Stereos of the Rich and Famous

part of materialism by Philip Greenspun, updated February 2008

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Totem pole.  Ketchikan, Alaska. The beauty of stereo shopping is that almost everyone claims to be an expert. Your friend Bob. The salesman who majored in business. The enthusiastic writers at audio magazines. In reality, most of the experts on audio are dead. Yes, dead. Bell Labs funded a lot of interesting work on psychoacoustics back in the 1920s but all of these projects ground to a halt in the 1950s. Audio reproduction wasn't interesting anymore. It was a solved problem.

If it is built in Japan, audio equipment is designed by engineers who couldn't get jobs designing video equipment. If it is built in the US, audio equipment is designed by engineers who couldn't get jobs designing high frequency electronics or computers. There are a few exceptions to these rules, but they are generally true. MIT, for example, offers no classes on high fidelity audio equipment design.

Source

Just south of Forbidden City.  Beijing For most people in 2000, the obvious source of music is the Compact Disc (CD). In fact, this format is obsolete. If you value convenience, you can store the contents of 1000 CDs as MP3s on a single 3.5" 60 GB hard disk (cost: $200 in December 2000). If you value ultimate sound quality, you will get much better sound from one of the new high-bandwidth digital audio formats: SACD or DVD-Audio.

True audiophiles listen to LPs. LPs have less distortion during subtle quiet passages than CDs. LPs also have a more extended frequency range; you can get a whole extra octave of highs out of LPs. The CD was designed without any reference to psychoacoutics. The disks cut off at 20 KHz even though there are research papers that show people can hear the effects of cutting off frequencies above 20 KHz. The 16 bits/sample are used linearly despite the fact that the ear hears logarithmically. So you only get high resolution when the music is extremely loud.

[To better understand the caliber of the engineers working on the music CD standard, reflect for a moment on the fact that one second of music on a CD occupies about 1,411,200 bits. The disk title, e.g., "Michael Jackson's Thriller", would occupy about 300 bits. There is no place on the CD for the title. Sony, with control over both the standard and the players, decided to address the issue head-on. Rather than amend the standard, they engineered CD players so that you could press little tiny buttons and enter all the disk titles yourself. You could spend a month entering disk titles into your car stereo and your home stereo. Then you'd have a nice user interface until your car stereo was stolen and/or your home stereo broke.]

Another advantage of LPs is that, if you are into classical music, you can probably get a huge LP record collection for free when some old guy dies and his wife doesn't want the living room cluttered anymore. A decent collection of 1000 albums would cost $15,000 to purchase on CD. The same collection on SACD or DVD-Audio might cost $25,000 and the selection of music in these new formats will be extremely limited for years to come.

Playing back LPs is tricky. First you need a "needle." For awhile everyone thought that the 1990s would be the decade of playing records with lasers. Bounce a beam off the groove and you get back a distance that varies as the originally recorded music varied. This idea goes back to the 1960s or before but didn't emerge as a consumer technology until a few years ago. Guess what the lucky buyer's of these very expensive boxes discovered? Light waves don't push dust out of the way. Even with special record wet vacuums and click and pop suppressors, there was an awful lot of surface noise.

What you need to push the dust out of the way is a diamond. Expensive cartridges have line contact styli that not only push the dust out of the way but read a fairly large part of the groove. So you get much less surface noise than you'd expect if you've been reading Sony CD propaganda. There are two ways to turn the motion of the diamond into an electrical signal. One is by gluing it to a magnet and wiggling the magnet around some fixed coils (a "moving magnet cartridge"). The other is by gluing some coils to the diamond and wiggling the coils around inside a magnetic field established by a fixed magnet (a "moving coil cartridge"). Because a coil of wire is so much lighter than a magnet, it turns out that you get much better sound out of a moving coil cartridge than a moving magnet. For reasons that I don't understand, it is tough to make moving coil cartridges that produce as high a voltage as a moving magnet cartridge. Therefore, you need to use them either with a transformer, an electronic pre-preamp or a high gain preamp. You can also get a "high output moving coil cartridge" that can be used with a standard preamp though I suppose that most audiophile-grade preamps these days are high gain.

Personally I like low output moving coil cartridges made some Japanese elves at a company called Namiki. Some of their best are branded, oddly enough, by Monster Cable. These cost $400-600 which is, believe it or not, a bargain by the standards of modern audiophilia. I think the only place one can buy them anymore is Audio Advisor.

My friend Charles Stromeyer III and I actually did a blind test of tonearms once for Stereophile magazine. The tonearm that won is one that I still think is the best. It is made by Graham Engineering. You should go to Bob Graham's Web site and read his white paper. Bob worked at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory for many years and I guess he has made up in a small way for all of the really bad sounding speakers put out by Bose, which was started by an MIT professor.

There are many choices in the turntable market. I used to have an Oracle Premiere. This cost about $2500. It looked incredibly beautiful. "Like a modern sculpture" said visitors to my house. The company was run by two brothers up in Canada. They went into hiding. My turntable broke. I got Jim Lackey at Natural Sound (Framingham, MA; great store; (508) 879-3556; www.natural-sound.com) to take it on trade for a Linn Sondek. This was the original audiophile turntable. Linn has engineers who understand bearings. Every audiophile in England has one. They will probably be the last company in the world making turntables. I want something that can be fixed.

If you have a record player, you need a pre-amp. It is very difficult to make a good phono pre-amp, which not only has to amplify the sound but also undo the "equalization" that was put in at the factory. This equalization pushes up the high frequencies so that they will be louder than the record surface noise and also pushes down the low frequencies so that you don't need record grooves two inches wide. The preamp pushes the high frequencies back down (thus also reducing the surface noise) and the lows back up. Audio Research has made some of the best for the last 20 years. I expect that they too will be around after a lot of other high-end companies have tanked. The only pre-amp I've ever heard that is definitely better than my ancient SP-11 is the $10,000 Cello.

Amplifiers

Sculpture. Forbidden City. Beijing Tube amplifiers and Class-A transistor amps almost always sound good. Brands with a good reputation and long history include the following: Audio Research (tube), Bryston (powerful and reasonably priced), Conrad-Johnson (tube), Krell (powerful and unreasonably priced), Linn, Mark Levinson, and Musical Fidelity (can be inexpensive).

Size your amplifier according to how large your room is and how sensitive your loudspeakers are. To measure sensitivity, you stick a reference signal (2.83V) into the back of the speaker and a microphone 1 meter in front. However many decibels of sound pressure are recorded is the sensitivity. (An alternative method is to look up the product's sensitivity in the owner's manual or on the manufacturer's Web site.)

An average loudspeaker will have a sensitivity of around 87 db SPL. In an average room you'll probably want a 100 watt amp. For every 3 db less sensitivity, you'll need double the power to get the same sound. For example, a speaker rated at 81 db SPL sensitivity would require a 400 watt amp. If you get yourself a 95 db SPL sensitivity Acoustic Research AR-1, you can probably get away with a pure single-ended triode 25 watt tube amp.

Speakers

Back in the 1920s some engineers at Bell Labs stretched a pig intestine, pressed it with gold leaf to make it conductive, charged it up to 1,000 volts and stuck it in between two big metal plates. They transformed the music signal coming out of the amplifier up to around 5,000 volts peak-to-peak and achieved the most accurately reproduced sound ever. After three days, however, the decaying pig intestine smelled so bad that they couldn't get anyone to listen to their setup.

There hasn't been much progress since then. You've got three choices for speakers. The cheapest speakers are made with cone drivers. You pump electric current through a wire coil. You stick that coil inside a permanent magnet. Thanks to Maxwell's equations, there is an "e cross B" force that causes the coil to move in time to the music. This would be fabulous if the coil could move air. It seems that sound is a variation in air pressure and a coil doesn't make too many waves. So you glue a paper cone to the coil and then hope that the paper cone picks up the coil's motion. Well, it sort of does. Sometimes.

You can lay down a big string of magnets and then stretch the coil in a big long ribbon in between them. Then you truly can use the current-carrying conductor as the sound radiator. These are called ribbon speakers. They tend to perform better, especially at high frequencies, than cone speakers. However, the moving parts of these speakers always end up being much heavier than the stretched pig intenstine. Heavier implies more inertia which interferes with accurate tracking of the musical signal.

The final option is to go back to the Bell Labs pig intestine method. This is called an electrostatic speaker. If you think back to freshman physics, you can probably remember that an infinite plate of charge create an electric field that is uniform everywhere. If you have another parallel infinite plate, oppositely charged, you get a gap where the electric field is perfectly uniform and then no charge anywhere else. This is how a capacitor is constructed. You just apply a voltage across the plates and it results in an electric field within.

These days we tend to use Mylar instead of pig intestine and sprayed-on aluminum rather than gold. The output of the amplifier can be transformed up to about 30,000 volts peak to peak and the Mylar can be charged up to a 10,000 volt "bias voltage." Now you have the Mylar really flapping back and forth in between the plates but it still won't generate any room sound until you punch holes in the plates to let the air out/in. This violates our "infinite parallel plate of charge" model but only when the music is very loud, i.e., when the Mylar is almost touching the plates.

The problem with electrostats is that the Mylar doesn't move very far. They don't have the excursion of cone speakers. So they have to be big. Very big if you want to play music at concert hall volumes. And a fundamental law of acoustics is that a driver that is large relative to the wavelength it is radiating will beam. The wavelength of a 20 KHz tone is about one inch. That means that a big flat electrostatic speaker will sound great if it is pointing at you but if you are off-axis you'll lose the high frequencies.

There are two ways of solving this problem. One is the brute-force American way. You just curve the plates and the diaphragm. Then the wavefront launched by the electrostat mimics that of a line source. So you get all the horizontal dispersion you need. You still have to make the things really tall because there will be no vertical dispersion. Also, you tend to get some distortion because every time the driver is pushing out, it is increasing the tension like an expanding balloon. Every time the driver is pulled back, the tension is decreasing, like a collapsing balloon. SoundLab, designed by Roger West, a Stanford PhD electrical engineer, fixed this problem by making their speakers piecewise planar. In other words, they approximate a cylinder with flat strips of diaphragm.

The British solution is much more elegant. Quad is one of the oldest speaker companies around. They've been selling electrostats to audiophiles for maybe 40 years. Practically every rich person in England has a pair. Anyway, in 1963 they figured out that they could build their speaker with concentric rings of radiators. Imagine a point source radiating waves of sound. Then cut through the waves with a tangent section of a plane. The center of the planar section will intersect a fairly new sound wave. The edges of the planar section will intersect older sound waves. So Quad stuck a bunch of analog delay lines, appropriately timed, in series with the concentric rings of their speaker. It actually has dispersion like a point source!

Which Electrostat to Buy? SoundLab has been making the biggest and best electrostats since around 1980. Before that, Roger West was designing the fabled electrostatic speakers of the 1970s for companies like Koss. I have the A-1s which are their biggest basic speaker. They cost around $13,000 now. One of the things that I came to love about electrostats is the bass. Even the best cone speakers store energy in their cabinets. So when a big thump comes along, they radiate the thump but then try to swallow the back wave from the cone driver in their cabinet. It sort of works but a lot of the thump ends up getting re-radiated a split second later. So the bass energy is smeared in time. A-1s have good and deep and powerful (if you have a 400 watt amp) bass. But Roger makes B-1s which are flat double-diaphragm long excursion purpose-made electrostatic subwoofers. They are about the same size and price as A-1s. Good for dividing a room if nothing else.

If you don't need something that plays loud, a pair of Quads is the safe choice.

Are electrostatic speakers the right choice? Not necessarily. For example, in December 2000 I was forced to sell my Sound Lab A-1s. Each is 6.5 feet tall and 3' wide. They were well-finished in oak and white cloth and look sort of like a cabinet maker had been asked to produce gracefully curved room dividers. What's wrong with that? The girlfriend decreed that our Harvard Square apartment's small living room does not really need to be divided.

Are there dynamic speakers that sound as good as the A-1s? In 1990, the answer was "not even close". In 2000, the answer is "probably". B&W and Dunlavy were my personal favorites. Both make dynamic speakers that sound significantly better than average electrostatics. Unfortunately, the Dunlavy models that sound the best were almost as visually imposing as the Sound Labs. Then the company went bankrupt. So that leaves B&W, a relatively large British company with deep engineering resources. They produce a shockingly huge and shockingly shaped $60,000 flagship. They produce a squat and strange-looking 801 model that is the standard in classical recording studios worldwide. Personally I've settled on the Nautilus 803. It won't play quite as loud or as low as the 801 but the sound quality is similar. It is about 3.5' high and less than one foot wide. The cost is a reasonable $5000. The sensitivity is a relatively high 90 db SPL, which means that a 50 watt amplifier would be adequate for many listeners. It sounds like music, which is really not surprising given that the average recording is mixed until it sounds its best on a pair of B&W 801s.

A/B Testing

Bombs. China Aviation Museum.  Suburbs of Beijing I've come to the conclusion that short term AB tests are pretty much worthless. I have one anecdotal story that illustrates this particularly well. A friend of mine and I compared his $4000 Audio Research preamp with my $400 Audible Illusions preamp for an afternoon, swapping the two in and out of his system. We both agreed that the differences were subtle, perhaps too subtle to justify the staggering difference in price. One summer, he left for England and lent me his SP-10. I listened to it for a whole summer and really enjoyed my stereo. When he came back and I replaced the SP-10 with my Audible Illusions preamp, my system suddenly sounded lifeless and I didn't enjoy it as much. This puzzled me because on the AB test we both agreed the differences were subtle, yet the long term pleasure somehow wasn't even close.

I shortly thereafter went out and bought an SP-11 (the newest model at the time, listing for about $5000). When my friend sent his SP-10 back to the factory to be blessed or retubed or something, he borrowed my Audible Illusions, thinking that it would tide him over. I hadn't told him how disappointing I found it after the SP-10. He called me up a few weeks later to say that he was confused and that his system wasn't giving him any pleasure, that he was hardly listening to it. How could it sound so lifeless when an AB test proved nearly inconclusive?

An interesting question is why we ever thought an A/B test was so great to begin with. After all, would you evaluate two performances of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata in 1-minute snippets? If there were a magic machine that could zap you into an Acura NSX or a Chevy Caprice for two minute intervals, would you test the cars that way or would you live with each one for a week? And what about mates? Have you ever had a perfectly pleasant date with a person only to discover that marriage to the very same person wasn't such a great idea?

Dead Trees

The most humorous source of stereo advice is Consumer Reports. Their speaker tests are the best. They measure the on-axis frequency response of speakers and then rank them according to how flat they are. They've been doing this for years even though every seat in Boston Symphony Hall has a different frequency response. These differences are not subtle. Air absorbs high frequencies more than low frequencies. That's why all you hear of a disco down the street is the thumping bass. It also means that people sitting at the back of the hall find the high notes relatively less prominent than those sitting in the front. Yet everyone agrees that the hall sounds good. That's because the hall is essentially free of time-domain distortions. A high and a low note played at the same time on stage will reach every listener simultaneously, as will multiple harmonics of the same note. A pulse of sound will not be distorted by ringing or cone break-up. It is the lack of time-domain distortion that makes live music sound great and good speakers sound good. Yet Consumer Reports plods on with their cheapo spectrum analyzer and white noise generator.

