Radical ideas

March 19, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Whenever I hear the term “radical new idea” two things happen: my ears perk up and my caution guard goes up too.

I think most of us are both interested and skeptical of radical change. We love the idea of the new, the radical, the brass ring solution that leapfrogs us away from the land of incremental changes. And yet, how many times have we been disappointed? The 200 mpg carburetor, the Bedini Box speaker cables.

Most radical ideas go nowhere but on occasion, they spark improvements in the tried and true. I remember our first discovery that huge oversized transformers improved the audio performance of source equipment and that discovery lead to the creation of the Power Plant AC regenerators.

The cycles between radical shifts in technology seem to be becoming shorter. Vacuum tubes to transistors happened in a 50-year cycle while the move from analog to digital audio was a little more than half that.

With all the work on new materials for generating sound like graphene and the research on beamforming to direct sound to specific locations, I am guessing we’re in for a radical new approach in the field of reproduction by the middle of the next decade. That’s not a lot of time.

I’ll also wager that the new approach, whatever it is, will come out of left field—or certainly a field far from high-end audio.

As I write these words some companies are installing audio beam projectors capable of following individuals in a crowded public area to spam them with advertising—and only the targeted individual will hear it. Applied to a stereo system it means sound could track the individuals within a room perhaps moving the soundstage with the person.

It’s fun to imagine what the future might hold for audiophiles like us.

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29 comments on “Radical ideas”

  1. I’m with you Paul. It’s a bit like brainstorming. Have you attended many serious brainstorming events? It is so difficult to drop the judgemental filter in order to get all those off-the-wall ideas that, at first blush, seem so ludicrous. But, often times, they are the ones that lead to significant ‘radical ideas’. After everyone has done their ‘braindump’, there’s plenty of time to go back and evaluate. But you need to get those unshackled thought processes to generate the ideas fodder. This, I think, is one of the marvelous things about the human brain.

  2. The vast majority of innovations have come from telecommunications and commercial broadcasting. That has been the case for well over 100 years. The commercial value is vast, with markets now running into billions of people.

    Curiously, both valve and solid state diodes were invented and patented at almost the same time, at the turn of the 20th century.

    The single significant technological development that I can think of specifically for audio use was the CD, that took two major global corporations 5 years to develop and then became a non-audio R/W data storage format. It lasted about 30 years before effectively becoming redundant.

  3. It’s been at least 5 or more years since a friend and I sat in on a Bose home theatre audio demonstration. All of the 5.1 speakers were covered in black cloth, and the demo played some music and then played something out of each speaker separately, including the subwoofer which sat in the right-hand corner of the room. As the grand finale, all of the cloths were whisked away revealing nothing but air! The sound had come from a Bose TV hanging in the front of the room. The TV was “beaming” the sound so that it appeared to come from different points in the room. The quality of the sound was good, not great, and they didn’t even make a pretense of “hiding” the subwoofer location, but the demo was remarkable in that the TV was controlling everything.

    1. I sat through one of those demonstrations as well and really was surprised it was all beaming from the TV speakers. All the drivers were tucked in the back. Of course that was a smaller, probably acoustically tuned room. The experience at my home I am sure would not be the same.

      My current soundbar I use in my family room has beamforming technology and emulates 5.1. It’s functional and does a good job, but sure is no full range surround I was used to at my old house.

    1. You might like to check out my two columns on the subject in issues 60 and 61 of PS Audio’s Copper magazine (accessible from the home page of the PS Audio web site).

      1. Thanks for the reference, Richard. I researched and read your interview before, Great Stuff.

        However, felt to achieve multiple listener potential, found the current iteration of the BACCH 3D was too involved. Currently I find a Well balanced and Synergistic 2.1 set-up (as I currently have) offers me the listening goals I’m very happy with!

    2. So some academics develop a system and license it to a company that implements it in a black box, you don’t need new speakers but you need to pay them $60,000 for the box. It’s all a bit complicated to set up and operate and Stereophile weren’t that impressed.

      The BBC has been at this for some time, developing the ability to listen to spatial sound through conventional headphones.

      It shouldn’t be forgotten that far more more listening is done through headphones than stereo loudspeakers, so any major new breakthroughs will almost certainly not be based around static stereo or multi-channel speaker systems. It will also not cost the user $60,000. I doubt it will cost the user $600.

  4. For me it’s interesting to observe which of such radical shifts as you mentioned from the past and those upcoming are also perceived as real or pure improvement (not only from convenience standpoints).

