Direction matters

June 8, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Direction matters in at least diodes, capacitors, one-way streets, and game plans, but it is to the last on this list we write about today.

Being the impatient type I fully understand the temptation to jump into the deep end of a problem without a plan, but, as someone that’s been on the planet for more time than many, I also appreciate the value of a good game plan.

For example, when it comes time to choosing that new pair of speakers or a new set of electronics, how many of us have clear objectives in mind?

I suspect most of our goals are more emotional than logical. I know in my case lust often outweighs reason.

If I were to offer any advice I think it might break down to two very simple questions:

  1. What is lacking in what I have?
  2. What am I hoping the outcome of my new purchase will be?

It might sound super simplistic but you’d be surprised how often these two questions go unanswered or, worse, unasked.

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22 comments on “Direction matters”

  1. I knew someone who was so into motorcycling he kept his motorbike in his front room. This did not go well with his wife. Like most people, I do not have a man-cave, and don’t want one. I got endless grief from my family when I had a roomful of electronics (modest by others’ standards). I decided to go for something they could use and enjoy, even engaging them in choosing components. It was a plan for an easy life. It has been a complete and total success and the sounds are better than ever as my wife chose a great pair of speakers that are most expensive audio thing I’ve ever bought. She loved them and didn’t even blink at the price.

    I think Paul has done much the same, with his Sprout system at home and his big toys at the office.

    1. If you want some heavy duty audio hardware as a motorcycle substitute, a single D’Agostino Relentless monoblock power amplifier has a mass of 258 kg (Hi-Fi News and Record Review, March 2020). That is a bit more than a Harley-Davidson Sportster.

  2. I can answer those two questions quickly and simply.

    1. Nothing

    2. Improvement

    But to expand a little. I wasn’t unhappy with my system but from a little voice inside me I felt there was better out there. Well, from what I read, if it was to be believed, there definitely was.
    The main improvement I sought was more detail. With the changes I’ve made not only did I get that but improvements in just about every other area as well.
    Needless to say I’m very pleased I took the plunge despite, as I say, not being inherently dissatisfied with what I already had.

  3. For me it would be my Stereo Receiver. I’ve had the same Harmon Kardon AVR 120 for nearly 21 years now. It still works perfectly as the day I bought it, however in the grand scheme of things when it comes to an upgradable path I know it is no excuse to keep based on that.
    When it comes to my outward listening experiences I know I can improve so much starting with the surround sound cube array speakers I own. Yup. They are Bose. No highs no mids no lows so it must be Bose. 😉
    Sorry to say it is the truth, however when it comes to my headphone system I can stay put for a while. 🙂

  4. No matter how much I may spend on an audio system there will always be average recordings (less than perfect sources) or days when my tympanic membranes are not operating at 100%, so therefore I am happy to compromise & play the game of the law of diminishing returns.
    My Audio Alchemy DAC, Denon monoblocs & Harbeth loudspeakers were truly a breathtaking synergistic combination for every genre except Rock ‘n Roll, Metal & EDM, so after the fun of owning such a set-up for 6 years it was time to go back to my Celestion Ditton 66’s & an amp with strong & controlled bass delivery.
    I was always happy with said Ditton 66’s, but after nearly 38 years I wanted to get a good financial return on them before they started to disintegrate from the ageing process.
    It’s been a two & a half years of futzing around with various loudspeakers to arrive where I am now, since December 2020, with a pair of floorstanders that sound great for what I paid for them & for how they present a Rock ‘n Roll soundstage, including clarity, air & dynamics.
    With the flaws (imperfections) in microphones, studios or concert halls, mixing boards, cabling, AtD & DtA conversions, finding the best component compatibility (system synergy), loudspeaker distortions (passive or active cross-overs, phase shifts, etc.) & finally room acoustic problems you have to be a certified audio-nut to even think that you are going to get anywhere near live music in it’s best form in your designated listening room & that’s why it’s all about the music & not all about the audio gear for me & my sanity.
    Happy listening folks 🙂

    1. FR let us diagnose what ails you, and apply the parameters of our Beloved Leeder, “What do yiou miss?”
      Solution: affordable, fun, plenty of R&R punch = Klipsch. You know it makes sense.

