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April 2009
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Audiolics Anonymous Chapter 114
Letters
Article By Dr. Bill Gaw

 

  Welcome to another diatribe for the insatiable tweaker. I'm writing this during February, at the peak of the winter doldrums in New Hampshire, where there's about two feet of snow on the ground, somewhat more than normal for this time of year. That is actually good for the many skiers in the area, the hospitality industry and the state coffers, as we rely on meals and lodging taxes for much of our state budget (no income or sales tax here), but also for my fellow audiophiles, as it gives us an excuse to hunker down and do more listening and tweaking of our systems.

First some interesting news! I've just been informed by Steven R. Rochlin, our Fearless Leader (he even looks a little like Rocky and Bullwinkle's nemesis) that we have just broken a tremendous barrier. Last month we had over hundreds of thousands of unique visitors to our site with well over 1,000,000 page views. This compares to Stereophile's 80,000 and The Absolute Sound's about 40,000 print subscribers. Who says the audiophile community is diminishing. Maybe I should ask for a raise. (Steve sez: You can ask, though you did get a raise a few months back).

 

Two months ago, in AA Chapter 111 I discussed my audio predilections and the relative levels of importance of all things audio to my listening sensibilities. Interestingly, several readers were interested enough to email some of their feelings. One was Dr. Bradley Morrical, who previously wrote a column for the second best audiophile webzine out there (ours being the best or course). He had several valid points from the opposite side of the argument over what's important for high-end audio reproduction. Clark Johnsen, one of my best friends and a fellow reviewer, confirmed his credentials and he graciously allowed me to publish his thoughts if we could have a further discussion on the differences.

 Below is his original letter:

Hi Bill,

I like reading your column from time to time and I just stumbled onto the latest one where you discuss your predilections. I found it interesting to reading that you rate amplification so low in your list of importance. I have been involved deeply in audio for about 25 years (I was reviewing also for Positive Feedback until about 1 year ago then decided on a break) and it has been my discovery that once the loudspeaker performs above a certain level (not as high as you might suppose) that it is the electronics (ie. amps, preamps, equalizers etc.) that have a larger effect on the sound quality. It is my opinion that this is largely due to the fact that linear and/or low order non-linear errors are somewhat easier for the ear to gloss over than the kinds of electronic distortions that your brain cannot mask.

I too am a believer in the simpler the circuit (while still doing what it supposed to do) the better. I am quite familiar with the Vacuumstate products, being a friend of Allen Wright and I know and highly respect his monoblock amps and preamps (I have reviewed formally the RTP-3d and FVP) and personally use KR Audio VA350i amps. What I have heard with amplification is nothing more or less than the complete uplifting or complete destruction of the sound with the same speaker. I have also heard very modest speakers take on dimensions not thought possible with the right amplification. For sure a poorly designed speaker will have a large effect on the sound but I have been reminded again and again how a great speaker can be simply ruined with the wrong amps. I also find this quote of yours telling:

While I love the sound of large electrostatic and ribbon speakers, and many of the huge super-expensive cone units available, they all require high wattage amplification (see above.)

From this statement I gather that you are actually using the speaker's compatibility with low powered amplification as a primary criteria for your speaker selection. That says to me volumes about your preferences. It says to me that you are will to take the multiple tradeoffs of horn designs (e.g. much worse frequency response and cabinet/horn colorations) in order to get a much purer (subjectively at least) signal through the speaker. It again goes back to "garbage in and garbage out", does it not?

I do agree with your points regarding the recordings and the room as the room can swamp most improvements elsewhere, such is the magnitude of the problem but I am not at all convinced by the speaker being that terribly important (above a certain threshold that is) as compared to the electronics, where I have found a much more profound end result as one goes up the quality (not necessarily price) ladder.

As to coupling low powered amps with electrostats and/or ribbon speakers, well it depends on how loud you want to play and what size is your room as to whether they can be compatible. It is important to point out that ribbons and electrostats have fundamentally different loads, the ribbon being largely resistive and the electrostat highly reactive. I own both kinds of speakers and I also used to drive my Apogee Caliper Signatures with 20 watt Cary 572SE monoblocks (not too loud of course but good for 90+ db) in addition to my Sphinx Project 14 mkIII (no feedback hybrid) that I had at the time. Now I have two pairs of big Acoustats (Spectra 2200 and Spectra 4400) and I drive them with 30 watt KR Audio amps (bi-amped and actively crossed over). It works great and zero feedback means the reactive load is no problem for the amps (negative feedback is the primary issue with estat speakers). I also have a pair of self-made planar magnetic hybrids (BG RD28.1 planar driver and 10-inch sealed box woofer) that are actively crossed over (Accuphase F25) and driven by a pair of the KR Audio VA350is. Again, no problems with 30 watts of SET power per driver set. Dynamics, tone color, soundstage are all first class with my favorite classical and jazz recordings (oh and it rocks).

Thank you for taking the time to read this mail and while you may not end up changing your mind about the importance of amplification in the audio chain I hope I got you to think about how it is driving your speaker decision and not the other way around.

