The problem with same

November 4, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

For those that read my blog or watch the YouTube channel, it is well known I am not a fan of how pro audio studio monitors sound.

Let's just say that they are not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, I am in love with a small number of other home audio designs including our own aspen series of speakers (I am picky when it comes to speakers).

Put the studio monitors and the aspens in the same room and there is a world of difference in sound quality between them.

Measure the two speakers and you'll discover they both are flat to within +/-2dB.

At first glance at the identical measurement tolerance spec, they should sound very similar.

Except that they don't.

PS Audio speaker guru Chris Brunhaver could talk your ear off for hours explaining the differences: on-axis/off-axis, transient response, stored energy levels, and so on. Most people listening to him wouldn't understand much of what he's talking about.

On the other hand, it is pretty simple to point out that the major difference we hear is in that first simple measurement—frequency response. +/-2dB is a 4dB swing and that's a lot of difference. If one speaker is up 2dB at 1kHz versus the other speaker which is down 2dB at the same frequency the two will sound night and day different.

Yes, they fit into the same tolerance box, but that doesn't mean they are remotely the same.

That's the problem with saying the two speakers measure the same.

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45 comments on “The problem with same”

  1. If CB talks my "ear (singular) off for hours", then I've still got one other ear to do some critical listening with.

    Thirty years ago (1993) my Harbeth - 'HL Compact' (now ES7-3 XD) standmounters were quoted as being 'pair matched' to within +/- 0.375dB (0.75dB overall) from 200Hz to 10kHz, & I'm sure that said 'pair matching' had a lot to do with their ability to '3D holographic image' as well as they did.

    If you can get a pair of loudspeakers to within 0.75dB of each other, from 200Hz to 10khz, then you're pretty-much 'there' 😀

    1. I'm not sure if Paul was talking about differences between two pairs of speakers or the two speakers of a pair. Indeed, Harbeth carefully check each pair is level matched to a close tolerance, which is necessary internal control as they make the drivers in-house. The cover image is unclear (dual mono? A matched pair?), whatever it is, is it appropriate these days?

      As for his post, I look at it from the other end of the telescope; professionals in recording and broadcasting want a monitor that is accurate, loud, usually full range and active. Sometimes the product is suited to domestic use and ends up in people's homes.

      Ironically, perhaps the most popular and widely copied speaker ever, the BBC LS3/5a, up to today's hugely popular KEF LS50 Actives (and KEF made the drivers for the BBC and was one of the original LS3/5a licensees) was designed to be light and portable, and is neither active or full range.

      People make stuff and they cannot always predict who will use it and why. There is a book about this by Gillian Tett.

        1. What KEF brought to the party was the famous B110 Bextrene-coated driver, which gave it just the right stiffness, which Falcon Accoustics still make for their replica LS3/5a and sell as an OEM.

          It is easy to confuse Bextrene with Dexedrine, which is a bit like confusing Modena with Moderna.

      1. Steven, I think Paul is talking about two different brands of speakers. Any decent speaker manufacture will make and sell pairs of speakers that are matched to 1 dB or less. This is certainly true of your Wilsons, my Magicos, Fat Rat's Devores, Paul's FR30's, etc.

        I am a little confused when Paul was talking about the 4 d difference ( dB up and 2 dB down ). If I remember my dB's correctly ( 😮 ) if the dB is SPL then 3 dB is a factor of two in loudness and if the dB is voltage then 6 dB is a factor of two in loudness. I hope that is correct.

    2. I forgot to mention that if a Harbeth driver stopped working, you would have to quote your serial number to Harbeth H.O. when ordering your replacement driver so that they could send you the exact replacement driver, so that the integrity of your 'pair matched' pair was maintained.

        1. Carlos, aka Scarecrow, aka Oh mentally challenged one,
          My girth is 107cm, my wife just measured it, you dumbarse.
          If you really need to measure a pair of aspen FR30's so badly
          because your hearing is so f#@ked up, then go & buy a pair
          & then you'll have a whole month to measure them to your
          little heart's delight before you ship them back to PS Audio
          for a refund.

          My God you talk a lot of crap Carlos...you're absolutely hilarious!

