It's on your iPhone, your Android and your computer. It's even on those CDs you put on a shelf somewhere. Audio that goes to 11.
If 10 is the clip point of digital audio, you actually have digital recordings that go to 11. Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap was on to something in 1984 when he explained that his Marshal amps "go to 11". If you have never seen "This is Spinal Tap" I suggest watching this short clip before reading on. Nigel's brilliant discussion sets the stage for this application note.
But, it's not just Spinal Tap recordings that "go to 11"; every recording you own may also "go to 11"! How is this possible? If 10 is the clip point of digital audio, how can there possibly be an 11? And, if we use Nigel's logic; if 10 is good, why isn't 11 better?
Getting to 11
As strange as it sounds, audio that "goes to 11" is hidden in between digital samples. This is especially true when the recorded samples just reach "10". Digital systems take a snapshot of the audio signal thousands of times per second. These snapshots or "samples" represent the audio signal at an instant in time. In between successive samples, the audio is always changing. Digital sampling systems often miss short audio peaks which occur between these samples. These peaks often "go to 11", but are entirely missed by the sampling system.
Nevertheless, the short peaks between samples are not lost! These peaks that "go to 11" can be reconstructed from the surrounding digital samples. The DAC (digital to analog converter) in an audio system is equipped with digital reconstruction filters that can recover these inter-sample peaks. These filters work wonderfully until the digital processing overflows. Peaks that hit "9" or "10" will not cause an overflow, but peaks that "go to 11" may cause an overflow.
If you attempt to divide 1 by 0 on your calculator, the digital processing will overload and an error message will be displayed. Likewise, if the digital processing in your audio system overloads, bad things happen. Overflows that occur in digital reconstruction filters can produce a burst of distortion that persists for many samples. This distortion is non-musical and foreign to the natural sounds around us. These overloads often add an unnatural harshness to the digital playback system. But this does not mean that digital audio is fundamentally flawed. Some DACs can reproduce signals that "go to 11" without clipping. Benchmark's DAC2 is one such device.
Benchmark's Audio Research
Benchmark scanned over 5000 CD tracks to determine the severity of the inter-sample peaks in commercially available music. We discovered that most tracks contained peaks that were 1 or 2 dB above a full-scale "10". A peak that is 1 dB above full scale is 1.1 times as high as a full scale sample. A +1 dB inter-sample over is audio that goes to exactly 11! Nigel was right!
But back to our survey of CD tracks: we discovered some tracks had peaks that were 3.1 dB higher than full scale. This is 1.4 times as high as a full scale "10", and is audio that goes to 14 on Nigel's scale. You may own some recordings that go to 14, and you most certainly own many recordings that "go to 11".
Another twist to this situation is that MP3 compression seems to increase the occurrence of peaks that exceed full scale. This can make MP3 files sound worse than they should.
Once these problems were identified, Benchmark was able to implement a solution. The DAC2 reduces the signal level of the digital signal by 3.5 dB before it enters the digital interpolation and reconstruction filters in the DAC. This gain reduction is made up by increasing the analog gain after the D/A converter chip. The result is a DAC that not only "goes to 11", it is a DAC that "goes to 15". A peak of +3.5 dB is 1.5 times full scale (or "15" on Nigel's scale).
At the 2023 AXPONA show in Chicago, I had the opportunity to see and hear the Hill Plasmatronics tweeter. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Alan Hill, the physicist who invented this unique device.
The plasma driver has no moving parts and no diaphragm. Sound is emitted directly from the thermal expansion and contraction of an electrically sustained plasma. The plasma is generated within a stream of helium gas. In the demonstration, there was a large helium tank on the floor with a sufficient supply for several hours of listening.
While a tank of helium, tubing, high voltage power supplies, and the smell of smoke may not be appropriate for every living room, this was absolutely the best thing I experienced at the show!
What happens when you ask ChatGPT to write a review?
I asked ChatGPT to review the Benchmark AHB2, and I was shocked at the results!
It turns out that ChatGPT wrote a review by gleaning information from the many publicly available reviews of the AHB2. I recognized phases and sequences of words that had appeared in prior reviews, and yet the text was new, original, and well written. The ChatGPT review seemed to summarize the collective impressions of the reviewers without directly quoting any particular reviewer.
It should be possible to ask ChatGPT to write a review on any well-known product and the result will be an AI-generated review that reflects the collective opinions of many human reviewers.
These AI-generated reviews may be more useful than traditional search results!
If I am not mistaken, ChatGPT seems to have golden ears!
Here is my dialog with ChatGPT:
Write a review of the Benchmark AHB2 complete with listening impressions.
Title: Unleashing Sonic Purity: A Review of the Benchmark AHB2 Amplifier
Introduction: The Benchmark AHB2 amplifier has gained a reputation for its exceptional audio performance and unwavering dedication to sonic purity. In this review, we delve into the heart of this powerhouse amplifier, exploring its features, design, and most importantly, the listening impressions it evokes...
Today, Benchmark's John Siau and OpenAI's ChatGPT had a conversation about star-quad cables. It turns out that ChatGPT got quite a few things wrong, but learned quickly when these errors were pointed out by John Siau.
ChatGPT is quick to recognize mistakes, and quick to provide detailed corrections. In each of the first few corrections, additional errors were made. As each of these were pointed out, ChatGPT began to provide accurate information.
Here is my conversation with ChatGPT:
How do star-quad cables reject interference?
Star-quad cables are designed to provide improved rejection of ...