Welcome to another column for the insatiable audiophile. As I write this it is April and am preparing for a two week trip to Germany to attend the European equivalent of our Consumer Electronics Show, The High End Show 2004, in Munich, Germany, sponsored by the High End Society of Germany. I will be reporting on it live and in my June column. Normally, our fearless leader Steven R. Rochlin attends this one but happily for me The Primedia (Stereophile) Home Entertainment 2004 Show is being given the same weekend at the Hilton in New York, so he is going there. This which allows me to go back to Austria and Germany for a couple of weeks to celebrate my 30th anniversary of graduating from medical school there. This way, Uncle Sam gets to pick up some of the expenses while I get to see what's available in Europe for high-end equipment. Will also get to practice my "Deutsch" again. At the same time I will be attending concerts by the Vienna Symphony at the Musikverein doing the Bruckner 9th Symphony and Te Deum, the Johann Strauss Orchestra at Schloss Schonbrunn. Both in Vienna and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Gasteig Hall in Munich.
Rather than reviewing another piece of esoteric equipment this month, I decided to write on how and why and to what I listen to with my audio system. Over the past several months I have received several letters from readers asking me questions about my music background, my system, what I listen to and listen for, how I review, and "How can I say that my system sounds any better than a receiver with decent loudspeakers." Thought I would try to answer some of them today so that you would better understand where I am coming from when reviewing and give some thoughts as to why high-end sound systems made up by audiophiles I know with great hearing, can sound so different.
I must have been born with a genetic love for classical music. One of my first recollections is listening enthralled to an orchestra concert on the television. While we had a baby grand piano at home, my mother only played popular music, and we didn't have a record player, so it wasn't from listening to music regularly.
Began studying trumpet in fifth grade, went on to French Horn in seventh grade, finally got good enough to be in the Fall River, New Bedford, and Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras and state concert band. At Providence College I became second horn with the Brown Symphony Orchestra until pre-med studies became too heavy and had to give up the instrument, one of my life's regrets.
Remaining interested in classical music, I have attended many concerts at Symphony Hall, Sanders Theater and Jordan Hall in Boston, Carnegie, The Met and Lincoln Center in New York, the Musikverein and Opera in Vienna, and orchestral and instrumental concerts and operas in the concert halls of Graz, London, Munich, Dresden, Paris, Florence, Rome, Budapest, Atlanta, and Worcester, Ma. So I do know what various concert halls sound like, how they can influence how the orchestra sounds in both full and empty spaces, which I hope has taught me what to listen for when evaluating both equipment and recordings.
My System: For a full listing of my present equipment, please click here. My system is built around tubes, horns and surround sound, combining the oldest amplification and reproduction instruments with the newest reproduction techniques to obtain what I perceive when attending concerts by the great orchestras in the great halls. I actually have an 8.1 system, consisting of front left right and center, side left and right, back left and right and overhead left and right channels, plus multiple subwoofers.
Over the years I've gone from "Class AB" solid-state to push-pull tubes to "Class A" solid-state to single-ended tubes, finally to Differential amplifiers. From Yamaha NS-1000 monitors as my first somewhat high-end loudspeakers, on to behemoth VMPS 2ar and B&W 801s (both of which I modified countless ways). Also add in satellite/subwoofers and finally to the Edgar style home built horns with active crossovers... and from mono to two to multi-channel reproduction.
What I listen To
Began collecting vinyl in the early 1960's, just missing most of the Golden Years of Shaded Dogs, Mercs and Columbias, and still have many from that era. When I got the high-end bug in the early 1980's I scoured every used record store in the Boston area, and any cities during vacation. Had several hundred second generation 15ips master tapes from London, Mercury, RCA, and Columbia, gleaned from recording engineers in New York. These I (unhappily) transcribed to DAT and sold the originals, went through multiple fixes to try to get my several hundred CD's listenable, and now am building a collection of SACD and DVD-Audio recordings. Except for the master tapes, which I wish I hadn't sold, vinyl still has the most natural reproduction of live music. In some ways better than SACD and DVD-Audio and coming the closest to what I hear in a concert hall. This is especially true when the ambience built into the best recordings is brought out by Dolby Pro-Logic or Circle Surround matrix multi-channel decoding.
What I Listen For
As pointed out to me many years ago by Sal Demicco, there are basically two groups of audiophile listeners; those that want to reproduce as faithfully as possible.
