I agree with most of this.
I have great a great sounding digital set up, but I find it hard to go back to vinyl, for different reasons than Paul and it all has to do with spoiling me for the best quality sound.
My digital sounds great and is so convenient with all my music on an iPad, at my fingertips.
Better sound quality would be vinyl. Reel to Reel is probably better yet.
Other than the essentials: sweet, salty, savory, our tastes are learned. And those learned tastes don’t apply to only flavors, they cover quite a bit of ground. I remember forcing myself to learn opera because I didn’t want to miss out on an entire catalog of music. Now, it is among my all time favorites.
Reproduced sound is also an acquired taste, though it’s one of the easiest to come by. If we hear a favorite form of music on a decent stereo system we’re immediately attracted. As well, there are few of us who don’t gravitate towards better within the category. But once we’re exposed to reproduced music a kind of standard is set up in our heads. Deviation from this new norm, even if it is technically better, is often met with difficulty.
I was raised on vinyl and when digital came around I was repulsed. Of course, in those early days I had every reason to run. Digital back then was nasty. But over time it’s gotten better to the point of more than just acceptance and now I find it hard to go back to vinyl.
The tough part of our quest for music’s enjoyment is the polarized nature of the two major mediums: vinyl and digital. Depending on what your acquired tastes for reproduced sound might be you’ve likely chosen one over the other. And that’s fine because knowing each is an acquired taste allows us the freedom to understand one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
Vanilla or chocolate can both taste good.
Don’t agree with all of this one and there are lots of better things than CD cases to use to tilt speakers one way or another. Some speakers aren’t to be listened to with the tweeters pointing directly at the listener. I know mine aren’t.
A good use for CDs
We love our CDs. I have hundreds of them, perhaps bordering on a thousand. Many have been memorialized on a hard drive and that gives me easy access to build playlists, something I cannot easily do with physical media unless I make my own. But still, I have my stack of discs at the ready to play.
But, there is another use for CDs that might just surprise you. CDs can dial in your speaker’s performance and adjust them to different height chairs. At least their cases can.
When I help people get their systems to sound right I have two tools at my disposal: the first I described in this post, pulling the speakers out from the front wall. The second is to angle the speakers forward or backward using CD cases to match chair height.
Matching seating height to the tweeter axis is pretty easy to do and even easier to see if it’s needed. From your seating position move your head up or down to see where the tweeter sounds its best, then adjust the speaker’s angle to match. Often times I can hear the tweeter sounds more alive when I stand up, or the opposite. It’s then a simple matter to place a CD case or two underneath the speaker cabinet’s rear or front to lean it forward or backward.
If you want a more permanent solution use a furniture leveler instead.
Getting the tweeter pointing at your ear can often be the difference between good and great.
The ladder of excellence
I remember the very first time I heard a high-end audio system: a pair of JBL corner horns, an Audio Research preamp and power amp, and a Thorens turntable. It was a stunning revelation compared to my Kenwood integrated amplifier, AR turntable, and Phase Array speakers.
Today that same high-end system that first took my breath away would elicit only a polite smile and a soft chuckle of reminiscence.
We’re first taken by the magnitude of contrasting levels: Kenwood to Audio Research; Wonder Bread to a French baguette. Once we adjust to a new level of performance standard, we need ever greater contrasts to make the same size impression of improvement.
I remember well going to a Hong Kong reviewer’s house and listening to his collection of vintage equipment. My only reaction was to wonder how I ever thought any of those ancient treasures sounded good.
Each time we reach new levels of performance our standards change. What might have impressed us once no longer holds sway.
It’s called climbing the Ladder of Excellence.
Each higher rung advances our understanding of what’s good and what’s merely acceptable.
I get this one. So many people just don’t get the listening room right and if you don’t deal with that, its hard to get greatness, even with great equipment.
I’m not sure where Paul is going with this, but I have ideas…
The challenge of better
With few exceptions, I help people’s home systems sound better by pulling their speakers away from the wall behind them. It’s a simple tweak and one that almost always works because living rooms and spouses are generally not happy with large boxes sitting out in the open.
The problem stems from an odd collection of disagreeing needs: homeowners have to live in their listening spaces and speaker designers don’t.
Speaker designers work in an ideal vacuum because they cannot know the environment their products will eventually live. This situation creates the great divide between the theoretical and the practical.
Unlike electronics, which are placement agnostic, speakers are integral to the rooms they play in. This sticky wicket of a problem has generated an entire industry built around taming the room to accommodate the speakers within them.
I think we can do better.
Higher and higher
As the frequency goes up, so too goes the price tag for amplification. Folks aren’t as concerned with the quality of bass amplification as they are with the mid-range region but both pale in importance to the attention and money paid to get the tweeter’s range perfect.
Think of all the ways we’ve worked on to sweeten the top end: tubes, low feedback, single-ended outputs, high class A bias.
When it comes to bass, we just want it to go deep and powerful.
Fact is, the higher the audio frequency the greater the engineer’s challenge to maintain purity, phase accuracy, and transient speed. Harder still is designing an amplifier good enough to handle both the power and depth of low frequencies with the delicacy and transient speed of the upper notes of music.
It is the rare piece of audio amplification equipment that gets high marks for all frequencies, but it is the upper ranges that we fight hardest for.
We can forgive “ok” bass but screechy highs are unforgivable.
As an aspiring author, I understand the mechanics of evoking emotion through well-crafted stories or poems. We relate to collections of words because their meaning often generates empathy encouraging emotion: a smile for the happy ending, sadness at the loss of a friend.
