Has Digital Audio Tech Plateaued - Is It Safe To Come Out Now?


I’ve been focused on analog for the last couple years with only an occasional glance toward anything digital.
 I could be mistaken but does it seem like the onslaught of technologically NEW digital hardware  and media has stalled? We’re seeing a move back to DAC technology that was prevalent in the 80’s, some folks say it sounds better (R2R)?
People have always questioned whether or not higher sampling rates actually improve things, beyond a certain point, so do we need more bits and higher frequency sampling beyond the current state-of-the-art?
We’re seeing some companies incorporate 1950’s tube technology into 2020 hardware to try to make it sound.....dare I say it - less digital?
Streaming seems to have matured to the point that it is what it is. The big streaming services have a foothold, and I’m not hearing of any real pending innovation. In fact I read somewhere that MQA is no better than CD playback quality, hence we may not even be as developed as we think we are.
Server tech seems to have peaked - sure, there’ll be more storage, moderately better power supplies, slightly improved interfaces etc, but is there anything revolutionary on the horizon now that we’ve moved beyond the Mac Mini / PC hardware?

 I’m not saying there won’t be a continuous stream of new hardware, new gadgets, but is there any expectation that something new is likely to advance us beyond where we’re at WRT sound quality?
Please note the question marks in the above, I’m not stating this is the way it is, I’m asking those of you who are closer to it for your thoughts on where it’s all at.

The point being - is it safe to crawl out from under my pile of moldy album covers from the 70’s and invest into current digital, without the fear of needing to retool in a year or two?
Thoughts?


rooze
Yeah. I think if I had a dollar for every time someone thought digital had plateaued, or it was a good time to buy, or that it finally caught up with vinyl, or any of those, just one dollar each time since ninteenfrickeneighty, I could buy me a nice new Onkk Cue turntable. With Origin Live Arm. And SS Hyperion.  

Here's the reality. Whatever you buy, within about a year they will have moved on to the new new thing, and it will within a few more years be worthless. The bloom will be off the rose. But never worry, your records will still be there. Digital is great for playing demagnetizing tracks. Get an iPod or something for that, call it good.
I guess there will always be new boxes to buy, but will they actually sound any better or are we done now! I mean, it could be argued that the Cambridge Audio CD2 I owned in the 80’s hasn’t really changed much (in sound) from the Cambridge Audio 851C I own today.
Yeah, I think I’ll just buy another tonearm..

PS - I couldn’t live without my RIAA burn-in CD :)

“Whatever you buy, within about a year they will have moved on to the new new thing, and it will within a few more years be worthless.”

Same old blather from one of the staunch anti-digital poster...how’s that for reality 😂

@OP,  The digital has matured, the DAC’s are now as good as analog. If you’re serious about exploring digital, please advise your budget and expectations from digital. Are you pursing digital to explore music or for background music :-) 
@lalitk I do play CD’s and use an Aurender N100H on rare occasions but neither give me the same degree of satisfaction as listening to vinyl.

But.... I would like at least to close the gap and get more use of all my digital media. I’m just wondering is now a good time to invest... or make do for another year or two. Budget $10k max.
@rooze,

I hear you on the ‘gap’. N100H is a very nice streamer. Before I suggest an upgrade path, let’s make sure we have squeezed every last ounce of goodness from N100. May I know what DAC you are currently using and cables associated with your digital setup. 
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Digital can sound really good now, but it will never sound exactly like analog. IMO (1) digital is at a level where a purchase now won't be obsolete in a couple of years, and (2) a major reason to use digital is its wider selection of music. For those content with the relatively small and aging repertoire on LP, avoiding digital makes sense; for those interested more widely in current music, embracing digital is a necessity.
@lalitk 

Thanks. I'm living with a Sim Audio Moon 380D. It does not have the optional streaming interface and due to limitations with my internet connection, streaming isn't something I'm all that interested in. Certainly, a worthwhile step up in DAC performance would be nice, and/or a better server or combined unit (Ripper/Server/DAC).
I've played around with different cables and have a Synergistic Research SPDIF which I use between my Cambridge 851C (used as a transport), and various USB cables (dB Labs the Essential in use presently).

@mike_in_nc  Thanks for the comments, #1 in particular.

I do have quite a large digital library, around 5-6TB, and mostly it's music I'd like to spend more time with, but whenever I sit down for a 'session', I always end up switching to vinyl after a half hour or so of digital. It's not that it sounds bad, or that I expect it to be the same as vinyl, it's just that I don't get much listening time these days so I prefer to make the most of it when I do.

