UPDATED- JANUARY 2019
CONTRIBUTORS AND BIAS
PRIORITIES AND DISTINCTIONS- (VERY IMPORTANT TO READ!)
LOW-LEVEL INFORMATION-FURTHER THOUGHTS
THE "SOUND-FLOOR"-THE ULTIMATE KEY NEW!
MY HIERARCHY/LEVELS OF AUDIBLE IMPROVEMENTS
CLASSES AND DESCRIPTIONS
THE REFERENCE COMPONENTS FILES (READ THE ABOVE FIRST, PLEASE!)
CHANGES AND UPDATES
The various "Reference Components" files are the accumulated knowledge and judgment of a number of highly experienced audiophiles whose judgements I most respect and trust. However, I, Arthur Salvatore, will be the final arbiter of what is both included and written below.
Our references are based on many decades of listening comparisons with numerous components, in many types of systems and listening rooms, plus countless modifications that regularly led to significant improvements over the stock performance.
While no one person can audition every significant component, I am confident that our group has heard the great majority of serious components from the past and we remain on a constant vigil to discover (or remember) others (new or used) that will improve on the performance of those listed and described below.
Finally, I believe that most readers miss the main point of this file (and website). The audio components that I discuss should not be the primary focus of attention, but instead they should be viewed as “actors” or “props” in an effort to describe and convey ideas, experiences and concepts that I consider important in evaluating and building an audio system. The components are necessary only so that we can share some common points of reference, bound in practical reality, or else everything on this website would only be theory and speculation.
1. Directly (and properly) audition this component in depth.
2. Compare this component favorably to a component already on this list.
The standards of audio performance are almost always moving forward, though not nearly at the pace that the audio magazines would like you to believe. If these magazines were even 25% correct in their almost pornographic descriptions of these continual "improvements", we would have surpassed "live music" many years ago.
Some component categories (amplifiers) have improved relatively little in the last 40 years, while some others (especially phono cartridges) have made significant strides forward. Those who write, and those who believe, that real audible improvements are being made on a routine basis (monthly or quarterly-when the magazines fortuitously arrive), are indulging in pure fantasy.
Audio is now a mature industry (with the exception of digital), and no mature technology moves ahead as it did when it was just "starting". That is not possible, and no amount of hype, either through advertising or 'reviews', can change that fact.
Just like a photograph, no list of anything can always be "up-to-date", particularly this one. Some of the component categories are quite close to what would be there if every component were a known entity to our group. Other component categories may be "behind the curve" of what is available.
Almost every exceptional component becomes known to the audio world eventually. It is the time period between "now" and "eventually" that we will attempt to minimize, but some "time gap" will always be there. That is the unavoidable nature of audio, and we ask the readers of this extensive list to allow us at least some "slack" in this regard.
Finally, many of the reference components originate from small and relatively unknown manufacturers. To make things simple and clear:
We also do not disqualify or discriminate against any component because it has been discontinued. The performance of a high-quality audio component does not have to deteriorate like an aging, superstar athlete. As long as it is well maintained, it can stay in its "prime" almost forever. Discontinued components are often readily available on the used market, and usually at relatively bargain prices.
Unfortunately, audio reviews have become considerably (and continually) less reliable within the last 25 years or so, and thus have no influence within this website. The reasons for this are simple:
1. The huge increases of (and the financial dependence on) advertising revenues;
2. The growing development of "personal relationships" between "the reviewed" and "the reviewers";
3. And the accumulated, reciprocal "favors" that have now seriously compromised the formerly unbiased reporting.
In effect, most 'reviewers' have become "shills", if not outright cheerleaders, for the companies whose components they are 'reviewing'. At the very least, they are overly kind and "diplomatic" in their descriptions, analysis, comparisons and conclusions.
In short, most magazines are now "Commercial" in nature; concerned more with marketing, promoting and selling audio components, rather than objectively reporting on them for their readers.
Fortunately, there are many other sources of reliable information that are still available, especially when you have been mutually involved in a passion for more than 40 years. And now there is the Internet.
Please allow me to be blunt for the sake of perspective and to prepare you for what is ahead:
1. My standards of inclusion are extremely difficult and my expectations are much higher than those of most 'reviewers'. This is due to both my 40+ years of personal experience and my basic "perfectionist" and hypercritical character.
2. I have no interest in advertising contracts, "perks" and/or free "loans" with audio manufacturers. Accordingly, you will see just two, three and sometimes one (or even no!) component in the highest class, not the regular 50 or more you will see in some 'famous' lists.
3. I am not trying to sell anyone anything with these lists, they are references only, so the short descriptions of most of the listed components will be "matter-of-fact" and a bit "dry", not the advertising copy, romantic prose or the lust inducing "audio pornography" seen elsewhere.