            1. Oh Carlos,
              You poor, sad little man.
              You are basically an oxygen thief, a waste of space
              (or a space of waste)...a pathetic wannabe.
              As Roger Waters wrote, "You're very nearly a laugh,
              but you're really a cry."
              ...you're a cry for help, is what you are.

            2. Carlos,
              It has been brought to my attention by someone
              who owned of a pair of Neumann KH310A's,
              that the sound from them is "over-hyped".
              It makes sense that you like the sound from
              these active loudspeakers, since your hearing is,
              as we have already established, well below par.
              You require an "over-hyped" sound field to combat
              your partial deafness...it makes complete sense.

  2. Wouldn’t that mean, recordings voiced with rather analytical pro speakers (pronouncing the 1k region), would have a dip in the critical presence region when listened to at home? Do you think this is the case?

    Or better: what do you think is the (negative) result of voicing recordings with pro speakers and their characteristics vs. voicing them with home speakers?

    You pointed out in the past that for you it makes no sense to voice recordings with speakers sounding fundamentally different than those which are used to listen to the same at home. Makes sense logically, although there are also multiple explanations available from pro’s who tell us why studio monitoring speakers must be different.

    The final question (and imo the only relevant) is: how do you think recordings voiced with the one or other differ and is it your experience that they do?

    If people liked the tonality of Octave recordings so far…isn’t there a risk, that they don’t like it so much anymore, if they now sound noticeably different after being voiced with the FR30? Or is it all just a question of what the engineer is used to?

      1. Not read it all but taken from part one:

        “The archetypal studio nearfield monitor, Yamaha's NS10M, is well known to have (put politely) a 'characterful' tonal balance. The general consensus seems to be that it is uneven through the mid-range and too bright at the top (hence the commonly employed trick of hanging tissue paper over the tweeters to calm it down).”

        After I’d recovered my jaw my first thought was why not just find another speaker instead of messing about with tissue paper.
        Second thought, was there something so good about this speaker that made them go to the trouble.
        From what I recall the Yamaha NS range was very popular and I imagine a lot of people would have purchased on that basis. Makes a case for treading your own path rather than following the crowd, tissues optional.

        1. I've heard mystical things about these Yamaha speakers, especially in Japan. Recording studios are commercial enterprises (or at least I hope they are) and I reckon 99% don't have the financial option to change speakers at will, and most engineers probably scratch their heads in complete bemusement at audiophiles dropping 5-figure sums on kit on a whim. When I had a multi-component system I used XLR/balanced cables and bought them from my local pro store for $15 each, anything more was excessive and some were cheaper. So tissue paper seems entirely sensible.

          Keep this quiet else someone will come up with audiophile tissue paper.

    1. It's a great question, Jazznut. First, all Octave recordings have been voiced using the PS Audio reference system (either the IRSV or the FR30). The difference is that in the past, before our new studio and the FR30 installed in the mixroom, we had to make our best guess on the ATC studio monitors, go listen on the reference system, then back again to the old mixroom.

      This was very tedious. Now it's almost a straight shot (I still take mixes to the reference system but now they are so close as to only require a tweak or two).

      The sonic differences? Mainly a lack of presence, a tendency to bury vocals and lead instruments, a lack of instrumental separation, and an often 2-dimensional soundstage. This makes sense if you consider the ATC presents almost the opposite (forward presentation, bright, aggressive, etc.)

      We mix with our ears. What we hear on the monitor is all we have to go on. Thus, the quality/characteristics of the mix monitor is extremely critical and is likely responsible for the sound of 99% of all recordings.

      In late November, early December we will release the first in our Art of HiFi series. Bass. This will be the second release recorded and mixed entirely at the new studio (the first was The Loudspeaker though because it was mixed by multiple engineers it isn't as stark in its demonstrative properties) on the FR30s. We'll discuss more when this releases but it will be very demonstrable of what I am referring to.

      1. Yes this all makes sense.

        Independent of the home or studio character, the absolut quality difference between the ATC and the FR30 certainly is immense alone.

