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Listening fatigue - CD v. vinyl - or digital v. analogue: what's the cause?

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  • Listening fatigue - CD v. vinyl - or digital v. analogue: what's the cause?

    Hello, I'm recently new to the forum. I have been reading through some threads involving the debate on digital v analogue and watched Alans video showing the distortion from vinyl compared to digital test tones.

    My understanding from forums and magazines is that analogue vinyl playback is a 'higher resolution ' playback compared to 16bit cd as well as SACD and new HD audio formats because so much information is lost in the sampling process and recreating the sign wave. Please be gentle with me if I have this completely wrong.

    I entered the world of hifi over 20 yrs ago and always stuck with digital as it was exciting and the future. I bought my first set of separates at the age of 23 in 1990 from 7 oaks hifi at a pricey (for me ) 1000. Since that time I have to be honest and say that I have been disappointed when listening and often end up fatigued without listening for long. I hate to think how many 1000S I've spent since then.

    The problem may or could be

    1. The recordings - 80s onwards pop, rock music mixed and compressed for radio playback
    2. Room acoustics
    3. System set up
    4. My ears
    5. Volume levels - although I never listen loud having grown up in flats and worrying about the neighbours

    Thankfully (I think) I have stopped buying hifi mags and influenced by all the hype and spin, due to the many wonderful forums. I was particularly convinced of the hifi mags agenda to sell more hifi after writing in to hifi world a few years ago with a list of my equipment and asking advice on how to best consolidate it. I made it clear that I didn't want to spend any more money. Their published reply was to sell and buy more new hifi.

    I no longer believe in the cable hype, CD rings, pens etc

    Before I end up spending more s on vinyl and valves to replace harsh cd sounding hifi what's Alan's and others views on the reasons or causes of listener fatigue?

    One last thing, I think I will save up for the Harbeth Super HL5 speaker as my last speaker. Over the years my musical tastes have grown to other genres and I have been finding myself really enjoying film soundtracks from the likes of Hans Simmer and others.

    Thanks

    Lee
    Valves, Vinyl, Digital

  • #2
    Definition of "high resolution"

    Originally posted by eldarvanya View Post
    Hello, I'm recently new to the forum. I have been reading through some threads involving the debate on digital v analogue and watched Alans video showing the distortion from vinyl compared to digital test tones.

    My understanding from forums and magazines is that analogue vinyl playback is a 'higher resolution ' playback compared to 16bit cd as well as SACD and new HD audio formats because so much information is lost in the sampling process and recreating the sign wave. Please be gentle with me if I have this completely wrong....
    Welcome Lee and I hope you have many hours of pleasure here on HUG.

    Er, no. I have no doubt that you have accurately quoted another hifi myth, but it is just another one of those misconceptions. Another word for "higher resolution" (which actually is a rather imprecise term) is a rather old fashioned and boring one. It's "signal to noise ratio" or put another way, "dynamic range". It matters not one jot how many bits a digital system has, from 16, 18, 24, 30, 1000 - whatever. What matters is how low the background noise is, because what "resolution" means is the listener's ability to pick out small details in the music. And those small details are susceptible to being obliterated by hisssssssssssss and hummmmmmmmm and rummmbbblleeeee.

    So, the key point is that any old replay system - vinyl, cassette, CD, 8 track, whatever, can reproduce the BIG sounds with relative ease. The finessing of audio comes in being able to hear the very, very fine details, right down at the nose floor, for example as notes die away into the background. So the primary requirement for any system to pretend to be "high resolution" is that it must have a low background noise floor. If it doesn't, it is inferior and of lower resolution than a system that does have a lower noise floor.

    Standard 16bit CD has a background noise level which is 500-1000 times lower than the very best vinyl, so by definition and fact, it has a "higher resolution" by the same 500-1000 times. And that really is all there is to the "high resolution" issue. High resolution simply cannot exist in or under background noise. Noise is noise. Noise is randomised musical notes. Once the quiet elements in the music are randomised into noise, be it hum, hiss, clicks, crackles, whistles or whatever they've gone forever and no matter how fancy your replay system is, you cannot ever regenerate music out of noise. So it's the background noise level of any recording and replay system that defines "resolution".
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

    Comment


    • #3
      Poor recordings can cause listening fatigue

      Originally posted by eldarvanya View Post
      ...I have to be honest and say that I have been disappointed when listening and often end up fatigued without listening for long. I hate to think how many 1000S I've spent since then.