4. I did not create these reference lists to become "popular". This means that the components which are famous and have "followings" are subject to the same degree of scrutiny as all the rest. I don't believe in "sacred cows". Audio components are only inanimate tools, without life, personalities or souls, and nothing more.Top
It is impossible for this or any other list to be absolutely non-biased, because we are all ultimately human. A combination of serious effort, continual self-appraisal, maximum independence and complete disclosure are the required tools to minimize the bias and maximize the accuracy and usefulness of what is written.
I, Arthur Salvatore, am the Main Contributor and sole editor of this list. However, as I disclosed within the very first paragraph above, I also receive considerable help and input from other audiophiles that I know and trust. This trust is such that a few of the References will be based on their judgement and their experiences alone. I am prepared then, in certain, specific instances, to put my own reputation within their hands. In short, and to be crystal clear, I am accountable, and take full responsibility, for their judgements.
This policy is also consistent with the fact that I have personally purchased components in the past strictly on their word. I feel that it would be inconsistent and hypocritical for me to personally benefit from this information and not share it with others.
I feel confident with this policy and process. These are my reasons...
1. It allows me to discuss more qualified and worthy components than I ever could on my own.
2. The various "associates" I communicate with have always been very objective, critical and competent observers. Most important, they have been reliable in the past, in some cases for decades. It is also critically important to note that if I feel that they have any "conflict of interest", that will disqualify them in that particular instance.
These contributing audiophiles have all informed me that they wish to remain "anonymous", so their names will be kept confidential. There are genuine and practical reasons for their request...
Most of my "sources" and "associates" are now, or have been, in the audio business world. They include:
1. Audio Distributors
2. Audio Manufacturers
3. Audio Retailers (with actual stores)
4. Audio "Resellers" (Informal, "moonlighting", casual)
5. Former members of the above groups, who may come back
These business people don't have the time, nor the patience, to expand on and/or defend their actual thoughts, feelings and experiences with countless audiophiles, and on an ongoing, endless basis. They realize that most of their opinions will be "benign" and rational to most people, but some opinions will be controversial and some might even enrage those hobbyists who are emotionally immature, insecure and/or fanatical about certain concepts or brands.
If that weren't enough, their business relationships with their peers could be compromised if everyone's true feeling and opinions were posted for the entire world to read*. In a few instances, they have even admitted a decided preference for a competitor's product! Imagine the reaction if this were to become "public knowledge"?!
Thus they prefer to remain "off the record". Based on my own continuing experiences, since this website was originally posted in October 1998, I can confirm that their concerns were and are justified. Accordingly, I feel that the "cost" of anonymity is well worth the value of the information I receive from them. Readers who feel otherwise should simply ignore the references from these anonymous sources.
*At the 2004 CES, virtually every person who gave me their direct and unqualified opinion also requested that I "keep it quiet". This even included the people who did NOT know I had this website. Their fear of offending others in the audio business was palpable.
There are also a number of highly experienced audiophiles that advise me, including some I have discovered through this website. These associates have no business conflicts, but they still wish to remain anonymous. None of these recent advisers has the influence to add or remove a component from this list, but I still feel that the information they provide me is credible enough to post as either "Furthers" or "Caveats" etc.
As I previously wrote in Vinyl Asylum on May 1, 2002: (http://www.audioasylum.com/audio/vinyl/messages/124335.html)
"My credibility, in the final analysis, will be judged by the accuracy, reliability and consistency of my (and my associates) observations and conclusions. My policy of using my trusted and anonymous associates stands. It will remain so as long as I decide that the overall benefits to the readers outweigh any potential or actual downsides."
I was also an audio retailer myself for many (20) years, but it is very important that you notice the following:
To further expose myself (and my associates), there is a special and unique section at the very bottom which is called CHANGES/UPDATES. This means that...
Every single change and update of a Reference Component that I make within these entire lists will be registered there, including the exact month it was made. Readers won't have to second guess, or strain their minds, attempting to remember if a component was once a Reference, and if and when we changed our minds.
We have nothing to hide or fear, and that includes our previous thoughts, for better or worse. It is also meant to be an aid for veteran readers who want to know quickly if any changes were made since their last visit, and for all readers to see how components have evolved over time. Because of the inherent impermanence of the Internet, I feel this section is imperative for accountability and credibility.Top
For any Reference to be relevant, the reader must know what Standards and Priorities are used to earn the designation "Reference" in the first place. My sonic priorities for this list are exactly the same as I've described in my short essay My Audio Philosophy:
The first and most important priority being that the component must be able to:
The ultimate effect of this capability is that the component will sound "natural", "musical", "complex", "expressive", "intelligible", "Unpredictable", "alive" and, most of all, "complete" (in contrast to sounding "mechanical", "simple", "dead" and "electronic").
This is the rarest and most elusive quality in the quest for accurate musical reproduction. Most importantly, it is my personal experience that success here allows and even compels the listener to become more "involved" with the music and forget about the system.
