The definition of pure is pretty simple: “not mixed or adulterated with any other substance or material.”
When it comes to purity of sound, we can extrapolate that to mean a pure signal without any added byproducts like distortion. Yet, I am not sure pure alone gives us what we believe we’re looking for in performance.
For example, pure water is tasteless. If you don’t believe me, try a swig of distilled water. It’s the impurities in water that give it flavor. It’s why you pay more for “spring” or mineral water. You’re paying extra for their distortion.
Some of the lowest distortion audio products on the market are similarly unremarkable. I’ll not be naming names or foisting my opinion on others, but let’s just say a triple digit low distortion amplifier is not in itself a mark of great sound. Sometimes, quite the opposite.
Purity on its own is not always what we strive for. It is the balance of purity and flavor that makes for both great tasting water and great sounding audio equipment.
As we’ve seen so many times before, it’s the balance of a product that defines its character.
All this to compete with a turntable?
In response to Ted Smith’s video explaining DSD, a viewer posted a great remark that is the title of today’s post. I just couldn’t resist writing about it.
Indeed, when digital audio first came on the scene in the early 1980s, the intent of designers was clear. Outperform the turntable. From day one their goals were met in terms of fixing vinyl’s many weaknesses: degradation over time, mechanical interface, ticks and pops, surface noise, limited dynamic range, stunted frequency response, mechanical nightmare.
For most, the advent of the CD was all they needed to retire their vinyl collection. Few looked back with regret.
Of course, our sector of the market reacted rather differently. We were horrified with the one aspect most important to us. Sound quality. Compare an old CD to the same in vinyl and it’s easy to see why.
Today, the situation has flip-flopped. While vinyl’s still a great sounding medium whose popularity has soared once again, digital has long ago exceeded our expectations for sound quality. Consider that nearly every new vinyl release of the last few decades was recorded on a digital system before transferring to vinyl. That what modern purchasers of vinyl are hearing is a second-generation copy of a digital master.
Sometimes change happens without our even noticing it.
The language of sound
We spend so many words describing sound it’s a shame we cannot easily demonstrate it instead.
When I hear something new like better openness or increased depth of soundstage in a fresh design, it is instantly recognized. I don’t need more than a brief moment to hear those differences any more than the time it takes to witness a visual change. But, trying to then communicate those differences with language alone becomes a serious challenge.
What a perfect opportunity for the proverbial magic wand. I could wave that tiny baton at my system and anyone wishing to experience what I just heard could join the party.
Words would no longer be needed.
I’ve had a little success with recording changes in sound with my video camera—and shared them with our YouTube audience—a mind-numbing fact when you consider the quality of the cameras’ internal microphone.
The best way to brush past the need for language is a great home audio system.
Answer is stereo!!
The mono world
Our sources are all monophonic. Single point sources of sound without any directional cues whatsoever. A violin, voice, horn, or any acoustic instrument I can imagine is mono, yet our systems require two channels to properly reproduce that monophonic source.
The difference, of course, is positional. Where in the soundscape does that monophonic instrument reside? Our 2-channel ears, like our 2-channel eyes, capture the monophonic source from slightly different angles and distances, adding perspective to the mix.
Because each ear is judging what it assumes is a single mono source, it is essential that reproduced sound between channels be as identical and independent as possible. The left channel reproduced mono needs to be independent of the right channel’s presentation, and both have to be as true to the original as technically possible.
Deviations from sameness, as well as interactions between the two channels, are injurious to a proper spatial illusion—a good argument in favor of mono amplifiers and excellent channel separation.
Attempting to reproduce single-source mono with 2-channels might seem counter-intuitive, but for the moment it’s all we’ve got.
We’re comfortable suggesting sound is subjective when it comes to our differences in perception, but then uncomfortable when we speak of it in absolute terms. In other words, we believe the source of sound to be absolute. The perception of sound a matter of personal choice.
The dictionary describes subjective as a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, agency, personhood, reality, and truth, based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
So, if the source of sound is absolute and the hearing of it is subjective, what’s an equipment manufacturer supposed to do? Cater to the subjective or the absolute?
This interesting question has always been a source of both inspiration and balance for me. On the one hand, the challenge of recreating the absolute sound has driven our design efforts for years. On the other hand, building equipment that pleases our subjective side has also guided our products since the day we started.
It is the balance between the absolute and the subjective that forms greatness.
Good audio equipment is designed to honor the absolute.
Great audio equipment balances the absolute with the personal.
I just want it to sound great!!
They’re not instruments
Reader Timothy Price posed an interesting thought:
“How many musical instruments project sound in a narrow dispersion? Even a trumpet or better yet a clarinet seem to have fully tonal perception off axis. They may sound louder when heard directly in front but there is no lack of identification and little loss in dynamics when heard a bit off to the side. Yet, loudspeakers don’t mirror the dispersion properties of the instruments they are reproducing.”
