آصل مقاله اینجاست :
نتیجه گیری های این مقاله جالبه و یه روانشناس تو المان تست Blind گرفته از شنوندگان که خیلی باحاله و دقیق :
- اگر صداي سيستمهاي امروزي اينطور شده دليلش اينه سيستم ها بر اساس اناليز صدا طراحي ميشن نه ارتباط حسي با صدا
- ميگه اون شنوندگاني كه سیستم hifi داشتند صداي ديجيتال رو ترجيح دادند اما شنوندگان عادي صداي انالوگ رو
- ميگه بعد از تست blind حدود ٥٠ شنونده اكثريت با سيستم انالوگ احساس ارامش داشتند اما با سيستم ديجيتال نه
This journal has seen a number of thoughtful ruminations on what it is that attracts us to music or to a given audio component, and how we should describe that attraction. The “Letters” pages have been filled by readers who have taken us to task for not adhering to rigorous scientific methods in the evaluation of components, those rigorous scientific methods usually being equated with double-blind listening. Other readers have praised the magazine for its stance that an educated listener in a familiar, relaxed environment will be more accurate in his or her assessment than an average of trained and untrained listeners in unfamiliar, stressful circumstances. Overall, sonic descriptions from diverse reviewers in different publications show a remarkable consensus of observation (not opinion).
The value judgments, however, differ to a much greater degree. One reason will be the differing horizons of experience. I would have more confidence in a reviewer’s ability to place digital components correctly in a sonic hierarchy if he had auditioned a good proportion of the available gear than if he hadn’t. The other reason seems to be that when two people hear the same system under identical circumstances, their appreciation of the system’s balance of strengths and weaknesses will still differ. Their emotional reactions may well be radically different.
The truly troubling aspect of this oft-repeated observation is not that people react differently to the same musical stimulus—that’s only to be expected. But when several listeners each play music they like on the system, their reaction should be more uniform. But it isn’t. What irks me is that, while we seem to be able to agree pretty well on how a system sounds, there seems to be no consistency of emotional reaction to this sound, even though reaction to the same music played live would probably be reasonably consistent. Putting it another way, there is no easily ascertainable relation between component sound and emotional response.
Let me illustrate what I mean from my own experience. Several years ago, I had a Naim Nait II integrated amplifier in my system that worked quite well with the speakers I owned at the time, the Epos ES 14s. The ES 14’s electrical demands, especially regarding current, could not be met fully by the low-powered (20W or so) little Naim, resulting in restrictions in loudness and dynamics, and a bass that could have been tighter. Yet this was, emotionally, a quite satisfying combo. At the time, I tried (for several weeks each) two pre-/power-amp combinations: the German one cost about eight times as much as the diminutive Naim, the American one about 10 times as much. Both amp combinations had been very well reviewed in the international press. The power amps had far superior control over the speakers, the bass went deeper, the treble was cleaner and more extended, the system went louder, I was hearing details the Naim had hidden—in short, the sound, as defined by the usual list of categories, was better in almost every respect.
Yet both combos left me emotionally cold. The degree of analysis these amps allowed was far greater than the Naim’s, but music just didn’t reach out and touch me anymore. Objectively, both combos were “better”; in a review situation, the expensive amplification obviously was experienced as observationally better, too. But so what?
This experience, which came at a time when I was first starting out as a reviewer, precipitated a minor crisis. Could I hear as well as a reviewer had to? Did I lack adequate experience in setting up demanding systems, and thus couldn’t get the expensive combos to perform as well as they could? Were the speakers incompatible with the amps, or did the expensive amplification just tell me what was wrong with my front-end? In retrospect, I’m sure that my setup was at least adequate. I have heard the same amps under different conditions, in other systems, and could recognize the sonics as coming as close as possible, given different room conditions and source components, to those I had achieved in my own system. But I’m also convinced that my emotional reaction was correct. Both combos just weren’t as well adjusted to my preferences as the integrated amp. But how could that be? Shouldn’t more money buy you more audio fun?
Subsequent experience of a greater number of other components has shown me that, no, there seems to be no reliably observable relationship between price and musical satisfaction. The reason seems to be that it is possible to take components in different directions, optimizing aspects of performance that do count for me, and others that don’t.
In the July 1994 Stereophile (p.19), I “outed” myself as a triode-and-high-sensitivity-loudspeakers man. For the last five years or so I’ve been trying to understand what it is that attracts me to their sound, but have yet to come up with a coherent answer. Let’s not beat around the bush: Triodes and their paraphernalia go against almost every convention the High End has acquired in the last two decades or so. They don’t have many watts, let alone a decent power bandwidth; their measurements are often abysmal; their high output impedance wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting speaker’s amplitude response; being transformer-coupled, their phase response is much less flat than that of most decent solid-state gear; and it is extremely difficult to design a stable triode amp that doesn’t use capacitors or transformers to decouple the amplification stages inside the amplifier, which means they won’t be as transparent as really good solid-state stuff.
In the course of my convoluted thinking, I have begun to question, among other things, the current state of the art of hi-fi design and hi-fi journalism, and their impacts on the public’s approach to component selection. I don’t seem to be alone in this. I have found that there has been, in recent years, an undercurrent going in much the same direction of general unease with the state of the high-fidelity art. I have read many articles and think pieces, and heard many offhand comments, all of which indicate that others are searching just as hesitantly and erratically as I am.
There has also been an observation that kept bothering me. In the great objective vs subjective debate, Stereophile has done as much as any magazine to show that the objectivists’ position is really untenable. That position can be summed up as follows: All important differences between hi-fi components can be measured; most differences that can be measured don’t actually matter because they are below the limit of audibility, as proven by double-blind listening tests; thus, at least for amplifiers, all competently designed amps sound the same. This position—which seems to be a specialty of the American audio engineering establishment, at least—seems quickly on its way to extinction because it runs counter to the direct experience of anyone who takes the trouble to go into a dealer’s for a demonstration.
Yet there are millions of people out there who buy what, in our enlightened eyes, passes as junk, as lo-fi or no-fi: rack systems, boomboxes, cynical mid-market efforts with a maximum of bells and whistles, and so on. If you demonstrate a high-end system to these people, sure, they’ll hear the difference. But to the eternal dismay of high-end dealers and manufacturers alike, these people will not then go out and buy a decent system. They return to their modest home systems and are quite content with them, even though their ears have been opened and they now know that there are much better systems out there to be had.
In many cases this may be because these people’s interest in music is not high enough to justify an expensive system. Yet we all know there are a lot of people out there who love music, have decent record or CD collections, make enough money, and still can’t be bothered about the High End. The usual lament is that they have either been corrupted by the mainstream press or that they have cloth ears.
I’m not so sure about that. Because the reverse is also true: people with excellent home systems can listen to something as humble as a car stereo (a topic that has often popped up in Stereophile) and still have a profound musical experience. This, to me, indicates that even for those of us who do have considerable experience of really well-reproduced music, enjoyment is not necessarily linked to high-end sound. It seems that much of the high-end sound experience is just that: an experience of sound, not of music-generated emotion, and that many expensive high-end systems are not one iota better at generating a musical experience than all those down-market systems.
