Frankly Speaking

Seeking Clarity About Transparency

Issue 143

Back in the 1980s or maybe earlier, “transparency” became the buzzword in high-end audio. Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound was a big proponent of the term, and soon many reviewers and sycophants jumped on the idea, to the point where talking about “transparency” quickly became a tiresome cliché.

But what does “transparency” really mean?

I think most audiophiles consider transparency as having a clear window into the sound; the visual analogy being pretty much perfect here. The music is heard unobscured, rather than through a grimy sonic “window.” (Of course, our systems can only sound as good as the quality of the recording.) Certainly, we know when a component or system is not transparent – it lacks detail, spaciousness, depth and “life,” and can sound uninvolving.

Conversely, systems that let us hear deeply into the music (sometimes literally, if the recording has a deep soundstage) are considered to be transparent. Fine musical detail is revealed, often to an astonishing degree, whether it’s the way a guitarist will fingerpick each note a little differently, or the ability to hear the sound of a symphony orchestra bounce off the concert hall walls. The line between hearing a “hi-fi system” and the illusion of experiencing “real life” is thin.

 

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England. On a good, transparent recording and system, you can get a sense of a hall's acoustics. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/JimmyGuano.

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England. On a good, transparent recording and system, you can get a sense of a hall’s acoustics. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/JimmyGuano.

 

However, I don’t think transparency is necessarily the same as better resolution. But surely, if a system lets more detail through, we hear more, and it’s more transparent, right? Maybe there’s more to it.

I can’t be the only one who has mistaken brightness as better resolution, especially when first swapping a component, cartridge or cable that has more of an upper-midrange and treble emphasis than the one previously in the system, and being enamored of all the new sonic “detail” that’s “revealed.” But it’s often just an illusion of better resolution. (On the other hand, rolling off the treble will reduce sonic information.) How to tell the difference? Listen to known reference recordings to hear if you really are getting more detail, or simply more brightness.

No-brainer time: noise is the enemy of transparency, whether hum, buzz, powerline interference, tube noise, record noise or some other type of unwanted overlay. Sometimes low-level noise is insidious, and we don’t hear its effects until it’s reduced or removed. It’s the phenomenon of hearing the music against that “blacker background” that reviewers love to gush about.

Maybe some measurements-are-everything guy or gal would just tap me on the shoulder and say, “hey pal, why are you wasting everyone’s time going on about this? Just measure the input and the output waveforms and whatever distortion is present in the output is your lack of ‘transparency,’ right there.” But I think there’s more to it than that.

I think we have to consider the idea of dynamic transparency. Sure, it’s probably the same as dynamic range, and I’m probably just being too clever by half here, but recordings and systems that offer greater dynamic contrasts absolutely sound more real, involving and yes, more “transparent” to me.

Transparency can vary across the frequency range. It shouldn’t be considered some overarching thing that’s applicable to a recording or system as a whole. For example, I think we’ve all heard systems with articulate bass, and with muddy bass, and no one would argue the former is more transparent. How much of this is a result of the system’s resolution and how much is the effect of the room on the quality of the low frequencies? Good question. Oh boy, now we’ve got to deal with the concept of transparent rooms! Maybe I can get Bob Katz or Carl Tatz or somebody like that to weigh in on this in a future issue.

Can we even agree on what audio components offer greater or lesser transparency? I’ve always prized the sound of a good electrostatic or ribbon or plasma tweeter. I doubt I’d find any audiophile who’d disagree that the words “Quad ESL” and “transparent” go hand in hand. But then there’s the age-old, perhaps-never-to-be-resolved debate about vacuum tubes. Every 300B-based tube amplifier I’ve ever heard has had, for me, an almost spooky kind of you-are-there realism, a sense of hearing deeply into the sound. Is it because of the transparency and linearity of a 300B, or am I being fooled by harmonic distortion?

 

1960s Quad advertisement showing the classic ESL loudspeaker.

1960s Quad advertisement showing the classic ESL loudspeaker.

