The easy life

May 23, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

In yesterday's post I had mentioned we have invested a lot of money in state of the art measurement equipment. That equipment finds all manner of little distortions, noises, jitter, and frequency anomalies we would never have found without it. It's absolutely worth the investment we've made. Yet, it cannot measure much of what our ears can. This fact drives Dave Paananen, our Director of Engineering, bonkers. And not just Dave either. The entire team is challenged to deliver properly engineered new products, as well as maintaining and servicing existing products, based on someone's opinion that it "sounds good".

It sometimes feels like an impossible challenge, one unique to our industry.

And yet there are many examples of this same frustration within other industries. Take art for example. Imagine you were responsible for choosing which art has enough value to go in your museum, store, or client's home. Or food. Restaurants (even McDonalds) live and die by taste and the opinions of others.

When your company's products are defined by taste, creativity, or sonic accuracy, and the final measurements are a matter of someone's opinion, the ballgame changes from that of a simple right or wrong, to one of multiple shades of gray. (Probably more than 50).

Let us not stress too much over the fact our machines cannot quantify that which we can taste, feel, smell, or hear.

You don't need a machine to back up what you already know.

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34 comments on “The easy life”

  1. The funny thing is, Paul, that our sensory system can be trained! That should be an ace in the hole for manufacturers of audiophile equipment when targeting younger customers!

    1. Over the years I have done a fair amount of industrial hygiene work. On more than one occasion I have told a client that a gas burning unit(usually a drying oven) has a leak. And they doubt they have a problem and ask how I can tell and I state that I have a tearing in the corner of my eyes. They scoff so I have to bring in the test equipment which just confirms what I said but the test equipment does do a better job of finding the source of the leak. I have done the same for mold as well as methyl diisocyanates the former by smell and the latter because I am unfortunately sensitized to them. In each case the test equipment confirmed my subjective findings. What I am driving at is use your senses first and if the test equipment validates then you have a double confirmation of the findings.

  2. You have a fist full of discs, or phonograph records, or a server full of music files. Each of them was made by someone else in a different way. Out there are eager buyers who have an endless array of other equipment, rooms, expectations. And you are going to build and sell them the one amplifier, or CD transport, or DAC that will be better than all of the others they can buy. HOW? By building one that sounds good to you and those you know with your recordings, your equipment, in your room to your likes? Good luck Charlie, I'm glad I'm not in your business. Those buyers read every word written about every piece of equipment in the magazines every month scrutinizing them with a microscope. Ted, where's that to tap meter? I think we'll be needing it.....a lot. I'm glad I'm not in your business.

    1. It's a dilemma faced by every manufacturer who listens and uses that as their tool. Over time, you manage to find enough people that appreciate your sensibilities and value equation and that forms a group of like minded people. It's art.

      1. Indeed. I am happy to have the small group that is the final arbiter of the final DAC firmware versions be who they are. A friend of mine, a certain Canuck, gave me some insight into the process. I found out, or rather had my expectations confirmed, that it is not just a group of "yes" men, and that sometimes the process gets the group a little bit prickly. Hats off to this little group of "long-playing" artists!

      2. Paul
        that is exactly the dilemma!
        You think building an amplifier or a loudspeaker is art.
        I think it is engineering for the sake of art and that is a big difference!

      3. Choose any high end sound system you like and there are some of the best performances ever recorded that will sound lousy on them because absolutely no provisions have been incorporated into them to adjust for even spectral balance variables that could make them much more enjoyable to listen to. IMO high end audio engineering has become a joke. About the only thing you can do to tame that shrill treble is to throw a coat or blanket over the speaker or maybe turn it facing a wall, hopefully one with a large heavy drape on it. I don't know what you do with them for muted high end. By audiophile definition, a good recording is one that sounds good on their system. That eliminates most other recordings.

        Real engineers design systems to cope with variables they will encounter during use. The best of them do it automatically. Your TV set is an example of that adjusting color balance, brightness, and contrast unless you choose to override the automated controls.

  3. Paul

    This is one bold hypothesis!
    The comparison with a museum is even more risky.
    In a museum you do not have to build art, nor do you have to build art at home with your stereo.
    The artwork has been created by the painter or rather by the musician.
    The task of a curator is to put the painting in the right light and there is much knowledge and scientific background to achieve the objective. And if it is a piece of art of an contemporary artist, the artist himself will often help to do so.
    The tools to do it right come from the lighting industry.
    Have you ever been to the Musée d'Orsay and been blown away by the paintings?
    You can compare a museum with an opera house if you want to.
    But you cannot compare it with anyone's home stereo.
    At best there is an amateur by the meaning of the word - "lover of"!
    Im most cases this amateur does not have the skills to setup the system for best reproduction of music.
    But it is OK if he or she likes the sound of their favourite music.


    1. Yes, and while never a perfect analogy (there cannot ever be perfect analogies by default) I still think it's close. I have been to museum exhibitions of artists I cannot stand to view their art - and it's an immediate turn off - no matter how well curated. And we've all been to a restaurant whose careful preparation does not match our own tastes.

      There's skill involved in art, music, and the things that touch our souls that meters cannot yet measure. Someday I suppose they will.

      1. Paul,
        in a way I feel sorry for you.
        I've never been to an exhibition where I couldn't stand to view the art and was immediatelly turned off. Maybe I am to curious to find out new things which does not mean that I like all kind of art nor all kind of music. But ...

  4. Also out of the discussions around Torrays etc. I got the clue that probably the most important at the end is, how extensively the voicing sessions are planned, different setups/speakers etc. and different music included.

    1. Perhaps, but if we don't have a good foundation of improvements from the designer in the first place, then there's nowhere left to go.