This heretical thought points the way to another question. We, the High End, typically tell the objectivists that if their measurements don’t show a correlation between specs and sound, they must be measuring the wrong thing. Well then, if there is not much correlation between how a system sounds and the musical pleasure to be had from it, does it not follow that we are listening for the wrong things?
This is not intended to be an indiscriminate slashing of all things high-end—far from it. There are many components out there that satisfy musically. What I’m railing against is the fact that it’s very, very hard to find out which these are from reading magazine reviews. Typically, the review runs through a list of sonic attributes, judges this or that aspect to be good, outstanding, or substandard, and then leaves the reader with the recommendation to go listen for himself. When you consider that many dealers don’t seem to have a clue either, that’s not really very useful.
The time has come to go back to first principles and put to the test the underlying assumptions that are taken as given in reviewing audio components.
Why do we listen to music?
Let’s start with the basics. Why do people listen to music? There has been considerable musicological research into this subject, and the findings are clear.
Very few people listen to music to have their rational faculties appealed to. Bach’s music may have been described as pure mathematics, but practically nobody would want to mathematically analyze the different tone pitches, tone intervals and harmonies, and so on. I mean, how many people do you know who, when they want to enjoy some music, will hook up their system to an oscilloscope instead of to loudspeakers or headphones?
The overwhelming majority listen to music for an emotional experience. You can use music to enhance moods or to counteract them. You can use music to provide a frame of reference and to literally set the mood during mass experiences; go to any concert, rock or classical, and your feelings will be deepened by the fact that many people around you are on the same emotional cycle (not for nothing is music used, in practically all cultures, in group bonding experiences, be they Sufi dervish ceremonies or football games). When you’re blue, playing a blues album and sharing your loneliness and sorrow with the performer will comfort you. Dance music will project its infectious energy into you. Mahler will put you through the emotional wringer—first by being sad and grating, then by gently lifting you up to give you a token of hope. Mozart will entertain you with his lighthearted tunes. Supermarkets and fast-food restaurants play music for bringing you to a well-defined speed in your actions, be they eating (footnote 1) or wandering through aisles (footnote 2). And we all know that soft music can be an important part of setting the mood for gentle seduction.
Footnote 1: The presence of music can make as much as a 30% difference in a store’s turnover.
Footnote 2: The restaurant doesn’t want you to linger too long, when it could use your table to serve other customers. In the US, where the use of Muzak is much more prevalent than in Europe, patrons, when not pressed by time constraints, stay only about 60% as long in a restaurant as they do in Europe.
Music is not really a universal language; different cultures link the same music to different moods. But within a given culture it is an important nonverbal communication tool. What you may not be able to express in words, you may be able to share through music.
The original motivation behind the reproduction of music in the home, therefore, has been to facilitate access to the emotional aspects of music. When you make music yourself, your ability to express emotions will be limited by your talent, and by your proficiency on a given instrument (and boy, have I suffered in both respects). With reproduced music, these limitations are unimportant. I can have Led Zeppelin, Caetano Veloso, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Tony Scott, Büdi Siebert, Stephan Micus, Aretha Franklin, or Alfred Brendel play for me whenever I like—heaven!
If this is the motivation, then it follows that the yardstick for judging a component’s worth should be its ability to communicate emotion. Is modern technology getting us nearer our goal of emotional communication? Certain subcultures of the hi-fi community have long held that some historical components, even though they’re hopelessly behind the sonic accuracy of modern components, have qualities that many modern components lack. Why do some amplifiers from the Golden Age of American hi-fi, such as the Marantz 8 or certain McIntosh models, continue to rise in value? Is modern technology evolving in the right direction?
Jürgen Ackermann is a 37-year-old psychologist living in Frankfurt, Germany. He has long been interested in music and its reproduction, building amplifiers and speakers for himself as well as for some friends. His current home system includes a home-brew tube preamp, a home-brew single-ended triode power amp (the power in question being all of 2W from a single 2A3 per channel), and modified Klipschorns. This system is seriously loud when required, those sound bursts from Flim and the BB’s Tricycle coming across as positively threatening—yet it whispers with a clarity and conviction most minimonitors fall short of. His amp is remarkable in that there is none of the hum that is generally unavoidable with direct-heated triodes. He has designed an indirect heating that relies on very precise balancing of voltages, and has made it work beautifully.
As part of his doctoral thesis, Ackermann researched the experience of music reproduction in the home. He conducted an experiment, setting up three systems in a room of the Frankfurt Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst (Music and Performing Arts University). The first system consisted of an analog record player, ca $4800, and a tube pre- and triode power-amp combination worth ca $4500 (hereinafter called the analog system). The second system substituted a respected CD player, ca $2400, which has been well reviewed worldwide, including in the pages of Stereophile, but retained the tube amps. The third system kept the CD player but was powered by a transistor pre-/power combination worth ca $11,000 (hereinafter called the digital system).
The components had been selected as being reasonably representative of their kind. The loudspeakers were held constant and had been selected for their ability to sound equally good driven by tubes or transistors. If anything, the system favored the expensive transistor combo, which had been selected because it was one of the best-selling combinations in its price range, and also because comparative listening tests against some other transistor amps had revealed this combo to sound particularly good in the test configuration. All three systems were played at exactly the same loudness level.
Ackermann found 53 people from all walks of life willing to participate in his experiment: hi-fi enthusiasts, musicians, and “normal” people with no special relation to music or its reproduction. The selection of participants was not truly stochastic, but the sample was large enough to give meaningful results.
Participants were seated in a room before a pair of loudspeakers. The part of the room behind the speakers was partitioned off with dense cloth so that the participants could not know what went on behind this curtain. Indeed, they had no idea what was going on or what, if anything, was changed between trials, except that they were going to be interviewed on their reactions to several pieces of music. Ackermann made the system changeovers without once interacting with the participants.
The participants were received and instructed by a student who was paid for her time. This student, who had no knowledge of things hi-fi, was instructed to sit behind the participants so she could not influence the participants even subconsciously. The student first gave the participants a questionnaire that asked for their musical likes and dislikes. A second questionnaire asked how the participants normally listened to music, and a third questionnaire tried to establish the emotional base level at which each participant entered into the experiment. These and all other questionnaires were standard forms developed for musico-sociological research, and had been pretested to be meaningful and easily understandable by the participants.
Then the participants were played a standardized set of three musical pieces. These were tracks from Larry Conklin’s Dolphin Grace (light jazz), Sally Barker’s This Rhythm Is Mine (pop), and Italian Violin Musik, 1600-1750 on Edition Open Window (baroque classical music). The tracks had been selected after a preparatory experiment showed that they gave meaningful results. None was offensive to the participants; strong individual likes or dislikes could not influence the experiment’s outcome.
