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Declining sound quality of CD players from 90s to present, [moved from General Audio / TOS #6]
duncan1979
post Jun 1 2013, 00:48
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I'm new to this forum, and I'm really not familiar with a lot of the technical terms I've read other posters talking about, but I really needed somewhere I could talk about this and have tried posting on the ' music ' sections of the IMDB forums but got few responses - as there seem to be people on this board who know a lot about music and audio, hoped by registering and posting on this forum I might get help from one of you...
I've read about ' the loudness wars ' and I don't know whether or not this is related to what I've noticed, but basically I've just heard this really bad downward slide in the sound quality of any music playing device since approx 2000 . I had two portable Sony and Panasonic CD players during the 90s that both had amazing sound. When the last one stopped working I got another one just weeks later that was as near to the model I had, from the same store for the same price or maybe slightly more expensive - and the sound was just horrific. It was practically unlistenable above a moderate volume. I thought this player must be faulty, but then every subsequent cd player I tried from then on had similarly bad sound. I eventually gave up on cd players and now listen to music on my laptop, but whether using the cd drive, playing music on Windows Media Player, music on YouTube, songs on ITunes - it just ALL has that same horrible, harsh kind of ' warped 'sound. Some letter sounds sound especially bad, eg 's's sound kind of like ' ssss ' or ' shhh' and ' h 's sound like a 'hkhkhk' sound or someone saying the letter while clearing their throat. The thing is, I KNOW that I never heard this kind of bad sound prior to 2000 on cd players or even cassette players I had going all the way back to the early 90s, none of which were expensive.I still can remember listening to music then and what it sounded like as if it were yesterday - I listened through headphones with the volume up loud for hours, did so for years and it just would have been unbearable to do that if it had sounded like it does now. I thought it must be something to do with the way music is made now that produces this kind of sound.All the stuff I've read on the ' loudness wars ' talks about individual records being over-compressed rather than it being the audio players being manufactured badly though - I thought maybe deliberately degrading sound quality on CD players might be some deliberate ploy to force people to use IPods or get music online or something, but I first noticed this in about 2000, before IPods were around. (I've never actually tried an IPod as I've heard nothing but bad things about how they sound. )
I live in the UK and I think most of the posters here are American as I see money written in terms of dollars so I don't know whether British made devices differ from American ones or not - anyway this has been something that has been bugging the hell out of me for years and I'd be SO grateful if someone who knows anything about these things could confirm that it's not just me that's crazy and there's been some knd of general degrading of the sound quality from around the early 2000s or just someone who's noticed anything similar
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Kohlrabi
post Jun 1 2013, 01:53
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Welcome to Hydrogenaudio!

There is absolutely no problem with the playback hardware, the problem of the "loudness war" lies in the production (mastering) of CDs. Since the early to mid 1990s some engineers/producers/labels decided to master their CDs much louder, to make the music stand out more when played via radio. Of course nowadays radio play is no longer that important, but still some, if not even more, mastering engineers and producers master their CDs in "loudness war" fashion.

You can read more about the loudness war on wikipedia, but rest assured that CD players are not the culprits. It's not even the CDs, it's simply bad decisions by the people in charge of music recording and CD production.


Distortions or artifacts introduced due to "loudness war" mastering can take several forms:

First and most prominent is dynamic range compression (DRC), which reduces the dynamic range of the recording, which in turn if overused leads to less definition of instruments and a harsh, tiresome sound. Instruments which are most affected in my experience are drums and other percussion sounds, which tend to be drowned in vocals, guitar and bass sound when DRC is overused. Good examples for heavy overuse of DRC are Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Death Magnetic by Metallica, and Noctourniquet by The Mars Volta. Especially the drums are atrocious on those recordings, but also the whole ensemble sounds very muddy and mashed together, and instruments are badly defined. Ironically the CD as a medium is good enough to basically cover the whole (realistically usable) dynamic range of human hearing, but due to DRC some CDs sound even worse than the respective Vinyl releases!

