The revelation

March 6, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

In yesterday’s post, I posited a gnarly problem. How to rely upon the sound of a speaker in order to achieve the perfect capture.

After all, there’s no such thing as a perfect microphone or speaker. These two transducers are to some degree flawed.

Experienced recording and mix engineers have solved this problem through years of experience with specific monitors. After hundreds of hours of trial and error, they know that when an instrument or voice sounds a certain way that it will be good/acceptable on the average listener’s speakers.

That while that methodology works for the vast majority of recordings, it’s hardly “as good as it gets” if your target audience of listeners is our high-end audio community armed with some of the most revealing home reproduction systems the world has to offer.

This dilemma really came to light after we replaced the Infinity IRSV with Chris Brunhaver’s amazing FR30 loudspeakers. As soon as I had some quality time to listen to them it became immediately obvious the FR30’s planar tweeter and midrange were on a different planet than anything I had ever heard. So real and revealing were these two transducers that I had to stop and reevaluate everything I thought I knew. After all, the IRSV too uses the same technology for its tweeters and midrange. *(as an aside from our story, one of the lessons I learned about creating a speaker of this caliber came from watching the process Chris used to design the FR30 tweeter and midrange. Employing hundreds of hours of mind-numbing measurements, Chris first perfected the two drivers themselves, then spent months working on how they fit into the baffle (just look at the tweeter and note the innocent looking divider down its middle or the slight horn-like opening for the midrange) and how that affected their response, and finally to the crossover, then back again to the beginning, etc.)

Having never heard the upper end of any system sound as real as what I was now hearing, it didn’t take too long to get used to this new reality. That soon became problematic.

After auditioning in MR2 on the FR30s a new mix for Octave Records, I followed the engineer up to the mix room and heard it played back again, but this time first on the conventional drivers of the ATC monitors as well as the Sony speakers Gus likes for mastering.

Holy crap. A slap in the face moment. I was listening not to cymbals but instead, I was listening to tweeters.

The story continues tomorrow.

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58 comments on “The revelation”

    1. Speaking of Bombastic Russians:-
      ‘Those who fail to disarm a powerful nuclear autocracy before it can truly threaten
      the whole world, are condemned to being powerless & to live in near total fear’

  1. Ha!
    I said it before, but I’ll say it again…Paul your next challenge will be to wean Gus
    off of his beloved ATC-50’s & those Sony’s, & for him to start seriously tuning-in
    to the AMT’s in the FR30’s…otherwise, it’s off to re-education camp for Gus 😮

    😉

  2. That is a strange thesis, Paul: “Experienced recording and mix engineers have solved this problem through years of experience with specific monitors. After hundreds of hours of trial and error, they know that when an instrument or voice sounds a certain way that it will be good/acceptable on the average listener’s speakers.” As far as I understand the history of studio monitors the main goal of those old famous BBC near-field (!) monitors was to perfectly reproduce the human voice. Starting from this basic standard the following developments tried either to reduce production cost or to expand the frequency range (without losing to much midrange quality). In contrast “audiophile” loudspeakers seem to be designed for far-field listening (dominating diffuse sound field) in acoustically untreated listening rooms. The biggest error for designers of puristic audiophile preamps was to skip the equalizer mandatorily required for matching the sound to the living room acoustics. However today there are great digital processors allowing to reduce inherent timing errors of loudspeakers and for correcting unwanted room effects (Trinnov, Dirac, etc).

  3. I changed my office speakers some years ago from Harbeth P3ESR to Raidho X1, to try a bit more top end. The Raidho X1 certainly have it, and their quasi-planar tweeter is very good, used in speakers that cost 10 times as much as FR-30. That said, P3ESR and other LS3/5A variants is one of the best value and popular hifi speakers ever made.

    So two world class hifi speakers with very different top-end presentation. I think it’s more a matter of taste, just as many people like using ATC at home. Even the Wilson tweeter I listen to most of the time, more detailed than my previous Harbeth, sometimes sounds a little bright.

    The main issue, and a key design objective of Harbeth, is that the speakers should not be fatiguing to listen to for long periods. It’s a fine balance and also a matter of taste.

