High End Audio
It is very easy to get sucked into the world of high end audio, or ‘audiophilia’. It can start very innocuously. It might be, as with me, that your trusted CD player (part of the classic Panasonic SA PM 20 midi system) had started skipping, and you wanted a solution in order to play your collection of Compact Discs. It’s a very swift process and before you know it you are staring at a review of a £15,000 NAIM CD555. Words like ‘confident sound reproduction’ and ‘stunning timekeeping’ are bandied about as if normal CD players had self-esteem issues, or a woeful sense of 1-2-3-4 (despite being digital devices). The mind boggles at the speakers and amplifier that an audiophile might pair with this kind of CD player, which (lest we forget) only plays ‘Red Book’ CDs (the kind you and I know as ‘CDs’) rather than any of the high-resolution variants like SACD. It won’t play your DVD collection. It won’t let you plug in your iPad. It plays CDs. For £15,000. A suitable speaker set up might be the Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF that cost £200,000. Then there the ‘interconnects’ to buy – the incredibly expensive high end audio leads that provide ‘loss-less transfer’. By no means is it an exaggeration that you could speak £300,000 on a stereo in this rarified world, and of course, at that point, you’re unlikely to have 1 set of speakers, 1 CD player, or 1 amp. You’ll probably want a pre-amp, for instance. And a vinyl player. And this is just the digital world of chips and transistors. There’s another world altogether where tube amplifiers are the range.
The gateway drug to all of this was the label on my Panasonic CD player. It states that is is ‘MASH’, the acronym given to ‘Multi Stage Noise Shaping’. It was the proprietary trademark name for their late 80s and early 90s series of DAC chips (‘Digital Analog Converter’), which acted to convert the 1s and 0s from the digital disc back into the waveforms that make up an analog sound wave that our ears can comprehend. DACs are now themselves incredibly contested territory and prestige DACs go for many, many thousands. There are heritage sites dedicated to famous DACs, of which the Panasonic/Technics MASH family are low-price upstart wedding-crashers. Here is a list of famous DACs, and a rating of the ones in the Technics MASH family. I have ebay alerts set up to try and snag a bargain Technics CD player but of course, by now, a lot of the other components in them will have started to ‘go’, too – the capacitors, the drive-belt, the chip boards themselves. They won’t give me that true RED BOOK SOUND ! What is a man to do? (I turn back to streaming digital music on on old HP netbook via my FiiO E7 DAC into the Cambridge Azur 640A amplifier, in case you were wondering, which I know that you probably weren’t.)
Vinyl is a six decade old format that completely avoids this conversion, hence the purists and vinyl fans and their love of their heavy plastic frisbees. It is never converted from analogue to digital unless of course its from one of the many studios that now record to digital, use sound editing, and then send it out to master. Fans duly arrive on forums to knock CDs as nothing more than ‘shiny plastic mug coasters’. Then the cassette tape fans pile in and everyone starts laughing. I’m not sure if anyone mourns the MiniDisc. But there is probably a very active internet forum somewhere…