Fact or fiction?

October 20, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

I thought it might be fun to start a mini-series called Fact or Fiction: dispelling or accepting audiophile beliefs. Not to get political, but when it has somehow become acceptable to separate facts into categories of believability I thought it’s time to put some of these concepts to the test.

What I will attempt to do is offer up the audiophile belief and then follow that with what facts we know and how they may or may not relate to real life.

Here’s the list we’ll tackle and, if you have others to suggest, certainly feel welcome to offer your suggestions in the comments section.

  1. Performance above 20kHz matters
  2. Expensive equipment always sounds better
  3. Vinyl is more musical than digital
  4. Amplifier headroom matters
  5. Power supplies are equal in importance to amplifier circuits
  6. Subwoofers are an unnecessary luxury
  7. Parts quality affects performance
  8. Single driver speakers are better than multi-driver designs
  9. Speaker size should match the room
  10. Cables matter
  11. Vibration isolation products are snake oil

That’s quite a list and we start with item number one in tomorrow’s post.

Stay tuned.

and…

I am getting closer to actually publishing my memoir—two years in the making—which has now turned out to be nearly 500 pages! It’s called 99% True and is chock full of adventures, debauchery, struggles, heartwarming stories, triumphs and failures, great belly laughs, and a peek inside the high-end audio industry you’ve never known before.

When it launches I plan a few surprises for early adopters, so go here to add your name to the list of interested readers.  There’s an entire gallery of never before seen photos of people you know but haven’t seen like this.

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44 comments on “Fact or fiction?”

  1. I think this series might be of much interest especially for those who enter high end. Some others might see it as repetition of things discussed to death already.

    My first question and main interest in one of the topics would be:
    what means „more musical“?

    1. Sounding more like the sound of live music played in an acoustical space. On certain recordings, like those of natural instruments in acoustic space, do they sound more or less like their live counterparts.

      1. Thanks Paul!

        So while there’s some risk to just jump it the “warmth/richness” trap, your description means there must be various aspects that lead to this definition, like

        tonal colors
        dynamics
        transients
        decay/reverb
        ambiance
        linearity/accuracy

        …which play a different role depending on music played and which already show, there’s no yes or no 😉

      2. Liveness is relative, but important. As another jazz nut, I find more and more that live (i.e. in performance) recordings have musicality that regularly transcends sound quality. Some of the 1940s air checks of the “Live from the Panther Room…” variety stun me in their veracity and musicality.

        An acquaintance (audio engineer for AR at a press get together) told of his utter musical joy hearing a live short wave broadcast of a recital by Jacqueline du Pré. He wife confirmed : “Yes! There were ridiculous crackles and noises but he kept saying ‘Oh my God!!! Just listen to that!!! This is wonderful!!'” and I have no doubt that it was.

        Musicality is something that connects the artist with the listener. Sound quality is physics that may or may not support or interfere.

  2. This should be fun.
    Are coaxial speakers better?
    Should you time-align drivers?
    Does a single malt improve your listening pleasure?
    Lets the games begin….

  3. In the end, Paul, aural perception is based on training and prejudices. And: you can’t measure what you aren’t looking for. How to measure individual perception? Some components in the audio chain might be influenced by vibrations, RFI and EMI. Who knows if the designer did respect this in his approach? Or take the known example that a prototype circuit put on a wooden board sounds way better than the final circuit on a pc-board and put in a (vibrating) cabinet. There are so many parameters influencing the coupled oscillating circuits of any audio circuit that are not taken into account using the textbook recommendations and calculations that obviously each design needs a final voicing – meaning some fiddling around with specific parameters.

    1. Imagine that you are trying to find a fly in the room with no hearing/sound and only a very fast, very long focal length lens. Because of the extremely short depth of focus, it would be easy to assume that there simply is no fly in the room unless you totally lucked out and happened to discover where it is. Our hearing works in much the same way. You can legitimately describe this as involving training and prejudice but I think that’s a lot more confusing than the long fast lens model.

      I’ve learned to never discount what somebody says they hear. They’ll often get the cause wrong but where there’s smoke, there generally turns out to be fire. Something that complicates this is hearing damage. This takes the form of holes in the upper midrange that actually prevent the normal masking of subtle artifacts. I have a guitar shredder mastering client who has spotted my unknowing use of improperly programmed dither several times. The closest I could come to hearing it was maybe but he nailed it in a second every time. We don’t all hear the same thing ever.

  4. Are subwoofers unnecessary , heck no , I think I may have to get another one after reading your findings with the ISO Acoustics speaker feet , I purchased a set and was surprised by how much connection to the floor influenced the bass . I don’t know if it’s a good thing they’ve certainly cleaned up the bottom end and more particularly the mid range , certainly more articulate. I guess you could add , speaker spikes are essential ?

