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Ear Wax
by Srajan Ebaen
Click here to e-mail reviewer

The Slippery Slopes
Of Audio Propaganda

 

Precedent

In my Y-Files predecessor to this Earwax column, I wrote in the intro of the December 1999 issue:

The following excerpt is from an existing cable manufacturer’s printed address, sent to me by a well-meaning and kind-hearted audiophile who couldn’t possibly know what embers in my taciturn psyche he was about to fan to explosive levels:

“… The traditional measurement of capacitance, inductance and resistance no longer matter. These values have been reduced to negligible levels in our cabling and thus have become a non-factor. Many other wire products proclaim these traditional criteria as justifications for their design, advertising how low their measurements are compared to the rest of the marketplace. We have displaced these traditional standards…"(Emphasis by manufacturer.)

A bit further down in this treatise we find that: "...as the transition from electrical disruption to uniformity occurs, energy efficiency increases, audibly resulting in improved power and resolution. At this point, our designs initiate room temperature super-conductivity, perhaps a first in audio…"

 

Present-dent

I’m a few years older now. Taci turned ornery and Tracy fell out of the bed. And boy am I ornery today!

I’ve stumbled upon the latest installment of the above marketing sludge, equally designed to take advantage of our engineering ignorance and desire to own the very latest and greatest. Now as then, my commentary doesn’t pertain to the actual product at hand, which – one hopes – performs well and is priced fairly. Our industry certainly doesn’t need more to the contrary. My beef (well-aged, cured and still raw in the center) was and is with such firms’ upper management. It didn’t tame their copywriter’s penchant for vaporware, or worse, it outright contracted for it. Either is a sorry state of affairs and only undermines the limping credibility of our beloved High-End audio industry.

Today’s chink in the armor comes via an announcement for a new loudspeaker. For your enjoyment of audio hyperbole, here are its wettest cherries.

 

Psyched-Out Acoustics

“…Perhaps the most inspired loudspeaker designer of this generation, (…) is recognized not only for brilliant, award winning applications of the science of high fidelity, but for his pioneering advances in psycho-acoustics - the belief that each listener participates uniquely in the physics of the personal sound experience - and that dynamic range is one of the fundamental means by which the nervous system interprets the differences between live and reproduced music…” (Highlighted emphasis by manufacturer.)

This paragraph states plainly and rightfully that you, the listener, interact in a very personal way with your system. You have a very unique experience unlike anyone else. But since your personal experience -- filtered through your conditioned nervous system no less -- is so uniquely one-of-a-kind, how can a designer working with unalterable Physics account for it in a design that offers no user-adjustable features?

Read the paragraph again.

It does not outright state that the laws of Physics are being suspended. However, it does very strongly suggest a major breakthrough of some kind. The added but out-of-context mention of the nervous system merely adds pizzazz, as though getting hardwired for better sound was in our very future. And perhaps it is?

Don’t despair, it gets better.

 

Obligations – But Don’t Feel Obliged

“…For many of us, the experience of music and sound faithfully recreated is a life-changing event. Here at (…), accurate re-creation of the true expressive qualities of music is our passion. We now have an opportunity -- and an obligation -- to share this passion with our ever-growing community of music lovers, audiophiles and performers. The (…) is a reference-level, full-range tower speaker system, with an astoundingly small footprint. Years of psycho-acoustic research, new breakthroughs in transducer technology (MCMA - Multi-Cell Micro-Transducer Array™), innovations in cabinet tuning and bass-frequency alignment (Acoustic Turbo™ bass system) - as well as totally new servo-control crossover circuitry - make the (…) like no other speaker on Earth…”

This is pretty tame over-the-top marketing garbage that points at the real live munitions.

