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American Sound of Canada

The Savvy Audiophile by Rod Nattrass

Here’s a sure-fire method for proselytizing the glories of high-end music reproduction
to the MP3 crowd

Perhaps history will note the first decade of this century as a strange step sideways in the evolution of audio.

Never before has it been so easy to obtain and listen to music. You can sit at your computer in the comfort of your home, search for your favorite artist, then download (either legally or illegally) MP3s of the desired work by that artist. Then you can load up the MP3 player with dozens (if not hundreds) of tunes to listen to wherever and whenever you want to: in the car, at the park, on the bus, while cutting the lawn or walking the dog. The dream of instant and easy access to music has finally come true.

Personally, I think this is more of a nightmare than a dream. The price of such convenience and portability is serious degradation in the quality of audio playback. For the first time since I have been alive, people have taken a big step backward, trading convenience for poor quality sound.

The Inner Ear celebrates the highest achievements in the art of high-end audio engineering, reveling in the exquisite perfection of accurately reproduced audio.

We heap accolades on those who would devote their lives to the pursuit of this Audio Nirvana, and we will stop at nothing in order to experience the ultimate in sound made possible through the alchemical combination of technology and art. In short, we will leave no dollar unspent, no spec sheet unread, and no combination of wires, tubes and integrated circuits untried in our attempt to experience the Holy Grail of high-end — the Inner Eargasm.

Those who join in this quest know what it is to experience the joy of sound so vivid one can almost reach out and touch the performers; sound so realistic you need not imagine the orchestra in front of you because, if you close your eyes, your ears will tell you that it is there, in all its fully-realized three-dimensional glory.

A properly set up system of high quality components, playing back an equally high quality recording, will provide your brain with all the aural clues needed to convince you that the stereo image has height, width and depth.

But is our crusade in vain? Have we isolated ourselves in an Ivory Tower?

The Scourge of MP3
We are, alas, a group of acolytes that is dwindling in number. You see, there are new forces about; false prophets preaching a new scripture, leading the lay public down the chimerical paths of 5.1 surround and MP3 playback.

OK, so I’ve stretched the metaphor about as far as it can go. What it comes down to is this: We have reached a point where the average consumer is being told that for $699, he can purchase an “all-in-one” system, one that will provide “stunning” surround sound and “thunderous” bass in the comfort of his family room and is capable of playing back DVDs, CDs and MP3s. To the untrained ear this marketing ploy appears to offer up the Swiss army knife of home entertainment, and retailers are selling such gear at a furious pace.

Yet, what the mass market consumer is being sold is a reproduction system with a nasty, harsh, over-emphasized top-end, a bloated “one-notey” low-end, and a totally smeared, “phasey” midrange. But honestly, how could the average consumer expect more? He adds to the problem by listening to downloaded MP3s he’s burned to a CD that is itself so aurally inferior, that it is unlikely to reveal any shortcomings in the $699 playback device.

So what can be done about this, you might ask? Well, the answer involves you.

Yeah, you! You are special. Unlike those masses who have not (yet) learned to distinguish between good and bad sound, you can, or you wouldn’t be reading The Inner Ear. Because you know the difference, it’s going to be up to you to educate those around you about good sound.

Of course, this is not an easy task. Your friends and relatives will likely offer up one of the standard excuses for sticking to the status quo: “I can’t hear the difference” or, another favourite, “It’s too much money.” They are, of course, wrong on both counts, and you have to explain to them why they are wrong, or better still, why they are misinformed.

But first, let me digress for just a moment. Up front, I admit that the task of convincing your friends that they can hear a difference may be more or less difficult. Much depends on the source material; the type of music an individual prefers. There’s little doubt that the benefits of high-end reproduction are best demonstrated with something other than the latest pop music CD. It is a disheartening fact that the pop music industry has gone to battle in what can be called the “Loudness Wars.” The result is that every band wants a CD that sounds louder than the CD of any other band, and to achieve this feat mastering houses have taken to compressing and limiting the music to a point where dynamic range is a thing of the past. Whatever happened to the notion of using a volume knob to make the music louder? It’s anyone’s guess why this bizarre phenomenon has developed; I am merely reporting the facts.

Back on point, let’s take the last objection first, the financial one. The other day, I heard a financial analyst make an interesting observation about inflation and the value of the dollar. Apparently, what a $20 bill would have purchased in 1980 now costs $50. If you extrapolate that ratio to audio equipment, what would have cost $4,000 in 1980 will currently cost $10,000. It’s a sure guarantee, by the way, that the $4,000 1980s system would sound mighty disappointing beside a current one valued at $10,000: the quality of sound that you can get for the equivalent inflation adjusted dollars is simply stunning.

Today, advances in loudspeaker electrical and materials technology alone sets the modern system apart by light years from its 80s equivalent. If you consider modern amplifier technology, which has seen giant leaps forward in power supply technology and IC design, we are now talking about an entirely new playing field. I haven’t even mentioned the achievements that have finally allowed tube technology to come into its own.

Even the CD has reached its true potential thanks to higher quality digital-to-analog converters and super-stable transports. As SACD and DVD-A promised, amazing reproduction is indeed possible in the home.