2. What they hear in a live performance. This group tries to adjust the reproduction chain to mitigate the anomalies in the recording chain to bring them closer to what they hear in the concert hall. Sadly, as far as I'm concerned, this group of listeners is dying out as so few people still attend live concerts with unamplified acoustic instruments and voice, so they don't really know what to listen for.
Interestingly, there has been a discussion of this ongoing in Stereophile between Art Dudley of School 1 and J. Gordon Holt of School 2 and their various followers in the Letters section that do a pretty good job at delineating their positions. Obviously I fall onto Holt's side being an old timer who believes that the instrument, my system, should transport me into the concert hall, or at least maximize my listening pleasure. I still think back to the 1980's when I fell in with a group espousing #1. They would come to my house with various test instruments; adjust all of my equipment to be as flat as possible. Within two weeks, I had become disgruntled with the sound that sounded flat and sterile, and would start tweaking again until i once more felt the sound approached what I could hear in the concert hall. Then the friends would come over again, and the cycle would start over again.
Unhappily, because of the imperfections in the engineers and equipment in recording chain, there is no recording that has ever been done that will allow any home playback system and room, no matter how expensive or well set up to obtain the "Absolute Sound" of the concert venue. Why is this so? Do you have several hours for a reply?
What Are The Factors That Make The Playback Of A Recording Satisfying To Us?
First, everybody hears differently. I know, that statement flies in the face of experience. (Editor's note: Bill Gaw is a medical doctor and knows what he is talking about here.) If someone plays a note on an instrument, lets say middle C, that note is a constant. If you have a middle and inner ear with intact ear drum, bones, and cochlea with hairs, and the neurological pathways are intact, you'll perceive the middle C, and if you are very good and have absolute pitch, you'll be able to tell that it's middle C. Probably everybody hears that as the same pitch, but probably not with the same loudness or intensity.
Then there are the overtones which the gives us the clues to what is producing the note. Depending on the sensitivity of each inner ear hair cell, probably each of us hears them differently.
There's the shape of the outer ear and canal, which determines how we perceive the position and distance of the source relative to our ears. Since each outer and middle ear is built differently, each individual has his own way of determining this. Then, there are the characteristics of the note, the attack, vibrato, loudness, relative pitch to other notes, etc., which are probably perceived in different ways by individuals, depending on what hearing organs we were bon with, how we have damaged them over the years, and how we have been taught to hear the different sound qualities.
One added thing that occurs in the recording chain that does not occur in nature is absolute polarity, i.e., how the sound wave front approaches you. With the recording chain it can be either as nature produced it or reversed. Thus a wave that should hit you with pressure may be turned around to give a suck out or vice versa. Like the above characteristics, some people are oblivious to it and other is acutely aware. If you can't hear the difference with absolute polarity, don't let anybody teach you, as your life will be miserable from that point on. About half of recording is in one polarity and the other half reversed. Most Japanese recording alternate polarity with each track, and once you learn the difference in sound, it will drive you crazy keeping it proper for your system.
Everyone is also different as to what significance they give to each of the characteristics relative to the others. Thus everyone does perceive sounds differently.
Second, concert sound is perceived differently from home playback. Except when music is produced in the wide open spaces or in a completely dampened acoustic chamber, not only do we hear the producer of the sound directly, but also the reflections of the sound off of the walls, seats, people, other instruments, etc. Depending on where you sit in the hall and its acoustics, you may actually be hearing much more reflected than direct sound, especially the further back you sit. Each hall is different as to how this information is directed to the listener, which tones are absorbed vs. redirected, with some halls being very dry and other very lush. Also, the further back you sit the darker the sound will be as high frequencies tend to be absorbed much faster than the low. Finally, the concert hall air itself is always in motion, thus giving the equivalent of digital dither to the sound. One feels very uncomfortable without it, sort of like sitting in an acoustically dead chamber. I think that one of the major problems with early digital was its lack of recording or reproducing this base noise.
Most of us play our recordings at significantly higher levels than we hear at live, unamplified concerts, which usually max out at 85dB to 95dB, for two psychoacoustic reasons, both related to the above hall effect. One, we are being inundated from all directions in the hall which makes the sound appear louder than it actually is. Second, the sum total of the sound has relatively more low frequency information as the longer the waves have to travel, and the more absorption there is, the more the high frequencies get attenuated.
