When I was growing up my father’s home-built stereo system—the envy of our neighbors and relatives—was monophonic. To fill our living room with sound there were two sets of parallel-wired speakers built into the left and right sides of the room. The lowest frequencies were handled by a subwoofer he had built into a commandeered hall closet.
We were in monophonic heaven.
Then, in the early 1960s, just before I was hijacked by the US government to serve my time in the Army, stereo arrived. My father was anxious to try it out.
In those days, moving from monophonic to stereo was a pretty big deal: a new phono cartridge and at a minimum, a second channel for the preamp, and the amplifier were required. *(By the late 1950s and early 1960s there were a few stereo-specific amps and preamps available but for most HiFi aficionados like my father, this new stereo thing was an unknown. Possibly a gimmick. Easier to cobble together something just to see what all the fuss was about).
Following an entire weekend of setting up the extra equipment which—to the horror of my mother—wound up strewn across the living room floor, we were ready to hear what all the fuss of stereo was about. That’s when my Dad pulled out the only stereo album he had managed to find at the local record store. Instead of music, it was an entire recording of stereo sound effects including my favorite, a locomotive traveling from left to right across our living room.
That single demo was amazing. Instead of what we were used to, a wall of monophonic sound filling the room, suddenly there was another element. Dimensionality.
To me, the addition of stereo was of the same magnitude as the next revolution, color television.
Micro and macro
While it might feel counterintuitive, it is often helpful to zoom in for a micro view in order to perfect the macro view: focusing closely on the smallest details of microphone placement in recordings or exacting loudspeaker placement in the playback chain are both secrets of success.
But, like many endeavors, there’s the threat of a trap.
Focusing too hard on the smallest bits of a product or project at the expense of the whole can turn something great into a muddled mess.
The real skill in both the recording and playback arts is having enough experience to effectively balance the micro and macro.
And that experience is earned by making countless mistakes.
Which is why I am so delighted to making as many mistakes as possible (and I make a lot).
Zoom in, zoom out.
Get it right, get it wrong.
It’s how we learn.
Less than obvious choices
Now that we’ve moved the main PS Audio reference system from Music Room Two to Music Room Three we have a new challenge at hand. Where formerly the problems in MR2 were a loss of low end (a severe suck out from 100Hz and below), now we’re noticing in MR3 a kind of lackluster presentation.
Call it a loss of musical life.
Following my own advice found in The Audiophile’s Guide: The Loudspeaker, I have spent a great deal of time getting everything in balance. Only, no matter what I do there continues to be this lack of musical aliveness.
And this means I cannot get to where we need to go by setup alone. It is time to turn to the room.
First, a little history.
Neither music rooms two nor three have great dimensions. We did our best to turn a bouncy-floor mezzanine into the best rooms possible. We then spent a goodly sum of money in MR3 hiring a sound engineer to measure and condition the room with corner traps and wall absorbers for an even frequency response. It measures correctly now and so we moved the reference system in place.
Back to the story.
Late one Sunday afternoon, after spending hours of frustration working to get some life into the system, it occurred to me I was trapped inside conventional thinking. I had taken for granted the room treatments we enacted were right. After all, I had seen the acoustic measurements of the room and they looked correct.
I had broken Paul’s rule. If you can’t get where you need to go, think outside the box.
If I am to enjoy a morning breakfast of blueberries, yogurt, and granola there has to be a proper balance between the flavors. My preference in berries runs towards the firm and tart which means that in order to reach a perfect balance there needs to be a bit of sweetness. Too much in any one direction and the meal is less perfect.
The same idea of equilibrium—reaching for that perfect balance—applies to our stereo systems as well. Too much emphasis on the top end at the expense of the lower frequencies skews the balance towards an unwelcome brightness.
As much as we might believe that our setup work and equipment choices are focused on achieving the traditional audiophile values of transparency, effortlessness, tonal purity, slam, and musicality, a lot of those goals are really all about achieving equilibrium within the system.
We’re far more likely to notice something out of balance than we are at spotting a particular standout characteristic.
Some of the best audio systems I have ever heard had achieved a near-perfect balance of all the elements.
Nothing pointing to itself.
A perfect equilibrium.
See through music
When you are watching a live show you can see the musicians and hear their individual instruments. The visuals add clarity to what you are hearing.
Listening on your stereo system loses that visual element but in exchange adds a proximity advantage. You are now closer to the musicians than you could have ever been at a live show.
Better than a front row seat.
This see-through music is one of the first qualities I look for in a high-end audio two-channel system. It’s one of the more difficult challenges for a system and hard to achieve because rarely does setup have a big impact on the level of transparency. Instead, it’s almost always a function of cables and electronics.
Speaker and seating positioning coupled with room conditions offer big benefits in tonal balance and the system’s disappearing act, but when it comes to seeing through the music it’s almost always in the equipment itself.
Case in point, the new DSMK2 DAC. Every time I turn the system on I am stunned at the transparency I hear. Going back to the MK1 immediately clouds the music (relative to what I am hearing on the MK2)—and the MK1 is no slouch! It’s held its own as one of the most transparent DACs around.
So when the MK2 takes the music to this new level you know something special is going on.
I can’t wait for you to experience what I and the Beta Testers are experiencing.
What a great word.
1. The quality of being easily shaped or moulded.
2. The adaptability of an organism to changes in its environment or differences between its various habitats.
Plasticity very much describes our ever-adapting ear/brain mechanism.
Unlike our stereo test equipment which we rely upon to be solid and unchanging, our ear/brain mechanism is constantly changing, adapting, and learning. It is why we can identify with remarkable accuracy the most delicate of sounds: one violin from another, the tiniest of changes in vocal presentations. And we can do this all throughout our lives despite the fact our ears aren’t working as well as they once did.
