THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE
"PERFECTION" AND "STATE OF THE ART"
THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF MUSIC REPRODUCTION
THE PROBLEMS WITH MEASUREMENTS
THE PROBLEMS WITH COMPLEX COMPONENTS
THE WEAKEST ELEMENT OF HOME AUDIO
ANALOG AND DIGITAL-THE SONIC DIFFERENCES
REFINEMENTS AND FUNDAMENTAL IMPROVEMENTS
MY HIERARCHY/LEVELS OF AUDIBLE IMPROVEMENTS NEW!
"AUDIO RELATIVISM"-THE NEW DISEASE AND EXCUSE
"MUSICAL" AND "INVOLVING"-A CRITICAL ESSAY
THE MOST IGNORED AUDIOPHILE WORDS-AN ESSAY
MUSIC IS ART - AUDIO IS SCIENCE
WHY "SOUND-FLOOR" IS PREFERABLE TO "NOISE-FLOOR"
READERS LETTERS NEW!
My Audio Philosophy is basic and simple:
I believe in Audio Minimalism
It doesn't matter if your audio system is primarily analog, digital or both. This means the fewest components (no line stage) and fewest parts (speaker drivers), the shortest cables and the simplest signal path; even down to the minimum number of solder joints.
Only simplicity is able to capture the complexities of music, while complex circuits will inevitably sound simple, predictable and, ultimately, boring.
This doesn't mean utilizing shoddy or compromised parts, cheap power supplies, cases etc. Execution is crucial for the benefits of minimalism to be heard. Also, as Albert Einstein has said, care must be taken not to make things "too simple".
When following this basic guideline, and with proper execution, several positive results will occur simultaneously:
1. You will hear more of the music, instead of your system.
2. What you hear will sound more natural or "musical".
3. Your system will be "quieter", in every sense of that word.
4. Your system will be more reliable, and the inevitable repairs will cost less.
5. Your system will cost both less to purchase and maintain.
6. Your system will be easier to "understand" and operate.
7. There will be far less need to make (expensive) upgrades.
You must have speakers that are both sensitive (at least 90dB) and an easy load on your amplifier (minimum 6 ohms everywhere). Why?
When you have sensitive, high impedance speakers:
1. You may be able to use low-power (single ended triode) amplifiers, which have the highest potential fidelity of all amps at this time, and
2. You may be able to eliminate the active line stage in your system, along with the required cables.
This philosophy is NOT just an idealistic and impractical "theory" of mine. To read about a "real-life" example that actually exists (and which has proved my above claims to countless audiophiles);
Even if it was possible to build "just" one theoretically perfect component, you couldn't ultimately verify it within an imperfect system and with imperfect source material.
At any given time there will be one or more "state of the art" components within each category. Which one the listener prefers depends on the listener's audio priorities because, unfortunately, no component is (or ever will be) superior to all the others in every area of performance.
Even worse, it's extremely rare for any component to even equal all its competitors in every area of music reproduction. Many components are designed with the intention of achieving this more attainable goal, but only those rare few that actually come close deserve to be acclaimed as "state of the art".
These simple and somewhat cruel facts result in an unavoidable rule:
No audio system in existence, or even "in theory", no matter what it costs, will ever be able to equal the best of the other systems in each and every category of musical reproduction, let alone better them.Top
First think of the complex sound that you are the most intimately familiar with; let's say a loved one's voice. Next, consider (in theory) listening to that same voice in an endless variety of settings; a living room, kitchen, office, car, restaurant, mall, classroom, concert hall, the outdoors etc.
1. Because of the laws of acoustics, the voice will always sound slightly different in each location.
2. Despite that, and even with your eyes shut, you will always be able to identify the voice and the fact that the particular person is actually present in all those various locations.
3. Most importantly, you will know both of these facts to an absolute certainty, and without having "to think" about them.
Despite all of the varied "sonic differences", unique to each location, there must be some elements of sound which are common and fundamental to "live sound", regardless of the time and the location.
It is these "essential elements" which must be conveying to the listener both the individuality and the absolute presence of that sound. Further, whatever these "essential elements" are, they must be, by definition:
I feel that these "common and fundamental elements of sound" can be distilled into two descriptive categories:
1. "Low-level information" (which provides "individuality") and
2. "Immediacy" (which provides "absolute presence").
There are other, important implications:
All the other varying "sonic differences", brought about by different locations, must be, by deduction, less important to reproduced sound than the "essential common and fundamental" sonic qualities, which always occur in "live sound".
It took (too) many years for me to realize what should have been obvious, but I am now convinced through my (and many others') experiences that there is one vital element of sound reproduction that is more important than any of the others, though all have relevance, and that element is...
Fortunately, the effort to retain this information is further rewarded by the remaining sonic priorities usually coming "along for the ride". Unfortunately, low-level musical information is also the single most difficult area to preserve, or, in other words, "the easiest to lose"; bad AC power, one FET, one wrong cable, a misplaced RFI ring, etc., and, of course, poorly designed and/or executed components.
Low-level musical information encompasses the widest possible array of musical sounds;
1. The harmonics that identify instruments and enables them to sound natural or "musical";
2. The decay of the individual notes and their harmonics;
3. The subtle, instantaneous shifts of dynamics and their intensity and emphasis (also known as micro-dynamics and dynamic shading) enabling musical "expression" to be sensed, heard and felt;
4. The sense of ambience and space, allowing the listener to both hear and be "there";
5. The separation, or absence of homogenization, of all of the above, reducing "boredom" and "listener fatigue";
6. and the sense of both continuity and a continual presence, which has also been described by others as "continuousness".
It is also indispensable that all this musical information be retrieved accurately;
This allows the music to sound "natural" and appear "intelligible". This is especially relevant with speakers, which have the most problems of any component with the accurate reproduction of both musical timbres (relative level) and with relative timing (phase).
This is this information, more than anything else, that allows the listener to believe that the music he/she is hearing, and experiencing, is a unique and human event, rather than one that is electronic, mechanical and ultimately contrived.
This is why many audiophiles justifiably use the expression "magic" when they hear more of this quality in any particular system. While I also use that same expression, the word that best describes this quality for me is "complete".
In short, "completeness" is my highest audio priority and everything else is subservient to it.
AN ANALOGY- "Completeness" is the equivalent of the "Aftertaste", when experiencing fine foods and drinks. Its very existence and character separate the different qualities of food and drink from each other. This is what also happens with music when its reproduction is "complete".
To "complete" this topic; The second most important element is "immediacy". This is the quality of sound that actually places the performers in your own "presence". Both of these qualities are necessary for the sound to come across as totally "real" and "alive".
I feel that "low-level information" is the highest priority for the reproduction of music because, ultimately, the "completeness" of the musical performance is more important for emotional involvement than "where it is located".Top
All audiophiles should at least once bring an accurate sound-level pressure gauge into their listening rooms. This is especially important for those music lovers who listen mainly to acoustical music; classical, jazz, folk etc., like me.
After an evening of listening to different music and observing the meter, most audiophiles are very surprised at how low the dB readings are on the gauge; usually between 60 to 85dB. It will on occasion go lower, and only for extremely brief instances will it ever rise above 90db.
Much more important than the pure numbers are the ultimate implications of all this. What do these surprisingly low dB numbers really mean for the on-going scientific and practical attempts of measuring a component's ability to reproduce music?
They are devastating, and here is why.
Let's start with a speaker of fairly high sensitivity, which is the trend these days and also what I recommend above. Let's say the sensitivity is 90dB/1 watt. This means that at an 80dB loudness level, this speaker is receiving a total of 1/10th of 1 watt of power from the amplifier.
This is the point where most audio magazines stop measuring, but this is the exact point where they really should begin "fine measuring", because the 80dB is only the peak/accumulated loudness at that moment. All the real, fine musical details and information; the harmonics, decays, sense of space, dynamic inflections etc. are still 20 to 30dB (or more) below the 80dB peak.
What does this all mean?
At a softer 60dB loudness level, which is not that unusual, the power level of even 1 Millionth of one watt becomes important!
Which audio "tech/guru" or scientist measures what is happening in an amplifier from 100th to 1,000,000th of one watt?
The Answer: Not even one.
This same basic principle holds true for measuring preamplifiers, speakers and everything else. (It is also a very plausible explanation why some components appear to sound better after some "break-in".) Until it is possible to scientifically measure low-level musical information, we will have to trust our imperfect and unscientific ears and let them choose what component has the most "magic".