Most loudspeakers on the other hand are tuned for flatness, or even upper mid and low treble peakiness, and the bass drivers have a tendency not to open up until they are driven harder. Also, the majority of recordings are done with the mikes significantly closer to the instruments than the normal concertgoer's seat, thus relatively more high frequency information is recorded, with little of the hall's reverberation picked up.
Third, each person listens for different things in the lists above, depending on how he has been trained, and places relative values of importance to him or her. I actually have a friend from Austria with excellent hearing, who goes weekly to at least one or two unamplified concerts or operas, who has difficulty perceiving a stereo field. He actually feels more comfortable listening to mono recordings, as he has difficulty bringing the left and right speaker fields into a whole. I went over to adjust his system for him a few years ago, and he actually thought it sounded best listening to it in the next room, where his brain did not have to interpret the stereo sound field. But, he cannot bear to listen to most digital recordings, is very picky about clarity and picks up on interpretive nuances that I don't hear until he points them out. A second friend actually feels that the best recordings were done in the 30's on 78 shellac, and prefers listening through the shellac hiss to get at the sound. Still other friends will only listen in stereo as they feel adding hall effects muddies their ability to hear into the recording.
I, on the other hand, am a surround junkie. Being a concert goer who prefers the lush type halls, such as Carnegie or the Musikverein, and a previous French Horn player who sat usually dead center in the orchestra, and now tries to sit as close to center and in the first few rows at concerts, I need to be immersed in sound to feel the concert hall experience in the home. Thus, while some mono recordings from the earlier eras can turn me on by their performances and natural timbre, and stereo recordings by their more natural frontal sound field, to be truly enthralled, I need to be placed in a surround field that immerses me in the concert hall experience, giving me the ambience of a live performance.
I also put great importance on the soundstage, both the air of the space, and the information coming directly from the musician. Each instrument needs to be in its proper place, with a hearable cushion of air around them, with no dead space between the instruments and the walls of the stage. Studio recording in dead rooms with a mike on each instrument or voice turns me right off, as do early digital recordings that lost the air with their low actual bit rates.
Timbre of each instrument needs to be spot on, especially with brass instruments, or the listening experience is dulled for me.
Fourth, the engineering of the recording is extremely important. There are many more duds than there are beauties in any field, and especially with recorded music, as so many things can go wrong in the recording chain. I'd hate to let my significant other know how many thousands of recordings I've bought, played once and discarded due to poor recording or pressing.
Placement of and types of microphones are very important, preferring a minimum number of microphones for each sound vector. For stereo recordings, I find Blumlein configuration or appropriately spaced Omni's, preferably tubed mikes, or some combination of the above to be preferable, and for surround, the best recordings I have heard were done with a multi-mike point source setup, such as the Calrec Ambisonic, which uses an omni mike combined with a pair of figure eight cardioid mikes to derive x, y, and z vectors for not only surround but also height information. Unhappily, few recordings are being made today with this system.( Telarc uses a similar system, and many of their SACD recordings have an overhead channel built into the subwoofer channel.)
Then, there is the recording and transcription processes with all of their faults, too many to even begin discussing today. Is it any wonder that of the several thousand recordings each of us has bought over the years, how few we actually listen to more than once.
My Listening Room
What is the most important component to your audio system? Some would say it's the speakers, which have the greatest effect on the sound, as they have the most variance in sound reproduction, others would say the source components, as the adage "Garbage In = Garbage Out" is as true in audio as any other field. But as far as I'm concerned, it's the room that has the greatest sonic signature and is the most important. If the room has poor acoustics, no matter how good or expensive the components are, the sound will never be great. What holds for public concert halls, holds for your own. The home listening environment may be even more important for great sound than the concert hall, as you are adding the room's acoustics to the recording's.
I came to this conclusion way back in 1982, and began reading as much as was then available on the subject, and when we decided to remodel the house in 1984, I went ahead and allowed my wife a new kitchen (fair is fair) and designed what I thought would be an optimal listening environment.
Low frequency standing waves are probably the biggest bane of the listening room, as they give peaks and nulls to the loudness of primarily the bass notes, as they occur when direct and reflected sounds overlap, and this anomaly can multiply if room dimensions are equals or multiples of each other. A square room is probably least optimal. Also, the larger the room the higher in frequency they will occur, but the less troublesome they tend to be. Thus, a rectangular room with unequal and non-multiple distances of front to back, side to side, top to bottom is best.
