When we’re building a stereo system it can often feel like a marriage.
We want our components to get along with each other but we also want to make sure their strengths and weaknesses are complementary.
If we lean too hard in any one direction the results often end in divorce. We sell off the offending component and search for something a bit more agreeable.
Unlike a good marriage where partners are bound together for life, our stereo components can come and go like lovers. We hope for a great match but it’s awfully hard to tell just from the romance of reviews. Though living together before getting married was once frowned upon, fortunately, when it comes to our audio components, the home audition is still a great idea.
Our quest for audio bliss is all about synergy—marrying together the components that make magic.
Recording vs. reproducing
As Octave Records grows it’s becoming more evident to me the difference between recording and reproducing.
On the former, we’re often using heavy hands to capture as best we can what happens in acoustic space: different microphones, preamps, EQ, reverb—everything we would never consider in the act of reproduction.
I think of recording as building a movie set. Hours, sometimes days are spent assembling all the pieces together so that the final image perfectly represents the vision in one’s head. We’re not as interested in being faithful to the moment as we are true to the vision. The best recordings use whatever is available to them to capture the perfect sound.
The opposite is true when it comes to audio playback. The best lenses and cameras, like the best audio reproduction chains, are built with only one goal in mind: to be faithful to the original.
It took chisels, hammers, and heavy hands to fashion from a block of marble Michelangelo’s David, but once crafted, very different apparatus to enjoy it.
Finding your passion
Passion is a feeling of intense enthusiasm for something (or someone). Finding it isn’t always easy but, when you do, it’s great to hone in on the elements that really fan the flames.
If I look at myself I quickly identify two major passions: learning how things work and building solutions.
From as far back as I can remember, I had to know how everything worked: why the sky is blue, what are rainbows, how a button and a switch work, a synthesizer, a phono stage, a vacuum tube, a traffic light. When I interact with the physical world there’s not a lot around me I don’t understand.
Faced with a problem or presented with a challenge, I am inspired to build a solution. When I was unhappy with the sound of the first CD players from Magnavox I figured out how they worked, determined what I could and could not affect, and built one of the first outboard DACs to solve the problem. When I was unhappy with my stereo’s dynamics I added side-firing drivers activated by a log amplifier to extend the system’s dynamic range.
Not everything is understandable to me. Not everything is fixable to me.
That was never the point.
The point is to identify and then follow one’s passion even if it means failure.
What’s your passion?
The problem with evaluations
What do you call the lowest-performing student graduating medical school?
In any field, the range from good to great is all over the map. Graduation degrees, specifications, and even reviews only tell us so much.
A power amplifier meeting all the basic requirements of distortion, frequency response, and power output does not—can not—sound the same as a different design with identical specifications.
It’s why we interview our medical providers.
It’s why we read the first chapter of a best seller before committing to the whole.
It’s why we listen to our amplifiers.
Specs, degrees, and reviews are fine for clearing away the cruft of the unworthy.
The rest is up to you.
When enjoying live recordings we get more than just a great capture of the music. We get a sense of the crowd, the stage, the air conditioning system, the floor bounce, the room acoustics.
Live recordings are the polar opposite of the sterility of studio recordings where great pains are expended to neutralize studio acoustics, quiet the room, make whisper-quiet the air conditioning system, and silence any hint of an audience.
Live recordings capture both the brilliant musical surprises as well as whatever mistakes happen (which is one reason many live recordings are actually a compilation of multiple night performances presented as one).
In a studio session do-overs, punch-ins, editing, and overdubs cover the mistakes and often over sterilize the performance.
There are clear differences between the spontaneity of live recordings and the sterility of the studio versions. Both have their charms, benefits, and weakness.
The one observation I will make is that I wish more studio recordings would be alright with some environmental noises. When we were recording the Audiophile’s Guide SACD reference disc, many tracks were captured in PS Audio’s warehouse where, without much effort, one can clearly hear the air conditioning system at work, creaks, groans, and sighs from the metal roof, and a generally more “live” sound.
I often miss all that recording studios spend small fortunes eliminating.
As the information age grows, communications have increasingly become both more impersonal as well as the opposite.
Where once we might have picked up the phone and called a retailer with our questions, today we turn instead to Google’s bots, nameless people on live chat software, downloaded PDFs, and FAQs. Need help assembling or fixing something? There’s a YouTube video at the ready.
On the other hand, in the long-ago age of the local stereo retailer, if they didn’t have the info you needed it was nearly impossible to connect directly with a manufacturer. Dealers provided an insular barrier between companies and customers and that was exactly what many companies wanted. I remember trying to outfox the switchboard guards of numerous companies trying to get an audience of someone within the company for an answer.
Then came the internet. Some companies pounced on the new connection technology to further isolate them from their customers while others did exactly the opposite.
Take PS Audio as an example. As the information age grows we’re embracing it as a means of greater one-on-one connection with our community: videos, blogs, forums, one-on-one phone communication, emails answered by people, not bots.
The web is a double-edged sword. For organizations unconcerned with providing a one-on-one experience with their customers it permits entire companies to be built with not more than two or three people. On the flip side, if greater connection is the goal, the web also provides a golden opportunity to get closer and closer to a worldwide community of like-minded people.
Like anything in technology, it’s how one chooses to use it that matters.
Phono cartridges, microphones, and loudspeakers
We all know that microphones sound different, and not just by a little. And we all know phono cartridges sound different, and not just by a little. And don’t get me going about the differences in loudspeakers!
What all three transducers have in common is the nature of their operation: mechanical.
Our stereo systems are all lorded over by one, two, or all three mechanical contrivances that so greatly affect sound quality.
Fact is, between the differences in microphones, phono cartridges, and loudspeakers it’s impossible to ever suggest there’s a “standard” of performance we could ever rely upon.
It’s no wonder every system sounds so unique.
In light of recent events, I think it may be helpful to turn to the one thing we can all agree upon.
As some of you know, Octave Records is going to be launching an amazing work in May: the entire Bach Cello Suites, recorded in the cavernous Mesa Arts center by our friend, world-renowned Cellist, Zuill Bailey. Can’t wait to share this masterpiece with you.
In the meantime, Zuill suggested we share a beautiful and healing piece of music, Song of Birds. This was originally performed, sadly, after the tragic El Paso shootings.
It’s music that can heal wounds and soothe the pain.
Click on the picture of Zuill to watch the YouTube video.
When I am auditioning a new stereo product, circuit, or technology I do not want to be prejudiced because of its price.
Price discrimination is real.
For most of us, it’s difficult not to be swayed by our perception of an object’s value. If it’s “too cheap to be any good”, or “so expensive it damned well better be good”, we start out with a preconception that is difficult to wipe clean.
To make matters more difficult, the outward appearance of a product almost always tells a story about its cost. A chassis with lots of expensive gingerbread is expected to have the same level of innards as outsides. But, of course, that’s not always the case.
It’s hard not to judge a book by its cover, a stereo product by its looks or price, but if you can figure out how to overcome the problem of basic prejudice, with respect to price, you’re light years ahead of the pack.