I’ve used nothing but separate audio components for many years, but now have two different integrated amps, one from Luxman and one from T+A and both are exceptional sounding. The T+A Integrated amp, the PA3100HV, is truly phenomenal sounding.
However, neither have a built in digital section and that’s probably why they sound so good.
High-end audio is more separates than completes. You don’t see many all-in-one receivers connected to high-end speakers.
It’s not that it’s technically impossible to build a great sounding receiver. Plenty of companies from PS Audio to McIntosh to Devialet have.
Yet always a collection of their separate counterparts outperforms the all-in-one. Why?
One could easily argue the shared power supplies don’t help, nor the shared AC cord. Still others might argue the close proximity of noisy circuits within the same chassis, or the need to bring the piece in at a reasonable price.
Yet, speculation aside, I would venture to suggest it is probably not possible to put a digital source next to an analog output without significant compromise. That it is proximity and the inverse-square law that stands between success and failure.
Sometimes we just have to separate things in order to maximize their potential.
There has been an High End Audio show in California that combines audio with wine, cigars and even luxury cars. All luxury items many of us are lucky to have. I count my blessings every day and hope the rest of most of this country does the same.
The trained listener
Forty something years ago when Terri and I first began having children, ultrasound technology was in its infancy. The doctor would show us unrecognizable blurry blobs that only he and other experienced viewers could make out as anything but, well, blobs. They seemed to know what it all meant, but to our untrained eyes, they could have been anything.
In the same vein, you can set two glasses of wine down in front of me and I can tell you which I like and don’t like, but not much more. Try the same thing in front of a Master Sommelier and you’ll be accurately told the wine’s year, location, and brand.
Set an experienced listener in front of a high end stereo system and they can easily tell you what’s going on in the system. Or, if you’re like some of us, we can tell you what’s likely going on inside the circuits processing the sound.
In each case the difference between observers is experience. Training.
It is no more accurate to say that the difference between cheap and expensive wines is undetectable in a double blind test than the same for a stereo system.
Our measure of veracity is always personal. What we can accurately say is that we cannot tell the difference.
We ain’t me, or you.
This is kind of funny and the reason mini storage facilities flourish in this country. We are consumers of everything, including high end audio equipment!
Color me appreciative of learning a new lexicon of terms, chief among them Covid-fatigue, and retail therapy.
Laugh at my naivety if you will. Truth is, I don’t get out very often and I never spend any time in social media haunts (and if we’re starting a list, I am also fashion challenged).
But if I get antsy or a bit down I can for a brief moment elevate myself by buying something. And if I buy it on Amazon I get a second jolt of satisfaction when in the next few days the package arrives. Double your pleasure, double your fun.
What I buy doesn’t much matter as long as it serves to further a project or make life a bit more efficient: an office chair seat cushion, a new higher-resolution webcam for all the Zoom meetings I have, a new music CD, an upgraded HDMI cable for better I2S, a new book, a desktop organizer, a car trash bag, the hard to find dental floss I prefer.
Whether it’s a trinket, a new cable, a new DAC, some olives I might have missed, or the latest Octave release, I am just coming to grips with the idea that the few times a month I get the itch there’s actually a name for it.
I am not alone.
All stereo distortions are not created equally despite the fact we’re told we should strive to have none. For example, harmonic is less objectionable than intermodulation, but if one simply weighs overall distortion numbers without qualifications, or listing all types of distortion, knowledge of the sonic outcome can never be reached simply by these numbers.
The problem for potential high end audio purchasers relying upon distortion numbers, charts, and graphs to make their decisions is the relevance of each purity contortion and the limited numbers of listed distortion types.
And to make matters more complicated, it matters greatly how low levels of distortions are arrived at. If a designer adds enough of the right feedback to achieve astonishingly low distortion levels, how they got their matters. For example, to bring measured distortion down into the -130dB areas often requires an open-loop bandwidth so low as to severely roll of frequencies within the audible range—an act that will in itself form its own type of distortion we do pay attention to nor measure and publish (FM, SID, TIM, amplitude, phase, group delay, linear, nonlinear, etc.).
What might be helpful is for those companies interested in publishing detailed specs of their product to explain the relevance to sound quality for each type of distortion. This might help not only consumers but potentially improve designs (because it would require careful listening tests to create these published details).
All distortions are not created equally nor are very many of them paid attention to, let alone published.
I just got in a T+A MP2500 Multi-Player, which is a combination SACD/CD player, streamer and DAC. It also has a tuner in it and bluetooth and it is just an incredible sounding player. So, while my system is mature, as described by PauI, T+A’s two DACS’s that I’ve owned, have made a really good sounding system, now sound great.
When energy is first applied to the building of a high-end audio system big improvements come quickly. Over time changes get increasingly smaller despite the same energy applied.
We refer to this as an asymptote (diminishing returns). Rapid progress slows as the system coalesces into its final form. Thus, the new and exciting DAC everyone’s talking about rarely has as big an impact on the mature system as it might when replacing a mediocre product.
This is natural and to be expected.
