In the audio technology world, the amateur and professional alike are subjected to a multitude of adages that have become common knowledge thanks to mindless repetition. This has more to do with the nature of our consciousness and our brains than actual objective fact. Many times the subjective experience overrules and adds distortion to the reality and subsequently, myths are born.
Myth #1 – Earphone burn-in periods
A very common myth among today’s audio tech consumers is that a new pair of earphones need to be “burned in” for a certain period of time to deliver the optimal audio experience that they were designed for. Burning in a set of drivers refers to continuously playing music/white noise/frequency sweeps, and prescribed burn-in periods can be as long as a few hundred hours. As with most conventional knowledge, there isn’t any exact universally agreed upon method. Proponents of this myth rationalise their claim with the logic that the cones are stiff when new and the burn in period helps them gain the flexibility needed to deliver a complete aural experience. However, they seem to neglect the fact that if the headphones were designed to be burned in, the manufacturers would do that at the factory itself. There is also the possibility that this myth is perpetrated as a marketing tactic, or to get users to keep the product past the return period.
The core of this claim is enhanced audio quality, and that is a very subjective issue as there is no standard framework for measuring quality. As far as the science goes, this myth is like God – can’t be proved, nor disproved. While audio quality cannot be measured, the physical changes in the driver performance can, and have been experimentally recorded. Tyll Hertsens at Inner Fidelity tested this myth using two AKG Q701 headphones. After prescribing one of them to 90 hours of burn-in, the data showed a slight change in the frequency response as compared to the pristine pair, however, the difference wasn’t pronounced enough to be deemed noteworthy. When even mountains wear down over time, what is a pair of cans? Just as a new pair of shoes gets more comfortable after prolonged use, perhaps earphones start to sound better as well. Then again, it is more likely to be placebo, because there is no evidence to support the myth that you must burn in your swanky new headphones, and even if you do, it certainly won’t result in a stark improvement.
Myth #2 – Digital reproduction can never come close to analog sound!
There are some who believe that lossless is a marketing term, digital audio chops sound into parts so is always lossy, and therefore never as good as analog audio. Those of you who’ve read through Chapter 7 should immediately recognize this as a myth. There is mathematical proof that an analog signal can be exactly reproduced after digital sampling, given a high enough sample rate. While it is true that low-resolution digital audio can sound grainy, even compressed mp3 sounds very good with decent speakers. Some people swear by vinyl records, and a few artists like Norah Jones always record analog music, but even then behind the scenes it’s usually found that a high-quality digital signal is being remastered to analog audio.
In fact, analog audio is much more cumbersome to be faithfully reproduced, as analog circuits are more susceptible to interference and other sources of noise and jitter. Given the same source, a digital recording is more reliable and easy, in terms of technology. Moreover, digital audio formats and codecs are usually designed with buffers and error correcting redundancies to ensure smooth playback even if a few digital packets go AWOL en route the DAC. Vinyl record players have background noise, although some people like that for the vintage feel. Then again, that can be replicated digitally. If we get super real and set a limited budget to actually have an analog vs digital auditory showdown, digital audio systems will rule right till the end.
Myth #3 – High-Resolution Monitors
Just like Apple’s Retina Display, brands like Sony and HTC have started to put Hi-Res tags on headphones and IEMs as well. The claim is that the frequency response of such drivers is way higher than normal (which is around 20Khz for decent plugs). These models claim to be able to go from 5Hz to as high as 40KHz, and are not always priced at the high end (although most are). They boast of higher clarity and superior audio reproduction. Audiophiles often consider such equipment a crucial necessity for experiencing true-to-life sound. Despite the well-known fact that most of us can hear frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz on average, this additional capability of producing inaudible frequencies is not considered a surplus. Are they justified?
To an extent, yes, having a frequency response higher than 20KHz is useful to us normal humans and not just to Batman. Echolocation jokes aside, the fact is that the performance of speakers degrade as they reach the upper and lower limits, known as the cut-off frequencies. Having an extended frequency response allows for this lowering of decibels to occur outside the audible range, thus ensuring a flatter and more accurate response.
