Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Vintage, and why Magazines cannot be Truthful about It

Well, Stereophile is "trying."  Art Dudley is a vintage equipment expert who talks about specific equipment a lot (like Quad ESL 56's) but for October 2016 writes about vintage in general.  And it's mostly a bunch of nonsense, as is what I'm going to say.

I guess you could say I'm a vintage guy also.  I have systems filled mostly with equipment from eBay and Audiogon.

This is NOT because I have any particular love of a era-specific vintage sound (though I am interested in certain things, such as the sound of 1-bit converters doing DSD which I think is "the real thing" not obscured by fancy sigma delta DAC operations, as described here:

I suspect many delta-sigma converters with a DSD input might not be switching all of the switches from 0000 to 1111 at the same time, which would emulate a Sony-type, late-Eighties single-bit converter. It might sound a little weird, but a simpler method would be to internally translate DSD into short word-length PCM patterns, taking advantage of the dynamic range of the 5 to 6 switches (partial analog, as it were).
No I buy pre-owned equipment for several obvious reasons:

1) Affordibility!  The Krell Amp I paid $2700 for originally (actually the tab is about $4000 so far, including the first repair in 2010) cost $9000 when new in 1998.  But forget that, the most obvious brand new replacement now costs $36,000 (the Momentum amp in Stereo)!  There's been enormous aspiration inflation in the super high end.

I'm now faced with needing the second Krell repair.  I'm partly hopeful that they didn't fix it completely the first time (I think they didn't bother much with the left channel last time but did great job on the right channel) and once they've rebuilt both it should be more reliable longer.  Often this happens...once something is finally repaired completely--often taking multiple attempts--it then goes for a long time without needing more.  But you have to be persistent and willing to pay.  Looking at the alternatives...I will need to pay.

Sure there are other $6000, say, brand new amps which would fill the bill also.  But they wouldn't have the ingredients of the FPB design in the slightest.  No Class A operation to hundreds of watts.  No zero feedback output (or so I thought until it appears there *is* feedback around the output this means that the Krell has nothing on Pass Labs or the Class A Levinson designs...which I will may someday consider).  No servo loop DC coupling.  No full power regulation (Pass's XS 300 has that...for $85,000).  I'm not even sure D'Agostino's Momentum offerings have all these features*, and maybe I could live without some of them, but I don't know, I also think these features are part of a very special magic I need to drive my Acoustat speakers.  (*I haven't seen that the Momentum amps use something like plateau biasing, but if he says they are Class A they must.  Pass, of course gives you more like old fashioned Class A with his XA amps...with the bulk to match the wattage!)

2) Selection.  A lot of great stuff isn't made any more.  Or if it is, it's just way out.  Such as, say, direct drive turntables.  Some believe this is a better approach.  (Actually, I merely think it is interesting and might be better in some ways.)  OK, I could buy a VPI direct at $30k, or a Continuum at $90k, or a Rockport at $150k.  Gone are the days you could get TOTL Pioneer for $2500, or a decent Sony for $500.  But many of these classics are still on eBay, sometimes working sometimes not, for about those same prices, and some of them can be fixed.

3) Buying experience.  I do know and understand the high end audio buying experience.  I've bought my first high end item, a pair of Infinity Electrostatic Headphones, at Mel Shilling's Music and Sound in 1975.  And that was after years of visiting audio salons in Woodland Hills, CA (where there were 3 major high end audio stores when I was in high school).  I've been to high end salons countless times, though less recently.  I even worked in a famous store, Audio Directions, for a year (as a technician, but of course everyone in a store is also a salesperson).

And...I hate it.  You have the limited selection.  You have the factory mega high prices.  You have to make a decision in a limited time, and you can't really tell anything, even when you have very patient and unsnobby salesperson (I will concede audio salespeople today are generally far nicer to me today than in 1974).

I will have to concede that in it's totality Im not totally fond of the vintage buying experience either.  First there's the enourmous fear (will it actually arrive?  will it be rusty junk?  will it smell like moldy tobacco?).  Then, sometimes some of those fears come true.  Then, even when they don't come true, you have only have a few carefree years before needing expensive or even unobtanium repairs.

But the high is looking at the stuff in endless pictures, reading about it in endless blogs, arguing about it, showing it off, taking your own pictures, and, sometimes, actually using it.

The real advantage to the vintage BUYING experience is that you can take your time, and nowadays you can do it anywhere--because you can do most of it online.  To be honest, I don't miss the brick-and-mortar salons that much.  Even with nice salespeople, they are still salespeople.  I'm sorry, but I prefer to think about things, and especially   make buying decisions...Alone!  And back to #1, the essentially unlimited choices in vintage.  BTW I've found a new aggregator HiFi Shark who looks in all the online sales forum, so now almost anything can be found somewhere.

(Now for some people, Vintage is friends, connections, local places.  Those are the lucky people who live in such places, or perhaps just the well connected and informed in ways that I am not.  But for them even more than me, Vintage is Everywhere!  Everything!  And not just in stores.)

I guess the bottom line is I'm going to be sticking with the way I do things.  I do sometimes buy new equipment when it seems to meet my needs best.  I promise to stretch a little to do so whenever reasonable.  It can be better to pay now rather than later.  But generally I will be making up my own mind, primarily with my own head, ears, and heart.

