11 votes

How a Phoenix record store owner set the audiophile world on fire

11 comments

  1. [8]
    soks_n_sandals
    Link
    The amount of snake oil in audiophile marketing and reviews still astounds me. I hesitate to call myself an audiophile since I want to place distance between myself and those who think expensive...

    The amount of snake oil in audiophile marketing and reviews still astounds me. I hesitate to call myself an audiophile since I want to place distance between myself and those who think expensive cables sound better. This is a story that I found very interesting, since it's caused quite a stir. Short summary below.

    A group (MoFi) revered for dutiful and meticulous vinyl pressings from original master tapes is under fire for being less-than-transparent about the use of digital sources in their process. Reviewers hailed their vinyl releases for being "all analog-to-analog", but the reality is that some of their releases involved capturing an extremely high resolution digital copy (4x DSD, 256 times higher resolution than CD) from the master tape first. Reading analog tape degrades the tape, so getting a high resolution digital file makes plenty of sense to avoid damaging the source. Mofi never really corrected anyone on this slight technicality. For those reviewers that claimed to have "golden ears" and the ability to hear digital in an audio chain, the sun has set on these claims. Clearly, they could NOT tell the difference and have been revealed to the world as liars and fools. Naturally, the audio community has denounced MoFi. This is fascinating, since the physical records haven't changed and if they sounded good a month ago, they should certainly still sound good right?

    Some are treating this as a massive scandal. I think it's only scandalous for those who espoused the superiority of all-analog transfers to vinyl. In a way, I think this is a good thing. It is a landmark event where we can point to the titans of review and industry bullshit and say "you were wrong" and hopefully de-stigmatize digital sources for newcomers than can't spend $50k on a stereo with analog source components. So in a way, I'm quite empathetic to the backlash MoFi has received. The bottom line is the technicians that recorded digital files from the original masters took painstaking efforts to deliver a premium product. That hasn't changed.

    23 votes
    1. [2]
      Amarok
      Link Parent
      Seems to me like they took great care with the masters and degraded them as little as possible. The scans they made at that resolution are still likely to be the finest replication of the master...

      Seems to me like they took great care with the masters and degraded them as little as possible. The scans they made at that resolution are still likely to be the finest replication of the master that's available anywhere other than the master itself. That resolution is well past anything biological being able to tell the difference, imo. Audiophiles have always been a fine source of popcorn drama for the music community. I don't think many people take them seriously - I certainly don't.

      16 votes
      1. soks_n_sandals
        Link Parent
        Absolutely - if anything they've done the music community a service by digitizing the original master tapes. It's a really great thing, I think. But it all depends on one's perspective.

        Absolutely - if anything they've done the music community a service by digitizing the original master tapes. It's a really great thing, I think. But it all depends on one's perspective.

        9 votes
    2. [4]
      pallas
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I'm strongly opposed to pseudoscientific audiophilia. However, I do think that calling 4×DSD 256 times higher resolution than CD audio is somewhat problematic. It's a fundamentally different...

      I'm strongly opposed to pseudoscientific audiophilia. However, I do think that calling 4×DSD 256 times higher resolution than CD audio is somewhat problematic. It's a fundamentally different encoding: yes, the sample rate is 256 times higher, but it's a one bit sample (after all, having an 11 MHz sample rate would be utterly ridiculous for conventional encoding). DSD at CD audio's sample rate wouldn't work at all. It's right to call 4×DSD much, much better than CD audio, but I don't think that 4×DSD is necessarily better than conventional PCM encoding at comparable sample rates and bit depths. Of course, either way, it's right to say that, with current technology, it is possible to make a digital copy of a recording that is utterly beyond any possible human perception.

      I also think that perhaps, as the article suggests, MoFi might be rightly blamed here for not being more open about the digital recording here not because is was a bad thing, but because it was a good thing, and that by hiding it, they promoted the idea that digital audio is somehow intrinsically inferior, or that analog audio has some sort of magical property. In fact, not having heard about MoFi before, but reading this article, it sounds like what MoFi was actually doing was trying to avoid problems caused by repeated analog steps, which is, ultimately, something are much harder to avoid, and were largely able to do that at scale because of the digital encoding. But on the other hand, as you suggest, perhaps the releases with digital encoding would never have been accepted otherwise, the reviewers would not have held them in such high esteem, and the impact of this revelation would have been far less.