Second in my book comes digital clipping, which can introduce harmonic artifacts into the signal. With PCM, which the CD uses, a signal cannot exceed the level of digital fullscale, so any recorded waveform which would exceed fullscale is just clipped to fullscale. In an audio editor the waveform will look like a horizontal line hitting the top or bottom of the scale. This introduces harmonic artifacts in the frequency spectrum, because of the way a square wave is represented in digital form (check square wave), likely leading to audible distortions across the whole spectrum. Prominent examples are yet again Red Hot Chili Peppers CDs mastered by Vlado Meller and produced by Rick Rubin (everything since Californication). In my opinion digital clipping, in contrast to DRC, which is a mastering choice, is just a sign of bad engineering. There is simply no reason to have the digital signal clip given the dynamic range of the CD.

That's it for now, I hope you can go on from here.


PS: Just a small remark, your post is very hard to read, please try to use more punctuation and structure in the future to make it easier for us to follow your thoughts. cool.gif Hope you will enjoy your stay here.

This post has been edited by Kohlrabi: Jun 1 2013, 02:27


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BFG
post Jun 1 2013, 02:02
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Welcome!

Seconded what Kohlrabi says above. This is almost definitely an effect of the Loudness Wars and mastering techniques. In the link s/he referred you to and elsewhere on this forum, you'll read quite a bit about compression, which (if I understand what I've read correctly) is a primary culprit of what you're describing. Fortunately, normalizing your ripped albums via (the more popular) ReplayGain or according to the newer/better EBU-R128 standards, will help to mitigate some of this.

It's unfortunate that so many people have mistaken "louder" for "better", and/or made purchasing decisions on the basis of loudness...those are two of the reasons the loudness wars occurred to begin with.
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Nessuno
post Jun 1 2013, 09:45
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Even If it's not your favourite genre, but to realize the quality of today's devices give a try to some classical: orchestral, vocal, baroque, some harpsichord (expecially appalling if not well reproduced): you'll see that even the most basical equipments are at least up to what was last decades best. Classical recordings are generally carefully mastered (just avoid oldest live recordings) and not affected by loudness war. I've been listening to classical since early eighties and I'm amazed to see how easy and inexpensive has become to get high quality sources. What make the difference today are speakers (no real improvements in decades) and headphones (great improvements for the price in latest years).

Also, you say:
QUOTE
I listened through headphones with the volume up loud for hours, did so for years

Which unfortunately is not a good practice to preserve one's ears and I guess you're not in your teens, so maybe it would be also worth paying a visit to an audiologist to have your hearing measured.


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skamp
post Jun 1 2013, 10:29
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Moreover, here are some parameters than can adversely (audibly) affect sound quality:

  • Headphones / IEMs with too much bass that drowns out a good chunk of mid-frequencies, or with pronounced sibilance (that affects the "sss" sound that you described). I've experienced both.
  • Bad combination of music that's been mastered really loud, and some inadequate digital sound processing that results in huge clipping; for instance, an iPod Classic with the "R&B" EQ preset that boosts low frequencies by about 6dB instead of attenuating the other frequency bands. The result is absolutely awful, I've experienced this as well. A workaround is to apply negative gain to the source material, e.g. with replaygain and software that lets you apply replaygain album gain to your files instead of just storing replaygain tags (mp3gain, aacgain, foobar2000, caudec, and perhaps others).
  • Perhaps less frequently, bad impedance mismatch (high output impedance and low impedance headphones) with headphones that have a non-flat impedance curve. The playback device, in some combinations of circumstances, can "sabotage" the headphones, if you will, making them sound more or less different than what they're supposed to. That sort of interference can range from mostly inaudible, to audibly crippled.


That said, the number one problem affecting sound quality is indeed the way an album was recorded, mixed and mastered. A good recording will sound good on almost anything. High-end gear that measures extremely well won't be able to make a bad recording sound good.


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duncan1979
post Jun 1 2013, 19:59
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I've read the Wikipedia article and the links from that to other sites that talk about the Loudness Wars - I found a site that had audio samples of what it described as badly over-compressed albums giving a before and after sample of the original album and the re-mastered version with compression . The way the music sounded on the latter was pretty much what I'm describing - as I've said, the music I hear on my laptop all sounds like that, but the ' after ' sample just sounded much, much worse - the thing is, on the cd players I've heard since the 2000s, everything sounds like that on them .

I know you've all said it's nothing to do with the cd playing technology and all the sites talk about this as if it's just something that affects individual recordings . To be honest, I don't really understand people talk about individual albums being badly mastered or otherwise as I've never heard any difference in the way each album sounds - on the cd players that I 'd describe as having great sound, every CD sounded great on them, the ones I'd describe as ' bad ' everything sounded similarly warped and harsh.

