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June 2019
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Audiophile Honor
Roger Skoff writes about "doing it right".
Article By Roger Skoff



  I and my HiFi Crazy friends used to joke, years ago, about high-end audio that seemed to involve paying more to get less: We noticed that an ordinary Mid-Fi receiver had all kinds of features, toys, and goodies ("tone" controls, "scratch" and "rumble" filters, a Fletcher-Munson "loudness" control, and seemingly everything else that the designers or marketers could think of to throw in). We also noticed that high-end products usually went off in the opposite direction, offering fewer features as the price went up, with a high-end preamp, for example, possibly having no features at all other than a volume control and a selector switch.

Did that mean (we asked each other, giggling), that a really, REALLY expensive preamp might have no controls at all? And that, if you paid enough money (some unspeakable amount), you might even be able to get the ultimate High-end product – one that would have no features at all; that would do nothing at all; and that the manufacturer wouldn't even send to you, instead, just providing a gold-plated "Certificate  of Purchase" as proof that you'd bought it?



The "more for less" thing seemed, in those days, to apply to amplifier power, too: For just a few hundred dollars, one could buy a Hafler 500, with 250 Watts per channel, but paying thousands of dollars per channel would get you only 25 Watts of power from Mark Levinson or Classé.

It was fun to kid about, but certainly the higher cost of high-end gear wasn't just paying more to buy less. What we were really doing was paying more to get more, but of a different kind. At least in most cases, the more expensive product offered better sound, produced by better quality components and simpler circuits (the less you do to a signal, the less likely you are to screw it up). It was also likely to provide much better spatial, dynamic, and detail resolution and to have a more attractive (or at least more "showy" or "exotic") appearance.



Another thing we were getting for our money was purity – not just of sound, but of spirit. The whole audiophile "thing" seemed not just to be to get better sound for the music we loved, but to do it within a sort of "Audiophile Code of Honor". For many of us, then and even still now, that Code held that the "right" way to get the sonic improvement we wanted was not just to turn the tone controls up a notch, but to move the speakers that last quarter of an inch or to add (or take away) a carpet or a wall-hanging, or, most definitely, to buy a new something – maybe even a new preamp – that would, by its inherently greater perfection, solve all of our sonic problems. For many "purist" audiophiles, just using the features on your electronics to do what they were designed to do and to help make your system sound better felt like cheating.

In fact, besides the point of honor, there's a great deal to say for doing it the right way: Simpler circuitry and better internal components (better capacitors and resistors, for example) in a system's electronics and even in the design of a speaker's crossover network, can and often does make for less distortion, better frequency response, less phase-shift-related "time-smear", and noticeably more coherent sound.



On the other hand, if all the changes you can make to your system and your room still leave you a little short in the "punch" range, What's wrong with kicking up the bass a couple of dB? There's even an "honorable" way to do it. While plain old tone controls still do feel like cheating, DSP – Digital Signal Processing – is claimed to be a way to set your whole system to "perfect", at least at your "sweet spot" listening position, with, for some versions, little more than just the touch of a button.

With DSP, instead of just listening and manually changing control settings until your system sounds the way you think it should, you (on the simplest systems) place a mic at your favorite listening position and  play a test tone through your speakers. The processor takes it from there, digitally adjusting system parameters until what the mic picks up most closely approximates the actual sound (waveform) of the test signal. Really fancy versions of this may take and store multiple readings, to "average-out" a room or even allow you to establish different "sounds" that you like and keep them (perhaps one for Rock and another for Classical music) for later use.

In fact, it's just another kind of tone control, but because it's MUCH more expensive and because it's "scientific" and you're not the one doing the actual adjustment, you can feel like your Audiophile Honor remains intact and enjoy it to your heart's content.

Really, though, why worry about it? Isn't the real purpose of your system to give you listening pleasure? And isn't anything that you might do to make it sound better and increase that pleasure – anything at all, from just changing the positions of your speakers, to moving your own listening position, to fitting or removing acoustical treatments, to buying newer, better-sounding components – in service of your goal? So how is adding a DSP or using the tone controls or other features that might be there for you any different?

The only things to worry about in setting up or using your system are "Does it work" and "Is it a real improvement". And the real meaning of that last question is; "Does it enhance my listening pleasure."

Different systems are made-up of different components, which all sound different to one degree or another and all systems are set-up in different-sounding rooms of different sizes and different acoustics. As I've written before (about the experience of myself and a friend with the same speakers on near identical systems in near identical listening rooms sounding wildly different) everything sounds different and everything needs some "diddling-with" to make it sound right.



Concentrate on making it right for you, using whatever you have available as a resource, and don't worry about whether what you're doing is "pure", "honorable", or "cheating". Just make sure it sounds good. No system is ever right without a whole lot of adjustment, and however you like it better is better and however you get there is the "right" way.

Finally, when you've got it sounding just the way you like it, congratulate yourself on a job well done, put on some sounds, sit back; close your eyes, and...


Enjoy the music!

-- Roger Skoff
















































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