 

I’ll leave with this thought. One of the definitions of “transparent” is “easy to perceive or detect.” So, according to this less-common usage of the term, perhaps any audible improvement in an audio system essentially an improvement in transparency.

 

Russ Welton offers his thoughts on the subject in Issue 132.

Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/cottonbro.

11 comments on “Seeking Clarity About Transparency”

  1. What a wonderful descriptive analysis of the term ‘Transparency’ in the Audio Lexicon. All of the contributions that you’ve made to this industry over the years shine through In this explanation that you have presented to your readers here. I would love for you to take on the task of writing a new, holistic, highly descriptive book on the subject of Audio including a continuation of your own definitive Audio Lexicon to help us increase our technical knowledge and listening abilities as you did here…..Great job Mr. Doris!

    1. Thanks…I appreciate that very much. I’ve always been like a little kid when it comes to audio and now that I’m older I still feel the same way…to figure out how we can maximize our enjoyment of this whole audio “thing.”

      Writing a book…so much has been written about audio already but not everything! And there will be new technologies and new discoveries. Hmmm…for now, there’s my writing in Copper, around 50 articles to date and I’m not stopping yet!

    2. Regarding transparency I am reminded of the comment from Mr. Winey that to evaluate a system” Buy Tickets”. Lifting vails was a common catch phrase by HP et. al. Then there was hearing the back wall. Overdoing the upper mid-range can spot light transparency to the detriment of what the orchestra sound is. A graphic equalizer can turn the listener into a pseudo conductor. The object should be to record the orchestra in the acoustic of the venue alla Mercury and reproduce it accurately and enjoy the music and not whether you can hear the violist’s finger hit the fingerboard. It’s the music not the audiophiles’ craving to discover the gnats eyelashes that should be the ideal.

  2. I fixed a typo in the following sentence: “For example, I think we’ve all heard systems with articulate bass, and with muddy bass, and no one would argue the former is more transparent.” “Former” was formerly “latter…” oops.

  3. Don’t you sometimes think “detail” ends up being hyper-detailing and not realistic? Even though electrostatic speakers (I owned a pair for 20 years) are often described as “transparent”, I think few would argue that they accurately present musical dynamics; are they truly “transparent” then? Most horn speakers are very (realistically) dynamic, but imaging and tonal balance are much more difficult to achieve.

    I think your comment about “hearing deeply into the music” should be the most appropriate definition of “transparency”. Of course no existing system really gets us there but some can get close; dynamic without being aggressive, detailed without being unrealistically so, imaging that makes you feel as if you were really in the recording venue (and not in some imagined “deep space”). In short, musically involving.

  4. This is a very thought provoking and well written article, Frank. thanks. The great Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once quipped in frustration that he didn’t know how to define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. That is how I have always felt about the term “transparent” as it applies to sound reproduction systems. And it is at least one of the reasons why I have never been a big fan of HP.

  5. Good afternoon Frank!
    You said something in the article about very deep sound stage and transparency with 300B tubes.
    I don’t know about the tubes made by other companies, but I do know that the tubes made by Western Electric can do that.
    Were those the brand of 300B tubes that you were listening to in your amplifiers?

    1. Hi John! I’ve heard a few types of 300B tubes but unfortunately I can’t remember the brands. I spent a lot of time with a Cary Audio CAD-300SEI amplifier in the late 1980s that did not have Western Electric tubes, but I don’t remember what brand the tubes were. I loved the sound of it but couldn’t afford to buy it. I’ve heard various other amplifiers at audio shows and I’m pretty sure at least one of them had reissue Western Electric 300B tubes. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard any original Western Electric 300Bs.

  6. I also would have to say great article. But transparency of a system is the whole SYSTEM as you alluded to: from source to electronics to speakers to wires the room in which your systems lives and interacts with. It takes the whole magilla to work its magic.

  7. Transparency is one of those descriptive attributes that one may only contemplate if the more basic characteristics – hum, driver resonances, electronic glare, and non-existent imaging are not concealing whatever transparency might be. In my experience, if the sound fools me by its realism to forget it comes from a stereo, then it is transparent. Most high end attributes stand by themselves, but transparency is conditional!

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