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2016

October

Real or Imagined?

What’s the point of hi-fi? Surely, the goal is the closest reproduction of the original sound – but why? And whose ‘original sound’ is it anyway? Indeed many professional musicians don’t see originality as being something to strive for at all, and a good percentage of them simply aren’t interested in high quality sound in their homes. To us audiophiles, this seems bizarre. After all, would Pablo Picasso not enjoy perusing paintings, or Enzo Ferrari not relish watching motorsport?

The solution to this riddle lies in the different way that musicians interact with music, compared to lesser mortals who merely consume it. The listening experience is passive, an attempt to immerse ourselves into the magic made at the time of the performance – to connect emotionally with what’s going on. For the player however, other concerns hold sway. The music is inside them, and their job is to get it out as correctly as they can – alongside many other players all doing the same thing separately, but together. Playing in an orchestra is a sensory challenge on a number of levels. For example, clarinettists sit in the middle of the orchestra – which can stretch sixty feet across the width of the platform, and thirty feet front to back – and it’s essential for them to play in time. Their first duty is to get their cue from those around them, and not a fraction of a second too late. Here, performers really don’t want stereo imaging, and many report they can only function well when everything seems to come from a point source just above the music desk.

Of course, this is totally at odds with the needs of classical music loving hi-fi enthusiasts, who regard the accurate recreation of the recorded acoustic as sacrosanct. Indeed, some musicians who are also audiophiles tend to chose loudspeakers according to their perspective as a player, much to the amusement of their dealers. They’ve been known to stand between the speakers in the dem room with their backs to the wall, so they can get a feel for how the system reproduces the performance from their point of view as a musician in the orchestra. One retailer identified a customer – who played under some of the best batons in the business, from Baird and Beecham, to Giulini, Klemperer and Schwarzkopf – because he did precisely this.
For a classical musician, feedback is what it’s all about – the human intuition that drives great musicians and orchestras. An accomplished soloist once said, “a player has to rely on this for judgement of what and how he is doing. That is how some halls get their reputations for good acoustics, even when the audience fails to get the benefit. Feedback in the Royal Festival Hall used to be poor: it was impossible to know how loud or quiet to be. The Usher Hall in Edinburgh was marvellous in this respect. Doing Gerontius, after minimal rehearsal, in Canterbury Cathedral was a curiously remote and not yet mystic, experience. In that vast echo chamber one could not rely on one’s ears. The conductor had to be watched with ferocious concentration, otherwise one was simply lost in space.”

Some concert halls sound great for the players, but not the audience. So how can a serious hi-fi system reflect this? It gives a window onto the world from a place in space that musicians sometimes don’t want to be. “The City Hall in Birmingham was ballyhooed to the skies by the musicians who first performed there, but the sound for the audience was jumbled in all but a few seats, and even there the steel railings that stopped us falling out of the circle into the stalls resonated furiously. I found one ringing a true B natural, others off a bit. As a rule I try in most halls for a seat in the front row of the circle, and at all costs avoid seats under it, where there is no bass to be heard.”

Not all professional musicians are quite as curmudgeonly though – and many happily invest in top-flight audio equipment for their own homes. Some report that it’s the fine detail and natural attack that pleases them, giving “the honest revelation of phrasing.” The sound doesn’t have to be exciting, it must be correct. As we listen to music, we all make inferences, and one musician reports that for him the point of great hi-fi is that, “at least you know what to infer.” Therein lies the rub – they use hi-fi is a tool to help bring the score to life, rather than delivering an audience-centred view of the proceedings. Alternatively, as one wag of a clarinettist once observed, perhaps the reason that so many classical musicians aren’t interested in hi-fi is that they have been deafened by the rest of the orchestra. “You’ve never heard such a racket unless you have been on the inside!”

June

The Write Stuff

Seventy years ago, Peter Goldmark and Howard H. Scott were putting the finishing touches to the Long Playing record, the new music storage format that was to be unveiled by Columbia records in 1948. Hi-fi was in its infancy, but this heralded the start of its golden age – one that stretched right up to the late nineteen eighties, propelled by Compact Disc launched in 1982. Of course, the industry is still going great guns, but is a more globalised and diverse one now, and less in the media spotlight as the world’s press obsesses on smartphones and associated gadgets – none of which were available when consumer audio reigned supreme.

