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High-end electronics vs high-end audio

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#1
I'm gonna have a bit of an off the cuff ramble here, so bear with me. It's cheaper than a therapist.

If I want to buy a bleeding edge TV/display, I'll pay the early adopter tax and shell out maybe five times what I would for a great TV/display. I'm using five as an arbitrary multiplier but you get the idea. What I'm paying for is normally new technology and improved performance. If I want to go balls to the wall with a PC and have one built for me then, again, I could pay around five times what I might for a good rig. And I should notice the difference, there'll be no pain staking A/B testing looking for the slightest difference. The more money generally the better performance provided they and you know what's what, you should be getting the latest and greatest in technology. You can measure display/PC performance. Synthetic/real world benchmarks/useage, temps, clocks, overclocks, read/write speeds, peak nit, contrast ratio, refresh rate, pixel response time, resolution etc etc. There's no mistaking the results. The high-end PC or display might even be considered professional grade, depending on the component choices/intended usage. So we have a high-end TV/display and a high-end PC, the value is arguable as always, there's diminishing returns, but you're very likely getting a better experience for the money. I've used displays and PCs as examples but it extends to pretty much any consumer electronics I can think of.

So how about the audio market? Why is that multiplier so much higher and utterly unreliable? I can buy SOTA devices for £1000 or less. Much much less in many cases. Yet I could also spend a 100+ times the amount on a similar device that is objectively inferior. We're talking about consumer electronics here. Nobody who bought a super expensive TV would tell you it needed synergy with their games console, that you don't have the eyesight/hearing to appreciate it, or that they're still burning their remote in. However, they might have been upsold a fancy cable or two.

I can't fathom what makes audio different. The equipment produces a subjective experience, as do other forms of electronic entertainment and technology. This thread is prompted by YouTube's autoplay algorithm serving me a video. Sometimes I feel it doesn't know me at all. In that video the example of an audio product that costs almost half a million dollars was used. It was said that the existence of these items shouldn't annoy me. Luxury items exist in other markets such as watches and cars, so why not audio?.

Well, I respond, why audio and why are they so common? And it does at least irritate me that we've reached the point where consumer audio products priced in the tens and hundreds of thousands are not that unusual, yet often offer nothing more where it really matters. It's firmly sowed the idea that these sorts of items really are the top of the tree and offer an experience close to snogging the almighty, one that more lowly, less expensive products could never approach. It does a disservice to the entire industry. It has nothing to do with audio quality at all. They're prettier, more luxurious, not necessarily better. They're using higher prices to connote higher performance, rather than delivering demonstrably higher performance to justify a higher price. It's taken a general rule of thumb - you get what you pay for - and utterly abused it.

I've rarely heard a buyer of a £5k or £50k DAC say it's anything but superior in terms of performance. They don't say it's just about the joy of ownership, aesthetics, build, exclusivity, or other reasons people tend to buy expensive goods. They have to justify it in terms of sound first and foremost, and there's the rub. If the numbers don't exceed cheaper items, the metaphysics come out. If the numbers fall well short, the knives come out too. Truly the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to make people vote against their self-interests. They vote with their words and their wallets. And whether it's a substandard £5k DAC or a Jitterbug, the companies listen.

High-end means expensive, that's it. In consumer electronics, that comes with the expectation of better performance, although it's not always a given. In the world of audio the term is so regularly used, so often conflated with high performance they're almost synonymous; it's losing its meaning entirely. In fact I think some people just like saying it. It has disproportionate cachet. It's used in the title of audio shows for god's sake. It's the reason people list their gear as if it were their CV and others almost apologise for using cheaper devices. High-end audio has built a kind of wall around itself, a set of rules and a different set of standards to be held to. People wonder if they've yet achieved that elusive high end sound. Well, the common wisdom goes; spend this much on these products from these brands and you're a fully paid up member. If I hear "of course it's not fair to compare this to a high-end.." one more time I'll hunt them down and spit in their eyes. Why don't you try comparing, blind? Then wipe the spit from your eyes and be done with the blinkers for good.

I am an audiophile, I meet the definition. Yet you see people vacillate when asked if they're audiophiles because there's a seemingly indelible association with overpriced pseudoscientific bullshit. I resent having to distinguish myself. Or you find people who are audiophiles to the bone, yet don't feel like they can describe themselves as such because of the price of their setup. The existence of products none of us would ever consider doesn't mean there's any lack of excellent products for us to use. But it does tarnish the entire industry, both manufacturers and consumers, and allow audiophile to be used as a pejorative, or conversely even as an aspiration or badge of honour.

