It is not easy being an equipment reviewer. All the different possibilities each reviewer can use to optimize their setup are mind boggling! The difference between a product being rated as "good" to being rated as "great" could all boil down to simply changing one interconnect! This is just one of the many pitfalls of being a 'professional' reviewer. Another is that there is no set standards. No guidelines in what one means by "a deep soundstage" or "an expansive sound". Well now there is! The one thing no one ever seems to have tried is standardizing the "audiophile measurement lingo". Putting a solid quantitative result to a subjective measurement. Therefore Enjoy the Music.com is the very first subjective magazine to have all of its reviewers use a "standardized form". This form is plainly explained below.
What you are about to read is exactly the same as what every Enjoy the Music.com reviewers uses to judge a product within a given system. There is no special lingo, he-man secret handshakes, or "read between the lines" underground language that was known only to the now extinct 'Audiophili-asaurous'. We are breaking free from the "old school" and have found what we feel is a better way. As the Big Book (by my friend Bill W.) says "If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness." As i was only half way through this new subjective measurement idea, it was painfully obvious how overdue it truly was.
Every product will be rated by a Blue Note system. Each product will be analyzed in various ways such as stage width, depth, tonal accuracy, spectral balance, imaging, etc. In this way you, the readership, can plainly see a measured subjective in which you can compare one product to another. Of course each reviewer will have her or his own base-line in which to begin.
Each category will have a Blue Note value:
Consider most good high-end gear rating of three Blue Notes while the truly exceptional pieces get a rating of four Blue Note or higher. Now let us begin learning more specifics about Enjoy the Music.com's rating system shall we.
The Judging System
As you can see from the above piano, most musical notes are in the midrange (green). This is also true with the acoustic music we hear. Generally, most of it is reproduced by the driver(s) that cover from 200 to 3000 Hz. Since no natural instrument i know of produces a "pure" tone, we also have an instrument's timbre to consider. For instance, a trumpet may be playing a middle "C", yet we also hear the higher and lower frequency tones added into the pure tone such as those from the trumpet's brass bell. This is what we call timbre and also referred to as the harmonics of an instrument. Please feel free to audition a test disc that has pure "test tones" on it. You will notice it is a very pure tone at that! This may aid you in better understanding how music is reproduced. Also refer to the chart below for further information.
Another part of the music we take into account is the attack, decay, and inner resolution thereof. Some equipment seems faster at achieving the initial attack of music while others seem slower. This may be due to many factors. For example, an insufficient power supply in an amplifier could cause it to improperly handle the requirements needed by highly dynamic music. Decay can also be affected in various ways too. Many of us have heard one component more naturally handle the subtle decay of notes while others seem to cut them off prematurely. This can be true with digital media players and turntables just as much as loudspeakers.
Inner resolution differences can be obvious, especially when comparing dynamic (cone) driver based loudspeakers versus electrostatic or panels. Being able to hear "into" the music and notes allows us a greater understanding as to the artist's intentions. For it is when the inner resolution is low, music can more like a jumble of sound rather than individual notes being produced by various unique instruments/sources. Inner resolution is a combination of factors including (but not limited to) small nuances, the ability to hear lower volume instruments as louder ones are reproduces, and with acoustic music we have hall reverberation. Within classical music we have instruments that each have a unique character and as such, one should be able to hear the reed (per se) when such instruments are within the recording. For stringed instruments it may be the bow. During classical music we also have many various instruments playing at the same time, so inner resolution would mean the ability to hear a relatively quiet harp deep within the texture of the music. Another benefit of inner resolution is the ability to sense the concert hall size, and with a truly great system the shape. These are all very delicate, yet important parts of the music as a whole. Now it is time to discuss soundscaping.
Let us first clarify what is referred to by soundscaping. Sadly, many people seem to feel that soundscaping and soundstaging are one in the same. They are not. Virtually every performer will tell you a soundstage is the stage where the performers play. This is generally the front 20 percent or so of many music halls lower level. What soundscaping is, is taking into consideration the entire landscape (or hall) in which a musical performance is played. Virtually all music heard performed live is within some structure where there are hall or room reflections. These reflections are also part of the natural musical experience and therefore should be accounted for. Hence soundscape. The difference between soundstage and soundscape could be analogous to watching a segment of your life on TV (soundstage) in comparison to actually living it (soundscape). Now for some graphs.
