The terrible truth about audio

Hello tiger...

While the purpose of this is to inform you about high end audio, it must be first noted that there is a lot of misunderstood facts among the general populace. I'm going to try to explain them and let you know what you can do about it, if you are so inclined.

We live in the most technologically advanced age of man, yet ironically virtually ALL the audio gear that is mass marketed to the home consumer is among the cheapest and worse sounding EVER made. If all you have heard is what's at Best Buy or in your friends Honda Civic then it's safe to say you never heard stereo sound reproduced well.

The problem is "major brand" companies make stereo gear for one reason: To make money selling it. The more money they can make, the happier they are. They don't particularly care about your listening pleasure, they are corporations with bottom lines. So the chain store makes money, the companies that made the crap make money, and you go home and never put the stereo on because you find after a half hour you're "tired" of it. It's your ear that is tired. You may not, but it knows what it's hearing isn't right and the fatigue is your brains way of telling you to make it go away.

It's a fact that old codgers demanded a level of "hi-fi" in their day that you have basically been denied because the modern generations lost another enjoyable past time in their rush to instant gratification. Replacing hifi gear with your phone or "device" is even more appaling. You're most likely here because of my music site, so music is already important to you. Why not be completely hip and have a great stereo too?

Note that this article was originally written around the year 2000 or so and it had become a bit outdated. As of 2012 it has been re-written to the best of my ability.

There are a number of things people seem genuinely un-aware of when it comes to audio.
Hopefully this will clear some of that up right away.

  1. Cost - I'll start with the scariest thing first. I do not understand why people can spend 25 (or even 35) grand for their vehicle without flinching, spend 5 to 10 thousand to build a home theatre setup (with terrible gear no less) yet if you tell them that amp they see on your floor costs $3,000 (new or used) they nearly crap their pants. Why? I really do not know. I've seen surveys where it appears the "average" audiophile spends somewhere along the line of 12 to 22 thousand dollars on his system. Even that, while no chump change, is still less than their car and possibly half as much. Yet the general public views spending that much for a stereo as excessive and the practitioners crazy. However these people don't find owning a stereo from Best buy obscene, or worse, a Bose wave radio (whos costs WAY exceed what it delivers). Yet, to get sound far superior to those choices you don't even need to spend anywhere near 12 thousand dollars. You could put a system together of new and used gear that would come in under 2 grand which would be a marvel to you and would revolutionize your thinking on the entire thing. That also seems to be about the theoretical head, $2,000. You have to go in about that deep. That figures 4 parts (preamp, amp, cd player, speakers) at $400-500 a piece. (it can be 3 with an integrated amp instead but it will likely cost twice as much so it all evens out anyway) Four to five hundred for one thing is barely more than the average piece of crap at the superstore, and the gear I am talking about would slay that stuff. How can you complain about that? Plus once you hear and understand it, I won't have to talk you into spending money on it anymore.

  2. Media - When I first wrote this CD's had pretty much taken over but records were starting to make a "come back". The fact is a record is pretty much the pinnacle of recorded sound and they've been trying to make CD's sound as good as them for years now. I know, you didn't like that they had pops and clicks. They only had them because well, lets say "someone" didn't take care of them properly. Before a record is ever played it needs to have the mold release compound removed (The "pam" they spray on the press so it comes out of the press) and after that it should be treated with Last record preservative to prevent wear. If these things are done, they won't wear or get pops or clicks, ever. (assuming you're not a slob in general, especially with your table and cartridge) It can be argued that perhaps the record manufacturers should have done these things for us, but that's a side argument. The fact is the problem can be eliminated. Also, as time went on US manufacturers really got cheap with the vinyl they used, and they often routinely overpressed molds as well. All of this contributed to bad sound.

