Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Newbie's Guide to Good Audio

What qualities distinguish a good audio system?

We've all heard it before. One walks into a room with a nice audio system set up in it, and someone always says. “Wow! I’ll bet that can play loud!” This, or something like it, is typical of a newcomer’s reaction to an audiophile’s hi fi system.

Why a system’s loudness capability should be the only measure of excellence isn’t difficult to understand. People install expensive hi fi systems in their cars. Some of the larger audio systems seem capable of shaking the host vehicle apart. The pavement trembles when one passes by. A nightclub’s sound system is in the same league: ear-splitting, gut-wrenching, floor-buckling output. With the exception of classical music, which is rarely ever amplified, the same is true for most live concerts. Any more, the average boom box can break a lease, and TV ads featuring hard-pumping woofer cones say it all. "Loud is good" in most beginner's judgments.

Upon actually sitting down and listening to an audiophile sound system, the newcomer will likely say “Wow!” again, followed this time by “It sounds so clear!”

So what is it that makes a high end sound system high end?

Its about the components, but its also about becoming a better listener. This is what separates the audiophile or enthusiast from the casual listener who is merely interested in having cool gadgets. Below are a few terms used by audio enthusiasts that I think are important to distinguishing high end audio from "low-fi but loud" audio.

Accurate timbre and tone - The musical instruments and vocalists sound like they should. A trumpet sounds like a trumpet, etc. Taken to its extreme, the equipment and system seem to disappear, leaving only the music. It can take an audiophile years to achieve this level of performance in their system.

Low distortion - The signal coming into the components is unchanged (ideally) as it passes through. The real world ideal is that the signal is imperceptibly changed as it passes through each component. We haven't made a 0% distortion component yet, but the industry has reached levels approaching 0. It is said that the human ear can only detect levels near 10% distortion.

Low noise floor - Silence is a big part of accurate music reproduction. The quieter the background, the more subtle details that add realism to the music are allowed to emerge.

Soundstage - Soundstage is created by the output of the loudspeakers. It is basically an illusion created by the speakers being fed slightly different signals to fool our ears into perceiving a sense of space that is different from the actual space the audio system occupies. A good soundstage allows the listener to perceive the size and space of the performance venue in which the recording was made. In lower performance systems the soundstage is often limited to the space between the loudspeakers. From that space sound may extend forward from the speakers, but usually not too far behind the speakers.

Ideally, in a high end audio system, the soundstage will radiate from each loudspeaker in a spherical pattern. In recordings with large soundstages, that illusion of a large recording space will be recreated. It will extend beyond the speakers in all directions. In extreme cases if the system is really well designed and the room is properly treated, the soundstage can envelop the listener and appear to extend beyond the listening room walls themself. Immersing the lisener in the venue in which the musical event was recorded. One will not be able to "connect" the sound emanating from the speakers to what they are hearing. This is the situation where listeners will often say the speakers "disappeared".

Imaging - Imaging is a sub set of the soundstage. Imaging is the appropriate placement of instruments and vocals within the soundstage of the recording. This takes some training on the part of the listener to identify, and comes with time.

Dynamics - Dynamics are the differences between the softest and the loudest musical elements. When listening to a live event, even a non amplified performance will have a wide dynamic range between the loudest and softest elements of the music. This is what gives music "punch" and excitement in many cases. A system that portrays dynamics well will sound live on a good recording, and will reproduce those dynamic passages without distortion.

The recording itself is very important when it comes to conveying the sense of dynamics. Unfortunately most of the popular music today has had most of the dynamic aspects removed by being electronically "compressed" during the mixing process by the recording engineer. They do this so that 1) lesser systems do not distort the sound during loud playback, and 2) so one can hear most of the musical elements in a noisy environment, such as a car traveling on a road.

Below are links to excellent illustrations of the results of these recording techniques.

Transparency - When all of the above come together, you achieve a level of transparency. The Stereophile Glossary defines transparency as "1) A quality of sound reproduction that gives the impression of listening through the system to the original sounds, rather than to a pair of loudspeakers. 2) Freedom from veiling, texturing, or any other quality which tends to obscure the signal. A quality of crystalline clarity."

