I’m often asked the same question: If the ultimate goal is to perfectly recreate what was on the recording, then why wouldn’t we be duplicating the monitoring systems in recording studios?
It’s a great logic puzzle because it seems so obvious. If we had what the recording engineer had then we’d hear what they hear.
Like so many puzzles were stumped because the question has a not so obvious flaw. As proposed there’s only one answer. Yes. If we stood in the same room with the same audio equipment then we would hear exactly the same thing. But here’s the rub. Unless we’re thinking about duplicating in its entirety a recording studio control room, and only listen to the very same track mastered in that very room, the argument begins to fall apart.
Our stereo systems have to accommodate all sorts of recordings and do so evenly without favor to one type or another. This is one of the reasons I have my list of tracks that vary in quality and content across a broad spectrum of music.
It’s a great question, but the answer reveals more than one might expect.
We are not trying to duplicate anything other than the sound of music.
The good old days
Everyone’s so serious these days. You go to a channel like Fox with their mix of facts, opinions, and sensationalism, and it’s all presented with such seriousness. It kind of takes the fun out of it.
Whatever happened to the Weekly World News and the National Enquirer?
I miss standing in the supermarket checkout line reading headlines about the wife shrinking her husband, aliens, flying cats, Bat Boys, Area 13, Hillary Clinton, and Newt Gingrich saving our nation from the hordes of evil-doers intent upon the destruction of our country.
Here was great tongue-in-cheek sensationalism that put a smile on your face.
Today, we take ourselves so seriously. Maybe we just need to lighten up a little.
It’s good to laugh.
I don’t see much of a reason to walk around the room, unless that’s the way you listen!!
Room for change
It is comforting to feel our audio rooms are fixed and it’s our equipment that must change. And while it’s true that changing stereo equipment has an immediate impact on what we hear, I am not always convinced it’s in our best interest to let our guard down where the room is concerned.
Our stereo system and our rooms work together in a kind of unwitting partnership. We need our rooms for their reflective support yet it is that very support that gets in the way of perfect sound. Walls, ceilings, and floors promote unwanted standing waves: bass frequency that bunch up near the room boundaries, and makes audio trouble. Truth is, most of us haven’t taken the time to get our rooms and systems as right as they could be. That takes time, patience, and a bit of knowledge.
I am certainly not putting myself up as a shining example of how great rooms should sound. Heck, I am as lazy as the next when it comes to working with the room. Maybe lazier. But, at least I have an excuse. Moving 1.2 tons of speakers around for best position in the room is not a project one takes on lightly.
For most of us, however, it’s not such a big deal to reposition our listening position or where our speakers sit in the room.
One of the easiest ways of determining how well your system works is through the bass. How even are the bass frequencies at your listening position? Easy enough to put on a Rob Wasserman track and walk the room listening for evenness.
There’s likely room for change with any of our systems if we’re looking for an easy improvement.
PS Audio has a new product that will [probably prove to be an excellent value, although they don’t work through dealers any longer, so I have no way of knowing for sure.
In order to keep up with our engineering load of 8 major ongoing projects our Director, Barry Solway—an accomplished software engineer, project manager, and gifted author—has hired a few interns for the summer. Among them, his son Carl who just graduated engineering school.
Carl’s job is that of a software tester and, as such, his task is to dispassionately go through every feature and function a product might have to make sure it operates as expected. His first project was our new amplifier, Strata.
When it came time to test Strata’s high-resolution streaming functionality with services like Tidal and Qobuz young Carl got stuck. He removed his headphones, signaled for his father to come to his side, and, in an apparent state of disbelief, said, “Whatever this Stellar device is, it’s crazy! I am hearing things in my favorite music that I have never heard before. How is that possible?”
Carl’s job was not to listen or evaluate the quality of music through Strata. Yet despite his mandate to remain detached from the device under test, he couldn’t.
This once again goes back to my long-held theory that when we’re presented with something dramatically better than what we consider normal, we often wonder if perhaps magic might have just happened.
What better joys are there than uncovering unexpected magic?
Gluten free peanuts
Ever notice how some audio products advertise meaningless features? I can recall companies in our industry touting magnetically isolated AC power, low ESR caps on housekeeping circuits, and rhodium plated knobs.
