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This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of hi-end hifi magazine High Fidelity of Poland. You can also read this report on the Krakow Sonic Society meeting in its original Polish version. We publish its English translation in a mutual syndication arrangement with publisher Wojciech Pacula. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of High Fidelity - Ed.

The theme of issue N°.83 of High Fidelity was products dedicated to PC audio which can play CD-quality and higher files. Most audiophiles still regard such products as rubbish. Only rarely does their disdain distinguish between MP3 and uncompressed material. Here we’re not interested in MP3 even though one particular experiment during the Krakow Sonic Society meeting described here—of an MP3 version of a 24/96 master tape—became a very uncomfortable sting to snooty preconceptions. More on that shortly.

The focus of this meeting were the files themselves, as non-physical carriers of digital music—vinyl remains different—and the paradigm shift they've introduced in music distribution from physical to virtual stores and artist-direct websites from which one can download music to personal hard drive in a matter of minutes. Computer is probably the key word here which scares away music lovers and audiophiles. Audiophile companies in the file-playing biz like Linn, Naim and Sooloos appreciate that and avoid that word in their product materials – or if it appears highlight its support function in the acquiring and cataloguing of such files.

Even so all such machines are computers with a classic processor, software (usually Linux), an OS etc. They're simply specialized to just play audio files. This frees the processor from other tasks but doesn’t take away from the fact that players working with hard disks are computers. Hard disk players make up the majority of file players. A second group are the flash-card players or those using built-in flash memory. Their core carriers are SD memory cards. Players like the HIFIDIY Mini and HiFiMan HM-602 have been around for some time. According to Mr. Waszczyszyn of Ancient Audio this type of player uses "dedicated hardware based on FPGA. There is no operating system or a central processor (only  a few small ones to control the display and keyboard etc)."

From a technical perspective such players are closer to legacy CD players because they lack core computer parts. Simpler here is better. Both kinds of file player have one goal – to stream files from MP3 all the way up to so-called high-resolution quality. The current limit for the latter is 24/192 but 32-bit files seem on the horizon and their upper sampling frequency could double to 384kHz (machines from M2Tech, MSB and Antelope Audio are already prepared to play them).

Looking at this state of affairs we should ask whether it’s more about a new infrastructure for selling and distributing music freed from the limitations of physical carriers; or sound quality. The pessimistic answer of course is sales. Nobody in the sector gives a damn about sound quality. Extreme data compression and the loudness wars where the highest dynamic compression sounding loudest wins assure us of that.

For our purposes sound quality is the obvious focus. The question whether 16/44.1 material sounds better read from disc or imported to hard disk is relevant but in the context of the 16/44.1+ capabilities of file players negligible. More interesting is whether high-resolution files will make permanent inroads to audiophile niche status as SACD (but not vinyl) already has done. How I adore niches. I must be a niche animal.

This was the backdrop against which this Krakow Sonic Society meeting occurred. From its members I wanted to learn how the sound altered with changes in word lengths and sample-rate increases. The direct impetus for this was the first issue of the Japanese NetAudio magazine [Vol. 1, winter 2010, PhileWeb] attached to which was the Audio Accessory - T-TOC Records High Quality Data Master Comparison [TDVD-0002, DVD] disc specifically prepared for such comparisons. It contains different word length/sample rate files created from the same master tapes. We also added comparisons between ripped CD (different from downloaded files) and high-res files. The system over which this session was conducted is owned by Tomasz, one of the members of our society. Almost everything about it was new – the house, the player, the cables and the loudspeakers. The system consisted of the Ayon Audio CD-2s CD player, the McIntosh MC7000 integrated amplifier, the Dynaudio Special 25 SE 2010 version, Acrolink 7N-D5000 interconnects, Acrolink 7N-S10000 loudspeaker cable, an Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300 power cord on the CD player and the GigaWatt PF-2 power strip.