Setting a high bar

August 4, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

We work so hard achieving sonic purity that it's easy to forget just how flawed some of our tools are. Microphones and loudspeakers, for example, are so far away from neutral that we accept their colorations as normal. I am not sure that's a very high bar from which to set standards.

My friend Dan Schwartz has developed enough of an ear to identify which microphone was used in many recordings. The fact that microphones have so many colorations as to be identifiable from just listening is pretty telling and we haven't even scratched the surface. Walk the halls of a HiFi show and listen to how wildly different music sounds from room to room.

To me, this is a good news, bad news situation. On the one hand, there's enormous room for improvement in our reproduction chains, something that always gets me excited as we delve deep into making better sound systems for the home. On the other hand, it's a little unnerving to consider how much further we have to go.

As we move forward by building better speakers and using only the best microphones to capture music, my hope is we reset our standards. That once we hear better we will be unwilling to settle for what was once "normal".

Progress has many benefits, but the one that makes me smile is setting the bar high enough that we're unwilling to accept less in the future.

A high bar helps us all.

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28 comments on “Setting a high bar”

  1. I occasionally read from developers (also here), that they are proud not to orientate on the competition (or maybe just use a certain piece of outside equipment as a rough guideline to better), but just to have the own strive to reach the top (e.g. by taking the live event as the peak). Not caring for what the competitors reached in a certain aspect and how they did it seems to be rather a good than a bad thing in this thinking (or is it just marketing „we don’t copy, we don’t even care for competition“?). No car manufacturer would argument like that.

    Nice said, setting the highest goal as the only limit, sounds like this must work. And the one or other genius will indeed have the best of the best ideas and accidentally create the best sounding product in its price range...or even at all.

    In fact I think that this mindset is the main limitation to reach a higher goal for everyone who’s not an absolute genius fitted with know how about all the possible ways to reach a goal AND open for any concept to base it on.

    As customers we accidentally find products which are so much better than others in a certain characteristic, that we think „heck, if other manufacturers would hear this, they must ask themselves how this was achieved“ and how they can use this for improving the own products. But this could mean a change from the one or other own paradigm that was fixed so far.

    Comparing can limit a designer‘s creativity and can be frustrating as big limitations set by general predecisions could get transparent, agreed, and a designer has limited time to compare...but I’m sure bars would be set much higher in some regards if the eyes would be more open towards competition and if products would be compared

    As a consumer therefore I also prefer comparing reviews. Michael Fremer for me is the best example for meaningful reviews of whatever gear.

  2. Regarding the main topic of today‘s post:

    yes due to the e.g. mic and speaker colorations it’s ridiculous to claim own flat measuring products or certain concepts sound more neutral or accurate than other flat measuring but different sounding ones...and yes, there’s much to improve at mic/speaker level foremost....but this is a precondition for everyone....a consumer just compares what different manufacturers reached under same preconditions. So the current bar for the consumer is the best competitor ... a point of view just the designers seem to ignore...they do the best they can within their own limits and ideas...which sounds limiting somehow...

    This shall not be marketing for the Chinese way, but open eyes for the competition make sense imo.

  3. Maybe what needs to be reset is the idea of a lofty goal of “equal to live ” . Since the origin of any electronic recording starts with microphones. Does microphone “A” capture more realistically than “B”? If so, how was that determined, through playback equipment? The process is a circle from recording to playback. Where do you break the circle to isolate?

    I don’t say we should give up on the goal of perfect, but rather accept where the recording / playback industry is and where they are headed. Also as consumers of that industry, help steer them towards what we want and are willing to accept with our wallets.

  4. I have 17 mics at the house and they do all sound different as do the sources of my recordings. My Rode NT-1a's are the most accurate and when I want to improve my singing I use one of the 3 I own as it will expose all my mistakes and flaws. Then when I sing into their M-1 (similar to a Shure SM-58, but warmer) things sound nice. Mass choir voices sound clear and nice with 3 NT-1a's in a Decca Tree arrangement. I want to be able to understand the words the choir sings.

    If you know what real instruments sound like no drenched in reverb then you can make a judgement as to what sounds right or wrong, but remember this is art just like a painting. There is a lot in common with an artist and an engineer. One has many choices to make.

    The colorations in speakers are much like microphones and placement techniques. And the hearing accuracy also plays a part as each of our hearing is different. Have yours checked and you will find out your deficiencies. If you fret about this too much you will miss the enjoyment of listening to music, just accept that all recordings are going to sound different and just enjoy what you hear.