The second most important sonic priority is:
This is the gut feeling and sense that there is something actually "present" and/or "alive"; As someone else has already written: "There is a 'there' there."
Whenever low-level information is combined with immediacy, the overall effect will be a primal and sustaining sense of "reality". This should be every audiophile's ultimate goal. Why is "completeness" even more important than "immediacy"?
Ultimately, it is still more "involving", in the long-term, to experience music that is complete, complex, natural, unpredictable and with "life", even when listening to it through a veil, rather than the alternative of listening to something that is "right there", when "what is there" is "dead", monotonous and "incomplete". What is the point of that?
I have found that, generally speaking, as a component's ability to allow more low-level information to be heard is enhanced, so is its sense of immediacy. This correlation is logical, since immediacy is compromised by a high noise level. This is also another reason why reproduction of low-level information is the higher priority of the two, and highest overall as well. This connection (or relationship) is not "Absolute", considering the prime example of the Martin Logan CLS, which is both super-immediate and also somewhat dry sounding.
Other audio parameters, such as "speed", "precision" and "cleanness" are somewhat less important and also much easier to attain. The reproduction of the frequency extremes, especially bass, and the recreation of a "soundstage" are also less important to me in reproducing music.
My lowest priority is the ability of a system to play "extremely loud", which I define as more than 105dB. Though in the final analysis; everything has some importance.
My choice of priorities is not just simple self-indulgence on my part. I’ve noticed numerous audiophiles reacting in a similar manner when hearing improvements in these areas. I've been around long enough in this passion to observe many audiophiles "evolve" (defined by me as an irreversible change in direction) over time in their audio priorities.
There have been some common and predictable trends:
1. The first step above "pure junk" is for more "bass and power"; with most people never "growing" any further.
2. Next comes a taste for superior midrange and high frequencies, but without losing the "bass and power". It is here that "Audiophiles are born". However, most audiophiles stop evolving at this point; being reluctant to take their main focus from "bass and power", and consequently only search for further enhancements. The most expensive and complex components are those "enhancements."
Still, the basics and fundamentals of music reproduction have now been accomplished at this stage, which means the system can now be accurately described as "High-Fidelity". This is the single most important milestone on "the journey".
3. The next step is much more difficult; replacing the past focus on "bass and power", and/or "convenience", for midrange naturalness and low-level information. This "area" is where the vast majority of musical information resides, and it's also where analog software and tube electronics excel.
It is not a mysterious coincidence that those audiophiles who end up preferring tube electronics very rarely go back to solid-state. It is also at this stage that audiophiles will make a final preference for analog over digital.
4. Finally, some of those left may decide to go to radical and extreme lengths to maximize the retrieval of low-level information and minimize the system's inherent, unnatural qualities.
This objective can only be achieved by evolving to a "minimalist" philosophy, along with the resulting components and systems. This is a long and extremely difficult process, with the added hazard that even just one "mistake" will have disastrous results to the final sound quality.
Important- For most audiophiles (and readers), my personal priorities will not "match" their priorities. Accordingly, they may prefer the reference components in the "lower" classes, or components not even in any category, to those I have placed in the highest class.
Further- I realize that the above "evolution of priorities" is overly simplistic, so I might write about this in more depth at a later date.
The only audiophiles that do not evolve like the rest of us are:
1. Most audio 'reviewers', who claim to like everything equally (at least in public), never evolve, and rarely, if ever, declare a decisive preference for anything.
2. A number of so-called audiophile "scientists"*, who don't believe that there are any real sonic differences (let alone improvements) in components, except speakers, to evolve to and/or with.
*These are the only "scientists" I know, besides anti-evolution Fundamentalists, who don't like to be surprised and also totally lack curiosity. They describe themselves as "Objectivists".
Yes. These priorities favor the reproduction of Acoustical Music, which is the most subtle and difficult to reproduce, meaning Classical, Jazz and Folk/Ethnic.
I have found that music which is primarily Electronic, studio oriented and/or requiring a continuously loud volume to come across, is far easier to reproduce. There are countless components from the past, and present, which will make electronic music lovers very satisfied. Thus, it should be obvious that for those audiophiles who have a different ranking of priorities than described above, this entire list may be virtually useless to them, at least for the present.Top
Some readers may now want to have a better understanding of what "low-level information" is and why I feel it so important to music reproduction. Fortunately, there is a simple test and demonstration that anyone can perform on any system:
Just play an excellent recording of acoustical music, either CD or LP, where the music has both very soft and very loud passages, at a natural volume level. Then ask yourself this question:
Does the system still sound "just as good" at all volume levels? If it does, that system passes the test!
Any decent system can resolve the pre and post echoes that are audible on some records; mainly those that were recorded in the early days of stereo and/or those with dramatic, dynamic swings directly following relatively soft sections. (One Famous Example-The beginning of the 4th movement of Scheherazade-Reiner/RCA.)
