Equipment that makes you forget

May 26, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

The best stereo equipment I know is forgettable.

When everything’s just right I don’t think about the system, only the music.

We work so hard to make products that are both remarkable and iconic. Yet, when they do their job, the best we can hope is for them to disappear.

Imagine designing an automobile, computer, or some new piece of techie gear in the hopes people will ignore it. Seems crazy, yet that’s exactly what audio designers do.

Fact is, we’re proudest when we see toes tapping, smiles breaking, and eyes closed in response to the music.

We hope our products are forgettable.

It’s the music we want you to remember.

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22 comments on “Equipment that makes you forget”

  1. Having grown up with non amplified music and mono radio and turntable set-ups I always was focused on the the content of the recording. Even when ping-pong stereo appeared this was a nice effect that didn’t require to focus on today’s audiophile aspects.
    The “problem” of better stereo equipment came into focus when somebody told me I had to focus on the holographic (3-D effects) claimed to be embedded in the stereo recording. And the acquisition of test records even enlarge the “problem” revealing all deficiencies of the stereo set-up (or of the recording???). The final result of my search for the claimed holographic sound to be delivered by a stereo set-up: the concept is characterized by inherent basic deficiencies caused by the complexity and inherent technical weaknesses and shortcoming based on lack of knowledge concerning psychoacoustics. Thus some manufacturers try to mask the deficiencies while other try to eliminate them. The latter approach most often reveals new deficiencies!

  2. Thank you Paul for lofty goals and the gear that goes along with them.

    When talking with friends and others in the audio world, gear is always at the forefront of the conversation and I would argue that you don’t want to be forgotten in that context.

    When listening, I like things to ‘disappear’, not be forgotten. Although I can easily see how it might be possible to ‘forget’……

    ….Now where the hell is the remote?….

  3. Lights low, eyes shut and totally immersed in the music. Remotes for the gain and track selection within reach. Perfection – luckily (or otherwise) vinyl does give me a bit of exercise changing sides too 🙂

  4. To have a sound without outstanding negative or positive characteristics is most desirable imo…then the equipment disappears and the brain just perceives the music. But even with the best equipment this needs quite some finetuning in my experience.

  5. When the lights and ambient noise are low and both the source material and the equipment are “forgettable”, my emotional being transcends all of the noise in my head and I am swept into a deep meditative state. It’s like listening to the sound of a “singing bowl”. Great therapy for both mind and body.

  6. “But even with the best equipment this needs quite some finetuning in my experience”
    Good point, but as I see (hear) it the last 30 years, ESPECIALLY the best equipment needs finetuning to run the thing for all it’s worth.
    Even world-class equipment can (and often does) sound mediocre when “dumped” into the room without finetuning.

  7. I’d listed for sale my Quad ESL63 electrostatic speakers as I don’t like to keep things not used, but had never promoted them as I was planning to keep them for my son. So yesterday morning someone calls and says he coming round in half an hour. He is the leader of a well known quartet and he wanted them for his son, who is training as a professional classical musician. He wanted a system that would image extremely well as it is vital that his son can hear the exact position of each instrument in chamber and orchestral music. He brought along a 50w valve amplifier and the source was an A&K pocket player. It took about 20 minutes to set up, mainly getting the ESL out of the boxes, we listened to some chamber music and the realism and naturalness was absolutely sublime. So about $2,500 for a complete system with which a professional musician with no interest in audio can get deeply into the music. It really brought home that you don’t have to get all complicated and expensive to have supremely good sound. But then I suppose ESL63 are remarkable and iconic and there are few manufacturers who ever make such a product that passes the test of time. After a very long day I sat down to listen to some Cecile Mclorin Salvant and I had no thoughts about the system at all. It was sublime.

    1. Reading your post inspired me to look up a review of your speakers. No less than J. Gordon Holt (Stereophile founder) reviewed them in 1983. He totally agrees with your comments. What really got me was his quote that ” Good sound and inspired performance seem mutually exclusive” . Wow, where did that come from ? He continues :”Dedicated audiophiles would rather listen to silence than bad sound: record collectors will put up with awful sound if the music is worth listening to”

      Here are the seeds for future posts for Paul which I expect will be hotly debated. Can’t wait.

  8. Interesting problem. You have two sources of sound, loudspeakers at fixed locations and at a fixed distance from where you listen and you want them to produce sounds that trick human hearing in that they appear to come from single sources at different directions and different distances from where the loudspeakers are located and many at the same time. Tough trick to pull off. Of course that’s only one part of a many faceted problem. Paul had this problem recently with his new speaker. How did he fix it? He changed the frequency response which coincidentally changed the tone. Guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    “It would take a very long-winded answer for a complete one but, basically, we did two things: reduced the plateau response of the midrange below flat (by about 2dB) between 350Hz and 1kHz and then added a carefully tuned baffle step to allow for the interaction of the midrange/tweeter and the front baffle.”

  9. I’m sorry. How do we get those monstrosities to disappear? Closing my eyes I think. Plenty of “livable” towers out there that sound just as good or better. And yes, I heard them at Axpona.