  5. I consider this post a bit absurd. So everyone should agree on what is neutral, conform to it and everything sounds exactly the same? Who wants that?

    I consider the different flavors of systems. microphones, etc to be what’s special. It’s part of the artistry. Thankfully, none of the systems in our listening group sound anywhere near same. Not one is better than the other, just different. Each one sheds a different light on a performance. The least enjoyable listening sessions for me are the sessions at my system, yet it’s my preferred one. I find listening to music on other’s systems fascinating.

    1. Indeed. However I would consider a decent pair of headphones best suited to judge the quality of a recording/ microphone. No sound engineer can have a clue about the resulting sound in the unknown listening room of the enduser listening to a pair of loudspeakers also unknown and mostly far from a point source design which could match the characteristics of the stereo microphones used for the recording.

  6. "And the hearing accuracy also plays a part as each of our hearing is different"
    Part of the problem.

    "If you know what real instruments sound like... you can make a judgement as to what sounds right or wrong"
    IMO the real problem.
    Everyone experiences sound differently, sound coming from live instruments as well as sound coming from speakers. Some people love the sound of a violin, some can't stand it. And you expect both will have the same opinion about what sounds rigth or wrong....?
    By "experience" I mean what our brain makes of it.
    Our ears are the microphones, our brain the console.
    And my neighbor's console works a bit differently than mine.
    So who's to say what's "right" or what's "wrong". Do I have the right console and he has the wrong console when it comes to judging soundquality.
    It's all in the mind of the beholder.
    And can you measure "wright" and "wrong". Sure, you can measure distortion etc. but that tells me no a lot about whether the sound is right or wrong.
    Or is it written in some lawbook or in the stars ?
    We (audiophiles, the rest doesn't care) will always have different opinions about what sounds wright and what not.
    Just read the comments on this site alone. Different opinions, often miles apart.

  7. This is an argument that the search for audio nirvana is a complete waste of time, just get an audio system that is enjoyable and doesn't leave you wanting more. This is probably what most people do. The presumption is that live music is some sort of perfection that should be a life's goal to reproduce. We went to a dance show last night by a world renowned company (L-E-V -!89,84) that was performed on the second floor of a multi-storey car park. Acoustic perfection? No. Visceral? Yes. An amazing evening.

    1. And, so my meanwhile boring theory, because such well chosen and placed inaccurate components probably compensate for various deficiencies within the recording and playback chain, which would make the theoretical ideal of an all accurate chain not unlistenable but way off sounding from what we hear live or would like to hear at home.

      But all this is practised anyway by the manufacturers by finally voicing their products to what they want to hear from them in their setup and as many others as possible.

  8. Today's post poses a very simple problem of logic, which can cause confusion to more than one.

     How can there be improvements in the playback chain if the recording chain is faulty? starting with the microphones as stated by the moderator. Improvements in relation to what?

    With this ruthless logic, any improvement in the reproduction in rigor is not such, at most, it can lead to a different sound, that is why, when manufacturers and many reviewers (which indeed there are) compare the products as they reproduce the real thing, it constitutes an assertion, totally divorced from reality.

    I believe that a more honest stance should be aimed at promoting that the sound of the products is to a greater or lesser degree euphonic but clarifying that this has very little to do with a live event not amplified.

    Those who remember the sound of the Dalhquist DQ-10 and the original Quad, will agree that they with tube amplifiers delivered the sound of the strings, quite pleasant to the ear, but that when they play music containing greater dynamic contrasts, the sound of both it leaves much to be desired.

    This well-known example raises the need for audio enthusiasts to be aware that when looking for components they can achieve a sound more in line with their sound ideal, and nothing more.

    The current audio technique makes our life pleasant when for any reason we cannot attend a symphonic concert, and we feel the need for a simile that is pleasing to the ear, with the usual effects that this artificial sensation provides us.

    1. Well put indeed. Understanding the limitations of recorded music is the first requirement to enjoying your system. Some recordings sound poorer than others, but that's not your system talking, that's the recording.