    1. The biggest challenge for the Raidho design approach is to find woofers matching the speed of the fine ribbon tweeter in the crossover range. There is a huge dip here in the frequency response (around 3 kHz). And, as many designers of home audio loudspeakers for normal listening rooms also do, there is an unnatural bump in the bass region inherently masking fine details in the bass region – obviously a lack of psycho-acoustic basic knowledge!

      1. My disappointment is with Axpona not PS Audio. I can’t speak for PS Audio and I respect your decision to keep all participants safe. I hope my message wasn’t taken the wrong way. I look forward to hearing the FR 30’s and the new BHK Amps. Axpona’s decision to keep everyone’s money in 2020 has ruined this opportunity for PS Audio fans IMO.

  4. Here I go again. Not one mention of the word “music”. I’m in the camp where the goal of the speakers in a sound system is to produce music that moves me, has emotion/soul. If your goal is to hear a perfect tweeter, go into the forest and listen to the birds!

    1. No need to buy audiophile equipment for reaching this goal! Just look at the car stereo guys driving their cars (very bad listening spaces/rooms) and cranking up the bass volume!

    2. Hi hrb,
      Long time no read.
      I’ll give you the same answer I gave you last time…
      this is a site about home-audio equipment.
      If you want to have discussions about the word “music” & how it
      moves you, you might want to investigate some channels on the internet
      that are specifically created for that very purpose…just sayin’ 🙂

      1. Yes, you’re probably right. Does your “home-audio equipment” make you cry a tear or two of joy over the beauty of music sometimes? If it does, great. If it doesn’t, you might be missing out on the most important benefit of audio equipment, in my opinion.

        1. IF I’m going to cry, it’s usually the heartfelt lyrics to the song that will make me cry, & for that I don’t need high-end home-audio, I can just read them off the page.
          Music brings me joy & relief, not tears…but hey, maybe that’s just me 😀

    3. I think every technical talk needs the side headline „yes we know and agree music is most important, but now we talk about tec or equipment.“ 😉

  5. It will be very interesting to read about your findings and I hope you continue them up to the point where you not only check the impact, mixing/mastering on a specific and very revealing home speaker (FR30) has to the later home playback on the same, but I hope also to the home playback on others, compared to mixing/mastering on the accustomed studio speakers.

    I think the main question for its final use will be:
    Is the new improved character of the FR30 neutral, natural and universal and more so than the one of the accustomed studio speakers or not. And is it so in all aspects or only some and less so in others and is it usable in studio acoustics.

    I think for the moment we can ignore the fact that the FR30 are just ONE of the great speakers, their manufacturers are proud of and think they do it finally „right“. Although the whole Octave mixing/mastering topic fits into the FR30 release, I don’t see the discussion as mainly marketing effort for the FR30.

    I understand the post is about if it makes sense to generally use the most revealing speaker available, also for studio works.

    My understanding so far was:
    The discussion that home audio is often more audiophile optimized and revealing in several aspects is not new. Also not the idea to use such speakers for studio work. The arguments not to do so (without repeating here) are still valid I guess. Home speakers, even if better in various areas, are not designed to the purpose I’d say.

    What do I expect as a result finally?
    That Chris will soon be designing studio speakers with the help and practical studio experience of GUS (who most probably doesn’t need „re-education as FR mentioned, but just has to get used to a new work tool after decades of experience with his own). Probably it will take some time until mixing/mastering on different speakers will get better as a whole, as this is probably more depending on the length of experience with a speaker than to its quality.

    What should probably be avoided?
    To bug the engineers with new/improved models every few years. It might be like handing out a new, better piano to Keith Jarrett to play on every now and then…he might not be pleased 😉

    However I understand that in case engineers did their thing for years without caring for things happening around, things are worth questioning.

    Haven’t the IRSV also been better than most studio speakers in several regards and they were the hottest sh**t on earth until recently? Would it have been a good idea to mix/master on them? Most certainly not. Where’s the limit from when it makes sense to cross home audio with studio work? As I said, my guess is, it finally only makes sense to design better studio speakers. The effort to improve is always welcome.

  6. This is the statement I got tripped up on….

    “After auditioning in MR2 on the FR30s a new mix for Octave Records, I followed the engineer up to the mix room and heard it played back again, but this time first on the conventional drivers of the ATC monitors as well as the Sony speakers Gus likes for mastering.”