Absolute Sound will show you just how passionate people can become about music in their homes. If you have the patience to dig through back issues, you might appreciate the Saga of the IRS. Harry Pearson, the editor, used to have a pair of $50,000 Infinity Reference Speakers (IRS). These speakers came in four towers, each about eight feet tall and festooned with ribbon drivers. They looked and weighed like veneered chunks of an Aegis missile cruiser. They also sounded really bad. Harry kept searching for ever-mellower 1950s-style tube amps to round out the screechy high end of the IRS. Meanwhile, he'd ask how all the other stereo magazines could judge, say, preamps if they didn't have the IRS? Absolute Sound writers tended to sycophantically note that they couldn't give the last word on some tonearm because their pathetic home system lacked the resolution of Harry's with the IRS. Then one day Harry brought home a pair of Quads. Not the "new Quads" from 1963 with the fancy time delay lines. No, the "old Quads" that they'd been selling by the tens of thousands since the 1950s. Harry had the honesty to note that "you know, in the midrange, these Quads sound a lot better than the IRS."

Stereophile is probably the most reasonable magazine. However, remember that the writers are toy-loving guys who get all their equipment free to try and for half price to buy. That means they don't adequately account for the fact that many smaller audio companies have no chance of staying in business and haven't thought about how to service what they make. If I want to know whether or not I should buy something, I ask Jim Lackey and Alan Goodwin ((781) 893-9000; www.goodwinshighend.com) here in Boston. They've each been selling high-end audio gear for 20 years and therefore are reluctant to risk a customer coming back in a couple years with a $5,000 toy that spews sparks.

Recordings

Sheffield Lab and Chesky Records are the canonical audiophile labels. Sheffield's direct-to-disk recordings from the 1970s and 1980s represent the best sound that has ever been distributed to consumers.

Harmonia Mundi is a great French label with a lot of well-recorded early music. Their US subsidiary also imports a lot of labels with great sound, e.g., Astree.

Among the mainstream classical labels, I find that the most consistently good sound comes from Philips. Their recording engineers insist on monitoring every recording with a pair of Quad electrostatic speakers and it shows.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab specializes in finding excellent rock and jazz master tapes. They recently built their own factory for pressing super heavy LPs (they also sell gold-plated CDs).

Getting High-end Audio Repaired

I had good luck getting a Tandberg TPT 3001A FM tuner repaired in February 2008 by Terry DeWick of DeWick Repairs.

Selling High-end Audio

Most folks on eBay won't recognize a high-end audio brand name from five year ago. www.audiogon.com is a more sophisticated crowd for this kind of stuff and ads are much cheaper than on eBay.

XM Satellite Radio

XM Radio is a system in which receivers pick up 100 channels of music and information from a satellite in the southern sky. This is a $10/month subscription service, which completely changes the programming available. Commercial broadcast stations, to be fair to their stockholders, must maximize their number of listeners at all times. This leads to formats such as Top 40, Classic Rock, or Boring Baroque (at the locations on the dial formerly occupied by concert music stations). Things that appealed to only a small number of people, such as Bluegrass, Chinese, Folk, Indian, Jazz, non-Baroque classical music, etc., were relegated to public and college radio stations. In the mid-1990s, however, the public radio stations decided that their sole objective would be maximizing revenue. To do this they started running news/talk programs, such as All Things Considered and Car Talk, almost all the time. This was an effort to maximize the number of listeners, and therefore donors, at all hours of the day. The only stations left broadcasting unpopular forms of music are college radio stations, where presumably the kids haven't yet completed enough business classes to realize the evils of spinning Folk albums.

A subscription-based service, however, stands this kind of logic on its head. With 100 channels, spectrum isn't particularly scarce. XM need not care if the Bluegrass Junction channel isn't attracting mainstream yuppies. As long as Bluegrass Junction encourages enough diehard Bluegrass fans to keep paying their $10 per month, it is pulling its weight. You and I might not enjoy lyrics in Mandarin, but there are some Chinese-Americans out there paying their $10 per month for music that they can't find on the FM dial.

Note that this isn't a new idea. The digital cable TV system operators have been offering many channels of commercial-free music, practically for free, on their systems for some years. But the XM system gives you 100 channels, mostly commercial-free, in your vehicle, where you're probably cut off from the Internet and other sources of entertainment, distraction, and information.

Sound quality is comparable to CDs or MP3s. The main classical channel is less Baroque-heavy than commercial stations, though sadly the "VOX" opera channel seems to be devoted almost exclusively to Handel oratorios and baroque operas. Classical music is tough to progam because people are either in the moood for an intellectual challenge or they are not. An ideal classical music service would offer the following channels: (a) familiar stuff, playing what most commercial classic stations play, heavy on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann instrumental works, Brahms, (b) full operas, playing one opera right after another with commentary in between the acts to tell you what was happening (and scrolling lyrics through the front panel of the receiver), (c) challenging stuff, playing the late Beethoven quartets, Stravinsky, Bartok, modern composers, and (d) low dynamic range stuff, playing music that doesn't go up and down in volume too much or is compressed, to facilitate listening in noisy automobiles. Mostly XM Radio classical is the familiar and boring. But when you actually want to relax with some background music they'll surprise you (unpleasantly) with Hindemith.

The most painful thing about XM Radio are the annoying "house ads" on allegedly commercial-free stations. Suppose that you've parked the receiver on "110 Classics" for a few months. Every 30 minutes or so you'll be reminded "this is XM Radio", "Channel 110, the greatest music from the last 1000 years", etc. Sometimes these commercials stretch to 30 or 60 seconds. Ads on local radio stations sometimes inform you of products or events that might interest you. The XM ads are seemingly targeted at people who have never heard of XM Radio or Channel 110 and yet they are aired on XM Radio, which is only available to people who've purchased a receiver and a $10/month subscription and who have elected to tune to Channel 110. This contrasts sharply with the music that comes with most digital cable TV services. The cable TV folks don't even introduce the pieces, leaving that to an on-screen text display. But what will drive you up the wall most about the ads on the "commercial-free" XM stations is that the ads never change. The ads that were annoying on hearings 1 through 100 in Texas in November 2001 were excruciatingly painful on hearings 1001 through 1100 in Alberta in July 2002. McDonald's ads can be annoying but at least they change every month.

Customer service involves waiting in a 10-minute phone queue and then speaking to a group of folks that will make your local telephone monopoly seem friendly and customer-oriented enough. XM the company has apparently figured out how to make radio listening as painful a consumer experience as cable TV or cellular telephone. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain their "customer is always wrong" attitude in the face of competition from Sirius.

We cancelled our subscription.

Trendy Mid-Fi Stuff

After seeing thousands of ads for the Bose Acoustic Wave radio/CD boom box, I decided to try one out for a few weeks. The user interface is brilliant. It is amazing that the Japanese have learned so little about how to make audio equipment over the years. On the Bose, if you put in a CD, the thing switches from FM and just starts playing. You hardly ever have to touch a switch, much less refer to a manual. The remote control is tiny and the whole unit weighs almost nothing (good for portability and good for keeping Bose's manufacturing costs on this $1000 item down). The only problem with the unit is that it sounds terribly muddy. The ducted woofer gives you a a bumped up "one-note" mid-bass. In the grand Bose tradition, I don't think there are any tweeters. So you don't hear any highs. When I got my little tiny ancient Nakamichi mini-system (purchased new for $250) back, I was amazed at how much better it sounded, despite being 10 years old.

[Bose has the distinction of having crushed Consumer Reports at the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems that Consumer Reports said that Bose's speakers sounded bad and that the sound image appeared to float around the room. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected Consumer Reports's opinion that the speakers sounded bad but not that the sound appeared to float.]

My other recent foray into mid-fi was into CD jukebox land. I don't have that many CDs. What few that I do have were getting scratched from handling. I was tired of having to load up a 5-disc CD changer before every party. I thought that buying a CD jukebox would solve all of these problems. The disks wouldn't get scratched from handling because they'd stay in the jukebox. The convenience would be staggering.

I went to one stereo shop and the fellow said "You must buy the Pioneer-brand jukebox. The Sonys all break after a few months." This was early in 1998 when the biggest Sony would hold 200 disc and the biggest Pioneer held a pathetic 100. I bought the Sony:


Text and pictures copyright 1996-2000 Philip Greenspun
philg@mit.edu

Reader's Comments

There are many statements in this piece that I take issue with.

First, your preference for LPs. Numerous tests, to which you do not allude, have shown that frequency response beyond 20khz is not audible, and that, in double blind testing, few, if any people, can discern any "difference" between audio sources whose only difference is response above 20khz. More depressingly, after about age 30, males' ability to hear cuts off around 16khz, not 20. (Women generally are more sensitive to high frequencies than men, but still can't detect anything above 20khz under the best of conditions.) It is pretty much undisputed that CDs contain far more information than LPs. People didn't switch to CDs just because they were more convenient - they switched because they sounded better and were more revealing. When digital signal processing is correctly employed, as it is by Theta Digital, for example, there's no contest. Digital blows LPs away.

I also do not agree with your appraisal of Audio Research. As Peter Aczel (editor of The Audio Critic) has noted, Audio Research was the first company to realize that you can manufacture unnecessarily complicated tube gear for little money and charge unbelievably high prices. There is nothing that tube gear does that can't be done better by solid state. Bob Carver demonstrated this when he purposely screwed up a perfectly fine transistor amp to make it sonically indistinguishable from a vaunted Conrad-Johnson amp. Carver later designed an overpriced tube amp and laughed all the way to the bank at the suckers who were convinced they could hear "that great tube warmth". Carver designed a solid state amp that sounded identical to the tube model, and sold it for a fraction of the price, primarily to prove his point. I would no more buy Audio Research products than I would a buggy whip.

Double-blind and ABX testing have shown that people can't detect differences between various amps and preamps, yet the price differentials are great in the world of "high end".

As for Stereophile, they should be indicted for consumer fraud along with Monster, MIT Cables, et al. Monster discovered that all you have to do is buy normal wire from any number of suppliers (they didn't make their own cable for years), make the cables thick, slap your name on them and triple the price - people lined up for blocks to get ripped off. Stereophile, which refuses to do any double-blind or ABX testing, acts as a shill for any wacky idea that comes along. Green paint for CDs ("vast improvements in sound" - yeah right), "Shakti Stones", and any other scam that comes down the pike get the worshipful treatment by the hacks at that rag. (None of their writers, to my knowledge, has the least bit of training in electrical engineering or physics.) Why does Stereophile do this? "Money rules", as you say. If you tell the truth about all of these useless products, or point out that people are unable to distinguish between most audio products when listened to at matched levels, then your advertisers will pull out. Then you can't afford your nice digs down there in Santa Fe, where this swill is published. Meanwhle, the suckers buy into the placebo effect and swear there are huge differences that only they can hear. Oh yeah? Then why not submit to a true ABX test? In fact, they don't want to have to report that their precious "golden ears" can't tell any difference. Worse, they manage to convince their readers that they are not getting the best sound unless the readers buy the latest useless "tweak", for hundreds of dollars. If these companies that manufacture "high end cable" or "power line conditioners" were in the photographic equipment business, where you have to show some results, they would all go out of business.

As for the Absolute Sound, Harry Pearson is an idiot who helped launch all of this nonsense.

-- Jeff Ryan, June 24, 1997

Hi Phil, I have to admit that I've been sat down in front of stereo systems that were either handcrafted over decades by the owner and/or were worth enough to pay off my student loans and set me up with a decent stock portfolio so that I could spend my days composing music that everyone on this planet besides myself would hate, and I must say that there were moments when I felt I was right there in the hall -- until the needle hit the inevitable microscopic piece of dust or filament or whatever causing my hair to stand on end. And I've never gotten through a single piece of music played on one of these systems without that happening at least once. What those people never let me do, though, is listen to a CD-remaster of the same recording on the same system, but they assure me that the "colour" and "staging" or "presence" just aren't there in the CD-version for me to hear. I've never been presented with an analog system that had these enormous benefits over digital that I keep hearing about without some *serious* tradeoffs. I must say, I never would have taken you for an Analog Fundamentalist, Phil; thanks for keeping me guessing. I'm curious, though: are these opinions unshakeable truths to you, or does it come from that little place in all of us that wants to be above the crowd? I think most folks'd get a better return on all that money and setup/maintenance/Stereophile-reading time by going to real performances of real music by real, living musicians. Who knows, maybe even living composers.

-- Ken Overton, September 3, 1997
I love commenting on my own material....

Anyway, to respond to my friend Ken: I've no longer any desire to assert superiority over my fellow man via audio equipment. I'm so busy these days developing and maintaining (ugh!) Web services that I don't have time to do much besides listen. So CDs appeal to me more and more because they are so convenient (drop five in a changer and walk away for a whole brunch).

That said, my CD collection on balance doesn't seem as realistic as my LP collection. It is definitely not an unshakeable truth for me, though. I'm perfectly prepared to believe that the new DVD-based hifi audio disks will crush LP sound quality like a bug.

I have to admit that it sucks to come home and find that my Audio Research preamp has toasted itself yet again. Or that the diamond has fallen out of my $500 photo cartridge. My Sony CD changer isn't all that reliable either but at least it is simple to throw out.

-- Philip Greenspun, September 4, 1997

The link to quad hi-fi is a "fashion don't" right out of "How to be a Web Whore Like Me". Halfway through the entrance tunnel I left the site. The sound labs link has lots of pictures, but what is what? (this is really a comment on the links)

-- albert s boyers, November 21, 1997
You left out two very significant reasons (based in fact!) to want to be able to play back LPs: First, there exist many LPs that will never be reissued on CD. Second, poorly remastered CD reissues of analog recordings can truly and objectively suck. Besides, many of us over the age of about 22 have records we bought

-- Brent Buescher, January 15, 1998
You can be as angry as you want about the fact that digital isn't as good as analog, but here's a few timeless and essential facts that will put digital in its place forever.

First off, the laser of a CD player or transport reads BITS, i.e. 1's and 0's. Perhaps billions per CD. But an analog record offer the diamond of a cartridge ATOMS. Many TRILLIONS per record.

Secondly, you can split the number 100 in half mathematically (i.e. digitally) with perfect precision, even in quarters, but only in the analog world (i.e. reality) can you split something in perfect thirds, such as an apple, hence the need for expensive and complex DACs.

And finally, although you cannot hear with your ears any sounds over 20khz or below 20hz, it is well known that you can FEEL it, and that is certainly as valid as any other form of musical communication.

-- Jeff Halmos, March 28, 1998

That last bit about dividing in bits vs. atoms is simply nonsense. Any limitations of the CD standard are limits of the CD standard, not of digital reproduction. If you know what the sampling theorem is, I apologize for this outburst. If you don't know what it is, you should prior to posting additional comments.

-- Alexey Merz, July 30, 1998
It's weird that in all this talk about equipment, no one has mentioned the music much. I listen to hear performances. These days most of the great new performances are on CD only. Whether that is good or sad, it IS. So if I want to hear Dawn Upshaw (criticised by another diva as "POPULAR"), it will be on CD because that's how her works are published. If they were only on LP, I would probably be maintaining my LP gear. They aren't, I don't.

