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Garbled question about, 'Getting used to sound'. Answered

I almost didn't post this because it seems so stupid but ....

A guy who has just started at working with me said that he was thinking of getting a valve amp for his music system.
The reason being that he had been told by a BBC sound engineer that, ' The trouble with digital sound is that you get used to the volume.'

He then went on to explain that he used to listen to his music at  -50dB but he's noticed that he now prefers -70dB.

He was using the phrase, ' digital sound', so I don't know if he's comparing valve amps to solid state or what ?,  and I don't know if he knows; But whatever he means by, 'digital sound', he is comparing it to and believes it can be bettered by a valve amp.

I said that I didn't believe in this getting, 'getting used to the sound', phenomenon but that I would ask someone who did  ...  one of you.

So, sorry for this garbled ill informed question, but if you can make any sense of it please answer so that I've got something to talk about when I next see him.

Thank you.


It sounds as if though the guy you work with has a serious misunderstanding of different aspects of sound reproduction (as most self-professed audiophiles do).

First, as Re-Design mentions, the dB meter on the display of your receiver is about as accurate at telling you the volume as using onomatopoeia.  There isn't much correlation between the display volume (which uses dB as a relative reference) and the actual sound pressure level you are experiencing when listening to it.

Now, to clarify the digital=loud, analog=accurate debacle, there are a whole tangle of myths surrounding this issue due to "audiophiles" misunderstanding (at best) or selectively picking factoids out of context (at worst) to prove why the second mortgage they took to purchase audio gear isn't a waste.

I will start by saying that I, too, have an issue with the loudness wars which have climbed to dizzying heights over the past few decades.  To explain, back in the 50's when the radio shifted to an all-music format, artists would hear their songs right along with others in rotation; differences in engineering methods revealed that some recordings were apparently louder than others.  Since louder=more danceable=higher on the Billboard charts, demands were made of engineers to make each cut as hot (or loud) as possible.

In the mastering process, engineers had to master the audio to a reference level; since tape is very forgiving of levels considered too hot to be recorded accurately, it wasn't a problem to push this barrier.  The result was still distortion (since what was reproduced by the tape did not accurately reflect the recorded waveform), but the resulting saturation sounded pleasant.  There was no absolute limit to how high you could push it before distortion became obvious.

Digital, on the other hand, has an absolute maximum level; if you master audio higher than this threshold, hard clipping results where the crests and troughs of each wave is truncated.  Therefore, digital distortion is very harsh and unmusical.  At first, engineers obeyed the harsh laws of this limit; however, in the continuing race towards the loudest track ever, new dynamic compression and brickwall limiters have emerged that squash the audio so close to full scale that all the subtlety of the performance is lost (lately, some like Iggy Pop and Metallica have said, "To hell with it!" and intentionally crossed the full scale boundary - the result is nothing short of an earache).

Note that none of this has anything to do with advantages of using analog over digital.  The fact that the distortion is more "musical" on tape doesn't keep it from being distortion.

The same can be said of tube (or valve) amplifiers.  Audiophiles tout their tube amps as superior, using words like "accurate", "adds warmth and sparkle", "has tight low end", and so forth.  The purists rail against digital recordings and solid state amps saying it sounds "lackluster", "artificially bright", "flat and boring", &c.  But what makes a tube sound warm and sparkly when compared to solid state?

Anyone who really understands how tubes behave will tell you it's distortion.  Tubes tend to saturate when driven to certain levels, and when they do the output signal has harmonic overtones that weren't originally present.  The additional harmonic content sounds pleasant to our ears because our brains really like harmonic overtones, but it doesn't make the sound accurate - it's quite the opposite.

Digital recording reproduced through solid state amps is not very forgiving because it is extremely accurate.  This accuracy reveals all the flaws that inevitably occur when engineers are mixing with dead ears in the wee hours of the morning, or when they cut corners under deadlines and to save costs.

Now, did I say one is better than the other?  It may seem so, since digital gear and solid state amps are cheaper and more accurate.  But the definition of "better" is best left to the listener.  I love the sound of a good tube amp just like I love the sound of vinyl; I was raised on this technology and the sound is unmistakable - nostalgia plays a big role for anyone who loves music and hi-fi audio gear.

They're your ears, and it's your money.  If you like vintage valve warmth and you're willing to pay the price, by all means buy a rig.  But be informed when you do, and don't buy the hype surrounding the audio gear out there.


8 years ago

The tube versus transistor debate has been primarily about the quality of the sound, how the sound sounds. Most audiophiles say that tube amps sound significantly better than digital (Transistor) amps in the same way that they say records sound better than CDs.

The loudness for either is not the issue.

Most double-blind tests say that these same audiophiles can't tell the difference in the lab. I think Re-design has the better answer.

Note: Transistor amps are not "digital". They're just as analog as tubes.

Ach, my mistake. I'm not an audiophile, and therefore not terribly up on these sort of things. I just hear it from my music major friend.

You're right about transistors being analog not digital.  In my mind I was creating a senario where the listener was playing a CD into a transistor amp.

"Audiophools"  have been making these kinds of statements for as long as there has been recorded music.  I have never seen any documented test done to test this.  In fact this is the first time I have ever heard this.

What was he using to measure the sound level?  If it was the volume dial or the readout on the amp the I doubt that they had any accuracy at all.  Did he take into account that amps and speakers age and sometimes are less efficient (tested and provable using accurate equipment).

There is a very slight difference in the way digital sound sounds compared to valve sound but when tested most people can not tell which is which and choose equally as to which is the preferred sound.  This last statement does not apply to guitar amps.  There is a definate difference there because "most" of the musicians run the amps at levels of distortion unlike "most" people listening to an album or cd.

There are lots of people spouting half baked theories that they've made up just because they have nothing better to say.

That IS the nice thing about a valve amp, they distort prettily rather than clip like a transistor amp, but I have always maintained you COULD design any amp to distort prettily if you wanted to. Me, I'd rather make sure there's enough headroom for a practical signal.

And I have no problem with people who like to play into the distortion of their amp.  It's all music to me.

Well, it is possible to accustom oneself to prefer louder music, possibly due to hearing damage, but I don't have the slightest idea what that would have to do with digital sound.