Controversy Corner ?

Written by Jim Smith

Part One:  Past 50? Is your hearing still good enough to worry about your system’s sound quality?

I’ll never forget these intertwined events. It was in the early 1980s. I was recording the Alabama Symphony for the Birmingham National Public Radio affiliate.

Several leading union musicians (from the Symphony tape committee) and the conductor would visit my shop one night each month. I’d play back the master recordings that I had recently made of concerts that were to be broadcast. Their job was to pick the best performance. Then I would prepare the broadcast master from my 30 I.P.S. analog master.

I came to know and to spend some time around the conductor. I’d say he was in his late ‘60s-to-early-‘70s at that time. In our informal meetings, he’d have a problem with discrimination, which is common for older folks. In this case, discrimination is the term for being able to listen to someone and understand him while others are talking at the same time.  This was especially noticeable in a crowded restaurant.

However, before I tell you my main point, you need to know one more thing:

It’s REALLY LOUD on stage with a full orchestra when it’s playing power music. I once went out onstage while doing a test recording during a dress rehearsal for Gustav Holst’s The Planets. As luck would have it, it was during “Uranus,” one of the loudest sections.

I had measured the peak sound pressure levels in the audience. I knew they were at least 95 dB. But up on stage, standing next to the conductor, with all the brass and percussion wailing away, I was shocked at how loud it was! It felt like my hair was being blown back like that old Maxell tape ad!

Of course, someone who has been exposed to these incredible sound levels for nearly 50 years is most likely to have some significant hearing damage. Add to that the age factor, and this man should have been lucky to hear an ambulance siren!

In spite of his age, and extended exposure to loud sounds, during our listening sessions at my shop, he always picked up on problems, often before the much younger musicians (with theoretically far better hearing capability).

Once, in the middle of a Beethoven Symphony #6 rehearsal, I saw him tell a second violinist several rows back to retune. On more than one occasion in various rehearsals, he’d have to call somebody on a blown entrance when the full orchestra was wailing away!

It always amazed me that he could hear so precisely during the playback sessions and during the rehearsals (and obviously during the performances), especially when he was noticeably affected hearing-wise by noisy people who were talking nearby in a restaurant!

My point is that age, and even exposure to lifelong loud levels, seems not to be the only indicator as to whether a trained listener can still hear. For example, I often sit with younger men and women, teaching them about sound, or just kicking back listening to music. I’m past 60, but I can reliably hear things that they miss entirely.

FWIW – It’s also why I think that middle-aged & older audio reviewers do not need to publish an audiologist’s hearing exam.  What will that tell us, if they can reliably pick up on things that a less experienced younger person (with technically better hearing) cannot?

So don’t worry if you’re past 50. It just means that you’re experienced!


Part Two: The one thing that your system must have to be Musically Satisfying

If Copper had a Controversy Corner, that’s where I would place this tip. But I can’t find it, so I put it here:

In my years of experience in voicing systems to rooms, I’ve found that a system must have a flat-to-slightly-elevated response curve in the critical octave from approximately 192 Hz to 384 Hz. Yes, I said it could be slightly elevated – much preferred over a similar amplitude dip in this critical region.

Of course, if a system covers the area properly, there’s no need to be concerned. But not all do.

In fact, there is a famous loudspeaker manufacturer who routinely has a slight depression in this frequency response for most of its models.  Some audiophiles admire its ‘precision’ while others find the sound musically uninspiring.

As mentioned above, this range is from one-half octave below middle C—(when the scale is 256 Hz)—to one-half octave above it. Therefore, the area between approximately 192 Hz and 384 Hz is the musical octave in question.

When a speaker (or electronic component or cable) seems to be lean in this area, the sound will usually prove to be boring musically. Amazingly, components that are lean in this area are often admiringly described as highly resolved, precise, articulate, etc. My description? BORING…

But when this region is either flat, or perhaps even elevated by a very slight amount, the music is infinitely more involving. Strings have more body. Brass will have more “weight,” and a more “burnished” tone.

Orchestral music will have a balance (and subjective power response) more akin to live sound in a concert hall

Vocals will have much more palpable presence. That “reach out and touch it” impression.

The sound will be lusher. Guitars will ring out with a beauty that almost touches your soul. In short, you’ll find yourself affected by the music.

Aside from addressing smooth bass in the 25–300 Hz region, this octave is probably the most important frequency response area that a component or system must get right for ultimate satisfaction (a big IMO goes here, of course). For example, if a system is exceptionally detailed or has powerful bass, but it doesn’t get this octave right, it’ll be fatiguing to listen to over a period of time.

Other than checking bass performance in the “boundary dependent region,” this is the only other instance where I might recommend using a Real Time Analyzer. If you suspect a slight problem, it’s often useful to determine if perhaps there’s a subtle dip in response in this frequency range at your listening seat.

If so, I’d experiment with seating position, or maybe speaker positioning. A slight reduction in stereo separation can often add the needed touch-up to offset system problems in this area.

My ultimate—long term—recommendation would be to replace any components that fall into this category. But I’d wait until virtually everything else related to voicing the system to the room has been done. You wouldn’t want to arrive at a wrong conclusion, needlessly spending money on a new amplifier, and still find a similar problem.

I’ve observed this phenomenon for many years. I wish I could tell you why it’s so, but I don’t know. I just know it is. For me, it’s foundational for ultimate musical satisfaction.

I have often thought that if I were a designer of electronics, I might even consider introducing about a 0.25 dB–0.50 dB gentle rise in the frequency response for this octave. Especially for those precise (but thin) sounding electronics out there (you know who they are).



These comments are edited & excerpted from Get Better Sound, and used with the author’s permission. 🙂
You can also read Jim’s work at his website, .

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2