-- Dave Gomberg, July 31, 1998
As a professional music reviewer for around 20 years I still have around 1000 LPs and a growing list of CDs (around 1500 at this point). I also go to a lot of live classical concerts. After all this I have come to the conclusion that the CD is not so much an advance on the LP in terms of absolute sound (no pun intended) as a much better way of delivering a consistently good sound. The worst LP problem, and one that no one has mentioned, is tracking distortion - where the needle just won't follow the groove and you get that horrible grating sound. I have three LP sets of Die Meistersinger and none of them manages to reproduce the finale of ACT I without that garbage (with both MC and MM cartridges). It doesn't exist on CDs. Neither does wow and flutter - and don't tell me they aren't audible on LPs. I interviewed Ivor Tiefenbrun the designer of the Linn Sondek and he told me I should take off my digital watch because it was a transducer and would ruin the sound! He also reckoned Kiri Te Kanawa was an idiot because she had told me she thought CDs were terrific and captured her voice very well. And this is the great anaolog guru! The first comment on this list was the best. Blind testing is the only real way to tell differences. By the way, the Quad people have always been enthusiastic CD backers. And they once did a blind test between their own tube amp and the transistor amp that superseded it - and nobody could pick them. Let's stick to reality.

-- Laurie Strachan, October 6, 1998
While you argue about the inadequacy of 16bit 44khz PCM, people everywhere are listening on their bookshelf speakers to compressed 128kbit/second mpeg layer 3 encodings, piped out through their soundcard that maybe offers 90db SNR at best, over the ambient noise of their hard drive and computer fan.

I would like to hear more about what people have done to get a good listening environment at their computer. I imagine an external DAC (for EM shielding), and either tight headphones or all moving parts of the computer located behind soundproofing.

I am very musical but I really can't tell the difference between a CD and a 128kbit/sec mp3, at least when it comes to a typical pop/rock song. Higher quality recordings, even with my loud fan noise, I definitely prefer the CD or even 160kbit/sec. Although no encoders are available yet, an even more efficient compression method, Advanced Audio Encoding (or AAC), is part of the mpeg-4 standard, and it sounds about as good at 96kbit/sec as mp3 at 128kbit/sec. Some interesting double-blind listening tests showed that for most (but not all) of the reference samples, 128kbit AAC was indistinguishable from the full 16bit/44khz PCM stream, and in any case the differences were not annoying.

I'm sure that if you are a true audiophile you would not ever think of using lossy compression when you can just spend more money for more storage, but for us cheap people, it is interesting to see what can be done with cheap computer equipment. I find the psychoacoustic research in audio encoding fascinating, and certainly it's possible that a format like AAC could be encoded from a better source than CD- quality, and at higher bit rates could exceed a CD.

Of course I digitally extract and compress all my mp3 files from CDs I own.

If anybody has some pointers to realistic audiophile-oriented tests on mp3/AAC or other related encodings, and products for decoding and playing them with high sound quality, please add a comment or mail me.

-- Jonathan Graehl, October 7, 1998

I'm not an audiophile -- right now I don't have any way to play recorded music where I live!

But I was very interested in Phil's article, and want to say two things:

1. I very much agree with him about the Quads. I have heard a lot of enthusiastic stereo owners show off their stuff, and the only speakers that did not sound muddy to me were the Quads. The difference is especially clear on male voice, and significant on piano.

2. Once I was listening to a concert in Sheffield England, and started thinking "the mike on the piano is too far, the violins are distorting at HF, there's an annoying echo on the percussion..." Then it occurred to me I was *at* the concert.

-- danny willis, October 11, 1998

I agree with just about everything you say Phil, and I would just like to add a bit of info on DVD's non-linear recording system. Firstly, on a a two channel amp, with speakers focussed correctly, and at a reasonable volume, you won't notice all that much difference between DVD & CD. to really notice the diiference, you need something like a Dolby DTS Digital amp, a Direct digital link with th DVD player, and nine (yes nine) channels (not counting the sub), and a room the size of an average hall to really get the best out of them. Thanks, good site

P.S I live for my $1200 Toshiba/Grado Linear turntable, and my records (analog rocks!!!)

-- Joshua Inifer, October 14, 1998

This will be brief, and I will only comment on some of the salient points in this essay.

First, if the writer thinks that the LP record sounds better than the CD, that is his prerogative. However, the reasons he states for his opinion make no sense, at least not to me.

Next, speakers. Yes, electrostatic speakers are nice, but long line-source and large-surface radiators have problems of their own. Mostly, these relate to the sound coming from an expansive radiating area having to interact with devices (ears) that are very small-area receptors. The waves coming from the large surface do not all get to the ears at the same time. Comb filtering, you know. Stanley Lipshitz delivered a terrific paper on the subject at an AES meeting back in 1985. I think the preprint is still available.

I reviewed a pair of Dunlavy SC-II systems in issue 70 of The Sensible Sound, and found it it be very nice, although a good subwoofer would be required for full-bandwidth reproduction. However, it was no nicer than a lot of other speakers - some costing a fair amount less. I do agree with the writer's opinions concerning the sound of the AR-3, compared to some current high-end brands, however.

He is dead wrong about A/B testing (I assume he is talking about level-matched, double-blind versions), and I am surprised that anyone associated with MIT and interested in scientific research would have it in for that kind of evaluating technique. As far as I can tell, all decently built amps (most are decently built) tend to sound the same. Indeed, I would not hesitate to recommend a Radio Shack receiver as sounding as good as a Krell, up to the former's overload point, and provided that the speaker load was not too exotic. Yes, electrostatics are exotic, but the Dunlavy systems, as well as many others that sound as good as any electrostatic, are anything but a problem for a passably well-built amp.

Consumer Reports does not do on-axis measuring, only. Indeed, they take a very large number of measurements all around the speaker and use a computer to give an overall power-response readout. While power response may not be the be-all and end-all of speaker evaluating, it is a good starting point, and does separate the good stuff from the junk. I pointed this out both in my first book, High Fidelity Audio Video Systems (McFarland, 1991), and my latest, The Home Theater Companion (Schirmer, 1997). I have also discussed many of the ideas it contains with people like Roy Allison and Tom Nousaine (both of whom helped to proof the book), as well as with Mark Davis, John Dunlavy, John Eargle, Dave Griesinger, Ken Kantor, and Dave Moran.

Chesky, Sheffield, and Harmonia Mundi produce some nice sounding recordings, but so do outfits like Delos, Gothic, Hungaroton, Chandos, DMP, Telarc, Dorian, Novalis, Virgin, Hyperion, BIS, London, and Reference Recordings. Indeed, some of the best organ recordings I have ever heard were produced by Argo. I know from where I speak, because I published a whole book ofsound-quality evaluations, High Definition compact Disc Recordings (McFarland, 1994), and John Eargle gave that tome a fine review in the October, 1995 issue of Audio. He ought to know if I knew what I was talking about. A new record review book by me, to be published by A-R Editions, should be available early in 1998.

It is nice to be able to read the opinions of others, even if you do not fully agree with all of them, so I hope the writer of this essay does not take too much offense with my criticisms.

Howard Ferstler ferstle@ibm.net

-- Howard Ferstler, October 15, 1998

Some *Very* Random Notes ------------------------ You know, I keep meaning to write a note to Stereophile, since they often publish letters from either side of the "snake-oil" debate (shakti stones, etc.). I believe that when the reviewers say these things make their systems sound better, they're telling the truth. That is, the reviewer's *perception* is that the system sounds better, and that's good enough. Does it mean that I'll buy it? Hell no.

Now is the system measurably better after tweaking with snake-oil? I doubt it. But who cares? If you don't think that these devices work, then don't waste your money. It's doubtful that you'll hear any improvement, anyway. If you do believe in "magic", then you'll likely hear an improvement - and will be happy with your purchase. More power to you!

On the topic of LP vs. CD, I prefer both. And, horror of horrors, I actually record my vinyl to MiniDisc (to take with me). My portable MiniDisc player sounds better than my portable CD player by a large margin (I suspect the headphone amp). I need to do a digital recording onto MD of one of my CDs and compare that way. Anyway, I do believe that CDs became popular because so many people had really crappy "record players". These folks became (or continued to be) the "consumer" of "consumer grade" audio. They saw a direct and obvious benefit to CDs - no scratches or clicks, or bad sound from a crappy cartridge. No wow from poorly controlled motors, no worrying about dust and fingerprints, etc. Makes perfect sense to me. They could spend $100 on a CD player and get much better (apparently) sound than on their $80 record player. These are not folks who are going to spend $500-5000 on an analog front-end.

What do I own? It's all just barely above consumer grade stuff. Adcom amplification, Nak CD, B&O Turntable, ancient Rotel analog tuner that's bigger than my amp, and Maggie MMG speakers. Oh, and a Velodyne sub. A mixed bag of interconnects, most just a little above what comes in the box (Tara labs, Monster, etc.). Most of the time, I'm happy with my sound. With a well-preserved record, my analogue front-end brings as much pleasure to *me* (and that's what counts) as the CD front-end. It just happens less often, due to convenience (or lack thereof), and the fact that my vinyl collection was played often in the 80s on a crappy turntable (poor Elvis Costello).

I've enjoyed your page!

-- Mike Thomas, December 27, 1998

Musicality is quite elusive. Although many systems costing $30K to $100K or more are capable of producing gorgeous, realistic sound when fed just the right material, as a general rule of thumb, the more refined (and therefore expensive) the system, the fewer recordings will sound good on it.

Since I can't afford the sort of analog front end that would make it worth going back to LPs, I've spent the last 15 years figuring out how to make CDs listenable. The compromise I've come up with is to have two reasonably affordable systems: a main system that is full-range, articulate and sometimes even thrilling in its reproduction of very well recorded and mastered CDs, and a smaller system based around a pair of British box speakers with somewhat limited bass and treble but a very natural midrange presentation. I estimate that about 15% to 20% of my CDs sound better on the "better" system, while the rest are more listenable on the smaller, less accurate, more rolled-off system.

-- Mark Hubbard, January 27, 1999

That's a very valid point. My home system is currently well below audiophile standards, but my truck stereo is, IMnsHO, quite good (and currently being redesigned for the '00 competition year). Its set up for total sound quality, not pure bass.

There are several pieces of music that I enjoy listening to at home that I just can't stand in the truck. Since much modern music seems to be recorded more... how shall I put this... casually than it should be, the recording quality certainly suffers. Its no great thrill to listen to static and poor imaging being faithfully reproduced and exposed for what it is.

As far as the Quads go, my main experience with them was conditionally favorable. A friend of mine had an older set, and they sounded absolutely wonderful -- from his recliner. Off axis imaging was close to non-existant. I have rarely seen a speaker more susecptible to room conditions as they were either -- the addition of a healthy plant was enough to inspire 2-3 hours of careful reaiming.

Having said that, the sound (from the recliner -- he lived alone) was, IMO, well worth the effort. That system suffered the same way when playing inferior recordings on it; his fix for that was to purchase only superior recordings.

That doesn't work too well though -- there are too many great pieces that suffer from poor fidelity. One example would be Carole King's Tapestry (recently released on an OMR, I haven't listened to it though). On a lesser system, you can ignore the production quality and focus on the music itself. On a fine system, you are listening to the recording and presentation more than the song. Both are valuable -- perhaps the 2-system approach used above would be the best way to go?

-- Richard Stanford, February 26, 1999

I think that there are two very important points that seem overlooked in this discussion (of LP's vs CD's). They are: 1)the differences in dynamic range between the two formats; and 2)that, due to the inescapable laws of chaos, every recording always differs from another in some way.

Both formats have examples of good and bad recordings, so merely saying that "LP (or CD)sounds better" isn't valid. Just because a particular recording may sound better as an LP (or CD)doesn't mean much since we are all at the mercy of any given engineer's taste, not to mention coloration introduced by the listening room or the playback equipment. Every engineer hears sound differently and has his own opinion of how closely it matches the original; or, perhaps, how much "doctoring" the signal needs.

I believe that much of the controversy surrounding LP's and CD's has to do with dynamic range. LP's many times seem to have more ambiance and subtle detail than CD's, at least until you turn the CD up. Most people can't play back music at truly life-like levels (LOUD!). If a person with an average system discounts the clicks, pops and groove distortion present on an LP he (or she) will apparently hear more of the music. Average LP's have a dynamic range of about 60dB (about half that of real-life), while a good CD player can approach the natural dynamic range of the world we live in - if the associated playback equipment is capable of doing so with low distortion at all frequencies. Therefore, to truly hear all the detail recorded on a CD one has to have both a very low noisefloor and a very dynamic system - much more so than he (or she) would if all he played were LP's (a very dynamic system would require special measures to be taken to avoid bass feedback from the turntable).

Many residential areas have a nighttime noise level of about 40dBA. This means that to hear everything properly on an average LP you would have to play it back at approximately 100 dBA; a CD would have to be played at about 150dBA (and it would also skip!). Playing back the CD with SPL peaks hitting 110dB would give 20dB more dynamic range than an LP, with the same noisefloor of 40DB. That's 20dB less distortion. You could turn the LP up to 110dB, too, but you wouldn't be increasing the dynamic range. It would sound louder, and it would also be harder on your equipment because power output would be more constant.

Subtly limiting dynamic range can result in a more pleasing sound, even if it's a form of distortion (similarly, many people like the "warmer sound" of tubes over solid-state, or the "sound" of a given amp or preamp, which may simply be due to intended frequency response irregularities). Severely limiting dynamic range is really only another form of distortion. Due to the phyical limitations of recording equipment compressor/limiters are used in virtually every studio and on virtually every recording. A good dynamic range expander will help out an LP if it's set right and the rest of the system can handle it. I know that this next statement might be regarded as heresy, but . . . a good (studio-grade)compressor/limiter, gently applied, might enable almost any CD listener to hear more of the detail in his music. What good is dynamic range if your equipment can't reproduce it?

-- Mike Howe, March 4, 1999

I was wondering if we could hear more from the
woman standing in front of the giant speaker.



-- John Simmons, March 15, 1999
Ditto concerning Arvo Part.

My current recommendations are his earlier things. On "Miserere", the track "Sarah Was 90 Years Old" opens up a whole new Slavic perspective on the 80's new age idea of melodic minimalism -- or rhythm as melody. I happened to be studying the homeopathic treatment of Alzheimer's Disease at the same time I first heard this piece, and suddenly I had a beautiful aural image for some of the heavier metal constitutional remedies.

What an interesting place you've constructed to get entangled within! It makes me earnestly speculate what percentage of your life and consciousness has become en-Webbed.

-- Robert Stolzenberger, April 14, 1999

A couple of comments. The Nikko 7070 receiver that I bought used in 1975 is still working fine, with almost daily use. I am not an audiophile, as you can tell, but I find the subject interesting. I had the chance to buy Carver equipment at the Lechmere outlet in Salem NH in 1994. Amps, tuners, equalizers, about $200-$300 each. When I saw stacks of Carvers at Great Woods, putting out 40,000 watts, I wish I had invested. You find this interesting. My old college roommate created and sold the rights to a tonearm in he invented in the mid '70s. Have your heard of this set up? A thin walled 1" brass tube has a series of 1/64" holes drilled 1/4" apart along the length of the tube. It is mounted along one edge of a turntable with the holes up. The one end of the tube is made airtight with a plug, the other end has an aquarium tubing fitting installed. An aquarium motor, mounted a distance away, pumps air into the brass tube, and out the series of fine holes on the top. A tonearm with a convex 1" end then slides on top of the brass tube , suspended by the cushion of air. I seem to remember him saying he was paid $5000 , plus royalties, for this idea. Oh, he also got specs from a friend who worked at Bose, and made his own Bose direct/ reflecting speakers and black box to control them. Me, I was lucky to figure out what switch turns on a light! MJ

-- Mario Giberti, April 20, 1999
Not that I'm a double-E, but I used to be a technician and would like to think I know a little about the basics. That may help to explain the grin I develop when I hear people with more money than brains wax enthusiastic about the "warm" sound they get from their tube-type equipment. The only thing that's warm are the filaments heating the cathodes of the tubes (at least, that's how I remember it, but it's been a while, hasn't it).