People are free to spend their money however they like. However, I can't think of any similar pastime where device performance and price are so out of whack, claims are so wildly at odds with reality (and sometimes the laws of physics), and where so many products outperform equivalent products fifty or hundreds of times their price while the inferior expensive products are still lauded. In a hobby that's ostensibly little different to any other involving consumer electronics and entertainment, just what is it about audio that's got us into this situation?.

I feel much better now. I realise I haven't said anything that hasn't been said before, but my question stands. High-end audio has gone nuts, and it's not getting any saner. If anyone has thoughts about why it's so out of step with other consumer electronics I'd be interested to hear them :)
 

NTomokawa

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#2
Suppose you have a screen (computer monitor or TV). I'm a photographer (that's what I like to call myself anyway) so colour accuracy and gamut coverage are very important.

Colour accuracy and gamut coverage have established industry standards. You take a cheap big-box computer screen and compare it side-by-side with a top-of-the-line Eizo/NEC/UltraSharp/DreamColor. Have them display the same colour accuracy/gamut/contrast test card. Even without measuring them with instruments, one immediately sees a difference. Whether one is "better" or "worse" than the other is something else entirely. (computer screen ABX when?)

Audio is... Well the thing is, unlike everything visual where measurements translate directly to visible performance, I think there's an unbridgeable gap between a response graph and what you hear. And there's no way to compare two audio products side-by-side simultaneously. One would perhaps think of a test setup where one ear is fed the output from one system and the other ear is fed the other system. It doesn't work. Our ears have inherent response/sensitivity differences. I had my hearing tested in an anechoic cell with Sennheiser test headphones before I left the Army. One of my ears hear more bass while the other ear hears more treble. Maybe it's because my right ear is the one most hammered by gunfire, but it is what it is. One of my eyes sees more warm tones while the other sees more cold tones. One of my legs is longer than the other. Yours too. We are not perfectly symmetric. Nothing is.

Anyway, since one can't do a live comparison between two audio devices, we are left with two choices: A) go by memory, and B), go by measurements.

Method A) is horrible. We are on a science forum and I think we can all attest to the unreliability of memory. Then there's expectation bias, confirmation bias, the McGurk effect, etc. In short, us humans make horrible instruments.

So we are left with method B). Which brings me back to the gap between numbers/graphs and what is actually heard. What does 98 dB of SINAD sound like vs. 110 dB? What does 16ps of jitter sound like vs. 5ps? Unlike video and photography, there isn't (to my very limited knowledge) even an industry standard for "audible transparency", unlike what we have with colour accuracy and gamut coverage and so on.

Then there's the human part, and this part I don't know how to explain. If one says "this screen looks better than the other so it is better", I get on lagom.nl and say something along the lines of "no, this screen's red channel clips way earlier than the other one". One clearly sees how one of the screens butchers the red channel step response by mushing them together. Said person now understand that the screen that "looks better" really isn't better.

Now you swap in audio components. "This amplifier sounds better than the other so it is better". Amir comes long and tests them both, Pink Panther figurines and all. They test identically, except one of them rolls off the highs starting from 7kHz while the other one doesn't. "But the other one sounds cold and shrill!" Yeah, well, maybe it's because the other one doesn't roll off the highs in comparison. "But this one sounds better!". And I don't know what to say anymore.

You can't sell hype and buzzwords with a screen. At least I hope not, because one easily cuts through all that by performing some simple tests. The Lagom LCD test is one such test. Admittedly, colour accuracy and gamut coverage is something else, though one could always rent a colour probe and see the results. You can't do that with audio.

I know what I've just wrote is clear as mud at best. I don't have the proper words to point out the difference between video (visible) and audio (audible). I just hope the reader could understand what I mean.

Thanks for suffering through all this.
 

RayDunzl

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#3

RayDunzl

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Unlike video and photography, there isn't (to my very limited knowledge) even an industry standard for "audible transparency", unlike what we have with colour accuracy and gamut coverage and so on.
I don't know much about video testing.

How inaccurate can the screen be and still be considered accurate?

Can one accurate screen be more accurate than another accurate screen?
 

Wombat

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#5
I don't know much about video testing.

How inaccurate can the screen be and still be considered accurate?

Can one accurate screen be more accurate than another accurate screen?

...……… in different room/lighting environments, to boot.
confused.png
 

Blumlein 88

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#6
I think another factor is everything other than transducers and maybe some power amps is or usually can be audibly transparent. It has reached the point of effective perfection for human hearing. That is very difficult for people to accept as true. So you either create stories to convince people other factors matter or you actually degrade the resulting signal in a way that one might find attractive or at least not annoying and proclaim the difference an improvement.

