Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is it Live or is it Memorex?

Sound: the final frontier. These are the musings of the audiophile Philip Rastocny; his ongoing mission: to seek out intelligent life forms in the universe and to boldly go were no one has gone before...(sounds of radar pings trailing off into the silence and French horns swelling in the background).

It's really early and my allergies kicked in last night blocking up my nasal passages (again) and waking me from a sound sleep. A quick spray of saline water into each nostril and I will be better by the time I finish this diatribe. But it IS early and my mind has not fully engaged. Possibly at the end of this first cup of coffee...but we shall see.

Throughout scientific history, A-B tests have been conducted, even in audio realms. But in a scientifically  meaningful A-B test, only one variable may change at a time to produce quantifiable and repeatable results. If more than one variable changes, the test becomes essentially meaningless since it is impossible to know when or how these interact. Think for a moment about what this means for an audiophile.

Have you ever watched someone make a room measurement of a stereo's (non-) uniform sound pressure? Such resulting graphs deviate wildly disclosing hidden resonances and standing waves that actually raise or lower sound pressure at a point. Now, have you ever seen someone move the measuring microphone just a tad and make a second measurement of the same room? Probably not. If you did, the measurement would show VERY different results..

The point is this: even making the same measurement without moving anything else in the room, much less the microphone, or even standing in a different place than you did for the first measurement changes a variable in the test. If you are trying to hear differences between two pieces of equipment, think of all of the variables that could possibly change from one test to another, such as head position, height above the floor, reading glasses on or off, leaning forward or back, friend in a different chair, and so on. Every one of these minor changes contributes to changing a variable or variables in a test.

Playing a vinyl record the first time produces one sound and playing the same record a second time, especially before allowing the record to properly cool down, creates a different sound (normal wear of the groove by the stylus, stiffness of the vinyl due to temperature changes, etc.). Using a digital signal source eliminates these variables but introduces others such as those introduced by sampling errors, antiailiasing filters, thermal drift and jitter, and a host of other minute variables all that alter the signal source.

How can one ever hope to reliably or scientifically compare A to B? Is it even possible? Good question and one that I presume you already know. Let's answer it by asking another question: have you ever turned on your stereo system one morning, sat down in your favorite chair, and listened to your favorite piece, and heard something being just a little "off" or "different" from what you remember? If you are intimately familiar with your stereo, as most audiophiles are already aware of its strengths and weaknesses, you probably have. For some reason, today the system just sounds flat or dull or undynamic or weak or whatever. It's exactly the same system but today it just sounds either better or worse from how you recall. (Sound familiar?)

So what gives here? What's up with that? This is a classic example of how altering variables alters the test results. Repeatability is the key in correlating data. If even minor changes take place, all bets are off when comparing two results. Great pains are taken in laboratories to assure this does not happen (Standard Temperature and Pressure, proper voltage, noise immunity, on and on). So testing any stereo with your ears can only get you close to where you believe you hear differences; today you may tomorrow, well not so much.

Given these variables, can an audiophile trust his or her ears? An audiophile WANTS to hear the following answer: "Of course you can" when in truth your brain also influences your perceptions and subconsciously makes assumptions about anticipated change.  Say for example you bring home a $10,000 amplifier and plug it in place of your $1,000 amplifier. You expect to hear differences not based on the quality of the sound the $10,000 amplifier produces but rather based on your financial investment. Of course your mind is preconditioned to expect not only to hear differences but to hear several folds if improvement simply because your bank account is now much lighter than before.

So how to train your brain becomes the issue for the true audiophile. Reacting to the $10,000 amplifier in a positive way merely because it sounds different ore even "better" (whatever that means) does not mean that it sounds more REAL.  It may have better dynamics, better inner detailing, quieter, more fluid or melodic, or whatever adjective a reviewer pulls from his or her repertoire, but the bottom line is this:  Is it live or is it Memorex?

For those of you younger readers, let me explain a bit of acoustic history. During the climb of quality of cassette tape machines, one company created an ad using Ella Fitzgerald singing into a microphone. Ella apparently in one scene is able to manipulate her superb voice in such a way as to actually cause a wine glass to spontaneously explode breaking the glass. Next, the cassette tape recording made of Ella's voice was played back and the glass also broke. The tag line for the tape was "Is it live or is it Memorex?" This ad, by the way, caught on and sold a lot of cassette tapes for an otherwise mediocre cassette tape manufacturer.

My advice is this. When listening to a system, get away from the crowd that follows blindly the light created by hype and flurry. Forget about how A sounds compared to B or which sounds better or worse. Think rather if either A or B sounds more REAL. IS IT LIVE or IS IT MEMOREX? After all, is not the goal of audiophilia to reproduce instruments accurately?

BTW, my nostrils are fine now. Maybe I'll go back to bed.

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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