I especially liked the remarks of Jeff Ryan, who couldn't have been more on target. Ken Overton, too, hit the mark. Those who prefer LPs to CDs are more to be pitied than scolded.

I resisted CDs until about 1988, when a friend upgraded his player and offered me the use of his old one and a dozen CDs for the weekend. Ten minutes after turning the player on, I was a convert and never looked back.

One point about speaker selection that others might find useful: About 15 years ago I had a couple hours and a speaker listening room all to myself. What I did was to listen first to the three most expensive speakers in the room, decide which sound I liked best, and then try to find an inexpensive speaker that approximated that sound.

I ended up with Pioneer S-910s as the best cheap speakers. Walking out of the listening room, I saw Pioneer S-710s on sale. Bought a pair for about $120 (total, not even each), and love 'em to this day. (Just replaced the foam donuts around the woofers.)

Talk about a real audiophile, huh.

-- Steve Kohn



-- Steve Kohn, April 22, 1999

First, I'm astonished that someone is chastising the author for preferring LP's over CD's. I'd also be astonished if someone was criticizing someone going the other way. LP's are definitely less clean, have much more distortion, a wee bit wider bandwidth, maybe, if everyone and everbody was really careful, but you know what?

IT IS HIS PREFERENCE.

Judging a preference is, well, silly to say the least.

Quite beyond that, LP's have several known distortion mechanisms that are understood to sound good to listeners. The fact that some people prefer this, therefore, is neither surprising nor an indictment of the listener, who is simply stating his or her preference.

I do say that double-blind tests of some sort are absolutely and incontrovertably requisite if one is trying to establish differences due ONLY TO AUDITORY STIMULII. Note the 'if', it's very important. If you want to know how you'll feel about it in your house and you think one unit is mud-ugly you might want to NOT do a DBT. There are also many other obvious things one might consider, such as reliability, reputation, etc, when one buys equipment.

DBT is required for TESTING OF SMALL AUDIBLE DIFFERENCES. It's not required, no matter what some of the above authors might claim, for consumer preference, in fact in some cases it may be counter to what the consumer might want to consider.

Now, on to speakers. There are a lot of issues in buying speakers. I don't like large panel radiators, for several reasons having to do with my listening PREFERENCES. Some people prefer lots more indirect sound, though, and again, telling them what to prefer, well, that's just not cool. Yes, large radiators have problems, so do small radiators, in fact speakers are far and away the worst element of the reproduction chain, even considering the simple fact that they don't get enough information from a "stereo" system to work properly. (The loss of information in miking down to stereo is enormous, this is one reason that preference is so important, since there is NOTHING like the original availalbe in a two channel recording, only a facimile, and you might as well choose the one YOU like.)

On the other hand, I do detect some scorn for the scientific community in some of the writings, and I can only suggest that it's neither as clear cut NOR as difficult a set of issues as one might suspect.

-- Jim Johnston, April 27, 1999

I must add that although Harvey Fletcher is dead, there are still scientists at both descendents of Bell Laboratories, those being Lucent Bell Labs, and AT&T Labs Research, who are still very much working on human hearing, human hearing sensitivity, and the like. What's more, since the government stopped telling us what we could work on (which, btw, is the reason that Bell Labs abandoned audio research, it had nothing to do with it "all being done"), we are indeed working on audio. If y'all really care, I can cite a bunch of people and what they are working on, but you probably don't.

-- Jim Johnston, May 7, 1999
Hmmm. Well, this is certainly a surprise. First off, to find that Phil was interested in high-end audio at all. I've spent three months or more perusing this site off and on since getting back into photography after a seven year hiatus. Since Phillip makes almost no mention of anything related to high-end audio on any pages other than this one, I just assumed he wasn't interested.

My rekindled interest in photography as a hobby coincided with me dropping the high-end audio thing for the most part from my list of obsessions. I spent most of my second semester freshman year, the summer in between (last summer), and most of my sophomore year obsessing over my system. Ever since my obsession with photography replaced my obsession with audio, suddenly, amazingly, I'm happy with my poor little system (into which I've sunk about $3000, which is a paltry sum in absoulte terms, but in terms of income percentage, it illustrates how deep the obsession is/was). This is probably a good thing because the only thing I really could have done at that point to try and take my system to the next level would have been a sigficantly better CD player, amplifier, or speaker set, which would have meant spending much more money than I could afford to.

At any rate, the interesting thing is that I spent most of my spare time last summer on the various audio forums, and so I see some familiar names among the authors of the comments to this page. Hi, Howie! If only the Zip were here to tell you off...but I digress.

The next great war might as well be fought over the analog vs. digtal, tube vs. solid state, stereo vs. multichannel, extended listening tests vs. ABX tests camps because it's just as good a reason as any. It seems to me that religion causes less bile and flaming than high-end does. To the digital, solid-state technocrats, I'd say that your absolute adherence to the scientific method would make sense if it was being applied to building bridges or tanks or nuclear weapons, but this is audio, and if people somehow get more enjoyment out of music being played back from an LP, amplified by a 7 watt SET rig and piped through big electrostatic speakers (although I realize you'd probably be nuts to try and power anything other than horns with 7 watts), let them do that. Audio is about personal enjoyment; there's little objectivity involved. To the folks on the opposite side of the battleground, I'd like to say that when I compared a CD recording of one of my favorite songs to a pristine LP version, the CD player being a $300 NAD 512 and the TT being a $900 Pro-ject 6.9 w/$300 Goldring 1042, their respective sound quality was not *equal*, but neither one was better than the other. The only way I can justify my adherence to the LP as my favorite format is that I can pick up most of the music that I'm interested in for about $3 per copy instead of $15, and I have a very large amount of vinyl. If you care about sound quality and forget about media costs, the LP just can't compete with the CD in economic terms.

While I'm on the topic, I figured I'd take the time to compare photography and high-end audio as hobbies. In terms of return on investment, I find photography to be much more satisfying. You could blow a whole lifetime's worth of income on audio equipment and you'd still only be listening to a very good approximation of the experience of sitting and listening to other people perform music. Of course, I don't have to tell you that there's a lot to be said for listening to other people perform music. But in an interesting coincidence, I've spend about as much towards my ability to listen to other people play music (stereo gear and actual recordings) as I have towards my ability to perfom music myself (my viola, plus sheet music and lessons). Which do you imagine has brought me more happiness? Which do you think has given me more memories that will last until I am old?

Photography is much the same. Each bit of money one blows on photographic equipment is something that (hopefully) allows you to create better images. I'm personally more proud of the fact that I have the photo gear and skill to make beautiful images of my friends and environment than I am of the fact that I've got a stereo that sounds really, really good.

Maybe I should sell my stereo and buy that Hasselblad...

--Alex

-- Alex H, July 14, 1999

You don't need to spend thousands of dollars to get good sounds. All you guys(AUDIOPHILES???) need is to CLEAN your EARS. Take those TONS of SH.. ! out of your EARS and LISTEN !!!!!!

Tell me the difference between a USD 3000 speaker cable and a USD 50 ones using your ears , not your eyes.

Lots of you use your eyes intead of ears. Well! what do you know .......

-- ALEXANDER T. S., August 10, 1999

How About car stereos? Isn't there someone out there who can recommmend some nice speaker/amp/head unit combinations?

-- Mike Matcho, August 23, 1999
I flunked out of Carnegie Mellon U. In 1977 as a mechanical engineering student. I wanted to design fast, safe, fuel efficient, reliable, hard working cars. I always said that a high tech small engine would do the trick and was always scorned for that thought. Today, my Chevy 3.4 multiport is very pleasurable....anyway...I never became a mechanical engineer but after years of various jobs (cook, warehouse, locksmith, time recorder repairs) I have come full circle and am involved in building systems installations and design and yes, even a tad of engineering. I work with the Simplex Time Recorder Co. as a technical representative. Simplex was once a "punch-clock" company but the bulk of its money is now in commercial fire alarms. Over the past 5 years it has expanded into intercom systems and I am the last surviver in my branch of the various people who were thrown to the wolves in the field to make our intercom projects work. I am now the branch guru. It has been a lot of hard work and sacrifices. Once again...anyway...I have had the pleasure of designing a few auditorium and gymnasium systems for schools. As a previous writer stated, the greatest pleasure is from one's own handiwork. So enough about me, here are some favorite pieces of equipment that I have run into since the abandonment of my father's Macintosh system from the early 60's complete with AR dome tweeters. Peavey makes some great commercial toys and their on the phone tech support is superb. They always have an answer for me. Even after five years of this stuff, I am still paying my dues. Mackie makes a great 16 channel mixer. Valcom has a very reliable intercom system sold through Simplex. I have always had "underdog" cars that I would tweak to make better. (The Plymouth Volare is my favorite.) And whether a sound system is low end or high end, the trick is in the tweaking, and that is where the fun is too. And don't forget about good wiring practices. Our systems have wire running all over the biulding. The smallest wiring problem can cause a major equipment problem (oh the stories of smoked equipment that I could tell). And with that said, I will now impart my opinions on music collection formats... 1) LPs...too much of a pain what with a crazy job, wife, five kids and old cars. However, I do have an old Garrard turntable that I will get a new needle for someday when I have time. 2) CDs...they do seem to have a "hard" sound to them although I haven't ever heard one on a good system without the kids making noise. 3) Cassettes...Great for pirating albums off the radio or for copying your CDs onto something you don't mind getting destroyed in the car. If you make a clean recording from a clean source and play it back on a good system in a good room (my 1990 Buick Century was a decent factory system) a cassette can be very clear and dynamic. Finally, I wish to extend my knowledge to anyone who has questions about commercial audio. You can "E" me at paul.celentano@gte.net

Also, will anybody hire me! I need more money!

Keep listening...Paul

-- Paul G. Celentano, September 5, 1999

I enjoyed this piece and the comments that followed. I too have preferred the analogue sound for many years courtesy of my Rega Planar III turntable and Goldring MM cartridge (Pickup). I have used this setup consistently over the years as the front-end to many permutations of amp and 'speakers and despite being able to afford a better record player (including the Linn Sonndek) I have never heard anything to justify the, significantly, greater outlay.

In 1987 - 88 I owned a very good Denon CD player and even built up a modest collection of some 50 CDs. These sounded rather wonderful for a while but, mysteriously, I just ceased playing the Hi-Fi at all after a few months and whenever I had a spare hour or two the TV or radio would get selected in preference. This continued for some time until some domestic debt forced me to sell an item of Hi-Fi. I could not decide whether the CD or record player should go. I played both for hour to decide which sounded better and the Vinyl won.

Nothing to do with any of the techno-bollocks I read in these responses. The reality was that the Rega with the old black vinyl just made me feel like having a boogie, stop whatever I was doing and play record after record for hours until forced to stop. I have never, ever felt that physical / emotional response to CD and I dont know exactly why. I have listened to numerous CD players at friends homes and in Hi-Fi shops and even listened to Rega's own Planet CD player since selling the Denon, but despite hearing some very impressive sounds indeed, no CD player ever made me feel like a stupid, grinning teenager at his first disco. No CD played version of the lyric: "Get your motor running, head out on the highway..." etc. ever put me, mentally, on anything other than my couch. On to the Rega with the same lyric and I am on a Harley Davidson! The Rega always puts me where the musician leads me. The CD leaves me thinking about nice frequency response, nice lack of background noise, nice convenience... where's the televison remote i'm bored? I can appreciate this is my chemistry reacting and my influences and therefore not applicable to many others.

Thanks for a great photography site I have learnt a lot from it over the last few months as I am only a beginner. (14 months and only 4 prints sold so far.)

-- Trevor Hare, October 17, 1999

Phil,

The most redeeming part of your article is the wonderful nude spread all over your electrostatic speaker. I tried to get my wife to straddle my old AR-3 so I could photograph her but she refused. Just as well.

Steve Bingham

-- Steve Bingham --, October 30, 1999

Hey Phil...

I've noticed that you do a lot of bragging when it comes to things invented by folks who were educated at MIT....

Which person holds the most patents in the USA and even worldwide for that matter? An autistic, high school drop out, Thomas Edison.....

-- Marika Buchberger, November 3, 1999

Well, I have to comment on this. My current $1 / foot Recoton (yes, I'm an "audiophile" and I have, God forbid!, Recoton cables!!) 12 ga. cables sound vastly better than the old 14 ga generic wire I had about three years back. I'm going to upgrade soon to some reasonably priced Kimber cables, and I expect a similar improvement in quality. Cables do make a difference. The music goes through them, and whatever is lost cannot be recovered further down the line. Now, as for $2000 cables, yes, you are insane if you spend that much on wire! The difference between a $1 cable and a $100 cable is huge, but then going to a $2000 cable, I doubt you'd be able to hear the difference without equally expensive speakers and electronics.

Of course, it is a personal taste... he who does not care about sound quality that much will likely not be interested in spending a fortune on a new system - all for an incremental improvement. It should be noted that, like most things, audio equipment follows the "law of diminishing returns". The more you spend, the smaller the improvements are. BUT.. I do think that a $2000 stereo sounds vastly superior to a $500 cheapy, while only somewhat inferior to a $20000 setup.

Poor guys like me (student) who really like their music end up building their own gear... which brings me to my next point - if you have the patience and interest to do a little soldering, you can have a fantastic sounding system for a reasonable price. Beyond that, building your own stuff is extremely rewarding. As a hobby, it comes much closer to Alex's analogy with photography. I will have many happy memories about designing and building audio gear when I am old and grey.

If you want to see how I've built my stuff, I have a website. You can read more about my opinions / experiences there.

A few notes for Philip:

Well, I too had no idea you were into hi-fi, till I stumbled upon this page. It seems there's a breed of 'us' who share many common interests... (eg photography, synicism towards the academic world etc.. ;)

I did notice a small technicality I'd like to point out regarding ESLs (electrostatic speakers)... Although you do get a uniform electric field between parallel plates, there are actually two separate electric fields in the ESL. Each goes between the constant-charge diaphragm and the adjacent grille. Since the diaphragm moves, the distances (d) vary. And, since E drops off with 1/d, the fields are not linear. They only get close to linear at very small displacements. This is another reason why ESLs don't do bass too well... though they are still much more linear than dynamic drivers.

You may be interested to know that there is a devout following of the original Qaud ESL. Many even prefer it over the newer Quad with the delay-line/ring radiator design you mention.

Anyway, I'd love to write more, but I have to go... take a peek at my website. It's not really finished yet, but there's enough to wet your tastebuds.

PS: I love the link at the bottom of the page. It's spot-on! Highly recommended reading!

Cheers,

-- Chad Simpson, November 25, 1999

I enjoyed your page, especially the nice photo of the woman in front of the electrostat. The LP record is still vastly superior to the CD for any sort of long term enjoyable listening. CD's are good for the car and parties where one does not want to change the record. I concur that Revel speakers sound awful. Recently I was "treated" to hearing their $15k model with about $30k worth of cables and electronics, the sound was almost unlistenable.

