Phono cartridges, microphones, and loudspeakers

March 25, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

We all know that microphones sound different, and not just by a little. And we all know phono cartridges sound different, and not just by a little. And don’t get me going about the differences in loudspeakers!

What all three transducers have in common is the nature of their operation: mechanical.

Our sound systems are all lorded over by one, two, or all three mechanical contrivances that so greatly affect sound quality.

Fact is, between the differences in microphones, phono cartridges, and loudspeakers it’s impossible to ever suggest there’s a “standard” of performance we could ever rely upon.

It’s no wonder every system sounds so unique.

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46 comments on “Phono cartridges, microphones, and loudspeakers”

  1. No surprises here with today’s post.
    You’re right on the money Paul.

    Someone else who’s right on the money is John Darko, a PS Audio Direct Stream DAC owner,
    who absolutely nails it with this video presentation:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9LGRqHVhxQ

    “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”
    (Truer words have never been spoken)

    Happy listening everybody✌

    1. That is a really good post from the man who brought the ‘KlipSchiit’* combination to our attention. And although currently John Darko “bin ein Berliner”, he resided in ‘Straya for a time. I didn’t know that until yesterday.

      *I would like to hear a Cronus Magnum III driving a pair of ‘the other Paul’s’ smallest. still American made Heritage line loudspeakers. The idea of a Rogue spouting Heresy appeals to my sense of whimsy.

    2. This video is superficial in his explanation of consumer decision making. There is no doubt that there is correlation between types of spending and income, but it is not necessarily a perfect correlation. Of course, Lamborghinis and Van Cleef jewelry will be purchased by rich people but it is not always the case. People make consumption decisions using many different parameters. He uses “pub” psychology but doesn’t go into any depth. The research on consumption is very rich and quite interesting.

      In the 1970s, Russ Ackoff of U of Penn discovered that at that time most Americans could not distinguish beer brands within a category and convince Anheuser-Busch to market based on perceived activities (“fun settings”) instead of “taste”. Many luxury items are still sold on perceived values more than inherent values, cultivating frivolity of consumption and show-off behaviors. Brands are like that. Nike does this too. It is not necessarily products for rich people that communicate something that is not the feature of the product itself. Features, benefits and values. The first thing you are taught in marketing courses.
      Most audio brands sell on perceived value. Most audio brands realize that the mythology of audio is much more valuable to the company’s products than the actual features. For most people, the prestige of different brands or perceived uniqueness is much more important. This is why Paul never talks about measurements and tells you that the “mystique” of voicing is what matters. He is a very clever man. He knows his customers. Something that Ackoff discovered decades ago for beer is still used successfully for many products.

      1. CtA,
        Paul doesn’t need to talk about the measurements that you are referring to, since he invites his fellow Americans to LISTEN to his products, in their own homes/listening rooms for 30 days for free, which negates the need for ‘measurements’.
        ‘Measurements’ are only important at the design stage of audio component production, however you continue to fail to understand this very basic truth.

    1. Anyone who has ever gone to see and listen to Grover Washington Jr. live walked out with an incredible respect for this incredible musician. All of his work was unique and up to the standards of almost any of the great jazz saxophone players even though he chose the commercial music route. What does this have to do with today’s topic.

      GROVER!!!! GROVER!!! GROVER!!! That’s all you would hear in the audience… over and over and over while he played. He put people in a trance, his playing was that great. It’s a shame that he died so young.

      1. Paul wrote his words and i really have nothing to add to them. While on hold with Comcast yesterday for a ½ hour, Winelight was playing on loop. That, and this week’s event brought back a lot of memories of a kinder gentler time. If i close my eyes i can still hear the sound of this record playing through a pair of B&W 801 loudspeakers in my aural memory from 1980.

        My only gripe with Grover Washington Jr. is that he’s probably responsible for helping to create the light jazz – elevator music genre. Would you have preferred “Free Bird”?

        Try this one on for size, it’s a grabber!