      The problem may or could be

      1. The recordings - 80s onwards pop, rock music mixed and compressed for radio playback
      2. Room acoustics
      3. System set up
      4. My ears
      5. Volume levels - although I never listen loud having grown up in flats and worrying about the neighbours

      I no longer believe in the cable hype, CD rings, pens etc

      Before I end up spending more s on vinyl and valves to replace harsh cd sounding hifi what's Alan's and others views on the reasons or causes of listener fatigue?
      I think all the points you listed 1 to 5 can contribute to listening fatigue, but even if you optimise 2, 3, and 5. There is not much you can do about 1 and 4.

      Regarding point 4 (My Ears), I do not know whether it is my age (58) but if I listen for much more than a few hours in a session I find that I can no longer concentrate on the music enough to hear the detail that I seemed to hear at the start of the session.

      Regarding point 1 (The Recordings), I think this is the major contributor to listening fatigue (after you have done your best to deal with 2, 3, and 5). I hope that we can all agree that all recordings are not equal. They range from demonstration > excellent > ... poor > unable to listen to at all and get enjoyment.

      If ever I start to doubt the abilities of my system I have a listening session where I play all demonstration/excellent recordings. That gives me confidence that my dissatisfaction and reduced levels of listening pleasure are due to the programme material rather than my hifi.

      Jeff

      {Moderator's comment: can you imagine the extra difficulty for the speaker designer or audio critic of finding a library of reliable, accurate, honest, fatigue-free and enjoyable test music? If you do stick with it and keep it safe. It's worth its weight in gold.}

      Comment


      • #4
        Digital accuracy?

        Thanks Alan and Jeff for your helpful replies.

        I built a Vortexbox music server using FLAC files from ripped CDs as well.

        Alan, in your opinion would CD playback be better due to contacted operation over the server with the hard drive which involves heads for reading the disk?

        Thanks

        Lee
        Valves, Vinyl, Digital

        Comment


        • #5
          It's the combination

          Hi Lee

          It's a combination of everything. I had spent, like you over the years thousands of dollars coming from sony combi sets to bose to marantz and even accuphase. All these recently went down the drain because I moved to a new place. I had to start all over again to treat the room. Not every recording is the same, nor every room or gear you use. It's a combination of all and finding a balance in them that makes music so enjoyable.

          I have been eying the c7es3 for a while and hope it comes to my listening room soon after I get all the things sorted out, soon.

          In the mean time, seat back and read through some of the threads here and see what's the best you could do not spending any more unnecessary money. Enjoy your music.

          Comment


          • #6
            Bit perfect and editing hex files ....

            Originally posted by eldarvanya View Post
            Thanks Alan and Jeff for your helpful replies.

            I built a Vortexbox music server using FLAC files from ripped CDs as well.

            Alan, in your opinion would CD playback be better due to contacted operation over the server with the hard drive which involves heads for reading the disk?

            Thanks

            Lee
            I think what you are asking is that could you expect to measure or hear any difference between a digital delivery from a CD (via its read laser), or from a streaming server. The answer is this.

            Suppose you'd typed a letter using MS Notepad, or sent an email to your Great Aunt, living in darkest Peru something like:

            "Send funds, Auntie please, I am in urgent need of a hifi upgrade!"
            How does the application (Notepad, email program) actually store that sentence on the disc or transmit it over the internet? To view that, we'll need to take a forensic peek at the data that has been written to the disc, and that means we'll need to look at the actual bits and bytes that are holding our begging request. We can download an application that will allow us to do that, and as it has a nice friendly user interface, it will do all the work for us. So, having saved the appeal to my disc, I now open it in the Hex (all that means is looking at the binary content of computer data) viewer. It's like looking under the hood of the car - easy when you know how. It's not as frightening as you might think.

            hexbytes.jpg

            On the right side is the text we typed into Notepad (or Word, same idea) in English. But those English characters (A, B, c, d, E.....) are not how the computer actually stores the data. It converts English, character by character, one to one, into a hexadecimal 8 bit computer digital 'word'. So, you can see that I've ringed the 'u' in the English word 'urgent' which is actually stored on the disc as HEX 75. That's all you need to know.

