Uncovering the music

June 10, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

When we try new software or add a new piece of gear we often discover more in the music. Suddenly, that bit of detail we didn’t know existed pops out of the musical landscape and we’re thrilled.

We’ve uncovered missing information. Or have we? Was it ever really missing?

Some equipment adds a layer of grit to the sound that can deceive us into believing there’s more detail—like over-etching a photograph. No more information has been revealed. All that’s happened is details have been highlighted. But what of the opposite when details have been obscured?

We call that masking.

By whatever names we assign to impacts of electronics, etching or masking, they pale to what speakers can do.

Loudspeakers are the final arbiter in the chain. Information lost in a transducer’s inability to faithfully follow the signal provided by the electronics is gone forever. No amount of enhancement can bring it back.

We might be able to calm over-etched exaggerations or help uncover masked subtleties with differing combinations of signal chain elements, but that’s about the end of our abilities.

I’ve harped for years on the importance of speakers, and this short riff gives you yet another idea why.

Once lost by the speakers there’s nothing that can bring it back.

Note: today’s the last day to pick up a copy of my book 99% True while it’s still on sale. Go here to grab one before the price goes up.

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19 comments on “Uncovering the music”

  1. When every manufacturer would make an active version of his speaker(s), folks would be surprised what they hear uncovered…the industry holds us back from this for decades. Reason is probably mainly the buying behaviour of the customers.

  2. BBC Research has probably done more R&D on broadcasting equipment than anyone, including testing and modifying third party products (e.g. microphones) and using third party drivers when necessary. They were developing active speakers back in the 1960s with amplifiers supplied by Quad. They perfected the thin wall speaker and it has stood the test of time by being licensed and manufactured by many companies over the last 50 years. It is near impossible to make an active thin wall speaker. They don’t mask anything, to the contrary the cabinets are designed to avoid any ringing associated with rigid cabinets that does cause masking, and thin wall speakers are cost beneficial compared to other effective solutions (i.e. very expensive damped and isolated enclosures). If thin wall speakers were made illegal I’d have fully active speakers with built in DSP. Driver technology has clearly improved in the last 30 years or so, improving speaker performance, but it seems to be a long and expensive process. I reiterate (and agree in principle) that home audio is 90% speakers, and speakers are probably 90% drivers. My systems is based entirely around my speakers and a change of speakers would mean starting again almost from scratch, retaining only my server.

  3. In a multi-amplified active system preferably with 4 ways in which a DSP is used as the heart of the system in an integral way, the possibility of masking is very low, and depends only on the correct selection of the drivers, and of course on a proper design.

    On the contrary, the sense of immediacy and transparency is pleasantly surprising.

    It is the result of the digital era in which we live and sooner rather than later, this technique will be widely adopted by the manufacturers.

  4. In the hope of irritating certain people I’m going to repeat what I said in the past. After all I only know so much and after I’ve posted everything I think I know, well unless your wardrobe is limitless you eventually have to wear the same shirt more than once.

    Your first problem is to set a goal. What do you want to do? If you can’t define a goal or if that goal is vague, how can you expect to achieve it? We don’t listen to speakers, we listen to a long chain of processes each of which plays a role and the last element in the process that affects what you hear is the acoustics of the listening room. The more you understand your goal and the parts of the process you have no control over which is everything that went into making a recording unless you made it yourself, the more readily you can devise strategies to take what you have or can get to achieve your goal. At least you’d have some understanding of the problem. It is rare to solve a problem you don’t understand but it does happen.

    So the processes you have no control over has many variables inherent in it from one recording to another. How will you deal with them? Are you going to try to deal with them at all? Even if your goal is just to get the most enjoyment from your recordings, you can get better results by considering these variables and engineer provisions to deal with them. The acoustics of the listening room is another variable. How will you deal with that? Ignore it? Keep swapping out elements in your system until you find one that pleases you? Alter the room with sound diffusers, absorbers, and reflectors? Do you know how to best use them? Try to kill the effects of the room off by tunneling as much of the sound as you can directly at the listener?