I'm aware as I read my first post and this one that it probably sounds to anyone reading this as if it's my imagination or something and as you can tell I have no technical insight into the way music's recorded - I have no hearing problems, can hear everything fine - in real life or when watching/listening to movies/music or whatever.

I was kind of relieved when I first stumbled on something talking about The Loudness Wars as I thought I'd finally found an answer as to why music sounded so terrible than it did several years ago, but again everyone reiterates this is nothing to do with the actual music playing equipment. The thing is, I know the cd /cassette players and headphones I was listening to were cheap in the 90s based on how much disposable money I had then and yet more expensive players or headphones I've tried in the last 10 years sound much worse



Thanks for the replies and links anyway

This post has been edited by duncan1979: Jun 1 2013, 20:03
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skamp
post Jun 1 2013, 20:21
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This may be a stupid question, but did you listen to the same CDs now and 20 years ago? CDs from the 80s usually have a lot more dynamic range than CDs from the last decade. "The Whole Story" from Kate Bush sounds just as good now on my current gear (if not better) than it did on my parents' stereo in the 80s.


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DonP
post Jun 1 2013, 20:51
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Could the OP's reported problem with newer players be related to EU's volume limiting, perhaps in conjunction with ill-matched headphones?
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duncan1979
post Jun 1 2013, 22:07
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Funnily enough, Kate Bush is one of my favourite artists - I did have The Whole Story on CD and again, when listening to it after first buying it in 2000 on my then cd player it sounded fantastic though I think I'd lost or given the album away for some reason come the time that cd player stopped working.Coincidentally, the very first album I remember buying right after I'd got the first of what I'd describe as the bad cd players was Never For Ever which I'm pretty sure wasn't a remastered ' one in 2000 or 2001. And this was the first album I played where the sound was just horrible. I remember the song ' Babooshka ' playing at the start and it was just unbearable above a moderate volume , kind of all harsh 'shh ' and ' kkk ' sounds. I've had many of the same albums since the late '90s - the exact same CDs , including several from the 80s by singers like Madonna, for example - and I couldn't bear to listen to them anymore on any of the cd players after about 2001 they sounded so inferior.
Another thing I've noticed is when watching DVDs the sound , including music used during the movie sounds OK - but if I try to play any CD on the same DVD player, it sounds bad - and the same with sites like ITunes or YouTube - video clips, interviews, tv shows, movies, the sound seems ok, but listening to a song sounds terrible.
I've tried afew different kinds of headphones, both in-ear and over-ear, but this doesn't make any difference.

This post has been edited by duncan1979: Jun 1 2013, 22:27
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2Bdecided
post Jun 1 2013, 22:29
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QUOTE (duncan1979 @ Jun 1 2013, 00:48) *
I live in the UK and I think most of the posters here are American
No wink.gif Lots of UK and Europe and ... as well as USA.


Unless you can do a side by side comparison, it could be your memory playing tricks on you.

That said, I remember my first and second MiniDisc players in the mid 1990s having very nice headphones and built-in headphone EQ (i.e. the "bass boost" which also boosted the treble) which made for a very nice sound. Nothing to do with MD itself, or "clever/better" electronics - just very carefully designed and matched. Whereas the default headphones with most portable equipment then, and especially now, are designed to be thrown away and replaced with something far better. The range of headphones/in-ear devices available now is very large so finding something you like can be daunting, but some are really amazing. The EQs on players (if you want to use EQ - and for outdoor headphone listening I typically do, even though I'd never touch EQ when listening with speakers at home) vary dramatically in their usefulness and flexibility.


A Sansa Clip(+) or an iPod or various other portable music players are pretty much faultless in terms of sound quality (for what they're made for). Headphones / earphones (like speakers) can be a matter of taste - but difficult to try before you buy.

Cheers,
David.
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db1989
post Jun 1 2013, 23:09
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QUOTE (2Bdecided @ Jun 1 2013, 22:29) *
Unless you can do a side by side comparison, it could be your memory playing tricks on you.

This and/or the placebo effect. Without intending to be dismissive, I suspect we would have had many previous posts about this trend before if it were really present and as pronounced as duncan1979 is suggesting. If anything, I would imagine quality is generally better today, as I see Nessuno has already said.

