A Little Side Trip Into Esoterica

Someone to whom I was describing my “experiments” in, and resulting preference for, “wireless” digital audio suggested it would make a good topic for a Musing.  I don’t know about that, but here it is in any case.

One of the many things that has made vinyl music playback so polarizing among music lovers is that it is rife with variables.  Forget the scores of them on the manufacturing and maintenance of software side.  I’m really only talking about the hardware, once you have a reasonably good turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination and phono preamp.

The cartridge and tonearm can be adjusted for the equivalents of an airplane’s pitch, roll, and yaw relative the the record groove as well as tracking force and anti-skating force.  Then, if the cartridge is a moving coil, the resistive loading presented by the phono preamp, and if a moving magnet, the capacitive can be optimized.  And of course all of this assumes that the cartridge and tonearm are a happy pairing in the first place, and that the turntable has been set up correctly with respect to any suspension adjustments and the like, and that it is level and optimized with regards to mechanical and acoustical isolation in the room.  Oh, and let’s not even bring up the fact that some elements of the setup, e.g. airplane “pitch” or VTA/SRA, should be changed record by record.

Thankfully, even when the machinery is not obsessively dialed in, records played on a really good turntable have a sound-making capability that renders many of us mesmerized by the music that comes out of them, but you can certainly see why the very thought of jumping seriously into vinyl sends some rushing for the refuge of digital audio.  At least it’s “pure, perfect sound – forever,” right?

Well, not entirely.  We know by now that the early advertising slogan for the Compact Digital Disc I quote didn’t exactly pan out.  Also, for a lot of, particularly younger, people today, the CD represents an impossibly high standard of audio performance in a world increasingly dominated by low resolution downloads and streaming.  I won’t go into (right now anyway) what I think the unlimited availability of low fi music is doing to the art form.  Instead, my purpose here is to suggest to those of you interested in getting the best out of digital audio what I have observed about the negative repercussions of connecting a fine audio system to your home network with wire.

If the technically knowledgeable folks on the vinyl side appear equal parts artist/artisan and  engineer, the same can certainly not be said for most of those on the digital side.  When I look around in that world, I see one predominantly populated by computer and IT people, usually with little to no checking in with ears to make sure that tenets and precepts are bearing out in the listening.

A lot of beliefs result from this, held to with absolute resolve, which don’t seem to comport with my own empirical observations.  From the downright silly sort of things, like “MP3s are a perfectly good way for an enthusiast to collect and listen to music” to the seemingly reasonable “lossless can’t sound different from/less good than the full file format,” I find myself in disagreement with conventional wisdom in case after case.

Another one of the IT-based assertions that is widely held to apply to digital audio is that “wired is better than wireless.”  Time and again, from my earliest explorations with Sonos to my current endeavors in state of the art servers, I have found the opposite to be true- that an audio system with any metal (wired) connection to a network will sound less good than the same system with that wired connection removed.  As so often happens with me, it seems, my most memorable verification of this was an accident.   It wasn’t my earliest discovery, but rather an unintentional cementing of my feelings based on a trap I set for myself.

At the time, my best digital music source was a Mac mini feeding my DAC, and Dave Gordon from Audio Research had sent me a custom-built isolation base, made by someone he knew, for my mini that was supposed to improve its sound quality (another concept most digital engineers would find implausible).  I spent a good 45 minutes going back and forth between the base from Dave and my existing, more rudimentary, method of isolation.  I remember I was using a high res download of the Bruno Walter Mahler Symphony No.9.  I figured, if it’s this hard to hear an improvement, I’m not going to spend money on an upgrade.  But I also remember thinking, as I seem to when my music-listening-brain is disappointed, that the sound of my system in general was reminiscent of….Wait!  Was my Mac mini plugged into my network switch??!!

Sure enough.  A few months earlier I had needed to move a lot of music files from one drive to another on the network and I had plugged my mini in for increased speed.  Here, of course, is where the computer/IT people are right- wired is FASTER, and, sixty days ago, that was also my temporary definition of better.  But now, long done with the big data transplant and having forgotten about my wired hookup, I was hobbled, not helped, by it.

I pulled the Ethernet cable from my mini (no music traveled through my network to the Mac when I was listening anyway- just control signals from my iPad for which Wi-Fi is more than plenty fast) and BLAMMO!  I had the New York Phil in my room!  Row upon row of musicians invisible in my mind’s eye chairs suddenly appeared and the hall sound was cascading off the walls of my room.  Like my beloved Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky recordings, Columbia wasn’t shy in their microphone allotment, but still, these masterings reveal a reasonably three-dimensional capturing of an orchestra anyway.

I was moved, very nearly to tears and those at least partly in frustration for the sonic experiences I had robbed myself of for the previous two months.  And now the isolation base Dave had sent way more than proved its merit, as all the things that had been unleashed sonically by setting my system free from the ills borne in on the Ethernet connection were way more evident with it in place than my old method of isolation.

Since and prior, I have had numerous occasions to demonstrate this phenomenon to friends, customers and industry people, including some who sell digital music servers and were not hearing their own products’ true potential until they heard them unplugged.  It has never failed.  I have even devised a way to make my Aurender server (which trounces my Mac mini, by the way- more about that soon) wireless.  In short, I’m a believer.

For those of you who must have an Ethernet connection, I will investigate optical isolation of an Ethernet network, something I have discussed with some knowledgable folks, but not tried at this time.  For now, however, I’m sticking with wireless.  And my music listening is the happier for it.