After the first run-through, participants were given three more questionnaires: one asking for their emotional balance (the same questionnaire as before the music began), one asking how the participants had experienced the musical tracks, and one asking for their opinions on these tracks.
Then the participants were played the same tracks on a different system, and again had to fill out the three questionnaires; and so on with the third system. The sequence of the three systems was randomized so that familiarity effects, or fatigue, could not influence the overall outcome.
After the third trial, the participants were asked to fill out, besides the three standard questionnaires, a final questionnaire asking whether they had a music system at home, what it consisted of, and how expensive the components were.
Finally, the participants were asked by the student which of the three still-unidentified systems they would buy. The student also took notes of the participants’ behavior during the tests: Did they react to the music by moving their feet? Did they sit through the presentation, or did they talk or stand up while the music was playing? and so on.
The tests were not exhaustive, in the sense that further questions might have shed even more light on the subjects’ response to the three systems. But, as each test took about two hours, it was felt that this was the maximum time that people without any interest in the outcome of the experiment would be willing to be subjected to the rigors of being under very close scrutiny (13 multi-page questionnaires to fill out—what a chore).
Care was taken to keep exterior factors constant. The listening room was not darkened, because it was felt that listening in a dark room would be too far outside everyday experience for most participants. It is well known that lighting conditions have an effect on people’s mood (or why do you turn out the lights when you want to share a little intimacy with your partner?). To keep lighting conditions constant, the experiments were restricted to a time slot between around 10am and 2pm, which meant that only two or, at a pinch, three persons a day could be interviewed. The time of day at which each interview was conducted was noted; it will be interesting to see if there is a correlation between time of day and the results.
Giving the complete results of Jürgen Ackermann’s experiment would be way beyond the scope of an article such as this one; besides, Ackermann has not yet completed his statistical analysis. But there are already some results that seem interesting enough to warrant a preliminary report (footnote 3).
Let’s start with the emotional states of the participants. The participants began with a base tension level of 3.26; with the digital system this dropped to 2.35, and with the analog system to 1.75. Nervousness was raised from a base level of 1.8 to 2.2 by the digital system, but fell to 1.1 with the analog system. The need for relaxation fell from a base level of 2.6 to 1.9 with the analog system, but rose to 2.9 with the digital system. The ability to concentrate remained constant with the analog system at 4.3, but fell to 3.6 with the digital system. Relaxedness stayed constant with the digital system at 4.0, but rose to 4.6 with the analog system. This shows that the analog system worked toward a feeling of serenity in the participant, whereas the digital system heightened tension and stress.
Equally interesting was the response to the question of whether the participants liked the music they were played. With the analog system, 43 out of the 53 participants said they liked the Larry Conklin piece, 46 the baroque music, and 38 the Sally Barker piece. The music was heard as interesting, emotionally appealing, and engaging. Via the digital system, the levels fell to 31, 33, and 33, respectively. The same music was now more often experienced as boring. Food for thought.
The questionnaire asking for the listeners’ experience of the music gave just as interesting results. Thirty participants sang along with the music under their breaths when it was played via the analog system, and only 19 with the digital system. Forty-seven participants said they had let themselves be carried along by the analog system, 19 with the digital system. When questioned whether the music had influenced their movements (tapping their feet, etc.), the numbers were 30 and 25. Forty-six participants had been inspired to think about the music by the analog system, 34 by the digital system. Forty-seven participants said the music had improved their sense of well-being via the analog system, 31 via the digital.
Conversely, no participant said that the analog system had impaired their sense of well-being, but 16 participants said so of the digital system! This must be one of the most astonishing, and irritating, results of Ackermann’s experiment. How can it be that we spend a lot of money on something that makes us feel worse?!
The results of the “intermediate” CD/tube system were consistently between those of the digital and analog systems.
At the end of the test, the participants were asked which of the systems they would buy. Those listeners who had some experience of things hi-fi preferred the digital system, which they thought sounded better. Those participants without such experience preferred the analog system’s sound. The conclusion Ackermann drew from this is that the sound of modern hi-fi is the result of a learning process. When told that a certain sound is what they should aim for, often enough people will accept this concept of sound as their internal reference.
Another inference that may be drawn from this question is that there was no correlation between what the participants experienced as good sound and which system made them feel good. In other words, the perceived quality of sound had no influence on whether the participants liked the music and its emotional impact on the listeners. One participant, a musician, even responded that he could hear absolutely no difference in sound between the presentations, yet his emotional response was very different on the three trials, and showed complete conformity with the rest of the participants.
Footnote 3: If you’re interested in the complete experiment, contact Jürgen Ackermann directly: Dipl.-Psych. Jürgen Ackermann, Varrentrappstr. 51, 60436 Frankfurt/Main, Germany, tel./fax 069 709223.
Some of you will have noticed that there was one long-term test subject: the student who accompanied the participants during their time in the listening room. The poor girl had to listen to the above-mentioned pieces 159 times! At the end of the experiment, she asked Ackermann what the systems were. She said she couldn’t stand the sound of one of the systems anymore, feeling physically attacked by its sound. By now, it won’t surprise you that the system in question turned out to be the CD/solid-state one.
Let’s put audiophilia on the couch!
If we accept that much of modern technology has been developing in the wrong direction, that there are many, many systems out there that may offer beautiful sound but that don’t stand a chance of providing real emotional pleasure, the obvious question is Why? Why has something which, on the face of it, runs counter to the needs of the buying public, been so successful? I can’t really believe the reason is mass delusion. I also can’t see a great conspiracy between manufacturers, dealers, and magazines. (“Let’s spend the next 30 years convincing the public to buy gear that will leave them emotionally unsatisfied. We may not sell as much as we could sell, but heck, what a power trip!”) There must be a deeper reason.
I don’t know what that reason is, but I’d like to present two ideas—one proffered by Jürgen Ackermann, one from my own experience—that might help shed some light on the mystery.
As I said, Ackermann is a psychologist practicing as a psychotherapist in Frankfurt. His approach is one of developmental psychology. One of his research models is constructed like this: When a child is born, it is living in symbiosis with its mother. When the umbilical cord is cut, the child is cut off from its life-support system and urgently needs to establish a new one, not knowing that there are social-security systems that will provide it with the basic necessities of life. The child experiences fear, the fear of dying. It will try to form an emotional bond with its parents, which is called love.
Many modern parents find it difficult to come to terms with the newborn. Emotionality is not something God-given, but must be learned. The child senses this reluctance; when it doesn’t succeed with its love strategy, it must find a new one. The usual pattern is that the child will pay a price for food, shelter, and love. It behaves well, it’s the joy of the parents, it will do as well as possible at school. At the same time, the child will have to find a new psychological pattern with its parents. Often it will idolize its parents, especially the mother. She’s the best, the most beautiful, the most loving. This constitutes a new symbiotic relationship between child and mother. They live with each other but alongside each other, without really interacting in a way that might endanger their fragile balance.