-- aleksey karamazov, December 27, 1999
I am also surprised to find that you are interested in high-end audio. Reading your articles on this site, I wish that I could live your life in my next life if there is one. You have everything that I'm dreaming about: MIT education, successful career, exciting hobbies and a very informative website. The only "thing" you need now is a good wife :-)

I think high-end audio and photography share many common traits. The main difference is that high-end audio is so snobbish that it really turns people off. On the other hand, photo can never reproduce an image that is a replica to the original. After having done my Skaaning loudspeakers, Audio Note Kit-1 SET, I am now moving to the cameras. Last year, I bought a Nikon 90 but was not so excited. I know Hasselbald will be the ONE.

Again, you are a great man, my role model!



-- yongfei lin, March 10, 2000

Hey guys! Wise up to the revolution. Walkallen changes the picture. Now you don't have to be rich or famous to have the very best in audio. All tube CD player - the Reed Solomon D/A directly feeds into 12aux's. From there into a EL34 based integrated amp; from through great cable into a set of monitor speakers sporting a SEAS tweeter and Peerless Mid Bass. A tube based closely matched system for the price of a Bose Life Style product. The problem is figuring how to get on the waiting list.

Tube still rule. Transisters' extremely low output impedance will always defeat their capabilities in handling a signal bandwidth of a full 8 octaves.

-- J. Thomas Walker, March 26, 2000

Philip,

It's encouraging to read another audiophile's opinion (especially one that I happen to agree with) regarding the low-frequency attributes of electrostatic loudspeakers (ESLs). I am an owner of Sound Lab electrostatics (since 1983) and a performing musician (electric bass). I mention the musician aspect to emphasize the fact that I am a genuine bass freak!

Contrary to the popular belief that ESLs are weak in the low range, in fact, Sound Labs actually excel in this region. I believe the primary explanation for this lies in their superior "timbral accuracy"; that is, their ability to more accurately reproduce the natural timbre of a given musical voice. While an ESL's timbral accuracy surpasses that of conventional speakers throughout the entire frequency spectrum, the low frequency region is an area where they really shine. A good example of this is in the reproduction of my favorite musical instrument, the "upright" bass. This instrument is difficult to record and difficult to reproduce. A conventional loudspeaker will often times sound muddy and labored in its efforts to make this instrument sound realistic. A full-range ESL will not only reproduce the fundamental tones, but will also more accurately reproduce the overtones, which are an essential part of the sonic signature of the upright bass. The result is a cleaner, more well defined and overall truer sound.

Perhaps the primary reason for Sound Lab's superior timbral accuracy has to do with the fact that they employ a full-range element as opposed to conventional speakers which utilize cabinets, multiple cone drivers and crossovers, all of which create their own sonic shortcomings (e.g. comb-filtering?). One of your "contributors" suggests that comb-filtering can result from a large surface radiator having to interact with small-area receptors (ears), and that waves coming from large surfaces do not get to the ears at the same time. Hmmm  I thought comb-filtering resulted from interaction between multiple drivers. Maybe someone can clue me in on this one.

Another writer says, "ESLs don't do bass well" because of their limited displacement area, but then continues, "they are still much more linear than dynamic drivers" (perhaps due to timbral accuracy?).

The area where ESLs may not perform as well as conventional speakers is in their relatively limited dynamic range. For example, a close-miked bass drum or an electronic bass drum reproduced through an ESL generally will not deliver the same visceral impact as a good quality, large cone driver. There is a trade-off here; if your listening preferences tend toward rap, techno, or recordings of freight trains and jet plane take-offs, then a box design may be the thing for you. However, if you listen to just about anything else, then you might want to consider a well designed ESL, which is a more accurate, less aurally fatiguing, transparent transducer capable of reproducing a wide soundstage, good imaging and excellent bass response.

I have been hanging around Dr. West's place for about 20 years now and I have seen a lot of A1s, but never such a good-looking pair as the ones that are pictured on your website. (Wait a minute, was that a pair?) Just goes to show that when it comes to accurate low-frequency articulation, it's the bottom line that counts!

Steve Floor

Salt Lake City, Utah

-- Steve Floor, April 21, 2000

Cheers Phil, amazed to see you're into Hi-Fi as well.

==START OF LAME CD VS LP STUFF==

The LP vs CD debate has raged for years, and although I myself will probibly never own any LP gear aside from the technics 1200 to use with vynal only electronica, I am convinced there is some merit to what LP purists claim.

In my own digging, the fundamental problem seems to be that the average LP weither modern or vintage, was mastered with much more skill and care than many cd's today. Use your PC to block capture some data from some of your cd's.. you'll see all kinds of clipping and other simple mistakes. I once had someone tell me that I should always let the signal clip a little bit when mastering a cd, since that'll give more detail accross the rest of the average level audio. True, but getting a couple percent more detail in mid level passages isn't worth my amp and speaker system having to try and deal with a short term DC signal every time a bass transient comes accross.

The logarithmic sampling problem is a big deal, and hopefully it'll be fixed by the various 24bit/96khz standards comming out.

There is signifigant research that indicates that humans use information greater than 20khz as a guide in emotional nuance. A simple proof of this is that we can easily hear a snapping twig, even though the transient is shorter in duration than one periord of a 40khz square wave. The 20khz limit is more a matter of the brains processing of audio than the ear's function itself.

Get this one.. human hearing can actually resolve below the quantum noise level. Pick up a book and read about it, it's true, and investigation of it is spawning some interesting research and results in EE.

==END OF LAME CD VS LP STUFF==

Phill, if you like the delay line quads and other electrostatics, you might try out a pair of Mangers. They're a 12" diameter disk, and need to be boxed (coloration doesn't seem to be much of a problem). You'll need to pair them with a sub of some sort to handle below around 250hz. Mangers use a system of magnets to produce concentric waves that travel radially in the diaphram, much like the delayed quad, but to a much higher degree of precision. They do have their dispersion problems at low frequencies, but they fair much better than most electrostatics. They can produce stunningly high levels, up to 116dB if you like.

Also, some ribbons are only connected at the top and bottom, which are usually called "true ribbons". Others are attached at multiple points along the length, usally resulting in a more sturdy arrangement (at the cost of quality). 50" BG ribbons sound awsome, and are definately worth checking out.

There's also a small ribbon tweater called the Raven that is just amazing. You'll need to cross it over in a traditional 2way or 3way design, but if done well, this can sound excelent.

My perspective is from DIY, so I tend to roll my own.. all of these componants are available in finished products as well (I believe).

-- jason watkins, May 12, 2000

Philip, I realize this is your site and you have every right to express your opinions here. I can understand your point of view, but only to a limited extent. To me, this sounds somewhat like "Let them eat cake!". I would truly love to have the freedom to choose among products that cost thousands of dollars each and decide which one best reproduces the brilliant highs on a certain LP. Unfortunately, I don't have that freedom. But I do strive to get the best equipment I can, even though it usually includes saving for several months or more to get each part or component. I have come to rely on Consumer Reports in giving me an unbiased report and evaluation on products. For those of us wanting a true reproduction of our music and limited funds to work with, flat frequency response is a good starting point. Consumer Reports does this for me in their speaker reviews. Years ago, they rated a good needle and cartridge combination that brought a new listening experience to me. All my old LP's suddenly sounded better. Consumer Reports may not rate the products you buy, but they do mine.

I appreciate all you have done for those of us lucky enough to find photo.net and thoroughly enjoy reading the things here. If only you would give me stereo(without the high dollar phile) recommendations, I wouldn't have to rely on Consumer Reports.

John Kampe

-- John Kampe, May 15, 2000

I love seeing analog guys and digital guys beating the shit out of each other.

This said, I agree that the CD standard is not perfect. However, as digital-to-analog technology has progressed over the years, CDs have become better and better sounding. The limit used to be the DAC, and now that DACs have evolved, the limit is more in the sampling rate and 16 bits. With DVD, we can expect interesting stuff. Personally, I'm expecting much from the full-digital amplifier that will probably appear in the following years.

For those who claim to be poor, and thus despise audiophiles, I will remind that you can get high-grade sound from a pair of $80-headphones plugged in a $100-portable CD Player, and go high-end with a phone amp, the whole thing will cost you 1/20th of the price of a comparable lourspeaker/amp/cd player setup. You should try mid-grade Sennheisers (~$80) and plug them in one of the new Panasonic portable CD Players (the one with 50 hours playback and no remote control). No amp, nice sound. Really cool for the price. Negligible weight. Plus, the 'phones really keep your ears warm in winter. Or, try Koss Porta Pro Jr 'phones if you like your music hot 'n kickin' : $30, sounds better as top-of-the line Sony shit. (that means, quite good for $30 !) If your aspirations are higher, take the best Sennheisers and a good amp (Not headroom's, please), these are perfect.

There is a sad thing about digital though, and it's called MP3. Of course, MP3 is really interesting for listening to music samples over the Internet while in 'seeking new sonic horizons' mode. But i shiver at the thought that people will actually one day (very soon) buy music online and download it compressed.

I have a Soundblaster Live, which is said to be the best-sounding PC sound-card that doesn't cost you an arm. I can believe this claim, the thing actually sounds very good for a soundcard (no match for a good CD player, of course). With $30 headphones plugged in the soundcard, (Koss Porta Pro's) the difference is striking between CDs and MP3's. MP3's sound really bad. I would even venture up to the point that they suck. Curiously though, MP3's sound as bad at 384 kbps than at 128. All detail in highs is lost, cymbals for instance are utterly destroyed, turning all expert drummers into cheap beat boxes ; female voices are scrapped, and generally most pleasure is taken out from the music.

I then listened to MP3's on my stereo, which is quite "audiophile" (Marantz CD-player, Triangle speakers, etc) by burning, on the same CD, raw tracks and encoded/decoded ones. MP3's still sounded bad, but the original tracks sounded much better than on the soundcard (of course), which made the difference even more striking.

I made a blind test by asking someone to swap tracks and note track numbers and my answers. I could tell MP3's quite easily, even on rock'n'roll tracks. Even just on a drum solo. On Brad Meldhau's jazz trio, I could hear no difference on the first piano notes, but the bass and the drums were disfigured.

So, MP3 might be okay for crap music that is badly recorded, and with voices already destroyed by lotsa kewl effects (reverb, high boost) i.e. Celine Dion, Maria Carey, all R&B music, PuffDaddy, etc.

For me, no MP3 thanks.

And please remember that the only way to measure the performance of a system is the pleasure you get from listening to it. Does it make your spine shiver ? Yes ? Then you don't care if it's a cheapo panasonic CD player with a $30-headphones, or a $5000 setup. If it kills your pleasure, no matter how much it costs, then it's crap.

-- Pierre-Frederic Caillaud, June 12, 2000

Anybody who thinks CD's sound as good as (or better than) LP's has obviously not made the comparison on good equipment. Expensive perhaps, but not good. Lots of expensive, high-end stuff is much more suitable for looking at than listening to.

I did an interesting listening test once. Using good amps, cables, CD player, and speakers, we started off with a decent turntable, better than most people would ever own. The LP sounded comparable to the CD. A better TT, at twice the price, revealed clear differences. The next step up was a revelation. The turntable/needle combination alone cost more than most people pay for their entire stereo. No wonder the masses think that CD's are great--they do sound better on their systems, in addition to the obvious advantages in handling, cleaning, and mobility.

A note on cables. One of the best (and cheapest!) speaker cables you can get is plain telephone wire. This is because it is solid core, not braided. If you can afford about $2/foot, there's a special solid core speaker cable which is probably better than anything you can find at any price. They also make patch cables which are similar but smaller. See http://www.reson.ch/home/kabel/kabel.html for more information (in German).

Believe it or not, this principle also extends to the power cords. A good amplifier will sound better (more "punch") if it's power cable is solid core. Obviously the transient response of a solid core cable is better than a braided cable, which also tells you why the signal cables should be solid core too. Note that such power cables are often illegal since the solid core cable can be dangerous (break, short-circuit, fire) if flexed enough. The power cables on stereo equipment generally don't move around a lot, so the risk is more theoretical than real as long as you don't abuse them.

-- Norman Azadian, September 6, 2000

I liked your point about hifi, I pretty much agree with all these.

As for CD/LP/SACD/DVD-A format war, in my opinion the deciding factors are: how big a collection of LP/CD whatever you have, and how much you want to spend on hardware. Top LP playback can be better then top CD playback, but at about 10 times the price. If we accept only "good" LP playback, the price difference is much less, if not turn over in favor of LP. The point behind technical evolution might just be cutting down the price for the same or similar enjoyment. Even if I consider CD format as a technically very bad solution, I think studio recording, mastering etc counts more than the format itself. Still, the weakest links are the microphones and the speakers.

As for speaker choice, I think one of the most important factors is your room. Size, wall material, carpets, curtains, furnitures etc. American speakers often don't sound good in Europe and vice versa. There are a few speakers which I had the chance to hear in various kinds of room. They all sounded different in different rooms, and I even if I couldn't say which speaker was better I could say which room was better (BTW wooden houses with high ceilings seem to offer the most audiophile sound :-)). It is more important to choose the one which works best for you in your room. Recent experience: in what concerns sheer musical pleasure, a venerable studio monitor from the 70's kicked off the B&W Nautilus 802s, both with proper amplification (which happened to be a conrad johnson tube amp for the Yamaha NS-1000M and a Chord powerhorse for the N802). Although I don't particularly like either speaker's etched presentation, I know the N802 could offer much more in a better (for them) room. Even if amplification was proper, the room didn't offer good conditions for the N802s. Even if I admit Bob Carver could make sound a transistor amp like a cj tube amp, I doubt he or anyone else could make sound a Quad ESL like a N802 or vice-versa. There are inherent limitations there. With electrostatics, room acoustics and positioning is even more critical. But you always can make your room sound better.

The main thing about hi-end hifi evolution seems that we slowly learned how to ensure better/optimal working conditions for various building blocks (let it be a cartridge, speaker driver, DAC, valve or transistor). Just take a look to high-end CD players, containing the same parts as their mid-fi counterparts, but maybe in different "environments". Now it seems that this is a stable principle from equipments, components down to materials used. A synergistic system is often better for a fraction of price then a randomly chosen hi-end system. Everyone is searching CD-player, speaker, amp "for their system". Therefore I am sceptic about ABX tests: it is practically infeasible to offer optimal conditions for ALL of the tested components. We miss an _objective_ way of testing. Additionally you usually don't have the time to make a stable choice. If I am allowed to stay 2-3 weeks with a component, I pretty much can feel the difference, provided there's any. But making an early decision could be a mixed cake. In my experience hifi mags are usually unable to pick out a component's real (musical) strengths or flaws. They just tell how they performed in their environment. Nonetheless, if there is several years consistent experience with a component, than you can start trusting it.

I also don't like when someone tells me about the law of diminishing returns in hifi. Most of the electronic components sound within 20% of performance (measured according to usual audiophile terms like bass, treble, imaging, etc), and most hi-end products fall in a 5% range. But those 5% could mean worlds of difference in subjective listening pleasure. Just because those audiophile terms and procents mean nothing relevant to the music. Yet there are components you miss if they're not there - very much alike your experience with the preamp. So I am still stuck with my tube amps and home-made or modified speakers, 'cause I still didn't find better (for my budget).

If music is what counts, and you attend concerts, you pretty much know what "good sound" is and where the compromises should be made. No need for someone tells you. And the choice is always ours. If we admit without critics what hifi-mags or others say, we deserve our fate of buying everything according to (subjective) rankings.

