Home Cd converter Have we reached Peak Audio?

Have we reached Peak Audio?



The sound is less demanding than the images to process, move and store. So does that mean that we won’t see any more innovation in the audio field? Far from there.

When Atomos’ first products came out about ten years ago, I was fascinated by how a battery-powered device could capture an uncompressed high definition HDMI signal and compress it in real time to Apple ProRes for storage on a spinning hard drive or SSD. Before I met the Melbourne-based company, I would have assumed that you would need an equipment rack to do this, not a little thing with a screen you could put in your pocket.

At the IBC show that year, I spoke to the makers of the chip inside the first Ninja. It was an FPGA – a type of processor that can be electronically reconfigured to run software algorithms at hardware speeds. Before working in the video industry, I was in professional audio. So I wanted to know how many channels of CD quality digital audio could be processed simultaneously on this type of chip.

The answer? Thousands.

Remember, that was about ten years ago. Today, you could probably multiply that raw processing power by ten or even a hundred – maybe more. But the question is: does it matter?

Probably not – unless you’re working on an unusually complex project or performing exceptionally sophisticated processing. The reality today is that an iPad Pro is a formidable recording studio, capable of easily replacing entire racks of hardware audio processors and recording dozens of tracks simultaneously. For example, the free version of Blackmagic (or at a nominal price if you buy the “studio” version) Davinci Resolve comes with the Fairlight audio page. Combined with the Fairlight audio accelerator card, it can process a thousand tracks, all with effects and dynamics. Without it, it’s still very powerful.

There is no doubt that audio processing is there in abundance. But, without wanting to sound too definitive about it, you could almost say the job is done: we don’t need it anymore.


But what about loyalty? Is there more that can be done here? Again, I would say yes, definitely.

Despite all the great amounts of contemporary audio processing, audio remains a stubbornly natural analog phenomenon. Thus, we will always be on the same front: analog-to-digital conversion. This is where, if you are wrong, the damage is done. And the distortion introduced at this point will be “burned” into the audio forever. So trust me, it is worth getting the right converters.

The good news is that analog-to-digital converters are truly exceptional now. The cheapest are better than they used to be, and the expensive ones are so good it’s hard to fault them. It’s not an easy task: audio, like video, covers a wide dynamic range. Loud sounds are easy to handle. It is when you have to record loud and soft sounds that it becomes difficult. With digital audio, weak sounds receive fewer bits than loud sounds. Imagine a piano chord played with the sustain pedal activated. It may take up to 30 seconds to disappear completely. Then, just before it goes inaudible, it will be very quiet. This is the part that digital systems struggle with because the waveform at this point will have relatively low resolution compared to recording the loudest part of the note.

Will you notice it? Probably not. The only way to hear it is if you turned up the volume so much that the louder part of the note would have made you deaf. DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recordings eliminate this problem in the digital world. However, they are stubbornly incompatible with a “standard” digital audio signal chain – and even DSD still has to rely on the quality of the A / D converter.

Ironically, analog background noise can act as a “dither” to mask quantization noise at low signal levels. So sometimes a little noise is a good thing.

Character and resolution

Taking it further into the analog realm, today’s microphones are great but represent an entirely different discussion. Recording artists often prefer the sound of older microphone designs, so the choice of audio capture device remains a matter of “character”.

It is now possible to record audio at extremely high digital resolutions – with high sample rates and dynamic range of 24-bit or even 32-bit. (Processing is often done at 32-bit floating-point resolution – probably sufficient to record the Big Bang without clipping) But it is questionable whether analog equipment can deliver audio with such low background noise that even 24 bits can be fully used. These larger bit depths are more useful for providing “free space” when recording unpredictable live music. For playback, in my opinion at least, well-recorded and controlled 16-bit sound (ie CD-quality) is sufficient for most music.

Audio software continues to innovate, with AI being used more and more to do “the impossible”, such as demixing rods of music and removing unwanted sounds. For these applications, there is probably no upper limit to their processing demands.

Ironically, despite all the fanfare around spatial audio, DSD, and other higher-resolution audio formats, consumer audio peaked with CD – a 16-bit stereo format with a theoretical frequency range. up to 20 kHz and beyond. Unfortunately, the early CDs didn’t sound as good as the promised format. The A / D and D / A converters were nowhere near as good as today’s products. Recently I borrowed some really good speakers, connected a high end amplifier, and attached my CD player via a high end digital to analog converter (DAC). My living room is good for audio because it has thick curtains, big upholstered furniture, and rugs.

The result was astonishing. There was an incredible amount of information in the audio. It was clean, bright, transparent and believable. The stereo soundstage was rock solid and almost sounded like an audio hologram.

Take a room

The sad reality is that we have forgotten how good CD audio can be because we rarely play CDs in ideal or even good conditions. In fact, we hardly ever play CDs, given the ubiquity of compressed streaming services. Most of the time, convenience surpasses ultimate sound quality.

About vinyl vs. CDs: Compact discs offer a wider dynamic range and greater frequency response than the gramophone. They are not loud and do not degrade. I have never heard a vinyl record that sounds as good as a well produced CD. On the other hand, I listened to vinyl records that sounded good and better than the worst CDs. There is no doubt that vinyl records can provide an enjoyable listening experience. But are they better than CDs?

Objectively, no.

Recent news that multiple streaming platforms will stream uncompressed (CD quality) audio is welcome. However, I would still add (as i did in this article) that you will not often be in circumstances where you will hear the difference, and that you will not necessarily have the equipment necessary to bring out the benefits of uncompressed sound. Yet on the rare occasions when you can to hear it, it will be amazing.

In the meantime, it might be a good time to rip your CD collection again. It might be the next retro revival.



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