The child will relate to other parts of its world in the same way, because this is the way that has been found workable. As a grown-up, such a person will also have an idealized view of, among other things, technology. He or she will not trust their feelings in judging a hi-fi component, but will rely on measurements or other objectifiable criteria. Thus, a new component is desirable because it represents an ideal: the best there is, the best in a certain respect, the best product in its price range (footnote 4) When the revered hi-fi system turns out to be emotionally unsatisfying, there are basically three ways to cope with it.
One of these patterns is a form of denial. One couple of Ackermann’s acquaintance used to be very interested in music and hi-fi. When CD was introduced, they bought a good CD player and a substantial number of CDs. Gradually, they stopped listening to music in their home. When asked why, they said that they just didn’t find the time anymore. Yet their concert-going had increased. Ackermann’s interpretation is that they stopped listening to music at home not because they cared less for music, but because reproduced music in its new CD-derived form did not fulfill their subconscious emotional expectations. Consciously, however, this couple was adamant that music reproduction was better than ever in their home.
The second pattern of coping with an unsatisfying system is rationalization. Some people have been conditioned by dealers and magazines to believe that sound quality is what distinguishes a good component from a bad one: The way out of unsatisfying listening must be found in a better system. The longing for happiness, for emotional fulfillment, is projected onto the next loudspeaker, the next amplifier, the next step up on the eternal ladder—audiophile nirvana, in the oft-used phrase. As Gerry Rafferty sung in “Baker Street”: “Just one more year and then I’ll be happy.”
Of course, it never works. Possessing, or even listening to, an inanimate object will never truly satisfy an emotional thirst. This might explain why so many people want—nay, need to sell some part of their system as soon as some review says that there exists a better piece of gear. The component itself has not changed, but the idealized perception of the component has been shattered.
The third mechanism is to drop out. We’ve all heard someone say that, to him or her, all hi-fi gear sounds the same. What the person may mean (but not say, because one doesn’t generally talk about one’s feelings, TV talk shows notwithstanding) is that all hi-fi gear sounds equally emotionally unsatisfying. There’s nothing that really excites this person in any of the gear he or she has heard so far.
Ackermann’s conclusion from his research has been that the general thrust of the hi-fi industry may be at odds with the emotional needs of the buying public. He has given talks to dealers in Germany explaining his concepts, working with them on how to gain a better understanding of the “hidden agenda” a customer may carry with him when he enters a hi-fi emporium. His feedback is generally positive, so far, but he thinks that the best use of his research could be made by manufacturers, who might profit considerably from building components that better serve their clients’ needs.
Another mechanism might be at work here: Modern life is depleted of direct experience. There are no more adventures to be lived (Mt. Everest is getting so crowded that there are literal traffic jams on the route to the top of the world). Kids growing up in cities have no way to develop abilities like tree climbing, which were once considered natural. In German schools, doctors have found that many kids can’t walk backwards anymore, because they haven’t had enough experience of their bodies relating to their environments. In adult life, it is very rare that we actually do something. Normally, we push a button and a machine does it for us. (Hands up, all of those with power windows in their cars.)
Footnote 4: This explains why so many people are not just after a “good”-sounding rig. Good is not good enough; it must be the best at the best price.
The result of all this is a deep thirst for experiencing one’s self. Bungee jumping, canyoning, and other fashionable sports reveal the desire of getting to know one’s abilities and limitations. Roller coasters have to be built on ever-grander scales, with steeper inclines and sharper descents to catch the attention of the paying public. You get my drift.
Life is becoming boring. We want more! In the words of that great philosopher, Calvin: “I think life should be more like TV….I think we should all have powerful, high-paying jobs and everyone should drive fancy sports cars. All our desires should be instantly gratified. Women should always wear tight clothes, and men should carry powerful handguns. Life overall should be more glamorous, thrill-packed, and filled with applause, don’t you think?” (footnote 5)
That thirst for experience also manifests in hi-fi. How many loudspeaker reviews have you read where the reviewer spoke of trouser-flapping bass? If it is achieved, great; if not, the reviewer will go on to say that the speaker has other, redeeming qualities. But in the figure of speech is revealed the desire to have a physical effect that can be experienced with more than just the sense of hearing. Similarly, cinemas are going for ever-higher sound-pressure levels to intensify the movie experience, and much of home theater seems geared to just intensify the physical experience of sound effects like bombs, car crashes, helicopters, and other such boombastic assaults on our nerves.
Listening without hearing
On the other hand, for musical enjoyment, all of this should be irrelevant. In terms of the evolution of man, the part of the brain responsible for the recognition of sounds is relatively new, being located in the cerebrum. The part responsible for emotions is comparatively ancient, being located in the brain stem. With this in mind, researchers have conducted the following experiment (footnote 6).
It’s possible to numb the specific part of the brain responsible for the recognition and critical evaluation of sounds. If a person so treated is exposed to music, he or she will hear nothing. Yet the listener’s mood will still be influenced by the music! This means that, for the emotional response to music, the sound, or at least the conscious experience of the sound, is unimportant!
The far-reaching conclusion: You cannot tell what your emotional response to a component’s sound will be from a description by a critical listener, because that response is independent of the conscious perception of its sound.
I can’t claim originality for my observations. Other journalists seem to have had the same gut feeling, even in the pages of this learned journal, which otherwise prides itself on its no-nonsense stand toward sound reproduction. Starting with this magazine’s founder and erstwhile chief tester, J. Gordon Holt, here are some quotes (and yes, I know that you can prove just about anything by quoting out of context; I wish to make it clear, therefore, that although these quotes were not made in the context of a train of thought similar to my own, I do think that they are valid):
Larry Archibald: You’re saying that there’s a complete disjunction between pleasure and accuracy?
J. Gordon Holt: Yes (footnote 7).
“1) The only way to judge audio equipment is to use it to play music which you love, no matter how ‘poorly recorded’ you mistakenly think it is, even if you’ve never seen it mentioned by an elitist audio reviewer from Stereophile or The Absolute Sound. Especially if you’ve never seen it mentioned by an elitist audio reviewer from Stereophile or The Absolute Sound.
“2) There is no music, no matter how well recorded, that will tell you what you need to know about a piece of gear as well as something you’ve listened to hundreds of times and still dig the most—whether it’s Booker T. and the MG’s, the Grateful Dead, or Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet. Familiarity trumps recording quality every time.
“3) The harder you listen, the less you hear.
“4) Amanda McBroom sucks.”—Corey Greenberg (footnote 8)
“Because audiophiles care about sound quality, we are often more susceptible than usual to allow interfering thoughts to get in the music’s way. These thoughts are usually concerned with aspects of the sound’s characteristics. Does the soundstage lack depth? Does the bass have enough extension? Is the treble grainy? How does my system compare to those described in the magazines?