That being said, most sound that we actually play through the speakers is not at the extreme ends of our hearing limits. Of course, different grades of speaker quality do exist, but in the general audible range, a high-res driver will not necessarily be better than a good quality driver without an extended frequency response. After all, the major portion of audio clarity depends on the source file. The bit depth of the source file is the real audio resolution, and together with the sampling rate contributes to the quality. The most headphones can help with is in the noise isolation or cancellation.
Myth #4 – Tube Amps perform better than SS Amps
Anyone with a science background knows the three-terminal transistor. Amplifiers are basically specialized transistors that control the flow of a large current (Source to Drain) using a small voltage (Gate). Vacuum tubes are the relics of mankind’s progress towards this technology that is now so crucial to almost every electronic product. Around the 1970’s semiconductor technology started to become usable and since then the large clunky and dangerous vacuum tubes started to be replaced by their more efficient, cost-effective and reliable solid state counterparts. Yes, vacuum tubes are basically ineffective versions of solid state devices that provide more distortion, but this is exactly why some say they sound awesome!
Tube amps are said to give out rounder, warmer and more full-sounding music. This is due to the fact that the distortion from a tube amp is even-order harmonic. For example, second order harmonic means that it is the same note but an octave higher. Thus even the distortion is in tune. Not only that, the distortion is progressive with soft clipping, which means the distortion increases proportionally with the loudness, making it all the more natural sounding. This also means that you can play softly through a tube amp and it will be clear and audible as there will be proportionally less distortion. In comparison, solid-state amps have odd-order harmonics which make them sound harsh, along with a flat distortion across power levels that suddenly clips at higher levels. While technically this means the device signals distort less and their performance is accurate to their specification, in a musical context it makes them sound… nothing special (some say). What that means is, tube amps add their own colouration to the sound being emitted which may or may not be preferred by some people. On the other hand, solid state amps are focussed on giving true-to-the-source output. So, to some, tube amps may ‘sound’ better but they definitely don’t perform better than SS amps.
Myth #5 – The usefulness of monitor specs and reviews
Every consumer product has reviews, it’s a necessity with the proliferation of e-commerce. Things like graphics cards have specs like shader units and memory bandwidth, along with performance benchmarks like G3DMark and in-game framerates. With audio tech, things get a lot more subjective. Specs like frequency response, driver size and impedance can give you a general idea of the product but they are not at all helpful to get to know the quality of the sound. Some companies provide a complete sound signature, but even that is not enough. That is why you read reviews, and that is why we write them. We write about our hands-on experience with the product but even with such systems, there can be problems. This is due to the nature of human perception. We notice what we look for, and this is guided by our prior knowledge. To illustrate, an experiment was conducted at an audio convention where a sound was played through the same source but made to look like it was from separate sources, a tube amp and a solid state amp. Most people said the sound from the tube amp sounded better! While this is not objectively possible, they weren’t lying either. Their prior bias and knowledge that tube amps sound better primed them to that response. The same can happen with reviews, which is why a good headphone review will have comparisons with other products in the same category. At the end of the day though, it’s your ears, so whenever possible try before you buy!
Myth #6 – Gold-plated high-end cables improve quality
For any class of product, there is always the devious merchant making dubiously tall claims. The supposed benefits also come with a hefty price tag, but of course, quality is more important, they say. Usually, the market is quick to catch on to these profiteers so even though they snag a few unsuspecting victims, their exaggerations do not enter the public psyche. Sometimes, however, they succeed. Case in point – Monster Gold plated cables.
When HDMI and 1080p weren’t as ubiquitous as it is today, a company called Monster started touting ultra-high bandwidth cables that were monstrously priced. It is true, such cables have higher bandwidth and lower resistance for higher frequencies, but the real question is, do you need them? Other components play a much more crucial role than cables and connectors. The higher bandwidth will almost never be necessary, and the gold plating on the connector conducts the same as a clean connection made of any other metal. The plating is usually thin and wears off. In fact, a connection between dissimilar metal contacts can increase the rate of oxidation so if the thing you are connecting to is not also gold plated, a gold plated connector can be detrimental. These highest of the high-end cables offer higher quality, but in reality only provide the potential for it, a potential which will forever remain unfulfilled.
This article was first published in November 2016 issue of Fast Track on Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.