        I’m not sure if maybe two reasons for using studio speakers with their rather analytical, unnatural character were, that at a certain time, no neutral enough home speakers were available …or that it needed analytical monitors to hear into the mix, because non analytical speakers were not good enough to be able to do that properly. So analytical character as a compensation for a too low general speaker standard at the time or for a budget.

        But probably the main reason for studio speakers in a studio was and is, that usually home speakers have a different dispersion characteristic not suitable for a studio environment.

        I personally think, that, given both are of the same quality, the brighter characteristic of a studio speaker may make it easier or quicker to recognize certain things that have to be evaluated. The brightness probably can be compensated by experience in order to reach proper tonality in the final product anyway.

        I know people who use a setup for audio component development, which is more analytical than they’d prefer for music listening.

  3. All this matched/measured pairings make me think of Vacuum Tubes! Ahhh. Glorious tubes. God….aren’t they great? Yes they are.

    Anyway. 🙂
    It seems like people who are really truly into this audio hobby of ours very much understand that measurements (in most cases not all) tell some of the story and not all of it. I think that is a great Way to go. You leave yourself open for discoveries and a non bias mentality.

    The only measurement I take 100% full proof with is when looking at a waveform on a frequency graph showing the waveform of a recording.

    If the waveform looks like a pencil crayon, I’m out baby! I know it is gonna sound like shit. I don’t care what the CREST values are.

    1. I would recommend better to have a look at the step response always clearly showing the more critical behavior in the time domain where our ears show the highes sensitivity. Unwanted peaks in the SPL versus frequency curve can easily be corrected by modern digital equalizers also allowing corrections for individual “loudness curves” (Fletcher-Munson).

  4. To paint this issue with such a broad and superficial brush of dislike, without the context of the models you have been comparing, it is a disservice to the industry in my opinion. And understanding that you may not wish to disclose those models as not to throw anyone under the bus, leaves the issue even more ambiguous.

    Certainly, we all have our own specific tastes in speaker performance, as each model has it's own timbre, and that is not measured by relative amplitude. (is the speaker set "flat" or not)

  5. I’m with Barsley on this one.

    If Paul doesn’t like studio monitors as a group so be it. He doesn’t use them so it’s a moot point.

    There’s Those who do like them, and they’re no more right than Paul.

    The reasoning behind such decisions are valid for each individual.

    1. Thanks, Mike and Barsley but let me add a little spice to this.

      The point I am trying to make is not whether or not Paul likes something (who cares?).

      The main point is that 99% of all recordings today are mixed on some type of studio monitor. And as a group, these monitors display sonic characteristics I believe most of us in this hobby would not have in their listening systems.

      That said, this matters for a couple of reasons. First, it is a common defense from those who are pros that they are happy with their monitors because "they measure flat". I was attempting to point out that "flat" is anything but that and they would be better off listening rather than buying off a spec sheet or taking what's generally accepted as a reference in the industry.

      Second, because these "flat" speakers are pervasive in the recording industry, our music is mixed on them. This is a really big deal.

      It likely answers why the vast majority of recordings suck.

      1. Paul, while I respect your right to have a position, I never confuse the difference between mixing and mastering. And they are not the same, and in most respected studios, are not done on the same type of speakers or done with the same goal in mind. The mixing engineer is the editor, helping the author frame their project in the best light. The mastering engineer is tasked with the final product's sound.

        You're asserting a personal preference that "the vast majority of recordings suck" and this type of position leaves no room for the artistry involved. Again, painting the industry with such a broad and superficial brush is a disservice to the industry, and the artists involved. Maybe you feel you have a better product than someone else, but does it give you the right to throw shade on the rest of the industry you feel doesn't meet your criteria?

        Case in point, in Alison Krauss' work with Robert Plant in "Raising Sand" they left the 60Hz noise from the old analog equipment, and was intentionally left in the mix. They wanted to have you hear it as part of the product. By your criteria, "that recording sucked" moniker leaves out the artist's actual intentions...

        1. I agree with Barsley that saying “the vast majority of recordings suck” does a disservice and is palpably untrue because if that were the case, why would anybody bother buying hifi equipment? Why waste money on equipment when most recordings don’t deserve it? In my experience, the vast majority of recordings are perfectly excellent, many of them 16/44 PCM.