    We know some of those are still struggling to be perceived like that and the fun idea of audio beam projectors you mentioned as a possible „quality“ music technology makes me think if our generations might be the last to experience a high level of high end audio as we know it within a further strongly decreasing niche market of the same.

    Seems to me the high end companies will try to bring quality to an increasing lower quality level / higher convenience level demand where the „radical ideas“ will take place.

    Take the Class D development…radical sound progress was made with shrinking equipment sizes…but probably no one will want to seriously compare the final listening performance with Class A equipment of even 10-20 years ago, which possibly won’t be better in all aspects, but probably the essential ones.

    1. I don’t think you could be more wrong. Per my first post, all the developments in the last 100+ years have been by telecoms or broadcast companies. It’s economics and their interests in producing, transmitting and distributing audio signals. Think Marconi, Edison, Bell Labs, the BBC, Texas Instruments. As I said in my second post, only CD is the exception (Sony/Phillips) specifically for audio.

      Class A valve amplification is 80 or more years old. I’ve been there. 300B-XLS tubes – expensive, unreliable, incredibly inefficient, impractical and very low power.

      I use Class A / D hybrid and it sounds as good as anything I’ve ever heard. Conversely, it is cheap, reliable, incredibly efficient, practical and high power. And here’s the surprise – the core technology was designed by an engineer from the telecoms industry. As a rule of thumb, they have reduced the component and product size to about 5% of similar standard solid state components.

      High end companies cannot do this. They generally don’t have the technology because it is based on high volume production using micro-components fabricated in expensive automated machinery. It also requires very large capital investment. The only company I know that can is dCS, but they were making military grade equipment for 20 years before they got into audio. They are still not very affordable and only make signal processors, not amplifiers.

      It is not just amplifiers using Class D (the better ones are hybrids), it’s everything else. Most of the miniaturisation has already happened. The student’s favourite is the JBL Flip 4 ($100), I have the Devialet Phantom ($1,000), up to Kii3 ($10,000) that only needs an external streamer.

      I have no doubt that high end will come up with new ways to sell more product, but they haven’t and won’t contribute to the long-term step changes in consumer audio.

      One thing I do expect in a few years is to be able to watch and listen to the BBC Proms live broadcast at home using spatial audio headphones and virtual reality vision. It is the largest music festival in the world, the most listened and the commercial justification for developing spatial, object-centric, binaural audio technology.

  5. There are no lengths to which I would not go to avoid buying _*anything*_ from a company that projects targeted audio advertisements at me in public spaces.

    1. Your computer is monitored by the companies that created the browser you use to surf the internet and the sites you visit direct appropriate advertising personalized for your interests. The notion of privacy is quickly disappearing. To those who want to know badly enough our lives have become an open book. Can the cat be put back in the bag? Doesn’t look good for that. Not only that, information about you is not just collected by sold to those who think they might make money off of you.

  6. Every designer of something new whether it’s something smaller lighter and cheaper to ship always has to deal with the laws of physics. Can’t get around that. A whole new approach with new materials can be exciting but still those laws of physics will get in the way at some point and create limitations. I’m for the newest latest approach as long as the sound quality that old school has achieved is not compromised.

    1. The laws of physics didn’t get in the way of the development of the mobile phone, so I don’t think it’s going to get in the way of improving on “old school” audio electronics. My sons aged 18 and 22 love music, but if I tried to get them interested in “old school” audio (presumably things that are big, heavy, hot, expensive, may have valves and require more than one box), they’d laugh in my face.

      1. Yep the new generation is tossing away great sound quality for small and convenience. Which is why we do need old school designers to stretch the laws of physics as much as they can to bring the millennial’s into the world of HiFi. I think that was the goal of the French company Devialet designing a small high quality blue tooth speaker. HiFi for the new generation. Maybe that will get them curious about old school when they hear decent sound in the only format they know and they say… “Hey maybe Dad was onto something and he’s not crazy”. “Maybe it does get better then this”.

        My son has his Ipod or phone that he hooks into his car radio but when he hears my system he knows there’s something special going on there and I even got him interested in vinyl. When we are listening to music in his car he will sometimes say I can imagine how good this will sound on your system Dad. He loves all of Dad’s classic rock music too and he’s only 22. I can only imagine the look on his face if he were to hear Paul’s system at PS Audio with the IRS V. A new audiophile is born.

