a sure-fire method for proselytizing the glories of high-end music
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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