Welcome to my 120th column, with this article completing my tenth year writing for this magazine. For this reason ( and because I've got nothing new to talk about this month), I've decided to follow up on my 119 previous equipment recommendation and thought pieces on system improvement and see if they've stood the test of time. At the same time I'll try to summarize what I've learned from being into high end audio for almost 30 years, and give some helpful hints to those new audiophiles out there.
What are the six qualities
of sound perception?
2. Loudness: Intensity of sound or amplitude, otherwise known as volume.
3. Phase: Relationship of pressure increase or decrease of the sound wave on the eardrum.
4. Timbre: The relationship of the relative loudness and phase of the harmonics to the prime tone produced by the source.
5. Direction: Where the sound is coming from: front/back, up/down, right/left.
6. Distance: Perception of the distance of a sound source from the ears.
The first four require only one ear and the last two both. In addition, I would add three more qualities of sound perception afforded by the rest of the body.
1. Skin Tingling: The feeling of high pitched sounds that stimulate the skin.
2. Gut-Chest Rumbling: Sensation of bass notes vibrating the abdomen and chest.
3. Bone Vibration: Sensation from very deep bass.
The ear's cochlea has hair follicles of varying sizes and diameters that vibrate in sympathy to certain frequencies, and change that mechanical to electrical energy which is then transmitted to the brain for interpretation. These vibrations arrive at the cochlea through two mechanisms: from vibration of the eardrum carried through three small bones call ossicles to a second membrane at the cochlea, and through direct bone conduction through the skull and jawbone. The brain mixes this information with the skin tingling and gut-chest rumbling, bone vibration and stimulations from the other senses and our previous learning to give a perception of what is occurring.
Every person actually hears differently depending on his order of importance of the sound qualities and his previous experience. For instance so-called "head bangers" find loudness and gut rumbling to be most important as they listen to music at hearing damaging levels, while others with absolute pitch perception zero in on that quality. Some find phase of the signal very important while others have absolutely no perception of it as it has to be learned as normally only one phase occurs in nature. Some musicians can tell which violin maker made the instrument by the Timbre.
Thus, what you may find important for sound reproduction, I may find to be less so. Someone who listens only to string quartets would wish for optimal reproduction of pitch and timbre, while someone who listens to rock music would find these qualities of no significance.
What should we be striving
for in reproducing a recording?
Unhappily it is pretty close to impossible for any home system to be able to reproduce the sound field produced in an auditorium due to the defects in the recording process. There is no one absolute microphone pattern or placement that will allow an optimally developed sound system to perfectly reproduce what is being produced by the musicians, although some recording engineers are coming closer to the ideal using surround sound techniques to capture the entire sound field.
As far as the auditory system is concerned, the most believable sound field for the ear is produced by so-called dummy head recordings, where miniature microphones are placed inside the ear canals of a dummy head or a listener positioned in a recording hall. When played back through in-the-ear headphones, the sound can be scarily life-like except for the loss of the three body sound perceptions. Of course, unless the recording ears used are yours, the sound picked up by the microphones won't be perfectly like that picked up by you due to differences in the shape of the ear and canal and your learned sound perceptions. I've made several pseudo dummy head recordings at certain symphony orchestra concerts (not allowed) using small near-the-ear microphones which, with my electrostatic headphones are scarily natural, just missing the body-bass feel. There are pre-pro's that have programming that will allow these recordings to be reproduced by speakers but the surround effect is not as convincing.
To me, the most believable stereo recordings through speakers are done with microphones in a Blumlein configuration, with spaced omni's coming in second and the Decca Tree third. Multi-mike recordings, while good for some folks, just leave me flat as they muck up the soundstage and completely lose ambiance information.