Meanwhile, the magazines are supported by advertising primarily by manufacturers but also dealers.  So of course they are going to paint a picture where every day, in every way, things get better and better.  In high end audio, this doesn't mean they really get better, it mainly means they get more expensive.  There is no scientific proof that audio amplifiers have gotten significantly better since Frank McIntosh sold his first amplifiers.  That was when amplifiers were finally made to be good enough, and good enough in 1946 is still good enough now.  There is no scientific evidence that in a blind test you'd be able to hear the improvements since 1946.  In a blind test you might well prefer the 1946 model.  This is not to say there isn't a kind of technical progress in many ways.  Things have gotten a lot better in a lot of ways.  But, by and large, these differences don't matter, except to those who believe they want them.

Here I follow the audio objectivists.  While subjectivist audiophiles can paint one of many narratives (which have changed and folded and recombined etc etc) following the progression through technologies of amplifiers, turntables, etc.  The worst subjectivist audiophiles can be bullies just as bad as the worst objectivists.  And the bully subjectivists are usually worse, IME.

The fact is that these narratives are so wrong they even go circular, as has now happened with turntables.  What was old and abandoned long ago, is now The Thing all over again.

This just shows all these narratives are mostly crap.  Audio is more like women's fashion than a march of progress forwards (though has happened also, mostly in objectivist ways).  Audio has not only been good enough to be greatly enjoyable for over 100 years, but in many way certain things cannot be objectively proven to be better than they were decades ago.  Amplifiers are in fact the key example: almost all differences which people think they hear in modern amplifiers can't be shown to be there in blind testing.  I don't follow the objectivists completely (nor do they themselves except in rhetorical fantasy) that this means we conclude there are NO differences.  I would take it as meaning there may be little-or-no differences.  Far less important differences, if any, than people imagine.

Now in transmission systems, we've gone in both directions, with MP3 and Cassette Tape being convenient but unmistakeably low fidelity.  With 16/44 uncompressed digital audio we get to stuff that even in 1983 is so transparent most people would have to strain to hear further improvement (in blind testing...not their imaginations) but some can do has been shown by recent DBT with different digital filtering technologies (or at least there has been one demonstration of Meridian selling MQA...perhaps we should see if there is replication...).  I believe it is true and proven that digital filters can make an audible difference in digital, though it is less than most who believe they hear differences generally imagine.  One of the cornerstones of HDCD, for example, is that the digital filter can be varied by the producer to take on one of several shapes of different utility.  And now MQA is clearly a similar kind of thing but far more advanced.  And the DSD's are a different kind of digital that remove the digital reconstruction filters, but introduce their own formula of noise shaping as a substitute, which categorically you could describe--as yet another kind of filter.  So that's the fine edges of the digital stuff.  Will there be fine edges on the fine edges?

When people like Cookie Marenco say that if you can't hear the difference between a copy of a CD in the original...I'd pay pretty good money to see someone do that in DBT.  I've run very careful DBT on subjectophiles and seen nothing that would surprise an objectivist.  If what Cookie says is not pure nonsense, it would be very very hard I believe.  Marenco runs a production company that makes recordings in DSD, and someone I'd put with the crazies in subjective audioland, though not perhaps as a successful audio recording entrepreneur--which is what counts as they say.  There are very smart DSD pushers like Hiro and Miska on Computer Audio and I'd admit I've learned from them, but also Archimago who I consider far more fair minded.  DSD64 is a waste it appears.  DSD128 looks like a decent performing high rez format, though is it really necessary compared with well done space conserving 24/96 done by the likes of Ayre QA-9?  And I will say flatly that I personally believe that it will always be possible to find a way to make 24/96 sound as good as the best of anything (in equal number of channels, etc), possibly with a few more tweaks we haven't thought of yet.  But if a producer chooses to use DSD128, well whatever, I'll analog convert it to 24/96 (when and if I ever get suitable equipment) which I believe can always be made sufficiently transparent for human audition.  There's probably a reason why Sony hasn't, for example, published DBT showing the superiority of DSD, 1-bit, or any of their digital technologies as far as I know.  It can't easily be proven, and basically hasn't (I reported on high end German DBT which failed to show difference between comparable DSD and PCM--hope I find more about that).  Demon Sony Digital seems anti-consumer in endless ways, such as the inability to do any downstream digital processing.  Are we to throw out our digital EQ (and for me, crossover) just for some fantasy that might be so inaudibly different as never to be established by DBT?  The whole thing is much like a Super Audio extension of DRM, DRM which doesn't allow you to modify anything, even to adjust the presentation size to fit your room.  If I'm wrong, then at best DSD64 was a premature broken format, with even DSD128 available before the penetration of suitably capable technologies which may one day give us DSD128-compatible DSP---and or a case of requiring endless upgrades to finally realize the alleged potential--not to mention costly equipment).

So, given all the lies, crap, goodness from the beginning, and background progress not particularly aided by the subjectivist occupation of Audio, there is absolutely no reason you cannot do your own thing, just like me.  Though of course I believe you might do a little better after reading me.

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