August 17, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Low distortion?


DC to light frequency response?


Noise low enough that only the dead can hear it?


Even after all the checkboxes have been filled out and the final audio product has passed all the tests, what remains may or may not sound great.

That's because we haven't yet figured out the appropriate checkbox for sound quality.

We still have to listen.

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32 comments on “Checkboxes”

  1. Wouldn’t the best sound quality be achieved when the movement of the recording microphone’s membrane is exactly reproduced by the membrane of the loudspeaker? Thus the tiny membrane of a headphone or ear-phone (IEM) should best suited for this task. Now compare the more or less strange arrangement and geometry of a multi-way loudspeaker and the infinite elements in the recording and reproduction chain inducing all kind of distortions! Now what is the most effective approach tackling the inherent sound degraders? Probably starting to improve the loudspeaker’s design! However there are some who start exchanging interconnects. I recommend top tier headphones as a reference for resolution of finest details.

  2. After all the years I tend to classify equipment into “somehow limited at a point” and “with high potential”. Everything else regarding final sound characteristics being a matter of HW combination and room.

    And surprisingly there are quite some very famous and expensive components with very good checkbox results, which sound great in medium tweaked out setups, but don’t have the highest potential. And then there can be others which strongly grow with improving setups.

    I didn’t experience many correlations to checkboxes so far for this.

  3. Ticking boxes. Have experimented with speaker and room tuning.
    I remember a time 30 plus years ago when a British hi fi journalist recommended thin speaker cable, then specifically solid copper wire, thin of course.
    James Hughes, it was.
    Trying that with some success.
    However, now running normal gauge cable to the input and replacing the bass to treble pins with 16 gauge wire.
    Finally, ticking another box, inserting positive speaker cable to bass and negative to treble for a better response.
    Interesting cure for those 20-200Hz room modes.
    Getting closer.
    Speakers: MA Bronze 6s.

  4. Sound quality. The buzzwords that drive the mid to high end audio market.
    Always better sound quality…. Mostly driven by equipment from a manufacturers standpoint.

    From where I sit equipment is important up to and including speakers. But that being said It’s the interaction of the room with the speakers that has the biggest overall effect. (Headphones and their associated equipment offer as many choices. So in either case which one offers the best sound quality?)

    In my experience electronics may bring out details and contribute to overall smoothness and presentation, but ‘tuning’ the room can bring out the ‘maximum’ sound quality of what ever equipment one has.

    I’m guessing there are as many definitions of sound quality as there are people to define it. There will be much consensus of the definition, but there will always be disagreement as very few actually hear the same.

    1. Mike,

      Totally agree! IMO, equipment (source-components-wiring-speakers) contributes 50% to the "sound quality", with the listening room acoustics and set up being the other 50%!

      Using active EQ can help, but I prefer to go all natural with my room's acoustics first! Get the room right and the 2-channel magic can happen much easier and faster!!

      1. Theo,

        I’m not sure about percentages. Over the last few years I played extensively with the room with mostly the same equipment. From undamped to over damped. From absorbing treatment to diffusing to various combinations of the two. The overall sound quality changes with each room change. At the same time changing equipment in front of the speakers changes sound quality.
        The part of the sound quality that changes differs between the room and the equipment.

        1. Did the same 2 years ago Mike! After 6 weeks of trial/error with absorbers and diffraction panels, ended up with the room's natural ambient acoustics (150 to 200 millisecond reverb with deep/tight bass response in the sweet spot and open 3D soundstaging). Percentage of weight can swing a little either way, just depends on the equipment and the listening room of choice.

          To that degree, now I can better identify audible advantages/disadvantages of component changes! 😉

  5. [...we haven’t yet figured out the appropriate checkbox for sound quality.]

    Suffice to say, being individuals with varying life experiences, musical taste and limited resources, our perceptions and expectations are different and what you like I may not! Because of our uniqueness, We all Hear differently and listening will Always be the Final Checkbox!

    Because "WE" are the Final Checkbox, PS Audio's component development sharing/openness, overall business philosophy/dedication and generous listen/return policies are all paramount to offering long term consumer satisfaction!!

  6. I'm about to begin the journey of another "check box". I've installed REW (Room EQ Wizard) software and have a USB microphone that's compatible with the software. After watching a recent John Darko YT video I realized I've gone to great pains getting frequency response mostly ironed out but have no way of measuring the RT60 (reverberation time for ~200Hz to 2kHz to decay by 60 dB). Don't want the room "too live" but also not "dead".

    I've seen others on this forum use REW to great effect and I'm hoping to find my somewhat "seat of the pants" approach to room treatments so far are not too far off. Based on listening it's pretty great but perhaps there's that last fine tune of subwoofer integration and further FR adjustment with the LMS (loudspeaker management system).

    Wish me luck and please support if/when I get a bit lost. I'm considering additional room treatment likely more diffusion than absorption (and perhaps a second sub; requires negotiation with my very reasonable wife).