Surround recordings using the technique devised by Ray Kimber, called Isomike, are by far the closest I've ever heard to being there. Heard at shows on his system, one is transported to the recording venue, and the recordings he has for sale at www.isomike.com played back on an SACD surround system are superb and well worth their price, as some of the money goes to a recording program at Weber State University. Blu-Ray recordings are now coming out with opera and a few orchestral concerts which combine excellent sound with the visual, drawing one into the performance. Hopefully there'll be many more in the future.
So, unhappily, because of recording technique, at least with two channel stereo, we'll never be able to get to "The Absolute Sound." Whether multi-channel recorded with ambiance microphones will approach it remains to be seen. Tomlinson Holman, of THX fame feels that we'll need at least 10 channels of surround to come close to the live experience, so we may be half way there. Possibly some very smart individual will be able to combine dummy head recording with a digital computerized system to mimic your ear's location functions with multiple loudspeakers.
Then there's the problem of whether you system should reproduce exactly what's on the recording or romanticize it so that it sounds more like what one hears in a concert hall, or is pleasing to the listener. This is one of those age-old arguments among audiophiles that has no easy answer. I prefer straight up with a little water and others prefer ice. Which is correct? You decide.
What makes one go into this
For instance, I am not an engineer or professional musician but a gynecologist with musical training on French Horn, who for some reason has had the classical music bug since at least age 7 when, my mother confirms, I would ask to listen to live classical concerts that nobody else in my family had the least interest in. Other than memories of Howdy Doody from that time, the other TV remembrance was watching Charles Munch's last BSO performance from Tanglewood doing Beethoven's ninth.
We had a piano in the house, but my mother would only play pop stuff from the 40's, and the only record we had was an old 78 of "Rider's in the Sky" by Vaughan Monroe. My father was a school teacher and my mother a bookkeeper and my four siblings only listened to rock music. None of them had any interest in classical music, audiophilia or engineering, so where did my interest come from?
I've been a high ender and audio experimenter at heart since my teenage years, building a kit tube amplifier (which died on first turn-on due to poor soldering technique) and my own speakers (without any knowledge of proper speaker parameters) in high school and college. In medical school, in Austria, I put together a reasonable sounding audio system from kits transported from America, some of which are still being used 40 years later by the sons of one of my friends over there.
The high-end bug really hit in 1982, when, on finishing residency training, there were both time and funds available to properly pursue the hobby. Woe from that point on to my pocketbook. The problem with this hobby is once one is hooked on the idea that audio reproduction is imperfect, one needs to constantly tinker with the system and update equipment to try to reach that perfection of music reproduction.
What makes me such an
In addition, having picked French Horn, an instrument that very few are trained in and thus looked for by every orchestra and concert band, I was able to get a firm foundation in music theory and what live musicians in a concert hall should sound like.
Finally, through reading radio and audio engineering manuals, especially the best on tubes and electronic theory from the 30's to the 50's, at least the basic theory of electronics allowed me to understand what the experts were trying to impart and whether it was of value or snake oil.
So, like most of you out there, and probably the majority of audio reviewers, this writer is a hobbyist with a very strong interest in experimentation to advance both my listening system to maximize my pleasure and at the same time willing to impart my findings to others.
Who can you trust to give honest reviews?
While I do understand that even the best and most honest tester can be fooled by their senses (and that has included me many times), there is no perfect testing method including the objectivists favorite, the so-called double blind method. Unhappily with audio, there are just too many variables to control including how the test subject feels at the time of the testing, how the electricity is on that day, what the weather is like, and a thousand others. Thus, for high end audio, the best way to evaluate a product is long-term listening over a period of weeks with frequent removal of the piece from the system to see if one gets a negative effect from taking it out.
Unlike many reviewers and magazines out there, our writers and the magazine's owner do not receive any compensation from the various manufacturers whose products we evaluate. While we may receive the standard professional cost decrease if we purchase a product, this is in no way based on how we rate it. If after completing a review, and before submitting it to the manufacturer for comment to be added to the end of the article, if the unit has significantly improved my listening pleasure, I'll ask to purchase it and will mention this in the article. I put my money where my pen (or keyboard) is, and thus you can be sure that at least it's worth the bucks to me. There are also times when I'll hear a product at some show or home that interests me, that I'll go out and purchase it for review.