      1. Hi Peter,
        I’m not understanding what it is that you are trying to say in this instance, as I am very happy with my current floorstanders…they are not ailing me.
        Not withstanding that, I owned a pair of Klipsch RP-160M’s for 8 months (December 2018 – August 2019) because I really liked the way that they presented music, however, they caused me listener fatigue if I listened to them for more than two & a half hours straight…I suspect that it was the horn tweeter.
        This ‘listener fatigue’ was evident after 3 months, I initially did not recognise what the irritation was & so I persisted with them for another 5 months before I recognised that it was, in fact, listener fatigue & so I had no other option but to move them on.
        So, no, the solution is not a pair of Klipsch loudspeakers…at least not for me.
        Owning loudspeakers that will cause me listener fatigue definitely does not “make(s) sense.”

  5. I had several different goals with selecting my new (and probably last) speakers, including greater low frequency extension, imaging, and (preferably) ability to be driven by 1.5-3 Watts of SET power. The last was not a must, so I spent the better part of a year researching, narrowing the field, then broadening to make sure my original choice(s) were the best one(s). Finally, auditioning both Klipsch Forte IV and Cornwall, then downselecting based on room size. In the process I set up a second system in the living room using some dormant ARC and Sony equipment, along with the Salk speakers being removed from my den, which sounds fantastic (and which my wife hasn’t given me too much grief over). Goals met, enjoying the ride.

  6. It is interesting the differences in how people rate speakers over all. I was friends with Gordon Holt. He certainly had a good feeling for what he valued in speakers after years of testing and recording similarly to Paul. The last speakers he was willing to put up his own money for were a set of ATC 50 powered speakers, a speaker that Paul has in his current recording studio and has mentioned he doesn’t like and a speaker Gordon felt was one of the very few that made good recordings sound almost live.

  7. ‘DIRECTION matters’ and here was me reading it and watching for Paul to jump into the sharks with directionality in interconnects.

  8. Actually, identifying and correcting a shortcoming is relatively easy. Say, for example, I want to achieve better imaging, no problem, I know exactly how to do that. If I want to get more dynamics, that too is easily done. If it’s improved tonality I’m after, why that’s a piece of cake. After playing around with this hobby for 60 years, I know full well how to achieve a particular goal. The problem is there really is no practical way to do it all within the confines of a more or less normal budget and normal listening room. Reproducing both the majesty of a full pipe organ plus orchestra and the intimacy of a solo guitar in my living room just isn’t going to happen. So, I prioritize and by doing so, I discover the true value of this hobby.

  9. We unexpectedly found ourselves with a new (to us) house in Normandy. Stumbled across it and fell in love and bought it and sold the tiny thatched cottage. Suddenly there was room for music over stuff a bit more ambitious than a pair of Vanatoo’s sitting on a low IKEA.

    So went off to Rouen and listened to some speakers. [Side note – look – a real, classic, storefront hifi dealer with lots o stuff in stock and on demo!]

    So, what was I lacking? My Kii Threes, which live in Texas.
    What did I want? To have a pair of speakers that sounded a lot like the Kii Threes but which cost a WHOLE lot less. What didn’t I want? A subwoofer.

    Ended up with a pair of KEF R7s. We worried they’d overwhelm the not enormous room, but they’re all slender and black and shiny, and fit in rather well. Room’s hard-walled and almost square, but with a fairly high beamed ceiling. Dirac made a big difference.

    They’re not Kii Three’s, but I enjoy listening. Worthwhile step up from the (excellent for size n price) Vanatoos.

    1. I thought D&Ds were cheaper than Kii Threes (especially without the added subwoofers).
      Kii’s and D&Ds digitize before playing. Heretic around these corners.
      Dirac is another thing tut-tutted around here.

