2017 vs. 1990s - How far we have come

Hi Everyone,

I'm just taking a moment to think about how far we have come in the quality and enjoyment of music over the last 3 decades or so. I'm listening to Jazz.fm at 96kHz/16 via a Squeezebox Touch an NAD D 3020, and custom speakers (free design is available here ) on my desk as I work.

I have to say, the sound is pretty fantastic. We do a lot of comparisons to evaluate the relative merits of any given system, but we choose what we compare to. If we compare what we can get now vs. in the late 1980's/1990's I have to say things are really really good, and we should all take time to think about that now and then.

My total outlay is around $800 in electronics + the speakers.

First, I can pick among almost any radio station in the world. When guests from China show up, I have a station from Beijing playing when they arrive. I have 3 or 4 really good jazz stations on tap. There's Spotify and Tidal (great old school catalog) in addition to my 800 albums or so, some hi rez, mostly Redbook.

Digital amplifiers and DAC's are sooooooo much better than they used to be. Some of the DAC improvements in the low/mid market is outstanding. Especially Redbook. Digital amps, even cheap one's, sound so much better than the initial trials around the 1980s I heard. I mean sooooooo much better.

Don't get me wrong, there's a warm spot in my heart for vinyl and tube amps. But let's not pooh pooh an all digital/Class D solution either. The convenience, price and features are really outstanding now.

There will always be room for a discerning ear however. I don't mean to say all DAC's and all Class D amps and all speakers are now great. They are not. I am saying that for the music lover and audiophile your entry level to really good sound is a lot less expensive than before. Let's celebrate this, and also celebrate that this allows us to share not just shopping experiences but culture as well. The better music transmission is, the easier it is to enjoy and share all sorts of music, and culture. We should delight in that.


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I put DACs first  (and there is more to come)

I wonder about CDs since the 90s tho (compression)
Randy -

For sure a lot of the pop albums were awful. Thriller and Stop Making Sense among the very worst. Producers were so desperate to prove CD's superiority they went nuts with compression.

Classical CD's however were a completely different story.


I agree with you on the DAC's. Spent $250 on a Parasound ZDAC and it sounds a whole lot better than I ever expected. Pretty amazing given the cost. 
Boxer: The ZDAC's are extremely under-rated. I would never be unhappy with one.

The equipment really hasn't changed that much, but there's been a revolution in media.  Hard disk servers and streamers with subscription services didn't exist back then.
IMO and IME, the equipment is brick walled and going in circles, with many a misstep along the way.

Subtle changes upward, yes, but overall, it’s always been there, fully available in the parts quality costs. Modern times... has wreaked havoc in the mid level quality available for a given set amount. Big economics story there, so complex that just about any viewpoint can be fleshed out into seemingly making sense.

We’ve been forced into being smarter. And quality has suffered, in some ways. It would be a long story to define it.

without really getting into the story behind it...you can take a mediocre device from the 60’s to 90’s and intelligently upgrade it... to being the equal of anything expensive and top-flite in today’s market.

Fundamental changes are not happening as fast as some might try to hawk into the extant moments.

It’s a mature market, for the most part, which means established methods and ways. True disruptions are going to be few and far between due to this maturity and the inability of an adjusted and staid sytem to recognize such. A staid and controlled system will most times reject anything truly new. Whether any bits of new appear or are recognized is up to the given person(s) and group. Groups are notoriously conservative... so new in most cases, for a group... is likely just a minor difference wrapped in a flag that appears new.

My problem with digital, is that it has spent 30 years simply trying to equal a LP. just trying to equal an LP.

Which is unbelievably pathetic.

I’m not against digital but that does not qualify as innovation that takes the desires of the market pinnacles further, that’s an innovation of a different type; one that is about the users and holders of said signal storage and playback, not about true innovation in qualities. Radically different unrealized mediocrity for everyone!

By 1993 or so, after much testing, I rejected digital as a botched job that had nothing to do with high end audio, but was obviously grasped by high end audio in the desire for sales and multiple versions of flags were wrapped around it and promoted as hard as can be. It was nothing more than a bottle of 2 year old scotch that was nice but it needed to mature into a 30 year old scotch and that was a long way away.

meanwhile, I was not going tho throw out my widely available 30 year old scotch to promote and drink immature bad tasting and nearly toxic - 2 year old scotch. I was at a pinnacle and still moving forward, why go backward? What the hell was everyone’s major malfunction? Oh yeah, markets are based on the new, not the used or traded. Just the new. So the 2 year old immature and bad tasting scotch was promoted to the average man in the street.