The test involving those "echoes" is extremely simple: the more obvious the echo(es), meaning the more difficult it is to ignore and the more detailed it is, the better that component's (or system's) ability to (generally) reproduce low-level information. While this test is somewhat simplistic, because music is not directly involved, it is an easy first step as a listening exercise and for understanding the general concept.
This same test can also be used when auditioning a different component within the same system.
The challenge for this competing component is simple:
A. Does the new component allow the system to sound just as good, or even better, at a lower volume? That is the goal. Or...
B. Does the sound instead start to deteriorate at the same, or even a higher, volume? That is what you don't want.
The relative absence of low-level information is a very serious problem at all volume levels, but it is most easily noticed, and it is most degrading of the music, at softer listening levels.
This same principle applies when the volume is lowered (moderately) with the volume control. The Rule is:
However, one must be very careful at this point, because most listening rooms have a very precise, optimized, volume range. Above that range, the music becomes raucous and distorted, while below that range, the music becomes too laid back and starts to sound "dead". So the change in volume must not be large enough to trigger, in either manner, the room's own problems, or the results may be misleading.
What if the system does start to sound increasingly "dead", "dry" and "veiled" as the volume goes down naturally, or with the moderate use of the volume control? If this occurs, there is a problem somewhere in the system.
ALWAYS keep this RULE in mind:
There Must be a (Serious) problem if and when any system (or component) has to play "louder than life" to sound "natural" and "alive".
That is the unmistakable sign that musical information has been lost somewhere, and an unnaturally high volume is then being used as a "compensating device" by the listener, usually without even knowing it. This is the primary problem with most of the high-end systems I have heard over the years, and at all price levels.
Analogy- This is the audio equivalent of eating more "junk food" because it lacks basic nutrition.
Or what exactly should I be listening for?
To "steal" some previous thoughts (and words) from My Audio Philosophy:
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 complexity and 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 and consistent 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 musical information that, more than anything else, 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, like if "the pod people" from the film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" had taken over the world.
Finally, if I was to make an analogy with fine food and drink, I would describe low-level musical information as the equivalent of the "Aftertaste". 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".Top
I decided it was time to update the below article because it's now around a decade since it was originally written and posted. Further, I still continually read (annoying) posts using the expression "noise-floor", which are sadly ignorant, if not misleading to other audiophiles, even when the poster is obviously trying to be "helpful".
Why is the "sound-floor" so "extremely" important? If a reader doesn't understand what I mean by the expression "sound-floor", they will not know and fully appreciate my ultimate values and how I evaluate both audio components and even (the sound quality of) musical software. In short, I believe understanding the "sound-floor" is the key to both the reproduction of music and the understanding of this website. To make it as simple as possible...
Audiophiles, from the very beginning, have mainly focused on the "basics" of bass and high frequency extension and how loud the system played cleanly. Smoothness (linearity) has also been a priority for some, though this has been compromised by "taste" and subjective opinions. However, in my conviction, there is another capability just as important for achieving the faithful reproduction of music, and it has been almost completely ignored by the entire audiophile community. To be specific: The capability of an audio system to reproduce "soft sounds" in a convincing manner. Unfortunately, reproducing soft sounds, convincingly, is the most difficult and rarest achievement in audio, which may be the primary reason why it is so neglected and ignored.
If my entire audio life/career, and this website, was to have only one success, my first choice would be that it finally gave "the reproduction of soft musical sounds" the critical priority, attention and focus it deserves. And the "key" to reproducing soft sounds is the sound-floor.
First, a short explanation...
The term I formerly used, "noise-floor", has been in use in the audio world for many years now, but it has never had a precise (and generally accepted) definition. I also felt that the choice of words ("noise-floor") was very unfortunate, because it has proved to be an ambiguous, confusing and misleading term for many audiophiles, even veterans. Why? Actually, it was inevitable, because...
"Traditional" meaning the measurable noises (hum, thermal hiss, mechanical buzzes etc) that emanate from all active, electronic components; such as amplifiers, preamplifiers, motors and even CD players. This is why audiophiles will regularly bring up "black(er) backgrounds" and/or other similar (indirect) descriptions of the "noise-floor", all of which are irrelevant and meaningless (and nonsense as well).
In reality, loudspeakers, which are a passive component, have no "traditional noise". Yet it's also true that 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".
For another perspective, the reader must realize that...
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 (musical) 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.
A component with a high "sound-floor" will remove, obscure and/or mask a large amount of audible sound (music), while a component with a very low "sound-floor" will reveal virtually everything about the sound (music). Unfortunately, "the weakest-link-in-the-chain" rule applies in this case. This means that if even just one component has a high sound-floor, so must the entire system.
This is the reason why systems that have a high sound-floor will be played at a higher volume, usually without conscious awareness, in an attempt to hear what is now missing. More than any other factor in my experience, the "sound-floor" is what separates the mediocre from the good, the good from the excellent and the excellent from the great. And, importantly, there is very little correlation with a component's price and its sound-floor, which is why some budget systems can be more musically satisfying than many truly expensive systems.
