Audio Equipment Reviews: Should You Trust the Pros or Your Own Ears? by Wayde Robson — last modified October 23, 2007 16:54 Oh my bleeding Subjectivist ears! Are you an audio Objectivist or Subjectivist? Many of us here probably have stories of the days when we were hi-fi 'Subjectivists'. There were days when I bought into the whole perfect sound philosophy. Several friends and I used to share our ideas and we tried everything to squeeze a little more performance from the best systems we could afford with our limited budgets. We elevated speaker wires, meticulously trimmed wires and cables to keep them separate from any other lines. We regularly cleaned all connections and spent a little more than I care to admit on interconnects. Now I know better. But there was a certain joy back then. It was a love not only for the source material but for the hobby itself that drove us to try any crazy theory we read in a magazine or just came up with ourselves. A recent Audioholics editorial by Tom Andry highlighted examples of the subjective vs. Objective hi-fi philosophies. The quotes were mostly from commercial sources promoting subjectivism in hi-fi. They ranged from humorous to potentially criminal. Sadly, many quotes were from hi-fi journalists, the very people who should be trusted and held to task. Hi-fi subjectivism isn't all bad. But as Objectivists we seek truth. In the interest of my own balanced search for truth, I maintain a close acquaintance with at least one dyed-in-the-wool hi-fi Subjectivist. Mr. Subjectivist is the patron of a local high-end audio store. I regularly visit to rifle through the store's used section, hunting for overlooked morsels at bargain prices. He's a well-mannered man and a good conversationalist. If he has time he provides me demonstrations of the most esoteric systems I've heard with price tags so high it's comical. I'll sit and listen to a vinyl recording of jazz or acoustic blues. One day we might sit in front of speakers with boxes made from some exotic material developed for space travel. You just never know what will be next. I'm a self-styled hi-fi Objectivist and regular reader, sometimes contributor to Audioholics. As such I believe I will never stop learning and I keep an open mind. I agree with 90% of what our Subjectivist says. I believe he's right on the money when he talks about current and high-capacity power supplies contributing to good sound. I agree in principle that quality electronic components often add up to make an audible difference that's greater than the sum of the individual parts. He justifiably encourages customers to try something a tad higher end than they were shopping for. He genuinely wants to turn the casual listener into a connoisseur of the human sense of hearing. In this pursuit I believe he serves a greater good. But then Mr. Subjectivist will go off the deep end and with a straight face will suggest that Shakti stones will really open up the acoustics of a given system. Hearing a grown man admit to believing he hears an audible improvement to sound quality because he laid a rock blessed by Hindu Gods on his amplifier makes me want to barf. High-End Philosophy Subjective philosophy is the belief there can be virtually no ceiling to the ”quality” of recorded sound. There exists an explicit hierarchy of acoustic quality predicated on an endless series of noticeable differences. It's a surprisingly Newtonian outlook for modern man that supposedly benefits from 200 years of science and discovery. The Subjectivist Audiophile outlook speaks to the ordered universe seen by the likes of Galileo and Copernicus when they first peered out of telescopes. It's akin to a 17th century version of rationalism. They believe in a perfectly ordered universe where everything fits tidily into perfect categories. It's an outlook that holds the perfect sound can never really be achieved. But if we spend enough money, keep upgrading perfectly functioning equipment enough times (except room acoustics - heaven forbid we focus our efforts there), we mortals may simply taste the merest semblance of this perfection. Like a whiff of our deepest desire. It is actualized but simultaneously disappears as reality quickly sets in that we have…”overlooked the build-up of static charges on the surface of our loudspeakers.” But of course this condition can be remedied through further upgrades. By contrast the Objectivist view is closer to the chaos inherent in a more modern, naturalist philosophy. It's awash in uncertainty and an irregular number of bottlenecks. There are many factors to high-end sound, with the first and most important factor to the Objectivist being YOU! The listener of sound gets the final say in what is good. If a $150 Pioneer receiver sounds great to you, by all means - it's probably a great match for your speakers and your chosen media. Objective audiophiles seem to seek the best return on investment and will be realistic when it comes to spending money. We may seek the awesome, but honestly we're not looking for perfection. When a noticeable acoustic problem does present itself, Objective audiophilism is about seeking a measurable bottleneck to good sound, while clutching fast to Ockham's Razor. We don't seek to unnecessarily complicate what makes good sound, sound good. But one thing is for certain: Regardless of which side of the Objective / Subjective divide you sit, we all have one thing in common that makes us a collective minority. We know how to listen. The simple act of closing our eyes and letting the sound take us away. It's a therapeutic journey inside our own senses and a healthy mediation that sets us all apart from the mainstream. Today consumer electronics is obsessed with seeing music only as a commodity to be scaled into portable devices that generally rob it of rich details. Too much of the population is satisfied