Surround Sound

I know that a few on here are quite into music (including quality music like Neil Diamond). I was wondering, does anyone else on here have SACD or DVD-A’s, and if so, are you dissappointed that the formats have not taken off? For those who do not know what they are, they a dedicated surround sound mixes – in 5.1 channels – with a higher quality digital recording.

I have a few SACD’s and DVD’s, my favourite of course being the Dark Side of the Moon SACD, which was expertly remixed by James Guthrie. Coming a close second are Roxy Music’s Avalon and Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls. I was listening to REM’s Automatic for the People on Sunday and was actually dissappointed with the mix.

Does anyone have any other SACD/DVD-A’s? Any that you would recommend.

(also – we could make this a general discussion on your home stereo setup)


49 Responses

  1. Joni, that went over my head.

    Our home music system these days is an iPod Touch which we plug into either some speakers or the TV for music clips.

  2. Migs

    Nothing beats a good stereo setup – I am using Denon equipment as the base with Monitor Audio Bronze B2 speakers… I have Radiohead’s OK Computer blaring out at the moment. Nice.

  3. Our previous system was about the size of a small room. Add to that a couple of dozen boxes of records, tapes and cd’s and we were being squeezed out of the house.

    The iPod Touch does us quite nicely. We can take it from room to room as well as outside. Very convenient.

  4. Joni. I have checked out your Monitor equipment. Very good, not unlike my Harman Kardon Bolivar speakers, although yours would be a later model than mine, I suggest.

    Dedicated SACD players did not sell in any great numbers probably due to the fact that audiophiles are greatly outnumbered in the market by Mr. and Mrs. average listener, and the iPod invasion.

    Joni, there is a dedicated SACD album release list on the web, somewhere. I did not file or bookmark at the time of viewing, bummer.
    I shall search the web later today. You may beat me to that site in the meantime.

    To answer your Hi-Fi question, Joni.
    Harman Kardon Speakers
    Marantz Amp, new
    Philips CD player (Philips and Sony did collaborate to develop the CD technology)
    Sony Tuner
    Yamaha Turntable (gathering dust)

    (Joni, I feel I must take you up on a literal point. I find it rather amusing, and somewhat misleading, that one can place the words ‘quality’, ‘music’, and ‘neil diamond’ in the same sentence, without grinning. Well done)

  5. Mr CanCan Composer,

    The HK speakers are very nice. I got my stereo from City Hifi in Sydney who recommend the MA speakers. I just have the bookcase version but the sound that it puts out is great.

    And yeah – I know that the SACD players did not sell, I wished they had – the difference in sound is amazing.

  6. joni,

    I’ve never gone into SACD, just stuck to the old CD and DVD formats. I do run my I pod through the sytem sometimes but you notice the quality difference.

    I run an old 5 turntable Sony CD player through a Sony STR D1070 Receiver pumping it out through Dali 701s. I haven’t set up my home stereo for 5.1 properly at the moment but I only listen to music through 2 channels anyway (because that’s the way it comes to us at a concert, from big speakers up front – and the Big Dali’s sound great and better than my surround speakers!). Great music (like Radiohead’s OK computer will still swiirl around your head in 2 channels anyway because it still only has two ears to come through. Even listening to DVDs in 5.2 doesn’t seem to add much for my mind unless you are watching a movie when it can add to the experience.

    I love listening to Radiohead with the lights turned out – lying on my back with my head towards the front speakers. Amazing sensation, particularly on songs like Exit Music (for a film) and Street Spirit (Fade Out) – (two of my all time faves).

  7. we have a very basic set up at our place..

  8. Niiiice reb. It’s what I would have imagined . . . for the dog!

    Here’s the one we got rid of.

  9. reb – WOW, what a set up.

    Miglo, where does the i-touch plug in?