..."The casual audiophile hears reproduced sound as a whole, and judges its quality according to whether it sounds "good." Many reviewers never reach that stage of perception because---convinced by their measurements that all competing products sound "essentially the same"---they never make the effort to listen critically to reproduced sound. The reason a subjective reviewer hears more than the "objective" reviewer is not that his auditory equipment is superior. It's because he has accepted the premise that identical measurements do not necessarily ensure identical sound, and has trained himself to hear the differences when they exist..." - Stereophile Audio Glossary introduction

Those are some of the basic terms we as audiophiles use to describe the sound we are hearing when we listen to a high end audio system. I am sure there can be even more clarification of terms, and additions of others. I invite everyone to chime in an express what they feel is important for the new audio enthusiast to learn/know.

Friday, January 9, 2009

CES '09

Well, its the new year. One resolution I had made was to start posting on my blog again, and there is better subject matter to begin with than the Consumer Electronics Show.

Vegas buzzes with all manner of geekiness during this week devoted to our fascination with electronic gadgetry. My particular fetish is (obviously) for high quality, high performance audio gadgetry.

The main event for audio was held at the Venetian. There is also a smaller show (The Home Entertainment Expo) held at a terribly out of the way location. I really felt sorry for the exhibitors here. I don't think they had any traffic. Fortunately I was staying at the Alexis park, so it was convenient for me to drop by. Traveller's tip: Unless you were raised on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, I doubt anyone would ever enjoy their stay at the Alexis park hotel in Vegas. Situated right next to Mcarran airport, one is subjected to ceaseless aircraft takeoff noise. The experience could only be matched by attempting to sleep on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise during the invasion of Baghdad. /rant.

My "customer" experience

I went to the show not as an exhibitor but as an attendee, bouncing from room to room discovering some new gear, and meeting some new people. For three days I felt like a retail customer, and each exhibit I visited was a high end audio store.

Some exhibits I was greeted with a smile, a handshake and felt welcome as I looked over the gear, the literature, and of course listened. Genuinely good experiences created by industry professionals who loved audio and audiophiles.

Other rooms, well, you know the stereotypical high end store where you walk in and are immediately confronted with a "you're not worthy" attitude, or ignored altogether? Yeah those people still exist, and they were well represented. My interest in their products quickly waned. What a shame, waste of time and money for them.

On to the show: Day 1, the Venetian

The following is a run-down of the rooms I found sonically interesting, followed by the gadgets that I found interesting as well.

The good sounding rooms

Hansen Audio/Kubala Sosna cables - Good sound and good people. The Hansen speakers with Kubala cables sounded very open and natural. There was good image depth and width and dynamics were impressive.

Magico - I went to both rooms at the show, and preferred the lesser V2 speakers (in the less than ideal hotel venue). Again good holographic imaging and staging. Very good vocals and mids, but just a teeny bit hot on the treble, probably around 10k. Strings and "air" appeared a wee bit exaggerated. I would love to hear these with some different cables.

Vivid Audio B-1's with Luxman 30 watt class A  integrated amplifier

Vivid Audio/Luxman - Really nice sound achieved from these unique speakers and from the "old school" looking Class A 30 wpc integrated with wood chassis. Luxman continues to impress me with the amazing build quality and silky smooth sound. The Vivid Audio loudspeakers are simply amazing. So much technology implemented from these South African made loudspeakers. Really too much to cover hear, but know this. These speakers do not sound like cones in a box. They are dynamic, holographic, super clean at any volume level, and really cool looking. With their B&W Nautilus heritage, and several new twists of their own, expect to hear a lot about this speaker company in 2009.

Synergistic Research cables, Burmeister Electronics, Wilson Sophia speakers

Synergistic/ Wilson Audio/ Burmeister electronics - Very, very good sound here. I thought the Vivid speakers with the Synergistic cables at RMAF sounded better, but nonetheless the system sparkled with the usual holographic, uncompressed sound that Synergistic cables deliver when coupled with great electronics. Oh, and yes the Synergistic ART system was in place and worked wonderfully. Helping to create the "wrap around" sound that it is known for.

Modwright KWA150 amp

Modwright/ Machina Dynamica - Terrific sound from the modestly priced Modwright 36.5 preamp, KWA150 power amp, and modded Slim Devices Transporter. Many times during the show people asked Dan if the new amp was Tubes or solid state. That is a sure sign of a successful solid state amp design. I can't wait to get mine in the showroom.