This inevitably brings us to the next logical and unavoidable subject.Top
Audiophiles will pay huge sums of money, and make other sacrifices, to find, buy and use extremely accurate (high-end) equipment. Because of this simple fact...
Audio manufacturers are under constant pressure to improve their products, or at least create an appearance that the new designs are superior, no matter what the ultimate retail costs are. So it isn't surprising to now see hyper-expensive audio components, especially speakers and power amplifiers. Every one of them is "large, costly and complex", and every one of them has the same basic sonic problems, which are inevitable and unavoidable with these designs.
Any object that is large and complex to build is also going to cost a lot, but "the cost" is not "the problem", just the end result. The problems, audio/musical in this instance, are all caused by unnecessary size and signal complexity, because both of these are "enemies" of the vital essence and subtleties of music. It is all very scientific and ruthlessly logical.
You have a signal entering first the amplifier and then the loudspeaker. It contains, and actually is, the music in a different form. Many of the most important parts of this signal are also extremely tiny, only thousandths or even millionths of one volt or one watt! Any signal, or part of a signal, this weak and delicate can be lost forever at any time. Now...
How can it be possible for the complete signal to still survive intact after going through:
multiple amplifying stages,
numerous transistors and tubes,
multiple speaker drivers and
long, internal signal lengths with countless passive parts and solder joints?
The answer is simple;
It can't! Ultimately: The price for complexity is quality.Top
The weakest area in audio at present is the same as it was back in 1960...
This is the capability of the system "to change its volume at the same speed, scale and intensity of real live music".
I refer to this as: Instantaneous Dynamic Response (IDR).
Most audio systems are simply pathetic when it comes to imitating what occurs in real life. Any live concert, even for a solo flute, or just a passing high school band, makes this unavoidably clear.
Part of the problem is that none of the existing musical software is yet capable of storing the entirety of this information, but most systems couldn't begin to reproduce realistic IDR even if it did exist on available analog or digital sources.
Instead, systems will routinely compress the IDR to varying degrees, or even seriously distort. The best I've heard are some "horn systems", but only at certain frequencies, and they still have their other, unique problems. Some conventional systems are pretty good at reproducing IDR, but only at lower volumes. Why is this so, and what is at fault?
The causes are many and various, but the two main culprits are amplifiers and speakers. For an amplifier to reproduce IDR, it must have high voltage and power swing, and this gives the advantage to tube designs, which should be no surprise to experienced audiophiles. However, amplifiers with truly high voltage swings are very rare because of their extra difficulty and expense to build.
On the speaker end, the ability to move large amounts of air is critical, which consequently requires a large, total driver area and also larger cabinets to house them. The subsequent problems are that accurate, large drivers are very costly, and so are their required, large dead cabinets.
If that wasn't enough, if the drivers are too large, they will then have unavoidable problems with transparency, purity, delicacy and refinement etc. This is why there has never been an easy and obvious solution to this problem. (However, if a listener prefers rock, or any other poorly recorded music, he/she will not be as unhappy with those compromises.)
CAVEAT: Don't confuse "playing loud" with IDR. The former is like a sexual climax, while the latter (IDR) is the climax plus everything that led up to it. In other words, it is the entire journey, and not just the final destination, which is at issue.Top
Virtually anyone can hear the sonic differences between an analog and digital source, especially if the rest of the system is revealing. The problem is describing those differences and explaining and justifying a preference for one over the other.
The first reality is:
Digital can never be anything more than a numerical approximation of real life. "Real life" is analog and analog only. There is no way around that fact.
The second reality is:
Neither analog nor digital contains all the musical truth, even if that statement upsets the extremists on both sides. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses.
Digital is preferable to analog in a number of ways:
1. It has superior speed pitch, which is very important with many forms of music (solo piano);
2. It has a quieter background compared to most records, which is important for other forms of music (acappella choir);
3. It is superior in retaining outer details, which is important for all types of music;
4. It can record higher dynamic volumes, which is important for some rare music (Japanese Kodo drums);
5. It has lower amounts of many types of distortions, which is important for all music; and finally...
6. The new digital formats (CD, DVD, SACD) are more practical and can be played countless times without any physical deterioration.
Unfortunately, digital has one HUGE downside.
Digital's one major problem is that is has a very high "sound-floor"*, at least compared to high-quality analog.
Any source, component or system with a "high sound-floor" obscures (actually it eliminates) low-level musical information. For many music lovers, including myself, it is within the low-level information that one finds the real "soul" and "meaning" of the music.
That is where the true instrumental textures exist. That is where the actual recording spaces exist. It is there that human differences of feeling and expressiveness are discerned. This is all the basic essence of "human individuality".
There are many listeners, with analog as their reference, who can not give all that up for the real advantages of digital, which they will consider relatively superficial.
*The "sound-floor" is the term used to describe the softest sounds that can be reproduced by that component or system. So...
A low "sound-floor" component (or system) will pass through "soft sounds", while a high "sound-floor" component (or system) will not pass through those exact same soft sounds. (The term "sound-floor", or "noise-floor", does not mean the normal "noise", hiss and hum, you hear from the electronics or the source.)
For a more "in-depth" description and discussion of the "sound-floor" and its vital importance in music reproduction, go to The Reference Components.
Digital recordings also tend to homogenize instruments, including human voices, during complex and/or loud musical passages. This is most easily observable within orchestral compositions, especially those with large forces and choirs. The end result is a serious compromise in both the "individualization" and "organization" of the music. This problem also exists in common analog recordings, but to a much less noticeable degree in the finest of that genre (See The Supreme Recordings).
I enjoy and prefer analog over digital. Why? In the most simple and direct terms:
I feel that the finest digital sources reproduce "the musically obvious" at "the cost" of losing "the musically UN-obvious".
Let's compare theoretical digital and analog pictures of a forest in the summer or fall. If it's a digital picture, more of the leaves on the trees will be missing (and the colors of the remaining leaves will be more uniform). Yes, you will then be able to see (and count) more individual trees with the digital picture, but at what price? Which picture better captures the whole? To make another, more human, analogy...
It's similar to the difference between one actor accurately enunciating his words, but with little emotion and conviction, while another actor slightly slurs those same words, but conveys noticeably more conviction, sincerity and emotion. Which is preferable to you?
I became an audiophile many years ago mainly because of an irresistible desire to discover "the musically UNknown", and not to just hear more of "the obvious". Digital sources, at this time, in effect, force me to end that quest. That price is too high for me.
From a different perspective: Analog has the capability to continually "Surprise" me, and to any serious audiophile, being (pleasantly) surprised is one of the happiest and most desirable experiences you can ever have. Digital rarely surprises me, because it is too limited and too predictable.
There is actually a logical reason why some listeners, who are used to high-quality analog systems, will become bored and tired with digital recordings, no matter what their quality.
Digital recordings have a higher "sound-floor" (so far) than good analog. The listener, with an analog memory as a reference, will realize that "something is missing" (including the problems with analog). This, in turn, causes a continual listening effort to fill in "what is missing", and that "effort" causes the eventual fatigue.
However, those (growing amount of) listeners who have listened to only digital, or are now "used to it", will not have the same (analog) reference. The message that "something is missing" is unlikely to be sent in the first place. Ironically then, listening only to digital may be the long-term "antidote" for any digitally caused listening fatigue.
To condense everything I've written above about the differences between Analog and Digital, in the simplest terms possible:
There is an important difference between a "refinement" and a "fundamental improvement". For each listener, and evaluator, the vital distinction between these two terms will be very subjective, because it is based on the listener's own reaction to the perceived improvement.
To me, a "refinement" is just that, a generally small improvement that may be somewhat difficult, or quite easy, to hear. It will pleasantly enhance the sound. You may notice it, now and then, for maybe a day, or even a week or so, and then it will be mainly forgotten, absorbed by the system. You could live without it, if you had to, with only minimal suffering.
A "fundamental improvement" is very different. This profound transformation shakes you, changes you and may even shock you. It will make you re-evaluate everything that occured prior to hearing that component. You will almost feel like your system was "born again" (no religious inference implied). This change is a "matter of kind", not a "matter of degree". You wouldn't dream of returning to your former system, even if only one component caused the particular transformation.
Many audiophiles experience a literal state of "ecstasy" when hearing a fundamental improvement, especially their first time, and how it greatly enhances their appreciation of music. It's the desire to repeat this intense experience which transforms ordinary people into "audiophiles". Sadly, it's inevitable that with each experience an audiophile has with the finite amount of different designs that exist, the less chance that audiophile will once again experience another fundamental improvement. Of course, this may be divine intervention to encourage a greater focus on the actual music, which can be easily forgotten during the excitement in the quest for audio ecstasy.
