24 bit, loudness wars, and polarity

I consider myself a free thinker, heck I am a molecular/cellular biologist; I have to be. I never trust anything I read 100% and everything will be tested even if the alternative hypothesis seems thin.

I’ve made some interesting observations and some initial conclusions from listening. My best DAC is my DFR run on my MacBook Air using Audirvana 3 with Integer mode and Extreme system optimization. I also run a jitterbug on a parallel USB port. Once my Stellar DAC/S300 arrives, all of the following observations and tests will be repeated.

To me the, “loudness wars,” is an interesting concept potentially compromising all genre’s of music in all of these re-releases and remasters. There are so many variables however to judge the effects of decreased dynamic range and I fear that this field suffers from a great deal of cognitive bias by many. Especially when proper PC/MAC software is fairly recent where we can get adequate sound quality using Exclusive/Integer/Direct modes and we now understand that USB straight with no modifiying device (LanRover, Regen, etc…) is pretty bad.

Let’s take a modern remaster from my generation that is trashed ALL the time, the Nirvana-Nevermind remaster. Hang on, there are some points to consider here! Consider that anyone judging the CD remaster as evidence of problems with loudness, this is immediately invalidated to me due to concerns over the 24-bit to 16 bit and 96 k to 44.1 k down conversion process. The CD remaster streamed over Tidal has some major issues in the cymbal territory, very blurry and wishy washy. The best comparison is to compare a 16 bit pre-remaster to the new 24 bit remaster. Not perfect but its better than throwing in 96 k to 44.1 down conversion into the mix.

The 24 bit remaster on my system sounds pretty damn good for a grunge track! I am actually liking it more than the original CD. When I invert the polarity of the remaster, it sounds a heck of a lot like the old version streamed over Tidal (2002 version pre-remaster). There is no absolute control in the industry for polarity normalization. The wrong polarity to me gives the recording a false sense of space, slightly smoother, but muddied and less present sound. Also, the image width is cut by about 25-50% over headphone. The transients are tighter on the remaster and the leading edges of everything are clearer, the old version is blurry and somewhat muddy. Its smooth but it doesn’t sound live or real. To me getting the polarity right may be better than a moderately improved dynamic range. I can’t say for sure if they inverted polarity on the re-release, but nontheless it raises another wrinkle in comparing older vs. new releases. Regardless, the 24 bit sounds more real to me. What is real, where is the reference? We don’t really have a good one for rock music. Concerts don’t count since they are too loud, highly variable due due to different environments and different level setting everywhere it seems. There is no good venue besides a good old garage band format that doesn’t amplify the sound into infinity and back well outside listenable limits of SQ.

Another tangent, I have another modern rock album by Chevell- La Gargola, amazing album and great sound! But the hi res version available tops out at 24/44.1. Comparing the 16 to the 24, I hear much more of a difference than I expected given all of the internet trash talk. Same thing on Matthew Good, 24/48 sounds much more realistic compared to 16 bit. Slightly different music, not as heavy and a little more moody, same effect on leading edges and general shape of sound.

I have a question to those more familiar with DAC operation. DACS fundamentally operate better with 24 bit compared to 16 bit? Or, is the down-conversion process fundamentally bad causing rounding errors when going down to 16 when the master was higher? Is it a bit of both combined with reduced quantization error rates or distribution? Is decreased dynamic range still a concern but slightly less so with 24 bit?

I love variables and complex systems, hence why audio synergy is so fun!

My understanding is that theoretically 16 bits has plenty of dynamic range. Usually higher resolution, if it was recorded that way, and not a studio 16/44 or 48 that is upsampled should sound better. But there are so many variables, the ADC, the compressors used, the engineer.

With modern commercial music, the lack of dynamic range is just one factor. I’m not familiar with the other artists, but with Nirvana, the only recording I enjoy is the unplugged album.

If I want to demonstrate dynamic range I use Stereophile’s Jerome Harris jazz album. With power pop like the Sugar Stems I listen at 42-44 on my preamp, with the Jerome Harris CD I am at 60-62. I would imagine on a poorly chosen stereo, or a cheap car stereo the album with the greater dynamics would have you turning it up and down, as some parts would be lost in the noise, and others would sound way too loud.

There is much written on the benefits of 24 over 16, just do a Google search. Look for articles written by John Atkinson, amongst others written by professionals.

I have found with cheaper and older DACs it the brickwall filters that hurt 16/44. I think you will be quite happy with your new DAC, as good as the Dragonfly is for the money, it still has limitations being a $200 DAC.