What’s remarkable is when you read of a new product that even on the most mature systems leaps forward in performance.
It’s one thing to best a meh product and quite another to stand out in a crowded field of exceptional gear.
You’ll know it’s worth your time when those of us nearing the asymptote find a new product worth shouting about.
Put lousy sounding audio equipment in a great room and it will sound lousy. Put great stereo equipment in a lousy room and it wont sound great. There needs to be a balance of both. I’m lucky that I have a great room and great audio equipment from Rogue Audio, Luxman, T+A (THeory + Application), Well Tempered Labs and Dynavector. Things usually sound great over here!!
Setup and rooms
We all pay at least lip service to the importance of rooms and setup though I suspect in our heart of hearts we believe the components are really the key to sound quality.
It’s truly a chicken and egg sort of thing: crappy equipment in a great room isn’t going to sound amazing just like excellent equipment in a crappy room’s not going to set your hair on fire.
But like the age-old debate about whether sources are more important than loudspeakers, the truth behind setup and room importance vs. the contribution of the stereo equipment is always going to be a contentious one.
I have heard equipment I have little respect for sound more than amazing in a well set up room. In fact, if I had to summarize my years of experience, I’d have to say I’ve heard better high-end audio systems of medium quality equipment in great setups than the opposite.
I can’t tell you the number of great collections of equipment that have sounded dreadful. Yet, knowing that equipment can sound amazing leads me to conclude that in the end, all things considered, setup, and room is more important than the components playing in them.
Last night our Octave Records recording crew went live at a beautiful church venue here in Boulder. There we set up the Sonoma 8-track recorder, a Decca Tree microphone arrangement with DPA microphones, and recorded a spectacular string quartet.
What a great experience and I can’t wait to share with you the recording in a future Octave Records release. This particular recording will be on the upcoming Audiophile Guide setup SACD.
What caught my attention for the subject of today’s post was the little introductory speech I gave to the ladies before they began to play. Our producer, Giselle Collazo, asked me to brief them on what we were hoping to achieve with this recording. Soon I found myself explaining who audiophiles were and what makes us different than someone with a Sonos speaker or a Bose radio. Their blank stares were really telling.
Our world of high-end audio is so far removed from what people consider good home music reproduction as to be mind-boggling. I wish I could have invited these musicians over to PS Audio after the session and play for them their recording in Music Room Two. They would have been quickly brought up to speed of what’s possible in our world. But, alas, the pandemic…
Better is always a relative measure. Sometimes it is so far removed from what most consider normal as to be remarkable.
I mostly agree with this and certainly the amount of power an audio amplifier produces doesn’t alway correlate with sound quality, but parts used and poor build quality, can have an effect beyond the designer.
I once imported a high end audio line from Australia and the products were very well designed and the parts quality was good, but the build quality and packaging were horrible and ended that experiment for me!
More power equalled worse sound
One of my readers, Daniel, was surprised to find that a smaller power amplifier sounded better than a bigger, more powerful version. He wondered how that could be given how many times I have waxed enthusiastically about the benefits of headroom and power.
Of course, the answer lies not in the power differences but the skills of the designer.
It is often tempting to focus on one area of performance as the key indicator of how a piece of equipment will sound in our systems. Unfortunately, it’s never quite that easy. The number of variables determining sound quality is so many as to make one’s head spin like Regan MacNeil.
Which is why we listen.
If the goal of a high-end audio system is to have no sonic signature—to be as neutral as possible—then why do we insist on tailoring our systems to our likes and dislikes?
Perhaps the answer lies in a simple truth. There is no such thing possible as a neutral sound when we use non-perfect equipment to reproduce it.
The fact our crude measurement science records significant amplitude, frequency, phase, and timing responses in speakers is enough to put that argument to bed. We’ll ignore our own hearing abilities until such time we can create perfect transducers.
The idea of accepting the inevitability of sonic signatures seems abhorrent to some, a fait accompli to others.
Me? I am in the camp that has accepted the sonic signature that I assume will be with us for the rest of my days.
And once you accept its inevitability you can progress forward.
Always striving for sonic neutrality is a flawed mission. Better to accept the signatures that get you closer to musical truth.
The art of illusion
Following the threads of the last few day’s posts, it’s become clear to me how much we’re invested in building a palpable 3-d illusion with our high-end audio systems.
We’ve known for some time that turning the lights on low, closing our eyes, and tapping our foot to the music not only gets us in the groove but helps build this imaginary world where orchestras play in our living rooms, Diana Krall serenades us with her ivory tickles, and Art Pepper romances us with his horn.
When we audition new gear it’s not just for tonal accuracy, full frequency range, or increased clarity. Those are important attributes, to be sure, but I’ve yet to meet an audiophile that isn’t like me in wishing for that 3d illusion (I am certain someone will pipe up in the comments section of these posts – I can count on it).
Audiophiles and high-end stereo systems are in the business of crafting illusion, and my oh my, what a fine illusion we can build. Just turn the lights on low, close your eyes, and be transported to the recording (or vice-versa as we haven’t yet figured that one out).