    What was heard on the FR30’s was a new mix and you were blown away. Then you went up to the mix room and heard the tweeters of the ATC’s and the Sony’s. Where the trip occurs,,, what was the mix you listened to initially done on? Because if it was so right on the FR30’s then someone got it so right on what ever equipment they mixed with.

    I’ll wait for the rest story… but as an initial take two things 2 things are jumping out now.
    1. It almost seems like technical perfection is the main goal of Octave Records and everything else is secondary. (To put it another way…. To put a smile on the FR30’s)
    2. It also seems like you’re having to educate or convince the recording / mixing personnel to accept the FR30’s and your ears as the final be all arbiter. (A bit of embellishment on the last statement 😀 ✌️ from me )

    1. Yes, this was my takeaway from this as well. If the mix sounded so good on the FR30s, then the mix engineer did his job right with (despite?) the tools that they have. Intimately knowing and understanding the sound and character of your reference system should allow one to produce music that sounds great on systems that are potentially more revealing. I expect the same is true of good audio reviewers, that they can evaluate components in their system and make recommendations about how the component will perform in other people’s systems as well.

    2. Yes, in a way this is correct. Think of it this way. The Fr30s in Music Room 2 are PS Audio’s chosen reference standard system. We evaluate, tune, and voice our equipment on those speakers and that system. When a new recording comes in we too evaluate it on that system and decide if it’s worth our while to play it.

      So, it makes perfect sense that the final arbiter of quality for Octave Records too is that same reference system. If it sounds great there it will sound great on your system. That’s how revealing and accurate that system is.

      Lastly, the original mix was done on the ATC and checked on the Sonys. It’s all we have in the analog mix room. The mix engineer has to do a translation of how he thinks it might sound on the final reference system. Obviously, in the end, it’ll be a ton easier to mix using the actual reference system. Then, when you get it right, you have it done.

      1. It makes perfect sense to me Paul that you’d want to record & mix your Octave Records recordings so that the music comes out of your aspen FR30’s as near perfect as is possible.
        This will of course necessitate that the rest of the ‘aspen FR’ series of loud-speakers will maintain the same sonic signature & THAT, in my opinion, will be a tough ask.
        You currently want to use the FR30’s to monitor & get the recording ‘right’ in the studio, & that’s fine, but what happens when the FR60 or the FR20 come along?

        1. It’s a great question, Martin and the answer is that we will always strive to use our current reference system as the final standard for which we release our equipment and records. However, the FR series has a few years of getting out the lower-end models before we have to worry about that.

          1. You think that your mind is blown now with the FR30’s…wait till the FR60’s are near production…you gonna loose yo s**t brother! 😉

      2. The chosen references I understand – I also understand that the references have and will change with time. What you are doing makes good and logical sense based on the original vision. The stumble for me occurred when the mix sounded so good in FR2, yet in the mix room you were listening to tweeters. What that told me was that whomever did the mix had an ear and the experience to know what they needed to do to get that to happen so well in MR2. By using the same reference (I’m guessing the FR30’s will sound exactly the same in the new mixing room as MR2) you can remove any ambiguity in the mixing engineers hearing.

        I’m guessing part of the reason for these discussions has to do with gaining people’s acceptance for the changes that will be made.

        This leaves me with one final thought… If you took one or two of the early Octave Records final mixes that were done using the IRS V’s as the arbitrator and redid the mix using the FR30’s would you expect to hear a noticble difference?

        If so, wouldn’t that be a great exercise for those who do the mixing?

  7. What we probably shouldn’t forget is, that most mixings/masterings are done having the broad spectrum of customers and equipment in mind. Paul (I assume so) releases mainly for the audiophile community with the will to improve, even if just for the more demanding part of the customers. Different situation, different approaches and rethinking. I guess he needs some start up, turn things upside down, make mistakes and learn mentality at the moment. And the engineers a „let us do our work to ensure proper ongoing results“ environment. Maybe it makes sense to do the new research in parallel instead of changing operations on the fly (if this was intended at all).

    1. We’re going to take different roads here Jazznut. (See you when the paths merge again 🙂 )

      I applaud the work and effort being put into the recording side of Octave Records.
      The question of what makes a great recording for playback still remains. You discussed some of it yesterday. You discussed some of it with Cookie a few days ago.