    Despite the lack of pops CD's were not what they were billed to be when they arrived, that being "perfect sound forever." Everything about them was terribly flawed, from the dics to the CD players to the methods of recording being used in the 80's. It's only been pretty much in the past 10 years that the genre has gotten to the point that the best players sound like a good analog (record player) setup. (however those CD players cost 6 grand or so and up)

    Now however we face a more despicable enemy - nothing. You don't buy records or CD's, you download 1 song you like to your phone. Even if you got an "ideal" one (zero loss rate or compression) you bought nothing. It's like buying the wind. I'll address this topic on the rants page where it belongs, however I will say this is simply an abomination as far as I am concerned.

  3. Tone Controls - In almost all cases there are none. I know, you're used to 5 million bells and whistles and lights, and perhaps an lcd screen. Well, it turns out that's all crap. Good gear does not have tone controls because it doesn't need tone controls. You get a volume control, an input selector and (sometimes not even) a balance control. Why? First of all, the gear is doing it's job of reproducing the music right, so it doesn't need to be corrected. Secondly, every time the signal gets run thru something like that it gets degraded. So again, like in so many things in life, less is more. Don't be thrown by what looks like a lack of features. The features are built in. If corrections need to be made they need to be because your room has a flaw. Therefore the proper answer is to treat the rooms issue and not "break" the sound at the gear to accomodate a problem. A good example of modern "mid-fi" gear is this Jolida 502B integrated tube amp. Attractive looks, 8 tubes, a power switch and 2 controls. Your gateway to sonic bliss.

  4. The "Fake" High End - This is an issue I have to tiptoe around somewhat. While it is true that gear made by Adcom, Denon, NAD, Rotel, Harmon Kardon etc... is much better than the type of crap they sell at electronic superstores, it is not high end, and it never was. 30 years ago it occupied a realm called "mid-fi" however it does not compare well against what is considered mid-fi today, like the Jolida amp above. There are some things from the 80's if in workable order but the risk is they used some funky caps and mosfets back then which time hasn't been kind to. Since both sound quality and condition are all over the map you really need to be careful when considering "antique" gear. Some of it, like the Nakamich PA-7 (Designed by Nelson Pass) is quite nice sounding but condition is always a question mark with this stuff and some kind of service may be needed one day. If you are OK with that, do some homework and you'll likely come away happy.

    Best of all you need not spend a fortune for this stuff usually as well. I had a Conrad Johnson Sonographe SA250 amp once (mid 90's) which was a giant killer, and I bought it used for about $500, a price it can still be had for. It would sonically murder any Adcom or NAD amp and will transport you to a sound you never knew existed. The biggest issue is audiophiles mostly go the full monty, and few dabble in mid fi so qualified reviews of this gear is hard to find. It's been my experience that most of the reviews on places like audio review are written by people with very limited experiences but lots of tin ears. Fifty people reviewing an amp and all saying it beats the Adcom GFA-555 they owned is a worthless comparison. (that's like comparing a lame mule to a dead mule) How does it compare to the best out there? That's what matters, and these people by and large don't know.

    And man created the vacuum tube, and it was good...

  5. Tubes - Tubes, or vacuum tubes, or thermionic valves if you're english, used to be an integral part of all electronics before transistors. (even in old record players) However, transistors came along and they were very small and very cheap. Soon the Japanese were using them to make cool little radios anyone could own for a few bucks. What's more, their portability meant you could take them anywhere. It was such a fad and frenzy of the "future" that it killed tubes off even though at the time tubes sounded better. But like a Phoenix tubes rose again. This started in the late 70's when people began to realize that while convenient, a lot of transistor gear sounded awful and companies like Conrad Johnson and Audio Research began making tubed gear again. Today there are many manufacturers who make tubed gear of every kind, including cd players.

    However the fact is technology has evolved to the point that if you know what you are doing you can make a solid state amp sound tube like, and a tube amp sound like solid state. What do tubes sound like? Their sound is most often termed "liquid", "warm" or "lush". Why? It's hard to explain or agree upon, but the human ear seems to find even harmonics pleasing and odd harmonics annoying. Due to their speed (or lack of it) tubes cannot generate large amounts of harmonics even if they wanted to. Tubes also have a penchant of favoring even order harmonics and are less likely to produce odd ones and in fact tubes are so rich in second order harmonics that by the time they even reach the 3rd order ones they are greatly reduced by the natural character of the tube. These things give tubes the "warm" quality we admire. Transistors by comparison are far more limitless, and can (and do) go way out there harmonically, which while impressive can give them their cold and strident edge because they produce so many odd order harmonics.

