The transparency paradox

March 21, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

The dictionary defines the word paradox as a statement or proposition that, despite sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.

Such is the nature of audio transparency. Invisible sound.

A seeming paradox.

On the one hand, we can never hope to see sound. So the idea that some sound appears cluttered or opaque is certainly a contradiction.

On the other hand, the whole premise of a sonic image is based on visual metaphors. We have few choices of words when it comes to describing that which we hear.

Transparent sound occurs when the sonic clutter between instruments and voices disappears. The first time you hear a lack of clutter in the music the meaning of transparent sound will be obvious.

How to get there? Mostly through electronics: lower jitter levels, less feedback, greater linearity—though lower distortion and lower mass speaker drivers can help as well.

Is it something we can measure? Not directly. And worse, just because you have some of the key elements of design in place doesn’t mean it gets more transparent.

As in anything it’s a matter of optimizing the entire chain.

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19 comments on “The transparency paradox”

  1. I sure know about “transparency”
    I get it when I replace bog-standard interconnects with Kimber KCAG
    I get it when I listen instead to Quad or Stax electrostatic speakers.
    It’s just like removing the blanket hung in front of the speakers.

  2. I think lowering the noise floor at the source is also a big contributor to the sensation. I experienced that through Ted Smith’s work on successive firmware iterations for the DirectStream DAC. His improvements revealed a greater ‘transparency’ to my ears at least.

  3. Transparent…. Easily seen through… or in a human social context… obvious

    At it’s best Two channel audio is just an illusion – for example seeing through speakers, or images appearing out of nowhere. It’s no wonder some thing’s can’t be measured, it’s not real in a physical sense.

    Being fed a steady diet of this piece is right, or this speaker is most correct, this can’t be measured, and so on, certainly leads to some thoughts and perceptions .
    Being fed a steady diet of measurements that are thought to contain all the answers of an individuals perceived sound also lead to thoughts and perceptions.

    As the Moody Blues famously sang .. We decide which is right. And which is an illusion.

    Something you can’t see through becomes so transparent that it disappears. Magic….
    Leave the ‘sweet spot’ and try to physically walk into the magic … ouch… reality

  4. I agree with FR. Somehow Quad ESL have a level of transparency that is so obvious it’s just painful that those speakers have other significant limitations, for me mainly their size.

    Experiencing the dCS Vivaldi through Wilson in 2013 set a benchmark for what is possible and I’ve not heard better. A very simple system with few components all aimed at very low noise levels, using only fibre optic and CAT6a data cables, works for me.

    1. For me, electrostatics, different than magnetostatics or ribbons, combined their transparency with too much own sound signature in treble reproduction, that didn’t belong to the music. But it was nonetheless fascinating and nice to listen to.

  5. More a case of semantics?

    With all the difficulties we have putting into words what we hear transparent must be one of the most used and easily understood terms. There can’t be anyone reading here that doesn’t understand what is meant when we say a system is or sounds transparent. As such I have never considered audio transparency to be a paradox. Transparent doesn’t mean invisible. It means clear, see through or, as in our case, hear through. The veil, blanket, curtain has been lifted, the mush and haze has disappeared, we can hear clearly, and are clearly very happy about that.

    Equally the idea that the sound appears, or what we hear, is cluttered is not a contradiction. Cluttered is not just a visual adjective, our minds can be cluttered, as I would imagine those of audiophile’s are, more than most 🙂

    So whilst I see/read/hear/get what Paul is saying I think some of it adds to the confusion rather than making it clearer and thereby, somewhat paradoxically, makes it less transparent.

  6. Re: “Is it something we can measure? Not directly.” By inference, you’re saying you can measure it indirectly. What measurements do you think correlate with increased transparency?

    One possibly strange thing is that we apply the term to both loudspeakers (or other transducers) and electronics. When I finally bought a pair of Magnepan .7s I heard improved transparency in my system immediately, in spite of the Maggies not being perfectly neutral. Likewise, I’ve heard amplifiers in my system that seem to give a sense of increased transparency. Distortions caused by speakers are huge compared to the almost perfect measurements of many amplifiers, but we still hear “transparency” differences with all types of components. I’m assuming that design choices with “transparency” results that can be measured are variable. Is that a safe assumption? Do several factors that can be measured each result in improved transparency.

