Enhancements

September 15, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

Sprinkle a touch of sugar on a tasteless tomato and you’ve artificially enhanced its palatability. Leave that same tomato on the vine to ripen, and you’ve naturally enhanced its taste.

One’s a tweak, the other a fix.

When we look at tweaks and enhancements, I think it’s instructive to separate the sweetening of something vs. the repair of a basic flaw. Take the article I wrote a couple of years ago called The Strangest Tweak Ever.

Tuning Bell

There are many versions of this same enhancement: smaller bells, stones, discs, harmonizers, and focusers. All seem to improve sound quality, but – and this is just my humble opinion – all are artificial sweeteners rather than natural fixer uppers.

And that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with sweeteners. Try eating frozen cream without it.

I like to mentally separate out that which artificially enhances vs. proper fixes for my peace of mind.

If the unnatural enhancement sweetens the music, there’s a reasonable chance I can figure out what property has soured it in the first place.

Once identified, there’s a good chance a fix is right around the corner.

I’d rather eat my frozen cream sweetened with natural fruit rather than extracted sugar.

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35 comments on “Enhancements”

  1. Managing distortions, colorations & reflections – isn’t that a great hobby? 🙂 I wonder how a system without added distortions, colorations & reflections would sound? Maybe as intended by the recording and mastering engineer?

    1. Recording and mastering engineers are the worst tweakers. The recording is divided into dozens of pieces with image information erased by using one microphone very close to each instrument. Each mic then has a different perspective in the room, which is why studios are built to be dead with minimal acoustic ambience. Recording engineers spend almost no time on the other side of the glass, using assistants for most of the setup so the engineers don’t hear acoustic music – and even then the sound is not real because of the artificial acoustics.

      Then they alter each sound with equalization, compression, pitch shifting etc. and construct a fake image using pan pots and digital reverb. 99% of reverb algorithms are statistical, which means they do not correspond to any physical room. This has been pervasive since the dawn of the CD and is a major cause of digititus.

      Mastering engineers are never in a room with acoustic music, and all they do is distort the signals further. Every knob in a mastering studio increases the temporal, transient, dynamic and spatial distortion in the recording.

  2. Paul,

    even if you let the tomatoes ripen there are a lot of species that will never be sweet.
    One first has to choose the right species:

    http://www.staudenfan.de/Samen/Tomaten1.html

    “There are many versions of this same enhancement: smaller bells, stones, discs, harmonizers, and focusers. All seem to improve sound quality, but – and this is just my humble opinion – all are artificial sweeteners rather than natural fixer uppers.” You said this very politely. IMHO it’s all audiofoolery.

    I really cannot understand, or maybe my imagination is not strong enough, why people buy this junk for hundrets or even thousands of bucks. Seems to be a very seductive audio religion.

    So my hope is that more and more music lover will answer those garbage selling people:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYMD_W_r3Fg

    Regards and Greetings from Germany

    1. Hallo Bernd
      Das ist keine Frage der Imagination. Probiere die Dinge aus und dann sage uns, welche Veränderungen Du hörst oder auch nicht. (Und das Schimpfen auf die Menschen, die dafür Geld aus geben ist einfach überflüssig.9

      Herzliche Grüsse Ulrich

      1. Let’s talk in English, Ulrich, even if my English is not good.

        I’ve worked in the audio business for decades.
        That is why I’ve had the opportunity to test a lot of that gear.
        I’ve to admit I even sold it and I’d earned money on it.
        During all the time till today I’ve had a really good main system at home (I even have all the old amps, record players, cd-players, tuners etc. in my shelves).
        I was also invited by many manufacturers and distributors of these things for test sessions.
        So you can believe me or not – I know what I am talking about.
        There are few, indeed very few things that are helpful to enhance the fidelity of music reproduction at home.

        When I say that I cannot understand why people are giving away their hard earned money for thing that are junk in my eyes it is not ranting but the expression of my disappointment.

        Great to have another fellow countryman here!

        Regards

        1. “So you can believe me or not – I know what I am talking about.”
          In other words : don’t argue with me. I am right, you are wrong.
          And that’s a fact. Period.
          No discussion here. If I don’t hear it, it’s not there.

          Well, you’re totally entitled to your own opinion, but don’t force me to have the same. If a tweak works for someone but not for you, don’t be arrogant and say he has a hearing and/or mental problem.
          It may be junk in your eyes and ears, but not in everyone’s.
          Your fellow countryman is totally right.
          Abuse people who spend money on these “things” is not necessary.