While that’s an excellent observation that begs the question of why we don’t craft loudspeakers to more closely mirror instruments, the answer might surprise you.
Loudspeakers shouldn’t be designed to reproduce the characteristics of musical instruments. Instead, they need to be faithful analogs of microphones.
It’s not the sound of instruments we’re after, it’s microphones we chase.
When you think of the problem in that light it makes it a lot easier to wrap your head around the problem. We cannot know what will be recorded so fashioning the response of a loudspeaker to better mimic one dispersion pattern or another is nothing short of tail chasing: get the trumpet right and you fail at the violin.
Capturing the essence and soul of music is the job of the recording engineer and her bevy of microphones.
Reproducing the sound of microphones is what we do.
It’s common wisdom that because digital breaks up sound into bits there’s missing information between those bits—information not lost with analog. But is that accurate?
The comparison between the uninterrupted straight line picture of analog and the chunky digital copy might lead us to imagine differences that don’t necessarily exist.
If I were to side with the measurementists I could pretty definitively demonstrate there is nothing measurably missing in a proper digital recording.
If were to then take the opposite side and agree with the analog proponents that correctly point out the audible differences between digital recordings and analog recordings, we would then be at a stalemate.
If nothing is missing in digital what explains the differences in sound quality?
We can say with absolute certainty that a PCM recording of a live music feed sounds different than an analog or DSD recording of the same event.
Yet, it is also true that a PCM recording of the analog playback is nearly indistinguishable from the analog playback.
Tomorrow I am going to suggest what might be going on.
It doesn’t have to make sense
We love things to make sense and fit into neat little boxes so we can manage our view of the world. When they don’t we can take a number of different paths: ignore, anguish, change the story, disbelief, start researching.
We understand that at the heart of 2-channel high-end audio is the goal of doing no harm: the purer the signal, the better the sound. It’s why we make sure there’s perfect power, low distortion, unfettered transient response. We also understand that less is more—the fewer stages a signal has to pass through the better its chance of arriving unscathed.
Which is why it is so maddening that a good preamp placed between the DAC and amplifier sounds better than going direct.
When this statement of fact is presented to people you can almost always categorize their response: agreement from those that have a proper preamp, disbelief from those that don’t, or sometimes anguish and denial because it rubs against the grain of all they know.
The idea that audiophiles often make decisions based on what they hear as opposed to what they “know” is what drives the Objectivists bonkers.
It doesn’t have to make sense.
It just has to sound good.
The sound of microphones
It’s rare that I can hear a recorded voice and be unable to distinguish it from the live version. So rare, in fact, that I think the only times I have been fooled is when that voice is distantly recorded and I am not focused on it.
I place the blame on the device that captures those voices, the microphone. Recording technology has gotten good enough that a direct injected signal from an instrument is indistinguishable from its live performance. It’s really only microphones that are so antiquated as to be instantly identifiable. With only a small amount of practice, you’ll find it easy to classify the types of colorations microphones add to the human voice.
It’s curious to me that so little innovation has gone into the development of new microphones. But then, I suppose, it’s a very difficult problem. To capture sound waves you pretty much have to move some amount of mass and then measure that movement. The types of mass being moved: plastic, metal, ceramic, or granular materials contributes to sound’s colorations.
I once daydreamed about building a stereo servo system around a microphone where a difference approach could be used to correct for the colorations imparted by various materials and microphone patterns. It was an interesting idea but quickly abandoned because, of course, there was no way of capturing what it should sound like without using another transducer.
No, the problem of microphones will be with us for a long, long time.
Hitting the mark
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni or more commonly known by his first name Michelangelo is credited with saying:
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
I think this is excellent advice and a good reminder that the goals we set for our home music system should be more than just a good sounding setup.
I have always been an advocate of stretching myself a little farther than I feel comfortable with: reaching for the stars in the hope of landing on the moon.
I remember when I first became convinced that some preamplifiers had better sound than no preamplifier. For decades I had been an advocate of the philosophy of less is more, that a purer signal path would always trump added circuitry. And for all those decades that was true until I got my arm twisted to purchase one of the few great preamplifiers out there, the Aesthetix Calypso. That move changed my life and my thought process. Suddenly I heard more to the music than I thought possible: air, transparency, space around the instruments and voices, and a more palpable sound stage than I thought possible.
And that’s when we set our sights on building our own preamplifier that could perform the same magic, but with a twist. We wanted to push the envelope farther than it had ever been pushed before. We didn’t want to be as good, we wanted to see where the trail led, how high we could go. When I approached BHK on building a new preamplifier it wasn’t with the intent of matching anything, but rather reaching for the stars.
So, when you’re next dreaming about an upgrade or a new system altogether, aim high my friend. Aim higher than you’re comfortable with and hope you hit something spectacular.
It’s a lot more gratifying than aiming for merely good and hitting your target.