only hearing music, but never really listening. ------------------------------------- The Dumbing Down of Audio by Gene DellaSala — last modified March 07, 2006 19:00 We live in an amazing time. Science is making bigger and better tomatoes, continually perfecting synthetic materials to enhance our lives, while making electronics more compact, powerful and affordable. It's amazing that you can buy a wrist watch with a more powerful computer today than the ancient computers that used to fill an entire room only 50 or so years ago. Science has also made significant advances in the home theater world. Displays are continually getting better, slimmer and cheaper. Speakers are continually getting more refined and accurate. Receivers are being packed with more powerful processing features making them a better value to the end-user and yielding higher entertainment because of their ability to be the master of so many domains. Because of science, DSP processing empowers engineers to make smarter products that can work magic on your music. DSP processing can make it sound like you are in a live performance by enveloping you with surround sound, correct for room acoustic and non linearity anomalies of your loudspeakers, or even boil you a pot of coffee at just the right temperature to avoid the classic McDonald's lawsuit scenario. So with all of this newfound power science has endowed us with, one would logically conclude that this has bettered our pursuit of audio nirvana... Well, not exactly. Despite our advances in science, one divine truth can always undermine us - marketing . Because of marketing, and lots of gullible people that fall victim to it, reality TV shows, pet rocks, and low-carb diets sell. People don't need them, they don't make a whole lot of practical sense, yet the demand is created. The same rings true with audio. Tabulated below are what I feel to be the major culprits of the dumbing down of audio: Hyper compression in CDs Cubed speakers iPod & MP3 players Satellite radio Lack of comparative reference to unamplified live musical performances Hyper Compression of CDs We have already beaten this topic to death in past editorials. I encourage you to read the following articles for further elaboration. Editorial Note on CD Sound Quality There are many factors that influence the sound quality of source material such as: How the source material was recorded (i.e. equipment, mics, etc) How the recording was mastered and transferred to CD (level, compression, etc) For a more thorough discussion on typical ailments that plaque recording quality, we suggest the following reading material: Current Trends in the Recording Format Arena P1 Current Trends in the Recording Format Arena P2 Issues with 0dBFS+ Levels On Digital Audio Playback Systems The Case for NOT going above 0 dBFS For Digital Playback Systems It is no wonder why many audiophiles prefer LP over CD. It's not that the CD format is inferior (far from the truth actually). The fact of the matter is the CD format is suffering abuses that the LP was immune to. Ramp the levels up to near clipping on an LP and you suffer unbearable distortion, noise and potential damage to your stylus. Do the same on CD and you've got one heck of a LOUD recording that sounds good when being broadcasted on FM to judgmentally impaired folks suffering from "LOUDER is better" disease. I recommend the following reading material which further drives home this point. Dynamic Comparison of LPs vs CDs - Part 4 Cubed Speakers The choice speakers of most department stores. While their advantage (other than marketing and brand appeal to the unwary public) is a small footprint, this comes at a cost. These speakers suffer from a severe lack of dynamic range and frequency response linearity. The issue arises in the fact that the accompanying bass module doesn't produce much output below 60Hz. In addition, it extends too high in frequency, making it localizable and non ideal for subwoofer duties. The driver in the satellite "cube" speakers is too small to produce adequate midrange and midbass, and too large and inefficient to produce accurate and extended highs. What you wind up with is a satellite speaker with a few kilohertz range and a bass module that has to make up the difference. It's a product of boom and sizzle that sounds impressive to an untrained ear since the demo is usually done in a noisy nearfield environment where all of the speakers are just a few feet away from the listener. But take the system home and your guests wonder why all the male voices are coming out of the corner of the room where the "subwoofer" is. For more information on the limitations of these systems, I recommend the following reading materials: Placement Suggestions for Cubed Speakers iPOD & MP3 Players As if compression in CDs wasn't bad enough. Let's add more by converting your PCM data from your CDs into MP3. Though you could record at the maximum rate of 320kbps, most MP3 compression still causes audible deterioration to the sound quality of your CDs. This is largely dependent on source material, the CODEC used, and the quality of the recording. I have found most MP3 compression to be unacceptable for serious jazz and classical music listening. Do any critical listening on a revealing system and you will find MP3 compression will cause loss of soundstage and stereo separation and diminished dynamics (especially for cymbal crashes or piano ballads). Most teens go for maximum song storage on their MP3 players and typically encode at 96-128kbps. "It holds two thousand songs," they brag. Yeah, two thousand songs that sound like they were recorded in a coffee can. What is truly sad is that most people listening to these devices simply don't know any better. Their pop music is so highly compressed and distorted that to them it simply sounds loud and clear. They are loving