I've spent time with a few interesting DACs in the past year and wrote a review of the Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE for my blog (a nice unit but I preferred my 380D). I just don't know if things are 'stable' enough in the digital world to sink a chunk into new gear. 

Cheers
Rooze
@rooze No offense meant, but it feels like you already know the answer to your question. 

Your opening question implied lack of experience, but you've already made a real investment into the digital domain and as you are aware, the next step up will probably cost you all of the $10k.  I feel like there's a big hole between $2500 and $8,000 where many pieces across the spectrum all succeed in parallel, but slightly different, manners.  Who prefers what is totally dependent on system matching. 

And then above $10k, obviously you're into another league, but again one where price is likely to be very weakly correlated with performance above baseline.  By all accounts, the MSB Select II will sound wonderful for the rest of your life ( https://www.whatsbestforum.com/threads/msb-select-ii-arrival.23302/), but who knows about the many many options below that...
I think digital audio is going to be a lot like digital photography.
Currently digital audio is in the 12-15 mp range. Not bad, but when it gets to 24-45 mp, it is going to give vinyl a run for the money.
And, like digital photography, there will be filters available to mimic analog.
Bob
Yes, you need 45MP to get film resolution in best case but in low light film is useless.  I remember using 1000ASA film, gettin grain and dirty colors (400ASA was OK).  Today 10x that is still good.  Easy of use of digital photo is similar to digital music.  To me investing in digital only is way better than sharing money between two systems.  I have some breathtaking CDs showing that format does not impose limitations.
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As with so many things in life (and audiophilia) there are two issues at play: quality and price. We all hope that at a given price point, as technology advances, quality formerly available only at a higher price point will become available. And at the upper end of what is for me stratospheric price—the current boundaries of “quality” will likely continue to advance. I think you are asking about the rate of change, and given current state at the higher end, it’s reasonable to believe that the state of art is advanced such that advances will be incremental. What I mean is that practically speaking we are at the stage that you will probably get more by paying more not by waiting longer.
...so yes, I totally agree w cal3713
Check out dCS Bartok. It sounds great now and is upgradeable is/as changes comes. I think there is variable underrepresented in most vinyl/digital discussions: Accessibility, convenience, and space considerations. I stayed with vinyl early on but having moved frequently I saw the advantage of a more “practical” method. Now, do I still think there are SQ advantages with vinyl. Perhaps. But when looking at the whole package, I’ll stay with digital. Of course, I am expecting purists here to advocate for vinyl. But I see too much bashing digital for the sake of one-upmanship and  elitism. Just sayin.’
Analog is just now catching up to where we left it in 1989. I’m happy with analog. Digital is *YAWN* still slowly progressing to wherever it’s going. Stale and clinical with steely afternotes....
@gdnrbob

That’s great analogy that "digital audio is going to be a lot like digital photography" With respect I’d say the higher digital audio threshold hold is here now.

I work as a commercial photographer. Once 4"x5" sheet film was needed for what now a 35mm digital body (Over 60MP) and good lens can do. It’s not just the MegaPixels. Optics, bit depth, proper exposure, focus, iso, pixel size and more matters too.

The covalent items needed for excellent digital audio playback matter too.




Properly implemented digital is far beyond vinyl. The problem is the implementation. Getting USB and ethernet connections to be noise free takes a fair amount of doing and getting the best clocking for digital is mandatory. Differences between lackadaisical and getting it right are night and day. Unfortunately it still is a long journey of trial and error and there is no consistency between different equipment and connections. For what it‘s worth: optimised streaming far beats ripping CDs and ripping your CD collection is a waste of time if you can stream them from high-res Qobus. So to answer the OP‘s question: you can come out from under your moldy 70s’ vinyl covers if you are prepared to march through the fog.
I’ve been thinking like the OP, except I haven’t even put my toe in the water. Finally see what it’s all about? I’ve seen my friend go thru upgrade after upgrade over a few years, nothing recently however.

Are things ’essentially’ up there ’enough’ to finally add a ’decent’ streamer?

Nothing expensive, just obviously better than what I am getting now thru computer card (Pandora) and cable box (live/recorded tv, youTube).

I’m referring to Streaming Music in my Office and Music Videos thru my Cable Box. I do have a PC into my Smart TV, if that route is better than Cable Box. I would not stream into my primary music system.
..........................................