  10. Into a speaker system that’s about the size of a shoe box.

  11. Here’s one of Tom with his music system.

  12. This is the sound system we have set up in the back patio for when friends come ’round for a barbeque..

  13. I have a feeling that some on this thread are not taking it seriously.

  14. I’m not sure that reb or Migs take anything seriously joni. Until I read that you were listening to OK Computer I was almost there with them – I mean, Joni, how can anyone take you seriously when you use Neil Diamond as your reference point. 😉

  15. Reb, we are being mocked.

  16. This is what joni really has.

  17. Joni. Check your e-mail, then check out the SACD CD prices.
    Not good.

  18. If you are serious about the music you listen to, make sure you are using the AAC format on i-tunes. The resulting audio you hear is about double the output quality of MP3s …

  19. Thanks Ray.

  20. Definitely back up Ray’s comment about AAC formats. Much better than MP3.

  21. And OB, yeah – I looked at that and there will be a few SACD’s ordered – even if they are more expensive.

  22. AAC vs MP3 depends very much on the encoding quality which in turn is constrained by the bitrate – and for AAC, whether it’s lossy or lossless.

    Lossless compression means a method of compression for which the decompressed version is exactly the same as the original, as opposed to lossy where the decompressed version has lost some of the information in the original.

    MP3 is always lossless, but most people on most setups can’t hear much difference between 192kbps variable-bit-rate MP3 and lossless. MP3 can go up to 320kbps constant-bit-rate by which time it’s generally considered very difficult to hear any difference to the original (but of course the file size has increased accordingly).

    AAC is a very complex format has all sorts of options for encoding (some of which are not supported on all devices that decode the format). It seems that most people think typical AAC encoding is a little better than MP3 at the same bitrate (especially lower bitrates), but by the time you get to the 192kbps and up rates, most of the time on most setups, most people would be hard-pressed to reliably determine which was which in a blind test.

    AAC can also do lossless (although that’s sometimes called ALAC because it switches codec to the Apple Lossless Audio Codec) – but of course the file size becomes even larger.

  23. At home I have a media computer that records TV, plays DVDs and computer video, and has all my music on the hard drive. This lets you (say) queue up background music that will play for the duration of a party or dinner event without intervention, and search/play your collection via various criteria – no fumbling around looking for CDs. You can also control audio playback from another computer using a program that talks to the media computer, and should even be able to set up a second room output, although I haven’t done this.

    The music is almost entirely in FLAC format (Free Lossless Audio Codec). This is an open source lossless codec that has similar file sizes to ALAC, but is unrestricted (no license fees, no DRM, no restrictions on how you use it, you can always download the source code, etc.) I have an iPod I use every now and then for mobile audio, and I use MediaMonkey to transcode FLAC files to either MP3 or lossy AAC on the iPod. This can take about 3 days of computer processing to fill up a 160GB iPod though…

    I have a very large external USB hard drive that I use to back up parts of the media computer – including the music. I take that to work so that I have a backup if the house burns down or something, and then I use it to play my music collection at work.

    I have a decent surround DAC/receiver/amp, but it does very little of any complexity as I only have two (decent) full-range(-ish) speakers and the media computer does all the source selection. My partner hasn’t been keen on adding more speakers to the room yet, and the stereo speakers do very well.

    I also have one very good and one excellent USB headphone DAC/amp and a rather good pair of (modified) headphones for playing music from computers. The digital data is sent unmodified from the computer to the DAC, thus bypassing any analog processing on the computer (which tends to be a poor environment for handling quality analog signals). Interestingly the headphones are more revealing and go quite a bit lower than the speakers, so if I want to check the quality of a recording I use the former. But there’s still nothing like a room full of acoustic jazz trio 🙂

    I haven’t tried SACDs yet – doesn’t fit with my usage model until you can rip them and put them on a hard drive. And I haven’t yet been convinced that they sound a lot better, although I’ve been to audio gatherings where people will swear blind that higher bit rates and bit depths make a big difference. Then again, they swear that all sorts of other equipment makes a big difference, but I’ve tried careful comparisons of one or two of them and found it very hard to hear the changes even when I know which device is playing – and certainly not enough of an improvement to spend big bucks. I guess I’m not a proper audiophile 😉

  24. Speaking of two-speakers-enough because concerts are amplified that way, binaural recordings + headphones are rather interesting for realism. They are recorded using a dummy head with microphones in the dummy’s ears, so they record the signal that reaches the ears. When you play this back with headphones you get an astonishing sense of 3D spatial realism. Whether or not this is necessary for most music is another point, but it’s quite an experience.

