Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Deep Bass: Volume 3

Among male audiophiles, deep bass is probably the most highly pursued aspect of a high-end system, especially CLEAN deep bass.  You can hear early attempts at deep bass by the youth on any Friday night at just about every stoplight. Given time, someone will pull up next to you in a car or truck that makes the loose panels in your own car start resonating to the bass sound pressure generated by their car. This kind of bass is very loud, but it's not very clear nor is it truly deep. But it is a start and one day these youngsters will mature and find the audiophile light (no doubt, more than a few of you reading this have made this transition already).
Such systems place the highest priority on going loud and to do so in such a small space requires several large diameter long throw woofers (long Xmax) - plus huge amplifiers to push them to their limits or beyond. Most require the entire trunk so if you want to store anything more than a napkin back there, you're out of luck.  It is pretty cool to listen to one of the better setups at reasonable levels and for a short period of time, but audiophile-demanding bass extends far below what the vast majority of these systems do well.

Such systems focus on over-emphasizing the acoustic merits of two instruments: the kick bass drum and the bass guitar.  But just what are the lower frequency limits of these instruments?  The lowest frequency a kick drum creates is between 80-100 Hertz, depending upon its size.  The lowest note a four-string bass guitar can create is low E (the same note a classical acoustic double bass can create) and its frequency is 41.21 Hz. So to get linear bass down to this point, the lower limit (-3dB point) of the bass system must be at least 1/2 octave below that (say -3dB at 30 Hz).  But in such systems, linearity is not the goal but overemphasis of frequencies between 40-100Hz is, so systems are tuned to have a rising response specifically in this region.

Inexpensive subwoofer add-ons to home theaters do about the same as these extremely loud car systems: they get reasonable bass at loud levels.  Theaters also have joined in on such a bandwagon extending this niche to over-emphasizing  specific noises in sound tracks like fist punches and the good-old random explosion, but again deep clear bass is not the goal.

Long-throw woofers, while providing deep bass from a small box, increase the distortion of the bass as an exponential function of the travel.  Take for example a woofer with an Xmax of 6mm.  If the volume desired moves the woofer in and out 0.1 mm, the distortion will be quite low. But as the sound pressure increases (piston travels in and out over a greater excursion), so does the distortion. At a cone travel of 1.0mm, the distortion may be 10 times that at 0.1mm and at a cone travel of 2mm, the distortion may be 100 times that at 0.1 mm. So the louder the bass from such a woofer, the higher the distortion will be as its Xmax is approached.
JL Audio 12W7AE-3, Xmax=29mm
Fortunately, bass distortion is the frequency band that the human ear is least sensitive to (that is, distortion in the bass region is more easily tolerated by the human ear than mid or high frequency distortion).  So as you mature from Boones Farm wines to a nice Zinfandel, you begin to understand that the original impression of "good wine" has a few things missing. While the purpose of consuming large amounts of Boones Farm is to get drunk (despite the morning after effects) and the purpose of loud bass from small boxes, the purpose of enjoying a fine wine is far from that and the purpose deep clear bass of audiophilia is way far from that.
As the level of an audiophile's ear becomes more discriminating, just like the pallet of a wine connoisseur, listening to such systems for prolonged periods of time becomes intolerable. Like trying to appreciate Boones Farm in a 5-star restaurant, some things just don't quite mix.

One day, if their hearing is not totally destroyed by the carelessness of their youth, such folks will turn their attention to refinement and what sounds real.  At any opportunity, take one of these misguided youths under your audiophile arm and let them hear what a good system sounds like. Then crack open a good bottle of wine and both of you sit down and enjoy some music.

Since Sherlock solved the Mystery of the Volume Knob, I have changed my opinion of my rig. It's not that it sounded that bad before, it's just that now it sounds more realistic than ever. Because of this dramatic change in its accuracy, I find myself longing to hear it, much like when you miss your dog after being away on vacation.  I know, just like that mutt greeting me at the door, tail wagging and tongue ready to wash my face, I will flip the power switch on my system and be prepared to hear something new in an intimately  familiar recording. My suspicions have been proven to be 100% accurate for everything I have listened to of this nature to date.
For example, Dire Straights produced an amazing album called Brothers in Arms I have used as a reference in evaluating many other systems. This is probably one of the finest productions, mixes, and performances I know of in the pop world of which just about everyone has a copy.  This makes it easier to compare apples to apples, at least from a source material point of view. (Another of my favorites is Norah Jones Come Away With Me).

Brothers in Arms - Original Version

Yesterday, I spun Why Worry Now and was again reaffirmed that this is the finest I have ever heard this recording on any of my systems. There were all sorts of nuances that were there and were evident, it's just that now instead of being casually resolved, such details are up front and center so to speak.  Ambiance, for example, even on the digital version is far better and the decaying echoes much more lifelike, as compared to my prized analog version. Vocals are smoother and transients snappier without sounding artificial or over-emphasized.  Things just sound right!

But this made me wonder: how many audiophiles are like this? How many actually cannot wait to get home from work and twist that good old volume knob knowing what awaits. I bet all of you are like this.

Sitting in your car and listening to the adequate playback system within, listening to your ipod while jogging around the park, or riding up the elevator - well, let's not go there. But coming home - that's what makes it all worth while. What awaits you in your magical audio parlor transports you to any event you wish to hear without leaving home.  What other hobby can give you this amount of instant gratification?

So I've come to another conclusion about the characteristics or symptoms one must have to call yourself an audiophile.  Here is what I've come up with so far:

10. Always on the lookout  for or lusting after the newest and greatest piece of gear
9. Wanders into nearby audio salons during lunchtime
8. Eats dinner in front of your rig
7. Can't wait to demo your system to visitors
6. Carries a picture of your rig in your wallet
5. Loves swapping out pieces of equipment with other audiophiles
4. Subscribes to numerous audio-related publications, RSS feeds, and newsgroups
3. Goes on vacation to an electronics show
2. Dreams of new speakers and has nightmares about a house fire
1. Has a longing for sitting down in front of your system over almost any other activity

Does this description fit you? How many of these characteristics do you possess? How many must you work on to know you can really call yourself an AUDIOPHILE? Passion and a lot of it is essential.  I'm sure there are others but these are what I would call the minimum essentials.

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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