  7. My latest dose of transparency came when I replaced my PS Audio DMP transport with the new PS Audio PST. I was stunned at the difference it made. The galvanic isolation in the PST lowered the noise floor so much that certain music passages went from being a jumble of notes to a steady steam of individual notes with space between the notes.

    I am hoping that if we ever get the new TS DAC that my digital audio will become even more transparent.

  8. I read somewhere that improving transparency is like removing your sunglasses.
    An improving resolution is like putting your prescription eyeglasses on.
    The two effects are not the same.

    1. Since I have used eyeglasses since I was 4 to 5 years old, I feel fully qualified to talk about the difference between sunglasses and prescription eyeglasses. The optical definition of transparent is that the optical signal passes through the medium. Thus sunglasses, which filter out part of the optical signal, are semitransparent. Removing them improves transparency.

      Having your eyeglass prescription adjusted lets you see a truer image of what is there. I call that improved fidelity.

      Resolution of the human eye is a bit tricky. The retina of your eye is an array of optical sensors. The sensors have a finite size and there are only so many sensors that can fit in a given space. To resolve whether an image is a dog or a cat you have to have enough of the sensors receive the optical signal of the image to allow the brain to differentiate if it is a dog or a cat. It does not matter if the lens in your eyes are perfect, if you are too far away from the object you cannot resolve what the object is.

      After typing this I realize I should have mentioned that I taught optics lab for two years when I was a grad student. Probably too much information. Sorry

      1. When I get a new prescription for my eyeglasses, the resolution of the objects I see improves. I don’t take it down to the neurobiological level. I just see Spot run better. lol
        And improving transparency is removing whatever it is that filters out or masks the true sound of the music. Usually it is noise, but lack of dynamics is another filter of sorts, as is restricted bandwidth.

  9. It has taken me years to build a quality synergy from top to bottom. It is not cheap. I have to plan and budget and I’m happy to dedicate myself that way. It is the hard that makes it great. 🙂
    I’m touching sound anyway. Worth it. 🙂

  10. “How to get there? Mostly through electronics: lower jitter levels, less feedback, greater linearity—though lower distortion and lower mass speaker drivers can help as well.” Right on.

    There are different ways to get rid of clutter. You can get rid of clutter by “thinning out” (filtering) what you have, but that requires you to give up something. Another way of achieving transparency is to separate and organize what you have into neat layers that are more pleasing and comprehensible to the senses, with depth and air around and between. But that can sometimes sound artificial and surreal. To me, fine audio gear does not remove anything from or add to the original signal, but rather enables the complexity of the frequencies to come through as orderly as they entered the system, without disarray, slurring or anything being added or subtracted from the signal. It comes out as pristine (or as cluttered) as it entered.

      1. A good anything should do no harm 🙂

        In my experience, the most transparent cables, and gear for that matter, tend to be more expensive. It is paradoxical that the most transparent components are not typically the simplest of design and construction. Less is not always more.

  11. A seeming paradox?

    Why must it be? Words can hold more than one meaning.
    A joke can be in bad ‘taste.’ Are we to contrive that to mean its not a food and a bad word used to describe it?

    Transparency simply means the ability to avoid placing a veiling effect over what is to be heard.

  12. Some how I don’t think lower second harmonic distortion is less transparent, I put a tube preamp in my system and it was definitely more transparent by masking the higher order harmonics that human ears can pick up on easier. Tube gear also is more linear than solid state gear without feedback.

  13. There is no paradox. Just, possibly, an overexposure to the “audiophile” way of thinking.

    The *sound* has to be transparent to convey the *music* to the listener. Or, in case of some “This is Stereo” record from the 1970s, the sound of train running through your living room.

    The proverbial “audiophile” doesn’t care about music, only about sound. And while you might think that listening to the train in your living rooms gets old quite quickly (and you return to listening music), someone obsessed with sound only will be kept amused quite a bit longer.

    The *music* in that train recording is inaudible (invisible, transparent if you like). But I digress.

    A speaker, or the whole reproduction chain, can *sound* good, if it adds nothing diametral to the music – if it is, in other words, transparent. The same is true for musical instruments; the music comes from the musician or composer, the instrument is just the physical tool to produce the sound which conveys the music to our ears…which are, in turn, just transducers to get the music into our brains.

    Or the train, if you feel so inclined.

    1. Klaws, You have just added another layer of complication. We will now have to ask our fellow audiophiles if they are a proverbial audiophile who only cares about the sound, or a true audiophile who cares about both the music and the sound. I know which kind I am, which kind are you? 😉

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