 

Turbo-Charged Bass Without Turbines

“…Acoustic-Turbo™ Subwoofer System - Twin 7" dynamic cone bass drivers - over-engineered to enable near limitless excursion at high power levels - are mounted in specially tuned, hand-made cabinetry. To achieve "turbo-charged" rear-wave amplification at low frequencies, an expanding transmission system of internal baffles (compression/expansion chambers) enable the upper 7" woofer to "boost" the lower woofer's rear wave output, which is then directed to a Venturi Port, measurably increasing the dynamic range, clarity and accuracy in the deep bass region from 20 to 40 Hz…”

As a reminder, a turbo-aspirated engine employs a turbine-driven air compressor to supply additional oxygen to its combustion chambers for increased horsepower. That’s quite a far-fetched simile for a bass system that merely employs two front-firing paralleled woofers, not some compound compression loading. Of course, the explosive term “turbo” and its associated “boost” action quite magically conjure up tricked-out performance, especially since the highlighted “hand-made” only underscores the Hot Rod mystique. Whether you’d rather pay for precision-cut, CNC-routed cabinetry or suffer the inherently less repeatable -- hence imperfect  -- by-hand approach (perhaps with a skill saw) is a different question.

Specially tuned simply refers to predetermined internal chamber dimensions as they relate to driver and port resonance. This is something as basic to loudspeaker design as a tweeter and a woofer. However, specially tuned could also refer to custom tuning each and every cabinet. Since the need for such post adjustments reflects poorly on said cabinets’ inherent dimensional precision, let’s assume the former scenario was intended. It now merely states the obvious – speaker cabinets are tuned to their drivers. The mundane turns hoi polloi, and ‘hand-made’ and ‘specially tuned’ merely bestow the apparent seal of fine craftsmanship.

Were you supposed to be surprised that paralleling two woofers augments their bass performance?

The absence of any isobaric loading provides even less support for the whole turbo-compression nonsense than otherwise. Of course, once our crafty copywriter morphed these items into automotive jargonese (rear-wave amplification where one woofer boosts the other’s output by simple addition) the mundane reads anything but and sounds blisteringly impressive. From a purely writerly perspective, I have to applaud this craft. As a consumer and audio writer, I’m a bit appalled. It’s good to appreciate both these reactions. It’s fun to remember also that many years ago, an el-cheapo brand called BIC Venturi made hay out of its Venturi port detail. To see the term resurrected again, and quite possible unawares of its lo-fi origin in this high falutin’ context, is a welcome refreshment.

 

Band-Aids Turned Jewelry

To understand fully what follows, you’ll have to envision our speaker’s basic architecture. There’s an MTM array of a softdome tweeter surrounded by two 4-inch midrange cone drivers on either side. These conventional cone units are themselves flanked by triple-section flat diaphragm quasi ribbons. They feature circular voice coils etched on butyl rubber suspended film and are driven by multiple Neodymium magnets from one side. Dual 7-inch woofers below this front-firing array round out the transducer count. According to the poop sheet, this totals out at 11 drivers and 77 magnets per speaker: strength in numbers; more is better.

 

Heck, this is America. A single-block smattering of houses in the desert bills itself as the prairie dog capital of the world. Speakers are turbo-charged. Six-plus dozen magnets per side are manly, macho and baaad as shit. Pull out your wallet and burn some rubber.

Our quasi ribbons are dubbed Multi-Cell MicroTransducers. Claimed advantages vis-à-vis planar designs with fixed (rather than compliant rubber butyl) edges are “clarity, transparency and “punch” in the vital midrange frequencies between 100Hz and 10kHz”.

Our loudspeaker study of today is a 4-way design that marries conventional and “esoteric” transducer technology. A look at the crossover specs reveals that the super tweeter spec’d to 25kHz @ -3dB works from 3kHz on up, with the 4-inch midranges covering 400Hz – 600Hz, the planar arrays the range between the mid cones and tweeter, and the woofers working below 400Hz.