Why do certain components have a higher or lower "sound-floor"? That is not entirely known. What is known is that components that use overly complex circuits and layouts, longer signal lengths and poor quality passive components (wire, resistors, inductors, capacitors, speaker drivers and vibrating cabinets etc.) generally have a higher "sound-floor" than those components which avoid their use. Poor execution will also compromise the "sound-floor".
Also, everything being equal, tube preamplifiers and power amplifiers will almost always have a lower "sound-floor" than their transistor equivalents. Ironically, this is true even though their actual "noise" (hiss, hum) will usually be measurably higher (which is why "traditionally measured noise" is irrelevant and even misleading in many instances). Speculation about this phenomena has focused on the greater simplicity of most tube circuits (especially single-ended-triode designs) and the fact that the actual amplification occurs in a vacuum, not silicon or some other material.
So to summarize, there are four requirements in order for a component to have an exceptionally low "sound-floor":
1. A simple, though highly competent, design
2. The use of the best quality parts, both active and passive, within the component
3. The finest execution of the above, both in build quality and in close attention to (small) details
4. The shortest signal length(s) possible
If any of the four requirements are compromised, the "sound-floor" will rise accordingly, and the recorded sounds (and the music) will be permanently lost. Sadly, only a few rare and outstanding components meet all the requirements. Searching for them, and hearing them, one way or the other, should be high on the list of a serious audiophile's priorities.
There is also a relationship between a system's sound-floor and listening FATIGUE.
When a system has a high sound-floor, meaning more of the musical information is missing, the listener will then (automatically) attempt to fill in "the missing parts" with his brain.
This continual effort, usually unconscious, will eventually cause "listening fatigue". The existence, and even the degree, of the fatigue is dependent on the previous experiences, and expectations, of the listener.
For example, digital recordings and sources are known to have a higher sound-floor than good analog. This is the reason why some listeners, who are used to analog, may experience fatigue with digital, despite digital's other sonic advantages over analog.
While other listeners, who are used to primarily digital recordings, do not appear to suffer the same fatigue.
Finally- The first, unavoidable and ultimate rule in high-end audio is:
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 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
Every magazine that has put together a "Reference Component List" in the past has used a different approach to classify the components. My approach is very simple; there are 3 different classes as described below. The order of the components within the classes is totally irrelevant, while the short descriptions are very relevant.
CLASS A- This is the state of the art, the best there is and ever was! Price is not a consideration. Neither is ease of use, nor the possibly considerable time and expense to locate, modify and improve the units if purchased stock. While the component must obviously be compatible with some other components, compatibility is also not a requirement.
It is these rare components that sound the most "complex" and "alive", and have the most "magic" and "completeness". Why?
In general, the components in this class have the lowest "sound-floor" within their category. These are the only components that may be accurately described as "great" (the single most overused word in audio, sports and politics today).
CLASS B- This class is the closest possible in quality to the above, but usually less expensive, and maybe more compatible. Components in this class will still be "superb", among the best ever made, but lacking the ultimate "magic" of the equipment in Class A. They may either simplify and reduce the natural complexity of the music and/or lose some "immediacy". Generally, this is because their "sound-floor" is somewhat higher.
In a few instances, these are the best available, because no component I am aware of deserves Class A at this time. Within this Class, the cost of the component, new or used, is now relevant. This means there may be other components available, with similar sonic performance, that are not listed because of their extra cost. (This is especially true of numerous contemporary components, which may be grossly overpriced.)
CLASS C- The best value; also known as the cliche, "best bang for the buck". Many, if not most, of these components will be used and/or discontinued. That’s where most of the best audio bargains are found.
Components in this category are still truly "excellent" and much better than the usual mediocrity of the past and present. The level of quality in this class is the minimum required for true "high-end" performance and they should not be confused with "Entry-level" components.
It is extremely important to remember that there are greater sonic differences among these components because they are all less accurate and revealing. The cost of the components within this class, whether new or used, is now extremely relevant.
There may be many alternative components whose sonic performance is essentially equal to those that are listed in this class, but they are disqualified because of their greater cost and/or other negative factors.
CLARIFICATION 1: Because "value" is so important within this category, it must be always kept in mind that:
Many readers, especially those living in Asia or Europe, may find many other components that are preferable "for the money" invested, particularly those components made "locally".
CLARIFICATION 2: Within a growing number of these groups you will see the headings "UPPER" and "LOWER". This is another method of making fine distinctions among components that are within the same classification. In other words; not all the Class B components within a particular category are equal.Top
Please read carefully the short, detailed descriptions of these listed components, even if you think you are familiar with them. Many of the references are Conditional; either dependent on modifications (which are sometimes extensive) and/or compatibility with only certain other components.