    People are constantly modifying both, and done right as I said either can be made to appear like the other. My Pass X250 amp while entirely SS has long been referred to as sounding "tube like" and many of the best new class D amps sound more tube like than tube amps do, however I have not yet heard this achieved in preamps or CD players yet. Hearing tubed gear for the first time will change your outlook forever. It's like spending your whole life on the planet of ape men and turning a corner one day to see Raquel Welch in a loincloth.

    Yeah, it's that good.

  6. Women Don't Give A Damn - My previous sexist comparison segues right into this point, which appears to be true, and I don't know why. Nearly 100% of all people who consider themselves audiophiles are men. I can count the women I know in the hobby on one hand. My wife, while she enjoys our stereo, could care less about having it as she enjoys music in the car as much apparently (and perhaps more) and I know the car stereo sounds awful. I even asked her. "I die tomorrow, that (pointing at my gear) gets sold in the first week, right?" She replied affirmatively. A low rise dress sandal in off white with a cute leather strap on sale for $5 means far more to her than audio heaven ever will. Well, what are you going to do with them? I'm leaving the rig to my daughter... Oh crap, she's going to be a woman one day too....

  7. Home Theater - Frankly, I have never liked it or understood it and for me at least what comes out of the TV is fine because I have always felt cinema was about the image, not the soundtrack and maybe movies wouldn't actually suck anymore if everyone felt that way. It puts too much emphasis on the sound and takes my attention away from the film. I really don't enjoy it but maybe they want everyones attention away from how bad movies are anymore. I can see that others might like it and that's certainly OK, but it would please me to see people invest half the effort they do to HT on a good 2 channel stereo. I'll take listening to my stereo to watching TV any day. What I'll NEVER understand though is 5 channel stereo. It seems to me the only people who could appeciate that is a bassoonist from the 8th row who is used to people playing instruments all around him. Me, I sit in FRONT of the musicians. Leave multi channel stereo where it belongs, in hell.

  8. Cables - It might surprise people to know that audiophiles anguish over their choice of speaker cables and interconnects more than they do what preamp to buy. What's more, almost no high end stuff comes with a plug anymore, just an IEC socket and you have to buy your own plug. (Some of which can cost as much as $1,000 or more. Yes, a grand just for the plug.) Does any of it matter? It does, and it doesn't. What it really is is a case of matching the sonic character of your gear to the cables, not so much that they are better or worse. Think of these things like spices. What works on one dish will not on another, what can save one mean will ruin another. That power cord might be great on your rig but sound awful on your friends gear. That's why this is perilous and confusing territory. What really matters is you can often get 95% there for 1/10 the price of mega cost stuff usually. I once used interconnects made by Signal Cable which is a "home" company and the cables cost me $75 each and they were equal or better than most any other cables I'd used or heard. I've since replaced most with Zu cables but only because I got them for a steal, and even then the Zu is only marginally better if that. So yes, what you buy very much matters but shop wisely. You need not spend a fortune for good stuff and remember, while the point is argued over it is generally believed all wires burn a memory path so if they are or are not marked (most are), always use them in one direction only and always. If it doesn't matter, no harm, no foul, but if it does you're covered.

  9. Tweaks - This is the religion of many audiophiles. When they finally get the gear they've dreamed of, they still feel the need to fiddle and squeeze every drop of performance out. For every tweak that does really work, there are 10 others which are voodoo. There are so many of such varied and incredible natures, that any work on the subject would have to go in the sci-fi section. Amazingly a lot of people will spend thousands of dollars chasing this rainbow and will do the most incredible things. Among them are wiping (or spraying) various fluids on your interconnects, not letting your speaker cables touch the floor (the cheap tweak is raising them with dixie cups, but special risers are now made) putting hackey sacks under your gear to act as vibration absorbers, buying special recepticles for the wall, buying things that "clean" your electricity, and even quantum purifiers. Does any of it work? Surprisingly yes, but the yields are often based on how much of a problem existed beforehand, and how much your gear can resolve anyway. For that reason alone sometimes you may not see a change as there was no problem to change. (and often if there was no problem, the tweak creates one) Worry about this business when you have everything else taken care of, and are more audio savy.