        Weather Report – Heavy Weather

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edYN7Uh28LI

  2. Exactly right.
    I recently changed speakers, but the new ones are tonally very similar, just better imaging and a bit more bass.
    Cartridges – I have an MC for all the detail and great for vocals, a medium output one that has a bit more thump for jazz and a mono cartridge. I look after them and get them serviced/cleaned or retipped every three years or so.
    I’ve never used electronics for any length of time that have noticeable coloration and I don’t have interconnect cables, so that’s another nervous breakdown avoided.
    I doubt my digital system is unique because it is quite a common combination. What makes it unique is probably the room acoustics, as there are probably few rooms the same.
    I’ll leave microphones to someone else.

      1. You know the old Peter Walker saying, the best cable is one that conducts electricity.
        His speakers contain clear instructions about wiring and fuses. For ESL63 the instructions say: “For runs of up to 10m 24/0.2mm cable with a rating of 6 amps should be used to connect the loudspeaker to the amplifier. Longer runs may require heavier cable. The basic rule is the total resistance of the speaker cable should not exceed 5% of the loudspeaker impedance, ie. 0.35ohms, inductance should not exceed 1mH per metre and capacity can be ignored. Exotic connecting cables are not necessary.”
        Whenever I read people going on about this cable and that cable, graphene this and plutonium that, I think of Peter Walker and how lucky he was to live before the internet. Beer crates for speakers and lamp cord – the two of you would have got on like a house on fire.

        1. Extreme cases are named “audiophilia psychopathica”. The stages are first “nervosa”, then “neurotica” and concludes with “psychopathica”.

  3. Does the reason there are so many choices in home audio have to do with the fact that most only have control over 2 of the 3 mechanical transducers listed here? The 3rd being picked by someone else, and from there being labeled as a reference recording (or not) and used to judge the proper sound of the other transducers.

    Seems like the cart – horse – cart problem. Yet we all find a way to enjoy personal music playback, despite all the flaws and differences.

    1. Choosing new speakers does make you realise how subjective and personal audio playback is, words like “true”, “perfect”, “accurate” and “best” become a bit superfluous. I get the feeling that up to a point things get better and then they just get different.

      As FatRat would say, whatever floats your boat.

          1. The analog interconnects with the new screw lock collars drive me up a wall. I either lose one because I left it too loose after I forgot to screw it down after removal or if I tighten one just a tad too much I may never be able pull it off the plug again. How’s that for an answer FR?

        1. “My bucket’s got a hole in it. And I can’t get no beer.” — I don’t know who first wrote this song, but I am familiar with Willy Nelson’s recording of it.

  4. Correct, there’s no standard.

    But why pronounce the mechanical side and not mention that there’s no standard in digital HW and even firmware for a fixed HW as well? They all sound as different as microphones, speakers or cartridges do.

    The firmwares of e.g. the DS DAC even sound so different that some users don’t want to use single versions of it, although their frequency response is more or less equal.

    You could go on with the list of not existing standards with cabling, amps etc. Not sure what’s behind the mechanical argument.

    1. Maybe because a transducer is still required to get a signal to make it digital or playback that digital signal? Although I suppose one could just take (artificial computer generated tones) put them together in a language a computer understands and call that the source. But in the end in order to hear them air has to vibrate so the transducers on the side of your head can pick them up and decode them. At least (for most) at this current state of human evolution….

      1. Sure, mechanical transducers are needed anyway. I just didn’t get why only transducers were mentioned in connection with “missing standards” when this applies to anything within the chain to no lesser degree.

        Finally the question remains, which sense sound standards should make at a certain point (in case they somewhere exist), if half of the chain is not based on any.

        If we see a more or less flat frequency response as a standard available e.g. for amps and DAC’s…what does it help when those components sound very different inspite of it.

        1. I would guess the focus of today had to do with mechanical transducers.

          You “standards” comment makes the most sense.

          Apparently audio is a chain of weak links.