In this age of extended bandwidth high-resolution digital formats, calling a conventional soft-dome tweeter with a –3dB point of 25kHz a super tweeter requires ignorance, bravado or an underlying assumption that consumers are stupid (for reference, Tannoy spec’s their super tweeter to 100kHz @ -10dB). The definition of a super tweeter tends to imply the existence of a regular tweeter whose upper cut-off frequency is extended by the addition of a smaller tweeter. What makes such a tweeter “super” is its ultrasonic reach beyond what standard tweeters are capable of.

Another acceptable definition of “super” could be unusually extended bandwidth down low, say to 500Hz. However, our specs reveal a cutoff at 3kHz, standard tweeter territory. The only thing “super” here is conventionality - a very regular tweeter turned extraordinary with just five casual keystrokes. This was likely a cheaper solution than adding a real ultrasonic transducer.

Much is then made next of the midrange “couplers” by explaining that “…to ensure coherence at the woofer/midrange crossover points, two 4" dynamic cone mid-bass couplers, driven by a radially oriented Neodymium magnetic system with high-power-capable voice coils, fill in the frequencies and smooth the "handoff" between the twin subwoofers and the MCMA (panel) transducers…”

To appreciate the severity of this twister spin job, remember that we’re talking about a 4-way design that employs these couplers over a range of merely ½ octave (from 400Hz to 600Hz) The propaganda would have us believe some mystical benefits to this arrangement. It covers up that these vaunted planar drivers don’t extend far enough to meet their chosen twin 7-inch woofer mates. Their high-end extension was already insufficient without the aid of the soft-dome tweeter (never mind that so much was made earlier of their contributions in the 100Hz to 10kHz range). Curiously, these “transitional” drivers are grouped directly around the tweeter even though they’re supposed to hand off to the woofers far below. They are separated from the latter by the lower planar array for the lower mid, and by the tweeter + lower mid + lower planar array for the upper mid.

On a side barb, doesn’t it strike you as odd that a designer would choose woofers whose upper reach was insufficient for his midrange driver of choice to require a ½ octave patch job?

Hey, I warned you of having turned ornery. And I ain’t done yet. More questions.

To wit: Why are three planar panels required to match the output of a single conventional 4-inch cone? What’s so special about these critters that warrants their use to begin with? They seem to have no low-end, no high-end, weak output, and surely a different and conflicting dispersion pattern from the cones used elsewhere. In fact, the speaker could have done without them entirely. 4-inch midranges are perfectly capable of covering the 400Hz to 3kHz range. So what’s all the MCMA Multi-Cell Micro-Transducer Array fuss about?

According to the poop, “…(the) Super-Tweeter … generate(s) a live ambiance or "presence… response to 25kHz is added to contribute to the wide off-axis response that is critical to the expressive capabilities of the …”

I’d wager a guess that true mission critical was the lack of linear high-end response on the part of the magical flat panels.

Next up for consumption is the crossover network, a marvel of complexity and thus by implication superior to a plain Jane approach: “…Our semi-active crossover features proprietary transient integration, time-alignment, electrical damping, phase and reactance compensation circuitry, as well as Zobel conjugate filter circuitry - controlling the amplitude, phase, and impedance of the (…). The result is that the ear perceives our 22 drivers (154 motors) as one…”

If I was a simpleton and wanted my drivers to act “as one”, would I rather start out with as few of ‘em as possible, or lots and lots? Unfortunately, I’m a complex and deep thinker so I can’t ask this pathetic question. But since we’re obviously suffering from a self-inflicted malady of multiplicity, the crossover solution requires serious patching up. Instead of calling it a necessary but unpleasant side effect of hard-to-fathom engineering choices, our writer turns it into an apparent asset. “Our crossover is more complex than others. It corrects for everything”. Trouble is, corrections are necessary only if you mucked things up first. If you have to correct for everything, you surely must have mucked up – lots?

For the clincher, how time-alignment is possible without any evidence of physical driver offset eludes me entirely, proving that proper loudspeaker design is best left to the experts.

 

But Hey, The Duchess Of Kent Wears It

If you think I was unduly harsh, critical and unfair on this manufacturer, remember that nothing I’ve said pertains to the speaker’s actual performance. I haven’t heard it. For all I know it could be the cherry to pop all cherries.

