Peeling back the onion

July 5, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

It must have been a bit maddening as early researchers into the structure of the physical world kept finding smaller and smaller building blocks: molecules, atoms, electrons, protons, neutrons, and smaller.

Every time they uncovered what they suspected must be the essential particle upon which everything else is built, they peeled back yet another layer to discover even smaller particles, like the “God particle” from the 1993 book The God Particle by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman.

Our noble quest in high-end audio to peel back the obfuscating layers of sonic hash in order to hear deeper into the music has similar colorings.

The more we clear away the more we can hear what stands between us and the music.

The excitement of discovering that which lies buried is infectious.

What a great journey!

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39 comments on “Peeling back the onion”

  1. I used to smoke sonic hash to improve the sound of my home audio set-up…
    an invaluable upgrade.
    As my ears get older, & therefore less compliant, I fear that I’m running out
    of layers to peel back.
    I hope that all the Americans here had some great Independence Day
    celebrations yesterday (family, BBQ & bourbon)

    **’CtA’**
    If you’re bored enough to read this mediocre & uninteresting post,
    my wife & I had a good chuckle about your ‘Jabba the Rat’
    renaming of myself…hilarious; good for you!
    Also, a few weeks ago, you mentioned about not having enough
    bass when listening to music in your car.
    I would strongly suggest a pair of ALPINE SWS-BE45 ‘Bass Engines’
    or similar product (butt-kicker), bolted (attached) to the bottom
    (sub-frame) of the front seats of your car (motor vehicle);
    they make a helluva difference…seriously!
    You may think that I’m talking rubbish, but I’m not;
    you’ll be very pleasantly surprised how much deep &
    ‘feelable’ bass they will add to your car listening experience.

    Also, congratulations to Cameron Davis for winning the PGA
    play-off in Detroit on Independence Day!
    We Aussies do like to remind you Yankees, & you
    Confederates, every now & then, just how good we are 🙂

    1. So, you like a “butt bouncer bass boomer”, huh? Sounds like some of the things they make for game chairs. And talk about Aussies all you want…I LOVE Aussies!! (And I think their accents are better than British accents, which aren’t bad either). Good day, Mate!!

      1. Hi Neil,
        (G’day mate!)
        I hope that you’re in good health.
        That’s funny because I’ve always liked the American accent;
        maybe that’s because of all of the TV shows when I was a kid.
        The Aussie accent, to me, is..meh..a bit redneck,
        but then the grass is always greener, i’n it 😉

    2. The introduction of butt-kickers under the seat to the after market system in my 1983 Mustang convertible made the whole system come alive. That particular car had minimal room for any speakers other than 3.5inch in the front and 4 or 5 inch in the door (which are now all Infinity Kappa’s). Anemic as they come, but adding in some Clarion (in my case marine units) saved the day!

      It’s a nice day in Ohio and not so hot and muggy, methinks I will go get the car out (which I bought new and still have) and tool around a bit.

  2. I only know two vaguely audiophile people. It’s not a lack of people I know, it’s just that in the real world there are very few audiophiles. One has the same Linn system unchanged since soon after we graduated, the other a Devialet he bought after blowing up his Class A monster amp 7 or 8 years ago. I suspect he knows about peeling off layers because he used to be a particle physicist at CERN. Both, however, are dedicated lovers of vinyl.

    I am indifferent to digital or analogue, enjoy both, but have been doing the streaming thing since 2009 and I’m totally convinced it’s 99% about noise reduction. My last purchase (20 minutes ago) was some Belden 19364 mains flex to connect my modem to the consumer unit. Vinyl, on the other hand, will always have a level of noise that would be unacceptable in a digital chain, but it doesn’t stop vinyl sounding great.

    I’m now convinced that for good digital the less cabling, the fewer power sources, the less processing power, the more shielding (except for ethernet cables), the better. It seems far important for analogue, when the main issues seem to be the mechanical design of the cantilever and the quality of the phono pre-amplification.

  3. The God Particle that Lederman wrote about was the Higgs Boson. Rather than being small, it is enormous for a fundamental particle, being about 125 times more massive than a proton, about the same as a Tellurium nucleus.

      1. In effect, yes. The Higg’s Boson is extremely short lived. On average it “breaks apart” after about .00000000000000000000002 seconds, plus it has no electrical charge. In fact, we have no way to detect it directly. What we do is look for a reaction where we see it’s decay particles popping up at the same time.

