Hi-Fis, Cars, and Planes

Written by Bill Leebens

Through the years my idea of listening to a stereo has evolved, to where I’m now at the point where I expect  to be totally transported and blown away by a sound system— if that’s what I want it to do. Obviously, the little Zenith would prove inadequate for that task—just as the performance of the Wright Brothers’ plane or a Model T would fail to impress by today’s standards.

Here’s what would now be the sort of stereo which could satisfy my occasional lusts for overwhelming sonic power while still maintaining grace, beauty and sweetness. In other words: sonic purity. To me, this is an impressive modern stereo:


The IRS Vs playing Pink Floyd!!!

That little Zenith and the IRS both do the same thing: they allow you to experience the electronic reproduction of recorded music. —And yet, the potential experiences are also light years apart.

Having said that, here is the obvious, but until-now unstated fact: there is no difference in how they sound when they are both turned off. The less we demand of any of our stereos—or cars, or planes— the less their performance differences matter. Cars moving at 0 MPH or stereos playing at 0 db  are all equal in performance.

Of course, bigger, louder and faster is not always automatically the better choice. A Ferrari can be tough to drive in stop and go traffic, as in the case of this 949-horsepower accident waiting to happen —but you only have to wait about 2 minutes:


Compared to a drive in almost any other car, a ride in a La Ferrari would be a transcendent experience— just as being in a fighter jet catapulted from an aircraft carrier is light years beyond the Wright Brothers’ takeoff, or even that of a Concorde.

There are many important elements to be appreciated when comparing different stereo listening experiences, such as tone and image, but  I’ll argue that at the top of the list is POWER.

In cars and planes, we control power with throttles and accelerators. With a stereo, we use a volume control. Just as when driving I vary my gas pedal more than any other part of my car I adjust my volume control more than any other aspect of my stereo. Up and down a tiny smidge at a time, or in great big leaps and bounds all at once.

For me, beautiful lovely stereo sounds come from soft volumes and sound that’s sweet, rich and creamy. I love that. But: the overwhelming, awe-inspiring  stereo experiences I’ve had all  involve a lot of size, and a lot of volume. Without tremendous size and volume I don’t reach that escape velocity, There is no liftoff, and I don’t take flight.

Look at those IRS Vs loudspeakers: they are huge and intimidating. I am quite sure they can sound quite lovely but no one puts together a system like that for the purpose of keeping it quiet all the time. There is a whole lot more stereo there than anyone needs— especially if you intend to always obey the posted speed limit.

We use numbers to convey information, and horsepower seems to be the first thing people seem to want to know about any particular car. With stereos, we talk wattage. Horsepower and wattage seem reasonably analogous. But, I almost never hear a description of a stereo experience defined in terms of how loud a piece of music was played. While a car experience is often discussed in terms of speed/mph sound is rarely discussed measured by spl/dB.

I’d be surprised if you told me you found  your ride in a Formula 1  race-car boring— but not if you told me you never got above 30 mph. Cars become an entirely different experience depending upon the speed at which they are driven, or by the rpm to which the engine is revved.

So it would be for an audition of the IRS V.  I’d be surprised if you told me you were not impressed by your IRS audition— but not if you told me you auditioned them listening to “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window”,  played back at 50 db.

All I know is that  if I ever showed up to hear the IRS V’s I’d be  listening to a lot of sound Big and Loud, often going into the decibel triple digit range. How would I know? Easy enough. I could use a little sound meter so that when I am telling you what it was like I could give you something accurate for you to use in creating you own mental image of what the experience was like for me.

I’ll finish with this: I had put on my living room stereo for  background music while writing. I chose, almost at random, a CD by Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt playing at about 75 db. It was lovely. The CD finished and the player moved over to the next disc, which was one of my very favorites by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I found it almost annoying at that level: it did nothing for me.

I picked up my remote and just bumped up the volume to an easy sweet spot which turned out to be around 100 db— which is the big, beautiful sound I am hearing right now. The sound for me at this volume has launched.

I wonder where the IRS’ volume sweet spot would be? Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power….

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