For many years now, I've only recommended spending "serious money" when a component makes a fundamental change. If it doesn't, keep your money. The real thing will eventually come around, and you'll be so happy you still have that money when it does.
This entire issue is another large problem I've had with most of the audio press. They have deliberately blurred the distinction between these two terms to the point of meaninglessness. Hearing fundamental improvements are routine events in most audio magazines. I only wish this were true. Their shameless exaggeration of minor improvements, and even less ("the boy crying wolf"), is one of the justifiable reasons why they've lost their credibility.
Finally, I don't want to give the impression that I don't think "refinements" are important. In fact, they're vital. They are what may transform an excellent system into a "great" system. Of course, it takes "a lot" of refinements to do this, not just one, or even a few. The point is, don't spend "big money" on them. That's for something much more important.
Addendum- The article below, written years after the above article, provides more clarity and actual examples of some recent experiences concerning this important issue.Top
This is my first attempt at describing the different levels of improvements an audiophile may hear and observe during a comparison (assuming they actually exist in the first place). I also provide some examples that we (myself and one, or more, of my associates along with me) have experienced in the last few years.
The actual observations will constitute an objective reality to the listener. However, the listener's reaction to those same observations will, of course, always be personal and subjective, and may differ greatly from my descriptions, and from other audiophiles. In fact, in my experience...
For the most fanatical and enthusiastic audiophiles, a Level 3 observation may still trigger a Level 5 reaction. In stark contrast, some "objectivist" listeners will only acknowledge Level 1 to 3 improvements (at most!) to any component they hear, with the one exception of speakers, and react accordingly.
Now, from the most subtle to the most profound...
Level 1- The improvement can be subtly, though still consistently, heard when switching to the superior component (A/B), but it is not heard when switching back (B/A).
Example- Ars Acoustica Prototype I.C. Cable Vs. Coincident Extreme I.C. Cable (between the phono stage and line stage)
Level 2- The improvement can be heard when both switching components, and when switching back, but it is no longer specifically heard after a very short period of time; sometimes seconds, but almost always less than one minute.
Example- Coincident "Kamikaze" Phono Stage Vs. Jadis JP-80 Phono Stage (midrange only, for around 30 seconds)
Level 3- The improvement can be heard at length, but mainly only when making an effort to listen specifically for it, so it is not "obvious". This improvement is usually not "significant"; meaning there's a good chance that an audiophile may be able to remove this improvement from their system and still not suffer from its absence.
Example- Bent Audio Silver SUT Vs. Coincident Statement SUT
Level 4- The improvement can be heard all the time, and without any effort, by an audiophile. However, it would not be unusual for it to be not heard by those listeners with no interest in sound quality. This improvement is still usually "significant"; meaning an audiophile will almost always suffer from its absence.
Example- Graham Phantom Supreme Tonearm Vs. Graham Phantom II Tonearm
Level 5- The improvement can be heard at all times by anyone with healthy hearing, including listeners with no interest in sound quality. The improvement is now always "significant"; meaning an audiophile can no longer enjoy their system without this specific improvement.
Example- Coincident Statement Phono Stage (Latest Model) Vs. Coincident Statement Phono Stage (Original Model)
Level 6- The improvement is "transformational"; meaning not only would it be completely unthinkable to live without it, but the improvement actually alters an audiophile's thinking and perspective on both their particular system and "Audio" in general.
Example- Reference Lenco L-75 Turntable/Graham Phantom (Supreme) Tonearm Vs. Forsell Air Reference Turntable/Tonearm
These different levels do not correlate exactly with numbers or percentages. Personal preferences and a listener's subjective reaction always trump the listener's analytical judgment of a component's performance and whatever improvement(s) is/are noticeable.
As an example, let's say one component ("A") is noticeably superior to the Reference ("R") in 10 different areas, but only by approximately 1% in each case. In contrast, let's say a third component ("B") sounds the same as "R" in almost every way, but is better in one area by 5%. It is very possible that component "B" will still receive a higher level than "A" to the audiophile, especially if the improved area is more highly valued. In fact, it is not uncommon for some audiophiles to give up 1% of the performance across the board just to get that extra 10% improvement in the one area that really moves them and gets them "involved" with the music.
To make this more personal, I believe if I were to quantify the actual examples that were given above, the Lenco/Graham wouldn't receive the largest number, but I still feel it was "transformative" because it improved areas that broke new ground (for me), and which couldn't be replicated by any other component category (like going from a transistor amp to a good SET amp on the right speaker).
Also, while the first two Levels leave basically no room for "nuance", since they are so subtle and tightly defined to begin with, the higher Levels (4 to 6) do have smaller iterations (or degrees) within them, such as 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 5.2 etc. In fact, even a "difference in kind" still has some "variety" or a range, since their degree and impact are not all exactly the same, even if the practical end results are the same.
Finally, below is how I used numbers to illustrate why I was so enthusiastic about the Graham Phantom Supreme compared to the earlier II it replaced, when the described differences didn't appear to be that significant...
Let's assume the II is 95% "perfect", while the Supreme is 97% "perfect". Most audiophiles would agree that the difference between the numbers 95 and 97 is marginal. However, the difference between 5% (100-95) and 3% (100-97), which is a 40% reduction in imperfection, can be profound to an audiophile (or any "perfectionist" for that matter). Sometimes a change in perspective clarifies an otherwise confusing subject.Top
There has been a growing (and unspoken) "trend" in the audio magazine industry for more than a decade. In fact, I understand that one editor/reviewer (Jonathan Valin) finally stated and defended (a version of) this "theory" (or "belief") in a major magazine (TAS). Later on, another audio writer, Michael Laborgna, this time in Stereophile, made the same claim, in almost the same words.
I call this new "theory": "Audio Relativism".
It is the belief system that virtually every component has strong merit and can produce "great sound", for someone's "tastes", if it is matched correctly with other components.
What are (some of) the ultimate implications of this theory?
1. Every component has some validity in the audio marketplace.
2. No component is inherently superior to another.
3. All sound reproduction differences are just a simple matter of taste.
4. There is no objective standard to aim for.
5. (High) Fidelity to the source, or in general, is irrelevant.
6. Audio is an "Art Form", like poetry and sculpting, rather than a science.
This "belief system" is very convenient for its creators; the audio magazines and their 'reviewers'. It provides them with the ability (and the excuse) to find some "good", or some "justification" to purchase, within every single component that is reviewed by them. How?
Because, if their belief is true, each and every component, under the right conditions, can equally satisfy listeners as much as any other component, for either the money or in the absolute sense. It's just a matter of time, or luck, before you find the right "match".
In effect: this theory means that all component performance is "relative" and with no "absolutes"; only "possibilities" exist.
1. If true, in effect there has been no real progress in audio for the last 40 years or more, since any "improvements" are simply a "matter of taste", and that's all.
2. If true, there can never be any true, objective (or even "subjective") progress in audio reproduction in the future.
In theory, only "relative" progress can ever be made, depending only on the changing tastes and feelings of the listeners, and based on how they "relate" to the sound of the components.
3. If true, no component, let alone complete system, can ever be honestly described (or declared) to be closer to the sound of "The Reference" (the original recording, or "live music"), as any other component or system.
I am the first to admit that "priorities" and "tastes" are critical when choosing components, because nothing is "perfect". That being said, this is still very different from proclaiming that:
1. "Tastes" are all that matter, and
2. All components are the same or equal otherwise.
Those two statements are false, period.
Audio is not like wine or food tasting. It is a scientific and technical attempt to perfectly recreate a previous (musical) event. It is engineers and technicians that by and large design and build audio components, not Master Chefs.
Because it is still (and may always be) "imperfect", there will be unavoidable subjective elements within its pursuit, but there are existing objective and fundamental standards (the original recordings and "live music"), even though they are a moving and nebulous target. This can never be true with "wine and food tasting".
There is a huge difference between a subjective description of imperfect music reproduction and a subjective response to imperfect music reproduction. That vital distinction must never be blurred.
This "theory" is just one more pathetic attempt by the magazines and their 'reviewers' to compromise their prime responsibility to their readers:
Anyone who claims that there has been no true progress in home audio reproduction, and/or that virtually all components have an equal potential to reveal the reality and essence of "live music", subject only to "taste" and matching, is either highly misinformed, ignorant, a liar, a coward or an incompetent.