        1. My elder son (22) collects vinyl, has a radio show, but no interest in expensive or “old school” audio. My younger son (18) loves to use the main audio system (Devialet Expert 250 Pro CI) from his phone using Spotify, which does not involve touching the system as it auto-detects. I love the Devialet Reactor, as does my wife, as it sounds very good and has very wide dispersion from a single unit, so is preferable to the stereo system with 2 or more listening. We operate it via Airplay from Roon (not bluetooth). I also very much enjoy my portable system (Huawei P20 Pro, Chord Mojo, MrSpeakers headphones) streaming Qobuz in HD.

          My wife and kids were never interested in my component hifi and they gave me grief, but they love easy-to-use modern systems and there is no compromise on sound quality.

          Big speakers don’t sell in the UK. You hardly ever see them in system pics. I doubt you could give away a pair of IRSV over here.

          I can only see multi-component audio diminishing rapidly, as is reportedly the case with no interest from the younger generations. The UK’s two leading manufacturers, Linn and Naim, are both moving away from it towards more compact systems.

          1. Your rooms in the UK are generally smaller then they are here in the US so I wouldn’t think there would be much interest in them for most people in the UK not to mention their cost and the shipping cost of sending them there. Not many people own them here either due to cost and size and they also didn’t make many of them either. I think less then 100.

            I will most likely never own them unless I hit the lottery but I would love to take a ride to PS Audio in Boulder Colorado hear them someday.

            You should try a second Devialet Reactor for stereo. I bet it would sound even better.

            1. The Devialet Gold in stereo is serious hifi. The Reactor software is not yet ready for more than one unit, but will be out shortly. The dispersion makes a single unit highly pleasurable. I have no intention of getting a stereo pair. They are not tied to stereo, I think the software allows you to connect up to 8 units.

              I think the speaker issue is more fundamental. There are superb speakers in the UK and Europe, some very expensive, and there is just no perception that you need massive arrays of drivers. Look at the stunning new PMC Fenestria ($60,000). The popular USA brands over here are Martin Logan and Wilson. Two of the three dealers I use sell plenty of Wilson.

              1. Multiple drivers mean each driver has to do less work creating an effortless sound quality with very low distortion at all volume levels. Yes there are great sounding expensive speakers without an array of drivers but they cannot come close to the effortless low distortion and impact of bass that speakers with a multiple array of drivers have. Have you ever experienced their sound? You might change your mind if you did.

                1. Things like the PMC BB5 SE, which I’ve heard many times, have a single bass driver and produce a visceral sound. They are available active and passive and are the consumer version of one of the world’s best studio monitors.

                  PMC designed the driver in about 1990 for a BBC contract and it has been hugely successful ever since. They have developed a new piston driver, originally implemented in a new system for Capitol Records in LA, now in the consumer Fenestria speaker.

                  As far as I am concerned, all good speakers are based on proprietary drivers. for the last 25 years I have only used speakers that are widely accepted as leading studio monitors (Dynaudio, Quad, PMC and Harbeth).

                  If leading studios like Abbey Road and Air are happy without multiple driver monitors, so am I.

                  I wish PSA all good fortune, but AN speakers would not be for me as the drivers are not propietary, I don’t see the need for multiple drivers and there is no professional pedigree.

                  I don’t like heavy bass anyway.

                  1. Those are all great speakers you mentioned. I don’t like heavy bass either but I also don’t like a lack of bass. Speakers should reproduce sound faithfully to the recording.

                    I believe Abbey Road studios use B&W 801 speakers as their monitors. Those are 3 way speakers flat to 20Hz or close to it and they have warm accurate deep bass. Most B&W speakers have a nice warm bass even their smaller speakers.

                    There are British speaker manufacturers who do use a multiple drive array like B&W, KEF, Monitor Audio. Maybe not as many as some USA manufacturers but adding more if done correctly only improves the overall sound, the dynamics, and lowers distortion. It doesn’t give you more bass unless you play them louder and you have control of that.

                    There’s an assumption because speakers have an array of drivers and can play very low that you always have more bass or more midrange and highs. Not true, what you have is lower distortion and effortless sound. A lot of recordings don’t have really low bass anyways. Any size speaker can have too much bass if it’s not set up properly or poorly designed.

                    I like the sound and imaging of a good small 2 way speaker too, I own many of them including B&W and Celestion both British companies.

                    There’s a lot of reasons not to like big speakers or multiple array speakers that are big and I get it. They are too big and you or your wife don’t like the way they look in the room or they just don’t fit, they are too heavy to move around. They are too expensive. But when designed right and set up right in the room they sound awesome and are true to the music.

                    A system can sound good without the deepest bass too and some people would rather live without it. I love both options.

