I have been meaning to write about some uncommon perspectives on audio here and elsewhere for a while, and a recent conversation with @E_Schaaf made me want to just post about them all at once here. it may seem like I took many of these takes from his recent profile post, but the truth is he stole them from me. 8) just kidding, we came to similar conclusions independently, although from different paths. at the end of 2020 (which seems like a lifetime ago) I wrote an article titled 'Alternative Audio Wisdom for 2021' which I was quite proud of. I've learned exponentially more since then, and I feel like my perspective on audio has somewhat come 'full circle' since I started in 2015. consider this post a 2022 update to that article. I encourage questions and open discussion around these topics. Thought #1 I have almost completely lost interest in inefficient or hard to drive headphones. I had already lost interest in inefficient or hard to drive speakers in 2020, but for some reason never carried over that logic to the headphone world until now. In some sort of misguided thought it seems that difficult to drive headphones are commonly unconsciously or consciously associated with better scaling ability or being somehow truer to source. I used to unconsciously accept this too, but the more I think about it, the more I believe the opposite is true. This will tie into point #2, but out of all the headphones I have tried and owned, a definite preference has emerged for high-sensitivity and typically lower-impedance models which can essentially be driven 'from the source' and thus provide a higher degree of musical clarity. Thought #2 External DACs and headphone amps (this includes computer sound cards) are basically bullshit and the idea of needing them for acceptable sound has become something of a permanently engrained but misguided trope in the personal audio hobby. They are bullshit because all most of them seem to do is impart sound color (softening or emphasizing sections of the frequency spectrum) and reduce musical clarity. I think people fall into a trap, they start by 'upgrading' from the headphone jack on their computer or phone (back when phones had headphone jacks), are impressed by the sound color of the new device(s), and all future upgrades from that point are assessed against the initial upgrade. Therefore, no future comparisons are made back 'to the source' and the user does not recognize the loss of musical clarity from the complication of the signal path. Is it possible to create or chain together a series of audio devices which have a balanced (harmonized) sound color and have a negligible impact on musical clarity? Yes, it is. It's really difficult, actually almost impossible when consideration is limited to only commercially available products. There are those components that are 1 in 100, and there are those magic combinations of components that are 1 in 1000, but putting them together is like building a puzzle where you don't have the picture on the box and you have to pay money for each piece before you try to fit it in. This is why you see so many people churn through gear every few weeks/months. It took me about 6 years to assemble such a system and many thousands of dollars spent. Now I have roughly $8000 of equipment sitting on a rack next to my desk but for the past several months have neglected to turn it on. I just listen to a pair of sensitive headphones from the headphone socket on my Mac. The musical enjoyment is actually roughly the same. This is not about diminishing returns, but that in actuality attention is not paid to the weakest links of the path: the source and transducers. I only evaluate DACs and amplifiers now by using efficient headphones, so that a comparison can be made against 'the source' (the headphone jack). In almost all cases, the results are in favour of the headphone jack. Thought #3 Speaking of sources, computer audio is really complicated and people spend so much time focusing on the wrong things. When you're talking about computer audio (which is what 95% of people in the personal audio sphere are engaged in as so few spin CDs or vinyl with headphones), the DACs on available on motherboards actually sound really good. Like, un-ironically. I spent a fair amount of time playing with old Macs since Apple seems to do onboard audio better than anyone else. If your motherboard DAC doesn't sound good it's not the DACs fault, but rather the fact that it is sharing a power supply with noisy components that have nothing to do with sound, and also a software problem (see Thought #4). I had a 2005 Powerbook running OSX Tiger, plugged my HD600 into its headphone socket and played a Metric CD I had lying around. I heard the most pristine treble I had ever experienced from a digital source, resolution was so high that I could hear when individual mics were being cut in and out of the mix, I could hear the air contributed from each microphone to the otherwise black vacuum of the studio-processed mix, etc. These are sounds I never ever experienced from any number of fancy DACs, and I have tried an awful lot of them. Honestly the type of sound upgrades people are hoping for when buying successively fancier and more expensive DACs are more readily available and fundamentally impactful when paying attention to the source. I think that the concept of innovation in digital audio has since