TOS #8 does apply here, regardless of the logistical difficulty that would be involved in satisfying it. I wouldn’t be so quick to invoke it if other people were reporting the same phenomenon. At a minimum, we would need more useful descriptions than “warped and harsh”. Some recordings of supposedly good and bad devices for other users to assess would be the basic point from which we could evaluate this in an evidence-based way.
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duncan1979
post Jun 2 2013, 00:32
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QUOTE
Unless you can do a side by side comparison, it could be your memory playing tricks on you.


I was afraid that's how it'd sound -there's no hard, factual way I can prove what I'm saying but - I've always had quite an obsessive, personality and tend to focus on things if I see/hear something wrong with anything be it a crease in a book cover, a stain on an otherwise clean DVD cover - and what I'm talking about is just so noticeable, I know I would have heard it if it had been there in my old CD players. I know the 90s sounds a long time ago now, but I became a teenager in 1992, those are years that remain vivid to anybody, and I still remember the sights/sounds as though it were yesterday
I was listening to the cd player with good sound which I'd had for about 18 months just weeks before getting the first one with bad sound so at least that one definitely wasn't memory playing tricks on me

QUOTE
This and/or the placebo effect. Without intending to be dismissive, I suspect we would have had many previous posts about this trend before if it were really present and as pronounced as duncan1979 is suggesting.
.
That's something that occurred to me too - I thought ' it can't just be me that has incredibly bad luck in cd players ' . I suppose if you weren't listening through headphones or in a more casual way, maybe you wouldn't notice it, but I've always listened to music through headphones , in a quite an intense, focused way. I'm sure I read something when I was reading up about The Loudness Wars that suggested music was made more in recent years to sound better in more ' social ' places like clubs, or as background noise - could this explain it sounding worse if you were listening through headphones?

QUOTE
TOS #8 does apply here, regardless of the logistical difficulty that would be involved in satisfying it. I wouldn’t be so quick to invoke it if other people were reporting the same phenomenon. At a minimum, we would need more useful descriptions than “warped and harsh”. Some recordings of supposedly good and bad devices for other users to assess would be the basic point from which we could evaluate this in an evidence-based way
.

I don't know what TOS#8 refers to. There's no way I can present factual evidence of what I'm describing, unfortunately. I realize how vague what I'm saying must sound though so appreciate the responses anyway.

This post has been edited by duncan1979: Jun 2 2013, 00:35
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Makaki
post Jun 2 2013, 00:54
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TOS#8 stands for Terms of Service, 8th rule. Which I assume you had to accept when you registered. Terms of Service is the 2nd link, on the blue bar at the top.

That said. I believe assumptions and guesses should be allowed as long as they are labeled as such. And TOS#8 should refer to "claims". But I'm new here, so maybe someone can clear that out.

Sometimes hypothesis can grow to theories, but they all start as guesses.
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garym
post Jun 2 2013, 00:57
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You agreed to follow TOS #8 (and all other TOS) when you registered at this site. I have a hard time believing that what you report in your personal listening (worse sounds currently) is a widespread issue. Notwithstanding the loudness issue discussed earlier, I don't notice what you notice, and I've been listening seriously to music for over 40 years.
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pdq
post Jun 2 2013, 02:08
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If modern CD players were doing anything other than faithfully reproducing what is on the disc, this would not require listening tests to prove it. It would be easily measurable.
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mjb2006
post Jun 2 2013, 03:36
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I didn't see anything in the original post to indicate whether these different CD players were being tested with different headphones or amp & speakers. If the problem is in the playback chain outside of the player, it makes sense that changing the CD player isn't going to help.
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skamp
post Jun 2 2013, 09:04
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QUOTE (db1989 @ Jun 2 2013, 00:09) *
Some recordings of supposedly good and bad devices for other users to assess would be the basic point from which we could evaluate this in an evidence-based way.


Duncan1979, can you do that? You just need a sound card (or some USB device) with a line-in.

Also, you might have developped over time a high sensitivity to sibilance, though that sounds unlikely if you say that the changes occurred quickly.

This post has been edited by skamp: Jun 2 2013, 09:05


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Nessuno
post Jun 2 2013, 09:42
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duncan1979, you wrote long posts in which maybe everything has already been explained, but could you please summarize again in a few straight lines your experience and the trials you made? Of course, before claiming a decline in quality of a narrow class of devices you have to rule out all possible side problems.