      But then perhaps the true magical property of analog audio is not the quality, but the exclusivity. The degradation, generational loss, and difficulty in copying at scale limits the number of copies that can be made and sold, and those copies are inherently physical objects. They also mean that ‘better’ copies, closer to the original masters, must be more limited, and something that can't be generally available. Here, ultimately, perhaps the true scandal, the true betrayal by MoFi, is that many people who bought these might have been buying them not because they were better, but because they were something that not just anyone could have: they were truly limited objects, not just by trust, but by technological limitation. Now, the vinyl they have is no more exclusive than the digital file. MoFi could make as many copies as they want. They could release the digital file, and everyone in the world could have a copy that would be better than the vinyl. The releases are no longer something exclusive. And maybe that's what many people ultimately cared about.

      4 votes
      1. [2]
        babypuncher
        Link Parent
        Even with older technology. The 44.1khz sample rate of the compact disc was chosen to meet the Nyquist frequency for human hearing plus a 4,000hz buffer to account for the fact that low pass...

        Of course, either way, it's right to say that, with current technology, it is possible to make a digital copy of a recording that is utterly beyond any possible human perception.

        Even with older technology. The 44.1khz sample rate of the compact disc was chosen to meet the Nyquist frequency for human hearing plus a 4,000hz buffer to account for the fact that low pass filters are not perfect. The CD turns 40 in October.

        9 votes
        1. pallas
          Link Parent
          Current was perhaps not the ideal word: I didn't necessarily mean to say that older technology couldn't, just that we can now. But CDs are not utterly beyond human perception. Arguably, a 44.1 kHz...

          Current was perhaps not the ideal word: I didn't necessarily mean to say that older technology couldn't, just that we can now.

          But CDs are not utterly beyond human perception. Arguably, a 44.1 kHz sample rate is not high enough for exceptional human hearing in ideal conditions (arguably 28 kHz, if loud enough). Bit depth is probably a larger limitation, in that, with excellent hearing, CD audio does not have enough bit depth to entirely cover the range of human perception of volume (though it does have enough to cover safe volumes, if the range is used well). The much, much larger problems of audio quality on CDs are almost always going to be related to bad use of the ranges and bad mastering. But while reasonable choices for sane listening, CDs do leave some room for someone to argue that they might be missing something perceptible, in some exceptional circumstances.

          But raise the sampling rate and bit depth, or otherwise go beyond CD audio, and you quickly get into areas where there's simply no rational way to argue that anyone, regardless of hearing, could possibly perceive a difference.

          2 votes
      2. onyxleopard
        Link Parent
        Thank you for explaining the exclusivity of records produced through purely analog production steps. As someone who grew up when vinyl was waning and tapes and later CDs were coming into vogue (I...

        Thank you for explaining the exclusivity of records produced through purely analog production steps. As someone who grew up when vinyl was waning and tapes and later CDs were coming into vogue (I remember going to Tower Records as a kid), it never made sense to me why original releases of vinyl records were worth more other than scarcity. I had always imagined that once you had the master up and running in the press, the press would continue working until you decided to stop it. The scarcity being related to the production process not allowing for infinite copies of the same quality due to degradation makes a lot of sense now.

        2 votes
    3. georgebcrawford
      Link Parent
      I agree with everything you said, especially this part.

      liars and fools

      I agree with everything you said, especially this part.

      2 votes
  2. [3]
    aphoenix
    Link
    It honestly took me a lot longer to parse this title than it should have, a problem which is probably unique to me.

    It honestly took me a lot longer to parse this title than it should have, a problem which is probably unique to me.

    3 votes
    1. [2]
      kfwyre
      Link Parent
      Not just you. It’s super easy to parse “Phoenix” as a proper noun instead of a proper adjective, and “record” as a verb rather than an adjective, which throws the structure of the headline into...

      Not just you. It’s super easy to parse “Phoenix” as a proper noun instead of a proper adjective, and “record” as a verb rather than an adjective, which throws the structure of the headline into complete chaos. I had to re-read it myself.

      Also there’s a bonus: “Phoenix” and “fire” being in the same sentence invites a semantic association (you know, the firebird) that doesn’t actually apply here.

      Additional thought: maybe seeing “a Phoenix” in a title has a distinct effect for you and only you in particular? 😆

      3 votes
      1. aphoenix
        Link Parent
        My first thought for "Phoenix" is always "hey, that's my name", and I always have to read and then reread headlines like this.

        My first thought for "Phoenix" is always "hey, that's my name", and I always have to read and then reread headlines like this.

        2 votes