Video displays are not yet visually transparent one vs the other. There are differences that are perceived and usually better newer displays do offer a perceptibly better picture.
 

NTK

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#8
I don't know much about video testing.

How inaccurate can the screen be and still be considered accurate?

Can one accurate screen be more accurate than another accurate screen?
You can read the 500+ page ICDM Display Measurement Standard (free download) from International Committee for Display Metrology (ICDM) and be an expert :)
https://www.icdm-sid.org/icdm_main.html
 
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Thread Starter #10
What I'm getting is that audio electronics has essentially been solved, well past the capabilities of human hearing. The price of transparency has now come down to the point where most people can afford it. So we're in a subjective wild west where improvements are imaginary/personal and the only avenue left is to differentiate devices somehow, taking a known commodity and serving it in different packaging and flavours. The idea a cheap DAC is all you need doesn't chime with perceived wisdom, and here we are. Aural masturbation rather than creating the next generation.

Either hurrah for us, we did it, or, it's a bleak outlook in some ways. If musical reproduction isn't a solved problem, it makes you wonder where there is to go. Will music reproduction in a hundred years time be any better than it is now? Will there be a breakthrough? If so, will it come from the high end or a huge electronics corporation? It may be most likely to be new recording and speaker technology. And more speakers too. Wall to wall speakers as far as the eye can see, all perfectly calibrated to simulate reality, or whatever effect the artist intends.

Or is that it? We've reached the end and it doesn't get much better than this? There's innovation and improvement in every other sector of consumer electronics. Are we talking just convenience improvements rather than audible improvements? I mean I suppose it's possible that audio is the singular exception. Although fuck, that's depressing. I have probably 40 good years left, if audio tech hasn't progressed to the point where I'm having concerts piped into my brain I'm gonna die peeved. With my headphones on.

With nowhere to go but an industry to maintain, it might well look like it does now. With people inventing problems that are of no consequence just to "solve" them and shift ever more expensive solutions. It's certainly plausible. I'd like to know what it is about audio that keeps people chasing that dragon though, it's a special kind of madness.

I'm glad I had a rant though. Sometimes shouting at the TV just isn't enough.
 

Dimitri

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#11
So you either create stories to convince people other factors matter or you actually degrade the resulting signal in a way that one might find attractive or at least not annoying and proclaim the difference an improvement.
People loooove stories .....(not all people, certainly not some people , but most people)
 

Tks

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#12
What I'm getting is that audio electronics has essentially been solved, well past the capabilities of human hearing. The price of transparency has now come down to the point where most people can afford it. So we're in a subjective wild west where improvements are imaginary/personal and the only avenue left is to differentiate devices somehow, taking a known commodity and serving it in different packaging and flavours. The idea a cheap DAC is all you need doesn't chime with perceived wisdom, and here we are. Aural masturbation rather than creating the next generation.

Either hurrah for us, we did it, or, it's a bleak outlook in some ways. If musical reproduction isn't a solved problem, it makes you wonder where there is to go. Will music reproduction in a hundred years time be any better than it is now? Will there be a breakthrough? If so, will it come from the high end or a huge electronics corporation? It may be most likely to be new recording and speaker technology. And more speakers too. Wall to wall speakers as far as the eye can see, all perfectly calibrated to simulate reality, or whatever effect the artist intends.

Or is that it? We've reached the end and it doesn't get much better than this? There's innovation and improvement in every other sector of consumer electronics. Are we talking just convenience improvements rather than audible improvements? I mean I suppose it's possible that audio is the singular exception. Although fuck, that's depressing. I have probably 40 good years left, if audio tech hasn't progressed to the point where I'm having concerts piped into my brain I'm gonna die peeved. With my headphones on.

With nowhere to go but an industry to maintain, it might well look like it does now. With people inventing problems that are of no consequence just to "solve" them and shift ever more expensive solutions. It's certainly plausible. I'd like to know what it is about audio that keeps people chasing that dragon though, it's a special kind of madness.

I'm glad I had a rant though. Sometimes shouting at the TV just isn't enough.
Music and Visual devices are nowhere near done. Audio is far more along with respect to audibility, but the last frontier is pioneering things like recording techniques and DSP techniques. For instance, there is still very little headway with respect to the wonderful results of something like binaural recordings. As well as things like Virtual Reality Surround Sound in things like video games. There's lots of headway to be made there, and solidifying practices that make it more believable.

With our current imagination, the true end-game is when we can pass two litmus tests... (The caveat here is imagination, as who knows what sorts of ways of listening will be invented later in our lifetime perhaps).