            Now, it is a basic requirement of every computer system that what you enter is what you get out. When you receive your salary, that's what you get, to the cent. Our entire modern world relies upon the fact that, unless there is a hardward malfunction, data corruption just does not occur. And if it is likely to, then engineers anticipate that and build in error correction systems so that the fault is automatically corrected and put right before the data spews out of the computer.

            Let's imagine that we are a faulty hard disc and that we are at the end of our useful working (or spinning) life. Let's use our hex editor to deliberately corrupt the byte that's holding the letter 'u' in the word 'urgent'. I go into edit mode, and get ready to overwrite the data that's on the disc at the exact place that the letter 'u' is stored:

            editmode.jpg

            A byte is a continuous group of 8 bits, the smallest unit in data storage. Let's just change on bit in the byte, the smallest possible amount of data corruption, and see what happens:

            bitcghange.jpg

            We've corrupted just one bit in this letter to Auntie, and we've unfortunately changed the word from 'urgent' to 'trgent'. Hopefully, Auntie can figure out what we intended and get ready to send us some much needed funds. But what happens if she's into on-line banking and unfortunately for her but luckily for us, due to just one corrupt data bit when she's intending to send us $1000 (very kind of her) the byte containing the numeral '1' becomes corrupt by just one itsy bitsy bity bit, and before she realises what's going on, she's sent you $9000. Bingo! But poor Auntie, she really can't afford to be that generous, and worse, due to another corrupt bit between her bank in Peru and yours in Europe, there is another tiny, single bit corruption and that $9000 taken from her account actually arrives in your account as $7000. You can see how within minutes, our modern computer based world would be in chaos.

            How does this relate to audio?

            The issues of absolute data integrity apply equally to on-line banking and communications and delivery of digital bits that represent music. There cannot be any actual difference between the same song delivered over CD, played from your local HD, run from a USB stick, streamed from your server or whatever. If the actual performance, the actual recording is exactly the same (and it may or may not be for many reasons, including copyright) then the bits and bytes that represent it are completely and absolutely independent of the medium which stores or sends them. How do we prove that? Easy: we open up the music recording as it is stored and we examine, byte by byte just as we did with Auties letter, how it looks. And if it is the same performance, same recording, it will be 100% byte perfect regardless of what medium it is on.

            So I have on this PC, Frank Sinatra's Pennies from heaven, with Count Basie.

            If we look at it under our hex microscope, as stored on the hard disc, a section of it looks like this:

            pennies.jpg

            We could, if we were very brave (or stupid), edit this file 'at binary level' just as we did with Aunties letter. The process would be exactly the same of picking a byte and overtyping the number stored in that byte. WHy would we be irresponsible to do that? Because if even one single bit is changed (corrupted) from what is intended to represent the music at that 44,000 of a second sampling instant, it is most likely to make a horrible and very loud click that could destroy our tweeters.

            So you see, bit perfect has to mean exactly that. The faithful replay of a digital data stream representing music must not corrupt even one single bit of the entire performance. So it cannot matter a jot whetehr the audio (music) data is streamed or directly off a local HD. We can prove (or not) that the data is one and the same if we can be bothered to look at the bytes.

            P.S. Can you imagine how, conceptually, an error correction system could work if computers only sent English documents between parties? It wouldn't work for numeric data though ....


            MODERATOR'S NOTE!

            This post is the start of a new thread and has been copied to here. Please continue contributions on that new thread concerning bit-perfect digital audio. Thanks.
            Alan A. Shaw
            Designer, owner
            Harbeth Audio UK

            Comment


            • #7
              Don't overlook room treatments

              I am at work here, so I cannot really contribute very much , but my personal experience is that by using "normal" electric euqipment (I mean no esoteric or super-expensive amps, CD-player and such) with my Harbeth SHL5 and (now the important point IMO) MASSIVE room treatment (I am talking of some square-meters, as well as cubic-meters for bass control) I do not experience any harshness via digital at all.

              Mostly CDs are brighter (or, to rephrase is) with the possibilty to bring more high-frequency-information to you. By taming the negative influence of room-acoustics (which is not possible with small treatment things that most people use, if any at all) the result is simply music.

              So, if possible: do something about room-acoustics, and by something I mean (sadly) a lot of surface improvement. IMO this cannot be made with little effort.

              As a result you wont feel the need to discuss listening fatigue any more.

              Comment


              • #8
                Can room treatment cure poorly recorded CDs?