Of course, we all want to place our stereo equipment in the best possible light. If we don’t it’s unlikely others will. But when we fluff up meaningless attributes it challenges our community’s trust.
I often wonder how many companies place the interests of community ahead of their own needs? I suppose the question’s a little like asking if politicians are more interested in humanity’s well being than their own chances at reelection.
But here’s the thing. The healthier our HiFi Family the likelier it is to grow and thrive.
And, isn’t that what we’re all hoping for?
As we age, we have hearing problems. I do, although not all the time and most of the times can correct it, with some effort. Still, if we cannot hear well, what good is a high end audio system? Plenty good, if you ask me.
As engineers, we focus our efforts on what we can quantify by measuring, evaluating, and finding some form of commonality we can all agree upon. Perhaps the easiest is the ear.
We know what the average ear is supposed to do and we’ve got reams of research on the subject. We know its frequency capabilities as well as its maximum dynamic range and loudness levels. There’s probably not too much we don’t know about that appendage on the side of our head, and so it’s easy to give facts and figures on spec sheets as to how well our equipment’s going to interface with our ears.
Only, our ears are little more than sensors. What they interface with is our brains, and here we have far less knowledge of what we can and cannot perceive. For example, we have a general idea of how much and what type of distortion the average person can tolerate before they notice something’s amiss—but that’s not a firm number. It depends on the kind of music, the listener’s tolerance levels, and (maddeningly to engineers) people’s moods.
Our ears as microphones are an interesting concept but hardly how it works.
Dealing in emotions
When we first started PS Audio some 46 years ago I really thought we were in the business of wringing every last drop of musical purity out of the music. And, while we still work hard at removing layers of haze, I find our end goals to really be more about wringing emotions than cleaning.
In fact, given the choice between crystal clear and foot tapping, I’ll take the latter.
Of course, we always want both, but I think it’s important to focus our attention on what matters most.
In my case, it’s the emotional response music evokes that matters more than all the audiophile jargon in the world.
When I can feel music reaching down deep into my soul, that’s when I know the circuit’s right.
In the moment
When Copper Magazine cover artist Bob DAmico forwarded me a video of Le Petit Chef I watched with utter fascination. What I found riveting was not just the brilliance of the husband and wife team of Filip and Birgit Sterckx, along with fellow Belgium Antoon Verbeeck, but how in the moment I felt.
Though this video dates back nearly five years ago, before the pandemic, it seems prescient. At a time in our history when close seating at a crowded restaurant may be only a distant memory, for me, this brilliant idea flipped the whole dining experience conundrum on its head. In a good way.
And no, this is not a post about restaurants or new dining experiences. It’s a post about being in the moment or, as Guru Ram Das might once have said, Be Here Now.
When we’re in the moment it’s important to shift our focus not on the past—waiting for things to return as they were while inwardly fearing it’s too late for that (it is)—but to readjust ourselves to take advantage of what we have to work with today.
Yes, the world’s a little off its collective rocker right now. There’s no denying it.
As I read our forums and reach out to folks invested deeply in the music, I am so proud of our HiFi Family.
What an amazing time this is.
Sharpness vs. clarity
When reader Kyle Teal asked me to explain the difference between sharpness and clarity, I lit up. What a great question. Thank you, Kyle.
Sharpness is characterized by its edges, while clarity suggests a lack of haze. I’ll expand on those two thoughts.
A knife is sharp because of its edge, just like images in a photograph. If you’re familiar with the program Photoshop, you’ll know that when using its sharpness tool, object edges gain definition through increased contrast which, to our eyes, makes them stand out more. The same can be true for an instrument in reproduced music. A trumpet’s blare becomes sharper with increased transient attack—its edges have greater contrast.
When we increase clarity we’re removing the classic veil blurring the entire image rather than just its edges. I like to think of increased clarity as what happens when we clean a dirty window. Our ability to see into the image or sound becomes clearer.
An overly sharpened sound can cause one to grit their teeth and grate on the nerves. From a circuit standpoint, we might see some unwanted overshoot on square waves and impulses, or, we may want to move from bipolars to FETs.
Removing veils from audio electronics is even more complicated because their causes can be more varied.
Like everything in audio, a fine balance that results in naturally sharpened instruments and voices sounding like themselves without the cloaking veil of audio haze is the ultimate goal.
Achieving those goals in a circuit takes a bit of skill.