Camera Analogy:

42 mp is needed for large prints (high end audio system), and allows a great deal of cropping (no no for music)

5 or 10 mp enough? for: If not printing large i.e. medium quality office system, bookshelf speakers; i.e. medium quality Home Theater (5.1, darn good front and center, ok surround, single sub for extension).

Elliott
Hi Rooze!  The big deal is that Class D amps have finally come to fulfill the promise of the concept. It's really a lot more like an AM radio transmitter than a conventional audio amp. Once some fellows who understood UHF and radar gear turned their attention to audio, amazing things began to happen. Purifi Audio (Denmark) now produces an output module that is wining acclaim in other people's products. Starke Sound (USA) offers a complete, ready to go, four channel amp (perfect for two way speakers used with electronic crossovers) that is not tiny and cute, no chrome, no sculptured casework, uses a conventional power supply, is big and heavy, and sings like a bird. To me, the Purifi and the Starke sound nearly identical, and as good or better than anything I ever heard. If anything, the Starke may be very slightly sweeter on the top end. Very.

To paraphrase Meredith Wilson, either amp will, "Grab your woofers, grab your tweeters, in the arms of a dominating irresistible grip and deliver the clearest, cleanest music you have heard in your home." I admit that's a pretty outrageous paraphrase, but it gets the point across, without resorting to "techie" talk. It is the music we want to hear, isn't it?

What amazes me the most is how whatever speaker I drive with either amp, they sound very similar. I have about 12 sets of speakers in the house to play with (and a very tolerant wife), DIY and commercial (Shahanian, Wharfdale, Golden Ear, Spika, a couple more, bookshelf & floorstanders, There is not a wide difference in "flavor" between them. The amps CONTROL the speaker. These amps are switching tiny bits of 100+ volt "juice" into the voice coils. No speaker can fail to respond to that!  And the amps, through the use of large amounts of feedback (the Purifi module has only 13 db of gain), can detect and correct any errors the speaker makes almost instantaneously. The result is extremely low noise, extremely low distortion sound from whatever speakers you are using. Of course, quality matters; but these new Class D designs will get the most from any speaker connected to them. Read the reviews. Best of all, the Starke AD4.320 (four channels, bridgeable at the flip of a switch, phono & balanced inputs, sells for under $1400. It's worth a try. The NAD M33 is about $5000.Easy choice? I am interested in the best sound for the money.

As far as sources go, I've never heard a streaming service that could beat a well recorded CD. It does offer a huge library of music, and that's a good thing. But compare Nina Simone's album "Baltimore" with any streamed version. I know some dealers are demoing with streamed music. How sad! How unfair to folks who have never heard what a good system can do!  Ah well, that;s all for now. Happy Listening.
@antigrunge2
  "Properly implemented digital is far beyond vinyl"
While I have not gone down the vinyl path yet (no plans too either), I know what you mean about properly implemented. Often we focus on a particular DAC IC, or topology: R2R, Delta Sigma, Ultra precise femto second clocks, etc - yes these are very important, but the analog section of a DAC, IME, carries at least as much weight in the final sound of a DAC or CDP; After having owned some nice DACs, from Meitner, PS Audio, Chord, Bricasti, Ayre, and MSB Discrete, I have experienced this with a Luxman D08u; It's an incredible digital front end; Never thought digital could sound this way; If we piece-wise dissect this machine we find a relatively inexpensive IC as part of the DAC chipset; The entire "digital system", however sounds like a million bucks; So, yes I agree 100% that implementation is key;

   
We hit the plateau around 2010.  Sometime around here something happened, and the quality of CD quality files (44.1 kHz/16 bit) got radically better and shortened the gap between it and high resolution files.  I know this isn't my ears because I still hear the wide gap with older DACs.

My guess is that this was a result of consistently better and cheaper clock and jitter elimination circuits.  To my ears, this finally proves taht 44.1/16 is a very good format, but that DAC's were lacking. 

High resolution files and upsampling sound only slightly better than they would have a decade ago.  The DAC's which do not do internal upsampling still do a smidge better, but we can attribute that all to the better high frequency performance, which is measurable.

R2R and zero upsampling DAC's are fun, but probably no more than colorful in their own ways.  Enjoy them if you like them.
@rooze I think you answered your own question at the outset..."Yeah, I think I’ll just buy another tonearm.."
Perhaps you can tell me, do you think analog audio has plateaued yet? If so why are people still "upgrading"? Why are there so many turntable designs, cartridges, isolation feet, mats, tonearms, do-dads?

