…tries to decide on the tone to take with this piece…
OK — here goes. Audiophiles…
…cue heavy palpable groan from the DJWORX community who now wonder where this is going.
Calm down people — this article is not going in the direction you might think. But I do need to lay the groundwork for the rest of the piece, so that you can understand where my head is at with such things. Where was I?
Audiophiles are both the arcane wizards of sound, and at the same time the butt of many snake oil based jokes. It is an industry based, up to a point, on genuine science. But after a certain price point one has to wonder if some companies are seriously pandering to the insecurities, egos, and gullibility of those with more money than reasonably price audio gear.
But gear does matter. When you make the leap from your parent’s old hifi to your first pair of proper monitors, you’ll know exactly what I mean. But there’s a line beyond which is won’t make a difference to most people.
JUST GET ON WITH IT MARK
So why am I talking about audiophiles? Well the people at IFI Audio are a persistent bunch, and after not getting a definite bugger off, they persuaded me to accept a small box of their stuff that they felt would be suitable for DJs. Hmmmm…
I’ll admit that I’m in unfamiliar territory with this stuff, and have only opened the box to use this as a learning experience, rather than adopt a crowd-pleasing “it’s all bullshit” stance. I prefer to speak from a position of at least a smidgen of knowledge, rather than knee-jerk dismissing something because it’s the accepted thing to do, and would enable a traffic-friendly comment fest of unbridled venom. That’s not how things work around here.
But first, a little science
Every electrical device generates noise. And the mains supply that powers them generates noise too. And that noise is picked up by other devices… essentially your DJ setup, nay your entire electronic existence is one big hissy fit of noise. Generally it’s imperceptible unless you listen reeeeaaaalllly hard in total silence with the volume up LOUD. But for golden-eared audiophiles, it might as well be a bag of rattlesnakes hissing through a megaphone right into their ear canal — which in turn impacts on audio quality. These things matter to their golden ears. And it’s the noise that the supplied IFI products aim to improve or eradicate completely.
The Practical Reality
DJs and audiophiles are very different animals:
DJs often perma-redline while playing YouTube rips on cheap gear through the worst sticky floored decades old sound system. Their environment can change each week, and much of it is beyond their control too. At play they’re whirling dervishes of track selection and gear abuse, servicing a room full of at least drunk but probably high revellers. As long as the boots and cats keep coming and cause physical discomfort, that’s the happy crowd box ticked..
Audiophiles however couldn’t be more polar opposite. Everything is controlled and measured at each stage. The environment is calm, quiet, and most probably solitary. The source audio is of the highest quality, and the process generally involves placing themselves in a careful positioned chair, in front of equally carefully positioned speakers, and often sitting still for the duration of at least a track, if not the entire recording. It is the chalky calm to the DJ’s chaotic cheese.
Thus the ability to control the DJ environment to the same extreme is tough, if not impossible. So right from the start of the quest to inject audiophilia into the DJ setup, there are likely to be many roadblocks that make the task doomed to fail, but not be the fault of the DJ or their gear.
BRING KILL THE NOISE
Noise has never been an issue in my multitude of DJ setups. Grounding and interference definitely have, especially with setups involving numerous units and older units too. But it’s always been easily fixed with some cheap RCA ground loop isolators. And in a conventional player/mixer setup with no USB or external power supplies, the supplied IFI gear is of no use.
So I’m looking around at my studio to see how I can do a real world test with the supplied gear. I spy the Traktor Kontrol S4 MK3, and set about hooking it up directly (to minimise the audio chain) to my Mackie Thump PA. Before connecting anything, I test the PA by turning it up to full volume to check the noise level. It’s definitely there, but only when listening for it when no music is playing.
So I hooked up the S4 MK3 with Traktor running but no audio playing i.e to listen for noise from the mains supply, laptop + power, controller + power. I pushed the volume on the PA again, and it sounded exactly the same as with it not connected, which immediately tells me that my PA is always going to generate more noise than any electrical device I hook up, and is likely to be the issue for anyone using DJ equipment. Hence the issue of elements beyond the DJ’s control comes into play.
But these products are not all about just removing noise — they’re about improving audio quality. Thus I tried playing music with and without these assorted IFI bits and bobs, and again couldn’t really tell the difference. I don’t hear less noise or better audio no matter how I employ this expensive tech in the controller workflow.
IFI also makes a point of specifying their products to improve the Serato and by definition the wider DVS experience too. From level 1 (£129) to level 5 (a wallet punching £1755), they aim to improve the chain from laptop to DVS box to mixer with varying levels of tech. There’s also a compelling user account on the IFI website about a DJ using the level 5 setup and noticing a real difference in a room that they’ve played for three years.
I have many questions — does the crowd notice? Are they dancing harder? Is the floor more full than normal? Does the DJ just feel better using this extra layer of tech? Does it take almost £1800’s worth of IFI gear to make a noticeable difference? And is that a price DJs are prepared to pay?
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Whenever I write about audio quality, it’s always prefaced with some words about subjectivity. We all have our own preferences and physiologies that impact on what we hear and in turn how we interpret that quality. I can turn my head a little, and the audio from my laptop can sound immediately clearer. Equally, I can walk across the Worxlab, move one PA a few degrees one way and suddenly it sounds awful because of room acoustics.
This doesn’t factor in how someone might just like their music simply “ear-bleeding”, or conversely “sharp yet unflabby bottom, warm and neutral mids, and a bright but not overly rolled off treble”. Everyone is different — physically and psychologically.