I've thought about this essay for many years. A few incidents compelled me to finally write it, because they reminded me how direct, clear and sincere communication among audiophiles is becoming increasingly rarer as time goes on. Instead, we now mainly use meaningless and inoffensive cliches and buzzwords. This essay may prove to be "controversial" or "unpopular", but I felt it had to be done eventually, by someone, and it ended up being me.
The word "musical" has been part of common audiophile language for a long time now, at least from the early 1980's and maybe even from the 1970's or earlier. The people who use it (especially decades ago) are generally well-meaning, but the word itself is totally nebulous, making it, by definition, also completely meaningless.
First of all, while the word "musical" is descriptive, at least in principle, it's descriptive of nothing in particular when it comes to audio performance. In effect, it is, and always has been, a "magic word". It does not possess even a minimal definition which is generally agreed upon by most audiophiles. Instead, the meaning changes from person to person. Its only universal "qualities", if that's the proper term, are its desirability and ubiquitous use as a "compliment".
Secondly, due to this lack of a precise, or even general, definition, the typical application of the word "musical" entails no "risk" to the user, either the writer or the speaker. Proof? Let's consider the generic definition of "musical", which is "of the music" or, for our specific audio purposes, "It honors the music". (The "It" can be either a component or an entire audio system.) This definition begs the inevitable question:
Accordingly, the speaker, or writer, can never be proven wrong when they describe something as being "musical". No wonder the word "musical" is so popular with audiophiles!
It's a word that appears to be, like pornography, strictly in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder; "I know it when I hear it". That's like describing "beautiful" or "lovely", not the actual performance of an audio component. Even worse, the typical users are so unquestioning that, for them, "musical" is now used without even any second thoughts. Unfortunately, such certainty is misplaced, especially once you consider the implications of...
This is a situation where the usual attempt to subjectively describe an objective reality is twisted, since the "objective reality" itself has been converted into something that is now subjective. Please remember that most users of "musical" are not even claiming, by inference, that the component's performance is "accurate". Not by a long shot. In fact, the most enthusiastic proponents of "musical" claim just the opposite! This brings us to the third flaw and problem with this word, or at least how its "definition" has evolved over time...
Generally speaking, many of the same people who claim that something is "musical", usually further claim that the truly "accurate" components are also "NOT musical". So, an incredible (and inescapable) formula is created: "Musical" has an inverse relationship with "High-Fidelity" and/or "Accuracy". This "theory" is truly perverted, with underlying and fundamental flaws of both perspective and reality.
This "controversy" has been around for something like 25 years now. It became prevalent a few years after digital sources (CD players) became popular and commonplace. That's not a simple coincidence. It's routine for the "Musical Or Accurate" ("MOA") argument to directly follow the (also useless) "digital versus analog" and/or "tubes versus transistors" arguments. However, we will focus exclusively on the MOA, since the other two have already been addressed on this website, and are also irrelevant in this particular context.
I feel it's important for audiophiles to fully understand and appreciate the inherent absurdity of the MOA "theory". So I have a simple request; please seriously contemplate how a single component can be truly (and noticeably) "inaccurate" and truly "musical", both at the same time. With a little thought, an inevitable question arises...
What type and/or form of inaccuracy could ever enhance the reproduction of music? To answer this, let's look at some of the most basic forms of inaccuracy within home audio;
1. The various distortions (harmonic, intermodulation, mechanical/acoustical vibrations etc.);
2. The frequency irregularities along with premature roll-offs at the two frequency extremes;
3. The subtraction of musical and/or performance information (harmonics, decays, dynamic shifts, ambience etc.);
4. The volume (loudness) deficiency and/or dynamic compression, and...
5. The various timing imprecisions and phase shifts, including wow and flutter, which cause dis-organization.
6. The general smearing and homogenization due to inertia, overload etc.
7. The hiss, hum and other noises created by electronics.
Now, two quick questions:
1. Which of these easily noticeable audio problems ("inaccuracies") appear desirable to you? and...
2. Which one, or combination, of them would be certain to enhance the reproduction of music in your home, consistently, from musical source to musical source?
"None" is the obvious answer. Sure, in a singular, fortuitous circumstance, a hardware fault may precisely offset a software fault, but it can't do it consistently with most, let alone all, of your other musical software. To claim otherwise is to blindly believe in a fantasy world, where all the software has the same exact fundamental problem. This is why DBX dynamic enhancers, high-quality equalizers and even adjustable tone controls are never used in the finest audio systems. Why would built-in, non-defeatable "equalizers", "tone controls" and/or distortion creating devices fare any better?
Bottom Line- Ultimately, all we have are the musical sources, imperfect as they are. All you can, or should, ever attempt is to faithfully reproduce those sources, which are all unique, as are all people and snowflakes. Anything else is pure presumption, based on ignorance, if not arrogance.
My own conviction is simple: A component is "Musical" ONLY IF and BECAUSE it is also "Accurate".
It's understandable when an audio novice uses the word "musical". It takes time to learn how to communicate what you hear and like. For a veteran audiophile, it's different; "musical" is a cop-out, like the ubiquitous, inarticulate and immature expression; "you know". This somewhat harsh "indictment" leads me to a personal confession...
To be honest, I must admit that I've used the word "musical" myself in the past, for years actually, until I realized one day that I was being intellectually lazy, while also "covering my ass" by being non-specific. Yes, I was using a "weasel word".
I gave all that up many years ago, but to make partial amends, I feel compelled to describe what I actually meant when I used the word "musical". I meant that the component, or system, was "natural sounding", meaning both smooth (linear) and with the proper harmonic structure intact*. When I use the word today, I always (try to remember to) put it in "quotes", because of its non-literal nature. (If I ever forget, please bring this to my attention.)
*(This definition is in stark contrast to what I believe the typical contemporary users of "musical" are most commonly describing, in reality;
"overly warm and fat", and/or
"forgiving" by deliberate "omission of details", and/or
"pleasant and innocuous colorations", and/or
"rolled off in the highs" and/or
There's actually a common denominator to all of these (normally undesirable) sonic characteristics they are so enamored of; They may help some of the worst musical sources, especially digital, sound less irritating. That's not as unflattering as it appears, because other flaws may, instead, even exacerbate the sonic irritation.)
Finally, I have recently noticed that the word "musical" (and "accurate") may be evolving in its use within our audio world. These days, in our non-critical, overly sensitive environment, many audiophiles are easily offended by any criticism of their components. Accordingly, some audiophiles, particularly audio "reviewers", now routinely use "musical" (or "accurate") as a subterfuge, to soften the blow of what they really think and mean.
Here's two typical examples of this new "audio diplomacy";
1. A "reviewer", who actually thinks an amplifier is "sterile", will describe it as "accurate". In the reverse scenario...
2. A "reviewer", who actually thinks an amplifier is "distorted" and/or "colored", will describe it as "musical".
Yes, the amount of "BS" in the audio world, considering its small size, may be unmatched per capita. The next most popular word, "Involving", has an even worse audio history, though it's not all negative, at least not in theory...
I still clearly remember the first time I heard the word "involving" used in an audio discussion (actually debate). I'll never forget it, because it was used in the most cheap, preemptory and cowardly manner possible. This one experience initially prejudiced my feelings towards this word, though I now acknowledge that it can be both relevant and important, but only in the right context.
First, let's recount that unforgettable experience, even though the "culprit" was an "associate" at the time:
It was back in 1989/90, when I owned an audio store in Toronto. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we had just finished an interconnect cable "shoot-out". Now while the vast majority of audio comparisons have pretty clear results, even if they're rarely 'knockouts', this time there was some serious disagreement as to which cable was better. As my friend was losing ground with his cable (that he made himself), he suddenly proclaimed: "But my cable is more INVOLVING".
As soon as the words left his mouth, there was total silence in the room. I, and I assume everyone else, realized there was no way to challenge this claim. After all;
1. What is "involving"? Can any audio observation be more subjective and personal?
2. How can you argue that any particular component is NOT "involving"? And, if you want to get really "technical"...
3. How can you ask an engineer or designer to make a component more "involving", with no other explanation? (See below.)
I firmly thought then, and now, that "involving" was strictly a personal reaction to the music reproduction, and not, in any manner, a description of that reproduction.
Like the word "musical", "involving" is another "magic word", with no relation to any objective reality or even priority. Accordingly, and once again, the user can never be proven wrong. Ultimately, it's just another way of saying; "I really like it", or "I really enjoy it", but it sounds a lot more sophisticated and serious.
