Navigating through fog

March 13, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

When we attempt to navigate through the unknown we rely on what's worked in the past. This matters because we often find ourselves in unfamiliar territories, like when we get a new piece of gear.

If you're installing a new component in your system your hopes for success are likely high. You've pre-imagined how it might sound.

What happens if your expectations aren't met? Do you switch to autopilot and rely on what's worked in the past or roll your sleeves up and experiment with the new?

If you're in the first camp—rejecting what doesn't immediately work and embracing what does—what would happen if the next time your expectations aren't met you try a new tack instead: letting the new piece burn in longer than normal, living with it for longer than you're used to, swapping tried and true cables with something different.

I make pretty quick go-no-go decisions but they often deprive me of learning and growth as I motor through a busy day. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that unless someone asks me to slow down and give a second chance to that new piece of music, cable, circuit design, or thought process I am likely to just go on autopilot with my decisions.

It's far too easy to sift through the myriad of decisions we're faced with from day to day by skirting the fog of the unfamiliar, the new idea, the tweak everyone's raving about.

Airline passengers are a lot safer because pilots aren't adventurous when visibility challenges them.

I am not so certain safe is where we as audiophiles want to be when it comes to the new.

Are we prepared to navigate through a bit of fog to discover the new and exciting?

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20 comments on “Navigating through fog”

  1. The problem of uncertainty you have illustrated here, Paul, confirms that the design concepts for audio are far from a solid scientific foundation. Just take the simplest example: a single driver headphone. The membrane of the driver simply should make the same movements as the membrane of the microphone used for a dummy head recording. In reality audiophile single driver headphones from different brands sound most different. Even different models from one manufacturer sound different. What is going on here? And how small is the chance finding a headphone producing an authentic sound? The basic problem is the total lack of mandatory standards based on serious scientific findings. Rather the designs are based on individual preferences of the designers and their individual anecdotical findings never being scientifically discussed and confirmed by other designers.

    1. I agree with your thoughts. I remember back in the late 70's a very prominent English magazine did a best speaker of the year award and they had the Yamaha NS1000 as #1 and the KEF Reference 105 as #2. You would have thought that the panel doing the auditioning would have chosen the one they thought was the best and the one they chose as #2 was very similar but with some minor deficiencies. NOT SO. My business sold both these speakers and they were like chalk and cheese in there presentation. Go figure. So we get to our own subjective evaluation of how things should sound. I have recently installed a new DAC in my system and there are wonderful improvements in performance but I am finding the sound stage has moved well forward and is a bit in your face. Next step is to experiment one by on with the easy variables to tame the beast.

  2. I consider “navigating through fog” personally trying something new to me, yet established as a whole. An example is music servers. It’s pretty foggy when you first get into it. Class D amplification is foggy for a manufacturer, but crystal clear for me. I try it and can return it if I don’t like it.

    Much of the new technology in audio these days feels more like driving on ice. An example is MQA. There is no real governing body for industry wide adoption, the multi-step unfolding process was overly complicated and required a new DAC. It was only partially adopted from a content standpoint. Like driving on ice, after a couple encounters you know to be appropriately cautious. Given the current environment, I prefer to wait for the salt trucks to pave the way, not drive the salt truck.

  3. "Airline passengers are a lot safer because pilots aren’t adventurous when visibility challenges them"
    They rely on instruments in such (IMC) conditions and ATC to ensure separation. Adventurous pilots are generally short-lived, as they say.. there are old pilots and bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots - thank goodness.

  4. Those guys at Stereophile and Absolute Sound really know their craft. They help me to navigate through fog because I understand the terms they use to describe the sound. You first have to of experienced the sounds that they describe by hearing it in the vintage equipment that we own. If you never experienced the sound of excellent audio then it's hard to understand the terms they use like transparent, sweet, silky, see through, layered, 3 dimensional, 2 dimensional, deep soundstage, shallow, extended, forward, laid back, coherent, non coherent, tubey, warm, lush, immediacy, romantic, imagining, soundstage, air, bloom, musical, articulate, slam, weight, tonal balance, full bodied, detailed, round, tight, muddy, bloated, thin, lean, hard, cold, analytical, bright, dark. open, closed, diffused, beamed, wide dispersion, linear, non linear, boxy, non boxy, colored, uncolored. Sorry I got carried away but they kept popping into my head. I probably didn't get them all but these are the main ones used by experts in describing the sound.

    The best new stuff retains all what's great in the vintage gear that we love and improves on it. There is some great audio gear from the 70's, 80's, 90's. Yes newer equipment has improved if it didn't screw up what the older gear did great in the past and built on it but that's not always the case. There shouldn't be a major change in sound. There should be a refinement in sound. The major breakthroughs already happened and now it's fine tuning. What makes it really tough is there are things that make a system sound better that is not only hard to explain but also hard to measure. You just have to put it into service and if it sounds better then bingo.

    I think the next breakthrough is going to be in making a state of the art system smaller and lighter. Smaller Amps and speakers that don't compromise on the sound of the older bigger heavier stuff. Maybe that great sounding 200 pound amp at 125 pounds. Those 600 pound speakers at 400 pounds. You're seeing that already and maybe that will eventually bring the price to own such great equipment within reach of more audiophiles.