    There are often multiple ways to solve a problem that give satisfactory results. Understanding the problem and how the elements in potential solutions work is a science. Choosing the one that will work best for you is an art. That is why the best results engineers can get at any given time is called “the state of the art.” Anyway, this is the problem that confronts anyone who is designing, building, selling or using products to create a satisfactory sound system. The loudspeaker is just one element of many. How well are you doing solving your own problem? Warning, trying to solve one aspect of the problem may worsen other aspects of the problem as a consequence of what you have done. Not so easy. The trial and error approach seems to invariably leave audiophiles dissatisfied. That is why they are constantly trying to fix one thing or another by shopping and swapping. Magazine reviews are of no help IMO.

    1. The core problem with separate stereo components is that the designers of these components ignore that the final goal should be a good sounding system (!), a system which per definition includes the mains power supply and the listening room having most specific acoustic properties. Lacking this holistic system approach results in stereo systems far from fully revealing the potential sound quality of a recording. The audiophile enduser more or less desperately tries to maximize the sound quality by endlessly searching synergy effects by following a random trial and error process. A most profitable business case for the manufacturers of separate links of the stereo chain.

      1. What is your definition of a “good sounding” system? I know what my definition is but it may not be the same as yours. Right now the mantra among audiophiles is “imaging.” For me that leaves almost all of the important things out.

        The trend in this industry seems to continue on, that is paying more and more and getting less and less for it. Crappy tiny little two way speakers costing thousands of dollars, way overpriced amplifiers and preamplifiers, especially the tube types, cheap overpriced turntables with poor tracking low output overpriced moving coil cartridges, and expensive wires. What have you got when you put it all together? IMO not much. BTW, some of the most expensive speakers are nothing more than these crappy little two ways sitting on top of an overpriced subwoofer. But then I can’t appreciate these things. I’m not an audiophile. I expect a lot more for a lot less money.

        1. I I want accuracy I listen via my headphones. If I want near holographic imaging I use my loudspeakers and XTC activated in my TacT preamp. I I want authentic sound I attend the life event.

    2. Magazine reviews were a great help in developing my sound systems. Regular writers reveal their ear programming over many moons’ essays on the audio ecology, and these show how they ended up with a particular set of distortions as reference. It also explains the endless debates. I now know why Fremer insists vinyl is the ultimate medium and why he is an outlier; I learned why Atkinson offers both brilliant insights and myopic tripping points. I know how to make a chip amp sound better than most discrete designs at any price; and I know how speakers with bad off-axis response in ridiculous rooms can draw raves.

      Most importantly, I know how recording engineers went so far astray and why the existing consuming public can’t be brought back from the universal distortions of multi-tracking and multi-knob over-production.

      You do have to cross check reviews with auditioning to reveal the hidden information between the lines on magazine pages, and prior to that you need to condition your ears by a few years of daily acoustic music to escape the audio jungle and get the bird’s eye view.

  5. Paul,

    I do have an honest question about this post: why are speakers the MOST important step in the chain? If your cartridge is delivering cross-channel signals at the front end, or your phono stage leaves a few things behind, or your DAC is leaving behind low frequency signals, etc. …. you’re also never getting that stuff back. And one can have amazing speakers that are being fed junk signals, and those speakers won’t save the day. I picture a very full flute of champagne on a tray being delivered from the kitchen to the table, through a series of waiters. The last waiter not only has to keep the champagne intact, but deliver it with style and grace and a sense of presentation. Is that what the point here is? If so, that’s a bit different than lost info becoming irretrievable (which arguably applies to every step in the chain).

    1. I think the point is, and made before, is that if you speakers are no good you can end up spending lots of money on other stuff without any benefit whatsoever. Looking it at another way, you will never know the full potential of your electronics and analogue sources unless you have good speakers. Finally, amplifiers and speaker cables, which people seem to spend plenty of money on, are (or should be) largely determined by the speakers they are designed to drive and feed. So buying an expensive 300w amplifier and then deciding to buy electrostatic or horn loudspeakers that need a maximum of 50w would be a waste of money.

      At the end of the day home stereo audio is just about getting good sound out of a pair of loudspeakers. They make most of the difference and are where money is best spent. For systems up to $10,000 I would expect at least half of the budget to go on the speakers and this could apply up to $20,000 or even a bit higher.