While "involving" does have a "meaning", it's purely personal*, like a person's musical taste. When it's used simply on its own, "involving" is even more of a "cop-out" than "musical", because while the latter is at least descriptive in theory, the former isn't even descriptive. It's just a personal feeling, and not even necessarily sincere.
Unfortunately, the "cop-out" usage is the general rule, but there are important exceptions. Because of them, "involving" has much more potential value to audiophiles than "musical" can ever claim...
This is because the word "involving" can be an excellent, "bottom-line", personal evaluation of a component's performance, even if it's not being used very often in that capacity at the moment.
The problems are two fold:
1. When it is used on its own, with NO further justification or explanation to help clarify the accolade for others, and
2. When it is used with virtually every component, mainly by typical members of the audio press, making no distinction between the components.
So, to end on a positive note, the word "involving" is potentially useful among audiophiles. However, this is true only when:
1. "Involving" is used with both discrimination and with comparisons to other components, and, just as important,
2. When the user also fully explains the "why" and the "how" the particular component was able to achieve that important distinction.
I realize that both requirements, and particularly the second, involve unavoidable exposure and risk to the user, but that's the essence of honest and relevant communication in audio (and other areas of human life for that matter).
It's almost universally agreed that, at this time, a component's performance can not be completely described by using only technical terms and scientific measurements, but that doesn't mean that we can totally rely on subjective, personal and musical terms either. The most relevant assessments use both, and with a serious attempt to relate them to each other. That's also how the finest components are designed and built in the first place. This brings us back to two points I brought up earlier, which have an important connection...
When audiophiles really want to make a thorough and honest attempt to describe a component's ability to reproduce music, it should be understandable and relevant to both their fellow audiophile/music lovers and audio engineers and designers. Using only "magical" and self-indulgent terms like "musical" and "involving", on their own, serves no one, and no useful purpose.
*Here's another viewpoint of "involving". An "associate" wrote to me, in his own words:
"Sincere users (of "involving") are trying to convey the emotional reaction that the component has upon them. I believe that there exist certain parameters of audio performance that appeal to the emotions while others impinge upon the intellectual. Examples of the former are dynamics, weight, punch and impact, transient intensity while areas touching on the cerebral include low level detail, focus, high frequency extension and purity. When someone proclaims a component is involving, they are really saying it excels in the areas of performance that evoke an emotional reaction within. Used in this way, the term involving can be edifying." (My bold)
Personal Note- While I agree, for the most part, with my associate's idealistic perspective, I've met serious audiophiles who only "respond" to (or get "turned on" by) a combination of image size, separation and focus, which is about as as "intellectual" as you can get in audio reproduction. Personally, I am sometimes strongly moved by subtle dynamic shifts (emphasis and deemphasis). When it comes to emotional responses, you can make generalizations, but there are far too many exceptions among audiophiles to make a useful rule.
At the beginning of 2006, I posted a lengthy essay on the two words which I believe were (and are) the most (mis)used by audiophiles; "Musical" and "Involving". I have since promised a second essay, but this time focusing on the words I felt were arguably among the most important to, and yet the most neglected by, serious audiophiles.
These two essays aren't just rhetorical "think pieces". In fact, the use of certain words will eventually determine the audiophile's overall perspective and ultimate values, and profoundly effect, for better or worse, the audiophile's actual evaluation process for choosing their components. So their choice may be the most important decision that an audiophile will ever make, since it will influence, if not actually dictate, every future decision.
The order of the words I've chosen is not arbitrary, but is instead based on the integral relationship of the words to each other. I will eventually summarize the underlying philosophy that these three words share in common.
To fully appreciate the importance of this word, let's first consider the methodology audiophiles have consistently used to describe the audio components that we admire. We describe almost everything in "positive" terms. For example: it has "good bass", or "clean highs", "excellent dynamics", a "smooth midrange", a "large soundstage" etc. The reason we use this method, besides inertia, is probably because we're optimistic about audio. It's our nature to put a positive spin on what we like. However, such a singular perspective may prevent us from seeing both the larger picture and, more importantly, the long-term goal which all serious audiophiles share. This common goal can be expressed in just one word: "Perfection".
Unfortunately, we know all too well that "perfection" does not currently exist. In fact, it may never be reached, but we can, and should, still consider its theoretical implications. This is because using this line of thinking can help us better evaluate the performance of our existing (and imperfect) components. How? Adopting the unique viewpoint of "Perfection", even if it's only in our imagination, forces a person to elevate their common, day-to-day perspective.
So, from our now elevated "viewpoint of perfection", here's my simple question;
The choices are almost endless. Consider just the bass frequencies. You can simply say that the bass is "incredible", or "the best bass I've ever heard" or "the bass is flawless" (which would be objectively accurate). The one thing you could not do is to criticize the bass in any manner, since it is "perfect", or "flawless".
This presents us with a dilemma. We tend to use only superlatives when we experience components of excellence, but "perfection" is beyond "excellence", and no superlative can adequately describe an audio component, or anything else, with no imperfections. The superlatives that I frequently use myself, such as "superb", "outstanding" and even "great" etc., just don't do a perfect component justice. This is even more true when considering you are describing a perfect component as objectively as possible.
So, what would I do myself, if I ever encounter such a component? I would confidently state that, objectively speaking, the perfect component was "indescribable". All the usual superlatives would be inherently useless, and even misleading because of their relative nature. In fact...
When encountering "perfection", which is, by definition, singular, it's arguable that any description would be a theoretical, if not practical, limitation of "perfection". So "indescribable" would not be a "cop-out" in this instance, but an honest admission that the critic had no better options available to him.
Now, a thoughtful reader may ask; "Even if I agree with the above argument, what does any of this have to do with the 'real-life' components that are available to us at this moment, with each and every one of them having at least one or more noticeable flaws?" Well, this is where I'm going to make, what I feel, are some practical and important points. The first is...
I want to discuss the (now rare) "half-empty" approach of evaluating components.
By this I mean that only the component's flaws are emphasized, and described in full and in detail. I think, ultimately, that's really all that matters to serious audiophiles. In fact, to me, a "serious audiophile", by definition, is one who wants the least amount of audible flaws. This is in stark contrast to those listeners who mainly want something which is "pleasant", "beautiful", "musical", "sweet", "powerful", "awesome", "great" or whatever other simplistic and fashionable words I've overlooked. The primary usage of such subjective and nebulous words is much too personal and inherently limiting for effective communication, let alone the creating of rational performance goals.
The ubiquitous use of superlatives, the rule today in audio "reviews", is not accurate, useful or honest enough for the serious audiophile. In the end, as the performance of a growing number of outstanding components approaches practical perfection, their remaining flaws become increasingly critical when distinguishing these components from each other. Superlatives, on their own, are useless, unless the writer's real goal is to make even more "friends", instead of elucidating important differences, let alone taking an actual public position between them.
If the word "indescribable" is my highest possible distinction, what about those rare components that approach this exalted level of performance? To be consistent, the closer any component is to "perfection", the more difficult it must be to describe that component, because it will have fewer and fewer flaws to describe. There is another result from using this method, which I also consider an important benefit: It may alter your perspective on audio components in general, and any component in particular. Let me explain...When you view a component only, or even primarily, in terms of its "flaws" or "imperfections", you tend to see it as it is;
Accordingly, there is much less of a chance to develop some form of an emotional attachment or "relationship" to it. This means that when you find something else with even fewer flaws, the original component can be unemotionally replaced, like any other "appliance" in your home. This purely rational approach may be "ruthless", but is still necessary, and will already be the rule for many.*
We've always had "interpreters" between us and the original musical source, and all of them have had varying degrees of "character". So the idea of no longer having any interpreter may appear, at first, to be a potentially boring scenario. Almost like cooking with (or worse, drinking) distilled water instead of a nice wine. There's one crucial difference of course, the original musical source is all you will need, or will ever want, when it is finally heard, as is.
Ultimately, the original recording is all we have, or will ever have, and accordingly, the default "pure and perfect source". Nothing can ever be better than allowing that recording, alone, and without any changes, to "do all the talking". Just as in the practice of Medicine, the First Rule in Audio is: "To do no harm". This means seeking out and choosing components that "get out of the way" of the music.