This is a sort of comparative story of where everyone was with analog in the early 90’s. This is not the only thing that was going on through those time periods but it was definitely a part of it.
I think of class d in the same way, it’s in the dancing bear stage like CD was in the early 90’s.

It’s amazing we can figure out that the motions of the bear are likened to dancing of a sort.

but ...the bear dances very very badly. Fidelity? Peak fidelity, perfected dancing? No.

Since this is analogies here, maybe digital and Class D can be likened to really good AI. Like AI and CGI, it hits the uncanny valley a bit too much for some.
I'm sorry Teo, I don't agree. The best Class D is as good sounding as the most accurate class A.

Should you like it? I don't know. Buy what you like.


Eric, what do you consider "The best Class A"?
I owned Ncore NC1200 monos at the same time as Class A Lamm hybrids and Class A Claytons and both of the Class A amps sounded better to me than the NC1200s (but in fairness, it was subjectively close).  The Claytons are now in my main system and the other two are sold.
I didn't say "best" because that is too subjective, but I did say "most accurate" which is a point a lot of equipment is converging around. Smooth, musical and powerful but without added juiciness, and realistic sound stage.

Of course, the very best amps ever built were the CJ Premiere 8s, and Class D sounds nothing like that! But I have no space and no money for their care and feeding. :)


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Sorry Eric, I didn’t type my question correctly, I meant to ask what you considered "the best Class D" that sounds as good as "the most accurate Class A"? Is it something different from, or better than, the NC1200 amps that I compared to?
Sorry Mitch, I think the Hypex, and ICEPower are very very good, but there are also some hybrids I hear good things about like NuForce, NAD (not sure how broad) and Pascal.

Brlindfolded, I cannot hear a difference between ICEPower and Parasound Halo amps (A/AB). I just can't. I've also heard some very expensive pure A amps and also, just don't hear "better."

As yo usaid, there are differences, but if we keep our minds open about what "better" really is, I think the Class D's have arrived.


The ear by nature is a strong and manipulable filter. It can editorialize on the fly and learn long term methods/ways better than just about any form of hardware we can imagine or realize.

The same goes for learning the differences between one amp and another.

Most ears can hear better than their owners think they can. Like learning a new language it’s about exposure and will - tied to the right kind of effort.

The ear, like the brain, is plastic. They have to be. They have to be. And they are. Nothing in your more elevated aspects of neurology is set in stone. Human life requires things to be this way.

We have predilections, tendencies, ruts we fall into... but this is all malleable, 100% so.

We each have a combination of natural capacities and a given plasticity, each person’s package and keys to that package being slightly different.

I think that people who say they can’t hear some aspects of sonic qualities are really selling themselves short, in the majority of cases.

If the given mind acts like a blunt force injected trauma of a freight train -- toward others in the audio world (charlatans! Snake oil! etc!)... then their hearing plasticity will be similarly affected. They’ll never learn to hear anything new.

The two go hand in hand...the two (hearing and mental projections into the world) are intimately linked in as many real world ways as you can imagine. All part of the same given neurological/physiological expression package.

Ie, angry denier, automatically hears nothing. Decides all others are the same or charlatans. We all know the story. That person is literally blocking their own potential for learning and knowing. No joke.

The reasons behind it illustrated and brought into the conversation can show, for all... the problems inherent in such a position.

Up several levels for me.
I agree, teo. I also wonder how much of this causes us needless mental um... exercises.

I mean, let's say it is fully possible to hear the differences in wiring when they use copper mined in Chile vs. Indonesia. Perhaps this is some deep learning we can teach ourselves to do. What good is it?  This is why I'm always pushing for audiophiles to focus on the room, and design their own speakers. It would help balance their choices in values to discern in a different light.