      1. … and one can spend a lot on speakers and waste it with bad components. To be clear, Robert Harley says the same thing as you, so you’re in good company. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve heard this mantra frequently. But I’m pressure testing it. A PS Audio BHK system (pre amp + 300 monos) runs $21,000. Their DAC is another $6,000. Add a P-15 and you’re at $35,000. And that’s just the digital side. I don’t think anyone is saying that you need a $35,000+ pair of speakers to hear the benefit of those electronics. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul’s recommended speaker for the Sprout is the Elac B6.2; which would mean spending 20% on speakers, less if you add a TT and cart. I’m just saying that good speakers won’t save bad components, and good components can’t save bad speakers. So it seems to me everything has to be pretty good. I can buy that the final delivery to the ear deserves some premium in dollars and attention. I can also buy that one should start a good system with good speakers and go from there. But for me, the end of the day is not about “getting good sound out of a pair of loudspeakers.” It’s about getting the most out of a recording; the recording is the message and the rig is a chain of messengers. They all have to perform.

        1. I agree wth Mike below.

          $35,000 of PSA electronics is way above a 50/50 speaker/electronics system and way above anything I’ve ever spent. I would never have a BHK/DSD system as I would never have speakers to justify that expenditure.
          You could partner those Elac speakers with a Yamaha unit or similar and achieve 50/50. Paul partners his Sprout with KEF LS50, which is about 50/50 with a source.
          My ideal system would be Quad 2912 and Quad Artera. The speakers would be 75% of the system cost, and the total system would be much less (about 70%) than just a pair of BHK monos. Illustrates different perception of what you have to spend to get ideal sound, but still speakers first.

          I had a PSA PWD Mk2 DAC. I sold it and bought a unit that cost just under one third what I paid for the PWD and sounded just as good. So the options are:
          (a) The PWD was over-priced
          (b) My speakers are not good enough to resolve the PWD (not true)
          (c) You just don’t need to spend that much money on a DAC.
          (d) DAC value-for-money improved over the years I owned the PWD
          Just an example of issues with choosing sources.

          It must be presumed that the quality of the recording is not the limiting factor. If you just streamed mp3 you wouldn’t spend $100,000 on an audio system.

      2. Rather than a hard set rule I approach things differently. I found speakers I fell in love with. Then I shopped for budget electronics that were capable of driving them. As time has progressed the progression of better sounding components (to me) has come into play. Or to put it another way having a strong foundation to build and expand upon has given countless hours of satisfaction. This not to say the foundation (the actual air mover) may not change along with everything else as time marches forward. If done right the change doesn’t involve the whole system at once.

    2. I tend to agree with JRW1971, it’s the old adage; ”garbage in, garbage out”. If your source is the weak link in your system, no speaker howerver good will be able to ”restore” the missing information. But in such a set up a great speaker will still do better than a lesser one. Case in point; around 10 years ago at the Montreal FSI, a HiFi dealer did a demo a with a pair of Wilson Audio Sophias driven by a cheap MP3 player and the sound wasn’t awful. Their point was in line with what Paul is affirming. But in my own experience; everything matters, from the source to the speakers. In my system though, I have to admit that the speakers (including REL subwoofer) is approximately 37% of the total cost of my system; sounds pretty damn good.

  6. A depressed person can not be one with the excitement and energy of a band of musicians full of life and energy. Even if he heard the actual performance live, it might not move him. But, a close friend may be able to quietly cheer him up for a moment in time.

    That is what a good audio system should be able to do. To become a close friend. How it does it? Chuck the theories and audio concepts if need be.

  7. Speakers are as important as everything else in the audio chain. Speakers no matter how good they are can only produce what they are fed. They do not produce information which is not there to begin with. A system is only as good as it’s weakest link. This is where information is lost. This is what has to be as good as the rest of the system otherwise the rest of the system no matter how good it is is of little avail. If the speakers are less than stellar compared to the rest of the system than they should be upgraded at least to the level of the rest of the system. Just having the best speakers without the rest of the system being of the same standard is not going to give anymore information. The saying that a system is only as good as it’s weakest link still holds good. But how does one know which part of the system is the weakest link ? One does not. It’s always trial and error. Expensive and very involved, yes. But there is no way around it if one wants the best within the price range one is working in. Regards.

