Torque

The house just down the hill was having a lawn party with a live blues band in attendance. I was at the back of our own home when I first heard the music drifting in. It was at just the right volume to sound as if I’d left the audio system playing in the front room, and yet—after the first second or two—I knew I was listening to live music. But how was I so sure? As I sat down and tried to work it out, I was reminded of my first “real” motorcycle.

I’ve always loved two-wheeled vehicles, human or engine powered, and until I bought my Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 in Oman, the largest motorcycle I’d ridden had a displacement of 350cc. India was, and still is, an acutely fuel efficiency conscious market, and big bikes simply wouldn’t sell. (Consider that gasoline today is currently over $4 a gallon in a country where the per capita GDP is about $6,000 against the US’s $57,000).

Though this smaller of the Sportsters was the baby of the Harley line-up, its 883cc engine had more displacement than our then family car back home in Bangalore, a little Suzuki van. I still clearly remember riding off from the Harley dealership, and experiencing that V-twin torque for the first time. It felt as if I could hitch a house to the back of the bike, and tow it.

Even at relatively low levels, the live music from that garden party had that same sensation of massive power. There was the feeling that a lot of air was being moved quickly and effortlessly. All the sounds had a fullness and texture, and it wasn’t just the drums that showed this dynamic scale but the singer’s voice, the guitars, the harmonica. (When I hear “dynamics” I tend to think of a snare drum which is overly literal, but it helps to remember that when in the vicinity of a drum kit, even one played softly, the sound of the snare is so sharp and sudden, it makes one blink, as if each beat is a puff of air in the eyes.)

I’m still developing my ear’s voice (now there’s a mixed metaphor for the ages), but am pretty sure that I’m a “leading-edge man”. Not for me warmth and rounded corners—I’d rather the system erred on the side of harshness than sacrifice snap, crack, and eyeblink.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that not a year later, I was trading the Harley for a very different motorcycle. I wasn’t nervous of large engines any more (and that slow-revving twin was easily wrung out), and had gotten used to riding in the high-speed, car-dominated city of Muscat. A Ducati 748 is a system that errs on the side of harshness alright—a race replica that rubs the texture of the road into your palms and butt, and folds you up to somehow seat you inside it rather than on it. It was high-strung and exhilarating. It took V-twin power to a whole new level, and combined it with huge amounts of headroom. I’d hit 100 miles an hour without even realizing it.

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In the last couple of years, I’ve been lucky to spend lots of time among some ultra-high-end audio systems. The flagship system at the dealership I worked for, and still help out at, is north of $500,000 retail. Scattered about the store are a few systems that clock in at least at half that price.

“Dynamics are essential in order to have the music ‘pluck your heartstrings’,” wrote Jim Smith in one of his series of “Subwoofery” articles for Copper.

Set loose in that audio wonderland, you’d imagine I’ve had quite a few moments where the music has plucked at my heartstrings. I have, but not as many as you’d think. I’ve learned that heartstrings are immune to the retail cost of whatever you’re listening to.

Thinking back now, my favorite “heartstring” moments have involved subwoofers. The first was when we were setting up a pair of top-of-the-line subs from a well-known brand, two black behemoths that looked like the rib tips from a rack of grand pianos. This was the first time that I heard what a good “sub-bass system” could do, even to a highly optimized $500,000 set-up. When done right, you don’t even know the subs are on. Until they’re turned off. Then the soundstage collapses before your disbelieving eyes. Yes, I said “eyes”–it’s almost a visual effect, so pronounced is the sense of space.

Some months later, the designer of those very subs visited us, and added subwoofers in stereo pairs to two very different systems. The first was an under-$10,000 “budget” system with bookshelf speakers. No surprises when the subwoofers took the performance to a whole different price point. The other was a system that sat somewhere around $250,000.

After the subs were set up, the designer played a track that began with some studio banter whose humor depended on some excellent, unintentional comic timing. We laughed. He turned the subs off, and played the track again. It was still funny, but we didn’t laugh. The subs went back on, and he played the track again. We laughed.

Yes, the subs actually added humor. With the subs off, the track was the playback of an event that had happened at a remote place and time. When they were on, we breathed the air of the recording space, and had an acute sense of the moment. It was as if it was happening right then in front of us. And because of that, the track was funnier with sub-bass reinforcement. It was a profound demonstration, and I knew then that my home system would one day have a pair of sub-bass units, no matter what.

Consider that when you add two subwoofers to a system, you’re bringing in as much as 1,000 or 2,000 watts of extra amplification. You’re adding significant transducer real estate—a pair of the models I’m eyeing would add 3 sq ft of driver area to my system (counting passive and active). And because you’re able to position these large pistons independent of your high frequency needs, you can use room reinforcement as a lever.

You are, in effect, moving to an even bigger engine, with huge amounts of torque. By increasing the total energy of your audio system, you’re chasing down the essence of why that band down the hill sounded unmistakably live and real, even from a distance.

After listening from the back of the house for a while, I walked out and through our gate, to stand by the wall overlooking the yard where they were playing. They were not a great  band, but even so, I stood there a long time listening to song after song, really enjoying the music.

Hey, they had dynamics on their side.