    2. When digital audio was offered to the consumer market the CD was hyped as “perfect” sound – for decades analog audio had tried to reduce the noise levels finally developing complex noise reduction schemes as Dolby (A, B, C), Hicom and others). Sony even claimed that CDs required new loudspeaker designs for revealing the new level of sound quality and especially tweeter designs had to be significantly improved for matching CD quality. Reality showed that early CDs sounded awful and the high frequency range remained the weakest point of RBCD! However from the point of view of a digital audio aficionado all analog components and mechanical devices are old fashioned and show low performance. I still wait to see the first digital loudspeaker! 🙂

  5. It may be centuries before we solve these transducer problems if ever. That’s why we will never create the illusion of being in the same recording venue as the original was made. Paul if you’re going to chase these dragons you’ve really got your hands full. You will be able to improve on them but I think that’s about it.

    1. However the reference sound is the individual sound which was created by the sound and mixing engineer using his individual ears and subjective preferences based on the individual studio room acoustics and the individual audio chain and individual studio loudspeakers. No chance to get this sound in your own listening room!

  6. I love most John Darko video’s and the one Fat Rat brings to our attention is a very nice one too.
    But he is not specifically a PS Audio Direct Stream DAC owner.
    Being a reviewer he has all sorts of gear in his rack, swapping the units out from time to time.
    And he’s right, we’re all idiots. And we all love it.
    But why ? It is so easy to make the right choice. Just read Stereophile and their list of “Recommended components 2021” and you’re done. Easy peasy.
    Or even better, follow what shortsighted says in his 7:36 comment.
    Only…can anyone (you shortsighted ?) tell me what The “Absolute” Sound is ?
    What does it sound like ?

  7. Peace has broken out. Awful. And to think we could rely on Paul to say something utterly disagreeable on a daily basis. Can someone please complain about the website.

  8. I just had my hearing aids reset……
    Until you experience that, you can’t realize that there is no TRUE sound.
    Only what you are experiencing with your ears and what you have done to them since your DOB.
    And that will change.

  9. “Peace has broken out. Awful. And to think we could rely on Paul to say something utterly disagreeable on a daily basis”
    Haha… good one, love the humor 🙂

  10. Well, I am going to be very disagreeable, even though I agree with most of what has been said. I also thought the John Darko video was very good.

    I am not please with the following: “Our sound systems are all lorded over by one, two, or all three mechanical contrivances that so greatly affect sound quality.” To me the word contrivance makes it sound like these remarkable inventions that make our hobby and Paul’s livelihood possible were slapped together in somebodies garage one afternoon when they had nothing better to do. Of course they are all mechanical, what else could they be? If you want to convert sound waves (mechanical energy) into electrical signals (electrical energy) or the other way around you must have either a mechanical to electrical transducer or an electrical to mechanical transducer. These transducers that require mechanical materials whose properties are not as well understood as electrical properties are understood. Thus they are harder to predict and add more distortion and coloration. If we want better mechanic to electrical transducers we need more ground breaking research into mechanical properties.

    How’s this for being disagreeable.

  11. First and foremost, I’m not a techie tonyplachy, but IMO you basically say the same thing as our leader. Only with a bit more detail about the materials these transducers (e.g. cartridge) are made of. And if you like you could go further into detail, until you reach the point of atoms.
    Of course you may disagree.

  12. And all ears hear differently. Biomechanics that degrade over a lifetime (if we’re lucky and it doesn’t get cut short, see yesterday’s Paul’s Post). And don’t get me started on the rest of the human central nervous system. It’s all an enormous kludge. And yet it has come together during unnumbered trial-and-error experiments, evolving in fits and starts with countless dead ends over the three plus billion years since biological life got started and managed to persevere on this “One Strange Rock”. And we can now make and enjoy music. 🙂

    Happy Tolkien Reading Day, everyone. As I type this the music of Howard Shore is playing over the stereo via TIDAL in MQA (88.2 kHz/24 bit, the DragonFly tells me) shuffle mode.

  13. Why leave out the turntables, tone arms, phono preamaps, CD players,pre-amps, amps, interconnects and speaker cables? They all sound different.Yet there is a gold standard called live music To bad that our technology is so backward that everything sounds different. Regards.

    1. I agree with you almost 100%. Unfortunately some live venues are acoustically pretty bad and listening to music on a home system can actually sound better. Most of the time it’s the energy in the room that adds to the musicians playing so much better than they normally would on a recording.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is both ways of listening are quite acceptable and both should be your sources not one or the other.