I remember reading where the Dragonfly was going to support MQA, I don’t know if that happened. If it did and you are using Tidal, be sure to go in to settings and set it to have Tidal do the first unfold with Masters when you get your new DAC. If your Dragonfly is processing MQA you would have it set to let the DAC do the processing. With the PSA DACs at this time you have to do that processing in the Tidal player. I believe eventually the Directstreams with the Bridge will be able to do that processing. Your new DAC won’t be upgradeable like the other two.

Thanks for the response.

I am super stoked for the new DAC and amp. Right now I am using the DFR which feeds a Denon x2000. Even the DFR makes the Denon DAC feel lifeless by comparison. Not to mention the amp section is not robust. So I should be getting a BIG upgrade with the Stellar series!

I’m not too concerned about MQA, I have compared enough hi-res to MQA to determine I prefer the hi-res versions. The DFR still hasn’t received the update to do the second unfold but i’m not concerned. Honestly, there is way more benefit from using Audirvana or at the minimum Roon, with Integer mode than there is using MQA with the barebones Tidal app.

I will do more reading on 24 bit. To me I hear more micro dynamics, more control, more life, less effort. Fog/blurryness is getting removed

Think about powerpoint presentations. When you copy and paste images, if you do it the wrong way, text gets just a little blurry, the edges get a little messy. By inserting raw original files everything is crisp. Similar to these qualities visually, I hear the same things with 24 bit. I am curious if the difference between 16 and 24 bit will be larger or smaller on the Stellar Series?

Not having heard the new DAC I am just speculating, but I think you might hear less difference between 16/44 and higher rez. The reason being that CDs are going to sound so much better.

If you followed the beta reports on the new DMP transport, while everyone seemed impressed by the improvements of sending the SACDs digital DSD to the Directstreams, it was the improvements with CDs that was really impressive.

I have an Oppo 83se that I used to use with SACDs, now with refurbished PWT and my current DAC, I prefer the CD layer with those components to the Oppo. And the Oppo was the first model of theirs that offered the “SE”, an upgraded analog section with separate stereo outputs.

Like I said in my last post, the brickwall filters did a lot of harm in older DACs, as did jitter.

I like the music that is available on Tidal, there is music on there I never thought I would hear again. I found Jon Mark’s of Mark-Almond his first solo album. I didn’t think it had ever been released as a CD. I had tried to find a copy of it years ago, looked for the vinyl used, no one had it. And I knew it wasn’t a big seller originally, so I gave up. And there it was on Tidal. But I agree with you about their player, and it drives me nuts when you click on a band and find three or four of the same album with little or no documentation. But for $20 a month, for that amount of choice, and the partially unfolded Masters do sound pretty good. Would I prefer true hi-rez, yes, can I afford to buy all of those downloads, nope.

I mentioned Tidal to you, as it is getting rare to find audiophiles who aren’t streaming, if only for background music. The only ones that have no interest are those who only listen to classical music.

Enjoy your new gear.

Old thread but interesting article on the loudness wars in today’s New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/opinion/what-these-grammy-songs-tell-us-about-the-loudness-wars.html

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Very nice article (excuse my taking liberty with your id, could not resist :smile:. Reminiscing about the 70’s, my bridge group listened to the Eagles during bridge play. I liked the Eagles a lot but never considered my self a rabid fan. The compression angle gives me thought, that this characteristic adds to the comfort of listening to many forms of music during our hours of bridge play. So play the Eagles. Hell’s Bells, I miss the old gang.

I’m actually known as Q, no worries!

Dragonfly does support MQA bit not on iDevices with Tidal. Not yet at least. MQA signals turn the bug a magenta color when decoding. There are some settings adjustments to make it work. See attached:


Bruce in Philly


Well written article. Thanks for sharing.

I guess Loudness Wars are nothing new :smile:

The other war ended by the Versailles Treaty

Today’s World War I-related story is so bizarre you might think it’s an April Fool’s joke. We can assure you, however, that it’s completely true.

Fans of classical music probably know that concert orchestras are tuned so that the A note above the middle C, designated A4 in the U.S. system, has a frequency of 440Hz , except in some countries and certain orchestras, but even those are pretty close. What you may not know is that this international standard owes its existence to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles.

British soldiers in WWI fighting for a standardized concert pitch. Well, not fighting so much as being very, very loosely responsible for it.

For most of history, European musical instruments were always tuned locally. The centerpiece of music was usually the church organ. While organs could be tuned, it was a painstaking process of hammering the ends of the metal pipes into different shapes. This would eventually ruin the pipes, so it rarely got done. Instead, all other instruments were tuned to local organ. If visiting musicians from another town played, they would either tune their own instruments to the organ or transpose the music by playing every note consistently higher or lower to match the local tune.