I think we unconsciously train ourselves to listen to certain minutia while ignoring bigger issues. I see this all the time at shows. Some audiophiles can ignore the room acoustics, and get impressed by speaker X when I just can't. The room acoustics are the life or death of a demo for me.
As above  randy-11

the dac is probably the most profound improvement. Thankfully, some companies are still producing cd/sacd players, better than ever.

Metallurgy makes for better cables and power cords as well.
Happy Listening!
What if I had trained myself not to hear those differences in mettallurgy? Would I not be a happier audiophile?

If I can train my rain to pick out the subtlest ether’s wafting from my power cords, could I not also train myself not to?

This is why I'm a DIY all the way when it comes to cables. Pure silver (not silver/copper) IC's and if I care about the power cords, I make my own. Self-discipline and self-reliance for the win say I! :)


Thriller..compressed? Maybe on cd, not my lp!

@slaw Maybe that's why I was never a fan of the album. Well, not the mega-fan so many were. I like some of the songs, of course. I was young. :)
I'm with you Erik on the silver DIY cables.  Over the years, I've had many different IC's, nothing too exorbitant mostly Straightwire and high end Monster and I've also had several different DIY silver cables.  I don't go crazy trying to listen for nuances, and whenever I've had the silver cables, it was always just right.  Same thing when I have tube gear, it's always just right
I'm with Slaw!  Thriller was one of the greatest recording masterpieces of our time.  Recorded by the great Bruce Swedien.  Bruce was Quincy Jones favorite engineer, and recorded many jazz records before and after.  

Another is Earth Wind and Fire "I Am"  George Massenburg was the engineer on EWF, he went on to record Billy Joel, Toto, Journey, Little Feat Weather Report, Lyle Lovett (Joshua Judges Ruth), and many more.  He pioneered that sound of being very clear, wide dynamics, low color (the opposite of motown) with excellent low end.   

Now when I say "great", it has nothing to do with the songs, we are talking strictly the sound: recording, mixing and mastering.  Very few records sound as good as these two in pop music today.  There are some, but not many.

For great sound, follow the engineers, not the artists.   


Dynamically, the song Bille Jean is a tour de force of dynamic range and punch. All one needs is a decent vinyl pressing and a system that can show it.

However, it is overplayed and nearly illegal, like ’Stairway to Heaven’. Right up there with the Sheffield Track Record, Bachbusters, and various bits of Krall here and there. And whatever else has built up to being offensive over the years.

When we do shows we don’t do anything but music that grooves. Music that moves people.

Yes, follow the players (session), producers (sometimes) and engineers (mostly always).... and you can find some fantastic stuff that way.
I remember years ago when I found Haley Bonar’s "Big Star". I liked it so much, I did not play it often, so as to not get tired of it. Crazy, right? Crazy like a fox. This is kind of my "own personal musical seduction therapy".

I remember too well the overplayed 70’s radio hits that had an over-effect on me.

@teo-audio, I get your premise but still, most of the songs on "Thriller" move me. I just choose to listen every once in a while so as not to get overwhelmed.
I met Ndugu Chancler. Ndugu who I just heard you all say?

Ndugu is the drummer on Billie Jean.

Ndugu is the force behind Billie Jean - that one magical take or moment.

The drumming on Billie Jean is so exquisitely timed to GROOVE! It may be the most perfect example of drumming ever.

A total genius and obviously the beat is SO simple but the genius is in making it sound SOOOOO GOOOOOD

Oh and for more great sound - check out anything produced by Trevor Horn. A great example is Grace Jones Slave to the Rhythm.
TIDAL, especially the Masters (MQA) series, is a complete game changer for me.  The CD quality music selection on TIDAL is huge.  Everything I've listened from the Masters/MQA selections just sounds great.  I've recently started upgrading my server and DAC to take advantage of this new source.

Otherwise, my vintage 90's system sounds just fine, thank you.
So gents, is there a digital version of Thriller you would recommend to me? Tidal?
And then...there is the estimated 8000-10000 songs that ’Sly ’N Robbie’ have played on. If you want groove...


’Love is the Drug’, Grace Jones, is an example of Sly n Robbie’s playing skills. That pair made Island Records happen, IMO. Grace’s version is the antithesis of the original Brian Ferry rendered sensitive and hurt version. Grace is a bit..er...more potent and directed. Arnie complained to Grace to stop hurting him (kept landing real blows), during the making of the second Conan film. Well, that’s Grace...



