Friday, February 10, 2012

Clarity: Measurable vs. Audible

Almost anyone with two ears can hear differences between any two people's stereo systems; all you have to do is pay attention and listen. For example, your first introduction to high fidelity may have begun in a friend's car where thunderous booms could be heard eminating from the trunk. Or you may be fortunate to have known another audiophile early on in life and heard their system with your own ears. However the "audiophile bug" finds and bites you, once bitten there is literally no going back.

Take my wife, for example.  All her life she grew up surrounded by today's famous country-western stars starting her young life in Madison, TN. What folks do for fun in music-rich communities was far different from what I experienced growing up in a blue-coller town in Wisconsin. She attended Madison High and lived down the road from June Carter. She watched as a youth Johnny Cash court June as she played in pond in June's back yard. With stories of big black cars pulling into the driveway and balcony serenades by Johnny made her experiences seem larger than life. But this was normal to her. Where for me pep rallies in Wisconsin were boosted by music from a struggling group of pimple-faced teenagers sporting well-used band instruments, hers were a host of banjo, guitar, and violin packing talents who loved jamming together and made real spontaneous music off the tops of their heads. She thought THAT was normal.

Her exposure to what instruments sounded like is part of why she was attracted to me. When we met, I had the Fisher gear (see the History post). This was her introduction to high fidelity and when asked today she still tells people she married me for my stereo. 

So suddenly, one day you were transformed as the audiophile bug bit you, some succumbing more that others to its magical venoom. What one notices immediately is that music sounds more real coming from a good system than from, say something you listen to in an elevator or in the Wal-Mart car stereo display. A whole new world of tantalizing toys and a venture into new, uncharted realms awaits, the bug lying in wait around each corner ready to bite you again thereby increasing its impact on your perceptions.

So what the heck makes things sound different? After all, a transistor is a transistor is a transistor, right? Wrong! It's all about the playback chain where the system - regardless of type or purpose - is only as good as its weakest link. And in high fidelity, there are numerous weak links.

Most audiophiles begin life by swapping this piece of gear for that piece of gear; this is the most noticeable way to hear differences in systems.  The speakers provide the biggest difference and hence this is why there are so many successful speaker companies. Speakers appeal to an area of your sonic discernment, meaning that there is something about speaker A that sounds more real to you than the same source heard through speaker B. So you swap this for that and then sit back reveling in your choice and feeding your ego for finding that particular speaker for that phenomenally low price, or something like that.

But why did this piece of gear make such a difference to you? What was it about it that appealed to you? This is where I hope to go - audiophelia: a place where no one has gone before...

Audio critics love adjectives to describe the nuances heard between this and that with thunderous superlatives for one obvious approach that fed their own bug bite and equally-painful comments on what they percieve as mediocre gear. What such critics are trying to do is relate what they hear with their own ears something that transcends electrical measurements. Does this make them wrong? Has the bug bite clouded their perception and oozed something into their being that distorts their perception of reality?  Are they crazy? No! Absolutely not! Misguided at times and biased as we all are, but definitely not crazy.

So what is it about a $30,000 CD player that makes it worth the investment over a $200 unit? Why are people drawn to one style or design over another? How does one afford their Champaign dream of sonic nirvana on a beer budget?  Knowing what to look for in a system's design can help cut through all of the fluff and hyperbole critics spout in their columns and manufacturer marketing representative sing so well.

Good gear does not have to cost much, but much like a formula one race car, a stock Fiat 500 will not finish first on race day. So there are well understood things about auto racing that when applied to cars makes them faster, more nimble, and more reliable helping them reach the finish line first. So it is with audio gear, and some of the secrets will soon be understood. Let's begin with one etheric thing that is hard to put into words: clarity.

What is clarity to you? What is clarity to your friends or your wife or your significant other? Most of the time, people will say something like, "I don't know what clarity is, but I know it when I hear it." This is true. The average person, and even a wel seasoned audiophile, hears something and says, "I like that!" not even caring about why. Take for example the most difficult thing to correlate with measurements: loudspeakers. Why are come people attracted to low-efficiency planar speakers and others to high-efficiency horns? Both have similar electrical measurements of sound pressure or phase  vs. frequency and the waterfall charts show very nice settling times and so on. But yet when asking any audiophile which they prefer, their answer comes instantly and without hesitation.

So why do speakers sound so different and why do people prefer one sound over another?  After all, music is music and what all speakers should do is reproduce an instrument as accurately as possible, right? Well, on the one hand, yes they all should try to do this. But on the other hand a horn speaker's sound to a planar speaker lover is much like fingernails on a chalkboard. Something should be measureable that correlates to such extreme audible differences.

Part of this sonic preference depends on a person's individual psychoacoustic tendency where for example they prefer accurate-sounding guitars over all else. So leaning to what their favorite instrument sounds like is where the next level of audiophile refinement occurs. The audiophile bug has bitten this person and its venom causes a sort of "sonic tunnel vision" in that acoustic direction. So if horn speakers make guitars sound better, such a person migrates to the sound of horns and absolutely despise the sound of planer speakers.

The mearured data is where the problem lies. The differences are there both electrically and acoustically, but how the data is presented is the real problem. Sifting through squiggles in charts or comparing this number to that is tedious to the average audiophile so they prefer using their ears as their reference. And this adventure in aural evaluations continues today. But wouldn’t it be nice to know how to filter out the trash before having to listen to the garbage? How do you know for sure if what you hear with your own ears is actually coming from that piece of equipment and not from something else?

So this is where we are headed. What we want to understand is everything down to the finest detail but at a level that our audiophile minds can grasp. How can I expect my wife to understand the same acoustic biases I have when her preferences to music are so different from mine? We'll see as this series continues...
Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

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