Finally, let’s not forget that there’s simply no 1980 counterpart to the vast selection of super high-quality interconnects, speaker cables and power cords that we enjoy today.

What I’m getting at is that never before have you been able to get more for your high-end audio dollar. This alone should be reason enough for people to reward themselves with some well-deserved aural pleasures. If you think about it, the price of a two-week vacation for two will get you into an entry-level high-end system. The vacation will come and go and you’ll have only photos to look at, but the stereo system will provide years of daily enjoyment.

As for the standard first objection, “I can’t hear the difference; I say, “Horse Hockey!” Fact is, anyone with normal hearing can be taught to discern the difference between cheap audio and really great audio, and a simple demonstration will bear this out.

Ideally, the demonstration involves setting up a cheap system and a high-end system side by side — aural memory is weak, and human beings are not particularly good at remembering what something sounds like if there is too much time lag between comparisons. The better method is to be able to switch quickly between one system and another.

It would also be ideal if both systems could have the same CD playing roughly in sync, so that you could easily switch between them to show the differences in sound quality. Finally, it’s equally helpful to use well-recorded and properly mastered source material (most pop music need not apply). The Inner Ear has offered numerous recommendations over the years, so simply thumb through a few back issues of the magazine for some selections.

The Sound
Starting at the bottom end, have the student listen carefully to the bass reproduction of each system. He/she should notice that the high-end system reproduces the kick drum as a tight and punchy sound, and that the cheap system fails miserably at the task, instead regurgitating a boomy and ill-defined thump. Point out how bass instruments sound. The high-end system will allow him to hear the individual notes of the bass (be it electric, upright or bassoon) with clarity and authority. The cheap system’s “sub-woofer” will blur the notes into a rumbly low-end clump. Low-end systems may give you lots of bass, but mostly between 80-120 Hertz. They seldom have any significant energy below 60 Hertz. Remember, the lowest open note on an upright bass is listed at approximately 40 Hertz.

Next up is the midrange, a big place, the area where most instruments live, including the human voice. Hearing the differences between high-end and low-end midrange reproduction is a subtler undertaking. An unbalanced midrange results in poor vocal reproduction. An over-emphasized lower midrange, for example, will make male vocals sound “chesty” and somewhat muffled. Pianos and guitars will sound “tubby.” If the upper midrange frequencies are being favoured, voices and instruments such as brass and strings will sound thin and “reedy.” In extreme cases, the sound will be harsh and annoying. The key word here is balance: the midrange should have as flat a frequency response curve as possible.

Now, let’s go to the very top.
In recording studio terms this is where the “air” lives, from 8,000 Hertz all the way up to 20,000 Hertz. Instruments do not produce any fundamental frequencies in this range; rather, this where the top harmonics are found. Some research indicates that harmonics lie much higher but, for the purposes of our discussion, the point is moot. What is important to know is that without accurate reproduction of the frequencies within this range, you can easily tell that you are listening to a recording and not to live music. This is also where you pick up the aural clues that tell your brain where the room boundaries are located, and whether or not the performers are a room with soft diffuse walls and carpeting or one comprised of hard surfaces like glass or stone.

Cheap systems will have spec sheets that claim the system’s frequency range is up to 20,000 Hertz, but what you’re not given is the degree of tolerance. On a high-end system you may find that the range is given as 38-25,000 Hertz plus or minus 3dB (often noted as +/- 3dB). What this tells you is that at any given frequency across the spectrum the signal may in fact be 3dB louder or quieter than the average of the rest of the frequencies. Your cheap, low-end system may, in fact, be 12dB down at 16,000 Hz. (but the specs won’t tell you this). Sure, the system can produce the stated frequency, but not in any useful amount. To cover up for the lack of true high frequency response, this type of system usually exaggerates the highest frequencies it can actually reproduce, usually somewhere around the 8,000 to 10,000 Hertz range. This emphasis manifests itself as a brash, unpleasant high-end that is fatiguing to listen to.

In addition to telling your student about a system’s frequency response, you’ll also have to talk about a type of compression that occurs on a cheap system. Due to a lack of clean power and use of inexpensive drivers, the low-end system will squash the dynamics of the music; the system will literally “run out of steam” when trying to reproduce the sharp transients and leading edges of notes on instruments like piano, acoustic guitar, drums and cymbals. In some cases the drivers will literally “bottom out” (run out of physical excursion). When this happens, the sound flattens and all life dies from the music. In extreme cases, outright sound distortion occurs.

Finally, you’ll have to talk about soundstage, relative to height, width and depth. The performers should, individually and as a group, occupy a three-dimensional space, and in a high-end system you will have a sense of “being there”, experiencing that space. You should be able to close your eyes and picture the location of individual instruments. It is this kind of imaging that typifies the high-end audio experience. Low-end systems are wholly incapable of creating this illusion.

Usually, after this kind of thorough demonstration and explanation, the low-ender can be converted into a neophyte audiophile. Having heard and understood the difference, he/she may never be happy listening to inferior audio reproduction again. At least that should be your goal.

Ultimately, we have the obligation and the opportunity to bring our brethren into the light. Spread your enthusiasm for high-end. Help to make the world a better sounding place. It really is up to you

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