-- Zoltan Kis, October 12, 2000

I just happened by your page. I have no idea whether you actually heard Harry Pearson's Infinity IRS system, but I did, and I can assure it DID NOT sound "really bad". In fact it sounded quite glorious. I had the opportunity to hear the system on three different listening sessions: the speakers wee driven with the Audio Research SP11 Mk11, Jadis or VTL amps, Goldmund turntable. Another session we listened to the Infinity Betas driven by VTL. I have never heard systems anywhere, including my own listening room, that sounded anywhere near as good as Harry's house. So we'll just have to agree to disagree :-)

-- Craig Simon, October 18, 2000
To answer Craig's question above... Yes, I've heard the IRS. Once in a shop and once in Harry Pearson's home. In both cases the sound quality was underwhelming and artificial.

-- Philip Greenspun, November 10, 2000

Let's take an alternative look at the Digital (CD) vs. Analogue (LP) question. Let's look at a picture.

How many of you see a rectangle with 377 rows of 227 square pixels, where the color of each pixel is limited to a set of 16777216? How many of you see a woman in front of a huge speaker?

If You look real good (low screen resolution helps), You will see that in fact the object above is a collection of pixels, so the first statement is correct. However, my brain (for some reason) disregards that and combines the information in those pixels, to a picture of a beautiful woman. Furthermore, that happens without the knowledge of my consciousness!

What is my point? Analogue technology may sound better that digital, but it is hard to maintain, unstable and more expensive. You must ask Yourself, are You willing to pay significantly higher cost and extra effort for a slightly better analogue system, which in most cases (as demonstrated above) may not be distinguishable from it's digital counterpart.

There can be some excuses for buying an expensive analogue system:

  • I have a lot of money; I need to show that somehow!
  • I need to have something my friend doesn't have!
  • I don't care whether it sounds better or worse that my firend's $200 super-discount system, as long as I think, it is better, I am happy!
  • Hi-Fi is my hobby - price is not the issue.

    There is one quality that the LP, nor any analogue device, will ever be able to achieve. That is error correction! Scratch an LP, and it is damaged forever. Scratch a DVD (CDs unfortunately does not have CRC code), and it will play as good as it did before!

     

    Just a brief comment on the speakers discussion. No matter whether You choose an electrostatic or old-fashioned, they all have two disadvantages. First, it matters where you are compared to the speakers. In other words, the best sound is experienced if You are in the center in front of the speakers, and the acoustics in the room are correct. Second, speakers are loud, which disturbs the environment. A girlfriend or the neighbor will be very unhappy if You play loud music 3.30 in the morning (while developing overdue web project).

    A possible solution is to use headphones, however good headphones (I use Sennheiser) are clumsy, and the cable restricts Your movement. The right solution to the speakers problem is to get an electrode (or some kind of device) directly implanted in Your brain. Like in "The Matrix", but much more portable. This will give a perfect sound reproduction, perfect noise reduction and perfect isolation of and from the environment. Unfortunately, such device has not been build yet!



    -- Todor Todorov, November 12, 2000
  • The 16 bit linear quantization used to produce CDs does more adversely affect the signal to quantization noise ratio when the signal is small becuase the quantization noise is constant in a linear system.

    u-Law and A-Law companding was used by the phone companies worldwide to squeeze more performance out of an 8 bit PCM system. Your criticism of the audio CD format is valid.

    However, don't we see logrithmically, too? Couldn't the same criticism be leveled against video card, scanner, and digital camera manufactures? I would guess that a logrithmic system would produce, for example, less shadow noise, in a scanner.

    -- Mike Morgan, November 26, 2000

    Many years ago, when CDs were first coming in, I worked for a high-end audio salon in New York (which shall remain nameless). We commonly used to seat customers in front of the speakers and play a CD and an LP of the same recording...then ask them which was the better sounding version. They invariably chose the LP version (almost always assuming it to be the CD version!) as the better of the two. This real-world AB comparison has more validity for me than any psuedo-scientific ABX comparison or, for that matter, any recitation of specifications and/or statistics purporting to 'prove' that CDs must be superior or that nothing of significance happens above 20MHz.

    I'd also like to point out that while there are indeed many 'tweakos' in the audiophile world and also many foolish fads, the truth is that some people have better ears than others, hear more sound, can determine more subtle nuances in music...they really don't deserve the vilification and derision they have been subjected to. I think we all need to be a bit more tolerant.

    Last, a word or two about the music: it's all about the music, people! I can't tell you how many terrible performances I've listened to that have been touted as 'audiophile grade'. I would far rather listen to an old Furtwangler recording of the Beethoven 7th with all its scratches and hiss...and its mighty, soulful performance than a SACD of the latest version by any of the myriad of gutless, insipid 'artistes' that are inflicted on us today.

    -- Craig Della Penna, December 5, 2000

    I applaud the spirit and participation extended by everybody.

    Audiophiles are psychologically sophisticated and mentally challenged. I am one of them. We deserve recognition and better treatments from our wives since this hobby of ours keep us home.

    We usually think it makes more sense to dig out the most deserving product and buy it when we have money. But it is very exciting to get a good deal on a state-of-the-art product and actually have it becoming part of our system. It sometimes is a different issue whether it will sound good in our system or not. We just got to know, didn't we ?

    "Oh yeah, my old Celestion SL700 was state-of-the-art; but wouldn't it be more fun if I can also have the Genesis VI ?!" Guess what would happen if one pair of used Genesis VI does become available for less than one third of the $9,000 original retail ?

    We always want better things. Cars, TVs, watches, audio...etc.

    Maybe it has to do with my much-deprived childhood. I mean, now I want everything.

    Of course, if you are not yet hooked by the sight of those gorgeous -looking gears shimmering in someone's picturesque sound room, don't read on. You're still here ? Now, it's in your mind.

    I admit the amount of money I poured into audio (with my wife's reluctant approval) is ridiculous. But she also commented passionately more than a few times on how loving and caring I become when I tried my darnest hard in brainwashing her, and how cute I was when my eyes were shining with delight and excitement....at those toys.

    As for music, it sounds beautiful when it is given proper treatment by the finest audio components available !

    -- Constantine Soo, December 5, 2000

    About a month ago I bought a pair of Sound Lab A1 speakers from Phillip. I love these speakers. I have had many great speakers in my 30 year quest for the musical holy grail including most recently Genesis 300's and I would put these right at the top. What I find especially interesting, is that I have them in a very small space, and they don't ever seem to overwhelm, regardless of how loud they are played. In addition, they can play very low and still be satisfying. They are completely natural sounding, I would urge anyone interested in great sound to hunt out these remarkable speakers for a listen.



    -- Edward Schneider, January 29, 2001

    If you like the sound of analog, then you really should give another British audio manufacturer a go: Naim. They make wonderful amplifiers, CD players and speakers. Try the NAP 500 amplifier, the CDS-II CD player and the utterly amazing DBL speakers. The Naim CD player is the only one that I know that can sound like analog.

    Enjoy the music ... Simon

    -- Simon Crosland, February 21, 2001

    Speakers

    While I greatly enjoy the photo.net site, I only found this high-end audio page today. I thought I'd add a few comments.

    I found it interesting that you think time-domain distortions are so important, but don't discuss the speakers that also believe the same, Vandersteen and Thiel. Another person who feels the same about time-domain distortions is Richard Hardesty of Widescreen Review and The Audio Perfectionist. In the latest issue of the Perfectionist, Hardesty discusses measurements. He agrees that frequency response isn't the only test that should be done, but points out that speakers that aren't flat can't adequately reproduce music. But impulse response and square wave reproductions are also important.

    Hardesty then presents the measurements of 5 speakers, including two electrostatics, two dynamic speakers, and the Magneplanars. He shows that none of the five tested speakers measure well and cannot reproduce sounds accurately. He will present the measurements of accurate speakers next issue, but, from other comments he has made, I suspect they will include models from Vandersteen, Thiel, and Dunlavy.

    Hardesty also explains why he thinks planars are inadequate to the reproduction of music (including the non-linearity of planars and electrostatics). He states that many people who hear electrostatics believe they are better because they have different distortions than dynamic speakers, not because they are free from distortion. He has a good journal. He has some interesting thoughts on subwoofers and amplifiers that I haven't heard before, but make sense. I am not affiliated with it, I am just a subscriber. But high-end audio buffs should check it out.

    I must say that Phillip G. has quite a life. MIT Ph.D.; published author; photographer; started own successful company; been to Harry Pearson's house :-). I am also surprised, as others have noted, as to his interest in high-end audio, as I thought one expensive hobby is enough for most people. (Although Harry Pearson is a photographer as well, he used to publish his photos on the back page of TAS. I guess photography and high-end audio have many things in common.)

    -- Tom D, March 29, 2001

    If you are listening to MP3's and you cannot hear the difference when compared to a real CD, go to your local livestock store like Best Buy or Circuit City and buy the cheapest system. They come with pretty lights and everything. For you folks, spending anything on hi-fi would be like a person in a wheelchair buying a mountain bike.

    LP vs CD Ten years ago, there was no question. LP BLEW CD AWAY! Things are changing, but the fact remains, unless the recording has been remixed for CD, I prefer my LP. (Steve Miller Fly Like an Eagle is a prime example.) LP good, CD BAD! Yes, dust clicks and all, you will have to kill me to get my LP copy of Willy Deville "Miracle" or my 2 LP copies of Roger Waters "Amused to Death." (This LP is a favorite, but the CD SUCKS!!!!! Roger........what have you done??)

    Shun Mook, Shooewn Puke, Tice Clocks and other green pen ideas......

    Give me a break! The day I spend more on a clock than a cartridge to get good sound is the day I will start to take Haldol. A piece of gear is built and has a certain character. A change in it is not always a positive one. If you need 500.00 worth of outboard gear to "tune" your amp. Buy a new amp.

    There are comments above about not being able to hear the difference in source gear. Get real speakers and set them up right, or buy some Q-tips.

    Once you have real speakers, ask yourself this question when you are listening to gear. "Am I liking this due to its sound, or is its look making me prejudice?" (I will never forget the little amp a friend of mine covered and had in place of his Marantz 8B's.)He brought me over and under the box was this "mystery amp". The box was 2 feet high and 3 feet wide. The amp drove his full Sequerra system to amazing levels with more current on tap than I had ever heard. Better yet, its detailed presentation was not harsh. It was more musical than I had EVER heard his system before. It blew the 8B's away in EVERY way. I was sure he would remove the box to reveal a CJ $10K component, or a big Krell. He did lift the box as he laughed heartily and smiled at me. Before my eyes, was a NAIM NAP/140. In looks, it lost...big time! (It is about the size of a car stereo). In sound there was no contest. (I don't know how NAIM rates gear, but that is the most torque I have ever heard from a sub 50 watt amplifier. I had a similar experience with the PRO AC Tablettes that sit atop thier home welded stands in my living room. Boy, my B&W DM7's looked nice. But when I closed my eyes and LISTENED, there was no contest. (Bass isn't everything.....) Remember, it's not the size (or the shine) that counts, its what it SOUNDS like. Van Alstine gear is a prime example of this. It does not look as pretty as a nice shiny Sonic Frontiers amp. But I bet it spends more time in your system than in the shop. Bet it sounds better too.

    Those of you who are unable to understand why folks like LP's over CD's in some circumstances should do the following. 1. Get a CD copy of Steve Miller Fly Like an Eagle. 2. Go on ebay and buy a copy of the album in decent shape. 3. Obtain a REGA Planar 2 (you dont even need to go to a Planar 3 for this test). Buy a budget REGA or Grado cartridge and have someone who knows what they are doing install it. (This setup in whole should cost you under 300.00 used table, new cartridge). (Make sure you dont have a newer Sony reciever with a .45 cent phono section.) 4. Sit down and listen to both IN FULL. 5. Write me an email and tell me you now understand. If you don't, Circuit City has a super system for you and you will have an easy time getting rid of that table to all of the "esoteric analog freaks" out there.



    -- Jerry Stratton, August 12, 2001

    [Here comes a long post!]

    Hi there,

    In response to the above post, Ed I appreciate the mention :) Ed has been a major influence on me as I have become more and more entrenched in the world of hi-fi. He's a wonderfully kind and knowledgeable individual, with a level head and a lot more common sense than most audiophiles. He's also got a remarkable pair of ears on him, and exceptional taste in music. But yes he does have one UGLY pair of speakers ;) lol

    And just to clarify it's a JMW tonearm not JME, but it's not really a big deal... because I'm sure if anybody who submitted to this page knew what that tonearm cost they'd ridicule me for hours! VPI is not an example of a good value in hi-fi. The stuff is pretty expensive. They do make some entry level turntables for like $1500 or so that are better than most anything else out there, but the stuff they are most known for is much more expensive (TNT, Aries, etc.)

    In any event. I read the contents of this page with considerable interest. I am fairly new to the world of high end audio. I'm a youngster, in my mid twenties. Thus I was not around for a lot of the stuff people discuss, and one would think I'd be a digital advocate simply by birth. I got into this stuff because I love music, always have, always will, and also am a technology person so I have an interest in combining the two somehow.

    Before I begin I'd like to concur with Ed. 90% of what is out there is total crap, regardless of whether it's Sony or some other high end company with a fancy ass logo. It's really a sad and corrupt industry these days, but if you have good ears, common sense, and a sincere love of MUSIC and not GEAR you can avoid a lot of that. For starters ignore most every audio publication out there ;) lol

    Now, without sounding conceited, I think I have a pretty damn good pair of ears. I have plenty of faults to compensate. But my ears are pretty good, and I have confirmed this in a variety of environments using a variety of methods. I am a musician, and I LOVE music more than anything in the world. I attend the Symphony at least once a month, often much more frequently. I can't get enough of live jazz here in Chicago either. Music is the most enjoyable aspect of life for me. That should give you a backdrop to my decision to become an audiophile. I really, truly, am in this for the music unlike a lot of the market driven chumps out there.

    It is thus only logical that I should try and reproduce it as well as possible in my own living room. I have a giant music library and I want it to sound as good as possible because there is virtually always music playing in my living room. I am not an audiophile nut ball beacuse I don't believe in Shatki stones, Shun Mook dog-doo, cost no object cables, CD paint and all that other bullshit. What I do believe is that as with all things in life some products are of a higher quality than others.

    Some people are really into wine. Cigars too. That sort of stuff. Some folks are willing to spend $200 on a bottle of French wine. Others think that's stupid. Many folks claim they can taste the difference between all these different bottles of wine at different price points, or even at the same price point from different regions. Many people can't taste those differences. Same for cigars. Same for cognac, port, other exotic imported liquors. I had a friend who sat down and ordered a $200 glass of cognac. He's really into this stuff. I can't taste the difference between most of those cognacs, and personally I wouldn't spend my money on that. I'd rather spend it on music - because I CAN discern differences there. But maybe my cognac loving friend can't.

    Some folks are into exotic cars, designer clothing, etc. Each to his own. We all have our own little obsessions and many of them are influenced by our own personal tastes and ability to discern differences. Maybe that makes each of us a fanatic in our own unique way. Fine by me - I think life is much more fun that way.

    We are talking about a consumer market here folks. Yes I love music and that is why I am into hi-fi equipment. But let's get realistic... we are talking about supply and demand, advertising, marketing, consumerism. Many high end audio products are superior to their mid-fi or mass produced counterparts. There is no question that a $200 Sony receiver does not sound as good as my $6500 amplifier. No question. I seriously doubt that anybody with average or better hearing would argue with me on that. However, part of what I paid for is status, looks, etc. No question there either. But because the amplifiers I own are the best I have ever heard, period, I am willing to pay more.

