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No. 102 November 2012


CLASSIFICATION or maybe, “Satanic Verses”?

Naming and classifying are probably the two basic abilities which allowed mankind to emerge from the darkness. In modern times it is given that naming things is a basic ability of perceiving the world around us – associating certain designations with a certain strain of syllables “defines” its existence – at least for the particular observer. In other words – what hasn’t been named doesn’t exit. That’s why we say we “think with our tongues” – our world is determined by language, by words, and thus by names. Names are, however, only the first step to getting the hang of the outside world. The second step is classification. The definition of the noun “classification”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is as follows:
1. The action of classifying or arranging in classes, according to common characteristics or affinities; assignment to the proper class.
2. The result of classifying; a systematic distribution, allocation, or arrangement, in a class or classes; esp. of things which form the subject-matter of a science or of a methodic inquiry.

What do we do after naming something, then? Please ask yourselves that, because I’m sure that’s precisely what we all do – we classify and arrange things in our minds according to certain criteria to achieve some form of order. Finally, we evaluate and judge – which is also part of classification, but that’s a matter for another day.

The relationship between classification and audio is direct and you don’t have to squint very hard to see it: audio is a set of devices, or – more precisely – products, divided into groups according to their different roles in the playback chain (or recording chain, if we’re talking studios). Simple – even intuitive. Thus, there are amplifiers, players, turntables, cassette (tape) players, speakers, headphones, different sorts of cables, power strips, sockets, plugs, isolation boards, stands, as well as a large group of “gadgets” which are considered “accessories”. From the very beginnings of hi-fi history, in the mid-40s (at the end of World War II) some categories were set up which, with some slight modifications and new additions like digital players, exist to this day. That’s why by saying “amplifier” I actually mean “acoustic amplifier” (Ger. ‘akustischer Verstärker’, Fr. ‘amplificateur acoustique’, Rus. ‘усилитель звука’, Span. ‘amplificador acústico’, Hun. ‘hangerősítő’, Czech ‘akustický zosilňovač’), and today as well as sixty years ago we would’ve called it the same exact thing:
“Amplifier - an appliance or circuit which amplifies.” (Oxford English Dictionary)
In audio, an amplifier simply amplifies low-level signals that come from some source and pass them on to a electroacoustic transducer, such as speakers or headphones.

When we say “amplifier”, we subconsciously perform reduction and simplification. The word doesn’t really carry much and the definition of “amplifier” states it could be an amplifier of any sort, not only an audio amp. We can see how the topic changed over time in audio-related literature. In his book, Stereofonia dla wszystkich (“Stereophony for everyone”), Aleksander Witort writes about “l.f. amplifier”, as in “low frequency amplifier”, taking into account a division of amplifiers into various types with regard to amplified electric signals (thus assuming that he is concerned with an amplifier of electric signals):
“When we combine the source of stereo presentation, l.f. amplifier and two speakers into one system, we will get a stereo set.” (Aleksander Witort, Stereofonia dla wszystkich, Warszawa 1973, p. 110.)
Maciej Feszczuk writes in 1986 about “electroacoustic amplifier” without assuming, as Witort did, that it’s obvious what kind of amplifier is being discussed, at the same time leaving out another aspect (the “l.f.”):
“Electroacoustic amplifiers constitute a link between signal source and the speaker.”
(Maciej Feszczuk, Wzmacniacze elektroakustyczne, Warszawa 1986, p. 8.)
And finally, Leopold B. Witkowski in his 1990 book O stereo i kwadrofonii (“On stereo and quadrophony”) simply writes about “amplifier” thus reaching the current status:
“We’ve reached the next-to-last electroacoustic link, the amplifier (…) which task is to convert low level signals from various sources (microphones, turntables, cassette players, tuners, discophones, etc.) into high power signals capable of driving speakers that transform the signal into acoustic waves.” (Leopold B. Witkowski, O stereo i kwadrofonii, Warszawa 1990, p. 203.)
That’s only a short introduction to how the perception of that particular audio device changed over time (in Poland). Considering that to name something is to ground it in reality, we must realize that the perception of the amplifier has changed with time.
That brings us to what was the immediate reason for writing this – to the next, probably biggest change in audio classification that is happing right now to redefine again what is what. For before our very eyes the meaning of the words “amplifier” and “player” is being changed. I’ll try to explain why both shifts of meaning are very closely related.