          Case in point. Last night I went to a recital and listened to a top rank violinist, Isabelle Faust, part of the joy being she has use of one of the finest Stradivarius in existence, the “Sleeping Beauty”. I then went home and listened to Rachel Podger’s latest recording and was not disappointed, another wonderful recording produced by Channel Classics.

          I do agree about ATC. I listened to several models when looking for a new audio system in 2008/09. They sounded to me like they should be in a studio, they were far too analytical for my preference. I am surprised the FR30 is being used in a studio because it is a very specific task and quite different to voicing a speaker for domestic use.

          P.s. The articles I posted Monitor vs. Hifi make it quite clear that there is far more to it technically than FR.

          1. I disagree with Paul about ATC's because I use a pair of ATC SCM19's in my audio system that supports my TV. ( The rest of the system is a Musical Fidelity M6i amp and an REL G1 subwoofer. Cables are Kimber Kable. ) I use these speakers because I think they have a balanced and neutral sound that is a touch analytical. I find this still gives my a very musical sound when I am watching and listening to rock concert video and an understandable and detailed sound when I am watching broadcast TV.

            I think there is an active version of this ATC speaker and I would have no problem with it being used to mix or master music that I would then listen to. Would my personal preference be that a pair of Magico S7's were used to mix and master the music? Yes, of course I would, but I think that is asking too much of the people who to mixing and mastering.

            Paul, You are trying set a new standard for production of recorded music. I admire and support what you are doing. But, I do not think that you can expect the entire music recording industry to go there.

            1. Tony, here is the opinion from one of the most respected engineers in the industry. Frank Filipetti needs little introduction. Since the 1980s, producer, recording and mixing engineer Filipetti has worked with Carly Simon, Luciano Pavarotti, Billy Joel, Elton John, Korn, Barbra Streisand, Meatloaf and countless other top artists. He has mixed chart-topping singles and albums for Foreigner, the Bangles and KISS and in 1998 won GRAMMY awards for Best Engineered Album and Best Pop Album for James Taylor’s Hourglass.

              Filipetti has been a pioneer in mixing for surround sound, earning a 2012 GRAMMY nomination for his 5.1 surround mix of An Evening With: Dave Grusin. Adding to his resume, he played a significant role in the development of JBL M2 Master Reference Monitor, a 2-way large-format loudspeaker designed to set new standards for sonic accuracy and dynamic range in professional monitoring environments.

              I know in my many years in the industry, and the numerous studios I have been to, small form factor monitors have a place, but not for mastering. I say it oft, there is much to be said for a full range 2-way system.

              http://frankfilipetti.com/video/why-the-jbl-m2-master-reference-monitor-is-changing-the-future-of-music/

              1. I have Neumann 310s and two 750 subs in my office and the sound is terrific.
                I also have NOT seen proper measurements of Paul’s FR-30 to be able to claim the 2 dB variation. There are no measurements yet.

                But you can get proper ones of Genelec and Neumann’s. Almost no one today uses NS10s as a primary monitor. The 70s have gone by.

                Most good studios will have speakers in their mastering room very well measured. And if that sound is “bad”, I’m missing a point.

                I think that many recordings these days are excellent. You may or may not like the choices the artist and engineers make, but that is a different subject.

                1. Carlos,
                  Loudspeakers that sound brilliant, like the
                  PS Audio - 'aspen FR30' floorstander, don't need "proper measurements" (or what YOU call 'proper measurements') ...except maybe for the hearing impaired 😉

                  1. Hey Jabba!
                    Who are you talking to?
                    Your comment, predictably, makes no sense. Why bother with measuring? Measuring? What for?
                    We have your amazing ears to tell everyone.
                    By the way, the only published data on the FR30 shows huge “squiggles” starting at 7 to 8 kHz. That’s not + or - 2 dBs.

                    1. Carlos, aka Scarecrow,
                      It really is time for you to visit 'The Wizard' to receive your brain.
                      Measurements, after production, are unnecessary for those that can hear properly.

      2. Having had 8 hrs driving to mull thing over…. And not seeing any other responses to your reply until now….

        1st let me say I like the “spice”. 😀
        I also like your line of reasoning. Especially when it comes to the type of recordings you are trying (are doing?) to produce. I look at them as audiophile recordings for audiophiles.

