The Clueless Audiophile

Demystifying the 2-channel and head-fi audiophile world for the clueless among us

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An Audiophile’s musings on the subjectivity of hi-fi

If I see the phrase “Jazz at the Pawnshop” one more time on the HDTracks search engine I will probably gouge out my eyes with a dull scalpel. It’s not that I don’t like the actual music presented on said album, but more that it seems a little flogged by our pursuit of “Hi-Res Downloads.”


Here’s my question:  is an audiophile more likely to purchase album these days if it offers a hi-res format? My answer is complicated, but boils down to this: If one has even heard of HDTracks or similar download services then the selection bias has already been in place: Of course we think we need the hi-res format that is at least $10 to $15 more than a “normal res” format one would find on iTunes.

This brushes a critical question that we must all ask ourselves at some point: Can I tell the difference between a Redbook download and a hi-res download?

My answer is: Not really. If I was blinded, perhaps I’d choose the hi-res file maybe 60% of the time, which as far as I’m concerned is statistically insignificant. I’d want to see some major power in numbers on people picking hi-res over Redbook before declaring that it is definitively better.

News flash–This type of study has not been done to my knowledge. I think we’d all know if there was some sort of good data out there, because the gurus would have latched on to that by now.

What does this represent for us? For me, it really boils down to whether or not I’m willing to pay the difference between Redbook and hi-res. I’ve come to my own subjective decision that if it is one of my favorite albums and I listen to it frequently, then I’ll shell out the extra cash. Whether or not I can hear the difference is up for debate. All I can say is that with hi-res downloads and great hi-fi equipment, I’m hearing a superb positive difference over what I was used to hearing years ago.  Lately, I’ve really been into female vocal pop like Lorde and Tove Lo, as well as some old standards like Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” and “Aja.” Knowing the whole album note by note and hearing it in a great recording does allows me to enjoy it even more than when I first heard it.

Through the years, i’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in various avocations such as playing acoustic guitar and drinking/brewing beer, as well as high fidelity audio.  These avocations hold a commonality with high fidelity audio in that it’s almost impossible to describe subjective perceptions in quality; so, i’ve become accustomed to participating in a world in which the subjective perspective is sometimes the only way in which to communicate. Describing what one hears or tastes can frequently become a bit of a stretch. This is particularly relevant when it comes to attempts to put on paper the different shades and flavors that we all can experience. What one person experiences with Red Spruce and Mahogany in an old Martin may be described as “woody” or “dry” or “fundamental.” It turns out that these phrases have absolutely no basis in actual commonality from person to person. What I might taste as “banana ester” in a great farmhouse saison may be just flowery words that have been put in my head by reading others’ opinion of that experience.

Of course, there are larger generalizations on which a majority of individuals can agree.  But there are just as many that break out the pitchforks and double blinded studies when the opinions are voiced.  I strive for delivery of useful information with minimal extraneous nonsense.


The same goes for describing music, and more importantly for our purposes, hi-fi equipment.  When I read online perspectives trying to describe vacuum tube equipment as “warm” or “lush,” or digital recordings as cold and calculating, I tend to roll my proverbial eyes. To be perfectly honest, I think that some of this stuff is nonsense. I liken it to a desperate sommelier, attempting to validate his or her own existence. There is a place for differing and various perspectives when it comes to describing hi-fi audio equipment, no doubt. But if one has to have the meanings of adjectives described to them in order to understand from whence they’re coming, what’s the point? Listen for yourself and make up your own mind.

A Troglodyte’s foray into Roon

Let’s just get this right out of the way:  I am not an audiophile expert.  Those that possess decades-long careers in the music, engineering, and journalism business will know more after a week-long binge of huffing markers and cartridge toner than I ever will.

After the lingering effects of the five finger discount work Sharpie fumes have worn off, what I can claim is that I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last ten years working with personal digital audio, and have learned a lot.  I became a self-taught iTunes guru more out of necessity than fondness; and as I dimly recall, the first step down the rabbit hole was buying my first iPod in 2005 and taking all my CDs, then numbering approximately 500, and loading them onto the hard drive using the AAC encoder.

Then, about three years ago, when I moved to Florida, I had completed the transition to all Apple devices with a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPad, etc, and was trying to use iTunes seamlessly with these devices.  The storage had gotten so much bigger and less expensive, I was ready to re-rip all my CDs to lossless files.  That was the beginning of “The Troubles.”

The real pain started with trying to get iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud to blend seamlessly.  No matter how many times Apple support tried to explain it to me on the phone, I could not get it to jive correct.  I even have conspiracy theory-level doubts that these two things were actually a different entity.  I even got as high as the VP of customer support at one point, and he basically agreed with me that something didn’t make sense.  This whole Wagnerian Cycle took several months of phone calls with The Apple support peeps. While Apple does support certain hi-res content, at the time it wouldn’t’ load hi-res files above a certain size into the cloud, which turned out to be the root of the problem and was eventually fixed with the release of Apple Music, which to my plebeian mind essentially merged these two services into a cleaner streaming entity.  More importantly, the cloud accepted larger hi-res files, although I cannot confirm what that maximum size/type file is.

Apple Music worked pretty well for a while, but I knew the source sound quality was not up to snuff to feed my moderately high priced system, so I tried Audirvana+ for a while.  I found it to be altogether acceptable, but honestly not worth the effort of trying to make it work; the rate of return on investment both time and monetarily was not showing up as significantly better sound quality over iTunes.  Additionally, I could never get it to work in sys-optimizer, in which is specifically prioritized the music chain, ostensibly to improve sound.


Enter Stage Left–> Roon 1.2.  I’ll try not to swoon in the style of Scarlet O’Hara watching Ashley Wilkes drop trou, but suffice it to say, I am hooked.  Marion Barry’s love affair with Snowy White pales in comparison.  So far in my experience with Roon 1.2, I have been thrilled to see so many modalities and options flowing in such a clean and seamless way, making the user interface just an absolute joy with which to work.

I did have a bafflingly ridiculous time trying to get my NAS folder mounted, and after some chicken bones, gourd-shaking, and chanting (You’re chanting, Ray: Satan is good, Satan is our pal, etc) it magically showed up.  The craziest thing was that I had no idea what I did differently.  The Roon guys were super-helpful and extended my free trial, and now that I have everything running smoothly I am almost guaranteed to buy the one-time $499 fee.  To me, that’s an excellent rate of return given my gnashing of teeth and trichotillomania that was “living and dying in 5/4 iTunes time.”  Even more oddly enough, when fooling around with a SonicOrbiter the next week, I had absolutely zero issues, but that’s an issue for another post.  Maybe the sacrifice of one of the ubiquitous Key West chickens gave me enough Juju to spar with the Roon “Grid” without being kicked off my Tron Bike.


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