    There is equipment becoming available now from Smyth Research (who did some of the work on DTS) that will do a similar thing for your surround sound setup. They put mics in your own ears and measure the signal that arrives from each of the surround sound setup’s speakers. Then it measures the signal arriving from the headphones they supply. The headphones have a little head tracking device on them so it knows which way your head is pointing at any time. Given all of that information, it calculates the signal that would have reached your ears if the surround sound were played through the speakers and makes the headphones deliver it (compensating for how the headphones reproduce the signal). I had a demo a while back and it was astonishingly realistic. Other people in their demo were shouting out to turn the speakers off and turn the headphones on – in a room that was quiet because the headphones were the only thing producing sound!

  25. MP3 is always lossless…

    No it is not. The default algorithm for MP3 encoding is “lossy”, i.e. the opposite of what you are claiming. There is a lossless MP3 format, but it cannot be played on most devices. Recent reference to this fact here

  26. The default algorithm for MP3 encoding is “lossy”…

    Err, that’s what I meant to say. Thanks for picking up that error and clarifying it.

  27. Ho Lotharsson, happy to do the blind audio test comparison AAC vs MP3. Anytime. I defy you to listen to a track like Dancing in The Streets and not hear the quality divide between the two. There is a huge audio spectrum gap between formats: AAC is broad and warm, approaching vinyl quality sound, while MP3 delivers a much thinner, scratchier, less rich output.

    I refuse to listen to MP3s. Without a good Bose dock to pump them up, it’s my considered opinion that MP3s do not pass muster at all. A triumph of form over meaning. Another one …

  28. I’m obviously coming into this a bit late….. Harmon Kardon tuner/amp pioneer cd/sacd/dvd player with Whatmough performance p33 series speakers. Nothing beats these speakers! They’re fantastic and Australian made/designed!

  29. There is a huge audio spectrum gap between formats: AAC is broad and warm, approaching vinyl quality sound, while MP3 delivers a much thinner, scratchier, less rich output.

    It’s not that simple. It all depends on the encoding quality. You can have bad AAC encoding and good MP3 encoding, or vice versa. What encoding settings were you using when you encoded Dancing In The Streets to both AAC and MP3?

  30. It all depends on the encoding quality.

    (And it goes without saying it also depends on what you play them through…an iPod headphone out isn’t exactly the highest quality analog output.)

  31. I forgot to add that it also depends on the relative volume of the two sources/tracks. A very small volume difference that is not consciously audible can make a distinct difference to the reported quality of the sound. Hi-Fi shops have been known to exploit “louder sounds better” for ages.

    This is why the ABX protocol for determining whether people can reliably hear the difference between two sources uses precise volume matching (typically to within something like 0.15dB). If you can’t reliably pick the difference under ABX, then you’re probably not hearing a difference.

  32. I have no idea what you people are talking about.

  33. One should note that the placebo effect can form a large part of perceived differences in audio:

    John Dunlavy, who manufactures audiophile loudspeakers and wire to go with it, does think questioning is valid. A musician and engineer, Mr. Dunlavy said as an academic exercise he used principles of physics relating to transmission line and network theory to produce a high-end cable. ”People ask if they will hear a difference, and I tell them no,” he said.

    Mr. Dunlavy has often gathered audio critics in his Colorado Springs lab for a demonstration.

    ”What we do is kind of dirty and stinky,” he said. ”We say we are starting with a 12 WAG zip cord [a standard type of US power cord], and we position a technician behind each speaker to change the cables out.”

    The technicians hold up fancy-looking cables before they disappear behind the speakers. The critics debate the sound characteristics of each wire.

    ”They describe huge changes and they say, ‘Oh my God, John, tell me you can hear that difference,’ ” Mr. Dunlavy said. The trick is the technicians never actually change the cables, he said, adding, ”It’s the placebo effect.”