It is naive to think that any component, no matter what the price, will automatically reach its full potential just out of the box and with any other component.
(For example, consider the Jadis JA-200, which retails for $28,000. It still requires substantial modifications to sound its best, which are both expensive and time consuming; better coupling caps, power supply shunts, conversion to triode operation, diodes replaced etc. These modifications will dramatically improve the stock JA-200, though, sadly, it is still NOT a reference at this time.)
Unfortunately, I can not provide advice, consultation and help with the details and work required in optimizing the performance of these units. Some of the details to modify and optimize these components are very complex, involved and lengthy. They can not be adequately conveyed through simple e-mails or phone calls, and, in some instances, lethal voltages are present. I will not accept such a responsibility.
Fortunately, I have started a "Modification File" within this website. It includes some general tips and instructions concerning modifications, along with some actual detailed examples and experiences that I feel will prove informative to readers. It is still a "work in progress" as this is written.Top
MOVING COIL STEP-UP DEVICES
PREAMPLIFIERS (WITH PHONO STAGES)
ULTRA SONIC RECORD CLEANING
"Reference" Lenco L 75 Idler-Drive Turntable
"Class A" Phono Stages Review/Essay
Coincident Statement Line Stage
Coincident Frankenstein 300B SET Amplifier
Coincident Pure Reference Extreme Speakers
Bent Audio Silver MC Transformer
Denon Cartridges (Review, Readers Letters & Purchasing Information)
Laser LP Turntable (CES Report, Advice & Readers Letters)
Linn LP-12 Turntable (Review, Readers Letters, Controversy & Economical Upgrades)Top
February- Linn Sondek LP-12 (used only) added to Class C Turntables
January- Assorted Turntables and CD players added to Entry-Level
January- SME V (Latest Model) added to Class B Tonearms
January- Antique Sound Labs Hurricane 200DT (latest model) moved up to Class B (Lower) Amplifiers
January- Acapella Ion TW 1S Tweeter added to Class A Loudspeakers
April- Coincident Extreme Speaker Cable added to Class A (Lower) Speaker Cables
March- Bent Audio TX-103 Silver Transformer added to Class A Moving Coil Step-Ups
March- Amber Stereo 70 added to Entry Level Amplifiers
March- ZYX CPP-1 Pre-Preamplifier added to Class B Moving Coil Step-Ups
April- ZYX UNIverse cartridge (.24mV Copper) added to Class A Cartridges
May- Wyetech Topaz 211 Monos added to Class A Amplifiers
May- Canary CA-339 moved to Class B (Upper) Amplifiers
June- ZYX R-1000 Airy 3 moved from Class A to Class B (Upper) Cartridges
September- Audio Physics removed from Class C Speakers (apparently Chief Designer left)
October- Acoustat Electrostatics added to Class C Speakers (specific models to be listed soon)
November- Conrad Johnson MV-75 (modified) added to Entry-Level Amplifiers
December- Digital Stylus Force Gauge added to Accessories
January- Behringer DCX2496 Ultradrive Pro Digital Crossover added to Accessories
February- DB Crossover removed from Accessories
March- Convergent Audio Technology (CAT) JL-1 moved from Class A to Class B (Upper) Amplifiers due to higher standards
March- Coincident Dragon 211PP added to Class A Amplifiers
March- Mark Levinson ML-2 added to Class C Amplifiers
April- Coincident M300B Frankenstein MKII added to Class A Amplifiers
April- Golden Tube 300B (Highly Modified) moved from Class A to Class B (Upper) Amplifiers due to higher standards
June- VPI HR-X "Special Edition" removed from Class A to "Interesting" Turntables due to lack of availability
July- All Phono and Line-Level Interconnects have been removed because of my lack of experience with current models
September- All Class C Digital Sources have been removed due to a price/performance breakthrough in Class B
September- Pacific Valve MHZS CD 66 & 88 CD Players added to Class B Digital Sources
September- Wyetech Topaz 211 Monos moved from Class A to Class B (Upper) Amplifiers
October- Coincident Victory II added to Class C Speakers
October- Wilson WATTS (Modified) moved from Class B to Class C Speakers
October- All references removed and updated in Digital Sources due to "2007 Fall Shootout"
October- All Class B and C references removed from Speaker Cables due to my lack of experience with current models
December- Coincident Pure Reference added to Class A Speakers
December- Coincident Super Eclipse Series removed from Speakers due to higher standards
December- Klipschorn moved from Class B to Class C Speakers due to higher standards
February- Vaic/KR VV52B (Modified) added to Class A (Lower) Amplifiers
August- Marantz SA 7S-SACD added to Class B (Upper) Digital Sources
August- Audio Aero Prestige SACD added to Class B (Upper) Digital Sources
September- Coincident Extreme Speaker Cable updated to Class A Speaker Cables