On a psychological level, I have to wonder if cognitive bias or even pure prejudices come into play. Did the IFI case study DJ think it sounded better because he’d spent so much money on a few plugs and cables? Did I subconsciously refuse to hear a difference because if I dared to big up perceived snake oil products, my hard-earned reputation would be tarnished and credibility flushed own the toilet? I even got grief on FB for posting a picture of the USB cable alone, and the general vibe of social media comments was less than flattering.
But I like to think that my mind is open. I went into this as a learning experience, and genuinely wanted to hear a difference. I would love that a few relative inexpensive doohickies in my audio chain would make the profound difference that is often claimed by audiophiles.
But they didn’t. And I remain unconvinced that differences exuberantly touted by makers of audiophile products really make any valuable difference in a DJ setup. When you compare the environments and workflows of DJs to audiophiles, I cannot help but feel that trying to improve the audio quality of a setup with elements that are out of the control of the DJ e.g. a poor sound system or terrible acoustics, is a task doomed to fail.
It’s like this — if I can’t hear a clear difference, then they’re not worth the money. And if I have to go to the trouble of recording before and after audio to look at waveforms and measure a difference, then the exercise is pointless from a DJ perspective. I want a smile and an “oh god yes” and not a head tilting puzzled “well maybe?” response. And I definitely don’t want to analyse recordings and waveforms to prove that using this gear did make a measurable albeit inaudible difference.
What I can tell you is this — while I detected nothing tangible in audio quality improvement, it felt good to use this stuff. Much like the Oyaide Neo d+ cables, I can’t say that they improve sound quality to any notable degree, but I definitely feel more comfortable and confident knowing that my sound is being delivered through them. And it’s the same with this IFI gear — while plugging in these assorted bits and bobs into my audio chain didn’t deliver significant audible improvements, they definitely delivered a sense of quality and stability. And feeling good is important.
Ultimately noise has never been an issue for me, and if audio quality is a problem, it’s probably better to look at other issues in your existing DJ chain, because these days DJ gear is made to a decent specification.
A BETTER APPROACH FOR DJS
I would love it if every club and venue gave a crap about sound quality. It would be amazing if they took the time to use the services of an experienced sound person to specify and maintain the house system, so that DJs wouldn’t need to employ measures to make up for a lack of decent gear at a seedy dive. But they don’t, but a few quid spent has every chance of making things sound better and protect your gear at the same time.
Now you could go full level 5 and put some sort of noise cancelling device at the beginning and end of every single cable and connection from wall plug to speaker. But for me the cost is prohibitive, the setup over complicated, and the return on investment unlikely to be worth it. But a more effective approach is to employ power conditioners that will keep your power clean, stable, and importantly surge protected. Trust me – power spikes will make you weep, especially when an iMac is involved. And it can cost less than a night out to offer basic protection and potential improvements your setup.
You could start small and get a simple surge protected power strip from just about anywhere. 4/6 way for under a tenner and you can sleep and play easier. If you think there’s something in this noise reduction malarkey, check out this beauty from Tamica — £33 and it even looks audiophiley. If however you’re a little more serious about this stuff (especially protecting your gear), the Furman M-10 Lx E rack mount unit seems to garner much praise, and still only costs around £150.
Let’s not forget other useful accessories such as the MK Stands feet too. They might not have anything directly to do with audio quality, but they certainly can fend off the potential for set ruining feedback.
I want to make one thing very clear — this piece is more about the necessity or validity of audiophile practice in the DJ world. The IFI products are lovely, and in a controlled purely listening environment, I’m sure they’re a decent purchase. This is supported up user reviews from people who genuinely believe that these products work.
But my gut says that if you’ve got hiss in your DJ chain or poor audio quality, expensive adaptors and breathtakingly expensive USB cables aren’t going to fix it in your average less than ideal DJ environment. But other cheaper routes outlined above might, and are just good practice anyway.
The chances are that no matter what you do to your setup, the environment is going to be the weakest link in the chain, and unlike audiophiles, there’s likely to be very little you can do to fix it, thus rendering products like these somewhat unnecessary purchases for DJs. Let me just emphasise that again — FOR DJS.
ONE LAST THING
Anything that merely alludes to audiophiles is met with a natural rejection by a good many people, especially DJs. I’ve done my best to take a look at this equipment and assess the validity of such things in a DJ environment. I’ve done so with an open mind and used it as a learning experience, because I didn’t want to just reject it out of hand as snake oil, which would be the easy route to take.
Given the task, the findings should come as no surprise to DJs. I’ve done this strictly from a DJ perspective, and considering the uncontrollable factors in a DJ environment, any improvement will be barely perceptible to most.
So should any audiophiles have casually stumbled across this article via Google — this isn’t for you. I totally respect your quest for audio nirvana, but I don’t think that these products offer much benefit to the often less than ideal DJ environment.
Equally, should any of you DJs choose to attack audiophiles for giving a crap about audio quality, or me for standing up for their right to spend money on whatever they wish, then don’t. As I’ve discovered, it’s not a matter of whether spending wads actually makes a tangible difference or if the multitude of products are legitimate or snake oil – it’s about how tuning their system makes them feel. And it’s incredibly hard to put a price on that.
Thanks to IFI Audio for supplying the products. It’s been a great learning experience. A followup article inspired by this is coming next.