Best Regards,

Dr. Bradley Morrical
Novartis Pharma AG

 

While I have never had the chance to hear any of Dr. Morrical's systems, he certainly has chosen excellent amplifiers and speakers over the years. He also seems to have the experimenter and home builder bug with his designing and constructing of planar-magnetic loudspeakers with sealed woofers, one of the more difficult combinations to get right. I find it interesting that he is able to drive speakers with very difficult load parameters that normally require large solid state amps, with relatively low wattage tube amplifiers.

We both overcome the problems associated with our different speaker types and amplifier choices by removing one of the major problems with most speaker designs, passive crossovers, from the amplifier-speaker interface, and using variable active crossovers between the source and amplifiers. In his system, this allows him to use lower wattage amplifiers with a speaker as there are no resistors, caps and inductors in the path between the amps and speakers to drop their efficiency, while at the same time allowing one to tune the speaker for optimal reproduction in its particular room environment. In my system, in addition, it allows me to use several different horns and drivers for their respective optimal frequency ranges per speaker with fourth order or higher active crossovers removing the horn's tendency for distortion at their frequency extremes. Also, by using a proper horn design for its frequency range ( hyperbolic-elliptical for bass and Tractrix for the higher tones) and proper room placement, horn colorations are reduced if not completely eliminated.

I don't think we are that far apart on our feelings about the relative importance of amplifiers versus speakers. I placed the loudspeaker on a slightly higher plane for two reasons. First, even today's super high end speakers have orders of magnitude higher distortion levels than even amplifiers from 30 years ago. This, combined with how the speaker interacts with the room, determines its colorations, which will affect how long you'll be able to tolerate it.

Second, unlike amplifiers, which can easily be traded off, speakers, especially large high end units, are significantly more difficult to replace. While I've had about two dozen amplifiers either bought or reviewed, over the past 30 years, there have only been four speakers in my main system, and I still have the first, a pair of Yamaha NS1000 Monitors that were purchased in 1976. The amplifiers were easily sold, while my B&W 801's were very difficult to get rid of, and the other pair ended up being giving away.

What I'm sure we both agree on is that it's not the individual components that are important, but the synergy between them. Since there is no such thing as a perfect component, with each producing its own distortions of the musical signal from source to ear, and with each of us having our own proclivities on what's important for our sound perception, one needs to either buy a complete system from one manufacturer who agrees with how we perceive sound or have a dealer or guru who can steer you in the right direction. There are thousands of individual components with hundreds of thousands of possible permutations of their combinations, only a few of which will produce a sound you'll be able to live with for a long period of time. That's one of the reasons that the audiophile needs to change out equipment so frequently. So I don't think we're that far apart.

 

Decca Blu-ray Concert Discs
Finally, several classical music companies have gotten on the Blu-ray bandwagon with its ability for both audio and videophile reproduction of music. While there are only a couple of orchestral discs available, Decca Record Company has come out with several opera and ballet discs, including Verdi Aida on Decca directed by Franco Zefirelli and Carmen (also on Decca).

 

Several other companies, including DGG and Opus Arte have also brought out several Blu-ray discs. I'm still evaluating several of these and will hopefully be able to write them up next month. As a teaser, let me say that each has both sound and video that makes previous DVD releases look and sound like chopped liver. Unhappily, none of them have DTS Master Audio, and only a couple use Dolby True HD lossless encoding, but some, such as La Traviata above, do use 24-bit/48kHz PCM 5.1 surround. So before buying, be sure to check this out.

On another note, I find it interesting that we audiophiles are considered to be "Nut Jobs" by just about everybody out there. Whereas just about nobody would question someone who is having a love-affair with a super-expensive car such as a Ferrari ( such as our illustrious editor who has finally gotten that monkey off his back) or an oenophile who will spend a small fortune for a bottle of wine that may have turned to vinegar, an audiophile who spends a few thousand dollars on his system for hundreds of hours of enjoyment, will be castigated by the same people who'll spend big bucks on a meal or a day at the ball park.

Even high enders in other fields think we're crazy. Take for instance an article by a computer geek who for some reason decided to visit the high end suites at the CES, possibly just so he could write an article castigating individuals who'd spend $25,000 for a speaker. To quote him, "So, could I hear the difference? Well, sort of. I can't say I went ga-ga and wished for the expendable income to blow on these puppies. But I could hear a certain warmth at medium volume that permeated the entire suite, as Pass employees chose different LPs (yes, records) for me to listen to. My home speakers can do that at louder volumes."

This is from a guy that probably trades out video (not audio) cards monthly, computers yearly and has enough RAM and hard drives to store the Library of Congress. The same people who would never criticize him for spending his disposable income on his hobby, would definitely mock one of us for purchasing anything but zip cord for speaker cables. What is it about our hobby that attracts such derision? After all, hearing is possibly second only to sight as the most important sense, and every culture reveres its music and musicians, usually even over the visual arts. So what's wrong with trying to maximize our system's ability to reproduce our favorite music in all its original glory. Nothing, I say!! Keep striving for the "Absolute Sound" and "Enjoy the Music."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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