I’ve already written about that process a few times in my reviews for “Audio” and “High Fidelity”. And I thought I managed to indicate a general trend and to put forward some reasonable solutions. It turned out I was wrong.
No more than a week ago I had over an hour-long phone conversation with Andrzej Kisiel, the chief editor of “Audio”, about two systems I’d reviewed for the magazine – from Heed Audio and Cyrus. At first glance, they were both completely ordinary – each system consisted of two components, a digital source (CD) and an amplifier. However, looking closer it became clear that something was “not quite right” with them because the source turned out to be CD transports while each amplifier featured an integrated DAC. Andrew’s question was whether that model would become commonly used or rather the one proposed by Japanese manufacturers like Marantz, TAD, etc., in which it’s the digital player featuring digital inputs that becomes the center of the audio system. In the course of our conversation another question arose: are the two proposals conceptually different from each other, i.e. does it really matter where the DAC is? We argued for a long time and couldn’t work out a common position. None of us changed our minds. In my opinion, these two concepts are not interchangeable.
On the one hand, over the years there have been attempts to separate the transport, the mechanical component comprising the signal decoding section, from the digital-to-analog converter that mostly comprises the analog section despite a couple of digital ICs at the input. If we removed the DAC and detached it from the transport mechanism, we’d go in that direction.
However, another approach was to separate digital circuits (i.e. the DAC chip, the upsampler and digital receiver) from analog circuits. Hence, the amplifier would always be an analog amplifier (except for obvious cases where it was simply a digital amplifier, a high-power output DAC). Now that has changed.

The arrival of new technologies strongly supported by top IT manufacturers led by Apple changed the way of music listening, especially by young people, the most important customer age group to the music industry. The transition from physical media to audio files and recognizing the computer as a music “player” or the source of a digital signal, ubiquitous iPods and iPhones, etc. have had an astonishing impact on audio industry. After all, it is us that need to keep up with the changing ways of music listening, not the other way round. Hence, with the arrival of vinyl LPs there came turntables; stereo sound resulted in inventing stereo cartridges, etc.
Then, about four or five years ago, digital inputs – mostly USB – emerged as the most desirable feature of any audio system. It therefore became necessary to find a way of and the best place of their application.
That seemed simple enough – each DAC by definition is an audio component with digital inputs, so let’s throw in USB and we’re done. And so it happened. What followed, was an abundant crop of such devices in which excelled Chinese manufacturers. DACs are actually very easy to design and manufacture and do not require large investment outlays (of course, I’m talking about basic market segment). Moreover, since DACs are usually powered by a wall wart type of power supply, manufacturers do not have to pay for extremely expensive safety certifications required for devices powered by 110-240 V. In the European Union the CE certification is required. It is those power supplies manufacturers that take on the annoying (from the financial, not user safety, perspective!) requirements. Still, due to mass production they make enough profit.
The audiophile market responded calmly, perhaps even welcoming a revival of DACs that seemed to be heading straight to extinction as more and more CD players, even the most expensive models, were single-box designs. From the standpoint of taxonomy (classification) the matter was simple – that was still a digital-to-analog converter (D/A converter or DAC). The only thing that changed was that more and more manufacturers started calling their products “USB DAC”, pointing out the primary role of the first element.
Things got complicated with the return of dilemmas that had earlier led to pulling external converters off the market, such as cost-effectiveness of such a solution, its inconvenience (another box, another cable), and finally the problems of digital signal transmission in the form of the ubiquitous S/PDIF.
It seems to me, however, that of them all the most important were economic and ergonomic aspects. We must remember where the impetus for change came from – computer users, mostly young people. They just wouldn’t see the point of an additional cable.

And so a new generation of devices was born – CD players with digital inputs (or SACD or, as the StreamMagic 6 from Cambridge Audio, audio file players) and amplifiers (including preamplifiers, such as the TAD C-600, reviewed HERE) with digital inputs, mainly USB. That however resulted in new questions: Is it really a “CD player”? Is it still an “amplifier”?
Finally, that brings us to the climax of this text, to what I would call a semantic shift or change of meaning of a name. And let’s remember that the name (designation, word) determines our perception of a given thing (in this case the product).
Rather strange names started emerging, at least at first glance, like “CD/DAC”, “SACD/DAC”, etc. In case of audio file players it went even further, as manufacturers started including in the name as many device functions as possible. The already mentioned Stream Magic 6 is an “Upsampling Music Player Network”, the Ayon Audio S-3 is a “Network Player”, and the Burmester 111 is a “Music Center”. Pro-Ject like avoids naming their products in a definite way, using instead a descriptive term “Audiophile grade 24-bit/192 kHz audio streaming high-end client”. Only the letters “DS” in the name, which can be deciphered as "Digital Streaming", tell us what’s going on. Slim Devices uses the name “Media Server”. It is significant that “Hi-Fi News & Record Reviews” in a collective review of that type of components from January 2012 calls them “Network audio players / servers”, apparently completely confused with their classification. And, interestingly, amplifiers remained amplifiers.