“Unfortunately, this mode of thinking is perpetuated by high-end audio magazines. The descriptions of a product’s sound—its specific performance attributes—are what make it into print, not the musical and emotional satisfaction to which the product contributes. The latter is ineffable: Words cannot express the bond between listener and music that some products facilitate more than others. Consequently, we are left only with descriptions of specific sonic characteristics, a practice that can leave the impression that . . . being an audiophile is about dissection and critical commentary, and not about more closely connecting with the music’s meaning.
” . . . this experience precipitated a catharsis that forced me to reexamine what music listening—among other things—was all about. . . . Better sound does result in more music, but paradoxically, only when the sound is forgotten.”—Robert Harley (footnote 9)
There could be more quotes, but I hope my point is made.
Footnote 5: From Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: The Revenge of the Babysat, Andrews & McNeel, 1991. Imagine the two heroes in a childrens’ wagon on a roller-coaster ride down a steep hill fraught with perils, imagined or otherwise. The punchline goes, “Of course, if life was really like that, what would we watch on TV?”
Footnote 6: Unpublished research at the University of Giessen, Germany, related by Jürgen Ackermann.
Footnote 7: Stereophile, December 1991, Vol.14 No.12, p.25.
Footnote 8: Stereophile, July 1992, Vol.15 No.7, p.11. A personal comment: Ana Caram sucks, too.
Footnote 9: Stereophile, November 1992, Vol.15 No.11, p.7; Bob’s “Listener’s Manifesto” is also worth rereading: Stereophile, January 1992, Vol.15 No.1, p.111.
Sacred cows will get you nowhere
Let’s try to shoot some holes in a few favorite topics of hi-fi reviewing. One of my pet hates is soundstaging. For some people, this seems to be very important. For me, it isn’t. When asked if the hardware he sells images well, Colin Hammerton—an expatriate Brit working as British amp manufacturer Exposure’s importer in Germany—says, “I don’t want to hear where the musicians are on stage. I want to hear why they are on stage.” I couldn’t agree more. Please don’t get the impression that I’m against soundstaging—it’s nice to have. It just doesn’t matter for my emotional reaction to music.
Out in the real world, however, soundstaging is very important. If a review would state that a component makes wonderful music but can’t image, sales would be practically nil, at least among the very large part of the clientele whose buying decisions are influenced by what’s said by magazines and dealers (who rely on magazines as the most important sales aid).
The expression “sonic fireworks” is a recurring theme in hi-fi journalism. It seems also to describe the listening expectations of a certain type of hi-fi customer. “Ooh, look there . . . and there, to the right, outside the right-side speaker . . . ooh, and there, six yards behind the speakers . . . and there, over the speakers—isn’t that beautiful!”
This listening style could be called visual-oriented listening, because it tries to describe sound in terms of visual experience. Visual-oriented listening is attractive because it allows a quantitative analysis (“The soundstage reproduced by the device under test was this broad, this deep, and this high.”), which must be a big help in developing, and describing the sonic performance of, audio components.
It is also a defensible listening experience: We all know that the so-called objectivists try to knock the so-called subjective listeners. The latter have responded by turning into observational listeners (another visual term), relating an experience that other listeners can duplicate if the test conditions are identical—a prerequisite for gaining recognition as a scientific, and thus reputable, branch of engineering. (It must be hard to live your working life without the recognition of your peers.) Everyone with intact hearing will agree to reasonably identical dimensions of the soundstage, and the location of instruments in that soundstage.
However, there is no way yet to objectify the musical pleasure a component gives. A different listener will approach the same sonic demonstration with a different mood, different reactions to a musical stimulus, and so on. The emotional experience is not as easily transferable as the observational one.
A bonus of visual-oriented listening is that it is economically attractive. It allows listening irrespective of psychological and physical condition, and thus opens up a much larger part of the day to the accomplishment of meaningful work than if you could listen only when you were really in the mood for some music. For people who make their living from sonic judgments—designers, dealers, and journalists alike—I can see that it may be imperative. Problem is, this is in direct opposition to the listening experience of the paying customer, who wants to unwind from a day’s work with a little musical entertainment.
Since visual-oriented listening is something at which a reviewer tends to get very good, it usually makes up a large part of a review’s content. Magazine-reading audiophiles will be influenced in their listening habits by those reviews (the “learning” part that Jürgen Ackermann was talking about). They choose their systems and set them up so that the visual-oriented listening experience is emphasized. Many such systems, to me, sound boring. There’s no meat on the bone.
An experiment: Disconnect one speaker from your setup and listen to the sound of just the remaining speaker, preferably with a mono source. I’m sure that few so-called high-end speakers (and systems) will survive this test. Many will sound bland and anemic. Two such speakers sound just the same, but probably a little fuller, because with the usual practice of mixing bass sounds straight down the middle, doubling the radiating surface of the bass drivers and doubling the available amplifier power gives a perceived 3dB rise in relative bass level. But the speakers don’t become more interesting.
Another experiment: Listen to recorded voice. My favorite material for this kind of test are comedy records (Eddie Murphy, Bette Midler, and Bill Cosby spring to mind). Good comedy works on much the same principles as music. Timing is crucial, as are small inflections of the voice, speed of delivery, and so on. You’ll be surprised by how few systems preserve intelligibility, an essential prerequisite for this kind of stuff. Dynamics and low-level resolution are much more important than timbral fidelity here.
While I’m at it, I’d also like to diss timbral fidelity. Of course, timbral fidelity is the essential prerequisite for the accurate reproduction of music in the home. It is also nigh on impossible to achieve, for sound scientific reasons.
Modern multimiked recordings tend to employ a microphone for every instrument or, at most, small group of instruments. The sound put down on (digital) tape is that of instruments at close proximity.
In the concert hall, one tends to listen from a much greater distance. Even if one were to sit at the conductor’s feet, only a few instruments would be this close, the rest farther away. Thus, what is recorded on tape can never be heard in a real-world situation.
There is also the question of radiation patterns. In the concert hall, the sound one hears from a solo violin is a mixture of sound waves radiated by the strings and the top and bottom plates of the violin body, the latter two usually much lower in frequency than the strings to which they resonate and thus radiate with a broader radiation pattern. The close-proximity mike picks up a greater proportion of the string sound than would be heard live. The sound the microphone “hears” is only a fraction of the instrument’s total sound that would be perceived by the typical listener, who sits much farther away than the typical microphone. This fraction will be prejudiced toward the higher frequencies. If the microphone’s output is faithfully reproduced by all subsequent elements in the chain, the resulting sound will be unnatural. (In contrast, rock, pop, and blues music is usually amplified even when performed live. The sound you get from a recording is, on a certain level, faithful to the original.)
THX has drawn our attention to the fact that room size influences perceived tonal balance. Listening rooms tend to be much smaller than the halls or studios in which music is recorded (this is even more true in Europe than in the US). Thus, if a recording is true to the original event but is reproduced in a smaller room, it will sound too bright—which, again, seems to indicate that a truly flat system will sound bright (footnote 10).
