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My Audio Journey / The Casual "Audiophile"
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"Let me start by saying that I don't consider myself an audiophile and maybe this story will explain why. I feel like I've hit a wall with audio 'quality'"
Good post! I think your attitude is exactly right. This just means you're not delusional. There's no research to indicate that anybody can reliably tell the difference between 256kbps AAC and lossless audio. (And yeah, I briefly went down the hi-res audio road myself... there's nothing there)
I stay away from the "audiophile" label myself because of the negative connotations.
I don't really avoid the title, many of my Apple EarPod friends call me one. I don't deny that there could be something there, I'm just not ashamed to say that I can't hear it!
You won't unless you lock yourself in a soundproof room and listen critically with revealing system. The difference between Dacs and amps are very subtle too in a category. Major differences are between different kind of equipments. Like between OTL and SS amps. But those are flavours not to be said to definitely better than one another. So it's just the matter of choice.
Funny how I too had hit a wall with "audio quality". But I did find a way out.
Actually, I had hit two walls. I had also lost my interest in music (so much of the music that has been made since the 90's really isn't worth listening to). I recovered from my lack of appetite in music when Spotify appeared on the scene. This allowed me to delve into a wealth of material (old as well as new) and made me discover so many new gems. I regained my excitement for music. Downside is of course the limited resolution of the music (320 Kbps max when downloaded in "extreme quality"). Using a Chord Mojo, combined with a better headset has made the poor file quality appreciable. But truth be told, I still use Spotify merely to discover music, find new gems (and also to make playlists for background music suited for every mood).
As for my other wall, the audio quality...
I had started using a Digital Audio Player to take my music with me (I move around between locations a lot). The DAP plus headphone/IEM sounded a lot better than a smart phone but nothing compared to a great set of speakers. My DAP can read very high resolution files natively (DSD 128), yet the music I used to feed it was CD quality or MP3 320 Kbps. Out of curiosity, I started downloading free DSD sample files from various websites. And that's when it hit me. A great recording in studio master quality (DSD 64 or 128) sounds jaw dropping!!! What an eye opener! I instantly felt hyper excited again. Some classical tracks gave me goose bumps. My headphone (a 300 $ Philips Fidelio X1) sounded like the 3000 $ HiFiman HE-1000.
Since that revelation, I have stopped buying CDs, which, I now realize are also severely compressed compared to the original analog master tape. DSD allows for a much higher resolution (64, 128, 256 and now even 512 times the resolution of a 16 bit 44.1 KHz CD). I now believe that the CD format is totally unsuitable for classical music (especially orchestral pieces or choirs). Why? It's too damn tiring for your mind trying to "guess" the missing information in a compressed file.
When you say you can't "hear" the difference between a 256 Kbps file and "lossless" (and by that I believe you mean CD quality, which is as we often forget not lossless but severely compressed) you are not wrong. That is because your mind hasn't figured out yet what to listen for. But you DO experience the difference. Your mind "feels" the difference. Two ways to find out.
1) listen to lossless music for half an hour (live sound would be ideal, 24 bit or DSD would be super, CD quality will also work but will be less revealing). Now play the same music recorded in MP3 256 Kbps. Sounds disappointing, doesn't it? Like it has lost some of its colour. It's less exciting, less "alive", less inviting, less revealing.
2) try listening to MP3 music for an extended period of time and see how long it takes before you loose interest or develop listening fatigue. One hour, two hours? Now do the same with very high resolution music (reel to reel tape, DSD). It will take forever before you develop any fatigue or loose interest. Why? Because it's effortless for your brain to listen to it. There is no need to guess/reconstruct missing information.
Any one can "feel" the difference. Those who make a living writing about audio or making music know what to listen for and recognise the discrepancies immediately. Some have even found ways to describe it (for what it's worth, hehe :-)).
One caveat though. High resolution alone is meaningless. You also need a good performance and a great recording. High resolution doesn't add anything. It preserves the beauty of the recording. It's when all these elements come together that magic happens. My search right now is no longer for better gear. It's for better recordings. And yes, it matters most for acoustic music (classical music, vocal pieces, jazz) because these are the sounds our brains know best (your brain doesn't know what a synthesizer should sound like). But any music, any genre can benefit. And if that is news, many of the best recordings I have found so far are from the 50s and 60s (Jazz). And some of the worst... Well you know that.
Try and explore well recorded music in high resolution. You too will break through your wall with a big smile on your face.