it because they have the convenience of all of their music at their fingertips in a portable storage device. The convenience is certainly attractive, but these types of systems are starting to become the primary audio systems for a majority of consumers - and we wonder why high-resolution audio isn't taking off. Combine this with a docking station and a cubed speaker system and you are in for a delightful evening of listening to your favorite tunes in a tin can compressed to the "nth" level to the point where you won't be able to tell the difference between a Britney Spears tune or JLO. Of course, at that point, should you really care? Satellite Radio I had high hopes for Satellite radio, particularly XM. Back in my telecommunications days I studied the XM specifications to ensure there weren't any patent infringements against our company who was one of the developers of QAM technology. I saw a lot of good potential for XM and welcomed it as a step above MP3 sound quality with the convenience of tons of commercial-free music at your disposal for a minimum monthly fee. A few months ago, I bought a new Acura TL with an XM radio receiver built in. The sound system in my TL is a cut above most OEM car audio systems. It features the 5.1 DVD Audio system co-developed by Panasonic and famous recording engineer Elliot Scheiner. I was eager to finally listen to XM in all of its glory - on a respectable system no less. At first listen, it wasn't bad. It had good bass response, thanks to the sub, no static (as promised) and most importantly, no commercials or annoying DJs. I soon discovered very cool fusion jazz and progressive rock stations. Wow, I was hearing Tales of a Topographic Ocean from Yes and funky jazz tunes from Phil Collins old Jazz band Brand X. But something didn't sound quite right. I couldn't place it until I listened more intensely. After listening to more vocals, particularly female, I started to hear a metallic quality. Instead of Laura Fabien's voice, I heard Lara Fabicon. Shakira became Shakiracon. Instead of Josh Groban, I heard Josh Grobanicon. I thought I was in a bad dream stuck in a world taken over by evil Transformer robots. As a comparative exercise, I popped in the new Peter Gabriel Up CD when the title track was being played on XM. Switching back and forth, it was easy to hear the metallic, compressed sound quality on the XM broadcast. Mr. Roboto is alive and well on satellite radio! Now, the CD itself is highly compressed to begin with, but the XM "flavoring" made it all more unpalatable. After a few months of enduring the so called "CD Quality" of XM radio, I canceled my subscription. Once you hear the compression, it becomes a vice (at least for me it did) that you cannot tolerate for any appreciable length of time. If I were an artist, I would be outraged by the fidelity, or lack thereof, of my music being broadcasted on this service. Of course, many of the popular bands/singers could hardly be called artists so it will likely go right over their heads. After doing additional research I realized that, due to bandwidth restrictions and a large amount of channels, XM satellite's highest encoding bitrate is… shudder … 64kbps. Even though their aacPlus codec is better than straight MP3 at the same bitrate, this is appalling for a format claiming to have "CD-quality" audio. Sirius Radio is no different, so let's not just limit this roasting to XM. Though many satellite radio subscribers polled in our forums and gathered from the web, tend to favor the sound quality of Sirius over XM. As more channels are added to these services, this problem will likely get worse. In doing some research on satellite radio broadcasting, I have found that the compression rate is not fixed and in fact varies from channel to channel at different times of the day. Typical data rates being fed to us are between 32 and 64kbps which is still far below many Internet radio stations available online for free. So now we have cubed speakers, iPod / MP3 players and Satellite radio further lowering our expectations of sound quality. What's next? Lack of Live Unamplified Comparative Reference Ignorance, the great equalizer. Though not intended as an insult to people's intelligence. Simply put, fewer and fewer people are exposed to live unamplified music on a regular basis. Sure, there are plenty of concerts performed by our favorite bands, but a large majority of them (particularly rock and pop concerts) are performed in large venues with big horn-loaded speakers and kilowatt power systems. Compression and controlled dispersion are the enemies at play here and whoever plays loudest wins. This is the same mentality that plagues the recording industry and hence why most pop and rock CDs have 6dB of dynamic range or less! Meanwhile Audiophile s ponder on more powerful amplifiers to power their speakers - but we will address that topic in another editorial. This reminded me of a Yes concert I went to about a decade ago. It was their Talk tour with Trevor Rabin on guitars. They were showing off their surround sound broadcast system, a first and last for them if I am not mistaken. I sat to the right-front of the stage, about 30 feet or so from a wall of speakers. The sound was so blaringly loud that it was painful despite the fact I stuffed my ears with cotton and covered them with my hands during the whole show. It took me days to recoup from this experience. Rather than enjoying a performance from one of my all time favorite rock bands, I was more concerned with protecting my ears and avoiding the pain. In contrast, I recently went to a Mediterranean restaurant where a three piece jazz trio: bass, drums, trumpet were playing unamplified and literally 10 feet from our seats. What a delight to our ears. I was hearing the full decay of drums and crashes of cymbals. The trumpet had perfect pitch and