    The question to ask is not whether the $6500 vs. $200 amplifier debate is total bullshit, but at what point can you approach the sound so closely that according to your personal listening taste, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and you are no longer enticed to spend more. For some people that might be $500, for some it might be $5000. It really depends on your ears, your listening taste, your listening habits (do you sit down on your couch and do nothing but listen or do you listen to music while cooking dinner in the other room?) and a host of other factors.

    People are different - we have different lifestyles, needs, wants, and means. No opinion voiced here has been "right" or "wrong" - except for those which have labelled others as "right" or "wrong". Those are clearly "wrong". Got it?

    LPs vs. CDs...

    I just had my best friend visiting here in Chicago (who incidentally is pursuing a graduate degree at MIT) and he is very skeptical about all this nonsense. He listens to MP3s on his computer, thinks I'm a total nut and wanted to give my system a run for the money and see if I was full of crap or whether I was actually on to something.

    We did double blind A/B tests on records, CDs, etc. We are both pretty bright guys with a good grasp of the scientific method. We tested everything as precisely as we could and guess what? He was amazed. He thoroughly enjoyed the sound of the LPs and admitted that they sounded better than he CDs in obvious, dramatic ways. The equipment used for playback was comparable (in other words the CD player was very expensive and the best I've ever heard, and the same goes for the turntable setup). The material was all superbly mastered regardless of formats. The differences were quite audible.

    But LPs are a ROYAL pain in the ass. No argument there. Storage, care, wear, noise, static... YUCK. They are the bane of my existence in one sense, and yet I love the sound and also their historical value (I am pursuing a Ph.D in history) in the sense that some albums aren't available on CD, and in many cases the LP contains a lot of cool info and packaging that the CD does not. This is superficial and secondary to the sound, but it still influences my decision to tolerate all the hassle of LPs.

    But CDs CAN sound damn good. The big problem with them is the mastering process. Most CDs sound awful because they are mass produced using gazillionth generation masters, and as has been mentioned the care taken in mastering is, well, not really care at all. Most of them are mixed to sound good on a walkman or car stereo, which means the bass is bloated and usually the vocals are all clouded.

    If you get good source material, you can resolve a lot of this. XRCDs are an excellent example. They sound AWESOME. They are the closest to vinyl I have ever heard. VERY close. I did some blind A/B tests with an XRCD and an LP (non fancy LP, just standard issue) and only if you were really paying attention and listening for the faintest details (brushes on a cymbal or snare drum) could you make out any difference. Try out some XRCDs. The music catalog is awesome and the quality of the mastering is just absolutely unprecedented.

    CD players do make a difference as well, but the law of diminishing returns takes effect pretty quickly. Past $1000 you start to see almost no benefit in investing more unless you are obsessive. I fall into that category. For years I had an NAD 515 CD switcher (got it for about $300) because I couldn't find anything that sounded better for $1k or less. Then I decided to up my budget and things did change. My current player of choice is the Electrocompaniet EMC-1 which is a $4k player I snagged for $2200. It is the finest CD player I've ever heard and the difference between that and my NAD is quite audible to my ears but admittedly MUCH more subtle than the differences between LP and CD, or between CD and XRCD.

    MP3...

    Again my buddy from MIT and I ran some tests. I maintain that MP3 generally sounds like dog doo. When you listen on a computer through $15 speakers with your fan running and a crappy sound card as the A/D converter, then I suppose it doesn't much matter. But the fact of the matter is that compression is compression, and in the case of MP3 we are talking about lossy compression. Much like JPEG, the compressed version cannot be magically turned into the original. When you compress an image using JPEG if you crank up the quality meter you can get a pretty good compressed image out of the engine. Take the quality meter down and you start to see obvious visual degradation.

    MP3 is no different. If you sample high enough you can get around most of the sonic degradation. The better your hi-fi system the higher you must sample, naturally, because you have the resolution to expose the compromises incurred by the compression.

    The conclusions we drew? My friend and I both felt that much past 256 kb/s you couldn't really distinguish between the MP3 and the original CD. That's on my system, which is pretty high resolution. Below 256 we could both hear differences on my system. 224 was pretty close on some material but it varied a bit and for some songs you could hear big differences. 192 was no contest. 128 isn't even worth discussing. People who say they can't hear a difference at 128 are listening on a system with insufficient resolution. I don't mean to thumb my nose at those folks because it's not a priority or financial possibility for many folks to assemble a system with that sort of resolution, but the above statement is true nevertheless. Consider that Rio and most of those gizmos don't have sufficient storage to hold MP3s encoded much above 64 kb/s. Then again using the headphones they come with it probably doesn't matter much.

    Good sound on a budget - definitely possible. If you want help with this or just want to discuss, email me and I'd be happy to talk. I'd rather not go on any more than I have here already because I've already ranted quite a bit.

    Pardon the length of this post but there was a lot to talk about here. I am generally impressed at people's open mindedness but some folks really do need to take a deep breath and step back a bit. Audiophiles aren't drug addicts. I spend a LOT of money on CDs and LPs, and also on equipment (less - but still a lot). It's not cocaine folks. I think it's a much more sensible investment than, say cigarrettes (which add up over the cost of a year), but I'm sure that remark will piss a lot of folks off right there. If you don't think it's worth it, that's fine. But I'm not offending anybody else in my thoughts, words, or deeds. I support and patronize the arts generously, don't pirate albums, and share my passion for music with all those who wish to share theirs with me.

    For those of you who dislike audiophiles or think that we are nuts I suggest you go see the play Art. It's a WONDERFUL play which discusses a related issue. The plot entails a gentleman who buys a painting he finds profound and captivating. His friends come to see it and it turns out to be a "white canvas with white stripes". He sees it - they don't. The play unfolds into a wonderful discussion among the three which is entertaining (some really really funny dialog) but enlightening at the same time.

    The point is that if these different interpretations of life didn't exist this would be one boring world, and one boring life to live. Respect one another and acknoweldge that everybody has different values, senses, and passions.

    --Ev

    -- Evan Trent, August 13, 2001

    The World’s Ugliest Speaker?


    As an introduction, I have been listening to and enjoying many different types of audio equipment for over 30 years, and there are not too many forms of musical reproduction that I haven't heard at least briefly. A considerable amount of my time - and money - has been spent listening to many varied types of music, and the equipment used to reproduce it. I am also a (retired) musician - playing guitar both solo and with a band for many years. I have both tube and transistor equipment in a couple of different systems, and listen to both vinyl and CD with equal pleasure. For someone to dismiss the possibility that one person can hear better than another is as illogical as saying that one person can't see better than another. The eyesight of one can be checked against another, just as the hearing of one can be tested against another. But, when we introduce the variable of "musical enjoyment," must we discount the possibility that someone can perceive music in such a way as to allow him/her to actually hear "more" of the music, and thus be able to enjoy it more? After all, our ears only pick up air motion - they are merely receptors if you will - and require a converter to translate that information into sound - much like a CD player needs a DAC to interpolate the data steam and provide a voltage signal that can then be amplified. The MAC (Motion to Analog Converter) we possess is our brain, and I don't think there can be much argument that brain function differs from one individual to another. So it would seem that we should at least allow the possibility of the oft-maligned "Golden Ears," even if we pooh-pooh the notion that equipment and/or recorded format can make a difference in someone else's enjoyment of music. As the owner of an extremely satisfying hi-fi, I often have the opportunity to demo my setup to people who are not accustomed to hearing musical detail of such magnitude reproduced in their own environment. The usual first comment, of course, is "Wow! I never knew it could sound this good!" When I ask them exactly what they are hearing, they find it difficult to explain - thank goodness they don't know all the audiophile words! When I ask them to, for instance, follow the bass line in a particular song, they often take a while to pick up on it, never having experienced anything quite like this before. Sadly, some never do, while others pick up on it quickly and say something like "This is great. I've never listened like this before." Those are the people who might benefit from a hi-fi upgrade - the others should be (and probably are) content with what they have and enjoy music on their own level. Since I listen mostly to acoustic and rock music - which, by the way, is reproduced through cone speakers in the guitar amps and microphone amps - I have chosen cone speakers. They just sound better for my listening tastes. I have a great amount of sympathy for Classical Music lovers - they will never be able to reproduce a symphony in their own home; the dynamic demands are just too great. To them I advise: Go to live performances! You can buy many Symphony tickets for what today's hi-fi gear costs, and you'll certainly never take that music home in a box. It is best experienced live. I think my speakers are efficient, dynamic, and balanced. I was told many years ago by a hi-fi dealer friend of mine that the two hardest sounds to reproduce in the home are female vocals and piano. I feel that statement is still very true, and I like to think my system does them both justice. A previous post mentioned the loss of higher frequency hearing by men as they get older, a common point of contention between husbands and wives since the man keeps jacking up the treble so he might hear it in some balance with the mids - totally oblivious to the fact that his wife is suffering ear bleeds listening to the same song! It is extremely gratifying for me to have my wife enjoy my hi-fi as much as I do, since that probably means it is as well balanced as I think it is. And since my system has no tone controls whatsoever, I couldn't turn up the treble even if I wanted to. Since no one will probably ask, I'll give you some of my thoughts on the current state of hi-fi gear. Ninety-nine percent of it is doggy doo-doo, and priced so ridiculously that I wouldn't even buy any of it if I won the lottery! Some very musical entry-level equipment is made by Rega, Arcam and Frank Van Alstine; while no-holds barred stuff that can draw you into the music and never let you go is made by Naim Audio and the aforementioned Mr. Van Alstine. The only turntables I've really liked are the Rega Planar 3 and Linn Sondek LP-12, but my very astute friend in Chicago swears by his VPI with the JMW tonearm, and I'd love to hear it someday. As for CD reproduction, you haven't heard what is possible from CD playback until you hear the Van Alstine OmegaStar DAC, it is that good. I listen to music, not equipment, and hope that you can find the time and energy to do the same. Choose something that sounds good to you in your home, and spend the rest of your time listening!

    -- Edward Goss, August 24, 2001
    What speaker cabinet configuration?

    The best setup towards dynamic speaker design is that what-ever is radiated from the back of the speakers' diaphram must be "deleted". A bass-reflex\laberinth\chamber ect. does not qualify as a true and faitful monitor setup because the cabinet configuration colourise the sound to get "the best out of the speaker".

    If you want to go high-end and "true" - go sealed cabinet configuration! Like the B&W Nautilus (avant garde design).

    To all "to-be" audiophilers out there! Cheers... (En groete aan al my afrikaanse maatjies :-) ) Dewald Visser

    -- Dewald Visser, January 3, 2002

    As a long time audiophile, I find it fun to watch the ongoing debate between CD/LP, Tubes v. Solid State, Planers v. Dynamic speaker, etc. One thing that most audiophile's seem to loose track of is everyone has their own preference. What one person likes, another hates. The SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING WITH AN AUDIO SYSTEM IS THAT THE LISTENER ENJOYS IT. If it is a bose radio and the listener listens to music ten hours a day and loves it, it is a great system. Me, I would take a sledgehammer to it, but I don't have to listen to it. Now on to my personal biases.

    CD v. LP- I much prefer a good CD rig to a LP setup. I find the ticks and pops in LP's to drive me nuts, plus there is no remote. I also can't stand the maintence issues with LPs. I have heard great sounding setups using both. I personally use a Pioneer transport connected to a Cal Audio Labs D/A through a Cardas high speed data cable. I have an analog rig consisting of a Project 1.2 turntable with a Grado Gold cartrige and it hardly gets used.

    Planar v. Dynamic speakers- Let me start off by saying that I find many speakers way to bright sounding today. I tend to prefer planar designs liking the large Martin-Logans and Magnepans. That said there are a few Dynamic designs that can equal the planars. Specifically, Vandersteen has extreamly transparent speakers that aren't bright. Myself, I use Magnepan 2.7Qr's with a Velodyne ULD-12 to augment the bottom end. I also have a pair of Vandersteen 1 speakers in my living room system with and Adcom pre/hafler amp/denon cd/audio alchemy d/a driving them.

    Tubes v. Transistors- I have heard wonderful sounds out of both. I have heard tubes that are lush and rich, and tubes that are bright and grainy. Ditto for transistors. Personally, I lean toward transistor design, prefering generally Mosfets for their rich sound. I use an Adcom GFP-750 pre (one of the few times I have ever agreed with a Stereophile Class A rating) and an Adcom GFA-5500 to power the ever hungry Magnepans. Another reason I stay with transistors is I can't stand waiting for Tubes to warm up, and to have to rebias and replace tubes.

    Cables- The most contraversial subject. For years I heard no difference in cables. Then I upgrade my system. Now with the more transparent pre-amp and speakers, I can hear changes in cables. Some are smoother, some are tighter, some are brighter. Personally, I have found that I love Cardas products, and on the cheaper end Wireworld.

    The final tally- I love my system. I turn it on, I sit down and I forget its there. You have reached nirvana, when you sit down to listen and you don't notice that the equiptment is doing this, that or the other. All you hear and all you listen to is the music. Don't forget this is the goal, and it doesn't matter whether it takes a $100 boombox to reach it, or a $250,000 system. If you sit down, are happy , and like what you hear, you have made it.

    Cary

    -- Cary McReynolds, January 18, 2002

    Cary is right on target. Reminds me when family members wanted me to assist them in stereo buying. I'd tell them to buy what sounded best to them. Still, they wanted specifics. I think some audiophiles convince themselves that certain things sound better because the numbers say so. And maybe they do. Whenever I listen to my stereo, I think it sounds clearer when I'm wearing my glasses. Go figure.

    When I went to buy loudspeakers back in 1987, I brought my favorite recordings (LP and CD) to the store and listened to everything for a good hour. The salesperson wanted to show me some specs and I refused. I showed a preference for a two-way bookshelf and he tried to convince me three-way was better. I wasn't interested. I walked out of there with a pair of Infinity two-way bookself speakers and I haven't heard anything else that doesn't send me the way these do. And I've worked in professional recording studios. And to further defile this page, I'll mention that one of my favorite pastimes is to listen to oldies radio from a transistor with a 2.4" speaker. Brings back those memories!

    Thanks Cary for really putting it all in perspective.

    -- Jack Kratoville, January 19, 2002

    Bravo Phil!

    I'm glad you have seen the light, like I have, and purchased B&W speakers. They are the best speaker manufacturer out there. I'm also glad that someone as cool as you agrees with me that B&W speakers sound great.

    Because of B&W, my ears thank me every time I spin up a CD. (Sorry, I'm too young to own a record - I think I saw one once, though . . .)

    Enjoy your new airplane and the flying it provides you. Let us all know what your tail number is, so when we hear you talking to Boston Center, we'll be able to say hello. If you hear "Grab a hand-full" over the radio, tune to 123.45 and say hello . . .

    Toby Cline

    -- Toby Cline, May 5, 2002

    I would like to comment on several of the responses to this article. In particular, I am surprised by the responses that say CDs sound better than vinyl and that we cannot "hear" above 20kHz.

    First, let me qualify myself. I can't afford to be an audiophile. But, I love music and sound reproduction. This is a lifelong project with me. When I was a four year old child, my parents would go out and hire a baby sitter. When they came home they would find the baby sitter asleep on the couch. I would be sitting by the front door with my box phonograph playing records. Over the last 40 odd years, my love of music and audio equipment has not diminished. My "box phonograph" has improved to include a Harman Kardon ST-8 linear tracking turntable with a good Shure moving magnet cartridge, a Harman Kardon Signature 2.0 preamp with 2.1 power amp and a Citation 22 power amp. I am using Koss CM/1030 and HK Citation 13 speakers. I have a Magnavox CDB650 CD player, a cheapo Pioneer DVD player, and a Nakamichi RX-505 tape deck.