December- Krell SACD Standard Mk. II/III added to Class A (Lower) Digital Sources
December- Marantz SA 7S-SACD, Audio Aero Prestige SACD, MHZS CD 66 & 88 (Stock), Accuphase SACD/CD DP77, AMR 77 & Reimyo DAP777 all removed from Digital Sources due to a higher performance/price ratio standard
March- MSB Platinum DAC III and Reference Transport added to Class A (Lower) Digital Sources
March- Doge 8 added to Class B Preamplifiers
April- Aesthetix IO moved up to Class A (Lower) Phono Stages on reevaluation
April- Benchmark DAC & Pre 1 added to Class C Digital Sources
April- Manley Steelhead moved down to Class B "Lower" Phono Stages due to higher standards
May- Esoteric X-03 SE SACD Player added to Class A Digital Sources
June- Esoteric P-05/D-05 Transport and DAC added to Class A Digital Sources
June- Esoteric X-03, Krell Standard Mk. II/III, Doge CD6 and Benchmark DAC & Pre 1 all moved down in Digital Sources due to higher standards
June- Oracle CD 2500 MK II, ARC REF CD 7, MSB Platinum DAC III and Reference Transport and ElectroCompaniet UP SE all removed from Digital Sources due to higher standards and performance/price ratio
June- Esoteric P-03/D-03 Transport and DAC added to Class A (Upper) Digital Sources
August- Kuzma Stabi XL4 and Air Line Tonearm added to Class A (Upper) Turntables
October- Kuzma Air Line added to Class A Tonearms
December- Coincident Pure Reference "Extreme" added to Class A Speakers
February- Dynavector XV-1T added to Class A (Upper) Phono Cartridges
May- Lenco L 75 Idler-Drive "Reference" (Rebuilt by Jean Nantais) added to Class A (Upper) Turntables
July- Graham Phantom II added to Class A Tonearms
October- Coincident Statement Transformer added to Class A Moving Coil Step-ups
November- Esoteric SA-10 SACD Player added to Class C Digital Sources
December- Harmonic Resolution Analog Disc Record Clamp added to Accessories
January- Esoteric P-01/D-01 Transport and DAC, plus GORb Rubidium Clock added to Class A (Upper) Digital Sources
January- Esoteric P-03/D-03, P-05/D-05, X-03 SE all moved down in Digital Sources due to higher standards
February- Coincident Statement added to Class A Line Stages
June- Coincident Statement added to Class A (Lower) Phono Stages
June- Jadis JP-80 (MC) (Heavily Modified) removed from Class A Preamplifiers due to impracticality
June- Jadis JP-80 (MC) (Heavily Modified) added to Class A (Upper) Phono Stages
May- Esoteric K-03 CD/SACD Player added to Class B Digital Sources
May- Esoteric D-03, P-05/D-05 all removed from Digital Sources due to higher standards and performance/price ratio
May- EMIA Volume Control added to Class A Line Stages
June- Esoteric K-01 CD/SACD Player added to Class A (Lower) Digital Sources
June- Esoteric P-03 removed from Digital Sources due to higher standards and performance/price ratio
June- Esoteric X-03 SE, SA-10 and Krell SACD Standard II/III all moved down in Digital Sources due to higher standards
June- Graham Phantom Supreme added to Class A Tonearms
November- Esoteric DV-50S CD/SACD Player added to Class C (Lower) Digital Sources
November- Krell SACD Standard II/III and Esoteric SA-10 removed from Digital Sources due to higher standards and performance/price ratio
November- Clearaudio Double Smart Matrix Record Cleaning Machine added to Accessories
December- Audio Intelligent Record Cleaning Fluids added to Accessories
January- Lenco "Reference" MK. II (Rebuilt by Jean Nantais) added to Class A (Upper) Turntables
February- Benz Micro LP-S added to Class A (Upper) Phono Cartridges
February- ZYX UNIverse II X added to Class A (Upper) Phono Cartridges
February- Dynavector XV-1T moved down to Class A (Lower) Phono Cartridges due to higher standards
April- Coincident Total Victory II removed from Class B Speakers due to higher standards
June- Durand Talea II added to Class A Tonearms
January- EMIA/Slagle Silver SUT added to Class A Moving Coil Step-ups
May- Sunfire 300X2 added to Class C (Lower) Power Amplifiers
June- Audio Horizons Fuse added to Accessories
July- Lenco "Reference" MK. III (Rebuilt by Jean Nantais) added to Class A (Upper) Turntables
January- Coincident Dragon 211PP Mk. II added to Class A Power Amplifiers
January- Coincident Dragon 211PP moved down to Class A (Lower) Power Amplifiers due to higher standards
February- APL NWO-Master (Esoteric UX-1Pi) CD/SACD/DVD-A Player added to Class A (Upper) Digital Sources
May- IsoTek Burn-In Disc added to Accessories
June- Kuzma Stabi DC XL added to Class A (Upper) Turntables
June- Kuzma Stabi XL4 moved down to Class A (Lower) Turntables due to higher standards
March- "The Truth" added to Class A Line Stages
March- A "Direct Connection" removed from Class A Line Stages due to a better option
August- Kuzma Ultra Sonic Record Cleaning Kit added to Accessories
December- Wyetech Ruby added to Class B (Upper) Phono Stages
Nothing added this year!