Nuforce's new music server interface.  Cool!

Nuforce - The Nuforce room was showing off their new music server. I was very impressed. BYOM - Bring Your Own Monitor however. They were using a touch screen panel (Casey said he purchased it on Ebay for around $150) that, when used with the iPhone type interface was extremely user friendly and cool. Sound seemed very good, but the room was bustling with noise. MSRP is expected to be around $2500, availability in March. So long Sooloos.

Quantum - Nordost purchased Quantum a year or so ago. They took the old Quantum design and have improved it greatly. I was impressed at the top to bottom improvents that were rendered immediately when the unit was in the system. Soundstage width and depth improved, bass was less boxy and boomy. I remember straining to hear improvements with the old Quantum boxes, but with the improved Quantums, the difference was obvious and immediate. Very nice.

Day 2: Alexis Park

Good things were happening at the Alexis Park exhibits despite dismal attendance and noisy jet flyovers. I had a lot of fun hear, since I was able to actually talk to people manning the exhibits. Below is a Synopsis.

Harbeth speakers Paired with Luxman and Synergisic Research

Harbeth/Luxman/Synergistic - Wow. This room had it all, great sound that just made you relax and smile. But man those Harbeth speakers are fugly big boxes! Absolutely zero Wife Acceptance Factor. But the sound, very musical, relaxing and holographic. Definitely for the Man-cave only. The Luxman Class A Integrated synergized extremely well here. There seems to be a trend here, every system with Synergistic cabling is super holographic, spacious and tonally neutral. One is simply able to relax and enjoy the music. I am really becoming intrigued by the Luxman gear as well. Super solid build quality, kind of a retro look, and buttery smooth sound.

Reference 3a Episode speakers

Reference 3A/EMM labs/Chang Lightspeed conditioning - Another great listening experience at the Alexis Park. Super friendly folks running the Chang/Reference 3A room. I was blown away by the sound of the Reference Episode, then to the Dulcet. The main secret is the midbass driver. They call it "direct coupled", meaning that there is no crossover used on it. All drivers use minimal crossover components, for instance the tweeters have a single Mundorf Silver/oil cap on them. In the higher end models, Murata supertweeters and Bybee Quantum Purifiers are used. The end result is incredible. The Episodes had super huge soundstage width and depth. Electrostatic speed, harmonic layering, and a relaxed organic warmth with no real colorations. The Dulcets simply stunned me. So many mini monitors have a limited musical capability, a boxy sound from trying to go too low, or sound strained and compressed due to their limited size. The Dulcets had none of that. They threw a huge stage, were uncolored in the bass regions, yet produced amazingly deep bass, and just made you want to listen. These beat my Be-718s and cost $1000 less! As a result Tweek Geek is becoming a dealer for these incredible loudspeakers.

Boenicke Loudspeakers in the Laufer Teknik room

Laufer Teknik room

Laufer was showing Boenicke audio loudspeakers, with their usuall Behold electronics and the vaunted Memory Player, also the latest AC conditioner and cables from Bybee Wire. The Boenicke speaker was very nice. It had two full range drivers, one on the front baffle along with a ribbon tweeter from Serbia, and one firing upward for additional ambiance. The cabinet was two solid blocks of wood that were CNC milled then glued together. The sound was very open, fast and natural. I spent a lot of time here enjoying the music. Sven Boenicke was also there to provide information on his design. He also makes some very special audiophile recordings that will be available soon on Sven is indeed a music lover and a creative genius. A nice guy too!


More pics

New acoustic treatments

Some extremely cool looking acoustic treatments in the Modwright room. Several prints to choose from, all high quality reprints of the creator's original artwork. Beautiful, and about time someone did this.

Vivid Audio Giya loudspeakers

The Vivid Audio Giya loudspeakers paired with Luxman gear and Nordost Odin cabling was spectacular. We were treated to 15 ips tapes taken direct from the master tapes one evening, what a memorable time. The cables alone were nearly worth the price of my home.

More of the Giya

More Giyas.

Philip O'Hanlon with Joe Reynolds and an engineer from Nordost

Philip O'Hanlon, Bjorn from Nordost, and Joe Reynolds of Nordost. Nice folks.