Music too can evoke emotion: inspiration from Stars and Stripes Forever, melancholy to Moonlight Sonata, a laugh from Yankee Doodle Dandy. But how? How do collections of notes in a specific order wring emotion from us? Why do we cringe at a student’s halting performance of a familiar tune?
We can give the quick answer that music is a language unto itself: the notes chapters and verse that tell story and take us on journeys. But how? How does C followed by another note conjure joy while C followed by a different note elicit sadness?
Unlike language, which is a learned skill, no one taught us music. Children respond to Row Row Row Your Boat and Mozart too.
And here’s something else interesting. The older we get the more important the quality of our sound system becomes: with age and experience comes bigger hurdles to get past the constant clutter and noise vying for attention.
There’s a good reason we keep upgrading our systems.
Better sound elicits better emotions.
A matter of degree
Now that PS Audio has moved across the street to our new facilities our old home is vacant. We’ve got to search for a new tenant to lease the space. In the meantime, we have plenty of big, empty, rooms to put stereo systems in.
We’ve set up Arnie Nudell’s reference audio system in the room that once was our entryway and admin area. After a lot of work getting the speakers back to operational status we’ve finally gotten a chance to listen to them again. Wow. I played the San Francisco Symphony Mahler 3d and felt like weeping. It was one of Arnie’s favorites and I was reminded of him and the sound he liked—there it was again, in the room, just the way he demanded—as if the orchestra was in the room. Extraordinary.
I played a few other pieces and wasn’t quite so happy. The bass was wrong: too much, too big, and then the woofer amp croaked. Sigh. The Mahler loves a bit of overblown bottom end, but Shelby Lynn’s Just a little lovin’ not so much and Boz Scaggs Thanks To You was the straw that broke the woofer amp’s back.
The Mahler was still playing in my head when I walked through our home front door to the music of The Allman Brothers live vinyl on Sprout and KEF LS50s. Meh. The difference was so stark as to make me cringe just a bit. But then, the Allman Brother’s music is so good…
It’s all a matter of degree.
When is too much enough?
I am often asked if a certain this or a certain that is overkill.
“I have a small room, would a subwoofer be overkill?”
I am tempted to turn the question around and ask what size room benefits from a rolled off speaker? Seems to me I always want to get everything on the disc.
Or, “is this DAC too good for my system?”
I get the sentiment of not wanting to “waste” expensive high quality. When I first got into the drinking of good wine I’d share an expensive red with my mother Sue who would proceed to plop a few cubes of ice into it to get the temperature right.
But I think asking the question of how good something needs to be before its goodness is wasted is misguided. Why wouldn’t it make more sense to always do the best you can: the widest frequency response speakers, the highest DAC resolution possible, an unrestricted dynamic range phono cartridge.
I think it should be turned into: What’s the best I can do?
Right tool, right job
You can make almost anything work. Getting things to work right is a bigger challenge.
Take for example a Power Plant AC regenerator. We’d love to use Class D amplifier technology for the output but have consistently stayed with good old Class A/B. Right tool, right job.
Class D amplifiers can be terrific for the reproduction of music and so too can Class A/B. The reason either can work for music but only one for a regenerator is because the jobs are different: powering loudspeakers isn’t as extreme as powering equipment.
Speakers might demand instantaneous current approaching 10 amps for short periods of time—a workable challenge for both amp topologies. Equipment and AC power routinely demand 50 to 60 amps for a regenerator—at 5 times the voltage presented to a speaker. That’s a job for an amplifier without a heavy output filter.
In the same vein, using a vacuum tube for the input rather than the output, or a DC servo instead of a blocking capacitor, is the essence of using the right tool for the right job.
Hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong if you’re not a designer yourself. Which is why it’s important to find a company or a designer you can trust.
Right tool, right job offers the best performance.
Audiophile rating system
While answering a customer’s question about matching amps to speakers an old memory popped into my head. The industry’s effort to craft an audiophile rating system.
It was a few decades ago but back then the idea seemed promising. Within the audiophile community, we’d set up a rating system for sound quality to insulate us from the overzealous performance claims of mass market consumer audio companies. Perhaps it would be on some sort of sliding scale or points system, whatever. It really didn’t matter how the metrics worked, just that there would be some agreed upon standard of performance. Once that was decided then manufacturers could submit their products to a listening panel for review. That panel would then rate the product to be “audiophile approved” or not. This rating could apply to equipment and recordings as well.
The purpose of this rating system was simple: a means to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you go online and read the descriptions of power amplifiers, for example, everything from a $19.95 20-watt amp to actually decent sounding products all claim to be “high-performance” or “audiophile grade”. Clearly that is not true nor will it ever be true.
So, how’s a customer suppose to decide if an amplifier, CD player, preamp, recording, or loudspeaker meets some sort of minimum standard of performance? What might be helpful is a stamp of approval similar to a Michelin Star system but without the gradations. Just approved or not approved. Simple.
In the end, the idea was abandoned because of manufacturer infighting. Who would make these judgments? Who would maintain them? Wouldn’t members of the review board wield too much power over the industry? Would there be an appeals process? What if bribery got involved?
My arguments were on the flipside. Perhaps manufacturers that wanted to be approved but weren’t could be given a ratings sheet letting them know where they fell down: poor FR, flat imaging, 2-dimensional sound, too bright, too this or not enough of that. Then, their engineers could upgrade the product until it met with approval. Bingo! Better sales, better sound. Win, win.