Crippen enters the rarified air of high-end audio

mcintosh-mcaire-xlI’ve been thinking that I’m behind the curve when it comes to actually listening to music anymore: a victim of the “digital ease” age.  It’s easy to just keep a menagerie of music in my iMacs and play them out of relative cheap desktop speakers.  In my office, I have speakers that stand about 2 inches high and they’re hooked to my desktop computer.  I have a huge supply of music and I just let it run during my day, mostly in the background.

My ears have grown accustomed to music the fidelity of which is about the same as a car radio. But as it turns out, the “real” fidelity of digital music is incredibly bad once you have something to compare it too.

The advent of iTunes has killed “high fidelity” as I remember my dad exploring it in the 50s with tube amplifiers and incredibly big speakers fed through enormous turntables. Highly compressed (for portability) MP3 music files lose a LOT of fidelity in the process. Even the music on garden variety CDs is pretty crummy compared to what it could be. The vast majority of the speakers they’re played through are junk, including and especially ear buds.

Music purchased through iTunes or over Internet radio contains a fraction of the total sound information captured in the studio — as little as 3% of the original. Even CD formats contain as little as 10% of the original information so it can be contained on a 4 3/4-inch disc.

It dawned on me that there must be more to musical life than Pablum in a world otherwise filled with sirloin, so I started sniffing around the erudite world of “audiophiles”.

To begin with, digital music is capable of “high fidelity” in the form of uncompressed audio files such as FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and “Apple Lossless files” but there are two problems.  Space and bandwidth. It takes a LOT of space to contain these files and the equipment required to play them to their maximum extent is expensive.

Aging 60s rocker Neil Young has led the charge to affordable players for uncompressed music files for the past several years. Young filed six trademarks with U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2012, all of which would offer a higher quality audio alternative to mp3 files, but none have reached the marketplace yet. He’s starting to release albums on Blu-Ray for better sound quality and his high-resolution player is said to be in the works for 2014.

Then comes the re-emergence of “audiophile” 33-1/3 vinyl discs. Yes, vinyl is definitely coming back, and in extremely high-resolution format, said to be as close to studio quality as it’s possible to get.

They’re going all the way back to the 50s and finding the original master tapes, then putting them on vinyl in an amazingly lossless high tech process no one dreamed of back in the day. What you hear is as if you were standing in the control booth watching Linda Ronstadt in 1976. They now cost about US$30.00 each. The “sound” is said to be amazing and spectacular (I have not heard one yet).

As the discussion proceeds, we’re now talking about the rarified air of hardware for the discriminating listener.  With a little research, three things become apparent. There is no limit to the ability of hardware to reproduce sound fidelity, there is no limit to the amount of money that can be spent to do so but there is a limit to what my aging ears are capable of discerning.  A perusal of the available hardware is fascinating (especially the cost).  You can easily pay US$10,000 for a set of speakers.  Many of the hard core literally build their houses around US$350,000 audiophile hardware.

There is simply no discernable point of diminishing returns. The more you pay, the more rarified audio acuity you can get. But at some point, the line on the graph heading up into infinity exceeds sanity, especially since I only listen to 60s and 70s classic rock. Not exactly the same fidelity required might be the entire New York Philharmonic playing Beethoven at 100 decibels.

Interestingly, all my research eventually led to the same place it did for my dad in 1956 when my mother was loudly predicting the end of the world at the hands of the Prince of Darkness, Elvis. McIntosh Audio. (Note different spelling- not to be confused with Macintosh Computers). In the end, when you’re seeking high end, all paths lead to McIntosh and once that obsession becomes manifest, an emptying of your wallet.

Back in the day, the high-end amplifiers were all vacuum tube driven. They were big and heavy and required equally big pre-amplifiers to drive them into enormous stereo speaker cabinets.  My father ate peanut butter sandwiches for months to afford what was then a rudimentary McIntosh setup. Tell the truth I can’t remember what it sounded like but I remember him reposing for hours in a darkened room enjoying it.

So I decided to dip my toe in these waters with a relatively entry-level McIntosh combo unit that will play uncompressed digital files (for me, FLAC “Free Lossless Audio Codec” files) on my iPad and iPhone. Each of these files are not completely uncompressed but somewhere in the range of “better” to “much better” than straight up MP3. Not even close to vinyl but cheaper.

The unit allows wireless loading with FLAC files from either an IPhone or iPad.

It sounds absolutely amazing. So this will give me a taste of audiophile. Someday if I save my pennies and dimes (US$100 bills) I might look into building a full McIntosh system with a high-end phono player for the emerging mastery of vinyl.

It’ll be in my Scaife office around Christmas week. Drop by and I’ll give you a quick lesson in the difference between MP3 and FLAC.







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