One of the biggest questions in the history of this hobby and I need to wrap it up in an afternoon. This is not going to be the prettiest article ever written and hope my English teachers are not reading, but will do the best I can. If Steven would be so kind as to put up my forum thread you can see my whole thought process but if that doesn't work here's some of my thoughts.
The real question to me is "what is wrong?" What is wrong with an industry that has been successful at one time and now can't repeat itself? How has the High-End Audio industry failed to reach its people and why has it disconnected itself from the music industry? For years we have had the example of the musical instrument industry doing fine, the computer industry is exploding as well as home hi-fi and video. We have PC games being played at record pace and the concert and movie industries are highly successful. You would think that High-End Audio would be huge, but it's tiny and we need to get real about this. It is shrinking. Let’s face it; our little club is getting old and tired. In 1997 I said "if there is not a change, it will come to an end." What was I talking about? Not marketing, not a new front end or any faceplate but a better, more serious approach to the art of listening.
For those of you who have high-end cars, for those of you who play instruments, for those of you who participate in just about any equipment-intensive hobby, you know you have to make sure things are tuned or they are not going to work properly. How in the world did we think we were going to take a bunch of cables and boxes and plug them together and it was magically going to produce music? Music, of all things?? One of the most interactive complicated senses.
There was a time that we were progressing and it seemed like the absolute sound was within reach, then what happened? I remember this time well and had 80,000 or so clients going to town on their systems and then like someone turned out the lights, the wheels came off the teaching cart and there was a big crash. I woke up to something that, to me, looked nothing like 'the hobby of listening' and everything like the male ego marketplace selling the golden-calf-of-the-month club. The attitude of the quest for great sound became the attitude of the quest for men's one upmanship. I remember I could hardly believe my ears and kept thinking someone was going to speak up, but it just kept getting worse. I started seeing equipment closets turning into equipment rooms and stores turning from sound advisors to box movers. From '81 to '95 I saw the birth of an industry that was unstoppable. From '97 on, I saw an industry that was guilt and pressure based and the music quality in the average system dropped to something that was so fatiguing you almost couldn't beg someone off the street to listen to it. The proof is back in those sound closets and those forums full of unhappy people who are trying to find anything to talk about other than music. You can get lines for miles if you want to talk numbers or specs, but go sit in a room and expect for a soundstage to be any bigger than 6 feet deep, 8 feet tall, and 12 feet wide, and good luck.
Music isn't recorded in spaces that are 6 feet by 8 feet by 12 feet. It's recorded in real-sized rooms. If a system isn't reproducing the original recording space, it's not reproducing all of the music. Recently I had someone over in one of my rooms and they listened to a soundstage that according to them was, "25 feet deep, 45 feet wide and 25 feet tall". This was with a system that in total cost less than two grand. This was not said by someone who hadn't heard 'the best', but from someone who had owned it all, been to see it all, and read it all. A couple of audio buddies stopped by the other day to hear my system and I thought I was going to need the jaws of life to pry them out of the listening chair. This is not the first time but one of hundreds of stop-bys over the years who have said the same thing, "Why doesn't my equipment do this? What's wrong with this industry?"
Right there in saying "two grand" I probably lost half the readers looking at this. Audiophiles have been trained to think that money equals quality. Many are aware that some lower priced components can outperform some higher priced components, but few are ready to believe that a mass market receiver and DVD player totaling less than $200 can outperform systems costing 100 times as much. When I walk into a listening room, my blinders go on. I'm not thinking about equipment brands or dollar amounts. I'm looking for components that can deliver the sound I need. It just happens to be the case that my current reference components are inexpensive and mass-produced. And truth be said, it's really not even about the components, it's about enabling unimpeded signal transfer through the entire system.