                Originally posted by thurston View Post

                As a result you wont feel the need to discuss listening fatigue any more.
                The OP said his source material was 80's onwards pop and rock. In my opinion early AAD CDs of POP/Rock include some of the poorest source material I have heard on CD. Surely any amount of room treatment - no matter how good the results - cannot compensate for that.

                A HiFi system by definition should produce rubbish at the speakers if the source is rubbish, shouldn't it? The rubbish will be fatiguing to listen to even if the songs/music are good.

                Jeff

                Comment


                • #9
                  'Natural sound' is meaningless for pop music

                  I have to disagree.

                  Surely there are differing recording-qualities, but even a less good production is listenable and not fatiguing at all. It just does not sound very good, but still the music comes trough as a major result.

                  And by the way: I wonder why that recording quality in the 80ies should have been that bad. There are some sorts of music where (in a way) bad sound is part of the artistic intention (like punk f.e.) or some 80ies Synthie-Pop sure does not sound natural at all.

                  But again this is part of the music. The music was not meant to sound natural, it was meant to sound modern in its time-frame. Therefore I have to stick with my mantra: A really well treated room shows you the recording itself. You come closer to the sound they had in the producers room. And this, by definition, is the way pop music must sound. The production is part of the art.

                  With a good classical recording, or Jazz it is a different deal. The "original" in that case is the natural sound during a concert.

                  This is why it is mostly nonsense to talk about room placement and ambience when talking about pop recordings: They never happened to have a room, just layers of small recording booths put together while each layer has been delayed, echoed, doubled, enhanced, compressed individually.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    New recording technology needs new skills

                    Originally posted by thurston View Post
                    I have to disagree.

                    Surely there are differing recording-qualities, but even a less good production is listenable and not fatiguing at all. It just does not sound very good, but still the music comes trough as a major result.

                    And by the way: I wonder why that recording quality in the 80ies should have been that bad. There are some sorts of music where (in a way) bad sound is part of the artistic intention (like punk f.e.) or some 80ies Synthie-Pop sure does not sound natural at all.

                    But again this is part of the music. The music was not meant to sound natural, it was meant to sound modern in its time-frame. Therefore I have to stick with my mantra: A really well treated room shows you the recording itself. You come closer to the sound they had in the producers room. And this, by definition, is the way pop music must sound. The production is part of the art.

                    With a good classical recording, or Jazz it is a different deal. The "original" in that case is the natural sound during a concert.

                    This is why it is mostly nonsense to talk about room placement and ambience when talking about pop recordings: They never happened to have a room, just layers of small recording booths put together while each layer has been delayed, echoed, doubled, enhanced, compressed individually.
                    Perhaps the new digital era brought with it some challenges in mastering/producing to people who spent their lives doing it on tape.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Early CD player is great

                      I must be so lucky as I found a really good (for me) CD player back in the late eighties, bought a used one in 1994 and have it to this day. Absolutely NO fatigue at all, yet I can easily hear production and mastering differences in the discs I play.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        The Correct Answer - adaptation of techniques

                        Originally posted by Jota180 View Post
                        Perhaps the new digital era brought with it some challenges in mastering/producing to people who spent their lives doing it on tape.
                        Jota180 has hit the nail squarely on the head. Early AAD CDs can sound poor because they were recorded on analogue tape, with the intention of transferring to vinyl. My belief is that most of the people involved in the recording chain knew well the limitations of tape and vinyl, and they compensated accordingly (as best they could) throughout the record making process. There would be less or no need to compensate for anything in the digital domain, and so DDD CDs gradually took over and improved with time as understanding of the digital recording process established itself.

                        It is interesting to note that classical recordings were out of the blocks straightaway with DDD recordings The pop/rock industry lagged behind by a good few years. There are always some exceptions - Ry Cooder's "Bop 'til you Drop" album was digitally recorded in 1979, and notwithstanding that it was intended for release on vinyl (CD had not at that time been introduced), when the album did debut on CD it still manages to stand up well with the best of todays CDs.

                        Jeff

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Remixing the maestro

                          It's all to do with good and sympathetic (to the music) ears and MONEY available for the job in hand. Given both, no reason at all why an old AAD transfer can't be truly excellent. Done quickly, as most early CD transfers were, the results were variable depending upon how 'doctored for vinyl' the master tapes were.