    1. It's kind of like polishing your car, no matter how good it looks you feel you can polish it even better and in most cases you can but you have to work harder and harder to get a smaller and smaller return on your efforts. At some point you just have to say good enough. I have tried to say that many times and failed because we all like the shiny new toy. I'm really happy with the sound of my system but I can't say I'm done. No audiophile can. I'm just getting tired and want to spend more time listening to and enjoying music then analyzing my system. I put a lot of effort and research into this and I just want to stop for awhile and smell the roses. Reap the rewards of my efforts. Man does it sound good. Thank you engineers.

      1. And yes Paul is correct in saying you have to burn in and live with the newer stuff awhile before you can appreciate those refinements made. They might be small improvements but improvements you cannot live without once you get used to it being there. It's like a good subwoofer, you don't notice it until you switch it off or change to something worse.

        1. I owe Paul a great deal of gratitude too for his memos and videos which are just as informative in helping me navigate through the fog as the audio magazines I read. Thanks Paul.

            1. Thanks Paul. Someone once said if you enjoy your job you never have to work a day in your life. I can tell you're having as much fun making the video's as we do watching them.

    2. I think you hit the nail on the head watchdog. After years of reading I got to the point where I found certain reviewers put into writing exactly what I was hearing. So when they write I listen.

      1. Yep those guys are good at describing the sound of components, speakers, wires, even tweaks. You just have to understand their audiophile jargon. When they describe a new component I know exactly what they are describing and I know immediately if I'm going to like that component or not. I have owned equipment that I lived with and knew it's sound characteristic to the T and when I dug out an old review on the component they were spot on it's strengths and weaknesses. The same thing if I buy a component after they recommend it. When I hook it up and listen everything they described was what I heard. Many times it has nothing to do with price either. I have seen many components 1/10 the cost of another in the same class A B C or D of recommended components.

      2. It's possible to put together a complete Stereophile class A rated system for less then 10,000 new and much less if buying used gear or you can put together a Class A Stereophile rated system for 50,000 and up. So state of the art sound is within reach if you put in the time and do the research. Many of the real expensive stuff is overkill. It might be built to last longer but who cares about that the way technology is changing so fast. You might have an amplifier built to last 100 years but then something comes out in two years that sounds better for half the price. If you have money to burn then go for it. Good engineers can design state of the art sound at a reasonable price. Like PS Audio.

  5. <<<<<<<<<
    “I make pretty quick go-no-go decisions but they often deprive me of learning and growth as I motor through a busy day. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that unless someone asks me to slow down and give a second chance to that new piece of music, cable, circuit design, or thought process I am likely to just go on autopilot with my decisions.“

    I usually also do it that way, but only when the test case isn’t depending strongly on synergy or options and processes of combination and setup.

    I think doing it that way, one would come to false quick conclusions when comparing e.g. digital/vinyl, tubes/solid state, cabling, cartridges, planars with horns etc.

    Making apparently easy and quick decisions often helps to build up a quick own opinion and feel good with it...maybe even promote it, but not always helps to have a somewhat objective view on things in cases as described above.

  6. I usually go with my 1st impressions as I’ve learned my gut feelings are usually spot on.
    I recently went with the ‘longer term’ approach on my backup system with a GCD and M700’s replacing an old Krell setup while building a new sound room for my recently inheireted sound system.
    I got the M700’s first and they set my expectations very high because they did exactly if not better than advertised. So now that my expectations were sky high I added the GCD. My balloon burst. Compared to what I was using for a front end the sound stage collapsed to almost flat as a board front to rear and as wide as a 2x4 side to side. My stubborn side kicked in as I couldn’t believe it. I have spent months now ‘regrouping’ and let myself get well past the 30 day window. I’ve recovered a good part of the original sound stage but had to resort back to the old school line source preamps in between the GCD and M700’s to do so. I can get it all back but loose some of the musicality compared to the GCD as the synergy of the old front end is not good with the M700’s.

    So from this point on I’m going to stick with my gut and avoid the hype of marketing descriptions.

    Apparently the fog was much thicker and deeper than I anticipated. Lesson learned. I’ve also had fun getting it the best I can with what I have to work with. Good weather is approaching and the outdoor activities are vying for my attention again. The new room will be done by mid summer and I’ll have a ‘new to me system’ to play with.

    The bitter taste of disappointment still lingers, but time has a way healing that.

  7. "Are we prepared to navigate through a bit of fog to discover the new and exciting?"

    Walking off the edge of a cliff you didn't see can be exciting until you reach the bottom. Then it's not so exciting anymore.
    I've got a different idea. Clear the fog away. Then you can see where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there safely and with certainty.

    Are people who walk in circles because they are lost in a fog and the only thing they aren't afraid to do is stay in the same safe little patch of land? What happened to the spirit of adventure that was the roots of this industry? Me too-ism has caused the tree to grow taller and skinnier but the roots have dried up and died, starved to death with lack of new ideas, the fertilizer of real progress.

  8. Sometimes an initial reaction to new equipment can be wrong. Several years back I got a call from a new customer, a doctor in Inverness saying he'd lost high frequencies on his left speaker. I visited with replacement tweeter & fitted it. Testing it out the system it didn't sound great. I said I've got a CD player in the car that I'll try, initially that didnt sound too good either. I said try it out for a while & I'll be back later on, after another call. I returned late afternoon to a very happy greeting saying that player is amazing can he buy it.
    I bit of warming up was all it took, apparently it got even better after a burn-in.
    Another happy customer, made my day.

  9. if pilots are flying through fog, they are flying too close to the ground. They may fly through cloud because they are on a timetable. Consumers, fortunately, are not, and can wait for the cloud to clear.

    Implying, if there is a clear reason to buy something, go ahead, if not, don't.

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