    But lets discuss one. Raising the cables for instance. Why would anyone do this? Cables touching the floor are actually more prone to absorb RFI (radio frequency interference) and static charges. If they run across a rug, and you walk across that rug, you generate static, do you not? They, touching the rug, absorb that charge as well. Then you're trying to run a signal, which is electrical, thru a static electric charge which shouldn't be there. The result is it can effect the signal quality, at least at some times during the year. So does absorbing RFI. If you've ever thought your stereo sounded better at night, you're not nuts, it does. There is far less cell phone and RFI activity at night, as well as less demand on the power grid. It all combines to a cleaner signal for your stereo. Who knew? So raising cables is odd, but it can yield results. (not instantly, and not always but you may notice it over a few days) Doing it also won't cause a problem if you don't have one, so it's a safe tweak.

  10. Break In - All electronics require break in, especially the better stuff. Nothing will sound right brand new, even cables, and many times they might sound sort of awful. The engineers who designed them base their performance on what they'll sound like broken in, not new. The rub here is how one goes about it. Many people leave the gear on all day, for weeks even. I am very much against this. What do we mean when we say a part like a capacitor must "break in"? It's just wound metal impregnated with some kind of oil usually, what "breaks" in. Obviously the metal. From having some blacksmith knowledge, I know metal breaks in by tempering, but it can be tempered 2 ways. If it is hot all the time and then suddenly cold it makes it hard and brittle. If you get it hot then cold then hot then cold etc... repeatedly (in other words a middle range) it tempers it softer. If you play it no stop all you have is heat, and then suddenly it gets cold. I have heard too many people who do this complain that their systems sound strident and never "broke in" properly and I believe this is why. What's more it seems to lengthen the time required to break it in once they start cycling it properly. All gear is different but most electronics seem to take about 300 to 400 hours to fully break in. One advantage of buying used gear is that this is all or mostly done by the time you own it. Finally, never leave tube gear, or any gear, on all the time. This practice kills electronics and every repairman I ever spoke to claims this to be the case. People do it because gear sounds it's best warm, so they leave it on so it's always warm. I however like knowing I'm not prematurely aging a 6 grand amp, plus I like the fact that the sound gets better and better the longer you listen. It draws you in. When you start at the top, there's no place to go.

  11. Speakers - What you must keep in mind here is that speakers are a window to what has gone before. In other words, they are the lens thru which you view your equipment. Great speakers will not make poor gear sound good. They will make it sound awful, which is what it is. The effect is not as pronounced in reverse but it will soon become apparent the speaker is choking on the detail the gear is trying to feed it, and disaster is probably not far away. To understand them better, lets look at the 3 kinds of speaker types or categories:

    Monitors, (commonly called bookshelf speakers) are small and need stands if they are used in a 2 channel setup and not actually on "bookshelves" and are for those who don't have the room for a traditional setup. The biggest drawback to them tends to be a lack of bass and rather small soundstage, neither of which is a surprise. In a nutshell many monitors trade one thing off for another. You'll have to decide what it is you can most live without, then find the monitor that best matches that criteria. However there are a lot of nicely balanced ones at good prices and they are a cost effective way to start out. Many are great DIY models like full range Audio Nirvana drivers. Some however cost more than many full range models, and in my mind don't support their price tags so shop wisely.
    Full Range is any floor standing large monitor which can have anywhere from 1 to 100 or more drivers. They may look different or untypical (such as the Aerius 10T pictured) but the theory is the same. The advantage to them is if made correctly (and don't assume anything is) you'll get a good chunk of the audio spectrum, well presented, with a big soundstage. Nothing effects the final sound as much as speakers do, so bright equipment can be toned down with a rounded sounding speaker, dull gear can be lightened with a bright one. (this is not a recommendation, but it is a fact). Generally, you get a bigger, fuller, more engaging sound the larger you go. Be warned, there is a law of diminishing returns and the room the stereo is in will be the final arbiter of how big a speaker it will handle before the sound starts degrading because the speaker is overloading the room. Also, driver size is not as important as it once was. Modern designs with drivers as small as 4.5" produce surprising amounts of bass, with excellent control and good punch.