With the rise of famous composers, music started to travel further and further and some composers such as Mozart and Handel were keen to have their music always played with the same pitch. The invention of the tuning fork in 1711 made this possible, but forks themselves came in many different pitches. By the late 18th century, A4 could be anywhere between 400Hz and 450Hz .

Contemporary painting of Mozart (center) playing with his sister and father. Mozart preferred to tune his pianos to around A4=421.6Hz

With the rise of instrumental music to prominence, a constant rise in pitch began, sometimes nicknamed the sharpness wars. Due to the way musical frequencies effect human hearing, higher-pitched notes are perceived as brighter, or more “brilliant,” and manufacturers kept producing higher- and higher-pitched instruments to outsell the competition.

In the 19th century, the popularity of music prompted the construction of much bigger music halls and opera houses than in previous centuries. The larger internal spaces, however, meant that the harmonic resonations, the “timbre,” of the instruments were absorbed by fabrics and human bodies to a greater extent, leading to a flatter sound. To compensate, orchestras raised the pitch even higher.

Contemporary depiction of the opening night of the Vienna Court Opera, today the Vienna State Opera, on May 25, 1869. The opera house is an example of the vast performance spaces that contributed to pitch inflation.

This led to complaints from the players of certain types of string instruments, whose strings started breaking too frequently, and from singers, who could no longer match the pitch of music without straining or even serious damaging their vocal chords. In 1859, the French government stepped in and required state-owned music venues to tune A4 to 435Hz, a compromise between the 450Hz preferred by instrumentalists and the 420Hz advocated by singers. There were also national attempts at standardization in the United Kingdom, but the first international agreement about concert pitch came at an 1885 conference in Vienna involving eight nations who all adopted the French 435Hz.

Well, all except the British. The manufacturing standards of the 435Hz tuning fork said that the fork had to produce that pitch at a temperature of 15°Celsius (59°F). Since the fork was made of metal, its pitch didn’t really depend on the temperature, but the Royal Philharmonic Society decided to use this as a loophole to keep producing brighter sounds. They would tune a single oboe to A4=435Hz in a 59°F room, then take that oboe into the actual performance space where it was warmer and tune all other instruments to it. The pitch of the oboe, and all other wind instruments, greatly depends on air temperature, so the “correctly” tuned pitch rose as soon as the instrument was taken into a warmer room, leading to an actual pitch of A4=440Hz for the whole orchestra based on its tone.

In 1919, the 435Hz standard of the Viennese conference was shoehorned into the Versailles Treaty to give it a stronger legal standing, but Britain and the U.S. kept violating it even afterwards. A part of the treaty is dedicated to the establishment of various industrial and trade standards for the League of Nation to use after the war: the standardization of concert pitch fit into that general pattern. You can read the text of the treaty here by locating Article 282 subsection 22.

The British and American reluctance to play along started becoming a problem with the spread of radio-transmitted music, where their concerts could be clearly heard as having a different pitch from other nations’ performances. A conference in the spring of 1939 finally achieved true standardization by letting the Brits have it their way and setting A4 to 440Hz for everyone. The decision, however, was not adopted until 1955, as Nazi Germany invaded Poland a few months later, plunging the world into World War II and giving everyone more important things to worry about. According to a conspiracy theory, the 440Hz standard was accepted at the insistence of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who thought the frequency could put people into an easily influenceable state of mind. In actual fact, it was because British musicians violated the Treaty of Versailles. Well, they and Hitler both.

Famous bagpiper Bill Millin entertaining soldiers in Normandy after landing on D-Day while playing his pipes. We have no information on the exact pitch here, but bagpipes are difficult to tune and are usually tuned to a rather high pitch.

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You can learn more interesting details about the Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, the First World War, World War II and the Vietnam War on our historical tours scheduled for 2019 and 2020.

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Fabulous information, alas I was totally unaware. I thoroughly enjoyed this read.
Some musicians learn to play by ear. Can you offer some insight here, as to how this might relate to pitch?
Thank you,

Hi cd,

Pitch is generally equated to frequency, but there are some psychoacoustic considerations that also apply. I’m not enough of an expert to offer more than that, but “pitch” when I was in High School band and orchestra was the “note” that
the ensemble tuned all of their instruments to so that we could all play “in tune.” I was aware of there was some controversy around the frequency or pitch that defined the “concert A” standard we all dialed in on, but had no back story until a friend of
mine sent me this article.

What I did already know came from an article some years ago that mentioned that owners of Stradivari and other legacy instruments often “lend” them to musicians so that they can be played regularly and properly maintained. The musicians
were concerned that the higher tuning frequency (or pitch) was potentially putting too much stress on some extremely rare and valuable stringed instruments (higher frequency = tighter strings under more tension).

In any event, I was stuck by the similarities to the current “loudness wars.”

Thank you, very interesting.