One of the cures for bland tasting food is to liven it up with the addition of a dash of spice.
In audio, it’s not so easy. There’s really not anything we can add to the system if we want to liven up the sound. There is, however, something we can subtract.
In my experience, stereo systems presenting themselves as dull or lifeless are more often than not victims of their environment.
An over or under damped room is often the perpetrator and the first place we should turn to—though often we mistakenly lay blame on the stereo equipment.
It’s true that speakers and electronics have individual voices, but often those are not properly supported within the room.
If your system’s too spicy, or not spicy enough, consider first the room. It’s easy enough to add or subtract absorptive materials like furniture, pillows, and the like (and a hell of a lot easier than equipment swaps).
Our instincts often lead us first to equipment swaps but I think it’s valuable to remember the room.
Reviewing the critics
A stereo reviewer is an audiophile with knowledge, experience, and the chops to write about it.
They are essential community assets.
Theirs is a tough job. Imagine the challenge of reviewing loudspeakers. It’s hard enough for any of us to get a new pair of speakers and set them up properly. It must be a magnitude more difficult to do this for a review. Get the setup wrong and readers get an unfair evaluation of the speaker.
And then there’s the challenge of passion. A dispassionate clinical review—one that’s not clouded by personal bias—is what most of us think we’re after. To quote Sgt. Friday, “give us just the facts”.
But honestly, how many of us don’t thrill to a reviewer’s passion? It’s actually what I look for. Their level of excitement tells me more about a product’s virtues than any technical description or dispassionate analysis.
I care about how the stereo equipment made them feel.
Because how the audio equipment makes us feel is what it’s all about anyway.
Two identical car models will both live up to their performance promise, yet they come with a warning their mileage will vary.
Of course, the variance is not in the car’s promise but in the drivers.
Stereo equipment is no different.
Identical audio systems in different hands and rooms will never be the same. A fact that makes it rather difficult to provide an accurate list of expectations.
What we can confidently provide are trends, flavors, and promises. “Our new transport will reveal once-hidden nuance and detail. Its sound is sweet and never fatiguing.”
Your mileage as measured by exacting standards will most certainly vary.
What should never vary is how we feel—our emotional response to a promise given.
I mostly agree with this, unless balanced is accomplished through transformers like my Rogue power amplifiers. Then, a mixed bag.
Balanced is better
In my mind, there’s no question that between components the best connection is balanced. Balanced cables offer lower noise and better sound.
I understand there are single-ended holdouts (wait, we disagree on something in audio?). Perhaps their stereo equipment doesn’t support balanced. Perhaps their cable collection doesn’t include balanced. Or maybe they don’t agree with me. Whatever the reasons, I think they are missing out on an entire level of sonic bliss enjoyed by those of us who have seen the light of balanced connections.
One nagging problem remains. I continue to get questions about using balanced to single-ended (or the opposite) adapters. The stores and “experts” advising unsuspecting customers on their use are guilty of fake news. Seems to be a popular thing these days, non-factual fake news.
The facts in this matter are simple. Balanced to single-ended adapters do not somehow “convert” or take advantage of the benefits of a balanced connection. What they do is simply ignore the two-wire balanced convention, leaving the unused signal conductor floating. Balanced to single-ended adapters should be avoided if at all possible.
If your source rig has a balanced out but what it’s feeding hasn’t a balanced in, you’re much better off using a proper single-ended cable. Exceptions might include when you haven’t a choice and need to feed a secondary component like a subwoofer.
I hope this helps those who are struggling to find the proper way to connect.
Mine is break in and warm up, once a piece of stereo equipment is sufficiently broken in.
Audio taboos and sacred rituals
There are certain audio taboos we’re loathed to violate. High atop my list would be plants atop speakers. (But it behooves us to be diplomats if we’d like not to sleep on the couch)
Diplomacy aside, we purists rarely tolerate violations of our taboos and sacred rituals.
Some taboos make sonic sense: plugging all your equipment into an AC extension strip, stacking a turntable atop a power amplifier.
Perhaps more prevalent than taboos would be the sacred rituals which cover everything from record handling, room light levels, seating positions, warm-up time, and source protocols.
I never start a listening session with vinyl. My ritual is to get the system warmed up and me adjusted to it with known digital references. Then, and only then, am I comfortable switching sources.
What are your audio taboos and sacred rituals?
The overshadowing dilemma
There are abundant chestnuts that cover today’s subject. Perhaps the best is not being able to see the forest for the trees. When we’re so involved in the details of our stereos, we often miss the bigger picture.
I’ve more than a few times been so focused on listening for music’s tiny details that I missed the fact the channels are reversed.
And then there are times I am so enamored with a particular overshadowing characteristic like dynamics that I miss the absence of small musical details.
Which is why we need to take time when evaluating stereo equipment.
How often have I made a snap judgment that turned out to be incorrect? More times than I care to admit.
It’s easy to focus on one aspect or another of the sound. It’s harder to let some time pass before returning to an evaluation so that we can let go our immediate bias and relax around the overall presentation.
It’s easy to be quick with judging a product’s synergy within the system, but it takes patience and resolve to spend the time necessary sassing out all that is right and wrong with new gear.
Take your time.
One of the most important secret weapons available to the high-performance stereo equipment designer is the Field Effect Transistor, better known as the FET.
Originally envisioned by Austrian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld in 1925 and then again by Oskar Heil in 1934—yes THAT Oscar Heil, the inventor of what is still to this day one of the best tweeters ever made, the Heil Air Motion Transformer—it was little more than a pipe dream because they couldn’t get it to work. It wouldn’t be until another decade later when, in the course of trying to understand their failure to build a working FET, Bell Lab’s scientists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley would instead build a point-contact transistor in 1947, followed by the bipolar junction transistor (BJT) in 1948. It would take another decade of work to produce the first practical FETs, and another decade after that to enter the general marketplace.
The fundamental difference between a BJT and a FET is that BJTs are at their inputs excited into operation by current while FETs rely upon voltage. This fundamental difference—current vs. voltage—is what has such a profound effect on sound quality differences between the two structures. A FET is more closely related to another voltage amplifying device, the vacuum tube.
So it should be no surprise to find that FETs sound remarkably closer to vacuum tubes than do BJTs.
Great food, like great power amplifiers, depend on the quality and nature of their ingredients.
The independent audiophile
In just about every endeavor I can think of there’s more imitation than originality. Groups who buy one sort of product fall into predictable patterns: Apple computer devotees rarely stray off brand, cowboys wear boots.
Audiophiles are different. Duplicate systems are rare. Hard to say what electronics Magneplanar owners will have, just as it’s nearly impossible to suggest what speakers will be employed by PS Audio owners.
We audiophiles are independent thinkers, ready willing, and eager to experiment with exotic stereo equipment and connection combinations for best results.
It’s our differences that bring us strength.
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.