While we may not be professional musicians or engineers, we are still amateurs, albeit very devoted ones, most with many years of experience who are honestly attempting to spread our hard-won knowledge to our readers.
Who or what can I trust to
give me correct information?
How can I decide if the
recommended component or tweak will improve my system?
Now, most of these emporiums have been shuttered because they could not compete with the "big box" stores, and even many of them have been closed by web competition. Those high end stores that have survived, for the most part, are in very large cities, and are usually run by snooty managers who are interested in the big bucks customer looking for the shiniest most expensive system to impress their neighbors. So much for the high-end salesman.
Thus, the only way you can make any determination as to whether a piece is compatible with your system and listening style is to purchase it, say a silent prayer that it does, and, if not, hope to get a decent price for it on eBay or Audiogon.
Who's at fault? We are, of course. That includes me. We all try to go for "the deal", finding the lowest price available on the web for equipment. Back in the day, we'd go to the emporium, pump the knowledgeable owner for information, then go across the street to his competition offering the unit at a discount. Then we'd wonder why the guru had closed shop and was selling televisions at Tweeter, also no longer available due to web competition.
What's important for
To me, the most important variable for musical enjoyment is the quality of the original recording and its recorded medium. I don't care how esoteric, expensive or perfect your system is, if the recording is crap, so will be the enjoyment of it.
From the days of the all-mechanical Berliner record and Edison Diamond Discs, several of which I have, to today's digital recordings on hard disc, if you don't have a recording engineer with years of experience who knows and cares about what he is doing, no matter how great the performance, the recording will attract dust in your storage area or at Goodwill. Which hall to record in, where to place, what type of, and how many microphones and their pickup pattern, and how to place the musicians are several of the hundreds of variables that are necessary to control. Thus the reason that so few great recordings have been produced over the past 100 years.
As a corollary, the best performances usually have the worst sounding recordings, and vice versa. Thus the fact that the majority of our discs sit idle on their shelves after one or two listens.
What's the biggest bang
for the buck or where should you spend your equipment money first?
1. Because they are the most difficult piece of equipment to sell at a later date when you wish to move up the audio chain. I've had at least 15 preamps, twice that number of amplifiers, and more interconnects and speaker wire and electricity cleaners than I wish to count, but only four different pairs of main speakers in 40 years of audio. It's a hell of a lot easier to replace a 20 pound amplifier than try to sell and ship a 200 pound speaker.
2. Because speakers have the most variance in the six sound qualities, so they are the most difficult to match to your musical needs. In years past, the turntable-arm-cartridge were almost as important to match to one's taste, but it was also much easier to replace. Today, while there are differences in digital playback equipment (the objectivists be damned) they are insignificant compared to speaker differences. Plus it's somewhat easier to sell and replace a 10 pound CD player, or even a 50 pound top of the line SACD unit.
Of the six sound qualities, those that vary from speaker to speaker are Loudness, Timbre and Phase.
Loudness has three components; how quiet they can go before they cannot produce any more sound, and how loud they can go before they start distorting or burn out, and how smoothly they go from soft to loud.
Timbre relates to how evenly they reproduce the frequency band in relation to their loudness output, and whether they add any harmonics to those in the recording, otherwise known as distortion.
Phase relates to how the drivers are wired in relation to each other. Many speakers have the mid-range driver pushing while the woofer and tweeter are pulling, which some persons are very sensitive to. The ideal is to have all drivers both time and phase aligned so that all waves from the individual drivers arrive at the same time and in the same phase.
My recommendation is spend as much as you can afford on that speaker which matches your musical tastes. How does one do that in this day and age? With much time and effort due to very few audio emporiums being available even in the biggest cities and all showing only one or two lines of speakers.