  5. Great idea Paul. Here’s a couple off the top of my head.
    1. A CD played directly will always sound better than when its ripped and played from a music server
    2. DSD will always sound better than the equivalent resolution PCM

    (Tee hee) Just thought I’d throw the cat amongst the pidgeons.

  6. Topics AllanG and MikeK mentioned, which are a bit more product design related, are really interesting also to me personally…although I suspect, each single topic will be ended with a general conclusion like “it depends” 😉

    1. Don’t forget that personal bias and individual hearing deficiencies hugely influences the results. I rather would like to know how to come closer to the core target of stereo: creating a 2D- or even better a 3D-Image (Illusion) of the recorded event. As Steven permanently claims there are very very old speaker and amp designs that have been proven to create an authentic reproduction of human voice or single instruments. But stereo promises much more!

  7. Performance above 20kHz matters: true
    Expensive equipment always sounds better:false
    Vinyl is more musical than digital:false
    Amplifier headroom matters:true
    Power supplies are equal in importance to amplifier circuits: true (the power supply IS THE amp)
    Subwoofers are an unnecessary luxury:false
    Parts quality affects performance:true
    Single driver speakers are better than multi-driver designs:false
    Speaker size should match the room:true
    Cables matter: (tough one, they can, be doesn’t mean they will)
    Vibration isolation products are snake oil: false

    1. I agree with all your judgements except for ‘power supplies’ . Class AB amps tend to have a good PSRR which cushions the output sound from PS voltage variations, although they can have some effect. Class D, however, does need a very good supply because any variations in the power rail voltages are fed directly to the output. In that case the PS *is* an integral part of the amp.

    2. Agree with all your answers. So instead of debating endlessly each point, I`m for doing a survey as proposed by Audiomana. We can then analyze the results which will elicit many worthwhile opinions from this group.

  8. Looking forward to this. I agree with the comments above on the subjectivity of vinyl vs. digital, but what the heck.

    A couple I would add to the list are:
    – The analog portion of a DAC’s circuit is less important to it’s performance
    – Passive preamps are superior to active ones

  9. Wow! So many topics to discuss, this thread could be a never-ending story…
    Re time aligned, phase coherent discussions I always feel it is misleading for show demonstrators to play recordings mixed with QSound such as Rodger Waters “Amused to Death” or “Pulse”

    1. Indeed…if sounds from 90 degree aside are reached with phase tricks, the recording probably shouldn’t be used as a reference for phase coherence 😉

  10. What an outstanding idea for a topical thread. Thanks for having the guts to take it on. You’ve got your work cut out for you. Good thing this isn’t YouTube. #11 is no surprise. I’d love diminishing returns to be on there. Do you think BHK is 5K better than Stellar? (Going by memory as far as price goes)

  11. Intersting, I would also add:

    Is USB better or optical and/or coaxial any different. I am not talking about dsd format since there are limitations for some of those digital inputs but let’s say PCM 24/96 as a comparison point. I would also add jitter myth or reality and if reality how much is enough.

    Streamers; fad or a must? If a must what inputs/outputs are a must and what sources should one seek.

  12. One by one the best topics we could discuss hope your book is also available as a download as I live in Singapore watch your vids and read your posts. Great insight and thoughts.cany wait till you start on the above topics

  13. IMO, instead of this list of topics starting an endless series of Byzantine discussions, it would be of greater practical utility, that a SURVEY be raised in which the largest number of subscribers participate in a brief manner, as it has done today in advance, Scott L.

    This will serve so that, in a pragmatic way, it can be drawn to where the current of thought of a well-informed community is directed, such as the one grouped here.

    I believe that the conclusions derived from the analysis of the results of such a survey, can serve as a guide for any serious study that is done on the topics that are exposed, the same ones that should touch the greatest number of topics that pertain to music lovers. and those of the audio equipment.

    The analysis of these results can also be done by the most enlightened subscribers of this forum, which do exist.

  14. If you are going to formally study engineering or physical science your head will be filled with as much mathematics as they can cram into you. It’s not a perfect tool but it’s the best one we have. If you are going to break the rules, it’s best to understand them first. Then you can find the flaws in them. I’m sure Einstein and Beethoven would have agreed. This is the objectivist in me. It demands rational understanding that makes sense before I believe it.

    Given that no matter how good your mathematical model is, at the current state of the art there are variables you can’t account for most of which revolve around the way recordings are made, each one being different. Needing a goal to achieve, a definite purpose to work towards, I have only my memory of what live unamplified music sounds like. The variables there is that even the same performance in the same room will sound different depending on many factors including where I am listening from. Move to a different room, a different concert hall and everything changes. So I’m left with impressions, qualities characteristic of sounds I remember rather than hard facts I have to duplicate. This is the subjectivist in me.

