By Lam Seng Fatt
During the Vinyl Talk at Centre Circle in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, recently, two well-known Malaysian audiophiles Danon Han and Jo Ki said they could hear that the vinyl versions of Linn’s digital music sounded better even though the LPs were pressed from the same digital Studio Master file.
It was a ‘how can that be?’ moment for me and I had to put on my thinking cap and use whatever brain cells I have left to do some pondering on this mysterious phenomena which apparently has puzzled even Linn’s sound engineers.
Someone said it was because analogue is better than digital. Can that be true when the only analogue part is the playback system? The turntables used by Danon and Jo Ki are certainly top end (especially Danon’s TechDAS Air Force One and reference Vertere tonearm; Jo Ki is still using his Linn LP12, I believe).
If the entire process from recording of musicians/singers in the studio, mixing, editing and mastering and playback is in the analogue domain and if someone tells me the LP sounds better than the digital file obtained from the same analogue master source, then it would be easy for me to accept that statement.
However, in the case of Danon’s and Jo’s experience with Linn’s music, the entire process is digital and it is only at the end of that process that the digital Studio Master file is pressed into LPs. The musicians/singers in the studio were recorded with an Analogue-to- Digital Converter (ADC) which converts the analogue (i.e. natural) music/singing into 1s and 0s. The recorded files are mostly in 24-bit 88.2kHz sampling rate (or 96kHz or 176.4kHz or 192kHz) in PCM. I don’t think Linn records in DSD (please correct me if I am wrong).
The editing, mixing and EQ-ing are all done in the digital domain. The final version – the Studio Master – is, of course, digital. The digital Studio Master is then offered for paid download and a copy is then converted into LPs (an analogue format). Jo and Danon said the LP sounded better when played on their high-end turntables than the digital Studio Master streamed to their top-end (Digital to Analogue Converters) DACs.
Danon said the LP sounded better in every way from the timbres to the details to the ambience.
Okay, my overworked and ageing brain cells are asking some questions and at the same time answering them:
Q. If Danon and Jo heard more details, better timbres, more ambience, etc, from LP playback, did they hear spurious information? Did they hear things that were non-existent? Bear in mind the LP is pressed from the same digital Studio Master that in their view sounded worse.
A: Both of them are advanced, dedicated audiophiles and I know for sure they have hearing like a bat. So they are definitely not hearing imaginary things.
Q. Did their turntables add some kind of distortion or sound effects to the music that they heard?
A: Both are using high-quality turntables with good tonearms and cartridges. Danon’s turntable system is the best that money can buy. So I do not think their turntables are adding sound effects to the music.
Q. In that case, where did the extra musical details come from? I stress again – the LP is cut from the same digital Studio Master source.
A. This is the interesting answer that my ageing brain cells came up with – whatever ‘extra’ details they heard from vinyl must be present in the digital master to begin with otherwise the two would have heard non-existent musical information. The digital master sounded worse when played back via their top-end DACs simply because the (current) DAC technology could not reproduce all the musical information contained in the Studio Master digital file whereas the turntable system could pick up the extra bits and reproduced them. The extra bits of musical information were lost in the process of playing back the digital file i.e. the conversion from digital to analogue.
My tormented thinking led me to this conclusion – there is nothing wrong with digital music where the Analogue-to-Digital conversion process (i.e. the recording process) is concerned since it managed to capture the right timbres, ambience, details that the LP/turntable could reproduce. It is the DAC process that is the weak link in digital music.
Okay, I have said my piece even though my arguments may not be logical. Anyone who disagrees with my (faulty?) reasoning is very welcome to send in his/her rebuttal and counter argument. Let’s have some fun…