If I owned a piece of measurement equipment that was constantly changing and adapting I’d send it in for repair. Microphones, analyzers, scopes, and test gear are only valuable to the extent they are unchanging. They are a reference.
Fortunately, our ear/brain mechanisms are the exact opposite.
I have diffusion on the back end of my listening room and a mixture of absorption and diffusion on the front wall, in back of my Altec 604 based loudspeakers and this works great. However, my room is large enough so I have the speakers six feet out into the room and my listening chair is about four feet from the wall in the rear of the room, so this works great, with no localization of the loudspeakers in the room, while great tonality and clarity. The side walls are all absorption and that’s been the one constant thing for me in all three of my listening rooms over the years.
One of my YouTube viewers writes:
“Paul, love almost all your videos. but. I think TOTAL ABSORTION behind the speakers is crucial. Reflection behind the speakers is just noise. PERIOD. WORST CASE. A glass window in the imaging space. PERIOD. Sorry.”
This is part of the old live-end vs. dead-end debate in rooms (the actual debate more centers on which end of the room to place absorptive materials). And from the way he is phrasing the question, it makes logical sense. Who wants noise?
The problems with the notion are many but chief among them is this notion that reflections are nothing but noise. In my experience, it is those reflections that are essential to achieving a live sound in the room. Properly managed with a bit of diffusion, it is those very reflections that can help bring a bit of magic to the soundstage.
That said, as with any rule of thumb, it isn’t a universal truth.
There are cases where the dead-end absorption method (or a variation of it) just might be the ticket to better sound. Imagine a smaller room where the main loudspeakers have no room behind them and cannot be pulled out from the front wall. An argument might easily be made that a bit of absorption on the front wall might sound preferable.
My preferred method of diffusion on the front wall (behind the speakers) is really only effective if there’s enough space between the rear of the speaker and the wall.
A bit of experimentation with both methods won’t ta
Lowering our guard
We learn from very early on to protect ourselves from pain and unpleasantness. If something is too loud we cover our ears and move away.
On a more moderate scale, we do the same thing when listening to music. If something is too piercing, bright, screechy, or objectionable our ears tighten up as a form of protection.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when music is natural, open, and inviting, our ears relax. We become more open. We invite in the sounds.
I often think of this as a safety valve. The better the system and the recording the more open the valve.
This observation is intriguing because it suggests our hearing is variable. Unlike the wags who would have us characterized as machines that can be cataloged and judged based on A/B testing in a vacuum, I would suggest circumstances skew those results.
Imagine an A/B stereo amplifier test where a poor recording is employed. Listener’s ears are tightened up to the point where they cannot relax and hear into the music.
I have long preached that surroundings, environment, and circumstances play an equally important role as the electronics and recordings themselves.
If our dukes are raised for a fight it’s unlikely we can (or should) lower our guard enough to enjoy the music.
It is always a conundrum whether to polish or rearrange a stereo system.
The first time I hear a new audio system that has yet to be dialed in I have to decide if it is close enough for a bit of polish or so far off we need to start from scratch.
We just went through this exercise at PS Audio.
Ever since we replaced the Infinity IRSV with the aspen FR30s we’ve not been happy with the system’s bottom end—frustrating because the FR30s have an extraordinary bottom end that rivals the IRSV (aspens extend down to about 23Hz in the room and are more than capable of rattling your pant leg and putting a smile on your face). Unfortunately, because of Music Room 2’s dimensional ratios (and the fact its floor is as bouncy as a spring), the best position for imaging is the worst place for the bottom end (in the case of the IRSV we simply moved the separate bass towers to where in the room we got proper bass performance at the listening position).
Music Room 3, however, is a little longer front to back and the dimensional ratios work. Those few feet of additional length are all that we needed to enjoy the aspen’s thundering bass and so they were moved.
Caleb and the guys in sales did all the heavy lifting of switching systems and rooms. When I first sat down for a listen I was duly impressed. They had done a wonderful job of setting everything up and in the right place. I whipped out the disc from The Audiophile’s Guide: The Loudspeaker, and played Gabriel Mervine’s tracks (where the Quartet is presented one instrument at a time). Sounded pretty close but not perfect.
Polish or rearrange?
For me, the easiest way to determine this is to begin with some obvious polishing steps like moving a little the loudspeakers and/or the seating position. If it feels like we’re making sufficient progress then that’s the right thing to do.
If it’s just different…..then time to start from scratch.
In the case of Music Room 3 and the aspens, all we needed was a bit of a polishing touch (truth is, these are some of the easiest speaker in the world to dial in).
If you’re in the neighborhood, due stop in and have a listen.
Not soft, if it’s a good analog front end.
Is analog soft?
When we think of the analog sound we’re inevitably referencing a reproduction. This is because we experience analog sound through our stereo systems which, of course, are reproduction playback systems.
And every analog reproduction is either captured on vinyl or magnetic tape. This of course means everything we associate with analog has passed through analog electronics and analog storage mediums—all of which have an analog “sound” to them.
True analog sound is what comes directly out of the recording microphone. But, unless you’re at the recording studio at the time a record is being made your only means of hearing that analog microphone feed is after it’s been processed through the storage medium of vinyl or tape.
And if we dare to suggest capturing that feed with digital means, either PCM or DSD, we have then violated the analog label’s definition. By default it can no longer be “analog” (even if it sounds identical).
When I listen to music captured on pure analog means I hear a softness to it. Hard to describe, actually, but a softening of the original signal is about as good as I can come up with. And maybe the opposite is helpful. On many digital captures, there is a sharpness that colors the sound.
The perfect capture is when we can tell no difference between the source and the output.
Nice if we had a name for that.