                          One excellent album as proof of the above is 'Voyage Of The Acolyte' by Steve Hackett (ex Genesis). The original mid 70's vinyl and CD issues sounded a bit distorted in the bass and with a hard upper mid sound. The later CD remaster sounds very much better, as if different (and earlier generation?) tapes were used, the sounds of the recorded acoustic instruments being much more natural and bass distortion almost totally absent.

                          I think I'm right here with this. After Karajan passed on, the DG engineers went back to some of his later recordings (where he'd been at the mixing desk) and remixed them, bringing up the recorded reverb/ambiance and giving a less up-front perspective on the performances. I remember them sounding very different indeed in comparison.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Why no fatigue?

                            Thurston has said that good room correction alleviates fatigue, and DSRANCE believes that his CD player does the same. Everyone seems to hear a difference between good and poor recordings. I have to confess that I have not tried any room correction, (it would not pass the WAF test), but provided I keep the volume below neighbour irritation levels I do not find room acoustics a problem.

                            I do not use a CD player (music source is flac files) but I can appreciate that the DAC may play a part in inducing fatigue. I do not use Harbeth speakers but I believe it is not the speakers which cause my fatigue, (but I could be wrong). I can listen for hours to excellent recordings, but not poor recordings, unless I am listening to them as background music. Is it just that some of us (me included) are more intolerant to poor recording quality?

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Defining 'listening fatigue'

                              Originally posted by Jeff_C View Post
                              ... I do not use a CD player (music source is flac files) but I can appreciate that the DAC may play a part in inducing fatigue. I do not use Harbeth speakers but I believe it is not the speakers which cause my fatigue, (but I could be wrong). I can listen for hours to excellent recordings, but not poor recordings, unless I am listening to them as background music. Is it just that some of us (me included) are more intolerant to poor recording quality?
                              You are truly fortunate if you are not troubled by listening fatigue in your non-Harbeth system - long may it continue!

                              What do we actually mean by 'listening fatigue'? It's one of those terms which crops up but is not defined, yet those of us who have experienced it can mentally recall the sensation without difficulty. In my case, I recall buying a pair of sexy, contemporary Euro-boxes and being distraught by the crippling listening fatigue they gave me within seconds, not when I was in the listening room with them playing but through the open door, several paces before I even stepped into the room. So whatever this 'listening fatigue' is, it's real, and it's horrible and it's quite common. So where do we start to look for it?

                              Well, I'd take a stab at this as an opening gambit: this listening fatigue seems to be something added to the music, not something taken away. That's an important distinction. The soft, detail suppressing sonic signature of polypropylene cone material in the all-critical middle frequencies is unlikely to cause listening fatigue because it demonstrably sucks the life out of music. It is a subtractive not additive. That subtraction may be fatiguing too, by leaving the listener in a constant state of wanting something more (involving, lifelike) from the sound, but that listener would probably set off on a long, expensive and ultimately unrewarding journey to put some 'sparkle' into his sound by spending a fortune of accessories, amps, players, stands and so on. So he has adapted to the sound, but his subconscious knows that it's just not right, not life-like.

                              If the most common listening fatigue is from the addition of something unnatural to the music, we have to consider .... is this irritation a periodic event such as an echo, or a resonance which once excited lingers-on and is re-energised by subsequent notes in the music as if you were tapping a wine glass in time with the music, or is it a level or loudness issue when one portion of the audio band is unnaturally boosted (or perhaps cut) relative to the others?

                              If we have some answers to that, we are well on the way to a forensic analysis of 'audio listening fatigue'.

                              Here is an example of what I'd describe as an extremely irritating sonic experience. It's the sort of effect (although somewhat overblown to make an example here) of a drive unit dustcap physically vibrating along with the audio being reproduced. In fact, part of the character of the LS3/5a is related to the woofer's dustcap (intentionally, I suspect) in resonance, making a more subtle contribution than in this demo. LS3/5a fans may have discovered that piano sounds almost better than real life on their speakers, thanks to a controlled amount of 'ziiiinggggg', which is rather more obvious and unwelcome on speech.

                              From 15-40 seconds of this clip demonstrates audible resonance of the sort you could get in a poorly damped mechanical system - a musical instrument, a loudspeaker or headphones or a pickup cartridge.

                              Loading the player ...
                              Alan A. Shaw
                              Designer, owner
                              Harbeth Audio UK

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