(Why am I doing this? Because someone has to start doing this. See "Reviewing the Reviewers" to observe the inevitable results of NON-disclosure.)
There is no reason why audio journalists should not follow the same rules as all the other journalists. Accordingly, I feel that I too must disclose all my conflicting interests and financial transactions. I am, at once, setting a precedent and also immunizing myself from any future charges of hypocrisy.
Disclosure 1: I formerly owned a (part-time) retail store: High-End Audio Ltd. It closed in October 2001. I have not owned, or shared in the profits of, any other audio business since then, or at this time.
Disclosure 2: I purchased all the components of "My Personal System", except for one currently on loan. There have been no "gifts" or "favors". Many of the components have been purchased "used" or even at the full "retail" price. As for those purchased directly, I'm not able to disclose the actual cost because of confidentiality agreements, but I do disclose those costs in relation to the standard wholesale prices I would normally have paid if they were purchased for my former retail store.
Disclosure 3: As of October 2012, I require a token donation to this website before answering most personal enquiries from readers. I also accept normal donations from appreciative and generous readers.
CLARIFICATION: "Standard Wholesale Cost" is usually 40% off the Retail List Price. So a component with a retail "list price" of $ 1,000, would normally have a "standard wholesale cost" of around $ 600.
In short, as a former audio retailer, anything less than "standard wholesale" was a "deal" for me, and may be construed as a potential "interest" or "perk". This is what I paid for the components within my personal system (year of purchase).
Lenco L75 Reference Turntable MK. III (Updated by Jean Nantais)- Standard Retail Cost/Traded for II/III Upgrades (2010/12/14)
Graham Phantom Supreme Tonearm- Approximately 5% below Standard Wholesale Cost/Retail Price for "Supreme" Upgrade (2010/12)
ZYX UNIverse II (.24mV Copper) Cartridge- Traded for a used model with the distributor (2007/13)*
Bent Audio Silver MC SUT- Discontinued Model. On loan from Manufacturer (2006)
Jadis JP-80 Preamplifier- Standard wholesale cost (1989)
APL NWO-Master (Rebuilt Esoteric UX-1Pi) CD/SACD Player- Purchased Used (2013)
Marantz 10B Tuner- Purchased Used (2000)
"The Truth" Line Stage - Standard Retail cost (2016)
Coincident M300B Frankenstein MKII Amplifiers- Purchased in packaged deal for 30.42% below standard retail cost (2006/10)
Coincident Dragon 211PP Mk II (Subwoofer) Amplifiers- Purchased Used (2014)
Coincident Pure Reference Extreme Speakers (Two Pairs)- Approximately 11% less than standard wholesale cost (2009/10)**
Acapella TW 1S Ion Super Tweeter- Standard OEM Price from Distributor (2015)
* Two to three thousand dollars worth of ultra rare and sealed records: London "Bluebacks" (Argenta), RCA "Shaded Dogs", "TAS" etc./II Upgrade was similar.
** The owner of Coincident, Israel Blume, is a close personal friend.
Since I've been around for quite a while now, it would not be surprising if some readers may wonder how my hearing is holding up. To alleviate any concerns, I've decided to forward the results of my June 2012 hearing test to any reader sending me a request. I attempted to post the image, but I was unsuccessful.
THE RECENT FILE
The Supreme Recordings
My Audio System
Reviewing the Reviewers
My Audio Philosophy
If you have a question, or want audio advice and/or consultation:
Important Notice- As of October 1, 2012, there is a minimum fee of $ 10 for me to answer a simple enquiry, which means any question that I can answer quickly without research. Anything else will cost more and I will accordingly provide quotes for approval. PayPal is being used for its convenience, universality and security. If interested, click on "Ask Arthur".
There are two exemptions to the payment fees. 1. Those readers who have provided an important service (usually information that was posted) to this website over the years. 2. Those situations where I feel that I overlooked something important and/or was obscure in my post, and thus some necessary clarification is required on my part. That will always be gratis. I don't believe in being unfair or petty, especially to my own readers.
Telephone Conversations- If a reader feels it is necessary to actually talk to me directly, this can be arranged if I also feel it is appropriate. There will be a minimum fee of $ 50. Ask for the details before paying the fee.
Finally, a veteran reader wrote that I "should also have a link for (generic) donations to keep the website going". I replied that the Donation button can also be used by appreciative readers for that purpose. Needless to say, any unsolicited donation from a generous reader receives my sincerest thanks and gratitude.
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