  7. I agree that the next leap forward will come from technology developed for an entirely different application. So much of what we marvel at today was the result of research generated by the space program.
    It may well also come from a radically different approach to using something mundane, like magnetic fields.
    Materials research for one product often results in an entirely different product, unrelated to the original intention.
    Velco, Teflon, carbon fiber, and maybe some of the materials which are commonplace in the Stereo world, made the transition from ‘Guns to Butter’ after the military designed a product, and commercial industry exploited it.
    Unfortunately, we are of a generation that has seen such rapid advances, we consider them commonplace.
    The generation which will ultimately benefit will never realize how far we have come from vacuum tubes, and point to point wiring of individual components, to a chip in a phone, that makes the music in your headphones sound so good, or the technology which makes streaming wireless even possible.
    For them, Music used to come on silver discs, and, yes, people used to walk around with a CD-player…

  8. I think one thing life has taught me is that the quality of the answers you get depends to a great degree on the quality of the questions you ask. In my failed experiments with quadraphonic sound I asked myself an excellent question. How does a concert hall create the sound you hear. What exactly does it do to sound? I hadn’t read any books about it. Nobody told me anything. I had to figure it out for myself. I didn’t expect to be able to get any answer. But to my amazement I did and in a way nobody had seen before. It was straightforward, simple, no tricks. I had broken the problem down into its simplest form. One musician on the stage, one seat in the audience. What exactly happens to the sound between the time he plays a note and the time I heard it. The answer explained everything I know about how sound works. At that time I had sufficient analytical tools to understand it and I had the advantage that I’d never been dragged through someone else’s mental rut. I didn’t see it the way the “experts” did. I immediately understood what had to be done to duplicate it and at first it seemed impossible except on paper.

    From the first scratchy wax cylinder recording Thomas Edison made until the newest and best sound system you can buy today, the same basic engineering approach has been used. Capture sound and transform it into another form, store it, retrieve it, and reproduce it. For over 100 years that has been the strategy and so far no one has succeeded with it. From the era of the candles and gas lamps to the era of technology that lets us see objects in the universe as they appeared 13.5 billion years ago no one has gotten this idea to work and my discovery explained why. Every last element of it has been developed and polished to perfection. Every variant of this method has been tried. The number of permutations of different elements to create sound systems using this idea must be in the gazillions. The one thing they have in common is failure.

    The question I asked goes to the heart of the matter, acoustic fields. What is so very different about the acoustic fields that reach your ears at a live concert and the ones that reaches your ears from a home stereo system. Figure that out and you at least understand the problem, what you are up against if you want to come close to duplicating the real thing. The essence of the problem is that the recording can’t capture the sound you hear. It only captures part of it. The solution is to use the part you have to reconstruct the part that is missing. Fortunately there is a mathematical relationship between them. That’s the key that unlocks the door to an answer that can be made to work.

    I’ve shown Paul two applications of how the analysis can be used. One application reconstructs the sound field as sound would be heard from music played in a very large space and the other reconstructs sound fields as they would be heard from musicians played in the space you are in. The concept is so radical that it violates everything those who use the conventional approach take as unshakable truth. That’s the risk of radical ideas, they won’t be accepted by those who cling to what they already believe. It has happened all of the time. The earth goes around the sun. The theory of relativity. Molds can kill bacteria in a human body (the most effective penicillin came from a rotting cantaloupe melon grown in the Midwest United States.) FM radio is superior to AM radio (it can’t even be made to work) All of them are heretical. Repeat them and you face ridicule unless you can also demonstrate them yourself.

  9. One of my assumptions is that, while „technology shifts“ imo will go more in a convenience direction, major sound quality improvements in high end audio at first might come from discoveries of harmful influences which so fare were undetected/ignored/untreated. Similar to what Paul’s staff found out as important for a streaming device connection, similar to how jitter was detected as a main „source of evil“ long after the first CD‘s sounded perfect already for many, similar to how magnetic or HF field influence or importance of mains power quality was long uncovered and lead to big improvements when addressed.

  10. Reproducing music through direct brain stimulation would be revolutionary, but I doubt that it will happen in my time. I think the new breed of digital amps, or ‘Power DACs’, is a minor revolution in the offing. I suspect I shall get one before too long, not so much for sound quality but for love of the technology 🙁

  11. Very interesting post today, which has brought important interventions of enlightened members of this forum.

    For an audio site of this category, it is expected that this continue in this way, for the good of this community that can be illustrated not only with recent technological advances, but even better with important presentations by educated attendees to this peculiar site.

    Congratulations to all!!

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