Do CDs and SACDs Sound Better Than Computer Audio Files?

February 15, 2012

In a recent issue of Hi-Fi+, its editor, Alan Sircom, had this to say on the subject:

Beneath the calm surface of the audio world, there are dark stirrings. The backlash is beginning. It’s starting slow, and starting at the very top of the top-end of hi-fi, but there are people in high-end audio who are comparing CD or SACD with the equivalent computer files, and consistently prefer the spinning disc.

You see, when you compare the very, very best of what CD and SACD replay has to offer (we are talking Accuphase, dCS, Esoteric, Metronome, Wadia and Zanden-grade disc replay, here) and do the same with the latest and greatest in computer audio in all its guises, CD and SACD often come out on top. At less breathtaking levels of audio expenditure, the differences are not so clear-cut. But the fact remains that in many of these tests, CD outperforms its computer audio replacement. It is LP vs. CD all over again.

I have performed such comparisons on several occasions and in a number of different contexts, and I have begun to conclude there is no simple answer. In many cases, the sound of disk and computer audio are on a par with one another. In some cases (and even, with some listeners) computer audio sounds distinctly more natural than CD, and also the reverse is true. But once you breach that top-end barrier, the more people you test, the more you come up with preferences toward the spinning disc, even under blind conditions. In fairness, these differences are fairly subtle, and I still maintain that well-handled computer audio is not ruined next to spinning disc, but the preferences are distinct and consistent.

I guess the next two interlinked questions are why? And what can we do about it? While we could do precisely nothing and hope our resolve will grant CD the same longevity as LP, I am more of a prepare for the worst, hope for the best kinda guy. I think the Why might stem from the computer itself; the better USB converters invariably take great pains to galvanically isolate the computer from the audio-side equipment, and the really outstanding server-based music replay systems have been computers that were broken down into separate subsystems, each one EMI and resonant/acoustically isolated from the next. Swapping out the standard power supply for a linear supply from a lab bench, replacing any form of HDD for a hedgehog of USB memory sticks and endless RAM have also all been touted as a path to computer audio salvation. But such options are impractical, expensive and are unlikely to receive approval from the computer know-it-alls.

It may be that the high-end is creating something out of nothing, or that we are falling into the trap of comparing a mature format with a nascent one and criticising the new one simply for being new. But the fact remains that CD and SACD still have loyal followers among the audiophile community and that is not going away, no matter how good computer audio gets.

I wonder how the tests were conducted? Seeing an uber-expensive “Accuphase, dCS, Esoteric, Metronome, Wadia and Zanden-grade” disc player in front of you while the test is being conducted may have an effect on your perceptions.