  14. Microphones do not hear like ears, and differently from each other, it is true. The trick is to understand the essence of the sound and microphone and pick the LOCATION of the musicians and microphones, along with the type of mic, that captures the essence.

    This starts with matching the piece and orchestration to appropriate room acoustics. You have to get the sound right for the players and the audience. If you make them feel really happy and connected the recording sounds a lot better.

    Examples of recording mistakes: string quartets in cavernous symphonic halls, Bach sacred music in Catholic Cathedrals, Jazz in deadened recording studios with iso booths.

    After placing the ensemble where they sound best, you then have to find the best place in the room for microphones. For even pickup of room reflections, one should choose small diaphragms. I use 12mm AKG and ACO or 6mm Earthworks, and occasionally EV RE55, the only dynamic that is full frequency.

    I also use acoustic amplification channels to balance the sound, which requires a large assortment of different mics depending on the size and nature of the radiating mechanism. For wind instruments (including voice) I use velocity microphones, like Blumlein used when he invented stereo. I sometimes use one of these on strings as well.

    For piano I use both small and large condensers in pairs, often a Braunmuhl-Weber type in figure eight or small omnis.

    The location of the instrument in the room, the choice and placement of “spot” microphone and the choice and placement of the speaker determine the equalization, intimacy, impact, crest factor and reverb excitation – which is why the speakers have to match the polar radiation pattern of the respective source.

    Phono cartridges were always part of an euphonic system with the non-linearities of cutting lathes, mic and phono preamps, I/O transformers, etc. We now have the ability to replicate a nearly identical voltage waveform from the mic pair to the speaker terminals for the price of a pair of season subscriptions (assuming no mixing and mastering engineers were involved). If asked to pick a cartridge with cost no object, I would choose a strain gauge model. I once heard a fresh hot lacquer through a strain gauge pickup immediately after a live in the room concert, and that was the closest to reality.

    That leaves speakers. The problem with speakers is they are woefully under-specified. They put a microphone a meter from the tweeter and tweak the cabinet and crossover interactively for “objective” flatness, or wave their Potter’s wand, sprinkle fairy dust and screw machine unobtainium hardware.

    If you measurably match a speaker to an instrument in the room for temporal, transient and spatial response they sound substantially the same – but of course, under these criteria every model of instrument requires a different speaker geometry and driver configuration. This process does satisfy the most stringent subjective test of all, the ears of the musicians.

    Then there is the magical thinking of “imaging”. It is a gross physical impossibility for a pair of speakers to re-create the sound field of a room, and earwitness accounts of this are all delusional. Of course this provokes endless arguments, because the delusions are personally idiomatic. You may or may not agree with an individual who listens to the same recordings through the same speakers for the same number of years, but agreement diverges with listening history.

    The cult of PS Audio is among the most consistent – certainly the electronics and speakers are exceptional and the care in quality control during development leads to a lot of agreement here.

    I personally recommend PS Audio products because my 50 years of critical listening agrees with so many of the design choices. I am confidant that the ears in charge are as good as can be expected in this funhouse mirror hall of airbrushed facsimiles we call audiophilia.

  15. It seems sad that we demand flat frequency response from amps and cd players and DACs and any deviation is often surrounded by swords ready to make one walk the plank. It is just bad engineering, unless it is a tube amp and the reviewer “loves the sound”, even if it is not totally accurate. Of course the recording he is using for the review wasn’t either.

    Microphone preamps can be flat, have odd or even harmonics; or both. They can have a low or medium noise floor, as they should measure flat like a phono stage, just without the RIAA EQ curve. Some phono preamps are north of $50K.

    Then it seems that many of the microphones that “are loved in the industry” are way less than flat in frequency response which means they are coloring or subtracting some of what they are recording; and they have their own self-noise that is added as well.

    It may be that our unhappiness with our speaker systems is more a fault of the recordings than a fault of the speakers themselves. Listening to high resolution music recorded well can verify this for one’s self. DSD can be an important tool for this exercise.

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