An Analog Reference for Digital Reviews

I reference a lot of things in the course of a day.

Wikipedia is probably my top go-to when I’m looking for definitive, fact-based information on a piece of technology, a company’s history, or to help with an individual’s biography – just to name a few things I use the online encyclopedia for.

I often reference films (80s coming-of-age classics and obscure Japanese samurai dramas), television (Arrested Development is a favorite, as is Battlestar Galactica and numerous European ’defective detective’ series), musicians (a lot of jazz – Miles Davis, post-punk – Joy Division, emotronic – Boards of Canada, trip hop – Tosca, rap – Public Enemy, hip hop/breaks – Grandmaster Flash, rock – Neil Young, pop – Hall & Oats, acoustic – Nick Drake, etc.), books (anything by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov), and I’d like to say poetry, but to be honest I’m more a limerick type of guy.

My point is that in life, I often find myself needing a point of reference to either carry on a conversation with an individual, or to make sure I’m getting where they’re coming from. It’s not always easy to make a point, allusion or to guide a train of thought along with someone who might not be exactly getting where I’m coming from without that specific co-ordinate in time and space that a reference can provide. But, this too, can depend on how like-minded, like-educated and like-traveled the person whom you’re conversing with is. Change the equation of the conversation from one-on-one, or with a small group of friends to anyone who can come across your work on the Internet and the ability for things to become lost in translation becomes exponential.

That’s just in median conversation too, what about getting into the specifics of film genres, political ideologies, branches of mathematics, or perhaps one of the most binary-argumentative and minutiae-inflected: discussion of audiophile-related topics. How many people can carry on about cartridge alignment geometries without some point of reference as to what Baerwald, Loefgren or Stevenson means? DAC decoding abilities? Or how about what DoP – DSD over PCM – is? (It’s where groups of 16 adjacent one-bit samples from a DSD stream are packed into the lower 16-bits of a 24-bit/176.4kHz data stream – ditto the other stereo channel). Then there’s why some prefer Class A to Class A/B amplification because of the inherent distortion to the RF input signal when a transistor is turned off during the cycle (which is the case for Class A/B).

A reference can help communicate ideas, points, or conclusions.

Most people need a reference point to help complete the thought pattern not only for technical nomenclature, but more importantly (at least in my books) for what a piece of high-fidelity kit sounds like. I know I sure as hell do. What do you care if someone says “The timbral and tonal signature of stringed instruments through that DAC reminds me of a Leak Stereo 20” if you don’t know what the hell a Leak Stereo 20 is? And I can tell you, many audiophiles I speak with do not. Hence, a point of reference in that conversation would he helpful, and so, I decided that when it came to reviews of digital audio hi-fi equipment – which is what I mostly do here at AudioStream – I both wanted and needed an analog counterpoint as a reference for sound, because, for better or worse, analog is always the reference when it comes to how good anything involved with digital sounds.

The Linn LP12 Sondek, as a reference.

Since most audiophiles have either dabbled with turntables, own a turntable or are committed vinyl acolytes (compared to cassettes or reel-to-reel), I further gleaned that to do this properly I’d want a turntable most have at least heard of on their hi-fi journey, have likely personally heard at a shop, show or a friend’s place, aspire to own, could currently own or perhaps has owned at some point in their lives. After thinking on it, and taking into account my own preferences for sound, I decided on the Linn Sondek LP12 in the company’s entry-level guise of Majik specification (priced, not astronomically I believe, at $4,320 USD). I’m sure many would have chosen differently, and gone with a Rega, Thorens, or Garrard, but like all things in hi-fi, gear decisions tend to be very subjective, and these choices are usually based on personal history with a brand.

LP12 in Majik guise with Adikt Moving-Magnet cartridge.

Let’s touch on what one even means when talk turns to ‘reference’ pieces of equipment. The sound signature of any system is dependent on several factors, but (in my mind) key is always source, type of amplification and efficiency/type of loudspeaker. There are, of course, many other variables (lest we forget the room), but those three are the basic foundational tenets of sonic determination in a curated system IMO. Since source type is a major factor, and since I’m familiar with the other variables of the components that comprise the electronic chain of my personal ‘reference’ system, ascertaining the sound signature of any new or different source I connect to my hi-fi is a fairly straightforward matter of seeing what it brings to the mix in terms of timbre, tone, pitch, decay, transient speed – or attack, treble, midrange and bass response, timing and most of all for me – musicality (to name most of the basic factors one listens for in a new component).

Analog and digital both need help sometimes in understanding what they sound like.