These factors have long been known to audio designers. Having spoken to a number of manufacturers of drive-units, I know that it’s relatively easy to make a tweeter with a flat on-axis amplitude response. But the loudspeaker designer knows that flat is not necessarily right (a point I’ll return to later). Celestion’s SL series, particularly the SL 600, was an international sales success and very well reviewed in all leading audio magazines, including this one. Its tweeter was shelved down 2dB vis-à-vis the woofer, but it sounded pleasingly natural in typical living rooms.
Conversely, many speakers have an on-axis rise in the tweeter’s output to compensate for radiation patterns and give a flat room-averaged response, and to heighten the apparent level of detail a speaker can reproduce. To my ears, such speakers have always sounded way too bright. Summing up, I think it nigh on impossible to design components, especially loudspeakers, that will sound anything like their input in a variety of settings (footnote 11).
The third sacred cow waiting to be slaughtered is measurements. This magazine is working very hard to correlate the listening experience with measurements. I remain to be convinced that conventional measurements tell us much about whether a hi-fi component reaches the heart or not. In loudspeakers, there seems to be a fairly good correlation between a reasonably flat amplitude response and fidelity of timbre. In my own experience, low loudspeaker distortion and a reasonably flat phase response make for ease of listening, in the sense that I can listen for long periods of time without listening fatigue. Power bandwidth, perhaps more so for loudspeakers than amplifiers, will tell you if a component is apt to change its sound when the listening level goes up.
I think that good measurements are often an excuse for the designer: It measures well, so I haven’t done anything wrong. Not doing anything wrong, however, does not automatically mean that the component under test will do enough right. To put it another way, I have yet to find a measurement that tells me if I’ll want to listen to a component.
A final pet hate is detail. A proposal for the international language of hi-fi reviewing: There should be a distinction between detail and nuance. Just as a fact is mere data without an interpretable context, which only meaning can transform into information, a detail is meaningless without its context of musical direction, which transforms it into a nuance of interpretation (footnote 12). Dwelling on details like the audibility of a microphone falling down, the direction taken by a London underground line below the recording venue, or the chirping of a bird somewhere outside the recording venue, seems counterproductive: Such aspects take my attention away from the music and its meaning; they don’t lead me to the music itself.
A reviewer who relates his listening experience in terms of the emotional impact a component made on his enjoyment of music has a hell of a time getting his point across. As is evident from this magazine’s “Letters,” a lot of readers out there don’t have a clue what he is on about. I can understand why: If the writer uses a type of music the reader can’t relate to, it’s hard to translate the review into a context relevant to his own preferred music. “Yeah, but how would it sound on my kind of music?” is a question often heard when discussing such reviews with readers. The prevailing impression seems to be that different music styles depend on different aspects of reproduced sound to carry their musical meanings.
A typical observation seems to be that for classical music, timbral fidelity, low-level dynamics, and, yes, soundstaging are considered important. (The soundstaging part I have never really understood; yes, I know, in the concert hall, the violins are seated on the left and the double basses on the right, but hey, they have to sit somewhere, and I have yet to read that a composer—Stockhausen excepted, and you never know if he’s joking—specifies a certain seating arrangement for artistic reasons.) For rock music, essential aspects seem to be loudness, speed, rhythm and pace, and a tonal balance that conveys power in music.
These prejudices are so widely held that there must be something to them (although I submit that if you listen to Ansermet conducting, pace and rhythm are very important for his readings). And the dichotomy is so deeply anchored in the minds of music lovers that it seems almost insurmountable.
Yet it seems to me that for the reviewer, the way out need not lie in falling back on a sonic description of the audio experience. He should instead try to incorporate as many different styles of music into the review as possible, and describe the emotional impact these different styles have made. That means that the reviewer must educate himself in the appreciation of these different music styles.
Footnote 10: Which brings to mind J. Gordon Holt’s famous “Down With Flat!” essay.
Footnote 11: For a more detailed discussion of some of these points, read J. Gordon Holt’s “Space . . . the Final Frontier” in Stereophile, March 1994, Vol.17 No.3, p.61 (and especially p.67).
Footnote 12: “God is in the details,” said Mies van der Rohe. When I look at his architecture, which to my eyes is cold, full of harsh black-and-white contrasts, decidedly inorganic, and well-meaning but brutal in its treatment of the buildings’ inhabitants, he seems like just the man to suffer from this misapprehension. Maybe God is in the nuances.
In my estimation, the writing style that prevails in current hi-fi journalism is an attempt to describe the sonic presentation as an abstraction from the listening experience, in an attempt to produce results that do not depend on a certain kind of music, but can be related to the perceived requirements of a given style of music. If a review states that a speaker has abrasive highs, it matters little if this observation was made while listening to massed violins or to a rock guitar. The assumption is that the reader then translates this observation to his own listening experience and decides if this particular aspect of music reproduction is important to his enjoyment of music or not.
But how do we know this assumption is true?
The way forward?
This article would be pretty pointless if it didn’t at least try to find a way out of the dilemma we have brought upon ourselves. A magazine, after all, has to be useful (and entertaining) to its readers if it wants to survive. Here’s the question we have to answer: Are there aspects of sound that are more important for emotional appreciation than others, and if so, which? It’s clear that, however much I have derided sound per se up to now, somehow emotional response must be related to the waveform of the sound reaching our ears. There is no secret medium other than sound emanating from our speakers.
Let me introduce you to the thinking of another searcher for a new direction: Jean-Marie Piel, a 45-year-old journalist living in Paris, France. At the age of 15 Piel built his first hi-fi chain, consisting of a tube amp and Supravox speakers with a single chassis per channel. After earning his baccalaureat, the French equivalent of a high school diploma, he began to study literature and philosophy. He taught himself how to play the flute, which he taught for 13 years—beginning at age 23—at the Conservatoire de Fontainebleau. From the age of 20 he also worked as a journalist for hi-fi and music magazines, among other achievements writing and editing the “Arts Sonores” section of L’audiophile, the influential French underground magazine. Since 1985 he has been responsible for the sound section of Diapason, the largest music and sound magazine in France, as a joint editor-in-chief. He also writes regularly for Paris-Match. Jean-Marie Piel receives and listens to practically every CD that is offered in the French market, selecting two to four of these each month as musically and sonically outstanding. His knowledge of music, instruments, and musicians is encyclopaedic. He can eloquently explain the differences between instruments of different periods and why they evolved in a specific way. He writes (footnote 13):
“With his familiar ironic humor, Paul Valéry once said that ‘the vice begins when one gives up the whole for the part’—a sentence that could be applied to a lot of hi-fi enthusiasts and that well [describes] the perversity that grips us when we take our pleasure by listening to music with those devices called loudspeakers. Modern miking techniques, which have a tendency to run amok on technology and to favor the detail at the expense of the ensemble, further push us in this direction: that of fragmented listening, even if one has to guard against overgeneralizations. But the fact is, if 20 microphones are used for recording an orchestra, there is little chance for the cohesion of the ensemble to survive. We are then reduced to hearing details, to take interest in nothing else. But the music escapes the detail; if the detail takes precedence, it is nothing but sound, a piece of sound. The music passes through it—if you stop to examine the detail, the music has already moved on. Of course, sound is the necessary medium for music. It’s the sound that makes the music, not the notes. Still, by a mysterious paradox, fidelity to sound does not always coincide with fidelity to the emotion, which is the soul itself of music.