Seriously, all audio is now digital unless perhaps there is still a recording studio that uses reel to reel tape, I don't know. The real frontier is provenance of the recording. How was it made, how many times has it been re-mixed or remastered, etc. No matter what the delivery mechanism its the quality of the recording that dominates and yet which we usually have so little information.
@eric-squires,

I concur, in particular on the implementation of Delta Sigma DACs and the fact that R2R Dacs ultimately suffer from their own set of colorations

@bruce19,

spot on. That said, analogue recordings have a greater affinity to vinyl than modern day digital ones. I guess, the lack of resolution and dynamics incumbent on vinyl in the former are less evident.
Most people Cannot hear the difference between 16/44 and so called hi-res. CD’s are good enough. Same with 4k and 1080p....there is not much of a difference really, certainly not enough to spend way more money for a 4k movie. Still using my musical fidelity v90 dac...its good enough. No way would I pay more for any dac...I’d rather buy more records or spend the money on an even better turntable.
wow...so much great info, I appreciate all the responses.

@cal3713 
I've re-read my OP and see your point about it being a little confusing. Let me put it a different way - I'm not looking for specific equipment recommendations, I can research what's available now, easily enough. I want some confidence that if I pull the trigger on a new digital front-end, it won't be rendered obsolete in a year's time. In 5 years, who knows? I get that. Also, obsolete may not be the correct word here, I know whatever tech is at play now will likely still be useable in a decade. But is there anything 'just around the corner' that might make it sensible to hold fire for a year or so, or is it fairly safe to say that projecting forward a year, changes will be of an incremental nature and not wholesale. It might even be a rhetorical question and I might already know the answer, yet I'm still interested to read other people's take on it.

@gdnrbob - thanks for the photography analogy, it works well!

@antigrunge2 - I hear you on the 'implementation', though I haven't personally heard digital that gives better overall sound quality than a vinyl rig at a similar price-point. But I'm not expecting that or looking for it. I enjoy both, for different reasons. My goal is just to close the gap sonically so I won't feel like something is missing from the experience when listening to digital.

@boomerbillone - thanks for the comments. I agree with your statement "I've never heard a streaming service that could beat a well-recorded CD". It's interesting how that contrasts with antigrunge2 and his "optimized streaming far beats ripping CDs and ripping your CD collection is a waste of time if you can stream them from high-res Qobus."

@bruce19 "Perhaps you can tell me, do you think analog audio has plateaued yet?" - yes, I do. Changes at this point appear incremental and I haven't seen anything come through that renders a turntable from 20 years ago incompatible. Sure, a new tonearm might not be compatible with your old Thorens, but not buying that particular tonearm doesn't mean you're no longer able to access new vinyl media.
The closest thing I know of to 'revolutionary' is the optical strain-gauge system, but even that can be retro-fitted to most any TT. ( I can imagine a lot of people disagreeing with this view)

@ Y'all - Great to see a thread where no one has gone off on a 'this is better than that' rant!
As an aside, I recently bought a Devialet Expert Pro 220 CI. This highly praised and well-reviewed component is a fully digital pre/power with DAC, streamer, Roon integration, digital crossover, speaker-matching software, and a fully configurable MC/MM phono, a true digital swiss-army knife if ever there was one. The only problem was that it just didn't sound 'right'.

Rooze

@bruce19 "How was it made, how many times has it been re-mixed or remastered, etc. No matter what the delivery mechanism its the quality of the recording that dominates and yet which we usually have so little information""

B I N G O

Let's not forget for many of us funds are not unlimited, and streaming is far more affordable. For less than the cost of a high end turntable (and just that), one can get an entire streaming set up with amp(s), speakers, and all the trimmings (well maybe not the approving partner).

There's an old adage that goes "Price, Quality, Speed, pick two."
@rooze I agree that there's not likely to be any significant new tech in this domain for quite some time.  I have trouble imagining what the next frontier is now that streaming has matured to it's current point.  Perhaps the network protocols will change and you'll need a new streamer at some point? 

As for the music itself, the *vast* majority of recordings are still in the standard redbook format, and although higher sample rates can sound better, I personally gave up on investing in that path.  I'd rather work to make 99% of the music sound better than get locked into doing a ton of work just to get that 1% that's recorded at the high sample rates.  And in that domain, I just don't see any new groundbreaking advances in the upcoming years... just like there's unlikely to be much revolutionary action in analog.  

