Critical Listening at Home: Audiophile High-Fidelity Sound Reproducing Systems and the Recording Industry

Critical Listening at Home: Audiophile High-Fidelity Sound Reproducing Systems and the Recording Industry

Written by J.I. Agnew

Meet George Vardis, a retired biologist with a master's degree in food technology, residing in Athens, Greece. George is a sophisticated man with many interests, including sailing, photography, motorbikes, and music. He plays the piano and the guitar, but his career always steered well clear of the music industry. He was never a recording artist, nor was he a recording engineer. In fact, he has probably never seen a recording studio in real life.

Yet, when he listens to music at home, which he regularly does for pleasure, he expects a seriously realistic experience. George values good recordings, and expects to be able to reproduce them accurately at home. Through the years, he has owned or auditioned a wide selection of the world's finest audio equipment, not least due to his membership of various audio clubs, where it is customary that members invite each other for listening sessions. Some of his audio equipment was originally intended for professional facilities, offering exceptional detail and accuracy.

Exquisite Audio Equipment

His present setup offers a very high level of performance, much higher actually than many professional recording and mastering facilities.

George is listening through a custom horn loudspeaker system, with the low frequencies pumped out of Altec 416 drivers mounted on open baffles. The mid-bass, coming out of the red horns (see the header image), uses RCA MI-9584A compression drivers. The mid-high drivers are Altec 288s, and a pair of Coral H-104s take care of the high frequencies.

The passive crossover was designed by Manolis Proestakis of Tune Audio (an internationally renowned high-end loudspeaker manufacturer from Greece) and the entire system is driven by custom single-ended vacuum tube power amplifiers, using original Western Electric 300B directly heated triodes.

He has a variety of sources, including a Sony SCD1 SACD player, a McIntosh MR75 tuner along with an Audio Research SP11 MKII preamp, but his real passion is for vinyl records and magnetic tape.

His setup for vinyl record reproduction is quite impressive. He runs an EMT 927 turntable, fitted with an Ortofon RMG 309 tonearm and an EMT TSD15 cartridge, along with the vacuum tube EMT 139st b phono stage. Exactly, a pure vacuum-tube signal path!

As this was not enough, he also has an EMT 930 turntable, fitted with an EMT tonearm, with another EMT TSD15 moving coil cartridge and an EMT 155st solid-state phono stage.

There's also an EMT 950 turntable somewhere there, along with a Linn Sondek LP12, and I was told he used to also own a Thorens TD 160 turntable.

While some smaller tape machines (Nagra, Revox, and others) had previously paraded through his system, he eventually decided to take the plunge and go for a full-size master tape reproduction system. For the task, he got not one, but two Studer A80 1/4-inch tape machines. One came from the BBC in the UK and the other one most likely from a Dutch broadcasting facility. The latter is the VU version, fitted with VU meters.

The Necessity of Maintenance: Measuring and Calibrating

Most importantly, George fully understands that in order to achieve truly accurate sound reproduction, it is not enough to simply purchase good audio equipment. The important part is to be able and willing to regularly check and ensure that it is perfectly calibrated. Properly calibrated, cheaper equipment will easily outperform poorly-maintained professional equipment. This takes some skill and some dedicated measurement instruments.


Some of the measuring equipment in George's lab.


So, through some consulting sessions with Agnew Analog, George has become proficient at using the modest collection of measurement instruments he has acquired. In the picture you can see a Tektronix CRT oscilloscope and a Rigol digital oscilloscope, a QuantAsylum 401 analyzer, and an Audio Precision Portable One dual domain audio analyzer. What you do not see in the picture are a couple of measurement microphones and matching preamplifiers, plus a noise generator, distortion analyzer, multiple test records (including the FloKaSon Testtone Record we talked about in Absolute Polarity for Disk Records), test tapes (including some custom Agnew Analog Reference Instruments calibration tapes), and other useful items to have around in any critical listening environment, whether domestic or professional.

High Expectations: Audio Engineers and Music Sales

Having introduced George and his passion for good sound, it is worth pointing out that he is not alone. All around the world, others like him with a similar passion for audio have put together similarly impressive sound reproduction systems, and have learned how to properly calibrate them to ensure accurate reproduction

These people represent a sector of the potential audience for new recordings, released into the market. They evidently take the whole notion of listening to music very seriously.

However, do the professionals working on recordings nowadays take it just as seriously? Is their equipment able to produce recordings that would satisfy a serious critical listener? Is the equipment used in the studios nowadays of the same caliber? Is it being actively maintained and calibrated to ensure accurate performance? Is George going to hear something horrible in your recording that you never know was there, because your monitoring system is not as revealing? Will our recordings, nowadays, meet the expectations of the serious listener, who has regularly experienced truly good recordings?

Frankly, many will fail to meet such expectations. More and more professional audio facilities nowadays consider it "uneconomical" to invest in serious equipment, to pay the wages of seriously skilled engineers, and to maintain all the appropriate operating and calibration procedures, not to mention the required measurement instruments. What they fail to understand, though, is that the relatively minor additional effort and expense required to do things properly greatly expands the commercial potential of their product. In simple words, good recordings sell more, because they are up to the standards of individuals who simply will not buy a mediocre (or worse) recording. Such individuals actually make up a considerable percentage of the music-buying public, especially in these times of free online streaming: those who do not care about sound quality anyway no longer need to buy music.

If a recording can be made to sound good on an accurate, high-end sound system, it will also sound good on any lesser system. Remember, the less-accurate systems actually hide a lot of the detail, which can often hide the faults of a mediocre recording, for an unsuspecting audience. But you cannot hide these faults from an accurate system. On such systems, when a recording is good, it will sound amazing. But they tend to be merciless with bad recordings.


Another view of George's system (also pictured in the header image).


Keeping Up the Century-Old Tradition of Excellence

As a professional audio engineer, whenever I am working on a recording, or designing/developing/restoring professional audio equipment, I always aim to keep George (and others like him) happy. This is the minimum standard for a professional audio facility, in my view. We need to ensure that our equipment, methods and quality control are adequate to satisfy the critical listener.

Apart from the philosophical aspect of my position (always trying to better myself, always working to the very best of my abilities, and trying to reduce useless waste in the form of substandard products, that will either never sell or end up in a landfill way too soon), it is also a very necessary survival tactic in a crowded and competitive market. If you want to last long, you simply have to be that good!

To put it bluntly, everyone and their dog can record an album nowadays. How is yours going to stand out? Listeners like George are the benchmark. They have the ears, the years and the gear to tell apart a good recording from a mediocre one.

As professionals in audio or music, it is our duty to work to the highest-possible standards and not settle for anything less. We must produce recordings and equipment worthy of being reproduced and used by the critical listener if we expect our industry to survive in the long run.

We are now fortunate to be able to enjoy, as professionals or simply as listeners, the results of the immense body of experience, knowledge and research, which has been generously handed down generation after generation throughout centuries of music and audio: This includes the music itself, musical instrument development, musicianship, performance skills, composition, the phonograph cylinder, the gramophone record, electronic amplification, the vinyl record, optical recording, magnetic wire recording, magnetic tape recording, constant improvements to transducer technology, all the way to the modern high-definition digital audio formats.

It is now our turn to significantly contribute to this glorious history in a meaningful manner. We must preserve this history, actively participate in its evolution, and hand it down to the next generation to do likewise with.


This article was originally published on the Agnew Analog Reference Instruments blog and is used by permission.

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