WHEN ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH

Sound + Image - - Contents - Jez Ford, Ed­i­tor

Among all the won­ders of stream­ing smart amplifiers and LED pro­jec­tors and OLED TVs this is­sue, there was one small but in­trigu­ing demon­stra­tion of the sub­tle but in­sid­i­ous ef­fect that low bit-rate sig­nal trans­mis­sion can have on mu­sic.

Many of us have come to live with Blue­tooth in one sit­u­a­tion or an­other. All four of the smart amplifiers here in­clude it so you can eas­ily throw tunes wire­lessly from your phone or tablet straight into your hi-fi. Lit­tle Blue­tooth speak­ers are ubiq­ui­tous, and of course Blue­tooth head­phones are tak­ing over the mar­ket last year was the first time their value ex­ceeded that of wired head­phones in some places; the trend is clear.

We know that Blue­tooth is not CD qual­ity. It never has been, and even now that Blue­tooth 5 is rolling out with ex­tended specs and im­proved speeds, there’s no guar­an­tee those new abil­i­ties will be eas­ily ap­plied to higher au­dio qual­ity (see avhub.com.au/blue5) au­dio seems a blind (or deaf) spot for the group re­spon­si­ble for Blue­tooth, which concentrates on ways to im­prove ef­fi­ciency and de­crease power con­sump­tion for phones and com­put­ers, and more re­cently the neb­u­lous In­ter­net of Things.

It seems likely that any push to CD qual­ity and beyond will be left to pro­pri­etary for­mats rather than stan­dards. So as with aptX cur­rently, you’ll need both your phone/tablet and your re­ceiv­ing de­vice to sup­port that par­tic­u­lar tech­nol­ogy. That’ll be slow to im­ple­ment and too brand-spe­cific for my lik­ing. Does it mat­ter? Isn’t Blue­tooth ‘good enough’? Some­times, yes. We’ve heard some great Blue­tooth speak­ers and head­phones where man­u­fac­tur­ers have care­fully tuned to the weak­nesses of Blue­tooth to give a good re­sult. And it’s al­ways in­ter­ested to com­pare wired ver­sus Blue­tooth sound on head­phones that of­fer both. Of­ten the wired sound seems de­lib­er­ately bright, per­haps so that things don’t get too soft­ened when us­ing the lower qual­ity Blue­tooth con­nec­tion.

But I don’t re­call any­thing quite as clear as the change in the Pi­o­neer head­phones this is­sue (p80). Th­ese are gor­geous-sound­ing over-ear de­signs which I used and loved as wired head­phones for a cou­ple of weeks with­out know­ing their price or model num­ber, and only re­al­is­ing they were also Blue­tooth head­phones when I spot­ted the power but­ton on the head­shell. Switch­ing to Blue­tooth, there wasn’t a vast change in fre­quency re­sponse, yet the sound quite dras­ti­cally lost its magic. Where I had pre­vi­ously been drawn deeply into mu­sic and mixes and or­ches­tras when us­ing a cable, now things were nice enough, but just ‘nice enough’. Per­fectly en­joy­able for the daily com­mute, but back in a quiet en­vi­ron­ment they no longer trans­ported us into the won­ders of mu­sic as they did with a cable (when we had judged them to per­form way way above their price).

There are sev­eral pos­si­ble rea­sons the lower bit-rate, pos­si­ble losses and in­ac­cu­ra­cies in­curred by the likely con­cate­na­tion of codecs in­volved in Blue­tooth trans­mis­sion, the dif­fer­ence in DAC, am­pli­fi­ca­tion and au­dio cir­cuits driv­ing the head­phones. The re­sult was sub­tle in­for­ma­tion loss, the edges that de­liver shape and pres­ence, that old devil in the de­tail, which ef­fected al­most a di­men­sional dif­fer­ence, demon­strat­ing the losses Blue­tooth can in­cur. (I should men­tion that most of the com­par­i­son was made us­ing what would have been the mid­dle rung of avail­able codecs, AAC rather than aptX, but cer­tainly not the rock-bot­tom de­fault SBC.)

The thing is, most peo­ple won’t know what they’re miss­ing. We’ve just ac­cepted Blue­tooth for its ubiq­uity and ease of use when we could eas­ily have some­thing bet­ter, now that the tech­nol­ogy has caught up. Blue­tooth 5 is ca­pa­ble of CD-qual­ity and more, but there’s no sign of a stan­dard be­ing of­fered for it. So for head­phones, as with home networking, I’m in­clined to­wards the con­firmed maxim that for au­dio fans, if you can cable it, then do cable it.

A foot­note be­fore I go, to men­tion an alarm­ing re­cent lyric from tal­ented songstress Katy Perry. “Turn it up it’s your favourite song,” she sings in the lead sin­gle from her new al­bum ‘Wasted’. Then “Dance dance dance to the dis­tor­tion / Come on turn it up keep it on re­peat / Stum­ble around like a wasted zom­bie / Chained to the rhythm.”

Now I have no ob­jec­tion to be­ing chained to a rhythm, or in­deed slaved, as any fel­low owner of the Grace Jones 12-incher with its fa­mous bass de­scent will at­test (heard one sum­mer’s day at Max Town­shend’s apart­ment by the Thames through one of his floor-to-ceil­ing mas­ter­pieces of loudspeaker dom, this note de­scended yea, deep enough to warm one’s in­sides to the very cock­les, thank­fully stop­ping just short of the dreaded brown note). Nor do I have any par­tic­u­lar ob­jec­tion to mil­len­ni­als be­ing in­vited to stum­ble around like a wasted zom­bie, as they seem well enough prac­tised in this al­ready. No, it is her en­cour­age­ment of danc­ing to dis­tor­tion at which we au­dio lovers must all protest. I don’t want to in­cite a hate cam­paign or any­thing like that, but I would cer­tainly en­cour­age all self-re­spect­ing au­dio­philes to tweet some­thing re­spect­ful and po­lite to Ms Perry (@katype­rry) in­clud­ing the hash­tag #please­warny­our­fansthat­danc­ing­todis­tor­tion­may­be­bad­fortheirearsthanky­ouforlis­teningandwelovedy­ouatthe­manch­estergig.

OK. With that off my chest, I hope to see many of you soon at the Aus­tralian Hi-Fi & AV Show in Syd­ney; we’ll have a Nex­tMe­dia stand some­where around the main re­cep­tion area. Cheers!

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