the high end when recording digitally, having been trained to do so with analog tape. More than one engineer admitted this to me when questioned, and they demonstrated little understanding that digital doesn't have that natural HF rolloff.

That's a while ago, but it does explain some of the shrill early CDs. A lot of them suffered from this. Though I have also heard that early ADCs were horrendous by today's standards.
 

Frank Dernie

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#13
Though I have also heard that early ADCs were horrendous by today's standards.
I am not convinced by this.
The very first digital recorder I used, a StellaDAT, produced an output indistinguishable from the microphone feed, to my ears, something I had never experienced with reel-to-reel tape of a Nakamichi cassette recorder.
Also, when Ivor Tiefenbrun, the founder of Linn and a vocal anti-digital critic (until his company had any digital products) was challenged to a listening test he was unable to detect the Sony PCM-F1 digital recorder in line compared to a straightforward interconnect. The PCM-F1 was Sony's first commercial recorder system designed to use Betamax cassettes as the recording medium iirc.
IMO there are a multiple reasons for some people to be dissatisfied by their early CD experience.
Firstly maybe some recording engineers, used to recording hot on tape since a bit of overload sounds nice and low level recordings are hissy, maybe didn't realise that over 0dB is a catastrophe (and unnecessary) in digital.
Secondly many popular pickup cartridges have quite a bit of treble roll-off and anybody with a system where the speakers were chosen to compensate for that would find a flat source sounding bright.
Thirdly, and this is only a guess, since the standard output level for CD was 2 volts whereas the norm for line level sources like tuners was more like 200mV so I wonder if there were early preamps which had input overload with CD players???
The mere existence of good sounding CDs from the beginning of the CD era means that it wasn't the potential of CD or some of the hardware that was limited but the implementation by some recording engineers, and maybe some hardware. My experience was that even early digital recorders were audibly transparent on the sort of music I recorded.
 

restorer-john

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#15
The big improvement (on the whole) was in my opinion, recordings which exploited the ability of CD (digital) to take full level low frequencies. My opinion of the criticism of early digital sounding 'harsh' recordings was not the top end at all- it was the lack of bottom end in general, resulting in a skewed towards the mid/treble perception. The relative lack of bottom end fullness or warmth that we were used to with vinyl- they had to roll off or mono the bottom end and use the RIAA preamps to restore it.

As soon as digital recordings started to really exploit the ruler flat response and incredible low distortion bottom end, there was no going back.

I have some wonderful early performances of classic 80s rock and pop where the original flat transfers of the master tapes to digital sound lifeless, whereas the same recording on vinyl sound much 'fuller' and 'warm'.

By about 1986/7 IMO, commercial digital recordings were on the whole, spectacular across the board. The compression wars didn't really become an issue until the late 90s IMO, but I wasn't really listening to a lot of popular releases by then, so it could have started earlier. Jazz certainly didn't suffer from it back then.

The early 80s and late 80s classical recordings are IMO, the golden years of recording. They really had massive budgets and the classical audiophiles would pay for them. The digitals from that era are simply sublime across the board.

I certainly don't buy the notion that early A/D converters were dreadful. Even the 13 bit early Denon PCM recordings on Vinyl in the very late 1970s were spectacular. I've got some early Soundstream based Jazz CDs (1982/3 ish) which are still in my top live to two track recordings with an immediacy that is unsurpassed IMO.
 

sergeauckland

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#16
I got my first CD player in 1984, (Marantz CD63 top loader) and the CDs I bought then, are as good to my now much older ears as any recent recordings. Some of the Denon recordings of chamber music particularly, but also rock/pop such as Dire Straits and Santana.

A few years later, 1987 / 88 or so, I evaluated a number of ADC/DAC combinations, and found them transparent when evaluated back to back against a straight wire, blind and level matched, so although the specs are indeed much better now, I'm not convinced sound is (or can be) any better.

S
 

JJB70

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#17
I think that a lot of it goes back to the idea that if you say something often enough it becomes an accepted truism. There were sections of the audio press, manufacturers and audiophiles that were obsessed with the idea of CD and digital being inferior to vinyl and analogue. At a certain level I think there was, and remains, a fundamental objection to the commoditisation of high quality sound as it destroyed the tweako golden ears nonsense that underpinned so many quasi-religious audiophile beliefs. Personally I think it a positive that you don't have to pay much for a source or amplifier to access good sound (you don't even have to actually buy a source anymore as a computer, tablet or smartphone can do the job) but a certain part of the hobby clearly see's it as a dire situation when any old riff raff can access top quality sound. Note that I'm not dismissing more expensive gear as sound quality is not the only consideration and I do understand why people also value premium build quality, nice materials and good industrial design, however if you just want good sound you can access it for very little now. Because magazines and reviewers have pushed certain ideas about hi-fi for so long, especially with respect to digital sound, many people still swallow it.
I must admit I do find it bonkers that so many still decry digital sound and cling to analogue sources in order to play material which was digitally recorded.
 

Sal1950

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#18
Listen to Dire Straits, "Brothers in Arms" CD. Done on early Sony digital gear in 1985. Nothing wrong with that album.
Yep, the BiA CD was the one that gave me the OMG experience back in the day. My first player was a cheap Magnavox 560 that sounded incredible to me with the best recordings. Then in the early 90s I bought a JVC 1050TN and I'm not sure it has ever been surpassed for SQ. I did bring home a couple very expensive DAC's over the next decade and never heard anything that made me want to buy one. Thank goodness for Redbook, now if only we could learn to build transducers to come close in transparency we would really have something.
IMG_0963.jpg
 

restorer-john

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#19
At a certain level I think there was, and remains, a fundamental objection to the commoditisation of high quality sound as it destroyed the tweako golden ears nonsense that underpinned so many quasi-religious audiophile beliefs.
Very true.
 

March Audio

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#20
Aaawwww my first CD player Phillips cd160

1507632-philips-cd-160.jpg


images (2).jpeg
 
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