        The first step is to create some Higgs Bosons. Because the Higgs is so massive it takes a lot of energy to do this. In fact, the primary reason for the construction of the LHC at CERN was for the very purpose.The now shut down Tevatron at Fermilab had enough energy, but couldn’t produce enough reactions to capture the rare event enough to ensure can accurate result.

        1. So it lasts slightly longer than a Deliveroo pizza. Gone before you even knew it was there.

          So Paul’s analogy and reference to the Boson when talking about diving in smaller and smaller, is wrong, as it’s really rather large, and speedy. A bit like an elephant on roller skates.

  4. Speaking of layer peel back…,

    This one has to do in the recording realm where tape is used…. Especially for remastering…

    There is a good article in the July / August issue of The Absolute Sound about the Plangent Process. Or look here. https://www.plangentprocesses.com/

    It seems to me when ever a layer of of “grunge” can be removed in the audio process we all benefit.
    (Provided we like the music to begin with)

      1. Hey tarheelneil,

        As I wrote that, I wondered the same thing. Then I thought what the hell, add another of layer of “grunge” somewhere in the recording / playback process. Then it’ll be a wash.. (hopefully not washed) 😀

        Or maybe to answer your question, they become one member shy of a full band.

      1. You’re welcome Tony. I found it interesting and the basic concepts made sense to me. Now to find the recordings that have been done using that process….

        BTW ribs are on the smoker ( native apple wood for the pork ribs) and beer is now in hand 😀

  5. After spending decades slowly peeling back the onion, I fantasize whether I`ve finally reached rock bottom- the recording limits. But I realize that it`s an asymptopic curve so I’m now at peace with what I’ve got. It’s a good place to reach.

    1. Actually this is a terrible analogy. I find that when you peel back an onion, you just find yourself with a smaller onion and floods of tears.

      Taken to extremes, you end up with no onion, a mess on the kitchen worktop and conjunctivitis.

      Perhaps a better analogy can be found in Shelley, who was never short of an analogy or to, written when staying in Italy where the early morning mists rise to reveal the landscape:

      “As one enamoured is upborne in dream
      O’er lily-paven lakes mid silver mist
      To wondrous music, so this shape might seem
      “Partly to tread the waves with feet which kist
      The dancing foam, partly to glide along
      The airs that roughened the moist amethyst

      1. Steven,
        I beg to differ.
        The ‘floods of tears’ doesn’t come from simply
        peeling said onion; it comes from chopping it
        up with a blade of some description to release
        the syn-Propanethial-S-oxide that causes
        some human beings to cry.

      2. Judging by how many metaphorical tears are shed every time a cricket game is lost by either yours or FR’s national team, I would have thought that peeling (or chopping) onions was a national law to encourage the tear shed….. 😉

  6. Paul, I often have to chuckle at your analogies of various things to audio systems. This morning was a very big chuckle. 😀 High-end audio has a lot of cool hardware stuff, however, to put in in proper perspective I hope everyone here, including Paul, will take 2.5 minutes to watch the trailer for the documentary on finding the Higgs Boson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obIFVuvdWIQ I promise you it is not boring.

    As a retired experimental physicist I can tell you that the only thing that compares to the hardware technology of CERN LHC is manned space flight. Watched the trailer and be amazed.

    1. I may have seen that documentary at some point, but I’ll track it down again. It was fascinating as I recall. Cutting edge physics is fun as long as someone else does the math. I know that this denies me the fundamental beauty and elegance of the science, but then, I’m just an old “hand waving” geologist.

      Old-ish joke: A Higgs boson walks into a cathedral only to be intercepted by an aged priest (who apparently is in disagreement with the concept of inclusivity): “We don’t want your kind in here.” The Higgs boson replies, “But without me this is no mass.

  7. The God particle is an open secret.

    ” He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. ”

    Scratch you heads. Or, as some may need… Scratch your other end with a Butt-Kicker.

    There is a big mystery. Isn’t there? One that is inconvenient from some. Yet, for everyone the same death is inevitable. We are to enjoy our lives to the fullest. It all depends upon what we fill it with. God smiles when we like tubes, when we like solid state… when we can like life. And, recognize his engineering in it all. After all… He created the mind of the engineer.. and “audiophile.”

    He also create Aussies to enjoy listening with reverse polarity. They also need to put their subwoofers on top of their speakers.