      It's instructive to remember that each software version betters the performance of the last one. We cull through many versions of each release to find the best within the group. Once found, there are not better combinations to be had. Yet, every release is better than the last, and that is only possible because of the basic architectural improvements Ted made.

      It's a combination.

      1. Yes, I should have mentioned it: certainly the milestones were achieved during proper HW and first place firmware development.
        I also learnt, that as you say, there's a certain range of possible improvements by a new firmware and variantions in sound are only available within the given combinations of compilings and have to be taken as they are without any possible influence except choosing one of them.

        I also understood and agree why you can't provide different firmware options to the public and maintain them.

  5. There have always been and always will be people pretending they know it all.
    All others are stupid. And what's worst, they keep repeating this over and over again. Boring.
    Isn't there a law in the US to ban these grumpy old men from audio sites..?
    What are they doing in the first place on these sites, since they don't care for music, don't care for audio.
    They only wanna spoil other peoples fun.
    I'm glad these sick minds are not in the audio business.

    1. jb4...I fully agree. Its easy to 'talk the talk' but not so easy to 'walk the walk'... that takes intestinal fortitude. Paul,thank-you for giving us your all over the years with a tangible line of 'high quality'... state of the art kit at reasonable pricing.

  6. Let's never forget, however. That the engineers are the ones who make the stuff work in the short run and enable it to keep working in the long run. I was chatting with a guy at a bar last night who was watching monster trucks going through their paces. He pointed out that they can run for about 45 minutes at a pop and then the engines have to be rebuilt. And I recalled that at one point the publisher of a magazine I wrote for stated that they had NEVER received a sample of tube equipment for review that worked first time out of the box. (So much for the oft repeated claim that manufacturers may do special tweaking to review samples, or maybe it's more a commentary on how the items were packed for shipping.)

    The engineers are the sine qua non of audio gear.

  7. Paul, yuo know that I am (well, was) in the business of measuring sensory perception and turning that into products preferred by various segments of consumers. Don't give up on searching for the ways to measure/quantify the products that drive preferences. The secret is out there to be discovered.

  8. Your point here is well taken. But, the analogy between sonic accuracy and the taste of a hamburger and art selection is not sitting well with me.

    I think the taste of a hamburger or the apprehension of art are best left as matters of subjective taste. Sure, there are aspects of both that can be quantified, but there is an astronomically larger number of significant factors that cannot. Very complex phenomena like this just don't lend themselves to useful measurement.

    But, "sonic accuracy" is a much more narrowly defined term. Generally speaking, accuracy is just the closeness of agreement between a signal of interest and a reference; it is ultimately just a matter of subtraction. Granted, we are talking about complicated waveforms here, but we at least have a definition that can be expressed mathematically.

    I understand that accuracy is not the only parameter you consider- and it may not even be the most important consideration when voicing a product. I'm fine with that. But, there is a significant contingent out there that believes that sonic accuracy is just as immeasurable as the experience of viewing a work of art, which I disagree with. And I think analogies like this feed that narrative.

  9. Well "Mark-d", or whatever you call yourself, you have a far bigger problem as I thought.
    One side (Soundmind) totally disagrees with the degenerated audiophile I am, the other side (Mark-d) agrees with me.
    Yes, that's what psychiatrists call a split personality. I can't say it in a more friendly way.
    Consulting an expert in this field is probably useless for you, since this affection is not easy to MEASURE, so you
    wouldn't trust the doctor anyway.
    It's a shocker, I realize, but perhaps this doesn't come as a total surprise to you.
    I can only hope in the future the "friendly" Mark-d personality takes over more often, even if he is just a "little bit" sarcastic.

    1. jb4 May 23, 2016 at 5:47 am
      "There have always been and always will be people pretending they know it all.
      All others are stupid. And what’s worst, they keep repeating this over and over again. Boring.
      Isn’t there a law in the US to ban these grumpy old men from audio sites..?
      What are they doing in the first place on these sites, since they don’t care for music, don’t care for audio.
      They only wanna spoil other peoples fun.
      I’m glad these sick minds are not in the audio business."

      jb4.....your response make no sense. I 'agreed' with your statement concerning soundmind and now you call me non friendly and sarcastic???

      1. mark-d
        badbeef is right.
        I thought your are the "nice" twin brother of soundmind, his alter ego.
        But IF you are not, my response to your comment was wrong. My apologies.

    2. jb4- I'm not seeing it. Looked back at some of mark-d's posts from earlier days and I don't see any reason to question his legitimacy... or his sanity. Then again, he DOES post on this site so he can't claim complete normalcy. : )

      1. wglenn
        "Then again, he DOES post on this site so he can’t claim complete normalcy"
        The best oneliner I read in a long time on this site.
        We are all nuts (except Soundmind, of course).

  10. Till we can come up with a measuring device as good as the human ear in every way we will just have to rely on our ears. Audio engineers good as they are have not advanced to the point where they can equal the ears capabilities. Nothing to feel bad about. Just a simple fact of life at least for now. Regards.

  11. There is another approach, that I find very effective - I have zero interest in "voicing" my sound, that to me is a nightmare scenario, guaranteed to cause tears, because the next recording I put on will be the undoing of my careful efforts - no, I look at an audio system, no matter how expensive or ambitious, technically "perfect", as something that is potentially _defective_ ; it has to 'prove' to me that it has no audible faults or flaws, this is what I listen for. The process is to stress test the system by putting on "challenging" recordings, those from experience which provoke unpleasant sound from setups not optimised - if I hear such, I have revealed a flaw - and it now becomes a technical exercise to resolve the issue.

    Keep doing this until no more audible problems are heard, and the job is done!

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