  9. Well it seems to me you've set yourself an impossible task.
    I divided recordings into two types.

    One type I call manufactured music. This is music which is not intended to sound like anything heard live. It is deliberately altered by the mastering engineer to have a unique characteristic sound that enhances what was live to the point it is unrecognizable by comparison. The engineer has an amazing bag of tricks available. They're used to satisfy the customer, the "artist" and hopefully the market. (All recordings are hoped to please a market if they are to be sold or even to be heard free to get notice for the "artist.") This is the type of recording most people buy and listen to. So there is no right answer. You'll never reproduce exactly what the recording engineer heard at his console either given he's monitoring with speakers audiophiles would likely laugh at. You wouldn't want to.

    The other type I call documented music. Here the recording engineer wants as faithful a reproduction of the original as he can get. This is usually reserved for more serious music, classical music and Jazz. The problem there is that no two recordings were made in the same way, no to recording venues produce the same sounds, no to people in the audience hear the same thing, and even two performances in the same place by the same people heard in the same seat won't be the same. The term "accuracy" or the absolute sound is a very dubious notion which cannot be achieved by any known method of commercial recording and playback in a home and would be extraordinarily difficult even in a very complex laboratory under the most controlled conditions where the recording and playback system are specifically intended for that purpose. There are only two approaches to that I'm aware of that have even a fighting chance of success.

    So what is the best that can be done for a home sound reproduction system? At best a reasonable facsimile of what the original sound might have sounded like which is not the same as what it did sound like. Experienced concert goers have only their memory to rely on for comparison. How would anyone approach this problem? The first thing to do is to study sound. What do live performances have in common for a particular type of music heard in a type of venue that's appropriate for that genre of music. What do the sounds that reach the listener in the audience have in common based on their physical characteristics to describe it? What factors do most experienced listeners agree makes for the best sound and what are its physical characteristics. Then you have to devise a system that will take the signal from your recording and produce sound fields that have those same characteristics as closely as you can get them. That system will have to be able to successfully accommodate variables of the listening room's acoustics and the variables of each recording including the variables for an appropriate venue. One size fits all isn't going to work. How could it with almost nothing to adjust. All of the characteristics of the equipment and the process of making the recording, artifacts that are inevitable such as which microphones were used have to be nulled out, compensated for, renormalized getting those artifacts out of the signal.

    That's a much higher bar than is set by this industry. Can't manage it? Can't come close? Can't get the sound out of the can? Then do what you can. Invent a better speaker, amplifier, DAC, wire whatever better means to you. Given how much time, effort, cost, and other investment is often applied to the point of obsession some people put into this, it's clear they don't agree what better means or they'd all get the same results. Looking down from the other bar at this one is interesting watching the evolution of "better" each manufacturer brings to the market.

    1. I like the idea of "documentary recording" as opposed to (I suppose) "creative recording", it separates the two (unfortunately often opposing) camps.
      I guess in early recording it was only about documentary, I like to think that the change started with instruments such as the Ondes Martenot and the like, and of course the theramin before Hollywood co-opted it for the B Movie industry - which were used in live acoustic (orchestral) concerts, but the loudspeakers of these instruments were part of the sound rather than just reproducing. These could then be recorded documentary style.
      Move forward a few decades and fully-electronic music is common, and, if performed live correctly (i.e. through a large full range reproducing system to an audience, rather than blasted through a PA at a crowd), could even then be recorded in a "documentary" style.
      SO the studio recordings of pretty much any musical combo or band could consider the home reproducing system as the final part of the instrument, such that the electronic band is effectively performing in their living room.
      It is how I look at my HiFi anyway 🙂

      (BTW I did experiment some back in the day with reproducing recorded ambience correctly, or creating it convincingly, in a domestic setting, as I had access then to large numbers of HQ delay lines and reverb processors etc., and had some success (though not as advanced as your own adventures!), but ultimately I found it too distracting adjusting all the settings that I stopped enjoying the music - analytical mind took over the whole show I expect.
      It is easier to accept the undoubted compromise of modern "HiFi" in my case as I am not a huge fan of primarily orchestral work, and spend the majority of my listening hours listening to music that has been crafted in a recording studio 🙂

      1. We are all consumers of both types of recordings. They both have the same goal, to make a profit. The type of music we listen to most dictates which type of recording we favor. I'm in the minority for this market. The overwhelming majority of recordings that are produced professionally have been tweaked, often to overcome the limitations of the performer. Most human singing voices range from the pleasant and distinctive untrained or somewhat trained voices of performers of old like Frank Sinatra to the screaming screeching unbearable, the tonally unpleasant, or as is now the current fashion for some, cooing. Poor Linda Ronstadt. In the 1980s she tried to perform the soprano role of Mimi in the Opera La Boheme. Her voice wasn't remotely up to it. An operatic voice is carefully trained over a lifetime to produce sounds that are powerful, pure, distinctive, and express an enormous range of emotions, not just by lyrics but by understanding of the music they perform and how to interpret it. It is the vocal equivalent of a Steinway concert grand piano or a Stradivarius violin and the performer at his or her best has to have the musical abilities of the best pianists and violinists. This if you like it justifies IMO the worthy goal of trying to duplicate from a recording. The others aren't.