As for Bille Jean, you want the 12" EP version. And then crank it until the crossovers start to catch fire.

Well, I just tried the Tidal version of Thriller, and it's exactly as bad as I remember it. Bright, and compressed, digital drums with nothing to them.


*G*  Hey, Eric....good luck with this thread. ;)  I'm just going to sit back and watch....

I agree with your original post...well, more or less.  We've got our 'differences', but viva la', y'know?
One can’t help wondering if in the new 3D Thriller video they also make the sound three dimensional. 😬

No that is not digital drums on Billie Jean  - that is Ndugu Chanceler playing a Yamaha Kit. As a drummer I can tell Yamaha from Slingerland from Gretsch etc. The SACD version was rather bright if I recall - so perhaps you got that. The first CD release which I own (bought when it first came out) is very good. It is possible that newer masters have been compressed...
Quincy Jones spent a month, apparently, just on the drum/bass track(s) of the one song we speak of. So it’s definitely a ’studio’ production.
"Billie Jean" also highlights David Williams beautiful guitar playing.  A true professional player.

Every version I've heard is slightly bright, but otherwise sounds very good.  It's a wonderful production that probably sounds exactly how Jackson, Jones and Swedien wanted it to sound.

Chris Cornell also did a great cover.
Found a couple of related links, first this famous Wikipedia article:


So, instead of getting better, re-releases seem to get worse over time.

Also this one with more variety of MJ tracks


Wow TEO Audio and I actually agree on something for a change!  I have to say that his first two posts in this thread are bang on as far as I'm concerned.   I could put together a top-flight analogue system from 1980 and it would sound better than a top-flight digital system of 2017.  With a few tweaks like modern electrolytic capacitors and so on. Actually I would prefer to go to a 1940 style system with two hornspeakers and a single ended triode amplifier.  Again with some minor modifications of course, bringing it up to better than Spec.  In my opinion this hobby has not really advanced and in some ways has gone backwards. Of course every year they try to sell us the latest greatest thing but if you listen to a top end analog horn system with good SET amplification against  A top end  class D digital system, I would wager that the first would be much more satisfying.
I am 74 years old and have been involved with audio since the early 1970's.  Actually it was some Marantz products, such as the Marantz 20b FM tuner, for instance.  Well since that time, using some old audio products such as the McIntosh MR74 tuner, 30+ year old Stax headphone systems-well put them into a modern, top quality audio products plus the latest in Power cords, power conditioners as well as the latest top end interconects and speaker wires---well the results can be truly amazing.  That is for sure.  For instance, presently I play a Oppo 205 player thru an Rega Orisis integrated amplifier, into at least 30 year old Stax SRD7/SB, Lambda headphone system---incredibly quality of audio reproduction.  Plus remarkable base performance considering I am driving them with 160 watts per channel.  Oh, if I play my McIntosh MR74 tuner thru this headphone system---well just say I currently read all about the latest headphones and headphone system being offered today and laugh.  Anyway there is still a lot of truly great audio products from the past out there still today, and much of it is still in perfect condition.  Plus us oldtimers are passing on every day presently, thus much of there gear is being sold off all the time.
Everyone should listen and buy whatever they like, but we are running afoul of a self-fulfilling prophecy or tautology.

If you see 1960's SET amps and horn speakers as "The Best" then there is no possibility for improvement, in class A/D/H unless they sound exactly like that.

Also, sound quality is not the only dimension of change. Size, convenience, cost and variety are all valid ways to think about our hobby as well.

So if you like listening to a 5W amp with a giant Polish made tube sitting on top, that's what you should listen to, but I hope that even those who do can see other ways in which our hobby has gotten much better.



Alan - Have you heard the Stax through the Woo Audio headphone amps? Unbelievably good.


When I had my headphone rig I listened to naked Sennheiser 600s through a Woo Audio headphone amp and the world's most modded Oppo 103. Not...too..shabby.