How much you spend will depend on your budget. I've heard some very nice bookshelf size speakers for a couple hundred bucks that have excellent sound reproduction except for deep bass and have the advantage over larger speakers of sometimes better soundstaging. I've also hear some room-filling mega-bucks speakers that could charitably be called "junk."
Which type of speaker
should I purchase?
The various type of dynamic driver speakers can be subdivided by:
A. Cabinet Type
1. Infinite Baffle
2. Sealed Enclosure- Acoustic Suspension
3. Vented Enclosures – ported, bass reflex, tuned, tuned ported, transmission line
4. Passive Radiator
B. Number of Drivers: Single, Two-way woofer and tweeter, Three-way woofer mid and tweeter, four-way with subwoofer, super-tweeter, etc.
C. Type of Crossover: Active vs. Passive; First, Second, Third Order, etc. and driver phasing
D. Type of Cone Material: Paper, Plastic, Metal
E. Cabinet Construction: Shape, Wall material, Acoustic Stuffing, vibration reducing materials, Driver Time alignment, etc.
Then there are the so-called "esoteric" speaker types which halos can vary by driver number, crossover type, material and cabinet construction:
B. Heil Air Motion Transformer
E. Corona Discharge
F. Electromagnetic or Ribbon drivers
G. NXT Driver
H. Balanced Modal Radiator
I. DDD Bending Wave Driver
1. Which sound characteristics you find to be important
2. The size of the music room
3. Which type of amplifier you prefer.
If its high volume you want in a large room and you use solid state amps, you'll probably want large dynamic speakers. If low volume and ambiance perception is important, you'll probably want electrostatics. On the other hand if you prefer single ended low wattage triode amps, then horns or single highly efficient dynamic driver speakers would be the way to go. If perception of space is important, then you may want to go with a multi-speaker array rather than two channels. If you perceive phase characteristics then you'll want a speaker with even order crossovers with drivers that are time aligned and in the same phase.
amplifier-preamplifier should I purchase?
The same goes for the preamp which should mate with the amplifier. Ideal would be a complete system produced by one manufacturer but I know of no high end company who does all things well. Thus the problem of mixing and matching without help. The variables are just too great.
After I've bought my base
system, should I spend my remaining funds on tweaks, cleaning up the electricity
or vibration control?
A few words about vibration first. Everything vibrates including chassis, cabinets, electrical parts and wires. Those vibrations inter-modulate with the musical vibrations causing smearing of the signal leading to distortions. Isolation of the equipment from all air and ground born vibrations will cure the problem but unhappily this is impossible unless the equipment is suspended in a vacuum. This is impossible unless they are floating in space and of course this is no real cure as a vacuum will not transmit sound waves. They can be alleviated through mass loading, and isolation through damping materials. The longest lasting pieces of equipment in my system are four Vibraplanes I purchased about 15 plus years ago thta are very heavy air sprung platforms normally used for isolation of electron microscopes, and some of the newest are Black Ravioli footers from Scotland, which in combination with 8 to 25 pound bags of lead shot do a superb job of vibration control.
Remember, garbage in – garbage out, and this is especially true for the AC being transmitted by the average utility. And it get worse every year, both from the junk that enters the house and the noise added to the 60 Hz. wave by the electronics in your house, from computers to fluorescent bulbs, dishwashers and refrigerators to even the digital equipment in your system.
First, make sure the electricity entering your house is optimal for current flow and minimized noise. Have your electric company check the street transformer and any circuit breakers up the street to see if they are corroded or overloaded. As new people move into the neighborhood and use more and more electricity it will become overloaded causing it to distort the sine wave. Have them check you wiring into the house and your service to make sure it's adequate and you ground outside the house is actually grounding properly. Either get a separate service for your media room, or run a separate high amperage line off the top of your service to your media room using high grade copper (not aluminum) cable wither a higher gauge than necessary to reduce resistance. Get at least hospital grade outlets or hot wire your AC to the last circuit breaker.