  7. I appreciate from a bit of an inside view the effort involved in voicing equipment, as a friend of mine has his own line of amps/preamps. I from time to time listened as those final refinements get made. From my observations, it’s pretty easy to get the solid base of really good sound. The adjustments that get made for that final 10 percent refinement are agonizing. Some internal component changes take a bit to break in, and you wouldn’t want to change too many at one time. Sometimes a change sounds good and first and gets worse, but some times the opposite.

    More than that though, is that your ears also need to “break in” to hearing something different. From the several iterations I have been a part of, I’m convinced that more than 50% of what people think is “component break in” from an equipment change is really your hearing adjusting to something new.

    1. +1 on your theory that "component break in" is actually your hearing/brain interface adjusting to something different. This may also explain the "upgrade-itus" many of us are plagued with. Need to feed that "different" = "better" monster perhaps.

      1. I have often wondered why I do not suffer from different = better. In the 50 years I have been doing audio starting with a very basic system which I completely change about once every 14 to 15 years. They first two upgrades ( 1986 and 2002 ) were everything got changed at the same time, and next to nothing was carried over. Only the last upgrade ( 2015 to 2019 ) did I do one item at a time. This is because the base system from 2002 was good enough that upgrading each piece individually made more sense. And, I kept almost all of the cables from the 2002 system.

  8. When I was young everything was black and white. If equipment had a great spec it had a great sound, obviously, or so I thought then. Things are a little or a lot more complicated these days. However, I still find it difficult to accept how say, two amplifiers with exactly the same spec sound different. It’s not a demonstration I have actively sought out though. That being the case, the problem lies with specifications being a useless tool when making equipment choices. Which is what we are being reminded of in today’s post.

    1. Richtea,

      For a long time while in my youth trying to justify why some older equipment sounded as good or better than new equipment, I espoused the belief that the difference had to do with the test equipment. When older systems were spec’d, the test equipment used back then didn’t have the resolution of todays test equipment. When I read specs now they are just a quick guide (bragging rights?) and not indicative of sound quality. That just leaves the individuals ears as the final judge (once again 😀 )

    2. It’s also complicated by the fact that a component is just a single piece of an overall system. I think the only way to measure accurate representation of sound is at the system level, and not electronic signal related.

      Your ears don’t hear electrons. They hear sound. I think the only way is to somehow measure sound from the venue, then give you a way to measure sound from your system with a method for comparison. You could create reference recordings and provide sound measurements from the venue for the comparison base.

  9. Tight, deep bass.
    Reverb tails fully developed.
    Gorgeous midrange.
    Instruments sound real.
    Holographic soundstage.
    Writer's cramp.

  10. I accept that manufactures of audio gear "voice" their products. I also accept that we the consumer must assemble a system of these products that will produce a sound that we enjoy. What concerns me for future generations of audiophiles is that we seem to be moving away from a market environment where consumers audition and select to one where consumers have to buy and try. I am not sure this is a good thing?

  11. So true...a great historical example is the engineering/marketing myth of "perfect sound forever" in the early days of digital: Everyone could easily hear that those early CDs sounded harsh and unmusical, despite engineers' insistence that they were perfect (and they could write down all the equations to prove it). Years later, those same engineers finally realized that, as the saying goes, "timing is everything" - yep, there was jitter, it could be measured, and it mattered big-time. We can hope those engineers keep making further progress and, meanwhile, that they learned their lesson to remain humble and pay attention to what "mere" listeners are actually hearing.

    1. tiburd,
      I beg to differ.
      The DACs in the CD players were harsh & unmusical in most early CD players, however some of the CD's themselves were, in fact, very well produced & indeed very 'musical'.
      Point in fact, Donald Fagen's - 'The Nightfly' (1982)...decades later it still sounds amazing.
      I could list many other's here but...

      As always YMMV ✌

      1. Thanks for the clarification; I haven't heard the CD you referenced. I believe the original point remains intact, though, since engineers at the time were insisting that listener complaints (whether caused by jitter on the CDs or by problems - including jitter - within the playback system) were unfounded. And none of the engineers were publicly acknowledging the problem of jitter at the time, according to my recollection. The overall conclusion is, I agree with Paul's post and remain cautious about any notion that engineers have by now figured out every relevant aspect to good music recording and reproduction.

      2. Actually, I need to amend my initial response by noting another detail I just recalled: In the early 1980s I purchased an LP that had been digitally mastered, and it featured the same harsh steely highs that early CDs had. But the same orchestra sounded just fine on its earlier analog-mastered LPs. So, no, it wasn't only consumer DACs that were causing the problem with early digital. I'm glad to hear from you that there were some laudable exceptions, at least.

        1. I might add that it's usual that new technology will be improved upon & the initial bugs ironed out as time goes by.
          I had a little AU$400 (1984) Toshiba (can't remember the model) that had, to my ear, stunning sound compared to the snap, crackle, pop, & limited dynamics of the records in my collection.
          I listen mainly to Rock 'n Roll & so I'm probably more forgiving than someone who listens to unamplified music.

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