Saturday, 1 February 2014

Muse 2nd Law HD Audio (24/96) v CD v Vinyl

Detailed comparison and ABX test of Muse 2nd Law HD Audio (24bit 96khz) release against the CD and the Vinyl LP Record releases

So getting the fine audio section of the site going has been a lot slower than getting the fine food (or coffee) section.  Mainly I think because the whole family has to eat, but I'm the only one really fussed about what sort of plastic the music arrives on.  But today was the day to kick it off writing up some of things that I'd been working on after a great day out at park farm with FourLegsGood.

Dunstan at work has to put up with the occasional hifi rant from me, and has a patent sign-off to each of them, with a pleasant smile and "as long as you can hear the difference".  Which is exactly the thing, are you *sure* you can see, taste or hear the difference?  After finally getting my digital and analogue audio into a state where I was finally happy with all of them, I wanted to put some method around looking at whether I could *really* hear the difference, and to whether spending extra money on high resolution audio files, or vinyl was worth it.  For that matter, I plan to do the same with coffee, the forums filled on discussions of whether the most minuscule things make a difference to your espresso, share a huge amount with the audio forums.

I didn't want to go into this over-informed about what I was *supposed* to be able to hear in the difference. So whilst "greater dynamic range", and "the dog should enjoy the extra high frequencies" is something I've heard people talk about I very deliberately haven't looked it up in detail.  So for once I didn't do a lot of internet reading, and am hopeful i'll hear and discover some things that when i do read it up in detail later, will be backed up by the technology.  But going into this first test I just didn't know.

I'd cast around for a couple of candidate  albums, and done a quick set of test listens.  The major issue being that a lot of the time, I had the original CD version, and the HD version was a remastering.  It really wasn't clear whether the differences where they were obvious were due to the remaster or the format.  So whilst I'm definitely going to look at a remastered example.  I wanted to start off with a release that went straight to High Def, Vinyl and CD at the same time, and that I also knew and liked well enough to make the listening test worthwhile.

Enter Muse, the 2nd Law (2012)

From left to right CD (Digipack), HD Audio Download (24bit 96khz) from their website, and double LP.

Muse is a bit marmite (love or hate) for people, but I like this one, it's big, dynamic, slightly electronic sounding, but with good vocals in the middle.


Digital:  Exact Audio Copy (for CD), JRiver Media Player, External Musical Fidelity VLink 192 external soundcard, Meridian 568.2mm DAC and digital pre amp (24/96)*.  iPhone JRemote remote control

Analogue:  Nottingham Audio Space Deck, RB300, Ortofon Rondo Red, Dual Meridian 525 Moving Coil Phono Stages, Meridian 502 Analogue Preamp

These then both go through a custom built high quality switched set of interconnects (Chord Siren based) to the same Poweramps (Delta 290s x 2) and Ruark Prologue II Speakers.

I'm pretty happy with the setup at the moment, it's slightly brighter than I'd want overall and doesn't quite have the total overall amount of slam I'd like when really pushing it.  But with the space constraints in place I've got the tone to somewhere I like on all sources.

So essentially the CD and HD audio will be going through exactly the same route, and I can switch between the two with a blind press of the remote button.  The vinyl will be going through exactly the same power stages, but has dedicated equipment up to the pre-amp, and needs a manual switch flicking for each channel between the digital and analogue pre-amps.

*note this will be up-sampling the CD output.  So this might mean you would get a more stark difference on a lower resolution DAC, but I'm happy to run the test like this as any differences I do hear will underline the difference in the sources.  I've also always been very dubious about the ability of equipment to add things by up-sampling, but prehaps this will challenge that presumption.

Test Method.

So I wanted to get reasonably close to a strict ABX test and to minimise the component differences between the setups.  However with only one person, and with the necessary phono stage and pre-amp switch necessary for vinyl, I was only going to be able to get so close to that.  However for the CD for the HD audio, everything could be identical except the original format, so I wanted first to tell before I went into subjective differences: could I really spot the two apart?

First thing was to set the levels.  I equalized the SPL with a slow, C weighted Sound Pressure Level Meter at listening position to key parts of the tracks for both of the pre-amps. I was listening at around 93db at these reference points. Which is about as loud as I like to listen. 