Next on the list is equipment to isolate your system from the noise traveling with the 60 Hz. sine wave, and getting the voltage in phase with the amperage wave, without adding resistance to the flow of electrons, thus negating everything you did in the last paragraph? Power conditioning equipment will be far more cost effective as a first step than purchasing expensive AC cords. While AC cords can act as first order low pass crossovers, eliminating possibly 6 dB of noise, and possibility preventing the cord from picking up RF. An isolation unit will usually do significantly better and supply your entire system with cleaner electricity. At the same time most have protective circuits that will prevent surges that can damage solid state equipment.
The optimum method of isolation would be to completely regenerate a perfect 60 Hz. sine wave using a specially built generator or an AC-DC-AC converter. Unhappily this is extremely difficult to do properly and expensive to boot. I've had several of the units over the years but none has stayed in my for more than a few months. This may change as I heard a unit new to me last Friday that may change my mind and hopefully I'll be able to get a review sample in the near future.
The units I find to be the most favorable these day are from Audience and have two of their units in my system right now cleaning away the grunge and grime coming over the AC. In addition there are two Bryston Torus Power Conditioners, which add a level of cleaning and have large Toroid Transformers which store current giving my amplifiers a clean source of extra power for peaks. Finally APC make very inexpensive H and S type power conditioners which don't quite have the superior cleaning power of the Audience units but can't be beat for the price.
Once you've spent your money on the above, you can then experiment with power cords, ferrite nodules, cord elevators, and all the other tweaks available.
Where should I spend the
most amount of effort and money?
Should I go with analog or
In addition no medium lasts forever. Tape starts losing its coating or its plasticizers, sometimes after only 10 to 15 years. Some of the best analog tapes from the Golden Era have become unplayable unless they go through a special cooking process that allows them one more play before they're unusable. Thus, much of our analog heritage has had to be transferred to digital at bit rates which were felt to be adequate at the time but are now known to be less than optimal today.
I've had digital tapes that had dropouts after only a few weeks. Vinyl discs can warp and become scratched. Digital discs may lose their aluminum coating and become unreadable. Hard disk drives will fail sooner or later, with the recovery process for un-backed-up data taking hours and bucks. Take it from one who knows. I lost 50 vinyl transfers to hard drive in 24/96 PCM, or one weeks work, of Boston Symphony recordings that way before I could copy them to a backup drive.
Personally, my favorite medium is 15 ips analog master tapes, as the information stored on these cannot be reproduced on either the best vinyl or 24/192 or DSD digital. Played back on a great tape player, the feeling of being there cannot be recreated by any other medium. One of my biggest regrets was having to sell several hundred 2nd generation master tapes from the Golden Era of Recording from the major studios. On the other hand, many of them were getting close to unplayable due to a problem with their lubricant. While the 16/48 DAT's I made of them sound great, they don't have the "you are there" realism of the originals. The DAT copies have since been transferred to several hard drives for posterity and still sound better than most CD transfers of the same recordings from the majors.
What's the least
expensive but close to the best way of obtaining musical enjoyment?
Using the HDMI output of my Xonar HDAV 1.3 soundcard to my Integra 9.8 pre-pro, and setting the Xonar and the computer's sound output to upsample to 192 kHz and 7.1 channel output, the sound is excellent, and the number of good to superb stations receivable have to be 50 times more than my FM tuner can receive.
I listened last night to a performance of Dvorak's Dumky Trio off a Hungarian station called Bartok Radio at 320 kHz that almost sounded as good as some of my best SACDs. And the performance was outstanding to boot.
I could go on for days discussing my likes and dislikes, but they are based on my experience which will be quite different from yours, especially if you're not an old geezer like me. Go out there and experiment. Get the system which is optimized for your personal preferences and, as our Fearless Leader Steven R. Rochlin keeps reiterating;
Enjoy the Music. That's what we're in it for. Here's to another ten years writing for this rag.