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Do Audio Formats Really Produce Audible Differences?

You can't declare format superiority when the mastering is often the biggest variable that determines sound quality.

Admittedly, I am torn over the inherent superiority of one audio format over another. My theory is there are so many variables involved that a comparison can’t really be made. If you compare vinyl to a CD, you are hearing different mastering, and in many cases, you’re hearing a different mix with different EQ. The format is not the biggest variable in many cases. I pointed out in an article from earlier this year that Windham Hill recordings on vinyl sound very close to the CDs, with the biggest variable most likely being the phono cartridge’s frequency response and loading. Even the levels are almost the same. On the other hand, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” on CD is about 6 dB hotter than the record, and there’s an excruciatingly metallic quality to the sound that makes the CD unlistenable, while the vinyl record is superb. I blame the CD mastering, but there’s no way to be sure. It’d be great to compare the record and the CD to the raw stereo mixdown from the 3M 24-track tape machine in the studio, but there I go, dreaming again. Some recordings just sound better than others, whether they’re HDCD, Blu-ray audio, vine-yule, SACD, DSD, etc. For those of you who want to get your nerd on, read this paper from the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, September, 2007.

The article destroys the argument that SACD inherently sounds better than CD, all other things being equal. Some have made the point that if an engineer goes to the trouble of making an SACD, he may be more meticulous in the mastering process, but, again, this has nothing to do with the superiority of the format.

Vinyl vs CD

Vinyl vs CD: Which do you prefer?
Check out our CD vs Vinyl vs FLAC Listening Comparison

Can you detect the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit?

Might there be other variables in the recordings? Was one mastered at a higher level? (In blind listening tests, I’ve found that a subject will pick the recording that’s a mere 1 dB louder almost all the time.) The reasons music sounds better to you in one format as opposed to the other may, in fact, have nothing to do with the format. We are predisposed to like a newer, hipper format with higher theoretical resolution, regardless of if it sounds the same as a more conventional format. Often we convince ourselves that something is better, whether or not it is, because we truly want to like it better---we’ve made the emotional commitment. The differences among formats are way down the list of contributors to good sound, and far behind the low hanging fruit of room acoustics, recording and mastering quality, speaker accuracy, and proper calibration. I’ve heard terrible-sounding vinyl, spectacular-sounding vinyl, CDs that sounded better than SACD or Blu-ray audio, CDs that were unmitigated horror shows, and, well, you get the picture. The quality of the recording itself contributes far more to the sound than the format.

Cable Elevators

Cable Elevator Snake Oil

Some audiophiles actually believe that raising their cables off the floor will stop them from misfiring their electrical signal by reducing static electricity!

Peripheral considerations…

Our psychology is always in flux. Can that be a big factor in how we perceive the quality of sound?

And then there are contributors that have little or nothing to do with the gear itself. How fresh are your ears? Have you flown on an airplane or attended a concert recently? Been swimming? Trap shooting? How tired are you? What is your mood? And what about that ringing in your ears from two or three ibuprofen? I can listen to the same program material on my two-channel system several times during the course of a day, and it will not sound exactly the same to me. Our physiology is always in flux. There are so many variables. And what about the effect of room temperature and humidity upon the viscosity and/or compliance of a cartridge cantilever damping block or speaker suspension parts? Although this is nitpicking at the audiophile extreme, the change in compliance with temperature change of these moving parts can be measured. And can we detect sonic differences that cannot be measured? Are you certain?? You’ll notice from all the question marks in this paragraph that I am asking if these variables are at all significant, and do they contribute to sonic differences. I don’t have definitive answers, and I hope some of you have opinions. Yes, there will be a thread to post to, and we want to hear from you. I own a flame suit, so…

Uh-oh, now he’s going to talk about WIRE…

exotic power cordI’ve left speaker cables and interconnects for last, because this may be the greatest area of controversy. And by controversy, I mean rage. I will state that cables can sound slightly different from one another, but I take issue with the dogma that some wire makes a “night and day difference.” I have read that phrase in at least a dozen wire reviews over the years (and coincidentally, I read it again just an hour ago), and it makes me cringe and want to bite my pillow. If there is a clean break in one wire, that would make a night-and-day difference. If a wire is not damaged; if it does not utilize a resistor/capacitor network to re-equalize or filter; if it is of sufficient gauge for the application; I don’t hear anything but insignificant differences, and most of the time, I don’t even hear that. I refer you to some excellent and entertaining videos on the Audioholics site, done by Gene and Hugo, two merry pranksters who delve into the subject with far more depth. Again, my point is not if you can or cannot hear a difference among cables, it’s more of where wire ranks in the pecking order. And it is my contention, based on my own experience and many double-blind tests, that wire is farther down the list than speakers, acoustics, etc. I recall doing a comparison for fellow audio salespersons many years ago where I had two identical sets of speaker wire, only one set was white and one set was red. Nearly every person in the demo picked the red wires as being more dynamic, warmer, having better bass; and they all picked the white wire as sounding colder and more analytical. The only difference was the color of the insulator. They sounded exactly alike. These were friends of mine, and I punked them, because that’s how I roll.

Recommended Reading:

Audio Interconnect and Speaker Cable Myths vs Facts Revealed

Dave Cutler Listening Room

Dave Cutler Listening Room - Acoustically treated for one perfect seat?!?


I still maintain that the big difference makers in sonic performance are room acoustics, loudspeakers, and the quality of the recording and mastering. Accurate system calibration is a given, and then, farther down the list, I would add sonic differences among electronics, software format, interconnects and speaker wire, sundry tweaks, and probably a good night’s sleep followed by a big strong cup of coffee. There are diminishing returns at some point in the chain that is an audio system, and it’s my belief that the biggest contributors to good sound have to be addressed first. After that, feel free to tweak away at the less significant stuff, have fun, don’t outsmart yourself, and continue to fine tune your system.


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Recent Forum Posts:

DD66000 posts on December 13, 2015 06:48
AcuDefTechGuy, post: 1103472, member: 26997
One thing is for sure. If I think the recording sucks, I would never play it again no matter what sound system I have.

Many of us have spent years trying to procure a sound system that we think sounds best.

So now the only thing left to do is to add the recordings we think sound best to our current collections.
Yeah, I've got a few LPs that will never be played again.
The lack of soundstage is my biggest gripe:
Infamous hole-in-middle; or singer's voice in the middle, but all the instrumentation only in one channel, as if they were all standing inside a 4 ft circle. Totally insane.
Seth=L posts on November 24, 2015 14:37
PENG, post: 1104759, member: 6097
It is real, and I don't think it is that new.

Yep, and let's not forget about ERS paper.
PENG posts on November 22, 2015 09:27
herbu, post: 1104125, member: 56644
Whaaat? This is a new one for me. Is that really a thing?

It is real, and I don't think it is that new.
hyghwayman posts on November 22, 2015 03:05
A quality subwoofer did if for my ears.
herbu posts on November 19, 2015 08:30
Dan Madden, post: 1103533, member: 76973
I laugh at setups that have elevated speaker cables.
Whaaat? This is a new one for me. Is that really a thing?
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