Welcome to another meeting of our merry band of audio experimenters. As I write this it's the beginning of February, usually the coldest month of the year in New Hampshire, when all audiophiles turn to their beloved music systems to carry us through these hard times; hard not only for the weather, but also the economy, which appears to be tanking. I don't know about you, but my income has suffered over the past few years, with less funds available for this wonderful, but expensive hobby.
Thus, since returning from CES, my primal urge to purchase new equipment to "improve" my system, has been supplanted by spending my spare time restarting my project to transfer all of my precious analog recordings to 24-bit/88kHz digital files. This actually started last winter, and was discussed at AA 88. So far, over 200 DATs of second and third generation analog tapes from the major recording studios and about 250 of my best vinyl have been transcribed and saved using a Tascam DV-RA1000HD high definition two channel digital recorder. There are transcribed to three 500GB hard drives. As backup, and for playback on my universal player, the files have also being transposed to about 200 DVD-A discs using a great program from Minnetonka Audio called Diskwelder Bronze, with about three hours of music fitting on one disk. With about 300 records to go, most of them 1-S RCA's and Merc's from the golden era, hopefully the project will be completed before either I or my equipment dies.
Obviously this is very time consuming as each record is being cleaned using the Walker Audio three step cleaning process on a Loricraft record cleaner, and then played in real-time on a Walker Audio Proscenium Gold turntable with Kondo IO-J cartridge and wire, through a pair of Allen Wright phono-preamps to the Tascam recorder. As I do not want to affect the playback by extraneous noise, I can only listen through headphones while recording, so my speaker listening time has been somewhat curtailed. So far, the quality is exceptional, if I say so myself, and well worth the effort. I'd say the sound of most of them beats 95 percent of the best stereo recordings one can buy now. More below on how I plan to use them.
So this recording project has supplanted my previously unrestrainable urge to buy new equipment (except, of course, for the purchase of the Esoteric DV-60 universal player) that I've lusted after that would have been purchased in an instant back in the 90's.
The prices of audiophile grade components have gone through the roof over the past couple of years, both US and foreign made, as the greenback has slid from $0.80 per Euro and almost parity with the pound, to $1.50 and $2.00 respectively. Except for the many Chinese products which are flooding our shores, which in many cases give great value for the cost, our past-time is being priced out of the range of most of the younger individuals we need to interest in audiophile quality sound to keep the hobby going.
It has even become cost prohibitive to attend audio shows in foreign countries with the dollar's decline, and in the United States in major cities with the gouging on hotel room prices that occurs when the audio community comes to town. In New York, the hotel holding the May show charged over $300 a night and at CES a hotel room normally costing $50 to $100 went for $256 a night.
Then there is the saga of the fight to the death of the dueling high-end standards for both audio (SACD vs. DVD-Audio) and audio-video (Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, with the recent news that HD-DVD may soon be dead). The former two have lost any chance of becoming a true music reproduction standard over 16-bit/44kHz as neither group has supported them to any great extent with the general population and neither has succeeded in overcoming the other before a new standard arrives. This new standard may be either the ability to download high quality music streams from the web in up to 24-bit/96kHz 5.1-channel sound or the new audio standard of either DTS Master... or Dolby True HD Audio, which will be combined with the possibility of also watching the concert in 1080P high definition video.
I can only guess how spectacular the new high bit recordings may be. Only time will tell, because there still is not a way to hear either high-end format with high-end equipment. Three years into the new era and there are still no players that can decode them. Only recently has there been the ability to transmit the information to a preamp-processor, yet there are still no true high-end processors to decode it to analog. Then there is the fact that even Sony has given up on SACD and is not including the ability to decode it in any of their processors, all in the name of preventing pirating.
Combine the above with the fact that most of the younger generations are content to listen to MP-3 recordings, are blowing their ears out with headphones blasting directly into them, and that music education in the schools has gone the way of the Dodo bird... maybe there won't be a cadre of audiophiles to replace the rapidly aging oldsters who entered the hobby in the last millennium.
Why the rant? Because I've gone back to the future, and rediscovered the possible savior of high end audio, and it's not from audiophile companies, (so far) but the computer world. I'm talking about a home theater computer system or server.
Way back 72 articles (five years) ago, I became interested in using a computer for music and video playback. In AA29 and over several other articles, I reviewed the construction of a computer-run audio and video system. Unhappily, at the time, the software and hardware were not up to audiophile standards. Windows Millennium, 2000 and XP had a fatal flaw in that all audio had to be routed through a so-called Kernel-Mixer, which changed all bit rates to 48kHz, thus destroying the integrity of the signal. One could side step this through using a professional processing system called ASIO, but this was a kludge. Other software, such as Microsoft Media Player, was not set up for easy quality playback plus their digital processing systems left much to be desired.
The hardware consisted of either inexpensive low quality soundcards that couldn't correctly transmit a SPDIF digital signal, never mind do proper D/A conversion, or professional grade sound cards, the cost of which could damage a bank account as well as audiophile equipment. The inside of the computer was a RFI nightmare, with most motherboards corrupting the data in one way or another. The power supplies, based on noisy digital amplifiers, added to the mess. While the sound using the best programming and equipment available at the time was satisfying, it did not quite reach audiophile nirvana.
So what changed my mind and started the reinvestigation?
First, my encounter at two shows with the Nova Physics Group Memory Player which easily beat any of the high end players heard at the shows, but, unhappily also beat most of them in price.
Second, at this year's CES, reported on in AA100, the DEQX computer based program for speaker and room correction and their digital preamp and amplifiers impressed the hell out of me, and even more, it's implementation by Sonicweld with their $100,000 speaker system, which included everything except the source and the music. Sonicweld also melded this together with a music storage program called Sooloos all in one system, to control all of your playback and recording needs, all on a laptop.
Third, while perusing a computer board I came upon a discussing how to build an audio-only computer for about $1500 that supposedly qualifies for audiophile status, with the developer claiming it should beat out any CD playback system under $10,000. Interestingly, he also named his unit the Memory Player.
Finally, being of Scottish blood and always looking for a bargain, at eCost I found for $800 a Hewlett Packard Home Theater computer with Windows Vista Home Premium with a quad core processor, two 300 gig hard drives and built-in 7.1 sound processing and DVD-Audio drive, etc. for $800. Adding an M-Audio FireWire 410 audio card and processor that I had lying around, and some of the recommended programs and Windows fixes suggested by others. It produced a pretty decent sound and video system that, while still not up to the best audiophile standards, beat anything I could accomplish five years ago with a computer.
Happily, Microsoft with the new Vista software has eliminated the Kernel Mixer, allowing bit perfect playback using Direct Streaming. In addition, using the programs recommended by the above web site, one can record one's CD's to hard disk, then play them back by sending the bits through the RAM rather than taking them from the hard drive, thus significantly improving on jitter and the need for correction of dropouts. The computer can do interpolation of the bits up to the limits of the soundcard prior to the D/A conversion, if one uses a computer sound card, to smooth the analog output. Digital signal processing for room and speaker correction, equalizing, etc., can be done in real-time, and the computer can store all the information that can be obtained from one of several web sites, related to the CD. Alternatively, the pristine digital signal can be sent to your pre-pro for DSP and conversion if you so desire. So many choices, so little time!
Anyway, over the next several months I will keep you informed on my travails and where I think we, as tweakers can go that the big boys will be charging a fortune for, and hopefully do it to audiophile standards. If you have any information to share with the readers on this topic let me know and I'll be glad to include it.