    Also consider well-known issues such as the short persistence of human audio memory (making any test where it takes 60 seconds to change over the equipment rather suspect).

  34. I agree Lizzy Lou,

    whatmough speakers are bloody brilliant!

  35. Tony@8:04

    That makes two of us!

    I press play & noise comes out of the thingies.
    Loud, abrasive noise that you’d all hate…which means that it’s double-plus good.

  36. Apparently someone ran an amplifier comparison challenge using ABX protocols with a $10,000 prize for quite a few years, and under the given conditions (largely explained at that link) no-one was able to reliably pick the differences.

  37. Hi Lotharrson,

    The audio spectrum test goes way beyond any of the mind tricks you mention.
    Just put standard AAC and MP3 tracks through an audio spectrometer and you will see how much narrower the compressed output of MP3s is. Our ears are capable of hearing much much more than what MP3s are capable of delivering.

    It’s just like CDs were a measurable step down from vinyl in capturing audio spectrum – but more portable/convenient. Yes you can take a lot of music in a very small package with MP3, it is convenient, but the sound quality is sub prime. I’ve got 11,000 AAC songs on an 80GB pod, a few thousand less than I could pack in with scratchy MP3s but I’m interested in quality first second and … last

    I mentioned Dancing In The Streets cos it was a warm, tight, room-mic’ed track. Try the spectrum test on this track and you’ll really see what I’m talking about …

    PS, I’ve used Sennheiser external phones with my Pod, initially with MP3s and for the past two years with an all AAC collection.

    P.PS I agree with what you are saying about speaker testing quirks.

  38. I listened to some Whatmough Performance speakers when I was hunting for speakers. I think they were a little lower down the range than the P33, and I would happily have bought them except my partner vetoed the appearance. To my ears & tastes, they were the best I listened to in the price range.

  39. Just put standard AAC and MP3 tracks through an audio spectrometer and you will see how much narrower the compressed output of MP3s is.

    Firstly, that’s a meaningless statement unless you indicate the encoder software used and its encoding parameters for both your AAC and your MP3 encoding. It’s easy to encode the same track to both AAC and MP3 so the AAC sounds much worse. And one can even produce (say) two MP3 encodings at roughly the same bitrate using different encoders or parameters and one will sound much worse than the other.

    Secondly, looking at a spectrometer is precisely the wrong thing to do with both AAC and MP3 because they are both psycho-acoustic perceptual coding mechanisms. In other words they are designed to compress audio by throwing away information that our ears and brain can’t hear very well – or at all. Spectrometers don’t understand psycho-acoustics, so without expert interpretation they don’t give any reliable information on which is the better encoding (unless one is grossly inferior to the other).

    …a few thousand less than I could pack in with scratchy MP3s…

    Which implies that you’re comparing AACs to MP3s that are at lower bitrates than the AACs, so it’s no surprise the MP3s sound worse.

    Try using LAME as an MP3 encoder and encoding at about 256kbps variable bit rate. Then encode to AAC using iTunes (or Nero?) at about the same bitrate. You might be surprised.

    I’ve used Sennheiser external phones with my Pod, initially with MP3s and for the past two years with an all AAC collection.

    Which model? There are some very good Sennheisers, but they are generally too demanding for an iPod’s internal analog amplifier circuits, and don’t sound very good unless they use an external (headphone) amp. Some of the mid-range models are pretty decent and IIRC can be driven just fine by an iPod. (Try Head-Fi for more than you ever wanted to know about headphone audio ;-))

  40. What about the analogue valve/digital hybrid Pod docks (brand name escapes me)? A friend has one of them, sounds brighter and warmer than the Bose I am happy with …

  41. Speaking of two-speakers-enough because concerts are amplified that way, binaural recordings + headphones are rather interesting for realism. They are recorded using a dummy head with microphones in the dummy’s ears, so they record the signal that reaches the ears.

    Taken the wrong way, that could lend a whole new meaning to a walk through a mindfield, particularly if the dummy had (induced) boundary issues. And just on the general topic of channels, I thought that this article might interest some…when 3500 channels isn’t enough for super-radiohead.