As with all history, the danger is that we take it for granted. The twenty first century world – although still highly imperfect – is a far safer and nicer place than the one of a hundred years ago for example, thanks to massive advances in science and medicine. Hi-fi too didn’t just magically arrive in this place, it too was the result of great struggles over many decades. It is now cheaper and more accessible than ever, and to all intents and purposes, so much better too. Developments in analogue audio, and then digital, have brought sources to ever higher planes, amplifiers have improved and loudspeakers have used high tech materials and powerful computer design packages to raise their game also. read more…

May

Life of surprises
Life of surprises

According to a study from Queen Mary University of London, listeners can hear a difference between standard audio and better-than-CD quality, high resolution audio. The report compared data from over 12,000 different trials from eighteen studies, where participants were asked to discriminate between samples of music in different formats. Dr Joshua Reiss of QMUL’s Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science said, “Audio purists and the audio industry should welcome these findings – our study finds high resolution audio has a small but important advantage in its quality of reproduction over standard audio content.”

Of course, this will not come as a complete surprise to the audiophiles reading this – in other news, the Pope is a Catholic and British summers are a wash-out! But it’s interesting that people thought there was a need for such a study in the first place, and secondly the results have been reported with a degree of surprise. Most audiophiles will be well aware that you don’t need to own a dCS digital front end to tell the difference – even a £500 DAC on the end of a PC will show an improvement, providing the source files are true hi-res ones. Yet the perception in the wider public is often that actually, hi-res audio is a bit of a gimmick, and they themselves can’t really hear the difference. Ironically of course, the very same people who say this may happily discard a perfectly good three year-old fifty inch flatscreen television, because it doesn’t have the latest high definition picture capability. read more…

April

Popular Mechanics
Popular Mechanics

After nearly two years of concerted development, the new dCS Rossini is now on sale. It comes in two versions, DAC and Player – the latter featuring an CD transport mechanism built in. As you would expect from a major new dCS product, much effort went into sourcing this, and modifying to our own requirements. Sadly, the Esoteric mechanism used on the Puccini was no longer available, so the design team spent a long time searching for a replacement.

dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg recalls, “it was very difficult to find anything that met the technical specification. There are countless ROM-type mechanisms on the market and they’re mostly cheap and nasty. The other problem is that, as a rule, you’ve got to burst the audio out of them which we don’t really want to do. That’s why we ruled these out.”

Instead, a selection of bespoke CD mechs were sourced and evaluated. “We invalidated them mechanically if they were noisy – the last thing you want is a whirring in the corner of your room. Then we went on to test the read quality of the remaining ones, and their longevity.  The best solution we found was from Stream Unlimited, whose mechanism is a bespoke, single-speed, real time CD player. We then went on to modify it, with improved mechanics, disc clamping and vibration isolation; also, as you would expect, serious attention was paid to clocking.”  read more…

March

Japanese Whispers
Japanese Whispers

As far as the recording industry is concerned, Japan is the exception that proves the rule. The world is moving to streaming – not just from CD but now, mostly, from downloads. Yet the land of the rising sun still buys seventy-eight percent of its music on physical formats. That is staggering, and all the more so because the country isn’t some technological backwater, but rather probably the most advanced in the world in terms of its consumer technology uptake.

This is the country where ATM machines have been speaking to you since the nineteen eighties, with cartoons of smartly dressed ladies bowing to you onscreen and thanking you for your custom. In nineties Japan, when Western mobile phone users were still fumbling with buttons and black and white alphanumeric displays, the ‘personal phones’ of that country were as full of features as the smartphones we use today. When the adventurous British motorist was driving around with a large Tomtom satnav device suctioned to his windscreen, Japanese car buyers had the option of standard fit, manufacturer approved integrated navigation systems. In the last decade, everything from Japanese gaming to internet-connected smart homes have shown to be decades ahead. From a fridge to a toilet seat, the Japanese will put a silicon chip in it! read more…

February

The Money-Go-Round
The Money-Go-Round

Music is all things to all people. For some, it’s a welcome respite from the cruel world – a way of escaping the stresses and strains of everyday life. For others, it’s a soundtrack to their best times, giving melodic and rhythmic accompaniment to those special moments. Music can be trivial and meaningless, or politicised and uplifting. It can be tenderly romantic or almost violent. It’s an extremely powerful form of communication, and a massive money maker too…

Indeed, there has never been a time when music hasn’t been tied to power. Europe’s great classical composers were consummate political operators, winning favour and funding from the monarchies or aristocracies for which they wrote. Warp forward a couple of hundred years and Elvis Presley sent teenage girls wild, to the sound of record store cashier tills ringing. The Beatles and ABBA earned more for the UK and Sweden in the nineteen sixties and seventies respectively than most of their countries’ major corporations. The eighties saw Britain exporting another wave of synthesiser-toting youths around the western world, as record companies swelled their coffers. read more…

January

Back to the Future
Back to the Future

Imagine warping back in time thirty years to 1986. Stepping out of your DeLorean, blurry eyed and somewhat slightly dazed, you’re greeted by an audience of eighties music fans desperate to know what the world’s highest selling recording artists are from ‘the new era’. If you replied that AC/DC, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd were in the top ten, would they believe you?

