Building foundations

March 12, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

I am not a building contractor but I’ve watched enough new construction to know a few things, like the importance of building a strong foundation. Constructing a beautiful home atop a shaky base is just asking for trouble. (Though, the opposite is equally true)

Top to bottom foundational strength matters in our music systems too. The best speakers in the world can’t blossom without a solid foundation of electronics to power them and vice versa.

I have looked at systems displaying an inverted pyramid of products far too many times. Top heavy in one direction or another: Great speakers with weak electronics or conversely, great foundational electronics with wimpy loudspeakers.

I guess the point of this post is to remind us that foundations aren’t always from the ground up.

What would you find if you took an honest evaluation of your setup? Would yours be a pyramid, hourglass or a solid rectangular shape?

The ideal, of course, is equal strength from beginning to end. Start at the AC wall socket and judge the chain all the way to your ear.

If you find your foundations solid you are fortunate. Few systems I have looked at are end-to-end strong.

There’s nothing quite so satisfying as enjoying the benefits of a rock solid end-to-end foundation.

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21 comments on “Building foundations”

  1. As in most cases, Paul, your analogies are weak and most ambiguous. Indeed, pure mains supply is mandatory. But if the room acoustics are poor you will never get a satisfying sound quality even with the best mains power supply. Same problem with a poor matching of speaker and amp. And what about the EMI problem caused by the components’ power supplies and the cables acting as antennas? And what is a rectangular shaped stereo system? Is it most liable to wobble in the wind as high towers and skyscrapers do in contrast to pyramids? Meaning in your analogy a stereo system without vibration control elements? I am confused.

    1. met·a·phor
      /ˈmedəˌfôr,ˈmedəˌfər/Submit

      a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable

      1. Metaphors are abstract in nature, the parallel being how the subjects tie together representing either a person, place or thing and the usual who, what, where, when, how & why …

    2. @ paulsquirrel

      I do not think today’s post is ambiguous or weak.

      The moderator, summarizing his idea saying: from the wall socket to the ear, is referring to the entire chain, by saying from the socket, it is understood that corresponds to the line conditioner or regenerator, and by saying: “all the way to your ear” I understood that he wanted to mean everything, including the reflections of the sound room, (necessary so that sound waves can reach the ear) the same as among most audiophiles, contemplates acoustic treatment, which is part of the chain.

      I understood that it refers to the whole chain without it being necessary to detail everything.

      The good listener few words!!

  2. I do not think today’s post is ambiguous or weak.

    The moderator, summarizing his idea saying: from the wall socket to the ear, is referring to the entire chain, by saying from the socket, it is understood that corresponds to the line conditioner or regenerator, and by saying: “all the way to your ear” I understood that he wanted to mean everything, including the reflections of the sound room, (necessary so that sound waves can reach the ear) the same as among most audiophiles, contemplates acoustic treatment, which is part of the chain.

    I understood that it refers to the whole chain without it being necessary to detail everything.

    The good listener few words!!

  3. If I was to use a metaphor to illustrate Paul’s post it would not be static object like a house, or a linked chain where all elements have equal function.

    In my minds eye a race car is a perfect audio system metaphor.

    All elements of a race car must work together in balance and unison for success. Chassis, engine, gearbox, suspension, brakes and tires share equal importance to winning a race. The most powerful engine is worthless without the proper components to transmit that power to the ground.

    But what about of the quality of the recording and the accoustics of the room?

    The best race car is only as good as it’s driver, and every race track requires retuning of all the cars elements.

    Maybe even Mr Squirrel will be happy.

  4. Pyramids were last built in Egypt millenia ago. An old analogy. Think of the crash cell of a Formula 1 car, everything in one small safe unit impervious to outside impacts. Add speaker cables and speakers.

  5. What is the foundation of a successful machine to duplicate a sound heard at one place, at one time from a recording at another place at another time. The answer is scientific knowledge of sound, acoustics, and hearing. This foundation tells you what you have to do. The next element of the foundation is engineering skill, the ability to implement solutions to those requirements, to meet them in a machine. Meeting them within the limitations of human hearing is necessary but you must meet ALL of them at the same time. Exceeding them adds no usable enhancement. Achieving goals that are beyond or irrelevant to what humans can hear adds nothing but cost and may compromise other elements you can hear. Another element of the foundation is the ability to measure all of those requirements and to compare what you have to duplicate with what you have created. This is the first test of success or failure. The final test is the subjective one. To pass that test you must have subjects who are familiar enough with the original or its like to be able to make an informed judgment as to whether or not the supposed duplicate is like the original, or if it isn’t, what elements it lacks or got wrong.