So how do we call the new components? What are the terms to use in their description? I’ll try to offer a few suggestions that could help simplify that. Remembering, however, how many of such earlier attempts turned out to be dead ends, I do that with humility, knowing that these are only suggestions and that terminology follows what’s commonly used by customers and the best intentions will not change that.
To illustrate some pitfalls of top-down imposed terminology let me recall the introduction of the term Compact Disc player in Polish language. The source will be the already cited Leopold B. Witkowski’s book published in 1990 On stereo and quadrophony, probably the last such comprehensive and methodical Polish publication on a widely-understood home audio.
In the chapter on the new (back then) CD technology titled Digital technology he writes the following:

“In the playback device called by its inventors Digital Audio Disc Player (in Poland called digital turntable or discophon) a silver disc spins at a rotational speed of circular saw.” (p. 186). And then seems to treat the terms as equivalent:
“In manufacturing the players (discophons)…” (p. 189).
Does anybody still remember these terms: “discophon” and “digital turntable”? I don’t think so. And yet, they were introduced both by the press – the then “Audio - Video – Sat” magazine that later became “Audio. Video” – and by device manufacturers. The latter, seemingly, for good as the immensely popular in the early 90s Tosca 303 receiver from Diora had one input marked as “discophon”. None was left of that.

In case of amplifiers thing seem to be simple. In fact, users seem to have already decided and simply kept the name “amplifier”, perhaps making it more specific by adding “with digital inputs”. It seems natural, just look at the systematics or definition of the word “amplifier”. Instead of a dictionary definition let me quote the one given by General Electric Company in its brochure published in 1957, renewed in 1994 by Audio Amateur Press:

“The design of an audio frequency amplifier may conveniently be divided into four parts, which to some extent are inter-related. The output stage, the input stage, the intermediate stages, and the power supply.” (An Approach to Audio Frequency Amplifier Design, The General Electric Co.. Ltd. of England / Audio Amateur Press, New Hampshire, 1994, p.1)
Hence, the amplifier consists of four main sections: output (power amplifier), input (preamplifier, selector), intermediate (preamplifier, tone control, driver stage) and power supply. If you think about it that way, it turns out that adding the D/A converter is only a functional change – it’s just another input. According to the above definition the DAC would be placed in the “input stage”.

When it comes to CD and Super Audio CD players (practically equivalent) things are a bit different. While the amplifier simply remains amplifier, adding digital inputs to CD immediately brought back the DAC to mind. Hence, the uncertainty in terminology. After all, it’s not only a “CD player” anymore, is it? We can agree about this, can’t we? A player with digital inputs indeed seems to be a combo of the CD transport and DAC. If digital inputs were present in CD players from the very beginning there would be no problem. It would simply remain a “CD player” and we’d treat the inputs with the same indifference as the long present digital outputs that didn’t make us speak of “a transport and a CD player”.

It seems that the most sensible way out would be to accept two versions: the term CD/DAC (SACD/DAC) and a more descriptive “CD (SACD) with digital inputs”. In my opinion they are equivalent. In time, with the declining importance of physical media (which will happen 100%), semantic “weight” will shift towards the DAC and in the end we will probably be talking about “a DAC with a CD transport” or possibly “DAC/CD”. Eventually, all digital players will do without physical media and will be connected to hard drives, either directly or through LAN or WLAN. It’s also possible that mass storage will completely disappear from our homes and will move to the so-called “cloud”, i.e. servers shared with other users. Recent push in that direction by major companies seems to confirm this scenario.

In the end what remains will probably be “file players”. I use the term deliberately as otherwise I’d have to wade through the maze of names. The “amplifier” has been known for over a hundred years, “Compact Disc Player” for about thirty, but “file players” for only a few years, and they have still been changing.
Digital players of this type aren’t usually equipped with a drive allowing playback of physical CDs. There are of course exceptions, just to mention players from Olive (the O6HD, reviewed HERE), but the drives are usually included for CD ripping, not necessarily playing them. Hence, I would treat their presence as a functional feature, as digital input in amplifiers, not a distinctive or basic feature.
These players are used to “play music (or video) files”. That is their basic feature – playing files. The name “file player” is therefore reasonable, isn’t it? It may be further clarified by adding “audio file players” and that’s that. Where these files come from or how they are delivered is of secondary importance. They can come from a built-in hard drive, via USB from an external hard drive, via Ethernet from an external NAS with hard drives (or SSDs) and finally from a portable flash drive. They can also come from the “Internet” or the “cloud”.
All these sources, the hard drive, the flash drive and the “cloud” (which is actually a hard drive somewhere on a server) seem to be equivalent to the CD transport but they are not. There’s a difference, seemingly subtle, yet crucial for classification.
The CD transport, in short, is also a kind of decoder – it spins the disc, reads data from it and converts it so it can be accepted by the external DAC. Hence, the file player would be the part of the CD transport that is responsible for decoding data stream. After all, we’ve got audio file players without a DAC or complete players, with a DAC, from which we feed digital audio out to an external converter, right?