“Therein lies the rub: If one wants to judge a hi-fi system, one tends to erroneously concentrate on purely sonic details—are the lower mids good and are the extreme highs easy on the ear? As if one would ask such questions in a concert. In a concert, there is no woofer, no tweeter, there are only musicians playing. When listening to a hi-fi system, it is they and only they one should be listening to. It is true that a lot of components, in all price brackets, do not invite us to do this, and direct attention to the sound. We then have every occasion to think that the invisible link between notes that gives them musical meaning is not being reproduced. There’s no necklace, just pearls . . . they may be beautiful, just as sounds made by certain sophisticated systems, which reproduce sounds superbly and with a certain implacable coldness, yet miss the soul of music, can be beautiful.
“All the difficulty lies in analyzing what is missing in the sound when living music is not happening. For the beginning of an answer we may turn our attention to certain chains, sometimes somewhat colored, missing the bottom or the top octave, which nevertheless reproduce the life and magic of musical movement. A certain timbral fidelity may be missing, but in a broad midrange where the essence of musical energy is concentrated (between about 200Hz and 4kHz), they are capable of perfectly reproducing nuances: ie, the intensity interrelations between sounds; or, to be more precise, the fluctuations of intensity within a single sound. This is where the life is. It’s enough to analyze a note held by a musician to gain consciousness of this fact. You know that this held note comes from a musician and not a machine because there are infinitely small instabilities. The sound does not have a constant intensity. Sure, the variations are very small, but they exist. In the ability to reproduce these infinitely small nuances is the answer to the question of whether a chain will let through the life, without which, evidently, the music is just dead notes.
“Another example: Listen to the way a violinist like Salvatore Accardo lets sounds develop in the Beethoven Concerto. He attacks certain notes hard, with a broad vibrato (variations in pitch and volume), then progressively reduces the intensity, tying the whole down (which in itself creates several levels of nuance) until he flirts with silence. The way he lets the note finish, or die, is so subtly progressive that one doesn’t quite know where the note ends and the silence begins. From this uncertainty, which makes us listen hard to save this fascinating passage from nothingness, arises a strong emotion. If superficiality enters into the reproduction—a kind of oversimplification in the rendition of nuances that gives the impression that the note, instead of dying away imperceptibly, is brutally cut off—the interpretation’s magic is immediately destroyed. The artist leaves us indifferent because he doesn’t force us to train our ears to the outer limits of audibility.
Footnote 13: Quoted with Jean-Marie Piel’s permission; translation by Markus Sauer.
“The essence of an interpretation lies in working on the infinitely small—be it an attack on a note held back for a fraction of a second (perceptible if the preceding note is reproduced neither too short nor too long), or be it a note that develops in itself; or, on a larger level, a crescendo or diminuendo encompassing several notes—all of which gives music a sense of direction, its palpable dynamics, its quivering life, and all of which, in the end, lies in the nuances.
“Which explains, by the way, why certain old loudspeakers with a very high sensitivity and thus a very high precision in the rendition of dynamics, especially of very small signals—just like certain tube amplifiers with very simple circuits—and despite more or less obvious colorations and the omission of an octave or two, manage to reproduce with disturbing fidelity all the emotional intensity of an interpretation. Which should give our designers something to think about, and convince them that the musically more important kind of dynamics is that which loses itself in silence (footnote 14), not the kind that turns into noise.”
Learning from our ancestors
I think it is no coincidence that Jean-Marie Piel would turn to “old” technology for inspiration. Some old gear can still hold up surprisingly well today. The American press, with the occasional exception from Sound Practices, has concentrated so far on triode amplifiers as “the new thing.” Loudspeakers receive a lot less attention. I have given my opinion on triode amps and their qualities in this magazine (footnote 15), and of late there have been a number of articles on single-ended triodes. Instead of further amplifying this addiction to triode amps (which, contrary to what you may have been led to believe, are no panacea; if we have to talk about amps, I’d prefer to emphasize the role of the preamp), let me concentrate first on another piece of the hi-fi chain in need of a reevaluation: the loudspeaker.
Let’s start with an unexpected item of old technology: vintage tube radios. Those of the 1940s to 1960s often have an astonishingly good sound quality. The frequency range of their single driver is severely restricted, but they have a magical coherence that more than compensates. All the really good ones seem to have a single-ended tube, not necessarily a triode; an EL86 pentode can sound wonderful in a single-ended topology. (By the way, Jean-Constant Verdier, designer of the best turntable I have ever had the pleasure to hear, has a huge collection of old tube radios.)
One of the more intriguing facts about old tube radios is the way they make use of their enclosures. These are not designed to be as acoustically inert as possible, as are most modern speakers, but are allowed to resonate with the music, a character trait shared with many old loudspeakers. The wood panels’ size and density are judged so that those inevitable resonances are consonant with the music. Music seems to pass through them unscathed. If you listen to the output of modern speaker cabinets (using an ear pressed to the box; or, for a more dignified approach, a stethoscope), most sound horrible. The sounds emitted by an Altec Voice of the Theatre’s cabinet can be much less objectionable (footnote 16).
Another facet of this phenomenon is the way the room is energized by a loudspeaker using a noninert enclosure. Sound, especially the lower frequencies, is radiated from the entire surface of the box, not just the chassis. This seems to accomplish much the same thing as using multiple drivers or dipoles. One of the most convincing loudspeakers I have ever heard is built according to principles having more to do with the making of musical instruments than with orthodox hi-fi loudspeakers.
Another aspect of old loudspeakers is that they tend to have dimension ratios diametrically opposed to those of modern speakers. Modern speakers typically have very narrow fronts, the enclosed space needed for a reasonable bass-driver alignment being found by making speakers tall and deep. By comparison, old loudspeakers tended to be wide but shallow. This has profound consequences for sound dispersion. Once the baffle is narrower than the wavelength of a tone emitted by one of its chassis, the emitted sound is no longer reflected by the baffle and projected by the speaker toward the listener, assuming the listener sits in front of the speakers; instead it will travel around the speaker and radiate to all sides.
Typically, low and middle frequencies are dispersed quite evenly in the room, while high frequencies are projected in a narrow angle. Thus the energy concentration at the listener’s point in the room is tipped toward the high frequencies. Many designers compensate for this by introducing a slight clockward tilt in the speaker’s frequency response, a gentle fall from low to high frequencies. The indirect sound, which in nondead listening rooms makes up an important part of the overall gestalt of the sound, the perceived tonal balance, will then be perceived as lacking in high-frequency energy. The speaker sounds dull. To prevent this, there will often be an on-axis rise in the tweeter’s top octave. Unfortunately, two wrongs don’t make a right. Old loudspeakers, which have wider baffles, project more energy at lower frequencies toward the listener and have a more natural balance between mid and high frequencies without that tilt in the frequency response.
