Visual cues

July 9, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

A hotel whose bathroom floor is made from marble and comes complete with a phone in the toilet stall is considered pretty fancy.

It is those visible cues of luxury—marble and a useless phone—that set apart the hotel from one of identical proportions and functions.

When we first lay eyes on a sculpted metal masterpiece like a beautiful power amplifier we make our first appraisal of what lies in store for us when music plays.

Visual cues: the cover art of an album, the packaging that surrounds a new product, the perfection of metal work, the quality of chassis paint, the gleam of a connector.

We listen first with our eyes.

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39 comments on “Visual cues”

  1. So right! We might even be fooled into thinking porcelain tile is real marble, a plastic grille on a modern Rolls-Royce is real chrome, or an acrylic-coated paper bound book cover is real leather. But most people don't care. If it looks expensive they are happy.

    Another thing frustrates me. The simplest designs with the cleanest lines are typically more expensive than the fancier, more ornate designs. You often pay extra for "less is more" because there is less trim to cover joints, which must therefore be built more precisely to closer tolerances.

  2. There is no need for visual clues when I want to hear the phantom sound images my stereo set-up has to create. However when the „sound quality“ of components from different manufacturers is on par as is the reliability and the price then I always go for the component with the best design (user interface) and the best styling. However I have to admit this was only the case some 40 years ago when I purchased my car stereo components (Pioneer Centrate). 🙂

  3. No, no, no, no, no!
    "Not thith little black duck!" - D. Duck
    Paul stirring the pot, again 😉

    After so many years in home-audio & home-audio retail I have certainly learned to,
    "never judge a book by it's cover"...& this also includes home-audio gear.
    I've heard some good looking gear that sounded bad & vice-versa over the decades.

    It always blows my mind how often people in the home-audio industry & home-audio
    reviewers on YouTube, who should all know better, will spend around 20% of their review
    time talking about how a component 'looks'...I constantly shake my head at this silliness.
    Audio is for your ears; it's that simple.

    Always listen with your ears ✌

    1. Not had my email yet, got here by ‘refreshing’ from yesterday though when I first did it, it said site down for maintenance. Possibly giving it the proverbial lick of paint to improve the look 😉

  4. I think of speakers a piece of furniture. They are large and out in the room. I at least care enough about them to make sure they match the decor.

    The other solid state components are basically big rectangles, and there is only so much you can do to a big rectangle. I feel like you can only screw them up, like making the lights on the unit way too bright. They usually sit in a rack all except their face out of sight, the optimal position to the side of the room towards the back where you don't even look directly at them. Additionally, I listen to music with the lights dimmed to about 25% of normal.

    Having said that, my favorite looking amps are from Pass Labs. Their thick, contoured, dimly lit aluminum chassis face is jewel like.

  5. And it’s always a matter of taste. A lot of designs many like, I don’t. For example Burmester, MBL amps, Techdas, T&A…often German or Japanese designs. On the other hand Italian or Danish design is often great.

    The best design and built quality ever, not only for the price, for me was the Hovland HP 100 preamp. Gryphon always close.

    From PSA for example I liked the BHK300, P10, DSD Mk I, DMP design more than e.g. P20, BHK600, PWT, BHK pre chassis, but those are just small differences.

    Given the importance of design, just as expressed today, too little care is taken imo. It doesn’t have to be expensive and expansive, it’s not rarely the subtle, simplistic that rules, but the gorgeous are mostly easy to identify by everyone…I thought…but the ugly in the one or others‘ eyes wouldn’t sell, if tastes weren’t so different.

      1. You got it my friend and when this amp came out

        https://youtu.be/UQSV_Q_MvnA

        Extremely validates your point. Exterior wise the PRAUTES looks amazing, but inside is the cheapest and one of the most ugly point to point wiring jobs I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the cover looks awesome, but inside is pure shit. It happens.

  6. For the high percentage of time when we’re NOT listening to our gear, it’s sole job defaults to becoming merely being visual. And I’ve been gobsmacked by the pleasing appearance of sound gear since I was a teen. I still am. I used to ride my bike into town after school and peruse the stereo stores drooling like a virgin in a wedding dress shop. Is it the key selling feature? No, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if it “looks loud (fast) just sitting still”.
    Compare listening to the driving experience. Two cars that excite your soul, drive your emotions, thrill your every desire equally. But while driving, all you see is the hood. Step outside and one looks like a Ferrari 308 and one looks like a Prius. Which one are you gonna pick? Even if the Prius was a bit more fun on the corners..? 308 GTB every time.
    I have scads of vintage audio gear. Is is all hooked up? Nope. Does it please my eyes when I walk by and look at it? You bet. Way more than any paintings on a wall or any other useless objects people consider to be “art”.
    I have outgrown my ‘need” for meters and lights on my gear, but I can’t truthfully say the sight of a large slow dancing dimly lit VU meter, a blue flouroscan power meter within a brushed aluminum faceplate or a red LED segmented bouncing spectrum analyzer doesn’t bring absolute pleasure to my eye or a slight jolt of past nostalgia, not unlike seeing a picture of a long lost love.
    Do my ears make the final purchase choice (within…. ok dammit, slightly above my budget…)? Of course they do.
    But do I love the way gear looks?
    #%$& Yeah!

