USB vs. SPDIF - A lesson about consulting service buyer sophistication

Philip Morgan

I'm a high-end headphone nut.

Even if you're not, the extremes of headphone audio nuttery have a marketing lesson for you.

The first thing a headphone nut does is get better headphones. I'm a value buyer (I seek a good price to performance ratio), so things like the Sennheiser HD-650 and the Fostex-Massdrop TH-X00 are my favorite headphones.

Then, as the nuttieness increases, you get an external digital to analog converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. This company called Schiit is one of the best sources for high-value, modest-cost equipment. I have a Gungnir Multibit DAC, a Jotunheim amplifier, and a Mjolnir 2 amplifier with some wonderful Western Electric 396A tubes.

Most good modern external DACs have multiple digital signal inputs: almost always a USB input, often a SPDIF input, and sometimes an AES3 input.

When you get absolutely batshit crazy nutty about sound quality, you start caring about which input you use on your DAC. You start doing Google searches that include the term "jitter" and "re-clocker" and "galvanic isolation" because you believe that one of the inputs on your DAC will sound better than the others, and maybe there's a device you can insert between the thing that has your music files on it (usually a computer but sometimes a specialized player device) and your DAC to improve the signal and thereby improve the sound. And there actually are at least a dozen such devices on the market.

I've closely compared the USB and SPDIF inputs on my DAC, and there is a difference. I tell you this with equal amounts of enthusiasm that two digital signals could somehow sound different and shame at being one of those batshit crazy audio nutjobs who cares about a 1% difference. :)

The soundstage is better on the SPDIF input of my DAC. When I listen to well-recorded music with my eyes closed, the perceived placement of sounds and instruments in the mix is more expansive and more accurate with the SPDIF input.

(OK, it took exactly 300 words to set this up. Now the main point...)

You are probably a batshit crazy nutjob about... some aspect of custom software internals, or the process of developing software, or at least a particular text editor. :) If so, I understand you. I'm just as nutty about similarly geeky stuff.

Why your deep expertise matters to an independent consultant

You need to be very sure how much your ideal client cares about the technical stuff you're really nutty about.

Because in some cases, you will be dealing with buyers who know the difference between tech stack A and tech stack B, or ones who care about small differences between different project management approaches.

These kind of buyers definitely exist in the audio gear market. They're called audiophiles, and they often spend INSANE amounts of money to get very small improvements in perceived or real performance.

And they certainly exist in your market too.

But most of the time, you will be dealing with buyers who care about very different things than the difference between tech stack A and tech stack B. This has real implications for how you describe your services!

In tomorrow's email, I'll continue this topic.

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