[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
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February 2002

Measure This!

I first became infected back in the late '70s. That’s when high-end audio (or what seemed like high-end audio) began to eke into the mainstream. The marketing people were on top of their game, and I was hooked.

Some of you may remember the days of the Super Receiver. All of the big Japanese companies were duking it out. First came the power wars. For a while, Pioneer was king with 120 watts per channel -- "BOTH CHANNELS DRIVEN," in bold neon type, as if some inferior products would choose to power only the left channel and leave the right to fend for it self. Soon Technics, the new kid on the block, stepped up with its contender. 175 watts. Take that Pioneer! And the war was on. Marantz and Kenwood soon joined in the fray, and the sky was the limit. If my memory serves me right, the power ratings claimed were well past 200Wpc by the time the burning ozone cloud cleared.

Next came THD. Let us cleanse ourselves of total harmonic distortion lest our frequency responses fall prey to evil impurities. THD should have stood for "total hype delivered." Whereas we were once delighted with "less than 1%," we now were being fed claims of .002% and below. How had we lived with this filth for as long as we had?

I remember trying to keep track of who had the best numbers so I could tell who was getting closest to audio nirvana. It was all about the numbers. Speaker manufacturers climbed on board, and soon frequency responses were bantered about like a model's portfolio. Stereo Review published a buyer’s guide that listed every product along with every claimed specification. It was my bible. I wore out multiple copies putting together fantasy systems. There was no need to embarrass my "too young" self by bothering those hi-fi upper-crusties who ran the stores. I needed only to look at the numbers to figure out that a 200-watt Pioneer receiver was a much better deal than a McIntosh amplifier. It had twice the power and two extra zeros past the decimal point of THD. And all this for one quarter the price. Wow! Match it up with a pair of Fisher speakers. Just look at those specs! A five-way speaker with 15" woofers and a frequency response of 25 to 25,000Hz. Who could ask for anything more? Who indeed.

This all came to mind recently while I was in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. I was standing outside of a room that many considered to have some of the better sound at the show. Two gentlemen began to step in the room when one of them said, "Oh, tubes" and turned around. Not known for being shy, I queried, "You don’t like tubes?" "I like accuracy," the poor misguided youth said. In my little idealistic world I couldn’t possibly understand why anyone would turn his nose up at something from which I derive such pleasure, and without even a fair listen. Audio bigots, I thought to myself.

Audiophiles come in lots of different flavors. Some are equipment junkies, obsessing over every binding post to the extent that the music becomes a non-issue. Others will only listen to the finest of reference recordings that will make their systems shine their best. On the other extreme are those that will listen in total harmony to a screeching mono recording of a 1929 performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, simply because it’s the best performance on record. We have analog junkies who consider "digital" to mean that your fingers are required to move the stylus to the beginning of a record. And digital freaks who think of "vinyl" is a great material for the feet on their DACs so they don’t scratch the glass on their audio racks.

Then there’s the specification fanatic, who leads a life of logic and analytical thinking. He believes that every aspect of every component can be measured, plotted and analyzed, with the results telling him everything he needs to know about the sound without ever hearing it. His world is a purely objective one of rational choices. He's a real left-brain kind of guy. Meet Mr. Spock.

In theory (Mr. Spock is big on theory), this is totally logical. What we all want from our systems is a wide frequency response, low distortion, and an unlimited dynamic range. Sign me up. This works great for engineers and idealists, but the real world is not so pretty. We should all be grateful to these engineers for the amazing sound quality that we possess in our systems today. The advances in just the last few years have been astounding. I have heard systems for less that $3000 that couldn’t be touched by a system costing two and three times as much just five years ago. I think most of the analog and digital engineers are earning their pay. A little fanaticism now and then is a good thing.

Where some of this fanaticism loses its foundation is when Joe Cool tries to assemble a system with numbers alone. First of all, individual specs only tell a partial story. Last I heard, an amplifier by itself doesn’t sound like much. As soon as you hook it up to another piece of equipment, you have entered two more variables into the picture: the second component and the cable attaching them. Each of these pieces has its own specs, which may change when the component is hooked up to another. Even the cables come with their own set of problems. Sure, you can measure resistance, capacitance, and inductance, but there are other things that affect the sound of cables. Things like conductor materials, cable geometry, and even the insulation materials make an audible difference. Yeah, yeah. I hear you number crunchers scoffing in the background, but don’t deny it until you try it. Add together preamp, amplifier, source, and two sets of cables, and see how the complexity increases. And we haven’t even hooked anything up to a speaker yet!

Amplifiers are generally measured when they are hooked up to a "phantom" speaker or driving a resistor. The variety of real-world loads is endless. Every component of the speaker from the binding posts to the crossover components and the drivers are part of the chain. The impedance curve will change not only with every speaker, but at every frequency and also at different power levels for each speaker. The variables are boggling. You would have to be a "mathemagician" to account for every variable and predict the sonic results from numbers alone.

And all this is assuming that what you are really after is accuracy. I would argue that many if not most of us are not really interested in accuracy at all. We’re looking for what we think is right or what we like. Let’s face it -- there are some of us who crave surgical detail that could require stitches after an hour or so of listening. Good for you, but make sure you buy the right recordings (or a large bottle of aspirin). Remember that most recording engineers aren’t audiophiles, and the results often prove it. One of the first things that often departs from a budding audiophile’s house is his collection of popular music. Much of it sounds like compressed, uneven noise when played through a system that’s too revealing. Can I get you some gauze for your eardrums? Others prefer a more lush and organic sound, something a little rounder so that the music drapes over us like a cozy chenille blanket, a sound that tames the nasties a little. Is it a bad thing to crave this? Which is right? I find this akin to trying to convince someone that blue is better than green. For whom?

So what about the guy who snubbed his nose at the tube amps in Vegas without so much as a listen? I completely defend his right to be an audio bigot. I’m sure he will end up with exactly what he’s looking for. He may not like it, but he’ll never tell. The devil’s got to get his due somewhere. My tubes are just about warmed up. Guess I’ll put on a record….

...Bill Brooks


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