    There is no doubt that CDs have certain advantages over vinyl. They are convenient, don't scratch easily, have unfailingly flat frequency response from 20 to 20kHz. They also sound as dry as a chalk board and have the edge of a quartz halogen light on a basketball court after a double all nighter studying for finals.

    Our ears are phenominal processing devices. A friend who worked for Harman Kardon in the early '70s told me that when they designed the Citation 11 preamp, they made it capable of reproducing frequencies out to 250kHz because that is how far out they had to go to get rid of any audible distortion. What you do in one portion of the audio spectrum leaves artifacts everywhere else in the audio spectrum. The fact is humans can detect frequency shifts and distortions well beyond the actual 20 - 20k sounds which are "audible." For example, many phono cartridges which are flat over the audible range have a peak at 22kHz. That peak, at a frequency which cannot be heard, makes a record sound bright, edgy and sibilant. An "S" becomes a hiss. Cat Stevens becomes Hissing Cat Stevens pretending to be a snake. The fix, known as cartridge loading, is to add more capacitance between the turntable and the preamp by adding audio cable to flatten out the peak. In a similar manner, cutting off frequency response of a CD induces audible distortion.

    Someone argued that when we look at a digital picture, we do not see the dots, but an image. He then analogized that hearing must work the same way. Untrue! Eyes have pixels built in. They eyes have individual point receptors for three colors and black/white. The eyes see dots. The brain then takes the dots from both eyes and extrapolates a 3D image. Because of the resolution of the eyes, the pixels are naturally translated in the brain into a seemless image.

    Sound is processed differently. In many ways, the ear is much more sensitive. The ear is a transducer which takes an air vibration, converts the vibrations to a liquid media and sends it into the nautalus shaped cochlea. The cochlea contains hairs. It is works like the a trombone in reverse. Different frequency sounds have different lengths. With a trombone, you change the length of the tube to produce different frequency sounds. Like a trombone in reverse, the ear uses different lengths of different frequency sounds to "tickle" hairs at different lengths down the cochlea. The nerves send information to the brain about which then converts it to an impression of sound. Although we only "hear" up to 20,000 cycles per second, we detect the time differences in which different hairs are stimulated at a much higher frequency. If you say the letters "P", "D", and "T" they sound different. But they are very similar sounds except for the times at which the different frequencies in these sounds hit our ears. This time difference creates the audibly different preception of that sound. It is no different with musical instruments.

    Imagine two violins playing a 440 Hz middle "A." Although both are playing exactly the same frequency, depending on your position in the room, the peaks and valleys of air pressure which hit your ears from each instrument are not perfectly synchronized. So the perceived sound wave is much more complex than with a single instrument. Because of the subtle differences in frequency curves, and the time at which the sounds hit your ears, even if they are playing exactly the same note, you can hear and determine the locations of each of the violins.

    Now imagine a 100 piece symphony orchestra playing the last bars of Ravel's Bolero. All 100 instruments are slamming you with sounds. Think of that sound wave -- the overtones, the slightly different frequencies played from each instrument, all of which hit your ears in an amazingly complex manner. And your ears and brain are good enough to make sense of it. Now cut out 44.1 thousand samples per second. Dividing by 100 instruments and you are left with 4,410 samples per instrument per second. A CD can not properly reproduce that complexity. Here is a link which demonstrates how the 44.1K recording frequency used by the CD induces audible distortion. http://happybob.com/marc/digital_sucks/index.htm

    I don't have a golden ear. But on my equipment, I can tell the difference between a well pressed Mobile High Fidelity half speed master and a remastered CD. (On the other hand, the advantages of a well done CD make it "sound" better than poorly pressed vinyl.) However, vinyl is not fatigue producing in the way the CD is. You can listen to it for hours. Typically, the midrange is more natural and the highs are more open and realistic.

    If you feel the cost of record playing equipment is prohibitive, I suggest a trip to ebay. There you can find a good high end belt drive turntable for a one to five hundred dollars. A brand new high quality Project or Music Hall turntable is available for $500 to $1,000 from various online dealers who get "full price." A brand new Shure V15 can be special ordered from Radio Shack or Sam Ash for about $250. This cost is offset by the availability of cheap used vinyl. Go to any Salvation Army or Goodwill store and you can find tons of vinyl for $1.00 per album. The savings over CDs will pay for the equipment in no time.

    I have high hopes for some of the newer digital formats which can reproduce frequencies up to 100kHz. Best Buy is selling a Sony SACD/DVD player for about $170. You can find a JVC DVD-Audio player for about the same price on ebay. Even the 5.1 sound track at 48kHz on a DVD-A is much better than a CD. The midrange is cleaned up immeasurably. I welcome the death of the CD format.

    -- Jason Gold, July 21, 2002

    Interesting discussion. Like most complex issues, there are valid point on either side of the argument.

    That old debate around LP vs CD is reminiscent of the professional world debate over analog multitrack vs digital multitrack.

    I have heard great sounding albums made on analog, and other great sounding albums made on digital recorders. In the end the most crucial parameter isn't technical: it's the music, it's harmonic content. If the song is good, it's going to sound good on LP on CD on 1/4in tape and on a DAT.

    There are sonic diffences based on the recording medium: Analog multitrack recorders tend to have that mysterious evasive low-freq response that suit well some kind of music. They also reproduce the high frequencies with a kind of sweetness unheard in digital multitrackers.

    Digital recorders have some benefits of their own: Absence of noise, super fast response for true transients reproduction. As a bonus for production, they are easier to manipulate as you can accurately specify multiple locate points and automate some tasks to ease the recording process.

    Personnaly I think that the best sounding productions actually take the advantage of both technologies. (I.e: you record the basic tracks on analog, and soft or very dynamic instruments on digital to benefit from the very low noise floor.)

    As for LP, there is no way I can listen to a vinyl record anymore. The turntable rumble (wich is inevitable unless you spend something like 10000$ on a turntable), the wow and flutter, the scratches, the 20 minutes max uninterupted runnig time... No way !

    As for speakers, I bought in 1995 Meyer Studio monitors model HD-1. And that was it for me, the problem was solved. Those were not cheap at around 7000.00$us a pair, they include 2 amplifiers per cabinet, and an extensive controlling circuitry, to reestablish the phase coherency and frequency linearity. You will not find a comparable Hi-Fi system (speaker and amp) within 2.5 to 3 times that price, and I have looked. So in the end the Meyers ARE cheap ! I also have Yamaha NS-10.

    For musical production one doesn't need an exciting speaker, one needs a revealing one where all the details are accurately reproduced. So the HD-1 are exiting if what you listen to is well done, also crappy recordings are still very crappy on those.

    Also for those who complain about the 11th order brickwall filter used to truncate the audio to 20khz prior to digital encoding: are you aware of the RIAA curves used to "encode" vinyls and the corresponding reverse curve to put bring everything flat again ?

    There is a company called Summit Audio that manufactures tube preamps and compressors. Their products really are amazing. I've only tried their mono tube compressor on some occasions. It has a way of fattening a bass gtr or vocal track when used at a high compression rate that is not available on other similar units. The process that relates to the "fattening" can be quantified. It is the progressive generation of harmonics resulting of the compression. The more you compress the more harmonics are added, usually even harmonics. Therefore it is an irrigularity of the machine, a fault, deliberate or not, that creates the unique sound of the Summit compressor. And most high-end manufacturers have their own designs as well.

    The same applies to Digital recorders vs Analog recorders. I believe the digital recorder is a lot more accurate than its analog counterpart, but at the same time it's those irrigularities of the analog recorder that are often regarded as souding "richer than digital" that are suitable on some tracks.

    What puzzles me is how can a mono tube compressor cost 5000.00$ ? Acknowledged the unit sounds great,fabrication is almost always impecable, but come on, 5000.00 dollars? mono?

    Or some other solid state preamp/eq/comp manufactureres like Daking. 2 mic pres, 2 comps, 2 4 bands parametric eqs in nice "lunchbox", it does sound very rich and a sparkling eq section, but is it really worth 9500.00$ ? But some know too well for that kind of sound that is what it costs.

    In the end all these discussions are futile if there is no music. A good song is a good song, no mather what, CD, LP, tube, digital, neve, newman, sm-57, les paul, Mark Levinson, magna planar, Pro-tool, Raindirk, Rottel, marshall, cello, Midas, Crane Song, etc etc.

    Just thaught, no point intended.



    -- Grover Ouellette, December 10, 2002

    Frequency response of hearing varies widely among individuals. Until I was 30 I could hear beyond 30 kHz. There was a department store in Meriden, Connecticut that I couldn't enter because of the pain caused by their so-called ultrasonic burglar alarm which was run all day long. By the time I was 40 I couldn't hear the 15.7 kHz whine some televisions make.

    -- Christopher Maple, December 16, 2002
    Hello Philip, thank you for your tremendous work. I agree with you absolutely ... LP sounds better than CD and there are acoustical and technical reasons for that. The human ear can listen mostly 20 kHz. Therefore the CD cuts frequencies above 20 KHz. A LP is able to produce 60 to 80 kHz, but nobody is able to hear that frequency range. This is wrong. I am a communication engineer and know all music is a result of beat frequencies. For example: if a frequency about 100 kHz is mixed to a frequency about 101 kHz, so the human ear is able to hear the difference about 1 kHz. This is a physical fact. All wood instruments and brass instruments produce this kind of frequency beats. Now the CD is cuttted above 20 kHz so it's impossible to listen to the high frequency beats or frequency down transfering. This is the reason a LP sounds a lot better than CD because it's transfering all the frequency beats upp to 80 kHz and downsize the differences. I hope this physical explanation is understandable. I am German and hopefully a used the right words in english. At home I have same priced analog chain (Well Tempered Reference, van den Hul Grashopper 3 Gold, Jeff Rowland Consumate Pre-Pre-Amp) compared to digital chain (Barclay Digital Cabernet, Theta Pro 3, Jeff Rowland Pre-Amp). Both chains are priced about 13.000 US $ each. Power Amps are two Jeff Rowland Model 7, loudspeakers are Thiel CS 5i. Nevertheless the analog system sounds a lot better and wider !!! Have fun furthermore with great sounding LP's. Best regards Helmut
    Image: HiFi_System_Siebert.jpg

    -- Helmut Siebert, January 7, 2004
    What a great variety of opinions this topic generates! As an electrical engineer, hobbyist audiophile and tightwad (makes the second one tough) I feel pulled in a lot of different directions. Specs do mean something, but whether a system sounds "pleasing" to the listener and is not "fatiguing" is most important to me. The fight over tubes versus transistors, Analog versus Digital or LP versus CD will not go away any time soon, but let's not make it more important than the enjoyment of the musical performance.

    I have heard quality LPs played on quality turntables, with quality cartridges going into a quality amplifier and then on to quality speakers and when I closed my eyes I could swear that there was a piano in the room. I have also heard the same with CDs. On the negative side I have listened to LPs where the pressings were less than stellar, or they were played on a subpar turntable, ... and there was no illusion that these were any more than just recordings. Again I have heard CDs that disappointed also.

    CDs/DVDs are an accurate storage mechanism (to whatever resolution you are storing the data, how many channels, ...), but there is more to sound than just accuracy. My AKG 240-DF headphones (the ACCURATE, studio versions) can show every blemish/dropout in a recording and can "cleanly" reproduce bass so low that I have checked to make sure that the speakers weren't also connected. However accurate they are I find them fatiguing over a long period of time and a little too clinical to let me get completely immersed in the music. For analysis I love them, but for listening I have heard more "musical" models.

    A couple of points to note (IMHO):

    1. Digital storage has higher accuracy (discrete levels) but lower resolution than records (infinite levels).

    2. Digital data is more repeatable than analog records (no pop, tracking distortion or wear).

    3. Records are only as good as the recording, pressing, vinyl, needle, cartridge, turntable, preamp, ...

    4. Reel to Reel tape running at 15 or 30 ips (as the original recordings were made) does not pop or have tracking distortion (but is darned expensive and not as convenient as records).

    5. Digital Data is only as good as the recording, A/D conversion, storage method, D/A conversion, preamp, ...

    6. Tubes and transistors can both make great amplifiers or lousy amplifiers.

    7. Frequency response is not only what you hear, but how what you don't hear affects the audible sounds (sounds greater than 20k might not be audible directly, but they affect the audible sounds [detectable in experiments with live human subjects]). Hurray for 24 bit, 96/192k recording. How long before 32 or 48 bit???

    8. Making your system sound "better" can eclipse all else and you forget to enjoy "listening" to quality musical performances (including old mono recordings).

    I use CDs over albums for convenience and availability, but I also know that there are inherent limitations to 44.1k/16bit recordings. Even the SACDs or DVD-Audio disks have limitations. Records were the best affordable/convenient technology of the last century, but not without their own issues.

    If it sounds "accurate" to YOU, does not "fatigue" YOU over long time listening and is "musical" and "pleasing" to YOU (and only YOUR opinion matters) then you have done well. Of course it needs to be affordable so that you can bring it home and enjoy it for many years!

    Avoid the hype and enjoy the music!

    -- Harald Moan, October 14, 2005

    I worked in auditory research at a major research hospital for a number of years, and ended up auditioning a lot of gear at high end stores that we used in our lab. I learned a number of significant things:

    1. After a few minutes of listening to music at moderate concert volumes, you have so much temporary threshhold shift that the idea of making a/b comparisons to something you heard a minute before is nonsensical.

    2. Most very high end gear is bought by well-to-do middle aged men who have significant presbycousis and very little hearing beyond 8KHz. This does not stop them from claiming that they can hear the difference between different power cords.

    3. Making something out of gold or silver does not make it sound better.

    4. At only $12/year, Stereophile magazine is still the cheapest humor magazine in America.

    -- Michael Edelman, May 2, 2007

    I enjoyed the original article very much, and it is interesting, with the benefit of 10 or so years hindsight, that CD is still very much with us as a music format, whereas SACD is getting quite rare in terms of new releases, and DVD-Audio died sometime ago in the UK. For some reason the CD just won't go away. Your predictions regarding storing many CD's on a hard disk have come to pass however, and network streaming is now the 'in' thing. kind regards, Phil Glazzard http://www.hifigear.co.uk

    -- Phil Glazzard, September 20, 2011
    You have to register to correct some false information made 13 years ago?!? Oh, come on!

    Anyway:

    > Ditto concerning Arvo Part.

    > My current recommendations are his earlier things. On "Miserere", the track "Sarah Was 90 Years Old" opens up a whole new Slavic perspective

    WTF?!? Arvo Pärt is Estonian. _You_ are _more_ Slavic than Arvo Pärt, after all you speak an Indo-European language as a native tongue, not a Uralic one, like Arvo Pärt. Besides, from what I heard, his _Slavic_ music is more like one would expect a middle age _Western_ European Church music is like.

    -- my.informed opinion, November 28, 2012

    An interesting article can be found on 22 Tips to Obtain Better Sound in a High End Audio System http://forum.audiophile.org/articles/article/20/22-tips-to-obtain-better-sound-in-a-high-end-audio-system/

    -- Steve Oksuz, December 19, 2014
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