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Totally Transparent

Issue 132

When it comes to conversation, occasionally we may preface what we say with, “To be honest, I….” This figure of speech seems totally natural to us and endeavours to add validity and trustworthiness to what comes out of our mouth. In fact, we would almost never start a conversation by saying the opposite. “Well, if I was going to lie to you, I would say….” But then, even if we did, it would also serve to underscore that what we were saying was honest and representative of what we wanted to express. You could say we enjoy and benefit from transparency.

It’s what we desire and want in our communication, and it’s what many of us strive to elicit from our listening experience from hi-fi. But just what is transparency anyway and is it even possible to achieve in the purest sense of the word, let alone in audio?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary has a number of definitions of transparency. One is, “the quality of something, such as glass, that allows you to see through it.” This definition serves well to help an observer understand the reality from a situation as it really is, even if there’s a physical barrier present. You could say that in some sense it would be as if there were no barrier there at all.

Another, perhaps more interesting definition is, “the quality of something such as an excuse or a lie that allows someone to see the truth easily.” Here, the barrier is obvious and because it is so evident, you can see around it or understand the truth of a situation because you factor the lie into your evaluation. Have you ever experienced someone telling you a story which is so exaggerated that you just know the truth has been embellished? However, their storytelling style adds color and holds your attention as a result. We’ve all experienced this, from the presentation of an entertaining ventriloquist’s dummy to the fisherman’s tale of “the one that got away.”

The problem is that it’s not always as easy to get transparency when there are layers of frosting or dirt on the glass or variations on the story being told. The band Extreme produced an album entitled Three Sides to Every Story, highlighting the fact that perspective can be different based on the view of the observer, aside from what’s actually present and what the desired result is of what someone wants to convey.

Like this rainy window, some audio systems aren't as transparent as we might like them to be. Courtesy of Pexels/Andrew Neel.

Like this rainy window, some audio systems aren’t as transparent as we might like them to be. Courtesy of Pexels/Andrew Neel.

What’s the point? These analogies can apply to audio. To get a true transparent representation of the sound we want to hear from our systems is a great challenge, and more often than not, the sound will be designed according to the house style of a given product manufacturer and who their target audience is. This will influence their choice of the components used in their products, whether drivers or tubes or passive components, and ultimately the sound or voicing that they want you to hear.

And that’s OK. After all, it’s their product, and their story being told their way.

“Voicing,” (to adjust for producing the proper musical sounds, according to one dictionary definition), is significant. For example, some manufacturers will specifically tailor the band of frequencies in their power amps where the human voice and vocal range sits, to be boosted or made slightly warmer. Why? It’s done to appeal. The vocals in a recording are usually the first point of reference for many listeners, particularly as this is where so many human emotions are conjured and conveyed. And if a component is emotionally engaging, then the relative importance of transparency in the overall reproduction of the mix may even be considered of less significance. When you listen to such a system, you may conclude that it sounds good, because the emotion of the piece has reached out and touched you and so the goal of the designer has been achieved.

So, this raises the question: do we even want transparency anyway? Should the head (perfectly clear audio reproduction) rule the heart (imperfect but engaging sound)? We are talking about music here…

For me at least, in many ways it’s a matter of balance, and importantly, being able to make an honest and informed comparative assessment of an audio component, preferably over a period of time. So how can you strike a good balance? If possible, listen to lots of equipment and take advantage of the knowledge of trusted sources of professional advice.

The famous Irish rock band U2 penned a song, “Get Out of Your Own Way,” which serves to identify a healthy ethos for preamp and power amp designers when it comes to transparency in audio gear. One the one hand, you don’t want the product to be so much of a barrier to the integrity of what is genuinely there on the recording that its performance suffers, but neither do you want a component that’s extremely revealing of sonic detail but is so clinical that the sound lacks any personality.

The original Quad electrostatic loudspeaker, a benchmark of transparency to this day.

The original Quad electrostatic loudspeaker, a benchmark of transparency to this day.

Experienced audiophiles know that value of direct comparison between products can be invaluable, not of least of all because such comparisons can reduce the biases we may have adopted through our fickle sonic memories and from previous personal preferences. It also makes it easier to make comparisons between a component that’s lacking in transparency and another product is where the differences in definition and clarity can more easily be heard.

Many times, the choice between transparency and other important factors, such as a good tonal balance, can be a trade-off, and of course budget is always a consideration. But sometimes, the process of comparison will enable a superior piece of equipment’s character traits to simply leap off the page. Let’s use this analogy: a diamond can be suitably impressive. But when it’s placed alongside another, more cleanly-cut diamond with better clarity and fewer inclusions, you can see the difference. The better diamond reflects more light – it shines more. It has better quality and is more transparent. Sometimes you can have it all. (And, no – I don’t own any diamonds.)

Is the initial diamond any less impressive? I guess that relates to the emotions linked to who is wearing it.

***

Here’s a look at transparency and voicing from a different musical aspect.

This became a tradition among some flamenco guitar players upon receiving a new guitar. A new instrument may sound subdued and muted, dry and stifled. It may have limited reverberation and sustain, along with a lack of presence and projection from the soundboard. In order to help break in the guitar and encourage the instrument to develop its voice, the practice is to place a small battery-powered transistor radio inside the instrument and have the radio play flamenco music for hours on end. Over time, the guitar would open up and become more sympathetically resonant with similar frequencies to those of what it had been subjected to from the radio. The vibrations would align the wood structure of the guitar, which would then more readily reproduce the body and character not just of a flamenco guitar, but of one that had been played for many more hours than had physically been invested by the owner.

Andrés Segovia breaking in a guitar the old-fashioned way in 1962.

Andrés Segovia breaking in a guitar the old-fashioned way in 1962.

If the guitar had not been broken in sufficiently, the owner could tell simply by playing it and could feel if the instrument was fully speaking to them as it should. Was it sustaining and had the bass frequencies become fat and round? Was there harmonic detail in the trebles and single notes? If not, the owner would place the radio back inside to continue tailoring the guitar’s tonal personality until it had become fully developed. This process helped to speed up the maturation of the instrument. Are you sceptical? Then check out this Guitar World review of the ToneRite play-in device for acoustic guitars.

***

If you can know how you are shaping your sound as you build your system, and what “voicings” you’re seeking and how they’ve been applied to an audio component, you can be more confident in the refinements you make along the way. And the more transparent or neutral your foundations are, the more easily you can hear the subsequent changes are that you make to your personal system.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/StockSnap.

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