Far from being "boring", the absence of a repetitive interpretation (and an artificial characterization) allows the listener to at last hear the true artistic intent and message of the musicians and engineers for the first time. Since each recording of music is utterly unique, the least likely result will be listener boredom, due to the literal impossibility of repetition (the mother of boredom).
This brings us to my next word, which I feel best describes the original recorded sounds of music, by themselves, when they are totally absent the monotonous (and predictable) characterizations expected by the listener. That word is...
When I use this word, I'm referring only to the inability of predicting the recording's sonics when the listener's system is operating at "its best", which should be the routine scenario. In an ideal world, the closest possible approximation to a music lover listening to a live concert, is an audiophile listening to an audio system (in a decent room) consisting only of components with indescribable sonics.
Neither listener knows fully what to expect. Of course, the concert hall and the listening room have their own signatures that can be remembered, so we're not making absolute claims here, but the basic analogy is consistent. The important point is that both listeners can, and will, be continuously "surprised" by what they hear.
And that brings us to the most desired result I can imagine, and my next and final word. All of the above, and all the many years of effort and monetary investment required to create a truly special audio system, are to achieve this one and ultimate goal. You can, unarguably, use a number of other words, some of them esoteric and profound, but I prefer simplicity and directness in this instance, so my word of choice is:
While "unpredictable" is a dry, matter-of-fact, almost technical word, "surprising", while similar, is the emotional result of the same reality. There are other applicable and relevant words of course; amazing, revelatory, astonishing, awe, wonder, epiphany. All of these words attempt to describe our human feelings when we are experiencing the unexpected in a positive manner. From a primal perspective, we all have certain words that reflect our audiophile "guts", or our deepest desires. They all have validity, and many readers will find one or more of these words particularly appropriate to them.
Ultimately, music simply "is". Music can't be described. In it's own way, music is infinite and limitless. This fundamental reality must also influence, if not dominate, the foundations of our audio philosophy and basic goals.
Accordingly, our audio components must also be as "indescribable" as possible, even if that's an idealistic goal we may never reach. This perspective is something we must never ignore, or we are not true audiophiles, relentlessly searching for the limitless and perfection.
Finally, I can't imagine a more desirable goal, as both an audiophile and music lover, than to be surprised. For confirmation, consider the alternative; predictable, to the point of being monotonous and boring. For me, it's the choice of embracing the entirety of life, reflected by music, and without compromises.
One of my associates had another perspective on the above. (The same associate who responded to my earlier "Musical and Involving Essay".) Here it is, with some minor editing (my bold):
"...A component can be described using one of two methodologies:
1. Stating the manner in which it perverts the incoming signal (this is the negative approach)
2. Stating its prowess in accurately transmitting the incoming signal (this is the positive approach).
Most reviews of components we like get described by method No. 2. The gear we dislike is usually described by utilizing method No. 1. ...Since the primary function of any audio component is to pass the signal fed to it with as little alteration as possible, all reviews should only detail the manner in which the component under evaluation deviates from that goal. (Method no.1)
Consequently, reviews should only be negative in methodology, since ascribing a positive attribute to a component is conceptually invalid. For example, an amplifier cannot "have great bass". It can simply pass the bass signal fed to it with the utmost fidelity. A preamp cannot posses smooth, airy highs or a liquid midrange. A component cannot inherently be vested with any of these attributes. They merely transmit these parameters of performance with greater or lesser verisimilitude.
Perfection- Not only are no components currently perfect, no component WILL EVER be perfect. Nothing that has ever graced this planet has been perfect or can ever be made perfect. Perfection is an ideal. It is something to which we strive but can never be achieved; Perfect means "flawless", "completely accurate". Imperfect beings (humans), by definition, can never create anything that is perfect. Therefore, a review claiming that the unit under evaluation is not perfect, is a completely meaningless comment. It is tautological because it merely states the obvious.
As for the sound of your hypothetically perfect component, it would sound like a Seinfeld episode- like NOTHING. It would exhibit no sound of its own. It would pass the signal fed to it without any distortion, alteration or perversion. This review would be devoid of any superlatives or raves. The above sentence would sufficiently describe the unit's performance."
Personal Notes- I generally agree with the thoughtful insights and idealistic perspective of my associate. He uses "nothing", while I use "indescribable". They both have the same basic meaning; one focuses on the component's performance, while the other focuses more on the final effect of that performance.
There are two areas where we slightly differ;
1. In the mainstream audio press, even reviews of "disliked gear" now receive almost all positive remarks, with the "negatives" usually consisting of fewer and weakened superlatives.
2. While I must agree with my associate's ruthlessly logical argument about "only detailing the component's deviations" in reviews, I have to admit that it's truly difficult to accomplish in "real life". This is because we require comparisons to other (imperfect) components. Still, all reviewers should make a serious effort to reach this ultimate goal.
*Further thoughts on the temptation of forming attachments to audio components...
Sadly, for many audiophiles, their "relationships" to their favorite components are so powerful, that they almost treat them like "pets", or even members of their "family". In the most extreme cases (such as "Linnies"), replacing the component may even be taken as an actual "betrayal" to other owners of the same component. In my audio career, I've seen some friendships strained, if not broken, when someone sells a once commonly shared component. While I acknowledge that almost all audiophiles "love" audio components in general, this should NOT mean "loving" a particular component. This will never be conducive to building a better audio system.
Finally, I had my own further thoughts on the word "surprising", and all those other appropriate synonyms I listed above.
Those words have something else in common; they all require some degree of personal humility to experience. Such humility is fortunately commonplace, though definitely not universal, in Modern Western Civilization, and the primary reason for its unprecedented accomplishments over the last five centuries. The history of Western Music and Science are prime examples of this. However...
There are many people, and even entire cultures, who lack this trait of humility. For some, it is even considered a "weakness", and something to be suppressed. Sadly, they will not be able to naturally learn, grow and evolve to their full capabilities. For these people, the fear and pain of giving up something comfortable, and in effect admitting their previous limits and mistakes, is stronger than the hope and joy of finding something different, which is even more encompassing and revelatory. As the great Philosopher Socrates stated, in his famous quote: "An unexamined life is not worth living".
Audio, meaning the inclusive discipline of "High-Fidelity", is a branch of science and technology that serves Music. Audio is nothing more than that, nor can it be, and neither can the order of that two-way relationship ever be reversed. Music can never serve audio, except in the minds of those audiophiles pathologically obsessed with performance.
Bach, Furtwangler and Callas were artists, while De Forest, Wilkinson and Klipsch were scientists. The first group "created", "performed" and "interpreted" music, while the second group used science only to "reproduce" music. These are only facts, and not a judgement of their respective achievements or their ultimate value to humanity.
Everything an audio component does, or doesn't do, is based only in science. This is true even though all that can be heard, can not also be accurately measured at this time. There is no "Magic" in audio, and there is no "Art" involved either. Accordingly, we must ignore:
1. Any egomaniac designer, who religiously believes that his components are actually "works of art", and
2. Most current "reviewers", who relentlessly argue, directly or indirectly, that everything in audio is "subjective"*, and
3. Any dealers who, through greed and/or ignorance, fraudulently promote inaccurate components for their "artistic value".
Now, one may legitimately ask...
What about the inevitable design choices, due to the unavoidable compromises caused by conflicting sonic goals, which are, in turn, incompatible with the laws of physics, chemistry, acoustics and electronics? Yes, a true skill is involved in reducing and masking those "compromises". However, this is also just as true when it comes to the successful designs of battle tanks and toilets. So...
Only when the most talented and skilled designers of tanks and toilets, past and present, are commonly referred to as "artists", rather than as engineers, will I (or should you) seriously reconsider the title, and the veracity, of this justifiably short statement.
*This belief is most convenient for these reviewers, since it makes them, by definition, unaccountable to any criticism. It also means that virtually all audio components are "commercially viable", which is their true and ultimate goal.
The term "noise-floor" has been in use in the audio world for a number of years now, and while I have long recognized, and even championed, the vital importance of the underlying concept*, I strongly feel that this choice of words ("noise-floor") was extremely unfortunate, because it has proved to be a highly misleading (and confusing) term for most audiophiles, including the most experienced.
A far superior term, which is also much more consistent with dictionaries and human hearing, is: "Sound-Floor"
I feel this way because:
Below is the proof I offer. It's observational and anecdotal, but it's still powerful, because of its universality and near unanimity in an audiophile's personal experience. There are two types of "noise", both of which are proven to be irrelevant when challenged:
1. "Traditional Noise"- By this I mean the noises which can be actually directly heard and measured (hum, thermal hiss, mechanical buzzes etc). These noises emanate from all active, electronic components; such as amplifiers, preamplifiers, motors and even CD players. (While loudspeakers, which are a passive component, have no "traditional noise".) The problem with using traditional noise as the reason for using "noise-floor" is simple...