It’s true though. Joining Taylor Swift, One Direction, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay are some real blasts from the past. It only goes to show that music buying is no longer the province of one generation – it’s now two, or even three. Also, there’s a good deal of crossover going on between the generations. Many of those Floyd album sales will be eighteen year old boys getting up to speed on the wealth of brilliant rock music made by previous generations.

The great thing about streaming of course, is that it’s a huge music library in the sky. Any music-loving kid wanting to hear AC/DC’s Back in Black a generation or so ago, would have to tune into the BBC’s Friday Rock Show, and wait for DJ Tommy Vance to play it. Either that, or wait until Saturday to go to the shops to buy it on vinyl or CD. Now, it’s there at the brush of a touchpad, or a swipe of the screen. The ability to stream almost anything is an intensely liberating thing. read more…

2015

December

Moving On Up
Moving On Up

The world would be a different place without the Law of Diminishing Returns. The fact that, for example, a £100,000 luxury car isn’t necessarily twice as fast, smooth or comfortable as a £50,000 one, is an almost universal concept and leads many to conclude that it’s not worth the additional expense. It logically follows then that the pricier the product is, the poorer value for money it offers…

There’s much to confirm this point of view, not least because many manufacturers of luxury goods – be they automobiles, couture, or hi-fi – slavishly follow the formula that their luxury products are little more than the cheaper ones done conspicuously better. Luxury car makers tend not to, for example, radically redesign their suspension systems for their top-of-the-range models, or offer new forms of engines to people able to pay a higher price. There’s relatively little ‘out of the box’ thinking, with many brands instead preferring to adorn staid engineering concepts with extra fripperies in a bid to justify the price.

Many think that this makes good business sense, because most people rely on brand loyalty or what reviewers say to inform their purchasing decisions. But it’s only when you probe beneath the skin of a product that you can really sort the wheat from the chaff. Proper research lets you discern between companies offering conservatively engineered designs in fancy packages, and those that really push the envelope in their respective fields – and truly justify their price tag.

dCS does not – and nor ever could we – start from the former standpoint. There are plenty of products featuring inexpensive off-the-shelf DAC chips which are implemented well and put in exotic cases, and these go on to sell against us in the market. dCS designs however, work the other way round. Our core technology is the Ring DAC – the most technologically advanced way of converting digital audio to analogue sound out there– and it doesn’t come on commercially available silicon from an OEM manufacturer in China. Rather, the Ring DAC is implemented on a large circuit board, running multiple Field Programmable Gate Arrays containing bespoke, dCS-written code. This is firmware-upgradable far into the future, so a dCS digital converter won’t go out of production in a few years, when the chip manufacturer pulls the plug.

This is the most complex and expensive way of producing a DAC, with heavy hardware and software development costs – but is the only way to do the job properly. The dCS product range duly boils down to how exactingly the Ring DAC board is implemented. Vivaldi has no compromise, employing all the know-how that the company has amassed over three decades at the forefront of digital audio. The attention to detail is absolute, the quality control without peer, the consistency over time and over the production run is total. Sonically, it is breathtaking across all formats, giving a vibrancy and life even to standard Compact Disc that betters other top DACs playing hi-res music. Don’t audition it if you don’t want to buy one though, because it will tell you what your current converter is doing wrong in no uncertain terms…

At the other end of our model range is Debussy. Despite being the ‘entry level’ product, like all dCS designs it is fitted with the full Ring DAC board and offers a mouthwatering taste of what is possible. The sound is obviously more powerful and three dimensional than rivals, with unique insight into the music that one simply doesn’t get from lesser machines of plainer origin. It may be ‘dCS-lite’ but is still proudly and defiantly a dCS – Debussy is emphatically not a cheaper design that has been spruced up for high end appeal.

Sitting in-between the two is the brand new Rossini. Effectively a more affordable version of the flagship Vivaldi, it has fewer compromises than Debussy while being priced between the two. It has the general look and functionality of its big brother, and manages to retain its painstaking attention to detail on the audio engineering side. Sonically, it has that bold, exuberant and commanding character of the Vivaldi, while missing very little of the detail and musical insight you get from a 4 box Vivaldi stack. It’s a redoubtable package, and all the more impressive considering it costs less than half of the flagship dCS Vivaldi system.

