For decades, devotees of high-end audio have fought bitterly over the limits of audiophile gear. Does a $5,000-dollar amp really make a difference? Are fancy cables a requirement or a scam? Do CDs really sound better than records?
Now, with high-definition audio formats and a new generation of ultra-fancy players from Pono (backed by Neil Young), Sony, Astell & Kern, and others, this long-running debate has made its way to the digital world. But can you really hear the difference?
It depends on who you ask.
Making up for last time
"When people are listening to music, they're not just listening with their ears, but with their whole body. Anything that is recorded is different from the live sound," says Owen Kwon, head of U.S. operations at Astell & Kern, a company that makes personal audio devices — don't call them MP3 players — for the discerning listener. "It's like the difference between speaking over the phone and speaking in person. Feeling the singer is right there in front of you, that's the 'unicorn' we're seeking."
Astell & Kern was split off from South Korean parent iRiver in 2013 to pursue the high-end digital audio market. iRiver put out dozens of devices in the early 2000s that, like pretty much every pocketable player, placed the emphasis on convenience rather than audio quality.
"We felt a little guilty," Kwon said. The compression of music to portable form "cut out a lot of the details." Astell & Kern is a way of making up for lost time, with players costing between $600 and $5000, all with a laser-like focus on sound quality above all else.
They're far from the only ones hawking pocket hi-fis: Neil Young's Pono Player was recently released for around $500, and Sony's $1300 Walkman NW-ZX2 made a splash at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Each promises a wide range of features coveted by audiophiles: balanced headphone output, multiple digital-to-analog converters (which convert bits into a sound wave), and most recently, support for all kinds of ultra-high-definition audio formats.
But here's the problem: Some say all those high-end features don't make a whisper of difference.
An ongoing dispute
Monty Montgomery has been an audio engineer for a long time. As the founder of Xiph, a collection of open-source projects aimed at improving audio and video on the Internet, he's been part of the digital audio scene pretty much as long as it's been a scene. And after penning a robust dismissal of high-definition audio a while back, he found himself embroiled more deeply than ever in a debate among enthusiasts over whether people spending thousands on special equipment and monstrous music files are just fooling themselves.
"People believe things that just aren't true. And I can show them it's not true and they won't care. There's so much misinformation that countering it is like trying to boil the ocean," he said. His "Digital Media Primer for Geeks" is a spirited, if occasionally technical, attempt to make his case.
Some items, like expensive cables, simply don't do anything, Montgomery told NBC News. Others, while they might do something, have an effect so small it is well beyond the audible level. For an example, he points to high-impedance headphones and low-impedance amplifiers, which claim to improve sound by more carefully controlling the electric current carrying the signal.
"This one comes up all the time. The maximum possible effect under the worst possible scenario is something like 0.2 decibels. Do you know what it would take to hear that?"
Even in a silent recording studio or a well-insulated room, that minute amount of sound would be swallowed up by the ambient noise, which might be 10 or 20 decibels. Is it really possible that it could be audible in music playing at 70 or 80 decibels? Montgomery is adamant that the answer is no.
But if it were that easy to settle things, this feud as old as vinyl would have ended long ago.
Objectivists vs. Subjectivists
"There's this idea that if it can't be measured, it can't be heard."
Robert Harley is the editor of The Absolute Sound, a publication that for decades has covered the high-end audio space. He's written books and papers on the subject, and is completely confident in his judgment that even things barely detectable by sophisticated equipment are important to the sound.
"The two camps are called objectivists and subjectivists," Harley said. Objectivists, of whom Montgomery is a great champion, subscribe to the "can't be measured, can't be heard" philosophy.
"Subjectivists say the human listening experience is too complex to reduce to a series of measurements and numbers," Harley said.
All the focus on data has attached a stigma to anyone who spends more than a thousand dollars on their hi-fi, Harley says.
"There's this perception in mainstream media that money you spend on audio is wasted. Audiophiles get painted as crazies," he said. "They'll write about a camera or purse or vacation, things that cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, then say a $300 pair of headphones is good... but pricey."
"I've been doing this for 25 years, evaluating audio products for a living," he said. "There are significant musical differences between these components."
One bit of advice common to both sides of the debate was "listen for yourself." So I did. Using one of Astell & Kern's portable players, I compared iTunes downloads and other ordinary music files with ultra-high-quality versions included as a demo playlist on the device.
In a quiet room as well as walking on a city street, I discovered differences while listening to many songs, but most seemed to be changes in tone — a bigger bass sound in general on "Abbey Road," a more pronounced chorus on "Dark Side of the Moon." It wasn't a revelatory experience, which may be what many expect from an expensive player and headphones reading massive, high-definition files. Of course, modern albums with all-digital production might provide more detail, but I didn't get the impression that I'd been listening to music wrong my whole life.
At the same time, I found myself listening closely and engaging with the music more than ever — noticing instruments or backing vocals or even tape hiss I'd never noticed before. And it reminded me of something those interviewed had all mentioned at one point or another.
"It changes your relationship with music," Harley had said. "You listen to music more, you explore more artists, it becomes more central to your life."
Investing in equipment, whether it's a couple hundred bucks or many thousands of dollars, is something done by a person seeking to become closer to the music.
"People who really care about the experience of the music, they go to live shows. They remember what that was like," said Montgomery. There's no way to re-create that exactly, he said, since what goes down on tape doesn't include the venue, the emotion, the mood. But some people will go to any length to close the gap between what the music once was, in a studio or on a stage, and what it is now, in their living room or headphones.
Though the objectivists and subjectivists will likely be arguing for as long as songs are recorded, the overall quality of the music experience, from its creation to to the moment you listen to it, may improve so much that the debate becomes (more) academic. Advances come regularly: just in the last few weeks, a brand new format called MQA was announced that promises high-fidelity sound on nearly any device.
For now, both sides of the debate can agree on one thing: It's a good time to keep your ears open.