By a vast (worldwide) consensus, the finest tube components are felt to have the lowest "noise-floor" of all electronics, but, in stark contrast, they also have the highest measurable noise. Meanwhile, the finest transistor electronics, while undeniably having the lowest measurable noise, also have the highest "noise-floor". This means that measurable noise is obviously irrelevant as a causality. Even worse, it can even have an inverse relationship with the consensus meaning of the term. This is the reason why I describe "noise-floor" not only as wrong, but as actually "misleading" at times. Even more compelling evidence...
Loudspeakers, by definition, generate no traditional noise, yet still have an easily noticeable "noise-floor", which is why an early Magnepan loses much more information than the (classic) Quad ESL-57 (even with its power supply).
2. "Figurative Noise"- Many audiophiles will argue that "noise-floor" does not mean literal (or traditionally measured) noise, as described above. However, they still claim there is an unmeasurable "noise", which while it can not be directly heard, still stops (or blocks) low-level sounds from being heard. That is the current theory and excuse for still using the word "noise". Unfortunately, assuming that it even exists in the first place, there is a serious problem with this unmeasurable noise as well...
Here are two simple and direct examples, that everyone has experienced multiple times in their lives, in musical and non-musical settings, which completely contradicts this "theory". First: Imagine you are at a concert, or try to remember past concerts that you have attended. Think of how often you heard the people around you when they made a noise, even when the music was much louder than that distracting noise.
There is also a second experiment which you can conduct and verify in your own home. Isn't is always possible to hear a soft whisper when standing next to a noisy refrigerator?
Now, let's reverse everything: We will make believe that the "music" (or the refrigerator) was the "noise" and the distracting "noise" (or the whisper) was the "music". From this new perspective, things become crystal clear:
This means that any "figurative noise", if it even exists, will NOT block the sounds (music) that are lower in volume level than this inherent "noise". Thus, "figurative noise" is also uncorrelated, if not irrelevant, when it comes to accepted audiophile meaning or definition of the term "noise-floor". Personally, I consider it a "fantasy", conjured up to explain a common experience, and with no scientific foundation.
Bottom Line- Some readers may feel that my criticism of the term "noise-floor" is now too late and/or unnecessary. However, we are in a hobby/passion where accurate and consistent communication, while highly desirable, is, unfortunately, still far too rare. In fact, it's very difficult to achieve a high level of communication between audiophiles, even at the best of times. So, why are we still using a term which is demonstrably wrong, as well as misleading (especially to inexperienced audiophiles)? I believe the term "noise-floor" should be avoided, despite the effort required. We owe making this effort to each other and all those audiophiles who will follow us.
I have suggested using the term "sound-floor" for the reasons described below, but I am still open to alternatives. If someone invents ("coins") an even better term, I will support them in every manner I can. Why?
The key word (in any accurate expression) is not "noise", or even "sound", but "Floor". The word "floor", in this specific context, is an indication of the "lower limit" of a particular capability of that component. In my opinion, a much more correct term is: "Sound-Floor". I feel this way because of the ultimate importance and relationship of "sound" to both music reproduction and the word "floor" in this particular context.
Accordingly, the expression "sound-floor" can be best (and most precisely and unambiguously) described as:
The "lower limit" of an audio component's capability to reproduce (or pass) softer and softer sounds.
Put in another manner, the "sound-floor" can be described as:
The softest sound that can be heard or sensed through that component (or system).
Human Analogy- It is the audio component's (or system's) direct equivalent of the listener's ability to sense or hear "soft sounds". In fact, to be consistent, a listener with poor hearing (or with a high sound-floor to be specific), will not be able to hear, let alone appreciate, the extra sounds reproduced by a component with a low sound-floor. This is one reason why some components are much appreciated by some, while other listeners don't understand that appreciation; either by not being able to hear those sounds themselves, or, in reverse, by not hearing what they know should be there, but is now missing.
Always keep in mind this: All audio components, passive AND active, including loudspeakers, have a "sound-floor". And that is not all...
So does the actual software; records, tapes and CDs, and in this instance, I am, once again, not referring to their background "hiss". This is why it is so critically important to music reproduction.Top
For as long as I can remember, audiophiles have recognized the varying high-frequency capabilities of listeners, and the implications of such differences. Further, the deleterious effect of the aging process on this same ability has also been long measured and accepted. However, another hearing paramater, maybe even more important, has been continually ignored at the same time... The ability to hear soft sounds. This neglect has been unfortunate, because I believe the importance of (not) hearing soft sounds is profound. Thus, I felt compelled to write this short article.
This audiophile experience is both common and frustrating: Two (or more) people hear the same component, or system, at the same time (!), and describe (and evaluate) it differently. How are we to explain this divergence rationally, assuming the listeners are all honest? There could be multiple reasons of course. However, it should be obvious that the relative ability to hear very soft sounds will profoundly effect a listener's perceptions and judgments of audio components. The listeners evaluations may be all different from each other, but all still correct, from their own perspective!
Some Relevant Examples:
1. One listener, with the capability to hear very soft sounds, will be impressed with components which, in turn, reproduce (pass on) very soft sounds. Meanwhile...
2. A second listener, without the capability to hear very soft sounds, will not be able to distinguish (let alone appreciate) those components with the capability to reproduce very soft sounds, and consequently may believe, based on actual direct experience, that all components, otherwise, sound basically the same.
3. The first listener will dislike and avoid components which do not reproduce very soft sounds. Meanwhile...
4. The second listener will not be able to distinguish (let alone dislike) those components which do not reproduce very soft sounds (that he can not even hear), and again believe, based on actual direct experience, that all components, otherwise, sound basically the same.
Despite this huge divergence, it must be accepted that both listeners are correct "from their perspective" and any reconciliation is probably impossible. However, only the first listener is correct in the absolute meaning of that word (since there is an actual difference between the components), though there is no practical consequence, in being "wrong", for the second listener.
Visual Analogy- It's similar to the difference between one person seeing colors and a second person being color-blind (everything is then "shades of gray"). Both parties are honest in their observations, but only one of them is ultimately correct when stating that the "colors do exist". (Of course, there is one giant difference between these visual and auditory examples: There are no definitive measurements, that I know of, when it comes to illustrating ultra-soft sounds, while such measurements do exist when it comes to colors.)
In my capacity as an audio salesman for two decades, plus in my private life, I have conducted, and been a witness to, tens of thousands of direct comparisons and auditions (mostly for the benefit of other people). It took me many years to figure out why some of the listeners were not able to hear what I (and many other audiophiles) could clearly hear (and highly value). To be specific, the advantages of good tube amplification and analog sources were not heard, or appreciated, by other enthusiasts. Eventually, I realized there was a connection between a preference for tubes and analog and the ability to hear (or, at the very least, to appreciate) soft sounds.
This consistent phenomenon was noticed not only in my store, home and audio shows, but also in audio reviews*, first in print and now on the web. Audio reviewers* who made a big deal about "ambience, natural harmonics, decays, flow, sense-of-space, micro-dynamics" etc (such as myself), generally preferred analog and tubes. Those reviewers who rarely mentioned such words, generally preferred transistor electronics and digital sources, which was logical since tubes and analog offered no sonic advantages that they could perceive.
Bottom Line- All listeners have a personal "sound-floor", just like audio components and systems. Accordingly, serious audiophiles should find out, as precisely as possible, exactly what is their own "personal sound-floor". Audiophiles should also always make the effort to discover if other audiophiles, especially their friends and the reviewers* they respect (if any), can hear (and appreciate) the same soft sounds that they can hear themselves. This can be done over time, with multiple auditions of different equipment and music. Actual hearing measurements can be done as well, but this will usually provide no practical assistance, other than the relief of finding out that there is no biological problem to be concerned about.
*Specific Example- I was highly critical of the original (all-acrylic lightweight platter) version of the VPI HR-X turntable. In stark contrast, Anthony Cordesman (TAS Issue #151), Brian Damkroger (Stereophile) and even (shockingly!) Roy Gregory (Hi-Fi+) all gave that exact same turntable a rave review. What was the one major difference between us? I strongly felt the high sound-floor of the HR-X disqualified it, while not one of the three mentioned reviewers even brought up this issue as a problem.