So, this long-winded, probably over-explained post is to say that moving forward, I’m going to do my best to compare digital sources in for review (DACs, streamers/servers, CD players, etc.) to not only other digital sources, but to an analog one as well. I think this will help further flesh out the conclusions I draw during a review and add value for those reading my reviews who may be considering purchasing whatever it is I’m reviewing but not be familiar with any of the digital comparisons I make because they hail more from the analog-side of the audiophile spectrum. Having both an analog and digital reference can, in my mind, only further hone-in on the specific sound a component exhibits within the context of the system I use to review. I hope this will help all the readers who take the time to stop by AudioStream.

Ortofan's picture

... explains the phenomenon you describe as "the inherent distortion to the RF input signal when a transistor is turned off during the cycle (which is the case for Class A/B)?"

Rafe Arnott's picture
...of carrying on a technical conversation with an audiophile, I make no claim to be an expert in all types of amplification. But if I was having a conversation about amplification types, and I wanted a reference for understanding the difference between A and A/B, Class A is less efficient as its output devices are "on" all the time, while A/B is only fully "on" half the time, with biasing allowing for "coverage" while the ouput devices are not passing full current.

From the research/conversations I've engaged in over the years and with Google help, it's my understanding that in a Class A/B amplifier, because the transistor is not turned on for the full cycle like pure Class A, distortion is introduced into the frequency response. Engineers have concluded that this can be eliminated by "a slight forward bias in the base circuit such that the transistors are idling at a small output current " (usually five to 10 per cent from what I've read). "The forward bias causes the circuit to operate in class-AB mode, so both transistors are slightly on during crossover."

Hope that helps

Ortofan's picture

... the "RF input signal" about which I was seeking some further elaboration.
To what "RF input signal" are you referring?

Rafe Arnott's picture
As used in the example of the Class A vs. A/B amplification circuit.
Ortofan's picture

... are you referring to in an audio frequency amplifier?

Rafe Arnott's picture
It's merely an example of an incoming signal for arguments sake.
Doak's picture

Having good analog and digital front ends enables a person to improve both. One can drive the other toward the better aspects of each.

Rafe Arnott's picture
I feel that being able to draw direct comparisons in the same hi-fi rig between digital and analog is essential, especially over the long term, to be able to fine-tune both with an ear experienced in what the baseline is for each.
volvic's picture

A well thought out position. I agree with anything digital a good analog reference point is essential, not that it might sound better just different. I have recently dabbled into SACD and have noticed the hyper-clarity that it brings in relation to my analog rig. Sometimes it is not always better, as the clarity is occasionally too bright. Maybe my ears are used to the so-called "distortions" of 33.3 replay that naysayers always talk about, but it is also very inviting and less exhausting than even some SACD recordings. Of course, that could be cartridge related, a different cartridge as a reference point might be as bright as SACD. In any event, I welcome the comparisons. Is the LP-12 in the photos the new addition? That is a stunning looking table in that rosewood.

Rafe Arnott's picture
It's important to me to be able to offer an analog reference, especially as a baseline. I have a new Rega P3 with an Exact 2 cartridge that I love (incredible bang-for-buck combo), but know from experience that the LP12 offers a higher SQ baseline, and importantly, a truly unparalleled upgrade path (Majik–Akurate-Klimax) over the long term. And yes, a cartridge, or even a slip mat can alter the sonic flavor of a 'table, never mind tonearms, motor control, power supplies, isolation footers/wall shelf, etc. The LP12 is in cherry (looks more reddish in the pics, yes, a beautiful 'table!), and will be getting upgraded to the latest Majik-spec at the end of the month, so I'll write more then. Cheers.
Everclear's picture

Have you (Rafe) tried the isoAcoustics Delos turntable isolation platform? :-) .......

Rafe Arnott's picture
It looks very well built!
Everclear's picture

Many isoAcoustics products (not, Delos) received very positive reviews by audiophile press, including EISA awards ..... May be you could try some of their other products, also :-) .........

agb's picture

The sound of live instruments, live voices, groups, ensembles, orchestras, played in various rooms and halls, is, the reference. Digital has already surpassed analog in too many ways to count, in spite that analogphiles are committed to the idea that the many distortions existing in analog playback are minor. They are not. They are more serious and intractable to resolve than the distortions that exist in analog.

Moreover, audio technology parallels video and imaging technology. These use similar technologies of sampling, upsampling, bits and pieces, to reproduce their product. One uses conversion "sensors," ADC, DAC, to reproduce sound; the other imaging sensors to reproduce the digital image of pixels and other factors (as pixels alone are no more indicative of the whole story as are 16 bits).

How many of you would return to NTSC from 4 and 8K we have today? You would?

Disclosure: 1. I coined the idea DIGITAL SUCKS in the eighties. 2. I own both kind of systems, digital and analog, along with a serious LP and CD collection. Mostly, I stream music via Amazon Unlimited, or ripped CDs through Audirvana and Audeze DSP.

circlark's picture

Rafe, I think it's a great idea, and I'm excited for the first reviews where the analog comes into play.