The illusion of depth, width, height, and separation of players within a soundstage can be a thing of beauty if executed properly. Unfortunately, a proper soundstage image is rare.
Part of the problem of achieving the lofty goal of disappearing speakers and effortless sound anchored on a nonexistent stage is the requirement of end-to-end perfection in the system. Starting at the wall’s AC socket and ending at your eardrums, every single bit of the stereo chain matters—in particular, the electronics.
If we can assume the room and speaker setup have been optimized for best tonal qualities and imaging characteristics, the biggest challenge is in the electronics. Amplifiers, sources, even the AC power itself play huge roles in crafting illusion.
On a recent equipment voicing project in Music Room Two, engineer Darren Myers had asked me to listen to his latest efforts at dialing in the new Stellar Phono stage (I had written about this in an earlier post). His complex discrete design had the lowest noise I had ever heard from a phono stage and was impressive, to say the least. Only, there was something not quite as good as digital yet. Surface noise remained embedded in the music more than what we hoped for (complete detachment) and depth seemed foreshortened. Where the digital version of a track might have appeared to have 20 feet the vinyl presented about half that. It sounded great, yet not remarkable.
One of the clues to this mystery was in the surface noise. Vinyl surface noise with its ticks, pops, and scraping can be a real challenge for analog circuitry. It’s very fast and contains a lot of quick transients that are unrelated to the music, forming a type of intermodulation distortion circuits with feedback can find challenging.
In this initial design, Darren had employed a classic feedback RIAA curve implementation because this design type enjoys low noise. Classic PS Audio phono stages of the past relied instead on a passive approach to EQ but were far noisier than this new Stellar design. Darren went back to the drawing board and a few days later returned with a passively equalized version to audition. It had given up a mere 3dB of noise and still represented one of the quietest stages I have ever heard.
But, how would it perform?
It was a bloody miracle. The foreshortened depth increased by twice, the soundstage width extended beyond the speakers, and a life that did not exist had been breathed into the music. It was a complete transformation as if the entire design had been rebuilt from scratch.
The unit measured identically well, save for an extra 3dB of noise, but the difference in sound quality was staggering.