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.
Some cables can sound better than others, but mostly overrated and way overpriced ancillaries. Lots of guys/gals making lots of money on this stuff and some of it is incredibly stupid.
If a cable sings in the woods…
I had to smile while reading this comment to a recent video: “I agree with most you say….except about the audiophile wires and power cables….but I still subscribe and like! so there!”
Yes indeed. So there. This issue of audio wires and cables making a difference for some and not for others is one of continual fascination for me. It begs a twist on the age-old question about trees falling in woods without anyone hearing them.
“If I hear cable differences in my system and you are not around to listen, can you make a sweeping edict those differences do not exist?”
Upon questioning cable deniers—their angry eyes ablaze and pitchforks raised high—most admit they’ve never actually tried comparing cables on a resolving system. To them, it just cannot work. There’s no need to actually see for themselves because that would be the height of foolishness—like testing the efficacy of gravity whilst standing atop a ladder.
And so the fallback position is to demand proof before they will consider it.
I am guessing an overwhelming fear of being called out as a fool is the key motivator of cable deniers—understandable as no one wants to wind up in a vulnerable place.
And still, what is true continues to be true despite our beliefs and disbeliefs: trees fall in the woods, rivers run while we sleep, cables matter on resolving systems.
Over lunch with engineer Darren Meyers we got to talking about systems and when it’s time to turn to cable elevators for improvements. Cable elevators get the speaker cables off the floor and improve sound quality: they are ultra-tweaks. Your system needs to be at a certain point of perfection before they matter.
Some audiophiles dress their systems to the nines without ever going through the step-by-step audition process to find if any of their efforts actually help—kind of like automatically adding spice without tasting. Others get everything as right as rain and then start the process of ultra-tweaking, listening along the way.
I find myself in both camps at different times. If I’m hustling through a setup for a show or helping someone with theirs, then we dress everything in the system as best we can and cross our fingers for best results. But when the system is part of our long term project it’s best if we tweak a little at a time, listening along the way.
My best systems have come about because I take what I like to call the ladder approach—each change happens in step-by-step order.
The careful grooming of a system generates more than just great sound. You gain knowledge as well.
Listening to a beautiful piece of music, Variations on One String on a Theme By Rossini: Moses Fantasie – Janos Starker – Janos Starker: Virtuoso Music for Cello, on Qobuz the other night, and I found myself somehow connected with what felt to me like the soul of the music.
Rossini and Starker are long dead, yet as I focused on this lovely work it pulled me into the moment of both composer and performer. It is, of course, only a fantasy in my head. I cannot know what Rossini was feeling or even, for that matter, what he was trying to communicate through his composition but I can get a glimmer through Starker’s translation.
One might suggest what we sometimes experience through the power of music is a unique and personalized connection with the soul, the essence, the root emotions of artists of the past. A time machine of sorts—like a literary work only with a voice.
As long as the reproduction’s not flawed or draws attention to itself, I can float away on the notes that capture music’s soul.
OK, but not sure about this.
A watt’s a watt, or is it? The technical definition of a watt is a unit of power, equivalent to one joule per second, corresponding to the power in an electric circuit in which the potential difference is one volt and the current one ampere.
To get a watt out of our audio amplifier we need voltage and current. Once we have that unit of power the magnetic motor system in the drivers converts that energy into movement that compresses the air and we hear sound. A watt is a watt, yet not all stereo amplifiers at the same wattage sound the same. So what’s going on?
Amps with identical wattage ratings sound different because moving watts are different than steady-state watts.
If we were instead looking at wattage steadily powering a lightbulb we’d not really see any difference if that watt was produced by hydro or steam power. But in audio, we don’t listen to steady-state tones. Instead, we’re listening to rapidly moving air pressure. How that air moves defines what we hear.
Thus, we’d be more accurate to suggest that the motion of watts is what matters, not the watt itself.
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).
Having something to say
There are a few ways of deciding within a company what new products to launch. The most typical is to look around at the competition, see what’s working, and build more of the same so people have a broader choice. The more difficult path, the one we have always chosen, is to only build products when you have something new to say.
When I left Genesis Technologies in 1997 to reform PS Audio I had nothing new in the art of designing stereo amplifiers to say. There were already loads of great products in the marketplace and I needed time to get my head back into the groove. What I did have new to offer was not an amplifier but rather a new idea in AC power, the regenerator. At a time when all AC power products were passive boxes of coils and capacitors, I was anxious to share a new vision of how power was delivered to equipment: regulated, perfected, and without the debilitating waveform distortion common to the AC power line. This was the regenerator, the beginning of what became known as the Power Plant.
Move forward by 23 years and we are still producing products that are not copies of prior art, but entirely new thoughts on how music is reproduced through a particular piece in the audio chain.
If you enjoy learning of the inner workings of companies and the thoughts of their designers, check out Steve Heliker’s new Ultimate Stream YouTube channel. In this latest edition, Steve interviews me and design engineer Darren Myers. You may find it interesting.
Click here to watch the interview.
I have said for many years the ultimate goal of high-end audio is to honor the music by bringing the musicians into your room as if they were playing live. I think to some degree it’s a notion we can all wrap our heads around.
But here’s a twist suggested by one of my readers. The goal of high-end audio is not to bring the musicians live into our homes, but to transport us into the room the musicians are playing in.
This somewhat academic difference may seem trivial but the more I think about it the more it seems to change my thought process. If I am being transported to the recording event then it makes far more sense to expect to hear the recording environment as well as the musical notes. The illusion of bringing me to the recording is easier to imagine than replacing my fixed boundary walls with something else.
I know many of my readers are digesting these thoughts along with breakfast. My intent isn’t indigestion. Certainly, this notion of going to the event, as opposed to bringing the event home, is at its core semantic, but something at the back of my head tells me there’s more to this thought. Much more.
It is I that needs to digest.
The meaning of analog
“That sounds so…analog.” What does that actually mean? And what are we saying when we suggest something sounds “digital”.
I wonder if our terminology isn’t out of date. We offer praise when a digital reproduction sounds analog yet we know analog has limitations that digital does not.
I would never suggest that while listening to a live performance that it sounds either analog or digital. I might say it sounds natural, perhaps full and rich, but analog or digital? Never.
I wonder why then we cling to these antiquated terms. And I am not pointing the finger at anyone but me. I am a big offender and want to work on my language at every opportunity.
Perhaps when I slip up you all can help remind me.
There’s no such thing as the sound of analog and digital. They are antiquated terms and I can do better.
Turned up noses
Audiophiles. We’re nothing if not opinionated. And that’s great because opinions equate to passionate and it’s passion that floats my boat.
Where I draw the line is when we’re scornful of others—when we turn our noses up at those that value audio sound quality over musical performance, hardware lust vs. musical yearning, vacuum tubes vs. solid-state, or digital vs. vinyl.
It takes all kinds to make our community and I would just like to celebrate our diversity and differences rather than wag my finger in the faces of those who disagree.
In fact, the worst thing ever would be for folks to agree with us on all counts.
If we want to turn up our noses, let’s reserve that for those with low levels of tolerance and kindness for others.