          “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies” (Nietzsche).

          “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination” (Einstein).

          1. jb4 ,

            this is a very interesting interpretation of what I wrote.
            Didn’t I say “believe me or not”?
            How can you extract, that I wanted to convince anybody at least you that my opinion is the only correct one?
            I’m far to old, I do not want to convince the followers of the Golden Calf praying at the altars of their audiophile gods.
            At least – as I respect your point of view I want you to respect mine.

            Regards

            “Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu’au bout pour que vous puissiez le dire.”

            1. hello Bernd,
              Didn’t I say “believe me or not”?
              Yes, but that’s not the whole sentence.
              “I know what I’m talking about”. In other words, if you don’t feel the same as I do, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Cause I do !
              That’s not what you say, but it’s what you actually mean.

              And now you add a little extra :
              “I do not want to convince the followers of the Golden Calf praying at the altars of their audiophile gods.”
              That’s condescending.
              You might as well have said : “If you believe in voodoo, be my guest”.
              Well, I don’t believe in voodoo, I don’t believe in tweaks per se, but when I HEAR the difference, I’m a believer.
              And believe me, I know what I’m talking about 😀 after more than 40 years of listening…
              But that does not necessarily mean you “have to” hear the same difference. And that’s ok.
              But it doesn’t mean either I have a tile loose, or “pray at the altar of some audiophile god”.
              If you wanna express your opinion,fine, that’s what we ‘re here for on this site. Always interesting to read yours. But let’s not pretend our own opinion is the absolute truth when we talk about the SQ of amp, speakers, tweaks…
              Sometimes I make the same mistake.
              We all seek for audiophile Nirvana.
              Everyone in his own way. And we never succeed.
              Good for companies like PS Audio.

    2. I have heard changes made by things so small the laws of Physics say they can’t have a effect. My answer is three fold:

      1. Human hearing can discern at least ten times the information accounted by the standard model of hearing, perhaps over a hundred times so everything does make a difference, even little stones.

      2. Human conscious cognition ignores things that stay the same and accentuates attributes that change. This creates a strong positive bias for change. In most cases I find tweaks to be ambiguous – they change the sound, but do not make it more human and real.

      3. Less than 1% of general population, audiophiles, designers, reviewers or even engineers hear acoustic music daily. I listen to acoustic music more hours per week than to speakers and headphones. This changed my hearing so I perceive music like musicians – at least the ones who practice and rehearse more than they listen to YouTube.

      Daily acoustic music ear training reduced my response to tweaks, they are far less important because as soon as you confine the music to fixed channels – 2, 5, 7 or even 32 – it sounds artificial.

          1. @acuvox

            The samples, which were determined by the researchers, is a significant statistical evidence that their hypothesis could be correct. This tells us that the mathematical models used today do not tell the whole truth.
            My question: What is the impact on the technical solutions for music playback?
            And to get back to topic of this blog: Do all these tweaks help us to get closer to the musical truth?

            Regards

            1. In general,”tweaks” are just another layer of illusion on the parlor trick of audio reproduction.

              Since 1932 audiological research has incorporated at least five methodological flaws that have under-stated the capacity of human hearing. I have known the standard model was wrong for 40 years but how this has persisted for 80 years took until 2001 (with some help!) to unpack, and is still waiting for peer reviewed research for some of what I am already practicing.

              Because this undoes 80 years of experimental methods, it is not coming from the world of audio and acoustics, but from physicists, neuro-physiologists, etc.

  3. “I’d rather eat my frozen cream sweetened with natural fruit rather than extracted sugar.”
    Fine, as long as you realize natural sugars (in fruit, vegetables) are as bad for your body as extracted sugar.
    Better stop eating cream.
    If a piece of equipment does not sound right, then don’t buy it, instead of trying to fix it.

  4. Okay Bernd, good point. Now in English. What is the point of being disappointed if somebody spends $ 500 on a bottle of wine?
    But back to hifi, what kind of tweaks did you find working? That would be interesting to know.

    best Ulrich

    1. Hallo Ulrich,

      there is only one brand I want to mention by name as it is no longer available, it’s the Phantom Acoustics Shadow. I got four of them in my primary listening room.
      Essential is the cleaning of all kind of connectors and this includes also optical connectors which I use in my home network for instance.
      Power supply is also important, but as many ways lead to Rome, there are different ways to get clean and sufficient power.
      If you still hear vinyl records keep care to your record player. There is a lot of stuff for record and cartridge care and some good protractors for tonearm alignment. A good platform will also help to keep a clean sound.
      Last but not least get an “2013 Assmannshäuser Höllenberg Spätburgunder trocken VDP Großes Gewächs®” it doesn’t cost $500 but you need about $60 to buy a bottle 😀

      Regards

      1. Take care concerning the purity of the grooves of your vinyl records too. Purity also includes electrostatic charge – not only apparent on the record surface but in the system at all!