I went one step further, which drove my contractor crazy. I made all wall distances uneven. Thus, the distance between the side walls is 16 feet at the front and 17 feet at the back of the room, the left front wall corner is six inches closer to the back wall that the right corner 28 feet away, and the ceiling is a 14 foot cathedral, with the top flat piece non-parallel to the floor. Theoretically this should decrease standing wave problems, and it appears so.
The floor was made of 10 inches of poured concrete with two inches of solid insulation between the slab and the earth with the slab floated from the house to decrease noise from being transmitted into the house. There is a thick pile rug on the floor with an oriental rug on top of that for absorption of the first reflection from each loudspeaker.
The walls and ceiling are two layers of 3/4-inch high-density board, the same stuff used in most loudspeakers. Inside the walls are alternating 4 inch and 6 inch studs to isolate the walls from the house and to allow 10 inches of cellulose insulation in the walls and 20" in the ceiling for heat and sound isolation. All windows are double pained with solid wood shutters on the inside to stop sound reflections from the glass. The front wall has 2-foot thick bookcases filled with records, CDs, DVDs etc. spaced unevenly for diffraction.
The second room problem is the balance between the different octaves of sound. In a concert hall, the high frequencies are swallowed up by the distances between the originators and receivers of the sound, and by the absorption of the high frequencies by cushy things such as the big bloated bodies sitting in it, but this does not occur in a home listening environment with one listener. One needs some absorptive bodies, such as pillows, chairs, wall hangings, etc., to balance the octaves, especially with flat loudspeakers.
On the other hand, too much absorption leads to loss of high frequency information. If you have a decently balanced room with just yourself in it, you may notice a dulling of the sound when friends come over, which usually causes you to have to turn up the volume to get back balance.
Originally the room was constructed as a so-called live end, dead end type (LEDE) using three inches of Sonex covering the entire front third of the room, which was all the rage back in the 80's, but tore that down years ago as I did not like the effect. Instead 10 RPG diffractors line the front, rear and back side walls to break up and diffract the sound.
At the first reflection points of the main loudspeakers there are two large wool tapestries covering a box holding 6 inches of Sonex which is perfect for absorbing first reflections from the front left and right mid horns, the side horns have 3-inch Sonex on them to absorb first reflections from the center loudspeaker, and the rear horns have sheets of Sonex insulating them from reflecting sound off the side walls.
Finally there is the problem of sounds both getting into and out of the room. Believe me, while it is irritating to hear noise from outside while listening to quiet passages, it is far more damaging to family bliss for the 1812 cannons to be waking up the wife or neighbors.
The one mistake I made with my room was in not isolating the back wall between the media room and the house. Unhappily bass information escapes to the main living area and bedrooms, so I have to keep plying my wife with presents to make up for the rattling of the kitchen cabinets and her nerves. Through some fluke of construction, the low bass actually is louder in the next room than it is in the media room.
How Can I Say That My System Sounds Any Better Than A Receiver With Decent Loudspeakers?
Boy, this is a tough one. NOT!! I can because I have been in this hobby for 23 years plus, have listened to hundreds of different systems with thousands of different components, have gone to hundreds of concerts, and have played in several orchestras and bands, so I know what live and recorded music should sound like. No BOSE-Denon system can come close to what I have attained for sound quality. Maybe the average person can't hear or doesn't care about the difference, but I and my fellow audiophiles do.
Those people who write in to high-end audio magazines swearing that there are no differences in sound reproduction between different components either are deaf or idiots or one of those individuals who just love to throw bombs in web news rooms. Either they need to have their earwax cleaned out or see a psychiatrist. I don't know why high end audio attracts their comments. I never see complaints in auto, motorcycle or other magazines from people complaining the there is no difference between a Yugo and a Jaguar. I can enjoy music in my car with its factory system, but when I am seriously listening, I need the best playback possible.
Obviously there are individuals who are completely satisfied with mediocrity and can't understand those who strive for excellence. They are middle of the roaders who never attempt to attain anything except possibly notoriety for tearing down somebody else's achievements.
On the other hand, there is a lot of snake oil being sold to high-end audio enthusiasts. We've all fallen for their siren songs and spent a fortune on cures for diseases that weren't there. We have also spent savings on equipment, wire, etc., that were sold at exorbitant prices for the level of sound improvement. But I do know from experience that just about anything one does to a high end system will change the reproduction in some way, either good or bad, large or small, and the higher end the system, the more difference will be perceived. What the audiophile has to decide is whether the difference is significant and whether the cost is worth it to him.
Enough jabbering for this month. Europe, here I come!!!