Say: you bought a new CD player, nothing else changed in your system (do you changed interconnectig cables?) and you started perceiving bad sound.
You exchanged some (how many) new players in this same system and still perceive that corruption.
You tried different discs, both new and old.
You tried both headphones and speakers. (Do you tried different headphones?)
You perceive (or don't perceive) the same corruption listening from other sources (downloaded files, streaming etc...) or listening to other people's sound systems? (you couldn't compare at home experience or wearing headphones with completely different listening scenarios, like watching a movie or just listening to people).
Etc...



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greynol
post Jun 2 2013, 10:24
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How do you propose he do this and also adhere to TOS #8?

It's not like your asking grants him an exception.


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Nessuno
post Jun 2 2013, 11:13
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QUOTE (greynol @ Jun 2 2013, 11:24) *
How do you propose he do this and also adhere to TOS #8?

It's not like your asking grants him an exception.

Of course it doesn't: TOS#8 still applies, if he couldn't fully comply (and I don't se how he possibly can), this confines his experience in perceiving differences to the unscientific anecdotic here we usually don't deal with. Sorry if maybe I made this as an a priori assumption too clear in my mind to write it down!

I asked just out of curiosity, to see if we could find a simple explanation for a phenomenon he's the only one person in the word to report. For example: if it comes out he uses the same amplifier since nineties, well, I started perceiving similar symptoms in my own system some time ago and solved them with a contact cleaner spray can! wink.gif


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greynol
post Jun 2 2013, 12:15
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He can tell us what equipment was used to play what content, but the comments/anecdotes about sound quality are to be checked at the door if they aren't backed by results from double-blind tests.


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skamp
post Jun 2 2013, 12:37
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While double blind tests are the ultimate metric here, ABXing playback equipment requires decent recording gear and some setting up / volume matching / etc…
That might not be needed if we could find an obvious culprit if the OP described in detail what he played and with what equipment. If anything, that would be a good start, IMO.


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db1989
post Jun 2 2013, 13:01
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I do agree in principle. My citation of TOS #8 was due to the alternative possibility that there is no culprit. Seeing as the reports are purely subjective, no one else has ever reported this phenomenon here AFAIK, and one would expect quality to have increased if anything, Occam’s Razor suggests expectation bias/the placebo effect above all else. It should go without saying that this is not an insult or a question of anyone’s reasoning abilities: various studies attest to how powerful these processes can be.

My preference would ideally be properly conducted ABXing by duncan1979. However, I also suggested that he provide files for other users to investigate; other replies to this thread have correctly noted that these should be accompanied by details of how they were created. A combined approach would be for users with CD players from various points in history to record level-matched samples, anonymise them, and seek blind feedback from duncan1979.

As greynol indicated, until evidence is proferred in a way such as these, such reports are of no more use than if I were to claim the sky has been getting greener as I get older.
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skamp
post Jun 2 2013, 13:37
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QUOTE (db1989 @ Jun 2 2013, 14:01) *
Occam’s Razor suggests expectation bias/the placebo effect above all else


I respectfully disagree. Having spent a lot of time on Head-Fi, I have participated to many threads that reported significant differences in "sound quality". In many (most?) of those threads, it turned out that the user had forgotten about some key parameter, like a DSP they had forgotten was ON, or some misconfiguration.

It is that possibility that I would try to investigate, before conducting a somewhat complicated ABX session that might actually show that there are clear differences; a positive result wouldn't say anything about what could possibly be at fault for said differences.

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db1989
post Jun 2 2013, 13:56
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I would agree about the possibility of confounding effects in the setups, had the OP not specifically invoked a “a downward slide in the sound quality of any music playing device since approx 2000” in quality and a “general degrading of the sound quality from around the 2000s”. These suggest a systematic bias towards perceiving newer devices as better. How likely is it that each successive, newer device the OP has tried has had progressively more confounding elements, somehow creating audible degradation whose character is ill-defined, elsewhere in the signal path? Maybe my reasoning is wrong, but in this case, I’d assume an expectation bias that newer devices will sound worse is leading to that perception by duncan1979, rather than a coincidental decrease in the quality of his setup.

Another thing that we should consider is that perhaps his hearing is declining with age in some way. I don’t intend to cast aspersions on anyone’s physiology, so this might not have anything to do with the reports, but it is a possibility.

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