In my many years as an audio retailer, I had regular visits from hard-core audio sceptics, who only believed in specifications (and almost always loathed tubes and, later, turntables). Most of the time, I just listened, told them I disagreed, and then continued the discussion in a strictly business vein. However, on a few occassions, I decided to try to "convert" them to my perspective, using multiple component comparisons. So what happened? While I was able, in certain circumstances, to demonstrate the existence of low-level information to a few of them, I was never able, even once, to "convert" that person into feeling it was important and to join the "audiophile community".
To be specific, when these objectivists finally admitted hearing the extra information (provided usually by tube electronics), they always went on to say that it was "much too subtle" to be concerned about, and usually further stated that they "couldn't understand how anyone could make such a 'big deal' about almost nothing". These events were rare and tiny "victories" for me, though still quite satisfying. This was because I always had the same last words ready for the objectivist: "It's the love and pursuit of these same audio 'subtleties' that defines an audiophile."Top
This may be the most important letter I have ever received from a reader. The letter speaks for itself, and is unedited, with my bold. (My "personal comments", plus a sceptical and cautionary perspective from another source, will follow below).
"My name is Steve Keiser, the 'K' of B&K components, and presently design engineer with Luminance Audio. I have developed a measurement system which is able to quantify distortion levels at micropower quantities down to 1/1000th of a watt. These measurement techniques are unprecedented, and have revealed a number of revelations of amplifier distortion characteristics, at micropower levels, which are in direct opposition with traditional and scientific assumptions up unto this point.
The emphasis of my work is to definitively quantify low level signal linearity measurements of power amplifiers, and attempt to correlate these measurements with subjective listening results, as well as establishing the significance of low level distortion. Conventional test equipment generally does not resolve meaningful distortion measurements below 100mw, since the measurements become predominated by noise.
I have modified a spectrum analysis software program, which uses time-averaging to effectively cancel out noise products, leaving an identifiable signal and its related harmonics. This time-averaging approach is to identify extremely weak signals from spacecraft, amid a very high noise ambient background. Using this method, I am able to resolve a standardized total harmonic distortion measurement down to 1/1000 watts, and an approximate measurement down to 1/500,000th of a watt.
My measurement results oppose common engineering supposition, in that it is commonly believed that very low signal linearity is essentially 'virtually perfect', and that only high level signal linearity is a relevant parameter. My measurements indicate exactly the opposite is true of this common held assumption, particularly for amplifiers employing solid state devices.
To give you an example: the Halcro DM58 amplifier measures .007%THD at 2 watts, whereas at 1/1000th watts, THD measures 8.9%! By contrast a Wavac SH833 measures .57%THD at 2 watts and 1.6%THD at 1/1000th watts. The tube Wavac exhibits significantly lower THD at low signal levels by orders of magnitude than the Halcro. I have measured numerous amplifiers, both solid state and tube, which I will provide to you as well as any other information you may want pertaining to this work.
...I will now provide a supplementary addition regarding correlative listening tests with a panel of 5 evaluators. Some of the tests were conducted using a blind A/B comparison method, in order to satisfy militant objectivists. The two amplifiers compared were a Wavac SH833 and Halcro DM58. In 10 trials, with listeners blindfolded, every listener on the panel preferred the Wavac by several orders of magnitude, with commentary such as describing the Halcro as sounding: transistory, thin, harsh, dark, closed in spatially, as well as having poor sound-floor resolution.
Every listener described the Halcro as being 'unlistenable', while the Wavac enjoyed universal positive accolades. These listening tests correlate exactly with the comparative measurements I outlined.
My research into this characteristic is currently ongoing, and I would enjoy sharing my results with audio enthusiasts, editors, and designers. If this correlation between measurement technique and listening impressions holds up consistently, it could mean a whole new approach to audio engineering could be opened up resulting in significant breakthroughs in design performance. The main idea is to let our ears continue to be the final arbitrator of component performance and allow objective science to enhance our subjective appreciation."
The results of these measurements, and listening tests, are not surprising to me. They confirm what I, and many thousands of other audiophiles and music lovers, have heard since the 1960's. I just wish someone had discovered Mr. Keiser's breakthrough method of measurements a long time ago. From my perspective, Steve Keiser may eventually deserve some sort of "Audio Nobel Prize" for his work, at least after it is verified by other objective audio scientists and technicians.
This new measurement procedure may also be a vindication for me personally. Back in 1999, just above, I wrote a short article about THE PROBLEMS WITH MEASUREMENTS, which is concerned with a closely related issue.
Further, these new measurements, as important as they may turn out to be, still don't address what musical information is actually "lost" at low signal levels. The added distortion appears to explain the Halcro's (anecdotal) sonic problems of "harshness", but I believe the "leanness" is caused by a loss of harmonics, which are still unmeasurable, as far as I know.
To gain another perspective, I asked Israel Blume, of Coincident Speaker Technology, to respond to the posted results of Steve Keiser's THD measurement experiments. As a manufacturer of tube amplifiers, and a SET model in particular, Blume's response below was somewhat of a surprise to me. Here it is, with some minor editing and my bold (with my response below):
"It is common knowledge that currently applied amplifier measurement techniques are not sufficiently refined to correlate to what we hear. The revelation here is that THD measurements are now possible at the micro power level (as low as 1/1000 of a watt), which the auteur of this technique claims has not been previously possible.
The question now is: Will this new measurement scheme provide greater insight into the subjective sound of the unit being tested? If previous THD testing is any indication, the answer would be "no". This category of measurement has been clearly shown to bear no correlation to the sound quality of an amplifier (with the exception of ridiculously excessive amounts of measured THD).
In analyzing the utility of the micro power testing, a significant factor to be considered is the power rating of the unit tested and its design goals. All things being equal, an amplifier designed to perform optimally at low power levels, should be more linear and exhibit lower levels of distortion than one designed for high power applications*, with regard to its measurements at the micro power level. The quality of sound produced by the lower powered amp might therefore be superior, if it was not pushed to beyond its available power limits.
The sensitivity of the speaker used, and the ease with which the speaker can be driven, would be of enormous significance in comparing the sound quality of these 2 amplifiers. In another system setting, where a difficult to drive speaker is being employed, the reverse subjective results might likely ensue due to the power demands placed upon the low powered amplifier, notwithstanding the large power amplifier's higher levels of THD at the micro power level.
For the new THD measurements to have validity, a large sampling of every type of amplifier topology and power rating will need to be tested. The subjective analysis will require a speaker system easy enough to drive, that the power delivery of the amplifiers will not be a variable under test. Only the quality of sound should matter. In an extreme example, a SET amplifier, even of the lowest distortion measurable, will not sound right on a 82 db sensitive speaker with an impedance that dips to 1 ohm, while a high current, large power amplifier with much higher levels of micro power THD, will sound superior on the same speaker.
I would like nothing more than to have a set of measurements available that could accurately predict the sound of an audio component. As a designer, life would become infinitely easier. I further would be thrilled to have said measurements verify what I firmly believe- No amplifiers in existence can compare sonically to the best SET amplifiers when used on easy-to-drive speakers. For now, much more testing will be required before those assertions can be made."
*Actually, Michael Fremer, and some other mainstream proponents of "1,000 watt amplifiers", have claimed they have absolutely no sonic downsides at low listening levels. (Example- See Fremer's review of the Musical Fidelity Titan amplifiers, in the June 2009 issue of Stereophile, which is still posted on-line on their website.)
Personal Notes- This contrarian response from Blume is highly ironic, since he should be extremely thrilled at these results. However, I believe these results, even if still preliminary, are more important than Blume describes. The discovery that an amplifier so highly touted, the Halcro, has much higher measurable distortion than their own specs and reputation, at volume levels which are definitely audible, is an important breakthrough in my opinion.
Just as important to me, a completely different technology (Wavac/Tube/SET), considered "obsolete" by so many "audio experts", ends up having much better measurements in this very same area. The blind listening tests, while not surprising to me, are also important, as well as the actual sonic descriptions of the two models.
In the final analysis, I agree with Blume that many more experiments are in order, which I will post as they are received, no matter what they are. This may be only the beginning, but the amplifiers chosen, and the results so far, couldn't be more edifying. Let's hope that future results are equally surprising and revelatory.
Addendum: I have discovered an informative thread which discusses this important issue in much greater depth. It also reveals the person who may have first discovered a process to measure ultra-low level distortion, Dr. Earl Geddes. Here is a direct link to the thread (from DIY Audio):
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