The warmth of digital

While browsing an audiophile headphone site, I come across some threads discussing the inherent sound qualities of computer sound cards. The threads (unfortunately lost to time due to broken links) are a curious mix of the highly aesthetic and the highly technical: ‘Looking for a sound card that is warm and musical. (Currently have 1212M).’ Or ‘Upgrading fr[om] Audigy2 ZS platinum Pro to Emu 0404 or Emu 1212m : Day and night diff?’

I’m not sure of the context here: are these guys just using these soundcards to digitize vinyl to play back later, or are they using their computer system as some sort of ultra-fancy hifi receiver?

Either way, they’re describing the effects of the various sound cards, if they are good, as ‘warm,’ ‘musical,’ or with a ‘wider soundfield.’ These are attributes usually used when talking about analog gear, often in contrast to the analog domain. The unsatisfying cards are labeled ‘uninteresting’ and ‘analytical.’

We’re observing the audiophile world, which has a peculiar, extreme consumer fetishism. In this case, the sound card has become a component in an audiophile system, and so is peered at and dissected in the same way an amplifier, turntable, or speakers might be examined. There is nothing wrong with this, really — a listener should evaluate all points in the signal path.

Like the pro audio world, equipment is not entirely sacred: it can be modified, and several posters in this thread have replaced certain components (usually amplifier chips; the threads reference ‘opa637’). However, the pro audio world replaces components to reduce noise or expand the frequency response. I’m fascinated that the audiophile folks are modifying the circuits to tweak the sound itself.

I’m not saying any of this is invalid. It’s just interesting to me that the pro audio world looks at digital primarily for accuracy and transparency (primarily for recording), and uses analog to shape and warm sound, while the audiophile world either disdains digital entirely, or imposes the conventional desires onto every segment of the signal chain.

How far can this go? Will Windows XP SP1 be looked back at as having a ‘sweeter’ sound than later versions? Will there be a particularly listenable computer system, highly sought after, obscure, manufactured by a tiny firm in the back alleys of Akihabara, that is rumored to sound even better than pure analog?

(It is especially ironic that the ‘possibly related posts’ that WordPress automatically generates just below this posting are exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.)

Published in: on 8 February 2007 at 11:28 am  Leave a Comment  

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