      1. Yes, D&Ds are cheaper, and are apparently good.
        But they didn’t exist – weren’t known to me – when I bought the Kii’s, so that didn’t help back then
        And they’re significantly more expensive than a pair of KEF R7’s (I got a good cheap amp)
        And the Kii dealer was happy to take my first-generation B&W 800 Diamonds in part exchange – a big win in space and in sound and in $$$

        I beg to differ; indeed, Kii’s **can** take an analogue signal, and digitise it. But they can also accept a digital input, which is what I use. They’re used to play stuff from Roon, so that’s the easy thing (with a MiniDSP SHD acting as the network interface – I was too cheap to by a Kii Control). The Roon stuff includes LPs digitised by a NuWave Phono Converter (NPC).

        And I do sense an easing of the animus against digital these days. If I remember correctly, Paul often used the NPC in public demos; I seem to recall him noting that visitors listened and made comments like “Ahhh; analogue! So much better than this digital stuff…” despite the fact that the NPC was actally digitising the gramophone record…

        [Paul, hope I’m not misrepresenting you ]

        And I think that while indeed proper placement, good speakers and being lucky with your room are held to be Very Important hereabouts, so is enjoying the music. Which is what Dirac lets me do in a constrained situation.

        FWIW, I tried Dirac-ing the Kii’s in a similar but smaller room. Had essentially no audible effect; I put this down to the DSP in the Kii’s arranging that the speakers had a cardioid polar response – so there was essentially no confusing back wall or side wall reflections. Despite them being almost in a corner.

        With well-placed Celestion SL600Si’s (now, that’s going back a bit…] in the smallish room here Dirac provides a useful improvement. The Kiis are in a bigger room, where they are very happy and sound rather good.

        ..and I just got a Stellar phono, which has made me rework the turntable setup. Oops – gotta send the part-exchange kit in to Paul….

  10. First of all, after yesterday I know what to do : buy a dog (the “missing link” in my setup) and let him decide what sounds best. I’m not sure yet what brand…erm breed to buy.
    Generally speaking, a lot of the comments (not only today) always show how very, very different people are when it comes to taste.
    Today is no exception. Some people love speakers that I would not wanna listen to in my grave.
    On the other side of the spectrum: IF I had to start from scratch and IF I’d buy active speakers, then I’d probably buy the abovementioned ATC 50A (active). Music to my ears.
    Very lifelike. Not hi-fi like thank goodness.
    My point : the “phenomenon” TASTE never ceases to amaze me. How can we be so different (not only in audio !). We all know genes, upbringing, age, experience in life, all play a big role, but still.

  11. Confucius say: People who don’t know what they are lacking are the happiest. People who don’t know why they are purchasing something are the unhappiest.

  12. Paul and I are both early baby boomers. About five years ago I decided it was time to do one last major upgrade to my stereo system. Some of it went exactly as planned, some of it fell in my lap when I wasn’t expecting it.

    When it came to upgrading my speakers ( Audio Physics Virgo III ) I knew what they lacked ( real bass punch ) and I knew what I wanted ( killer bass with out sacrificing anything else ). I made a short list of four contenders, reduced it to two and then spent nine months ( including a three month hiatus to rest my ear and brain ) comparing Wilson and Magico. I finally choose Magico S7’s and they are everything I ever wanted in speakers.

    After having the S7’s driven by my old c-j Premier 15 monoblocks for about a year I knew I had to get more powerful amps to get the bass that the S7’s are capable of. I made a list of four contenders and was in the middle of auditioning when out of the sky ( actually from a dealers newsletter 😀 ) fell the answer. A used Constellation Audio Hercules II stereo power amp. The dealer had used it as his personal reference amp. Since I had been auditioning Constellation entry level amps and trusted the dealer I bought the Hercules II. I could have never imagined that I could have such an incredible amp. I now have bass that is tight, controlled and fills the room. I have made the slightest sacrifice in mid-range sweetness by switching from the c-j tubes to the Constellation FET’s, but it was worth it.

    Paul’s advice is spot on, but on rare occasion you can get lucky.