Erik, yes I know.  Previously I was using a Stax SR5-SDR6 combo with an Audio Research VSi60 integrated tube amplifier.  And if I had a matching Audio Resarch tube amplifier with say 150 watts per channel to connect to my Audio Research LS27 tube line stage with my SRD7/SB-Lambda combination-well who knows.  All I can say is using the Stax matchng headphone amplifiers limit one to modest power.  With my Rega-Stax combo, with 160 watts per channel they really come thru.  Of course realize that Sax electrostatic headphones are actually minature speakers-thus they call them ear spekers.  And as Michael Fremer has found out on his owm monstrous Wilson speakers, more power is a very good thing.  By the way, with my Stax system,  have added a one foot pair of MG Audio Desrgn wires between my Rega Orisis integrated and the wires from my Stax SDR7/SB box-I have added a high quality speaker wire between the Stax box and my amplifier.  The result is simular to adding an high end speaker wire to one's min speaker system.  This allows an at least 30 year old Sta headphone system to today show what it is capable of.                       By the way, I have also obtained recently an 40 year old Yamaha CA800 integrated amplifier.  The Yama CA80 and Ca1000 were what put Yamaha's reputation on the record.  They, and theCT7000 FM tuner are what their reputstion are based upon-still today.  They were as good as it gets for the money and then some when they first came out.  Class A with the flip of a switch.  Two superior phono imputs.  Headphone imput, and tone controls abundance.  Although I never use them.  For under $200, when used with my second McIntosh MR74-wow.  No, dimefor dime, dollar for dollar, properly chosen "old" stuff can really work for the best.
We’ve perhaps come a long way in some respects but so has the RFI/EMI problem. It’s an order of magnitude or more worse than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Small wonder expensive systems oft sound like, well, not good. 💩 Are folks trying to catch the dragon and recapture the sound they heard 30 or 40 years ago?  

geoffkait:   I myself have no RFI/EMI problems whatsoever.  Thus when I am playing a CD for instance, my system will be toally quiet between uts and of course when it completes its play.  But my favorite test is when I am listening o local FM Boulder radio station late evenings when my audio systemgoes completly silent.  KGNU has volunteer announcers and often they are not paying attention and thus no sound.  Bu it will then become totally silent.  That is what I expect from a true high end audio system properly set up.  And currently, using unshielded MG Audio Design interconnects and speaker wires.  Perhaps my use of Audioquest power cords along wit two of their Niagara 1000's helps in this regard.  Again, currently I am using old and new stuff.  My Thorens 125-Rabco combination for which paid $950 is superb.  I guess it mainly depends on how different audio gear will work together, and other's will not.  For instance I have an over 10 yesr old pair of WBT interconnects.  They wen for $1000 then and were very popular in Western Europe and Asia.  Well today from my Audio Research LS27 o my Stax tube SRM-MK-2, SR% combo they sound ruly beautiful.  But previously when I used them beterrn different amolifiers and preamps, they totally distroyed the sound itself.  They did just not work between an amp and preamp.  But when used to carry the audio sound from an audio source to a preamplifier, the sound is beautiful.  I also notice latly how many of odays audio reviewers often require a few amplifiers handy to check out new speakers.  It seems today that choosing he righ amplifier to match to a paticular pair of speakers might be the single most significant issue to really get one's audio system to work to it's best.
I completely agree with the first post. Budget gear is so much better than it was in the 1970's when I first started. The principal reason is manufacturing technology. By the late 1970's or early 1980's good amplifiers were as good as it can be, i.e. they already measured exceptionally well and they sounded perfectly neutral. Sonically they were perfect. The only subsequent advances have been in power output, and in manufacturing technology, making good amplifiers cheaper and potentially more reliable.
The biggest subsequent advance has been the introduction of the cd. This was a huge quality leap if ever there was one. I know there are romantics who believe vinyl still has virtues, but I am not one of them (and I own a Linn LP12/SME combo). Even a cheap modern Chromecast Audio measures and sounds far better than that Linn/SME combo. So indeed also farewell to FM radio, and hello internet radio, for far more choice, more convenience and, again, better sound quality from at least the stations with the higher bitrates.
Now that we have potentially very good recordings on CD, the weakest link still is the loudspeaker. Here too there has been progress, and my modern QUAD 2805s sound better than my old ELS 57 (I still have them both), but it is not a quantum leap. With dynamic speakers the improvement has been bigger, I think, because there was a longer way to go. Improving all speakers is important because even the best are the really weak link in any system, but it is also the hardest thing to get right, because they are on that complex interface between the electrical and the mechanical. Dynamic speakers have mass, and that mass behaves in all sorts of hard to model ways. But things are moving in the right direction: my Harbeth P3ESR is really better than my old Rogers LS3/5a, even if that is still an enjoyable speaker. Again, however, the biggest advances have been in the budget market. Speakers like the Wharfedale Diamond series are spectacularly good for the money, and far far better than budget stuff from a few decades ago.
So, these days a few hundred dollars and up to $1000 maximum will buy you a really good 2x100 watt amplifier with digital inputs from one of the big Japanse brands, add a Chromecas Audio and as long  as the room is not too large you are done for everything apart from some speakers. Spend a few hundred dollars on those and you are fine. Spend a few thousand, and you have a pair of Harbeth M30.1s, and you are in audio heaven with the best that can be achieved in a medium sized room (for big rooms the story becomes a bit different, and rather more costly). The news is good.
geoffkait: I myself have no RFI/EMI problems whatsoever. Thus when I am playing a CD for instance, my system will be toally quiet between uts and of course when it completes its play. But my favorite test is when I am listening o local FM Boulder radio station late evenings when my audio systemgoes completly silent.