  8. This post kind of fits with a situation that I am dealing with. I have a Toshiba laptop that is dedicated to music. I started with JRiver and Vinyl Studio. Got Tidal, which over the years their dedicated player has given me problems, locking up, or it would quit playing when going from a MQA file to a 16/44 file. I spent probably a month working with Tidal tech, sending logs, installing patches that weren’t public updates. And eventually it worked quite well. Then last year in I think it was October, it started acting up. The laptop has a good processor, 8Gb of RAM and a 1Tb HDD.
    Audirvana had finally released a Windows version so I trialed it, solved all my issues and allowed me to build playlists of Tidal and music I had purchased as downloads, or ripped.
    Well Friday the laptop stopped playing, when I got up it was on the “Log In” screen. From there it went to one of the screens of blue death. I tried everything I could, including spending hours on the tablet, looking for solutions.
    I learned two valuable lessons, one that unlike earlier versions like XP and Vista, it doesn’t automatically create backups, and that Toshiba did not include a recovery disc.
    My tech savvy friend Bob was over today, still no joy, it most likely is the HDD, but we have a few more things to try.
    I like to fill the queue and relax, So out of desperation I brought my Raspberry Pi 3, and one of my two backup USB drives out.
    For years I happily used a Nobis Proteus, highly modified tube preamp, with a Camelot Aurthur V3 24/192 DAC. I replaced the Nobis with a Conrad Johnson CT5 and then added a Benchmark Dac2 HGC. I was hearing details that had been obscured, and SQ had much improved. My speakers have doubled in price over the years, my Legacy Focus cost me $5×00 in 1997, the updated version is over $10k.
    As a side note, when I got the Benchmark, I had to change the toe-in on my speakers, it is a little on the bright side. So I went with less toe-in. Right after I replaced my PSA Lambda with a PWT, my friend asked me if I would like to try a very expensive DAC in my system. I hesitated, as I thought going back to the Benchmark would be a let down. So he said it would be a long term loan, as he wasn’t using it, so basically a very expensive paperweight. I brought home a Lindemann 825, that also has a CD transport, although the transport doesn’t always work. After installing the 825, I had to change the toe-in, the 825 lacks that brightness. When my friend heard the DAC in my system he was impressed. Next time he came over, right after Christmas, he told me that he discussed it with his wife, and the DAC belongs here, “Merry Christmas”. I was blown away.
    But back to the point of this post, In 1969 I bought Blodwyn Pig’s “Ahead Rings Out”. On side 2 before a song he does some talking in a cockney accent. Until I got the CT5, I could only understand the first few words. Today, using the $35 Raspberry with nothing but a AQ Jitterbug, I listened to a 24/96 file I had done using Vinyl Studio. Every word was clear! As I don’t disagree that everything in an audio system matters, obviously including the room, I was not expecting to hear that detail using the bare bones Raspberry.
    Right now I am considering adding the Allo DigiOne Signature Clean Power SPDIF Out, or if the laptop needs more than a new HDD, maybe a Volumio Mini86. Anyone have any experience with either of these?

  9. I guess my two cents on the speakers-vs.-everything-else cost equation based on recent experience is that I got a Sprout 100 and Harbeth P3ESRs (around $2,200 the pair) augmented with my old JL Audio F110 sub (which probably cost around the same as the P3’s for the single sub at the time, though of course it has its own amp). So – front end is usually an iPod Nano, playing 16/44.1 files via bluetooth to the $599 Sprout integrated … feeding $4k+ worth of speakers. Two subs would be preferred, natch.

    In all seriousness, I think it would make a great demo system for its own room at RMAF or Axpona that would have people talking. Some happy that something so small and relatively inexpensive could sound so good, and others no doubt offended. It would be properly scaled to the small, crappy-sounding rooms in most venues, interacting with them less than the average mondo rig setup.

    Props to Darren Myers for repeated exposure to the synergy of this setup (his having two REL subs).

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