  13. Paul, I’m still pondering that photo you used in your recent “Last but not least” post: the old man with a cane on the clouds ambling toward the bright light. Is that man representative of tired, worn-out audiophiles, nearing the end of our life’s journey? Or is it a metaphor of any audiophile’s long pursuit of audio bliss? In any case, there is still some distance between me and the light. Thank you, Paul, for helping move us in the right direction 🙂

    PS. Any time you want to generate more responses, just mention dogs in your post.

  14. I grew up in an acoustic environment, listening to sounds of Nature, people singing and playing piano in the living room, pipe organ and choir in church, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When I first listened to a recording at age 13, I thought “I can hear what that is supposed to sound like, but it is not satisfying like REAL music.”

    The first batch of records included some novel material, like “Jazz Impressions of New York” by the Brubeck Quartet, “The Newest Sound Around” by Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake, and an electronic music retrospective with synthesizer works by Babbitt, Stockhausen and Cage. Obviously, LPs were a good medium for music ‘discovery’, but the latter experiment failed in my ears. Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” was much more hummable pieces (I have probably heard the Goldbergs more often than any other composition, mostly on historical instruments), but still electronic instruments had a fraction of the depth and meaning of traditional acoustic ones.

    SO, my life-long game plan was to create sounds in my music room that resemble what I heard at concerts – including the Rock concerts I attended for 20 years. It only took me a few years and systems to understand that recordings were a limit, starting with the difference between a live audience concert performance and studio recording. My favorite recordings were live: Cream’s “Wheels of Fire”, the Who’s “Live at Leeds”, the Stones’ “Get Your Ya-Yas Out”, the Band’s “Rock of Ages”, J. Geil’s “Full House”, Humble Pie and Allmans at the Fillmore, “Bless Its Pointed LIttle Head”, etc.

    At first I thought that if you captured music ‘live in the studio’, in one or two takes with no ‘fixing in the mix’ it would be alright. It wasn’t. SO, I built a 24 track truck and took it on the road. In the effort to eliminate electronic processing, it had a simple board and a minimum of outboard gear – a couple of dbx compressors and a spring reverb designed by my friend BIll Laletin for Furman. The monitors were JBL 4333 bi-amped to eliminate the hole in the middle from the factory passive crossover; and a Yamaha B2 VFET amp on the horn and supertweeter. From there, the room was tuned acoustically flat ±2dB from 50Hz-15KHz. Most accurate mobile control room in history, in 1978! (Show me one that is flat without electronic EQ).

    After a few dozen concerts I realized that PA mains, monitors, and cross bleed on stage interfered with the sound too much, no way to get studio level isolation for a clean mix – at least like in my zero processing studio mixes, three mic trap set technique, etc. It was still a lot better than records before it was mixed and mastered, with the live energy and studio mics on stage feeding the live mix in the tuned troom.

    I could not see a path forward to execute the plan, so I gave up for a while, did other things, moved to New York to get back into Jazz and Classical music and went to the AES Convention. In 2001 I attended a lecture by Dr. Manfred Schroeder, who discovered the Gaussian diffuser and a hundred other innovations at Bell Labs. His lecture was honoring Richard Heiser, so he talked about phase a lot, and the light bulb came on. The pinnae are directional phase encoders!

    He did not say this explicitly, so I went to him afterwards and asked him if my conclusion was correct, He smiled and said “of course”. I took this to mean there were published articles about this, and did not bother the great man further. In 20 years, I have only found tangential and incomplete papers, But picking up on my game plan I pursued this thesis, which logically meant that PANNING IS FAKE STEREO and MIXING IS DISTORTION.

    I re-invented recording, playback and PA systems to eliminate mixing and verified it using the best ears for the job – conservatory graduate musicians. I also stopped listening to recordings and trained my ears on a daily diet of acoustic music to “break-in” my listening to REAL music again. Those 13yo neural circuits were still there! By sticking with the plan, I won the game for myself!

    I now have a library of hundreds of live concerts recorded by near coincident pair with no processing or mixing. I would love to share this with others, but I don’t have the rights to make copies except for backup purposes.

    Phase also explains why you need minimum phase, low inductance drivers, minimum phase second order crossovers and acoustic treatments at all ten first reflection points.

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