the beginning been dominated by numbers and food for the mind instead of the ear. Manufacturers push mathematical boundaries to massage the signal in an effort to meet arbitrary specifications to have an excuse to sell a new product. The marketing department has their way and people think they will get better sound by buying the latest converter. The Cirrus chips in old Macs and the TDA1541 from the 80s are still the best I've heard. The chip is almost irrelevant. Thought #4 It turns out that the operating system (and playback software) influences the sound a great deal. Different versions of Mac OS sound wildly different, and the sonic signature is consistent whether listening to the analog or digital outputs of the computer. Windows is by far the worst-sounding operating system for audio. Linux is all over the map but generally inferior to Apple. Don't ask me why, I don't know why. It's not just related to the minimalism of the OS either, as there are a few stripped-down Linux distributions designed just for audio playback which sound quite terrible. It has nothing to do with jitter, bit-perfect, WASAPI vs ASIO, or whatever other silly tropes people come up with to provide material explanations for esoteric phenomenon. The operating system problem carries over to mobile sources too, I have noticed successive decreases in playback quality with each iOS update on my iPhone, which is why I have now disabled auto-updates. This is a serious problem for the music lover, as older hardware and OSes which simply sound better will become deprecated to the point of only being able to play local files without network support. It's depressing for me to think about, as the latest M1 Mac's running the latest OSX sound simply awful: lacking dynamics, tonal color, deep bass and midrange body. Thought #5 Cables matter a lot. In that if you aren't careful, they can fuck your shit up. It turns out that wire (electrical conductors), their dielectric, shielding, connectors, etc. all influence the sound a great deal. In my experience the technical parameters of the wire such as capacitance are irrelevant, though some manufacturers are obsessed with them. I do not advocate for expensive cables. In fact I think most cables marketed to audiophiles are worse than what you can buy at guitar center or the ones that came with your dad's VCR: they color the sound and reduce musical clarity. Likewise, many of the budget champions such as the often recommended Blue Jeans sound like muddy shit to my ears. Choose carefully. The shorter your signal path, the less you have to worry about the influence of wire, but it does influence the sound as much as anything else in the path. By the way, if you don't believe that cables can affect the sound but you do believe in other passive conductors such as transformers and capacitors sounding different, then you're a fool. Thought #6 I don't like the sound of transformers in the signal path (this includes the power supply, but they are of course necessary there). Opinions on transformers vary wildly, some view them only from the point of technical parameters and see their influence on the sound as innocuous. Others, often for esoteric beliefs, want as many transformers as possible in the chain. It turns out that everything in the material construction of a transformer influences its sound character, including the wire, the frame, the laminations, etc. They should be utilized very well or not at all. So far I have yet to hear a transformer-coupled headphone amplifier I like, and gravitate towards OTL or direct-coupled options. Experiences with inexpensive transformers such as Jensen, Cinemag, Hammond which are focused more on filling specification requirements have provided quite bland sound. If the system is already bland, the effect is not noticed. Experiences with more expensive or exotic transformers such as Lundahl, Tango, Tamura, Hasimoto have not satisfied me, they feel like devices made for audiophiles and not the enjoyment of music. It is difficult to relax when listening to devices that use many of these products. The best transformers I have heard have been vintage or home-made using esoteric materials and construction methods. Thought #7 A short signal path is preferred but a signal path can be too short. The path should be exactly as long as it needs to be. The length of the path is not measured in centimeters or raw number of components, but in an esoteric living sense. I generally don't like passive pre-amps or single-stage amplifiers. They rob the sound of some sort of vitality. This doesn't have anything to do with technical parameters like impedance or gain. Just my consistent, long-term experience. Thought #8 Generally exotic components provide disappointing sound. A device designed with the goal of incorporating as many exotic components together for marketing purposes provides the most disappointing sound. I call this 'douche-fi'. Douche-fi is about spending your budget on coupling capacitors, RCA connectors, IEC inlets, silver wire, amorphous cores, thoriated tungsten filaments, etc. That's not to say these things don't make a difference, of course they do, but any time I have bought a product on the principles of douche-fi, I have been extremely disappointed. The cheap stuff usually just sounds better. Don't be a douche. This is what I can think of for now. I will add more thoughts later.