Audiophile always claim they are chasing the original sound from the live music. There are two major camps in the audio field, one believes objective analysis using the scientific equipments to confirm the audio equipments can reproduce what the original music was recorded, the other believes subjective listening experience using the human listening capability. Both camps have some extremist that you think they are crazy, arguing this on the Internet forums.
Now let’s back to the basic. What is the original sound of music? A simple question indeed! We all know what the real life sound is. But when we record it using some electronic equipments, is it still the original? Some people will argue yes, as the latest equipments are so much improved through the HiFi technology development. This is the exact view of the objective folks believe.
For subjective folks, they clearly disagree as some of them hate the digital sound. People does have different hearing capability. Some folks can hear better than others. More importantly, everyone has different reaction in their brain, how much tolerance it can handle the distortion of the sound. Digital glare just one of these things, that someone claims hurting their ear and brain, while others cannot hear it at all. Someone’s music could be others noise, that is how our brain is functioning.
Ah, distortion. That is what we believe the sound is altered from the original. But wait, isn’t everything is altered, or distorted by its environment? We know some music hall sounds better than the others.
Now let’s use some analogy from video we are experiencing. Do you think the 4K video image is real or original? We all know it is not, but everyone seems loving to watch the vivid image, of the 4K video. This is the difference, between video image and audio sound. When video is exaggerating the image, this is the analytical form of pixels, and coloration of gamut. Only digitization can achieve this performance. Analog video in the good old days cannot give you such enjoyment.
For audio sound, we are having the same trend, that everything is digitized. Starting from the recording, we digitize the audio then master it for the final music. The latest technology can push the bit depth and sampling frequency higher and higher to capture more sound information, similar to high definition camera to capture more image information. So shouldn’t this have the same effect as the 4K video to give us better sound? Yes and no.
Technically we are capturing more sound info, and we can do much better mastering to create more analytical music and sound effects. If you like the detail and faster music, then this definitely helps. But human ear has different preference from our eye. Sharper image seems always a good thing for our eye, but sharper sound could hurt our ear. This is due to our brain is processing the video and audio signal differently. Fuzzy picture will cause dizzy reaction, as our brain is trying to analyze the image. But sharper sound will cause fatigue reaction, as our brain likes to handle smooth sound signal.
This is most likely due to our eye is based on retina to translate the image to our brain for signal processing. Retina is a finite array of the image sensing cells on the backside of our eye ball. Sharper image of picture helps for retina and our brain so we love it. But human ear is an analog instrument through our eardrum, with a sophisticated mechanical structure, to transfer the sound wave into our brain for processing. Our hearing capability was evolved from our survival needs through millions years. A subtle difference will set our brain to react and trying to process it for alert of danger.
Now think about what the digitized high frequency music sound is. Although we use electronic to smooth it out the digitized waveform, as the DAC analog output stage is doing, it still includes many “micro or subtle” changes from digitized info. Our ear can detect these subtle detail, and send them to our brain for processing. When this is getting too much to our brain, we start feeling fatigue when too much “detail” is going on.
This can also explain why the fatigue is not something immediate effect when you start hearing the digital music. It takes some time to exhaust our brain’s processing power during the prolong listening. Even if you have a pure analog audio system and if your system is too bright then similar effect could happen, as your brain is having hard time to handle the sharper or bright sound waves.
Now the higher the bit depth and digital sampling frequency we have, the less this phenomenon will be. This is why the HiRes music is better than the 16bit 44.1Khz CD quality sound is. It is not just the hearing frequency range that matters. Our brain is reacting something we cannot hear it as music sound. Some CD music was mastered better than others so our brain reacts on them with much more enjoyment.
We cannot hear it does not mean our ear and brain are not responding for the sound wave. You might have the experience, when you were testing your subwoofer, the extreme low frequency sound wave is hurting your eardrum although you can’t hear it when it is below 30Hz. Scientific study has showed our brain does react on these infrasonic and ultrasonic zone. Our hearing system can sense beyond the audible frequency zone although we may not perceive it as sound. Study also showed prolong exposure to these frequency zone with certain sound pressure level it could damage our hearing capability.
There is lot of heated discussion in audiophile forums between subjective folks and objective folks. One critical argument is the double blind test for audio, to prove their point one way or the other. Subjective folks swear they can hear the sound difference, while objective folks want them to prove it with the double blind testing. This is actually another myth in the audio field. Our ear and brain hearing system actually does not work well for the double blind hearing test for the subtle changes.
This is why we need prolong listening to “feel” the music sound is different. Instant switching back and forth some audio equipments, such as different DAC, we may or may not be able to detect the difference. But prolong listening could show something is different on your feeling of the music, especially in certain music elements, that require your brain to handle the “micro or subtle” difference from the equipments.
This probably can explain why some folks believe the analog music sounds better, such as from vinyl and tube equipments. They both tend to give you warmer sound effect due to their analog signal processing method. Vinyl is based on the groove mechanical structure along with the stylus movement on it, while tube is based on the electron movement inside the vacuum tube.
Objectively, tube never shows good measurements, due to its response on the electron, along with their circuit designs. Why some people love the tube sound? Because their brain likes the smooth nature of the tube sound, with much less busy brain processing is needed. Rotating the tube can give them different enjoyment, as different tubes will smooth the sound signal differently, or colorizing the sound differently. Each tube is a discrete item, so they cannot be matched very closely as the modern silicon based integrated solid state devices can.
The impact of discrete component characteristic differences will give you different stereo channel effect that affecting your sound stage and other sonic effects. Your room arrangement and speakers placement could have other interaction for this sonic response too. These are all sound distortion from objective perspective, but for the subjective folks this is their enjoyment of the audiophile experience.
Your brain has the preference based on your real life experience, such as from some concerts or music halls. This is why when you make your room response for your equipments perfectly flat, based on the measurements, you probably will not like it as it tends to be too bright. Your brain is the final equipment to judge if you have the good music sound or not. So called original sound is actually the sound engineers’ preference during their mastering in their editing studio.
If your brain can handle the busy digitized sound signal without bothering, then you might not be able to feel the difference, or don’t care about the difference, as you very likely prefer the detail and sharper sound that only the digital sound can provide. This is why this audiophile battle between objective and subjective will never end, as we are all different with different brain processing power and different threshold of suffering.
We all have the right to believe on our personal experience, so you are always right!
Enjoy listening !!!