timber, and you could hear the woody sound character of the bass. This is something rarely heard on a good CD on a fine music system but truly appreciated by any music lover who also happens to be an Audioholic, though you can't throw your underwear on the stage, and I do miss that. The Dumbing Down of Audio - page 2 by Gene DellaSala — last modified March 07, 2006 19:00 Closing Thoughts As music becomes more mainstreamed and bubblegum two-chord rock and mindless pop further encroaches upon our society, people will embrace compression playback devices and continually distance themselves from what real music is supposed to sound like. I fear we are breeding a generation of ignorance to music and fidelity playback. In fact, we may be instilling in our youth the inability to discern what sounds good! Hey, if you eat enough filet of hoof, eventually you'll think ribeye tastes bad. Next time your kid goes into isolation with his iPod and latest Green Day song, try persuading him to go to a local Jazz performance or have him sit down and listen to a quality recorded CD on your non-cubed, iPod-free high performance home theater system. Or buy them a couple of our higher rated albums . The multichannel music is sure to impress even the most jaded of children. If you haven't heard an unamplified musical performance recently, do yourself a favor and attend one. Your ears will thank you for it. If your only exposure to music is via a compressed playback system and cubed speakers, consider one of our Recommended Systems . Don 't get dumbed down, do this to preserve the sanctity of your own musical intelligence. Commentary from Dan Banquer I got to grow up in a different family than most of you have. My father is now a semi retired classical musician. A good portion of my youth was spent in his studio where he rehearsed his woodwind ensembles, and attending some of his concerts with the New Haven Symphony. I played a few different instruments in high school and later decided to attend music school, where I was a performance major. My music career ended for medical reasons, but not my love for music. Today I hear two things, the unceasing hyper compression, and the lowering of the musical standards of pop music to its lowest common denominator. The pop music that I hear played today makes Motown of the sixties sound like sophisticated jazz. (It isn't jazz by the way, as some idiots out there might have you believe. It's R & B, which stands for Rhythm and Blues!) In my youth, and I am dating myself here, I got to hear bands like Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Both of these bands could play their instruments well and were innovators. They used a blues based format to expand there ideas, and the blues is the basis for rock and jazz. Today I hear young people talk their way through a song. Melody, harmony, arranging, and song form, have been pretty much dispensed with. I keep waiting for some of these artists to discover the wonderful heritage of American music, but I am starting to lose faith, as the lowest common denominator keeps looking for a new low. As the musical standards go lower so are the audio standards as there is less and less reason for fidelity. Most manufacturers are very aware of this and will not improve the technology in many areas as there is so little demand. To all of you who read this: Go search out and hear the great musical heritage that this country has blessed you with. You won't regret it. Commentary from Mark Sanfilipo Date: 3/12/06 Great article that squarely nails many a lossy-codec issue right on the head. Whether or not XM radio, mp3s or what have you works for you depends on how your priorities are arranged where it comes to what's important in your listening experience. If maximum fidelity is key, you probably won't find XM radio or mp3s entirely satisfying. However, if portability and convenience are tops on your list of listening priorities, then compressed files, such as mp3s are a good way to go. My oldest daughter, Sarah, is a great case in point. Sarah would marry her iPod if it could cook. If it weren't for me she'd never hear anything that wasn't squashed & compressed and run through one sort of lossy codec wringer or another. She can hear the qualitative differences, but in her mind convenience (and the fact she can store every tune in her collection in something small enough to fit in her purse) far outweighs intrinisc quality. Dr Earl Geddes pointed out in an AES Convention Paper, "Auditory Perception of Nonlinear Distortion" mp3s can have a measured THD upwards of 50% ! For someone like Sarah - who puts convenience & portability above all else - that is simply a non-issue. If bandwidth or storage restrictions are issues for you, then once again compression is the way to go. Typical in this instance would be the case of someone listening to an Internet-based radio station on their office PC. Sonic wallpaper, if you will. Of course, there's the couldn't care less crowd and my sons are a great example of that bunch: they really don't care, so long as its loud and annoying; compressed to the eyeteeth suits them just fine. On the other hand, my youngest daughter, JB, recognizes the difference between compressed and not compressed and definitely prefers the latter. Out of all my kids she's also the one most exposed to live music on a consistent basis. Some of the debates going on in various formats between pro- and anti-mp3 crowds in many ways echo the debates I used to hear between the pro- and anti-8 track folks back in the 70's. Ironic to think that as the hardware we use to listen to music has been technologically refined & improved over the years, the quality of the media played back through that hardware has, in many cases, been compromised. At least the old stuff (Beatles, Zeppelin, Yes, etc) sounds better than it did back in the day.