    Reconciling the objectivist and subjectivist and satisfying both at the same time isn’t easy. In fact it’s very hard. The harder the problem the more satisfaction I get out of solving it. Do even small details matter? Some do, some don’t. But which is which? As an engineer I want as much control as I can get. This does not seem to be the way an entire industry of high end audio sees it. The more control they can take away the happier they are. In their view less is more. In my view more is more.

    1. I just spent $730 on isolating feet and already considering modifying the arrangement as it’s robbed some of the bass . Unfortunately the person that built the speakers passed away 6 years ago so a little difficult getting an answer on how they were voiced . I’ll give it a go though .

  15. Hi Paul,

    Great idea. Each topic should spark a lively discussion amongst us (ahem!) experts. I’ll add another: music files played through computers sound better than CDs played on CD players.

    This will be fun if it doesn’t get violent…

    Alón Sagee
    San Francisco Audiophile Society

    1. For what it is worth, here are my thoughts on these.

      1. Performance above 20kHz matters – yes
      2. Expensive equipment always sounds better – no
      3. Vinyl is more musical than digital – usually yes, DSD is an exception
      4. Amplifier headroom matters – yes
      5. Power supplies are equal in importance to amplifier circuits – yes
      6. Subwoofers are an unnecessary luxury – mostly no but sometimes yes
      7. Parts quality affects performance – yes
      8. Single driver speakers are better than multi-driver designs – in theory yes, but in practice no
      9. Speaker size should match the room – if you can afford to do so yes
      10. Cables matter – yes
      11. Vibration isolation products are snake oil – no always

      As always, YMMV

  16. Paul, you have a good start on a list of the MOST discussed topics on the audio forums I follow. It would wonderful if we could have a civil and sane discourse on each of those.
    Good luck, many others have tried to discuss these with the best of intentions, and it has veered off the tracks, like a train-wreck.

    I can only speak to the issue of the subwoofer, with respect to the Sprout100 is made all the difference in the world.

  17. There’s a whiff of “straw man” infecting the list. But more to the point are a few ill-defined terms which seem obvious but I submit are not. “Better” and “matter” are examples.

    But it’s still going to be a fun ride. I’m looking forward to the specifics relating to each item.

  18. Based on item # 11, you could have an entire sub-category of tweaks, including things such as the Shakti Haligraph thingies, cable risers, CD de-magnetizers, etc., etc, but that might be too far down the audiophile rabbit hole. 😉

  19. The concise survey can get to have statistical rigor, and can attack such important issues as for example: the technical disadvantages of the passive Xovers against the active digital.

    But the moderator, being the owner of this space, is the one who has the last word, and is the one who has the power to accept or not suggestions, which in turn may not be in accordance with the agenda of this space.

    Serve this as an auspicious occasion to leave this concern.

  20. I was gifted a key to arcane audio research, but without references:

    The pinnae are directional PHASE encoders.

    I have never seen this included in HRTF modeling, probably because there is no way to synthesize or commercialize it. Every pinna is unique, so real spatial sound (stereo) can’t be reproduced in fixed channel audio for more than one person.

    This knowledge came from Dr. Manfred Schroeder of impeccable credentials and source of some of the original research. Unfortunately, his scope was focused on speech and only partially published because of his employer (Bell Labs) and I did not get access to his bibliography before he passed.

    However, this one bridge of knowledge explained a lifetime of collected audio anomalies, observations and reports that did not make sense in the standard model of hearing from the perspective of musicians and people who lived in ex-urban aboriginal environments, who presumably are closer to the evolutionary potential of hearing. Whatever matches the data best is the right answer.

    Both of these cohorts have hearing that is fundamentally different from people who hear motors and speakers daily. Of late there is peer reviewed, machine based research confirmation that musicians grow different brain structures to hear music ten times better than audiophiles, which paradoxically makes them worse at judging audiophile systems because their priorities are so divergent from recordings, room acoustics and audio design rules.

    Let’s run down how this advanced model of musical hearing predicts these answers:

    Performance above 20kHz matters > absolutely
    Expensive equipment always sounds better > poor correlation
    Vinyl is more musical than digital > yes, except DSD and 24/384
    Amplifier headroom matters > yes
    Power supplies are equal in importance to amplifier circuits > yes
    Subwoofers are an unnecessary luxury > yes and no. Musicians who play treble instruments don’t care, bass players hate the time distortion of conventional subwoofers but crave the extension.
    Parts quality affects performance > yes
    Single driver speakers are better than multi-driver designs > yes and no. Mid-tweets are good, mid-bass is not
    Speaker size should match the room > no. speaker size should match the acoustic size of the instrument it is reproducing.
    Cables matter > a little
    Vibration isolation products are snake oil > putting aside the false aspersions on a medicinally useful remedy, not all of them – but some are engineered better than others.

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