Checking between the CD and HD versions the sound pressure peaks at the same key points, but the needle dropped a lot less on the HD and vinyl versions in the beats imbetween the CD versions keeping the needle much more consistently near the peak.

I assembled three playlists, each with one song from the album only (Supremacy, Madness and Survival), each with 10 CD and 10 HD tracks of the same song on.  Then queuing the playlist, and blind (not looking at screen) hitting CTRL-R to randomize the 20 tracks 7 times and playing 5 of them, skipping after I'd made a decision and recorded a result each one.  Generally listening to about the first 50s of each track.  This way I didn't know how many of each source was present in each listen, or which one was playing.  After recording all 5 then looking at the play list order and which 5 I'd listened to in what order.

Results - HD versus CD

I was slightly relieved that for all 3 songs, with 5 tracks each, I was 100% correct.  At least I hadn't imagined all the differences with getting the HD audio working, the probability of being right all those times being an accident being very low.  So I could definitely hear a difference - but what was it?  Rafts of additional detail in the HD?  Erm.  No.

So the CD versions were actually very very good.  They sounded more upfront, and actually more attention grabbing.  There was nothing detail wise I could really hear in the HD versions that I couldn't hear well in the CD versions.  However the CD versions sounded like EVERYTHING WAS LOUD, not just the key things on the track, all the elements going on at once sounding presented equally forward.  The CD versions also started to get tiring quickly through the track..  The musicality especially at the mid to upper range and the depth of soundstage wasn't as goodas the HD.  However when really focusing on listening to any particular instrument, even something at the back of the mix, the detail seemed to me to be all there, and when focusing on one thing, the tone didn't seem to be noticeably worse on individual instruments, just when it all came together, the overall thing didn't seem to be as mature or sophisticated, or generally as pleasant to listen to.

I was really surprised how close the CD was on detail, and how comparatively small the overall difference was, but how noticeable on tone it was, and how it seemed louder and more tiring, even though the SPL read peaking at the same.

Results HD and CD versus Vinyl

I couldn't do an ABX of this, as I knew exactly with the manual switch which one was being listened to.  So instead I set the vinyl going and then the HD/CD version about 30s behind, listening to the same section on Vinyl for 30s, then flipping to HD or CD and listening back to the same section.  I quickly dropped the CD version from the comparison as the differences to the Vinyl were all basically the same as to the HD, and just started on comparing the HD to the Vinyl.

Results here muchm much closer.  I was really amazed at how close on quality both sounded.  Stereo soundstage was slightly wider on the digital, especially at anything steered to extreme left or right.  Central positioning on the vinyl very slightly better.  Male midrange voices sounded particularly impressive on the vinyl, but still great on the HD.  Bass on the Vinyl warmer, with slightly more attack on digital, but very similar levels of overall bass between the two, and really no significant difference in definition or articulation.

I was listening really hard to hear differences, and would have been entirely happy with having been stuck with either the HD or the Vinyl both were excellent.


I'm not convinced that the mastering is totally out of this comparison.  Perhaps the HD/Vinyl is from one mastering or final mix, and the CD from another one.  Maybe the CD being aimed more to impress and make an impression in shops or cars.  I'm also wondering whether the system was starting to clip very slightly with the CD as I'd set the volume based on the HD where it sounded great at that volume and very listenable for a long time, the SPL meter different behaviour really surprised.

Taking price then into it.  The CD is £6 from Amazon, the HD £12 from Muse Website and the Vinyl £23 from Amazon.  The HD for £12 is a bargain to me if you have 24/96 capable components, and you can down sample it to whatever you need for portable music, but doesn't come with any lovely tactile materials.  The vinyl really very pricey for a very little (if any) sonic improvement but as always a beautiful thing.  The CD then a complete bargain, and if you don't have 24/96 it's debatable whether upgrading a lot of your components to get 24/96 it is going to be make a bigger difference than investing the same in Amps/Speakers or CD technology.


The nice thing, is that there is really no need to ditch the big library CD music I have - it still sounded great, even in comparison.  However in this case it was definitely worth opting for the HD or the Vinyl version if you had capable components.   

Next up is a 24bit 48 khz album for the same sort of test.  From this first outing I'm suspecting that I'm not going to miss much (if any) difference between the 48 and 96 khz, but very interesting to see whether the overall findings are similar, or there is a big differences in the mix of the 2nd Law CD and HD versions.  

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