  10. My wife is a professional violinist. We had a long-time friend over for dinner last who has heard various system incarnations I’ve had for the last 40 years. Both of them agreed that they can hear the difference between various systems, components, etc, and that THEY DON’T CARE.

    In my wife’s practice studio, I put in a pair of small 2-way speakers I’d built 30 years ago with an Audax tweeter and a 5″ Vifa bass driver, a $200 Chinese hybrid amp and a CD player. Of course it doesn’t compare with my main rig, but as far as she’s concerned, is all the audio quality she requires. As others have noted, musicians listen for what the players are doing, not the tonal accuracy of the playback, imaging, etc. Those are all completely irrelevant to the needs of the musician. Even on a boombox, you can hear phrasing, time and ensemble blend.

    When I dropped $2k on a used VPI table a couple of years ago, my wife didn’t say a thing because she loves me, not because she thought it was needed. And it wasn’t.

    1. I can imagine that the incredible focus, discipline and fortitude it takes for a high caliber musician to play in an orchestra or big band. They have to be able create the sound and placement of pieces when one can’t really even hear yourself when it hits 90 to 110 Db.

      However for less creative beings such as myself I prefer and need to hear the intracaties spelled out for me on a revealing system. I am not so hung up on the disappearing speakers. Pretty hard to make four towers disappear in a 13*25′ shoe box. But they can with certain types of recordings.

      I want to be able to hear all of drummer Joe Chambers when the recording has him stuffed so far in the background on the Bobby Hutcherson BN sessions.

      I have seen Cecile Mclorin Salvant live three times now. The first time was most enjoyable and I believe it was due to being close to front row. Proximity to small near acoustic ensembles seems to be key to me for focus on the performance. But the relaxation of my listening room does make it Sublime.

      1. Good point. Went to Mavis Staples at Union Chapel at the end of last year and the sound was truly awful. We left before the end. It was recorded and released and the sound is very good. CMS is at the Barbican later this year. Sitting up front.

  11. So very right. I well understand what you are describing. The speakers become just another piece of furniture in the room and if the sound is alive, present and with great impact it’s like being at a live performance. The only thing that catches your attention and keeps you riveted is how the performance is being produced, how real it sounds more than the recording of the performance itself. It does not matter whether it is a familiar piece or something new.It is the sound itself which can be mesmerizing. An unforgettable experience. In my case thanks to B&G full range planar speakers, Electrovoice woofers and Beston super tweeters all in a line source design. Fun,fun,fun. Regards.

  12. Most of my friends are younger generation. To them, music is just 24/7 streamed background stimulus while they multi-task. They don’t appreciate refined audio systems, and the idea of sitting idly in a sweet spot is to them silly. A $400 to $500 pair of self-powered bookshelf speakers slapped against the wall on a shelf is just fine to them, which is a good thing, because few of them can easily afford more. Their systems do indeed disappear, because there is not much to see in the first place!

  13. Paul:
    This is the ultimate paradox about kit and listening. We invest time, money and sweat equity to hear, compare and purchase our ‘Nirvana’ system, then close our eyes, forget the brands and slide into the sound stage, sometimes with tears in our eyes.

  14. The goal for our systems should be to like the fictional Cheshire Cat’s grin, leave only the life like music as evidence of its presence.

    But the majority of audiophiles are entranced by the machine as much as the music they listen to. Why else would they spend 5 figures on turntables designed to look like pieces of modern art?

    But I am sure an engineer like you would never fall for the bling of an over priced polished aluminum and glass turntable
    ;-P

  15. The biggest problem I have is getting the hum out of my system. Any suggestions would be appreciated. I would imaging that it is 60 cycle hum. but it may be other frequencies. I have tried getting the rca wires away from the power cords. This cannot be done perfectly. I have two subwoofers that require longer rca connectors. the subwoofers have a system for splitting the signal into low vs upper frequencies. The rca wires are longer as a result.

    1. This used to things like and ungrounded to warm. I had a buzz for 3 years that hit the spot of my extremely mild tinnitus that most of the time I don’t even notice. The buzz was removed when I replaced my P3 with and alternative power solution. I doubt the device was faulty, perhaps it was having issues with other devices in the system. It was very annoying. As I stream most of the time, in the last 6 months I focused of eliminating external noise, which involved changing speaker cables (half the price of those they replaced), CAT for fibre and A low noise server. A dramatic improvement without changing major components. It is a simple system so was not difficult to fix. Many audiophiles have systems so complicated they can never see the end of potential benefits because there is no way of understanding how everything interacts.

  16. When I was attending audio shows and CES, it was primarily too learn about and cover the equipment. But I knew it was good stuff when my first reaction was to ask “What’s that delightful recording?”

  17. I have forgettable equipment going back 40 years and yes it’s because it made the music unforgettable. Most of it is due to the speakers but electronics also just not to the same degree as speakers. The problem with modern hi fi is 90% of it is mass market crap that didn’t at least preserve the best audio of the 70’s and build on it and instead took a step back in the name of mass production and profit. Companies like PS Audio have preserved and built on the great sound of the 70’s. You either buy new equipment from a company that has not wavered or you buy the vintage stuff.

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