Footnote 14: To quote Keith Jarrett (Stereophile, April 1994, Vol.17 No.4, p.59): “Silence is where music comes from.” Jarrett meant this from an artistic point of view, not from a sonic one, but the parallel is striking.
Footnote 15: Stereophile July 1994, Vol.17 No.7, p.19.
Footnote 16: Depending on the specific model and the execution of the cabinet. There are bad ones and good ones.
I think that this factor, tonal balance, is another key aspect in which old gear has an advantage over much modern equipment, and is as important as the low-level dynamics Jean-Marie Piel was talking about. Jean Hiraga, a French journalist whose writings appear mostly in the Nouvelle Revue du Son, has often cited the “Law of 400,000”: The product of a loudspeaker’s -3dB points should always be 400,000. If a speaker is down 3dB at 20Hz, it should be down 3dB at 20,000Hz; if a speaker is down 3dB at 40Hz, it should be down 3dB at 10,000Hz; and so on. This law is simplistic, because it is applied only to the on-axis response. Ideally, it should be applied to the room-averaged response. Many modern speakers are flat or even tilted up in the final octave, as we have seen above, without an adequate bass fundamental to counterbalance this top-end extension.
Another aspect of old loudspeakers that seems important to me is the drivers they employ. Old loudspeakers are all about pneumatic coupling. When a loudspeaker chassis’ membrane is propelled forward by voltage and/or current applied to the voice-coil, the air in front is pushed away. Depending on membrane size and the length and speed of the excursion, the air in front of the loudspeaker will react more or less willingly to the input (the technical term is acoustic impedance). There is a fairly precise point when the air will more or less fail to be impressed by the driver’s stimulus, with an inverse ratio between frequency and loudness on one hand and membrane size on the other hand. (Loudness is a function of the air you move; to achieve a greater loudness level, you have to increase either the surface or the excursion of the membrane.)
Put simply, to reproduce a bass tone loudly, you need a fairly large membrane; for a treble tone, a much smaller surface will suffice (in case you wondered why your tweeter is smaller than your woofer). Above a certain frequency, the air will effectively follow the membrane’s movements, vibrating forward and backward. Below that point, the air’s inertia is too great to be influenced by the driver—compare the effect of waving your hand with waving a ping-pong bat. There is also a point where excursion cannot be substituted for membrane size, because the air will no longer couple efficiently to the driver.
This acoustic impedance stuff is one of the reasons why horns were once so popular. A horn can be seen as an acoustic impedance transformer: The air in front of the driver cannot escape to the sides when stimulated by the membrane, but will faithfully follow the stimulus. By gently broadening the canal through which the sound waves travel, these air movements will be imposed on an ever greater amount of air, until you come to the end of the horn. In a certain sense, the air that is present at the horn’s outlet can be seen as the effective driving surface of the horn driver, because it is this air that couples to the rest of the room. The larger the surface, the less excursion is needed to play at a certain loudness level; and in speakers, the less excursion, the better.
A large bass driver needs a large cabinet behind it, which makes it impractical for many people. I think it’s no coincidence that the small infinite-baffle speaker was invented when stereo became available. One big enclosure, for mono, can be tolerable enough, but two such behemoths are beyond what most people will tolerate in their living rooms. Fine, I say. Just be aware that there is a sonic price you pay for the small woofer.
There’s one other component of the hi-fi chain I want to comment on: the phono cartridge, for those of us who still listen to vinyl. Some time ago I reviewed (for a German magazine) the latest iteration of the EMT cartridge, a design that started out in the early ’60s. Listening to this cartridge after a spate of newer designs made me realize anew that certain classic designs (whose number includes the Denon DL 103 and the Ortofon SPU series) have an emotional rightness that speaks powerfully to the heart and soul of the listener, even if his head can discern some not-very-subtle deviations from linearity. The EMT has a much more colored sound than many modern cartridges do. Yet it is a heck of a lot more fun to listen to than those modern, oh-so-flat, tread-carefully designs. When was the last time you read that a cartridge could really get down and boogie?
Yes, I’ll listen to the future
Please don’t think that I’m anti-progress, anti-technology, anti-digital, or whatever. Far from it. I hate the expense and complication I have to go to to obtain good sound—which to me means satisfying sound: the rigors of speaker placement (a surprisingly accurate first approximation for speaker placement is to put them where they do the most visual damage to a room; that’s probably where they’ll sound their best), cables that positively invite you to trip over them, the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of small or not-so-small electronics boxes, and so on. My ideal hi-fi rig consists of a small and preferably inexpensive appliance that sits quietly and unobtrusively in some corner of the room, but fills the room with sweet music. Now that’s what I’d call progress.
I’m also not saying that triodes are the only way to go. I remain unattached to any specific technology. I would like to see more single-ended transistor amplifiers. These should provide quite respectable specs, a low output impedance, a flat amplitude and phase response, and so on. Judging from my experiences with tube designs, I would caution against the use of parallel transistors in the quest for higher power outputs. Anyway, the compromises inherent in this technology tend to show up much more clearly in single-ended topologies than in circuits that split the signal.
Single-ended designs are necessarily class-A, so they’ll never be as energy efficient as I’d like my hi-fi to be. It could be argued that it doesn’t matter much on a global scale. I don’t yet see a Japanese electronics giant bringing out inexpensive single-ended integrateds, so for the foreseeable future this exciting technology will remain the expensive preserve of the dedicated few. But I have to say that I’d be happier if all of humanity could follow my path to audio truth without vaporizing the polar ice caps. This aspect truly troubles me.
I also have great hopes for the Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio formats. The present CD format, after all, was laid down in the late 1970s and relied on technology that was then cost-efficient to manufacture. If you compare a present-day computer to its late-’70s counterpart, the latter appears to be a relic of the Neolithic. The CD standard seems just as antediluvian when compared with the new digital technologies.
A change in direction?
I’m sure that I’ve raised more questions in readers’ minds with this article than I have provided answers. However, I hope to ignite a discussion that may lead to a better understanding of how sound influences emotion, and how equipment that doesn’t get in the way of the emotion can be designed. The High End has become too technocratic, too sure of itself, maybe even a little arrogant. In my estimation, we have only scratched the surface of this whole matter of music reproduction in the home. Some humility would give a more accurate perception of our achievements in this worthwhile field. Personally, I’m usually very unhappy when someone tells what I should and shouldn’t enjoy.
In lieu of a conclusion, I offer this observation: There is a paradigm shift underway in the world of music reproduction. For the last 40 years or so, the High End’s aim could be summed up in Quad’s famous motto: “the closest approach to the original sound.” But there is a growing movement underfoot that refuses to adhere to this motto, creating its own instead: the closest approach to the original emotion.