For audio, ANY sort of test where a people can be blindfolded, and asked to discern between actual instruments playing vs the listening device and then we are unable... That is the day audio with respect to current ways of engaging with it, will be essentially done for consumer use.

For television, the simplest test would be to put a TV into the wall of a house, disguise it as a window frame, and have it next to another real window and ask folks to choose which is the real-world outside, and which is a recording of the real world being played back in real-time by a camera placed outside of the house on the wall. The moment people can't tell, is when you know televisions are finished for consumer use. (But just like audio, there are caveats like if you begin to move from the viewing angle and such, and also because display tech isn't just TV's and monitors, you also have VR headsets, and that is a whole new field with LOTS of work to do as hinted to in the audio section I spoke about).

There is lots of work still left to do, but when you think about it generally, you would imagine "we're pretty close". When in fact, the last few percent required to fool our senses completely, eat up perhaps even more effort than all the effort it's taken to get where we are.

If you've ever used a computer, and your CPU is running at some overclocked frequency like 5Ghz, and you're pulling 150W from the socket, but then when you try to go to something like 5.2Ghz, the power consumption spikes exponentially after that point into insane terriroty, where you need exotic cooling using liquid nitrogen and such just to keep the thing operational, and at 5.4Ghz the machine is at risk of being destroyed if there weren't protections built in on-die. All the while it was no sweat getting to 5Ghz, but trying to inch anymore past that, just requires insane effort.
 
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Thread Starter #13
Now you're talking my language. I've long said that binaural recording is criminally underused. It's the closest I've ever come to suspending my disbelief. When I couple that with my VR setup and it gets it just right, I get a glimpse of what's possible. In fact I think the improvements will come from big tech companies trying to edge closer and closer to full immersion. It certainly won't be the high-end audio companies wed to their traditional two channel setups.

I remember a video that showed a DSP headphone solution, I forget the company but I looked into it and it seemed almost like vapourware, there was no chance of me getting ahold of one any time soon. Anyhow, it was a promotional piece so I take it with a pinch of salt, but they showed a number of people who were fooled into thinking that they were listening to a Dolby Atmos setup when in fact it was binaural done beautifully. I'm sure someone knows what company and product that was. Now even that's a relatively low bar, Dolby Atmos is good but it's not reality, but it's a great indication of things to come. Just bloody hurry up, clock's ticking!
 

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#14
Err I think a two channel system could theoretically be enough simply due to our two ears. For Binaural, I think it's just costs of doing it properly that dissuade many from using it as much. It's mostly an artistic choice in the same way it would be impossible to "binaurally" record purely synthetic sounds that have no basis in any sound heard in nature (I mean I guess you can play it back out of speakers, but I don't know if binaural is of much use there). But I have played a trick on friends by telling them if they'd like to listen to some music on a real nice setup of headphones. And while I am searching for music they may like, (the don't see the screen as I nonchalantly turn it away from their view as they kick back and relax) and while talking with them about what kind of music they'd like or any other nonsense conversation I'll play a few knocking sounds recorded binaurally. Every single one of them were asking if I wanted to go get the door. I tell them it's just the a delivery man who always knocks on the doors he delivers in our building, a great guy.

I then proceed to play some music of their choice and see them smile a bit bobbing their heads, while I ask them what they would like me to order from the local restaurant for food delivery. At the same time disguising myself listing off options and clicking the mouse as if I am scrolling around food page menu's (but secretly I play another recording of knocking while the music is playing). But this time I say nothing, and usually get a look and then they tell me about the second knocking of which I then look at them weirdly, and tell them it's nothing, you're probably hearing neighbors making noise upstairs in the apartment above or something. Near the end of the song I play the loudest knocking that cannot be mistaken as "hearing things". I tell them, yeah I'll go get the door. But before I do I ask as I get up, "so btw, were the headphones any good?" They of course say yeah, sounds better than apple earbuds/airpods for sure(this is long before the newer IEM's from Apple). And then I ask if the knocking sound was realistic at all? Light laughs follow after that after the initial disbelief ;P

It's been a while since I played that prank on anyone. Also it works super well if you use open-back headphones, as it would sound pretty off with closed-backs where the person can't hear you talk as well, but somehow hear clear knocking (it would give it away quickly).

But yeah man, I agree... HURRY UP EVERYONE!
 

Dogen

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#15
I do think that audio, in many ways, is a “solved problem”. Except very few would mistake even the best stereo system for a live performance. There’s a frontier ahead of using perhaps dozens of loudspeakers in a space, with DSP to get us closer to the real thing. But it will be quite impractical to implement outside a lab.
 