    Planars, which are apparently still a mystery to the general public even though they have been around many years round out the list. They are di-pole designs which mean the sound radiates out the front and back while playing. This happens because their drivers are mylar sheets, not traditional "cones". They can be made three basic ways, Planar magnetic, electrostatic and a third odd man design using all metal "ribbons" whos drivers are metal foil folded like a ribbon which are caused to vibrate. (The technology is often seen used for tweeter elements in cabinet speakers, and planar magnetic types as well)

    While ribbons are different, the other two have some things in common. First of all, since their drivers are clear sheets of mylar you can see thru them. Since the sound radiates out both sides of the panels equally, it allows for stunning 3d imaging when set up correctly. However while they both use a mylar driver, they move them in very different ways.

    Electrostatics are the oldest of planar designs, and are made by a number of manufacturers such as Sound Lab, Quad and the most well known (but not necessarily the best) Martin Logan. They work by sandwiching a mylar panel (think a sheet of saran wrap) between 2 "stators". These stators get highly charged with opposing charges and the mylar is in between them and has an electrically-conductive substance applied to it. This causes it to be "plucked" by these opposite charges like unseen fingers, enabling sound to be made.

    Stats have a midrange to die for, and are better than most speakers in this area. Many of them suffer bass problems however, and an inability to play loudly. I was never fond of them because they failed at presenting a cohesive music performance and the subs or bass drivers added to them are never in phase with the main driver, which for me ruins the event.

    The planar magnetic type were invented by a guy named Jim Winey in the 60's who was smart enough to patent and produce them. Called Magnepans, this loudspeaker line would eventually become the largest selling high end speaker of all time, even though you probably have never seen or heard of one. They also use a mylar panel but it is not as fine as the one used by stats, and it gets moved by magnetic fields not high voltage charges. Magnepan is the only company who produces them, as they did not allow the patents to expire for a long time and they did not license the design. The patents are now public domain but high end is such nobody is rushing to invest in it.

    This is what I turn the white ironing boad looking thing above into.

    For all their strengths stock maggies and stats have a few flaws. Aside from a lack of bass both are guilty of a thing called "beaming". If you look at a cone on a regular speaker, it's essentially a V, and sound comes off it in all directions so it has a large "sweet spot". Planars send the sound out in a nearly straight line, and if you stand up while listening, it can often sound like a blanket got thrown over it. The whole top end often simply vanishes. (like being underwater where the water is music and you put your head above the surface) This problem can be treated with room tuning and some setup experience and modding lessens this impact a lot, but the sweet spot always remains the best place. People deal with this slight drawback because what these speakers do otherwise they do SO well. My mod fixes this problem with maggies however so it is not endemic. I do not know if it can be fixed in stats.

    So, how do they compare to regular cabinet speaker "monitors"? Simply put, cabinet speakers tend to be what is called "analytical". The sounds are very precise, but they achieve this often at a lack of naturalness and they don't have a live quality or "air" to them. Planars do bring a sense of air and naturalness box speakers cannot equal but stock Magenpans do it at a cost of some of that analytical ability. Stats by comparison have the analytical ability box speakers do, but they lack the cohesion and uniform sound magnepans have. (they call it "musicality") What is obvious is that like anything, you make your trade offs and you pays your money. Done right, you will be very happy however and it's simply a matter of auditioning what you can and deciding what sound it is you like.