      So I agree attitudes and techniques need to evolve.
      I also think you could think of Octave Records as something of a PSA subsidiary or maybe now an integral part. Part of the concept was to build around PSA gear.

      Think of it this way, your favorite tools you used ‘forever’,and were successful with, are being taken away and replaced. It could also be likened to someone walking into your home, ripping out your system replacing it with something someone feels is better and telling you to get used to it. Their final statement to you is something like ….That’s the way it’s going to be….

  8. Good series of posts, Paul. I’ve debated this with audiophile friends for three decades. I call it the Audio Uncertainty Principle.

    We listeners can never know what the mic captured or what the mix sounds like — what’s on the tape or in the file. Ironically, that’s especially true for the recording engineers themselves. All they know is what the mic feed sounded like through their studio monitors in their studio. What the mic feed really sounds like is, on a fundamental level, just as unknowable as electron position and momentum. There’s a theoretical limit to what we can know about how it.

    1. Nonsense. I’ve Played as a Studio Musician on almost 2,000 motion picture scores and records and i’m an audiophile. Every single great recording engineer walks out of the booth and into the room for a period of time to hear what is actually being played and how it’s sounds. Great engineers care, particularly with acoustic live in the room instruments. A great engineer serves the music, the artists as well as the producers. Most use the tools they know intimately and will change mikes, processing on the spot if necessary.

      1. I don’t doubt what you’re saying at all, but I think you missed the point of my comment. It’s not about how experienced, skillful and dedicated the recording engineer is; it’s about the limits of what they can know even after years of experience. This is not a criticism of anyone’s craftsmanship and artistic ability when recording/mixing the music we enjoy in our homes.

  9. I have participated in the Steve Hoffman Music Forums ( SHMF ) for almost 19 years now. Many of the same things that we discuss here are also discussed there. The number of participants is much larger and the spectrum of who participates ( manufactures, audio engineers, audiophiles, non-audiophiles, musicians, reviewers and former reviewers ) is some what wider than it is here, but mostly the same ideas that get discussed here get discussed there.

    Based on what I have learned from SHMF and here I think it is wonderful that Paul has started Octave Records. It gives us insight into the other side even if it is a boutique operation with an audiophile slant to its mission. And what it produces has been well received by the audio press.

    I am looking forward to tomorrow’s post to see how Paul tries to resolve the dilemma that he has put forward today. As they say in the broadcast industry, stay tuned.

      1. To what? What has been released that was voiced on the FR30’s? (excluding recordings)
        From what I can gather the 30’s were “primarily voiced” using the current top of the line PSA products.
        Of course anything new will be done on the new air movers….

    1. SG, I realize you are probably joking, however, I think we have all gone a little overboard on this idea of a reference speaker that is used to voice other products. I bought the PS Audio PST transport back in 2020. It was surely developed in the days when the reference speaker at PS Audio was the IRS. It went into my system were I have speakers with a 1″ dome tweeter. The 1″ dome tweeter is the most common tweeter in the audio industry ( although there are probably at least 100 different versions of it out there ). It doesn’t matter. The PST made a very big difference in my digital front-end because of the galvanic isolation that it uses. It was developed when PS Audio was using the IRS speakers driven by BHK amps. In my system the speakers are S7’s driven by a Hercules II amp. The PST sounds great in both systems even though the amps and speakers are noticeably different.

      You can say that you want an absolute reference. A French horn being played in an open field so that only the direct sound is heard. You can record with the most neutral microphone and using 30 ips analog tape or direct to DSD with the best ADC that you can find. You can the build a playback system that plays back that recording so it sounds just like the French horn in the field. And you will have an absolute reference recording system and playback system for that one data point in the whole world of recorded music.

      Will those two systems be very good with other music? Yes they will, but they will not be the absolute reference systems that they are for that one data point. There is a limit to the idea of an absolute reference recording and playback system.