I'm asking myself "does the industry understand the audio signal?" I've been taking apart high-end audio one screw at a time (for the last 30 years) and have found out how the signal path works from the transformer outside your house to the inner ear. Here are my findings. There is far more music content that is stored in our music sources than has ever been uncovered with most high-end audio systems. If I showed you a before and after of how much more you would be in shock. Let me give an example. You have heard people write about space between instruments that appears to be like a black hole in your soundstage. This has never existed in any original acoustic environment. Your reproduced soundstage should be as big as the recorded information itself, which includes the air of the entire recording venue, including the air in between the instruments. If you are listening to a string bass recorded in a 20' x 30' room, that is exactly what you should be hearing and seeing. How did we lose so much of the signal? By distorting the harmonic content of the fundamental note structures you cause a collapse of the signal somewhere along the audio pathway, which makes the soundstage smaller. An undersized soundstage is distortion and should be a sign that something is wrong. The audiophile soundstage is getting smaller and smaller over the years.
Let me give another example: If you are sitting listening to your system and it sounds grungy, bloated, or disembodied, this also is distortion. This can be a blur over your entire soundstage, or attach itself to the smallest instrument. And here is where the audiophile industry has gotten into trouble. Instead of cleaning up the soundscape, allowing the real space and tonality of the recording to happen, they have applied dampening which further distorts the signal and closes down the harmonic structure. I have seen at shows designers calling this detail, but you should never lose space to gain detail. This is a clear sign that something in the signal path is being blocked and you are losing part of the signal.
Let me show you how simple this is: let's take the most basic part of your audio system, a hookup or lead wire. When we take an audio signal and run it through that lead wire, the wire passes the signal with the means of vibration moving with electronic current. These two combined are able to host the audio signal. If you add dampening to this mechanical conduit or allow this conduit to be involved in incompatible external vibrations, you are going to cause distortion to the plus or minus of the original signal. Every single part of your audio chain is faced with the possibility of this plus or minus distortion. Plus meaning too much, minus meaning deleted. Getting a system to the highest level of performance requires carefully controlling the signal through the entire signal chain with attention paid to every material and electrical field both directly and indirectly in contact with the signal. Seems simple enough right? Read on.
Our testing and listening has shown that the audio signal performs at its best with a minimalist signal path which is free to dissipate energy naturally and in pitch. In plain English, an extremely low mass system. We have found that distortion and loss of audio signal happens much more easily with high mass, which interferes with proper energy dissipation. When I test audio equipment and begin removing the mass from the unit the soundstage grows. The holes start to fill in and the sound becomes far more listenable. This happens across the board and is tested by listeners all over the world with the same results.
Until the industry understands these concepts, they are going to continue to build products which don't know how to host, carry and then distribute the audio signal in its entirety, and in tune. That sounds really bold doesn't it, maybe even harsh, but these are the thoughts and words of many who have already found a lot more music through liberating the signal instead of killing and losing it forever. Is there a need for a new source, a new name, a new group of wire designs? I have to say no. I appreciate the desire to unify, but shouldn't we find out what is on the Redbook CD first before passing judgment? Through our testing, we have seen that what we really need is to get back to the basics of audio. A complex signal delivered with simplicity and with all the nuances that make the essence of music possible. If we finally develop equipment, speakers and all the other parts as uniformly as we have developed musical instruments, learning how to preserve and then amplify the signal, we are going to complete our quest for the absolute sound. It's sitting there for us but we refuse to use the key.
There is nothing wrong with taking a look at some missteps and getting back on track and admitting that maybe we got carried away with the over building of something that should be much more delicate. What is more "high-end" the look of an audio component or the performance? We shouldn't be stuck with these small soundstages missing huge parts of the presentations we long to uncover. Being an audiophile is about getting the most, and getting the most is about understanding the signal and the tools that allow the signal to blossom. What is wrong is that we as a hobby get stuck on giving too much glory to myths instead of exploring what we have and going to the ends to make it the best. If we think the mass production world is so far behind High-End Audio we are fooling ourselves and many will be sitting with dust collectors instead of enjoying the music.
Thanks to Steven for his openness and being willing to stand by as perhaps one of the industry’s biggest cans of worms is opened.