    I believe this stems from a ‘first love’ youth excitement thing. (You remember youth, back when you got excited about things..?) Because I recently got rabbit snared into the world of headphones and amplifiers, and I could care less what the headphones look like. One iota. But the amplifiers…?

    Hmmm, the MUST be a “group” for this sort of thing no?

    Hi my name is Jeff and I have eight pairs of headphones, three DACs and four headphone amplifiers…. It’s been six weeks since I bought a cable

    “Hiiiiii. Jeeeeefffffff”

    1. The needle in the big blue output signal meter on one of my PassLab amps got stuck and I emailed PassLab inquiring about the issue. Tech emailed me back, saying that a common occurence is a little spider building its net in the needle mechanism, freezing them in position. I solved the stuck needle by rubbing my finger across the clear plastic face of the meter, generating enough static electricity to break the needle base free of the net. Such a tiny issue, and so easily resolved.

  7. Though our ears should be our judge, Paul is correct in saying our eyes are the first to judge. Also, I'm not going to have a crappy looking piece of gear in my living room even if it sounds wonderful. It has to both look great AND sound great.

    1. Hi Joseph,
      I keep my home-audio gear covered, even the drivers in my loudspeakers, with clean cotton
      fabric to keep the dust, & any other crud that might be flying around, off my gear when it's
      not in use...that's another reason why I don't care so much about what it looks like.
      When it's uncovered it's 'in use' & I'm listening to music, so I'm not really concerned with
      looking at it & when it's powered off it's covered & so again, I'm not admiring it visually.
      😀

      1. I don't want covered loudspeakers and equipment stands in my living room when I'm not listening. I like the way they look and don't mind dusting a few times a year.

          1. I do keep one piece of gear covered when its not in use...my BAT tube amp, because I don't like dust accumulating on the expensive tubes. It sits on the floor behind furniture. I use a barbeque grill cover that cannot catch fire, in case I ever forget to turn off the amp! LOL

  8. Basically I agree with you - BUT - sometimes this audio jewelry comes a bridge too far for some mere mortals. My old Mark Levinson 333 seems to strike a nice tone between audio perfection and attractive good looks.

  9. You know I just bought a WA 22 transformer coupled Tube Amplifier from Woo Audio and I can assure you that the build quality along with the overall aesthetics of the amplifier helped in my overall decision to purchase the amp. I think long term when I buy expensive HIFI equipment. I do all my research necessary inside the amp and out.
    I’m pretty sure many of you here are no different. Visual cues are damn important. 😉

    1. I also have a Woo Audio W22 balanced tube amplifier in basic black. What a beautiful form-follows-function piece! I retubed it with better sounding N.O.S. tubes. While you and I think it is gorgeous, especially with the tubes a-glowing, young non-audiphiles probably see it more as a curiosity piece from yesteryear, like they see in a museum or old sci-fi movies.

      1. Hi Joeseph! Yeah it really is beautiful. Everything down to the stepped attenuated volume knob (even how it feels in hand ) and the way the transformers are housed and incased.
        🙂

        I’m so happy to hear about your NOS tube rolling. The WA22 really benefits from higher end tubes. Currently I’m going with an all Soviet line up with Tungsol and Sovtek. All NOS except the driver tubes. I’m loving the sound though. I got mine in silver because I like from further away you can see a bit more detail and contrast of how the amp looks. I sit about 18 feet away from my audio gear, so that is mainly why I chose silver.
        Joseph. I gotta tell you. The WA22 is the best amp I own and the pre amp functionality is just awesome. A big reason why I bought it. Form, aesthetics and functionality. It has it all!
        Very happy.

        1. Oh yes, the WA22 is one of the best for tube rolling. I have a slew of vintage TungSol NOS tubes for the WA22, including eight rare hard to find unused matched "Holy Grail" N.O.S. TungSol round plate 6SN7GT tubes I purchased at an estate sale years ago. I replaced the large stock power tube with an Emission Labs tube.

          1. Oh very cool. So that TungSol 6SN7 GTA (NOS) is a highly regarded and very sought after tube in many tube rolling threads I’ve looked at.
            I hope you enjoy the heck out of those beautiful driver tubes.
            I went with a cheaper, but not cheap scenario and got a TungSol 6SN7 GTB. It is not a NOS, however these new Russian makes are very good. Also Joseph getting the GTB version is just fine for our modern amp. The “B” stands for a controlled heater on the tube. The reason why Woo doesn’t list the GTB on their tube compatibility chart is because NOS GTB’s don’t pair well with most modern amplifiers because they overuse or override the heater plate, thus destroying the tube life real quick. The modern GTB’s like I bought are fabulous with no issues at all, so if you decide to get the 6SN7 GTB (newer development) you’ll be absolutely fine.
            Anyhow. Very nice to talk to a fellow WA 22 owner here. Definitely caught me by surprise. Feel free to tell me any wonderful Tube discoveries you go through in the future. I’ll do the same.

            Cheers my friend. Enjoy the music. I know you will. 🙂

  10. That's why I like tube gear, the chassis can be made out of your favorite wood. I would (wood) think it would (wood) sound better also, less ringing like aluminum chassis probably do.

  11. But seriously, I see some of the turntables out there for vinyl that look like a reimagining of a starship or something and cost nearly as much as a sportscar and just have to wonder...Does it really outperform my Thorens?

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