The Audio Cynic

Bad Sound

…is in the ears of the beholder.

I chose the image above because for me, the worst kind of bad sound is that which has a massive amount of harmonic distortion. The result is high notes that bring to mind shattering glass, and lows that become an atonal thrum like the sound of a distant generator. Such sound is not only amusical, it’s unreal. It’s like you played your favorite music at the same time you cranked up a signal generator. —Well, not quite: harmonic distortion is at least related to the original signal, while that signal generator would be independent of your music.

For me—and perhaps only for me—it’s much easier to live with sins of omission, rather than sins of commission. I’ve frequently had speakers that didn’t reproduce low bass; as long as the bass that’s there is well-defined and undistorted, I can live with it. It’s obvious to me that I’m missing something, but I’d rather have that than overbearing, monotonic bass, like y0u used to hear vibrating the trunk lids of Donk Impalas (is it possible that car stereo has improved more than home stereo? There’s a scary thought).

Closer to home, think of that friend who bought the $300 home theater in a box set-up and proudly wanted to demonstrate to you just how awesome Master and Commander sounded over it. Tiny woofers trying to escape their surrounds, tweeters close to flaming out: exactly what I don’t want. Nor do I want the complication of telling a friend that their gear is unlistenable, but that’s another matter.

A lot of bad sound is caused by pairing components that just don’t go together, like 2-watt SET amps and massively inefficient speakers. Think of a FIAT 500 forced to pull a U-Haul trailer filled with a collection of bowling balls: something bad is bound to happen.

I encountered my own personal standard of bad sound early on. A family friend was proudly demonstrating his Belle Klipsches driven by a ’70’s Kenwood solid-state integrated amp. I know there were decent Kenwood amps, so don’t take this as a wholesale dismissal of that pile of silver stuff you have in your garage—but this particular pairing was horrific. I did notice that the proud owner rarely even finished playing a cut, jumping from record to record as though maybe the next one would set things right. My fellow teen audiophile and I had to fight the urge to sprint from the room, while simultaneously forcing ourselves to make vague comments like, “MAN—that’s REALLY SOMETHING!!”

The something that it was, was as strident and screechy as a roomful of first-year violin students, as shudder-inducing as a bunch of drunks crunching on ice cubes (again: maybe that’s just me).Ever since that afternoon, forty-five years ago, I’ve been apprehensively sensitive to possible equipment mismatches. Don’t think that only newbies make these mistakes—some of the worst mismatches I’ve heard have been an audio shows, committed by supposed professionals. Oddly enough, the worst mismatches are often committed in the biggest rooms; sometimes, the mismatch of speaker size to room size is enough to make me pivot-turn as soon as I step into the room.

The most common show error is the use of way too large a speaker for the room: those are the rooms whose walls you can hear vibrating, a floor away (often with that same damn Master and Commander!). The too-small speaker is relatively innocuous in comparison—until the speaker is badly overdriven, anyway.

I’m curious to find out what others consider to be particularly heinous in the world of bad sound. Let me know, will you?