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…"
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.
“…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
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.
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.
Bass Without Turbines
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…”
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
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.
you supposed to be surprised that paralleling two woofers augments their
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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,
least so sez this moron as his cloud rams into a tree...