  5. Not being a man of great wealth, I’ve found tweaks to be an economical alternative to building a dedicated music room. I’m able to sonically create a much larger sound stage than I can afford to heat in the winter or cool in the summer. House plants are among my favorite tweaks as they not only contribute to the acoustics but also help purify the air.

    1. By “tweaks” I am assuming you mean acoustic and vibration control, instead of buying boxes with connectors. I have always said that the room is the most important as well the most expensive part of the system. Choose wisely!

        1. Hearing is highly adaptive especially under conditions of NEUROPLASTICITY, when we grow neurons and wire them in circuits to mirror the sound patterns we hear. For example, five hours a day of classroom instruction grows our brain to decode human speech in our native language in a rectangular room. BUT, studies have shown that the background noise level in the classroom affects grades.

          I grew up in pine forests, so that environment makes sense to my ears. City people would learn how to hear just as well on the streets – except the noise pollution of motors masks coherent echoes. Today most forests have highways, towns, farms or flight paths in range to inhibit the development of hearing.

          What is really troubling is that most people listen to speakers instead of live music during their developmental years. Speakers lack the consistent phase coherence of acoustic sources because they are non-minimum phase transducers and they are trying to reproduce all kinds of instruments: string, wind, percussion, which all have different temporal and spatial characteristics. When that jumble all comes from one place, the brain fuzzes out.

      1. Yes, Acuvox, we’re on the same page about the importance of the room. And indeed, I chose my house for the room which is now my listening room. We’re also together on vibration control and (careful) acoustic treatment of the surfaces of the room. Upgraded fuses also help. As does the cleaning of connections, etc.
        I also appreciate your insight into the neurological aspect listening. I too enjoy the deep woods and high mountains, and I was raised on tube gear, not transistors, until I was a young man with very little exposure to live music as you lament. Like many audiophiles, I have little awareness of phase, but recently I was told that my speakers are known for being relatively phase coherent, so maybe I’m subconsciously more aware of phase than I thought. Hopefully, when my life slows down a bit in anther year, I’ll have time to take in more live music. Cheers.

  6. Obviously there are going to be countless opinions on this topic, the only thing that most will agree on ( maybe ) is that they disagree.
    Since we have the “taste” analogy thing already started, my opinion is that tweaks are a matter of listening taste.
    No two audiophiles are going to have exactly the same taste across the broad spectrum of music.
    Tweaks can enhance both the good and the bad, they can’t tell the difference.
    BTW, I have a PMR in use.

  7. Let me offer one extension of the analogy: refined sugar is strongly implicated in our epidemics of obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cardiac infarctions and cancer. Artificial sweetening of audio is likewise bad for your hearing and reduces the depth of music and its healing properties.

  8. You are quite right. Yes you with your immense knowledge and experience can figure out what needs fixing in a system. This is how it should be but a lot of people audiophiles included do not have your knowledge or the experience and fall for the enhancers. In fact enhancers are indicative of some deficiency in the system. But there are times when an enhancer is the only way, like no matter how much fruit you put in the ice cream nothing beats the taste of good old sugar. One always settles for the second best with many alternatives. Life can be so complicated. That is the interesting part. Regards.

  9. I love your main point in this post. When a tweak works, it is nice to figure out what is the issue, and replace the tweak with a fix. A hard one to find, for example, was a design/build error in my Revel Salon tweeters that could be somewhat accommodated by not playing/downsampling high-res music. After the fix, high-res music sounds fine as is.

  10. Given the sometimes absurd prices charged for the somewhat accepted, although still esoteric, ‘enhancements’, It seems to make much more sense to me to put the money/enhancement into the basic gear, and such obviously useful items, such as Bass Traps.
    My motto is like many others, keep it simple stupid.

  11. Just because you are in the biz does not mean you can hear the nuances many of these devices provide- and perhaps many don’t. Maybe I’m cursed that I can.

    Case in point: Argent Room Lenses. Expensive, but damn they can be moved back/forth, in/out and significantly alter the harmonic structure, by altering the air in the room. Many have heave heard it hear (or is that here?)

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