  10. Let‘s assume there is a perfect active loudspeaker featuring a perfect step response and a flat frequency response. What if the recorded music news sounds unacceptable in the recording studio? Will you modify the perfect loudspeaker? Will you improve the studio’s room acoustics? Or will you improve the recording techniques and (!) the inherent flaws of classic stereo: inter-speaker crosstalk-based combfilter effects? In the meantime only sophisticated EQ might help to improve the sound quality. 🙂 I love my Weiss DAC 501 featuring these tools!

  11. Paul, I like the way you always credit the people involved in a PS Audio product, whether Chris for the new speaker in this column or Darren for (my) Stellar phone stage or Ted for (my) DS dac in other posts. I think most people here have been in situations where management somehow forgets the folks who put in the hours and the care to produce a superior result. So good on you. Cheers.

  12. I’m still contemplating a statement from yesterday’s post: “When making a recording of something complex, say a cymbal, we set the microphone in position just above the cymbal.” Hopefully there is more than just one microphone capturing the cymbal. We hear in stereo, each ear hearing a different part of the wavefront, capturing different harmonics. When we hear a cymbal we are usually not hearing it with only one ear from above 🙂

    1. Interesting question, Joe. I think the cymbal can be positioned electronically anywhere on the soundstage in the mixing process, thus will come from both speakers to some degree. This, of course, will be different than purist stereo recordings that rely solely on two mics which are usually placed further away from the drum kit.

      1. I guess I am the purist. A stereo-miked instrument sounds more realistic than a singly-miked instrument that is made to sound through L and R channels. The latter sounds artificial and lacking in three-dimensionality.

  13. OYE VAY!

    I have an apartment. After moving in I set up my speakers in front of a wall that was convenient. Sounded good, and adequate bass.

    Then I received a complaint from the neighbor who lived with that wall.
    I needed to move my system to a different wall. The bass was no longer as good as it had been, and the overall dimensions to the hall could no longer be sensed like before….

    Was it the speakers? NO. Too many variables involved.

  14. Translation between listening environments is one of the biggest challenges. Loudspeakers can be flattering thanks to response dips. The problem is that it won’t translate to another speaker having different response dips.

    The solutions I’ve found include taking a very minimal approach to signal processing and using monitors that are so lacking in response dips that most recordings barely sound OK. Balances are best checked on non-transparent speakers because it becomes “different” rather than obviously “right or wrong.”

      1. Recording, mixing, and mastering all have unique requirements.

        Recording requires a flattering monitor to not lose the musicians into the weeds worrying about easily fixed issues. The goal is to work really fast, so that nobody becomes bored.

        Mixing is all about the final balance with some processing to remove distractions. Balance is most easily achieved with a forward, bright response having no dips.

        Mastering requires full-range, flat, very transparent monitors that have no dips. The idea is to catch any glitches or noises missed in mixing and to then adjust the final voicing of the recording.

  15. I have rarely liked the sound of “studio monitors”, except the system I built in a truck with an acoustic design built around a pair of bi-amped 4333s. The astounding headroom meant that normal live music volumes were super clean, and the electronic crossover fixed the hole in the midrange; and the complex wall and ceiling construction corrrected for the off-axis response.

    ATC, Altecs, UREIs, JBLs, CADACs, Westlakes, Genelecs, Focals, Dynaudios – all lacked the clarity of my mini-monitors, B&W DM5 and small EVs from D.B. Keele Jr – I forget the model number. The Villchur/Allison LST and Quad electrostats got parts of the answer, the Infinities and Magnepans reinforced the need for large diaphragm area and better spatial projection.

    Additional breakthroughs were diffraction control and flat phase response (Dunlavy, Earthworks, Grimm), reduction in transient bass distortion, and the Heil tweeter. I got a referral to a deal on ESS Towers, and I was hooked. I stopped listening to dome tweeters when I started bringing home live DSF concert recordings – they simply did not work on 1″ diaphragms.

    One thing that is very difficult to achieve: flat frequency response AT ALL ANGLES. You can’t have any peaks or dips off-axis, because they will bounce around the room and bite you.

    Then I found that nearly all recordings have flaws caused by bad monitors and/or bad ears and over-processing. For the record, YOU CAN’T ‘FIX IT IN THE MIX’. Every knob, function, and plug-in in the studio causes temporal, transient, and spatial distortion. Get the sound right in the room with the musicians, pick the right mics and put them in the right places. If you can’t do those right, the recording will never sound right.

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