        At the same time after listening to Otis and reading the liner notes studio monitors were used.
        In my opinion one of the best of the OR selections and a remaster to boot.

        This leads me to conclude that it’s the human factor that matters the most. From the recording, to the mix, to the master. So while there may be tons of recordings that suck, there are also plenty that don’t.

        From where I sit the FR’s and PSA electronics in the mixing room are just a tool. If that tool allows a more expeditious way of getting to the final mix faster then that’s great. I have no issue with the way things are being done. You have a specific ‘sound you want’ from the OR recordings.

        I’ve asked this questions many times…. What makes a recording more superior than another one? I know it’s a tough question and there are a ‘zillion’ variables. It would be great to know though.

        1. The point of “flat” is heard loud and clear Paul.

          You talk about studio monitors. A tool I’m guessing almost all mixing and mastering engineers use and were “trained” on. Changing that will be a tall order. I also remember you talking about Gus’s Sony’s. Am I wrong to assume these were “full range” and used somewhere in the mixing mastering process? (If for nothing else confirmation)

  6. As a side note I’d like to think that 4db level difference mentioned today is between brands with the same specs. Not individual speakers of the same brand / model. If the same models have that much disparity between them I’d be be looking elsewhere.

  7. Frequency response at first seems to be the most obvious measurement that should be relevant but it's a static measurement and music is dynamic, constantly changing quickly in time. Change a seat at a live, unamplified concert and frequency response changes but the music is still 'real'. We need measurements that take this into account. And by the way this is true for amplifiers and all parts of our systems also.

    I suspect that measuring linearity is more relevant, plain old if the input doubles the device(speaker) that comes closest to doubling its output will sound more like live sound. Paul mentions step response. This is a form of dynamic measurement. I've been involved in sessions with an amp where frequency response and distortion got worse but dynamic linearity improved and that correlated with my sense of live sound. We seem to have begun with simple measurements and stuck with them when we should have gone further, much further and recognized it was the changes in time of sound that are closer to the nature of sound. Sound is a physical phenomenon. It should be measurable. T least we should be doing a better job by now with measurements that correlate decently with what we hear.

    1. The extremely simplistic way that systems and components are measured, still, means that achieving convincing SQ is very much hit and miss. Yes, real music has a quality that is so obvious, with dramatic changes of FR depending upon where you are located making no difference to your experience. Reproduction of recordings can also project such a sound field, but it is very rarely heard because a very high standard of lack of obvious artifacts in the sound is necessary - playing with flatness of response does close to zero to help; all it can do is hopefully reduce the relative volume of the annoying anomalies, making the sound more acceptable.

      If one is successful in 'sorting' a rig then one gets the fully emotionally immersive experience, completely 'pressurizing' the room, exactly the same as per live, acoustic music. And all the little variations in frequencies count for nought, at this level of integrity of playback.

  8. Take a look at a near field measurement vs. in room measurement of even the best ( +/- 2 dB) speaker and
    you will see, and importantly hear, swing differences exceeding 2dB.

    I find speakers a preference of voicing. Some say to-may-toe some say to-mat-toe, and many (but not all) prefer a little BBC dip with their chips and salsa...

  9. Anybody -

    Is there a correlation between the size of a driver and how well it reproduces the sound of a given instrument?
    Or has it more to do with how it pressurizes the room?

    Notably, have found a 10" driver more pleasing with piano than a 6" - 8" driver.

  10. “Most recordings suck” is definitely true 😉 (a high standard assumed)

    The only reason why we may have no such extreme impression is, that we usually already make a strong pre selection.

  11. Even if your right and left speakers were perfectly matched I guarantee the right side of your room isn’t perfectly acoustically or frequency response matched with the left side of your room. The right speaker can have a different frequency response than the left speaker just because of the room no matter how perfectly the speakers are matched. Your right and left ears are also unlikely to be perfectly frequency matched. I’m not saying having a perfectly matched frequency response isn’t a good thing because it is. It shows tight quality control tolerances. But there are other factors in speaker design that are more important.

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