By Lam Seng Fatt
During the talk on vinyl at Centre Circle recently, well-known audiophile Danon Han said his friend had sold 5,000 master tapes (from the good old reel-to-reel recorders used in studios) to HDtracks which are now being converted into hi-res digital files for paid downloads.
One day a few weeks ago, I was visiting the HDtracks website when I spotted John Coltrane’s Lush Life (Rudy Van Gelder Remaster) which was available in 24bit 44.1kHz download. Why wasn’t it in higher sampling rate? I do not know.
The Coltrane album could be from the master tape collection previously owned by Danon’s friend. Since I already have an audiophile LP of the same album in 180gm vinyl, I decided to purchase the download.
Soon, it was just a matter of switching inputs to compare the two. Bear in mind, this recording was made from the spring of 1957 to the winter of 1958, and obviously the equipment was all analogue plus I am sure there were a few valve amps used in the recording/editing process.
HDtracks hired the original recording and remastering engineer Rudy Van Gelder to work on the digital conversion. The stronger bass that I heard from the HDtracks version must have been due to remastering.
After hearing the analogue and digital versions several times, I called three other audiophiles to my house to have a listening session. One of the three is a fanatical music lover who owns more than 20,000 (someone told me it’s closer to 30,000, but nobody is sure and I think the person himself is not sure of the exact number) CDs and LPs, mono recordings, box sets and exotic pressings.
So I played the LP on my humble souped-up Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tonearm, Michael Lim’s underslung counterweight, Benz Glider cartridge and Creek phono preamp while the digital file was played from a Lenovo laptop via a Furutech USB cable to the Wyred4Sound DAC2. Preamp was the Lamm LL2 Deluxe, power amp was the Bryston 4B SST and the speakers were the ATC SCM40. Cables were from WyWires and Kimber. My entire system costs less than what some of the top audiophiles in Malaysia spend on, say, a high-end preamp. But many audiophiles have heard all sorts of shootouts with the system.
I played the LP and the HDtracks file simultaneously and I switched the inputs several times (often at the request of the listeners) so that they could compare the two sources seamlessly.
The conclusion was surprising – they all thought the HDtracks digital version of Coltrane’s Lush Life sounded “good” and was “very close” to the vinyl version and it was difficult to tell them apart if not for the occasional click and pop when playing vinyl.
However, they felt that the digital version was forward sounding and seemed “aggressive” while the LP version sounded relaxed, more laidback and enjoyable.
My personal view is this: The analogue and digital versions are very similar, but the digital version appeared to have a wider dynamic range. This is probably due to the inherent properties of the media – LPs have a dynamic range of around 70dB while a 24-bit digital music file has a theoretical dynamic range of 144dB.
The digital file had ‘harder’ leading edges and the saxophone and trumpet sounded a bit ‘harder’. As I mentioned earlier, the stronger bass was probably due to remastering.
The analogue tracks, however, win hands down on factors that cannot be quantified – fluidity and ‘organicness’. It was much easier to get into the mood of moving with the rhythm and flow of the music when I spun the vinyl.
I could live with both versions and the question of which version I would play would depend on mood and convenience. If I have lots of time to spare, to proceed with the ‘ritual’ of taking out the LP from the sleeve carefully, placing it on the turntable, cleaning the stylus, placing the tonearm over the lead-in grooves and then lowering the tonearm, then I would play the LP.
In conclusion, digital music can never be the same as analogue music. No matter how many thousands of times per second you chop up natural music – 44,100 times a second or even 384,000 times a second – you still have to reconstruct the waveform and it will still be stepped even at the highest available resolution. That difference between a stepped waveform and a perfectly smooth natural one is – IMHO – the factor that gives analogue music that fluid and organic characteristic. Analogue music sounds, well, natural. To create a smooth waveform from a stepped waveform DACs use interpolation algorithms to make up approximate data points to essentially join all the jagged edges together in a line. In the end, this creates a waveform that is approximately similar to the original analogue waveform. I think there is still a difference between a natural perfectly smooth waveform and a recreated version of it – this results in (albeit smaller and smaller) differences in sound quality that many audiophiles have noticed.
Those designing Analogue-to-Digital and Digital-to-Analogue converters can only hope to take the format as close as possible to analogue, natural music. If analogue music is represented by a number, say, 100, then digital music can only reach 99.9999….