        1. Ah yes I agree regarding the training, technical mastery of an operatic singer, "popular" singers very rarely cut it when placed in that sort of a situation (and probably shouldn't try!).

          I have (I was told often, when I was studying music) scarily precise pitch sense and musical memory.
          ...and yet I can not listen to operatic singers for more than about 2 minutes without leaving the room. I have tried, I really have (and will continue to do so).
          Linda R, however I could listen to for a while, as long as she wasn't using auto-tune etc.
          I prefer "modern studio recordings" when they are using all the possibilities creatively, rather than to "fix it in the mix" though 🙂

  10. Agreed - comparisons are not always helpful - I have 3 main pairs of (old, British) loudspeakers here, all in pretty good condition, and all sound good, in fact for some program material, really good.

    I have a switching setup (not for strict A-B-X, just for interest and checking after modifications etc.).
    If I try to switch between pairs in one actual listening session (as opposed to a technical comparison), before long I dislike the sound that comes from all of them, I suspect because with each switch, I am missing the the undoubted qualities of the previous pair, without having "tuned in" to the different qualities of the next pair.

    Far better (when listening to listen to the music, which is after all what most of us are here for) to pick one pair a day and stick with them!

      1. Ha several visitors also suggested this - bad idea of course, too much C & D interference...
        I have a home built line level switcher to select which amp/speaker combo is playing, and DID add an option on the switching for all outputs on (relays and shiz).
        BUT only in case I go bi-amp or tri-amp at some point - it's also a 6 gang volume control as each amp/speaker combo either has some bass eq on it for the speaker, as opposed to the room, or comes from a different (cheapish) DAC.
        I didn't add the "all on" option to the remote (wired - at my listening position).

        It's all good (clean) fun 🙂

  11. When I was a kid I listened to music on a cobbled together "system" that didn't even include a traditional receiver or amplifier. I certainly enjoyed the music back then, I and I enjoy those same songs on a high end system today. Enjoying music is not an "all or nothing" experience dependent upon the equipment on hand, but rather a pleasure-response in the brain. It is not necessary to achieve an "absolute reproduction " of live music any more than it is necessary to drive a car that goes zero to sixty in less than three seconds...and if three, why not two or one?

  12. Setting a high bar is for purists. A lot more are in the game for profit. No wonder there are so many loud speakers, amplifiers and so on and so forth. Add to this pure unadulterated greed and hiding behind point of diminishing returns makes it respectable. But there is another very important factor and that is affordability. Really good products will be expensive so to cater to the less financially fortunate more affordable but inferior products are made. Also, the fact that technology is far from perfect, despite claims to the contrary, gives people the excuse to make clones of the same thing and claim perfection or near perfection with enormous help from reviewers who claim the second coming every few months. One reviewer describes every thing as being the the best without saying so making his opinion suspect since the products reviewed are certainly not the best. And so it goes. The real leaders are the purists. The rest seem to be the me to crowd. And finally lets not forget the consumer who suffers from the malady called " one up man ship". The showoff or whatever one may call it. Regards.

      1. Profit is a must to stay in business.
        From the consumer side there’s also a little talked point ... called value (perceived or real) of sound for the amount spent. That’s up to each individual to decide what that is and how far beyond that they are willing to go.

      2. Ever hear of a hobby?
        I'm not in this game for profit because it wasn't challenging enough for me. In fact once I saw what industry had to offer electronics became merely a tool, not an end in itself.

    1. Really good products do not have to be expensive. Quad ESL are better than most box speakers and are cheap and easy to drive, but are big, need space, don't do thunderous bass and can be blown up. Audio is a consumer product and products of different styles and at a range of price points will be made to meet demand, irrespective of sound quality. A lot of value is perceived, it's not an absolute thing, so there is no point telling someone with $10,000 to spend on a turntable that a $1,000 will be just as good. It may be, that's not the point.

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