  42. On deadline, Lotharrson, time poor.

    1) On standard setting, AAC produces a much better sound quality than a standard MP3.

    2) Audio spectrum is the best non-geek guide to sound quality. There is a direct relationship between breadth and audio comprehension.

    Yes, I am downloading AAC at a much higher bitrate than the standard.

    Hopefully talk to you all … next week

  43. On standard setting…

    “Standard setting” in what software? They’re all different.

    There is a direct relationship between breadth and audio comprehension

    You mean by “breadth” the amount of bandwidth used? And do you mean fidelity of musical reproduction, or comprehensibility of spoken/sung words? The latter comes from roughly the 1-5kHz range, not (say) the 15-20kHz range which contributes to the feeling of clarity and (in decent recordings) the sense of space in which the recording was made.

    Good luck with your deadline.

  44. ‘I have no idea what you people are talking about’ – ToSY

    LOL. Then stay tuned and learn ol chap! (grin)

    Hey Miglo, that vintage record player pic is an absolute cracker, one that I can easily relate to. I’ll have you know one of the first rock bands of which I was a member used a vintage contraption as such for learning cover songs; it was also used to play Hendrix’ ‘Are You Experienced’ album at band practice, an album which be believe was the first (privately owned) copy of in Australia as it arrived to us via a friend returning from the UK.

  45. Hi Lotharrson, in answer to you:

    Audio spectrum width.

    i-tunes as fitted to macs and pcs.

  46. standard i-tunes, as fitted, which is the way most punters use it.

  47. When it comes to surround sound, I think I’ll wait for the Bose-Einstein speakers to listen to what remains.

  48. …analogue valve/digital hybrid Pod docks…

    IIRC almost all iPod audio docks are not taking digital audio from the iPod interface (at least not the docks that support recent iPods) – they merely give you the iPod analog signal, perhaps with additional processing and amplification. This is because Apple charges significant license fees for access to the digital data over that interface. IIRC Wadia make one that is licensed for access to the digital data, and by now there may be more.

    I also have a vague memory of some iPod docs for cars accessing the iPod as a USB disk, which allowed them to get to the files as digital data and decode them outside the iPod. However those devices were vulnerable to changes in the iPod disk structure, meaning they would either stop working or need a firmware update. (Then again, that’s how my copy of MediaMonkey works to sync audio to my iPod, so it seems viable enough – it’s just that it’s easier to update a software version on my PC than firmware on a piece of hardware in a car.)

    Other people have modified their iPods to tap in to the digital signal before it goes to the iPod DAC, which is more trouble than I’m willing to go to.

    Valves are generally used in amplifiers because some people prefer the sound (or think they are cool). This is typically because they add distortion or modulate the frequency response, but in ways that some people like. You can get essentially the same effect using digital signal processing in front of a decent quality solid state amp. If you read the link about the amplifier challenge, they use an equalizer to compensate for amps with limited frequency response, such as valve amps, when comparing to amps with a full-audio-spectrum response.

  49. standard i-tunes, as fitted, which is the way most punters use it.

    I don’t use iTunes much, but I have access to a v8.1 installation (which was up to date until recently).

    The Import Settings dialog offers the following for converting CDs to compressed format:
    – for the AAC encoder it defaults to “iTunes Plus” setting, which it says is 256kbps VBR stereo
    – for the MP3 encoder it defaults to 160kbps joint stereo

    No wonder the AAC sounds better! 🙂 Many people can hear compression artifacts in 160kbps joint stereo MP3s, but most won’t hear any such artifacts in 256kbps stereo AAC.

    If you have time run a test where you import a CD to MP3 using custom settings = 256kbps VBR normal stereo at highest quality setting. (You may have to tweak the bitrate to get a file of similar size to the AAC, due to the nature of variable bit rate encoding.) Then see if it sounds audibly different from your 256kbps AAC.

    It’s not the format alone that determines quality; it’s the format + the encoding settings. If you compare apples to apples you may find much smaller differences (at least with bitrates for high quality reproduction, except perhaps on the margin).

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