I have no idea how it’ll develop and which will eventually prevail, the description based on functional characteristics or the systematic description (“file player” is essentially formed analogous to “CD player”) but it’s good to know what’s what and where it came from. There will surely be “crossovers” devices as there have always been. However, the basic trend will probably consist of:
∙ amplifiers, amplifiers with digital inputs,
∙ CD (SACD) players and CD (SACD) players with a DAC, possibly CD/DAC (SACD/DAC)
∙ (audio) file players.
Is it sure to happen? No one can predict that.


Miyajima Labs ZERO – mono cartridge from Mr. Noriyuki Miyajima
I have already said how much I was impressed by cartridges from Miyajima Lab while reviewing the Waza + Premium PE, Shilabe and Kansui (see HERE, HERE and HERE .) The last two have become my reference cartridges and the reviewed Kansui cartridge was made especially for me, as confirmed by a stamp and dedication on the box.

Because the Kansui appeared fairly soon after the Shilabe, I thought there will be a few years before we see new models from Mr. Miyajima. As it turned out, the sonic improvement he managed to achieve with this model (compared to the Shilabe) didn’t give him rest. Thus was born his top, most perfected cartridge – the ZERO. I don’t know whether any association with the famous Japanese fighter of World War II is correct but – as I learnt from its Polish distributor – the number of exchanged emails has been stunning considering the usually restrained Japanese. Apparently something’s up… And yet the ZERO is a mono cartridge. That’s right; it is used for playback of mono records. The cartridge was officially presented on June 2, 2012, and less than two months later was joined by the ETR-MONO, a dedicated mono step-up transformer. The cartridge weighs 11.8 g; its body is made of African Blackwood and has a shape known from the Premium BE. Tracking force is 2-4 g, with the recommended, high 3.5 g, guaranteeing excellent track groove. The 0.7 mil conical stylus is made of diamond. The compliance is 8 × 10-6cm/dyne. The cartridge can also be equipped with a stylus to play 78 rpm records that is called ZERO 78rpm. I already have mine own, with a special dedication…

Audio Show 2012
We’ve described the attractions of this year’s Audio Show in a separate article. Here I just like to invite everybody to come, even those who think it’s not worth it and that good sound is impossible to come by at such shows, etc. The show is not just about the sound, maybe even not in the least. That’s an opportunity to meet other music lovers, to buy an album or two, an opportunity to see some components you won’t see otherwise.

That’s also a fantastic opportunity to meet and talk with many manufacturers. In addition to the head of, or to Wally Malewicz, there will also be the heads of Oyaide, the owner of Acoustic Research, Gerhard Hirt from Ayon and many, many others. Unfortunately, Polish distributors have not sent us any information about the show… High End in Munich is advertised a year before the event and six months before the show I already have most invitations directly from manufacturers! We will also be at the show, dashing through the corridors. I don’t know about Marek Dyba but I will be in Warsaw on Saturday. I will conduct a few interviews yet I hope to be able to see everything or almost everything.
And here’s a funny tidbit – some time ago Michael Fremer, one of the guests of Audio Show 2011 (see HERE), posted on his website “Planet Analog” (part of “Stereophile”) an invitation to his seminars. He listed many cities and places where he’d previously been to, unfortunately forgetting about Poland and Audio Show. It wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t for the fact that he illustrated that with a photo… of a poster from his presentations in Warsaw :)

For sale
I still have some components for sale that remained after my reviews, either my own or offered by companies that after the reviews prefer to sell them here, in Poland, rather than ask me to send them back.

Here’s my ‘for sale’ list:

1. Acrolink Mexcel 7N-5100 RCA analog interconnect. Comes from my own system, sent directly from Japan. Mint condition, after a review. It’s the 2 meter version; comes with no box. The review can be read HERE. Original price per 1 meter – 12,900 PLN. I’m asking 8,000 PLN for a 2 meters length.

2. SAEC XR-4000 XLR balanced interconnect, originally 980 Euro, asking price 500 Euro/1.2 m. Review HERE.

3. KingRex UC192 USB DAC. Best offer.

4. Acoustic Revive RAF-48 isolation platforms (air floating; under CD players and amplifiers). I have two for sale, one brand new, still in original box, and one used, in mint condition. Came straight from Japan. The review can be found HERE. Catalog price 6,200 PLN, asking 4,000 PLN and 3,500 PLN accordingly.

5. Wireworld Platinum Eclipse RCA-RCA analog interconnect, 2 m long. Catalog price 22,390 PLN, asking 10,000 PLN.


Wojciech Pacuła

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"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

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