    How does the state of the art compare to this foundation of knowledge and skill. To paraphrase the Benson and Hedges cigarette ad of decades ago: “You’ve got a long way to go baby.” Obviously those who say it can’t be done because so far they know of no one who has or can do it are going to fail. They all lack a strong foundation of pertinent knowledge. However expert they are in other fields like designing amplifiers, or CD players, the parts of the foundation that are missing will cause the whole structure built on top of it to collapse. So why do all these smart people fail to build an adequate foundation? Are they too lazy? Is it beyond their level of skill? Whatever the answer what matters is that if you don’t fully and accurately understand the problem you will never find the answer.

  6. Beginning to end synergy, at what ever level of balance you’re able\willing to invest, would be controllable and desirable. However, the furthermost upstream source, the musicians, venue or recording studio, still has the greatest impact on what you’ll be hearing….choose wisely! 🙂

  7. Foundations aren’t always from the ground up – since when? Today’s point that good speakers are undercut by poor electronics, and vice-versa – take your pick – suggests that the notion, or metaphor, of a good foundation is not apt for audio. Is that the point of today’s post? A discussion benefits from a straight-foward foundational presentation.

  8. The best way to insure the foundational strength of the playback system is high efficiency speakers. This lessens the load on the house wiring, power amplifier and speaker cabling, in the architectural analogy reaching greater peaks with a strong, slender, lightweight structure.

    The best foundation for listening is ROOM ACOUSTICS – the kind that are designed in by architectural acousticians and built by acoustic specialists. (Note: most acoustic consultants over-simplify the problem to the frequency domain)

    The best way to insure the foundation of the CONTENT is minimalist NCP recordings (not Blumlein). The most spatial information we know how to fold into two channels is based on timing: waveform replication of musical consonants (transient and phase response), inter-aural timing of direct and reflected vectors, and time of flight of echoes (>100 times as much real stereo information as pan pots). Every knob and process that changes the sound except for one has mathematically inherent TEMPORAL DISTORTION, which translates to SPATIAL DISTORTION.

    The only foundational tools of audio engineers, including mastering engineers, are mic pair selection and placement and volume controls. All other mixing and mastering tools are distortion.

    1. If you have a big room and a small amplifier I would say yes to efficient speakers being one of the most important foundations but only if the speakers don’t trade off too much of what make the best speakers sound great.

      Efficient speakers allow the speakers to play fairly loud in some lower powered amplifiers comfort zone. Some amplifiers comfort zone is mated well to lesser efficient speakers. A lot of it depends on your room and the level you enjoy playing your music.

      I like speakers that sound good when playing them at moderate to low levels and believe me many are not capable of sounding good at all levels just like many amplifiers are not.

      It’s about achieving synergy in the room you are playing your system in. There are some great speakers in the 84 to 89 db efficiency range that trade off some efficiency to get other areas of the sound right. 90% of the time we are listening to our sound system in the 85 to 95 db range and it shouldn’t be a problem for any good amplifier to drive any speakers to those levels.

  9. Only in the world of audio can the foundation be construed so not to be on the bottom. In other words what a system is built upon.

    If you have a sh** recording as the source, then the more that is preserved through the chain the worse it’s liable to sound.

    It’s no wonder analogies are hard to apply.

  10. The only solid foundation for building anything is knowledge. Engineers are taught to look at the forest as well as the flora and fauna. If you don’t begin to understand the forest and focus only on the individual plants and animals you will never understand how the forest works in synergy to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Each part has a role in the overall scheme. Change one thing and everything else changes too. It is only by this method that you can begin to understand a system. In nature, forests evolve in a way that is best suited for their survival under prevailing conditions. If conditions change, then the forest must change by adapting or die. These principles apply to just about everything. Living organisms, buildings, galaxies, cars, stereo systems. The first key to unlock the door is studying a problem at its most basic level. The refinements and tweaks come much later. If you focus on one or a few or even all of the elements tweaking them and nothing else you really won’t solve any problems. Isn’t that what is happening here to this industry?

  11. In some places like China some people don’t know how to design and build a foundation for a building. Here are some visual results. You may have to copy and pasted the entire URL on your browser.

    https://images.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search;_ylt=AwrC3L5pZ4hcY3QAvasPxQt.;_ylu=X3oDMTB0N2Noc21lBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNwaXZz?p=building+collapses+in+china&type=20181028_ch_mtd_0fb92c55_0b06_40a5_83cf_05dba37bf49f&hspart=SGMedia&hsimp=yhs-sgmedia_maps&ei=UTF-8&fr=yhs-SGMedia-sgmedia_maps

  12. Yep, like the old saying, “a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. ” You have to get all of it right for it to sound right. When making the stew a little too much of this or not enough of that is all it takes to ruin it. There’s a lot more to Hi Fi then just getting the frequency response right and add a lot of watts to it. Many people have never experienced what it sounds like when it’s done right regardless of how much money they spent.

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