Wombat

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#16
Re the OP; I can't relate the two. :mad:
 
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Thread Starter #17
Yup, Wombat, high-end audio is a category so far removed from other branches of electronics and technology I still can't get my head around it.

I've confused the hell out of my friends and family with binaural recordings too, tks. "But it's just one on each ear, how is coming from behind me?!". Nothing quite as elaborate as that though!.

I'm not so sure about two channel being enough. We're stuffing more and more speakers around us for home cinema in order to get the directionality needed, using all sorts of DSP, and it's still not there. I can fool someone outside the room that someone is knocking at the door - accidentally, it's just a film - or even that I'm having a conversation. But stereos don't create anything but a passingly convincing 3D effect on front of you, and you have to buy into it. I've never thought an audience member was clapping behind me or whispering in my ear. Perhaps there's a way to virtually divide the room down the middle to approach the effect of headphones, I did see a review of a speaker that played with phase in order to create an odd stereo separation effect. I'm dubious, but you never know. It'd certainly be convenient. I still don't think it'll be the old guard high-end audio companies who achieve it however its done though, it'll be modern tech companies.

Home cinema with all these speakers can occasionally produce extremely convincing effects. So there's already people with setups that most would deem impractical, just to have those experiences. That's the lightning in a bottle we chase. It's not inconceivable that as homes get "smarter", sound engineers focus more heavily on it, and money is poured into R&D that we could bridge that uncanny valley in audio and have truly immersive experiences, outside the lab. And in time it could become commonplace. That's the dream anyhow. Bring back Tomorrow's World!
 

anmpr1

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#18
Yup, Wombat, high-end audio is a category so far removed from other branches of electronics and technology I still can't get my head around it.
As goofy as 'high-end' audio is, run of the mill consumer electronics, including appliances, are weirder. Two examples: refrigerators with touchscreens and Internet access. And an app so you can look in your 'fridge when you are at work. Who ever was at work and wanted to look inside their refrigerator?

We bought an electric toothbrush last year to replace an old model. OK. It works fine. I guess. But it has a cell phone app. Whatever did people do about brushing their teeth before cellphone apps?

You can just imagine how it went down at the Braun product planning group: "Well, Dieter. What can we do sell more electric toothbrushes?" "I know, Hans. Let's include wireless Bluetooth and an app! Millenials like and expect that, and they'll fly off the shelf. Plus, before any of it breaks it'll be out of warranty!" "Good thinking Dieter. Now that that's settled, lets go to the rathskeller and throw back a few cool ones in anticipation of our bonus check."
 

Gedeon

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#19
Buying luxury items instantly serves to show off about how much money do you have and your social status.

But buying an expensive car, by example, doesn't automatically becomes you a "competitive driver". It's crystal clear and that's the key point. The same applies for a $5000 computer. It won't become you a great programmer or a pro-gamer.

However, when entering in the high-end audio arena, some customers doesn't just look for showing off about their money or their status. They usually, insist to be "two, three, four... steps" above the rest of music/audio lovers because they "can appreciate" differences the rest can't.

They aren't only buying "good gear", you usually can't buy, but the status of "gifted/talented/special music lovers"… golden ears.. And clever salesmen and marketing campaigns do know really, really well how to get profit of the totally natural and human desire to get that "super-natural" status just buying stuff. The ownership of such gear, automatically entitles the owner to show the gear and his personal experience as the doubtless proof of his super-natural abilities.

High-End audio snake oil & marketing is really almost perfect from "ego/vanity" point of view. It's a win-win.
 
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JJB70

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#20
I think that audio sources and amplification are solved problems as it is entirely possible to deliver audible transparency. It doesn't even have to cost much. However that won't keep the upgradeitis fed, keep high end product churn going, keep magazines selling and massage the egos of golden eared audiophiles. So there is a very small but i suspect very lucrative high end micro- niche based on all sorts of nonsensical ideas.
The field of audio where there is still work to do is speakers, and speaker and room set up. But even with speakers it isn't necessary to spend that much if well set up. Funnily enough I think the segment driving speaker technology is the consumer wireless segment, which is a segment golden eared audiophiles tend to dismiss.
Given all this it's not surprising that manufacturers end up promoting all sorts of asinine BS. An essential difference between high end audio and some other luxury products is that audio pretends it is about sound quality whereas in the case of expensive watches and fashion and even high end automotive it is unashamedly about making a statement.
Until someone figures out how to beam sound directly into our brains I think audio will remain essentially a solved problem if you make a bit of effort with speakers.
 
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