But somehow, I doubt it. There’s just too much bullshit surrounding it. Call it the Duchess’ new clothes. It suggests a preemptive yet transparent cover-up job. My hunch is that this company needed/wanted a flagship effort to bestow prestige on the brand. An essentially inappropriate but proprietary piece of hardware (the firm’s panel units) had to be coerced into a semi-workable full-range solution. A high-profile High-End engineer sweated heroic efforts and much patchwork (indicated by the disparate drivers, the coupler solution, the crossover complexity) to fill the holes. Final sonic payoff? Doubtful if you ask me, but I’d much prefer to be proven wrong than witness yet another over-hyped and under performing entry into the volatile High-End audio sweepstakes.

And the NYC show at the end of this month could well turn me into a misguided curmudgeon if the design flies – in the face of convention and with the audience. But I’d remain stalwart in my objections regardless. Even sterling performance doesn’t excuse the pile of offensive manure this firm has heaped around their creation to attract buyers and pesky insects like yours truly.

Do music lovers and audio shoppers want to be bamboozled, ask to have their intelligence taken to the sewers and be pronounced idiots? You’d be excused for thinking so after perusing certain adverts and white papers in our industry. Worse yet are reviews that quote liberally and verbatim from such supplied propaganda to explain the inner workings of their subjects.

 

I emailed the designer to offer my unsolicited and probably not very welcome opinion. This drivel did little for his credibility. Was he aware of it? After all, he’s just credited as contributing contract designer; perhaps he finished the assignment and then just walked away. If he knew of this marketing hype, what did he really think about it? In the absence of an answer by the time I had to submit this piece to Editorial, I can’t be sure. I prefer to imagine he either didn’t get my email or was too busy to reply.

 

From On High

I hate to end on a sourpuss note, so here’s a quote from John Atkinson that made my day. In his As We See It Editorial to the April 2002 Recommended Component and CES 2002 show report issue, he praised the super-expensive Wilson MAXX/Halcro system in the Tuscany Resort as one of the show’s highlights. He then closed with the comment that compared to a live Carnegie Hall performance, it still didn’t get close to the real thing. Or, in the final Letters quote, “a live performance is still the best value in audio today.”

Indeed, and bravo for saying so.

Because when you think about the implications – that even a state-of-the-art system still cannot claim to sound like live music – doesn’t that entitle, nay empower you to shape your system such that it pleases you, verisimilitude to the real thing be damned if need be?

The Absolute Sound, long the self-proclaimed arbiter of sonic truth, recently published a telling review. The writer compared the loudspeaker under evaluation to one he had recently reviewed and then purchased as his new reference. He confessed that even though the new contender’s bass sounded more like what he heard in live venues, he preferred the former’s bass for its enhanced slam and precision. A modicum of artifice was more enjoyable than a precise carbon copy of the real thing.

 

Bravo again. We’re simply reminded that there’s nothing wrong with personal preferences. No need to justify ‘em. Next time you agonize over whether your system sounds right or not, ask yourself instead whether you’re enjoying it. If you are, the system sounds right. That’s all there is to it – once again.

 

Final Words From Cloud Nine

Now watch me blow my new horns and sear a steak on the transformers of my SET amp. Here’s to fun, disobedience and good old common sense when you come across the next outrageous claims in the advertorial audio press. Applaud the writer for his creativity if you spot it (he’s just earning a living). Curse his employer for letting him get away with it (he’s the one with questionable taste). More importantly, don’t spend your money unless it sounds good to your heart and ears. Don’t have propaganda appeal to our collective cultural conditioning for excess, novelty for novelty’s sake or, worst of all, our hardwired assumption that incomprehensible gobbledygook must mean they know more than we do. If it’s incomprehensible, it is incomprehensible, period.

 

At least so sez this moron as his cloud rams into a tree...
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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