Hell, I chose an obsolete R2R chip (the little Audio Mirror T3-SE you heard) over the top of the line ESS chip (Matrix X-Sabre Pro) and a modern FPGA (PSA Directstream DAC).  Guess I must have inferior ears and a horribly unresolving system...  or, as I suggested earlier, the playing field below $8k is very level and final choices are hugely system dependent. 
So...should I hang onto my Theta ProBasic III DAC from the late 90's or test again?

I bought it for like $550 a couple of years ago after in home auditioning six or seven new ESS chip DACS that were just too analytical and bright... 

Just like Sota turntables I guess - the old ones are still good. 

Dsper
@wsrwss,
Excellent point. Like stereo systems, the combination matters.
(Though it seems many vintage lenses are able to properly resolve images at even 40-50mp. Bjørn Rørslett's analysis of many old Nikon lenses showed them to be quite capable).

@audioguy85,
There are some folks (ie. Steve Guttenberg), who seem to not hear a difference in higher resolution formats.
In my case, as well as a few of my fellow audiophiles, find higher resolution tracks to offer a more detailed/dimensional sound over 16/44.

Much depends upon your equipment.
Bob
The reason the resistor ladder technology was stopped was because it cost too much  to make then and now it is much less money to implement so we are finally hearing it again if you have a cost no object vintage unit it will blow away the new stuff.
@cal3713,
I'm in total agreement with your observations concerning 16/44 CD playback. I was heavily into analogue records/turntables for many years (Just believed it was superior sounding). I discovered that standard Redbook CD is capable of providing a competing excellent sound.

The limitation was not  the CD but subpar DAC/CD players. Once I addressed that I was good to go. CDs played  in high quality components and systems is absolutely satisfying and emotionally involving.  I can still easily appreciate and enjoy a well set up analogue system but I do not miss my former tables.

As you note, if effort is put into obtaining good quality 16/44 playback hardware  you can definitely be rewarded with fabulous music reproduction. I find both digital and analogue gratifying sources. 
Charles 
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How many of you have done a “blind” listening test with the same track(s) played from different sources?

Pre Covid three of us did such a test in a very good room. A fourth kindly was the DJ host. (Prior to listening he had got the volume levels set so one source wasn’t louder than the others. Volume was brought up from a tracks start so we would not know what was a record. Clever lad.) The TT was very good ($$$) as was the CD but the streaming components were mid line (a few K).

Guess what we all picked? Yup the new kid. It was more of a preference pick rather than a night a day difference. But still three sixty year old life long audio lovers all ticked the same box.

A year and a half later one of us only streams, one plays CD’s and streams and one spins records because that what we like to do. The TT guy is adding a streamer and announced he’s not going to be buying so more records.

So yes OP it’s more than safe. It’s a preference or not.




I'm living with a Sim Audio Moon 380D. It does not have the optional streaming interface and due to limitations with my internet connection, streaming isn't something I'm all that interested in. Certainly, a worthwhile step up in DAC performance would be nice, and/or a better server or combined unit (Ripper/Server/DAC).

@rooze, I used a 380DSD for ~5 years and really really liked it.  For no reason other than assuming newer DACs must sound better, I sold it and started shopping for a new DAC last year.   I tried the Bricasti M3 and although I liked it, I was disappointed by the sonic differences (it did some things better to my ear but I still preferred some traits of the 380) so I sold it and tried some other DACs (mostly much cheaper).   I was tempted to just find another used 380DSD when I found a used Mojo Audio Mystique V3 Balanced DAC (R2R NOS) and I found it to have a similar sound to the 380, just lots more of what I like, plus I think it has the bass and dynamic punch I heard from the M3 which was really good in that regard.   Streaming CD quality recordings through Roon from either my NAS or Tidal sound amazing to me with this DAC.  I paid ~2X for what I sold my 380DSD for, and for me it was well worth it.    Good luck with your search...
@ddafoe you beat me to it.  I was gonna recommend the Mojo Mystique EVO given the OP’s budget.  If the Mojo gets you to/near the level of enjoyment of your vinyl rig, who cares where digital does or doesn’t plateau?  You’ll still be a happy camper.  And if it also now finally allows you to enjoy the entire world of music at your fingertips through streaming, isn’t that worth taking the plunge?  It’s time.  Life’s too short.  Best of luck. 
@ddafoe Thanks for the recommendation. It’s doubly useful coming from someone with experience of the 380D.
 I’ll check out the Mojo Audio.

cheers

Rooze

Another company that only seems to get good reviews is SW1X. Very specialized dacs also using old R2R chips without oversampling. http://sw1xad.co.uk/
Tube output stages vs opamps in the Mojo units. Both with a lot of care in the power supply.