A perfect contemporaneous case in point is the ever-escalating numbers game in DSD replay. Although as far as I can tell there is no music programme produced in anything beyond DSD256, converters are available that can support DSD512 and DSD1024 is waiting in the wings. There are a few test signals available for DSD512 but – to my knowledge – even test tones are not made for DSD1024 as yet. And yet, people are already demanding DSD512 support and rejecting DACs that cannot support the handful of test signals they don’t own because DSD256 ‘is not DSD enough’. It doesn’t matter that the technology used to produce DSD512 needs to be invented before they can gain access to DSD512 music, or even that they only own a handful of DSD files; the term ‘DSD1024’ exists, and we want it now!
Granted, some of this rejection process is simple purchase-avoidance; if I set a requirement that is beyond current technology, I won’t be caught in a trap where I need to buy something. But a lot of this rejection process is sheer ‘specmanship’ on the part of the manufacturer, the reviewer, the retailer, and the end-user. And it needs to stop.
Here’s how it stops. Have an honest conversation with yourself before you get to the audition stage. If you have got this far in life without lying awake at night wondering how many of your PCM files are available in 32-bit, then chasing specifications for their own sake is pointless. Instead, choose the product where its performance best coheres with your tastes and system, and forget about the acronyms. If you feel you want to ‘future-proof’ your system, look at the specs of what you currently enjoy and ‘go one louder’. If you are listening to a mix of 24-bit, 192kHz and DSD128 files, push for a DAC that supports 24-bit, 384kHz (or even 32-bit audio) and DSD256. Also, that next purchase is the time to go listen to MQA to see if it’s the ‘Next Big Thing’ or another ‘Meh!’ for you.
If this sounds like one enormous fence-sitting exercise, then congratulations! I have met people who are utterly convinced by the charms of one or more of the higher-resolution formats that are available, and I have met people who remain completely indifferent to them. Convincing someone living in 2019 who is perfectly happy with 16-bit, 44.1kHz files that they should be listening to high-res PCM, or DSD, or even MQA is a pointless exercise. Similarly, trying to convince someone who is cemented to one of these three-letter acronyms that one of the other three-letter acronyms is ‘better’ has all the argumentative success of telling someone their kid is ugly – at best it leads to angry and heated debate; at worst, violent imagery, broken friendships, and more. These format wars haven’t ended in actual bodily harm as yet, but there have been people pinned to walls.
Back in the old days, when the audiophile really only had the options of LP, reel-to-reel tape, or FM radio, we weren’t plagued by a steady stream of format changes, of acronyms, or of FOMO. We bought an album, played it on our record players, played it again and again, then added another album. Rinse and repeat until we ran out of space to store those albums. Now, space is not a problem, but we worry about having a format that’s not good enough, or not today enough. While nothing will stop this arms race of ever-increasing specs for an ever-wider range of formats, we don’t have to play along.
Perhaps the rise of the three-letter acronym is why I’ve taken to going back to a couple of two-letter acronyms – LP and CD. They both sound pretty good, too!