Please note these diagrams are for demonstration purposes only and are not to be taken for exact scale where every loudspeaker will sound their best at a given listening position. Some systems seem to do quite well at giving a nice frontal soundstage. As seen here we have a nice wide front stage being reproduced between the two golden lines. This soundstage even goes beyond the loudspeaker's locations to the front edges of the room! There is no bending or curving of the stage in any way. This is especially noticeable in the left and right corners of the room from the viewpoint of the listener.
Next up is what i seem to hear quite a bit. Sadly, there is no extension beyond the right or left loudspeakers. Furthermore, the rear left and right of the soundstage is reproduced so that all music gives this deep center, yet foreshortened rear side stages. This can be due to lack of proper room integration or treatment thereof acoustically. The biggest factors in reproducing music is the listening room and loudspeaker integration. (Humor) Of course there is a good part to this because if you turn your head counter-clockwise you get a really nice smiley face :-)
Next up is what many impressive systems reproduce. Seen here is a very nice, wide front stage with a good amount of "hall sound" coming into the room. Though this diagram may not be perfect, it should still give you an idea as to the way the music's "hall presence" is brought into the room well in front of the loudspeakers with good width too. Still, there is some narrowing in the front part of the stage and the soundscaping in front of the speakers is also a bit limited.
This last diagram shows how the entire soundscape is not limited to the listening room. In fact there is no shortening in any dimension. Notice how the system gives a full, even soundscape. Furthermore, the truly excellent systems/rooms will also give the listener the added bonus of a pleasant amount of information seemingly heard from behind the listening position! While quite rare, this is what separates the systems that average a very high score of points to those that go upwards of an astounding full .
To keep things fairly simple, the Enjoy the Music.com reviewers will score different parameters. Soundscape width front, width rear, depth behind loudspeakers, and extension into the room. Each review will give a comment if they hear the rare behind the head soundscaping as well.
Although imaging seems to be very artificial in many recordings, it is to be desired by audiophiles and therefore we will take this into account as well. Precise pinpoint imaging as heard in some system is virtually nonexistent in a live acoustic situation. After all, many instruments have a body (violin and concert bass drum for example). Therefore we may hear the bowed or struck part on the instrument first, yet also have the instrument's body and it's tonal character to consider to in the physical realm since they are as a matter of fact in a different location. When we add a complete orchestra in the mix, we humans seem to hear more of a harmonized sound with quite a few different sound entities, versus hearing each and every instrument in its own pinpoint of space. Imaging is very subjective and is very recording/microphone usage and placement sensitive. Please feel free to attend as many live acoustic performances of various styles of music and hear how the performance hall can greatly affect the imaging too.
The last two categories are "fit and finish" and noise. Does the unit seem well built? Do all the screws match? Is the loudspeaker's finish that of a fine piece of furniture? As for noise, do the power transformers hum? If it is a tube unit, are the tubes very microphonic? And of course how is the value for the money? These last categories are a must as to give a visual and final quality judgment.
To wrap things up here, we have sixeen (16) categories. The rating are from zero (0) Blue Notes being the worst possible to five (5) being the best, virtually perfect sound. When each one is scored and commented upon within a review, it should give you a good indication of the overall quality of a product. While this new type of review measuring is not the "end-all-be-all", you can now get a quantitative measured subjective review that can be easily used to compare other products. Please keep in mind when it comes to sound quality, five notes is the very best regardless of price. The scale does not move, graded on a curve, simply because a product is $500 versus $5000... or $50,000. So, as an example, a five note rating for Midrange on a $500 product is the same sound quality as 5 notes for a $50,000 product. Yes, each reviewer will have her or his own baseline yet we at Enjoy the Music.com are making a step towards a proper baseline solution.
Note: Our older scale was zero (0) through one hundred (100) with 100 being the best.
to = Poor Performance
= Under average
= Very Good
= Excellent Performance
(Half notes are allowed )
16 Reviewing Parameters