  8. We still don’t understand how gravity works, but we know what it does and can calculate its effects using mathematical models going back to Newton and time/space formulas developed by Einstein and his mathematicians and successors. A few selectively placed charges and the whole structure comes tumbling down, mostly confined to its footprint. It’s not the explosive that destroys most of the building, it is the force of gravity.

    I was just pondering how an upside down record player could work. You’d have to secure the record to the platter, and put more weight on the opposite end from the needle, so the needle would push up on the record. I can’t think of any reason why any sane person would want to do that, unless they are in a space ship of some kind where the gravity field is inverted.

    I have also wondered if the orientation of a record player with respect to the earth’s magnetic field or with respect to ambient EMF has any influence on its sound. That would be an easy experiment.

    1. Instead of “player” I should have said “turntable,” although the amplification gear might also be affected by magnetic field orientation in some subtle way. Has anyone tried different orientations, or is the earth’s magnetic field too weak to matter? There may be EMF associated with electrical lines and other equipment that could conceivably alter the sound, which is why, of course, equipment and cable have shielding. Even if you have a Power Plant, the gear itself is still subject to environmental EMF.

  9. The latest science back room talk is blowing me away, thanks to Cern and others.
    * Electrons now do not jump from covalent bond to covalent bond
    * We do not actually orbit the Sun, the Sun drags us along like a comet does with debris. Hence we orbit in a helical spiral behind the Sun.(NASA)
    * Existence – Reality, we flash out of existence and back in every 20 trillionths of a second. (CERN)
    Heavy reading by a guy who got it right back in the 1700s.
    ” A Theory of Natural Philosophy by Roger Joseph Boscovich”

  10. I have been peeling back layers of the audio chain since 1966. Better speakers, better amplifier, better turntable, cartridge, and then… better recordings. Better microphones, better console, better monitors, BETTER ROOM! Wait a minute, that applies to listening too. Another round. Phase alignment.

    Wait, somewhere in the dozens of hours of setup, tracking, overdubbing, splicing, and mixing something is lost. Spontaneity, conversation, feedback, gestalt. LIVE music! Stage, audience, performance, synchrony, breathe, heartbeat, toe tap, dance!

    We need a TRUCK. Tuned ±2dB flat. And 10 cubic feet of speaker, 800 Watts of amp into 97dB efficiency in a 1440 cubic feet box, Ampex RTRs. 300ft snake, locker of mics. Iso power, variac dimming, national touring acts. OOPS! There seems to be bleed from a dozen speakers. Reset!

    Resonance and time, comparing raw input and output. Mass and spring group delay, infinite backwave absorber, resonance and chaos, inductance limits speed. Faster bass! Waveform accuracy. Envelope transients.

    Ask the experts, the patent holders, the authors, the inventors. Time Domain Spectroscopy. Laser interferometry. Directional phase encoders! Eureka! Stereo is fake, mixing is distortion.

    Polar radiation match = spatial accuracy. OVOMOS. Tri-amp. Doppler distortion dominates real sound levels.

    DSF. NCP. Best halls in New York. Steinway Model D, Guarneris, acoustic references. Compare to live with musician’s ears, pass transparency.

    Now to productize.

  11. Now how do you top Acuvox’s post or even add to it???

    Wonderful read. It was as if George Carlin was an Audiophile.
    I think I found my new Advertising lullaby. 😉 Terrific Onion peel. I think John Lennon would approve.

    Happy Independence Day to all you lovely Americans. We just Had Canada Day a couple of days ago, so I’m glad all of North America had something to celebrate recently. 😉

    1. Rocks have frequency response and dynamic range far beyond music – check a seismograph for bass, and they also transmit ultrasonics 1,000 times better than air!

      Plastic can hold far more information than an LP – like 4GB DVD-RAM storing double or quad DSF.

      What is amazing to me is dragging a steel point connected to a horm across shellac can record so much musical truth. A 78 on a big Victrola has an emotional purity that is rarely if ever captured electronically; which is why I prefer ZERO KNOB recordings. Mixing and mastering are distortion.

      Here is a raw DSF file of a near coincident pair live recording of three AcuVox speakers amplifying a solo viola and live stereo processing:

      https://www.dropbox.com/sh/o4wdjucn1hterff/AACNzdbsmjF8Wg_OL_bSA8vIa?dl=0

  12. I find it tiring to continually peel the onion back. I need the time to enjoy the layer that I have discovered until such time as I find the need to trim off another film of skin. It can’t be a mad dash for me. in fact, the deeper I go, the slower I find myself flaying more profoundly into the onion.

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