The new three-strong dCS range gives a graduated approach for prospective purchasers, then. Starting with the best implementation of the superb Ring DAC at the top, it offers the same powerful heart in the less expensive models, with the minimum compromises necessary to achieve the price point. This results in a range that outclasses its commercial rivals, on account of its unique technology – hardware and software – and peerless attention to detail across the board. Contrary to the law of diminishing returns, the improvements are clear to hear as you go up the range, yet each dCS DAC works superbly in its own right.

November

Vital Signs
Vital Signs

Anyone who lived through the consumer electronics revolution of the past fifty years will know that, whilst the road may be paved with good intentions, it doesn’t always get you there. Followers of developments in audio and video know all too well that there have been many ‘false starts’ along the way to nirvana, with countless – and often ultimately pointless – format wars which make life even more confusing for manufacturers and end users alike.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), like the British Phonographic Institute (BPI) in the United Kingdom, represents the interests of the copyright holders of the music that we know and love – so is an important mover and shaker in the great scheme of things. Indeed, fifteen years ago it tried and failed to get MP3 players banned in the United States, in a landmark case which had a direct effect on the way that the music industry has subsequently developed. Effectively it meant that the business had to embrace, rather than ban, music downloads and now streaming.

Now, the RIAA has announced a new logo to identify what is officially ‘high resolution music’. Cynics might think this to be another meaningless public relations campaign, but it could prove to be a highly astute move. From the BSI ‘Kitemark’ to ‘Ozone Friendly’ labelling, consumers respond positively to graphics which neatly encapsulate more complex concepts behind them. Indeed, there’s evidence that when people see such logos, they bother to find out what they actually mean. In the case of high resolution audio, this can only be a good thing for the hi-fi industry. read more…

October

Forever Changes
Forever Changes

The music industry is in a constant state of flux, but sometimes it’s hard to spot the change while it is happening. Rather like tectonic plates moving the Earth’s crust around, nothing appears on the surface for years, then tremors occur which invariably presage an earthquake. 2015 has seen some small but interesting developments in the way we consume music, ones that will be more apparent in a year or two’s time. read more…

September

Easy Does It
Easy Does It

Right now, all the talk is of a ‘vinyl revival’. Large numbers of music buyers, it seems, have remembered that there’s such a thing as the microgroove LP, and have started collecting it again. The reasons for this range from teenagers getting into the format because of its hipster image, to middle aged men trying to relive their youth…

There’s also a strong case to make on sound quality grounds, too. Given that the format has been around since 1958 in stereo form, there has been plenty of time for hardware manufacturers – makers of turntables, tonearms and cartridges – to perfect their art. Even the most committed fan of digital music would agree that an excellent quality vinyl pressing (not always an easy thing to find, admittedly) played on a serious turntable can sound very fine indeed. LP done properly can certainly remind us of the faults of lesser digital music sources, which tend to sound the exact opposite to the charming sound of black plastic.

When CD was launched in 1982, aside from the ‘sci-fi’ appeal of its laser optical pick-up, most people loved its convenience. There’s no denying that it is easier to use than vinyl, and whilst hobbyists may enjoy taking records out of their jacket and running a carbon fibre brush over them every time, many people just want the music to start. For this reason, despite its declining sales, it will take a long time for the ageing silver disc to reach its final curtain, and the much vaunted vinyl revival will never be a mainstream thing. read more…

August

Physical Attraction
Physical Attraction

With rumours that the new Apple Music streaming service has hit ten million subscribers in the first four weeks of its launch, this is probably the time to be celebrating the beginning of a new epoch in the way we buy and use recorded music. After all, Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told investors that “millions and millions” have signed up for the company’s three-month trial. Indeed, it is believed that the company envisages a dizzying 100 million paying subscribers, by the time the platform has matured.

Factor in the enduring success of Spotify, which boasts about 20 million paying subscribers and 75 million active users – not forgetting Pandora’s 80 million – and you have a clear trend. Yet even if Apple’s figure proves optimistic, one would still think the writing is on the wall for old fashioned physical media. After all, most manufacturers of Compact Disc players have long since popped the champagne corks. The overall trend is down, in almost every country in the developed world.

Does this spell the end of that lovely ritual of frequenting music shops, browsing through the racks and pondering which discs to buy? Will we soon miss that heady sense of anticipation break open the cellophane wrapper to the distinctive smell of the freshly printed inlay card? Are the days of dropping the CD into the disc tray and pressing ‘play’, nearly gone? read more…