The silence between tracks and silence during FM broadcasts are not really evidence you have magically escaped the same fate as everyone else. Of course RFI/EMI influences are expected to be minimized at night. Everyone knows that. I would consider revising your first sentence to something like, I myself have no RFI/EMI problems whatsoever that I’m aware of. 😀 As said previously, you get used to the distortion and noise since it has always been there. Silence is relative, so is noise and distortion. The signal to noise ratio of some military electronics is way greater than any commercial audiophile stuff. Many orders of magnitude greater I’d opine. FM signal to noise ratio is OK, nothing to write home about, though. Besides who wants to listen to compressed digital?
I actually realized 35-40 years ago listning to KLOS and KMET radio in Los Angeles that when the announcers were talking live, that their voices actually sounded better than if you were yourself sitting next to them in the radio system.  I still remember the sound when they were going thru their papers on their desk.  It actually sounded better over the airwaves on my FM tuner thru an Stax headphone system.  Years later thru a Stax tube system hooked up thru an Audio Research LS27, that overall local FM broadcasts over KGNU here in boulder over a McIntosh MR80 FM tuner overall sounded far, far superior to top quality CD's thru an Naim 555CD player syste.  Even today the Naim 555 is one of the very finest CD players of all time.  And Neil Young at Massey Hall on HD CD-even on my Oppo 105 it is really something speial.  I don't have a large CD collection, but I have HD CD's, XRCD's, Mobile Fidelity CD's, so I know what I am talking about.  There is something really special about FM radio and electrostatic speakers.  If tubes are involved, even more so.  In fact I would not be surprised if much of the success of the original Quad electrostatic speaker system was greatly enhanced by BBC FM broadcasts, which are often claimed to be of exceptional audio quality.  They make truly beautiful music together.  And thru Stax headphones it is so easily observable.  Throw in tubes-audio extasy.
I would just like to give one example of using the latest top of the line pair of MG Audio Design's interconnects from a 30+ year old McIntosh MR74 tuner to my Audio Research LS27.  I first learned about MG Audio Design products from a review by Arnie Nudell in which he uses themhimself.  Further research showed that Paul McGowan also uses them.  And that the Colorado Audio Society compared them to the top of the line Nordhost, and preferred the MG Audio Design.  Bu the way the MG Audio Design costs $1600 for a one meter pair.                                                                              Anyway, basically not to many would pay possibly $20,000 for a pair of Nordhost, but if they did then they would realize how incredible FM radio ca really sound on a good audio system.                                                                   If you live in Boulder and listen to KGNU then you would understand.         Anyway, to put it into perspective, without MQA internet radio sucks compared to FM radio brosdcasts.  And a live FM broacast, don't even menton the subject.                                                                                                     And on a tube bases Stax electrostatic headphone system, pure bliss.
Pure bliss. The RFI/EMI not withstanding. On the other hand Boulder is probably relatively benign RFI wise. Aspen certainly was, especially at 8,000 ft.

Yep, great SQ can be had for so much less these days.  I wish I had the time to listen as I did when I was young.