Thursday, January 23, 2014

How to Listen - Part 1

In my seven-part series on "High-end Soundstages" I touched briefly on listening through your equipment and to the details of a performance. Audiophiles often make the mistake of listening to what "sounds good" as opposed to what "sounds real" and end up with a conglomeration of gear that gives a certain WOW factor. To each is his/her own preference, but for me personally that is not what the high-end is all about.

It never ceases to amaze me how strikingly different high-end systems sound in the homes I have visited. Some sound bass heavy, others who have twelve 15" woofers in custom enclosures sound bass thin. Most sound "good" but only few sound "real." And when asking an audiophile about a new piece of gear that just entered their system, “So what differences did you hear?” a long delay of utter silence results in the inability to describe clearly what one’s emotions feel. Most people know what they like when they hear it but have a difficult time putting that into words. With patience and time you will be able to clearly enunciate and accurately convey exactly what you hear and what you do not in any system.

Most often, people will respond by saying something like, “I never heard that before…” or “Did you hear that?” or “Wow! That was amazing!” but they still have a hard time identifying exactly what it is that changed that they like (or dislike). When plopping down $25,000 for an amplifier and then NOT being able to articulate such details is in my humble opinion a distinct disadvantage, one that can be easily rectified if you just take the time to listen.

The most important thing to do is to clear your mind of biases, something easier said than done. We all have our biases and by visiting an audiophile-friend's home you can hear theirs. There are things about their system you like and things you dislike. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, "[paraphrased: I can't tell you what pornography is] but I know it when I see it!" Properly articulating what you like and dislike about a high-end system falls much into this same court. Often it is a lack of words or the right word to express the things you hear. Putting it another way, you have a limited high-end vocabulary.

Take for example your absolutely most favorite track. When you hear it in your car, there are things that are missing, lacking, or completely absent as opposed to when you hear this same piece on your home high-end system. Specifically, what are those "things?" Is the bass less smooth? Do the vocals seem exaggerated or unnatural? Does the guitar sound strange or are the tinkles of the cymbals tizzy or just plain absent? What is it that offends you the MOST and what does it do "right?" All of these questions and their answers put you on the right track for starting to develop your high-end vocabulary.

What this series should accomplish is for you to begin to properly articulate how you perceive the sound you hear. What we are going to do is some rather unusual exercises in light of bringing you back to reality - sort of a CTRL+ALT+DEL to reboot your perceptions and flush all of the infused marketing hype and propaganda. With an open mind, you will find how to retrain your ears and learn how to listen.

To learn you must do and the first thing I want you to do is to go to an indoor live performance of non-amplified instruments. One of the simplest things to do is to go to a church – any church – and listen to the choir (not the organ). The human voice is one of the most amazing instruments you will ever hear and listening to a good vocal performance is truly any audiophile's thrill. Jazz concerts in basements or small venues is another good source for retraining your ears as long as there is not a PA system involved. The point is for you to listen to the instrument as if it were for the first time.

If you play your own instrument, you have a distinct advantage over the rest of us who can only play the radio. Listen to the inner detailing of every part of our instrument. If playing your instrument is a burden, get over it and start listening to how it sounds. As a youth I was forced to learn to play the accordion and hated every minute of it. It was big, bulky, and with my Czechoslovakian heritage at least one showed up at every wedding or celebration my folks ever attended. I was not fond of this instrument and never became accomplished at playing it. But this torturous experience of my childhood did teach me how to read music and helped my right-and-left brain halves work together. For this I am eternally grateful.

Let's take my personal aversion to the accordion as an example of how to listen with an open mind. Accordions use bellows to blow air through tuned reeds. Pressing down on a key opens the airway to the reed for the note you wish to play. Your other arm moves the bellows in and out supplying air pressure for these tuned reeds. Without even hearing an accordion live, you can probably guess at what faint mechanical sounds exist beyond the notes these reeds the accordion itself makes. Think about it.

Anything mechanical makes a sound, some sounds are fainter than others, and instruments are finely tuned pieces of machinery. The bellows of an accordion faintly wheeze as the seams of the bellows expand and contract. The keys themselves make a slight ticking sound as they are pressed and sometimes you can hear the musicians tapping their feet or turning over sheet music. Some vocalize a grunt or muffled exhalation in unison with a deliberate emphasis to exaggerate the sound and change its contour. All of these clues are embedded in the notes to give a performance a quality characteristic to that musician's style, even in the lowly accordion.

If I were to name a well-known singer or popular jazz saxophonist, your mind immediately accesses that part of their style and reminds you of the pleasantness you experienced while listening to a particular song. You may have a favorite song of that artist and have memorized the words or anticipate the notes when you hear it played again. You already do this mental gymnastics for things of which you are aware, all I want you to do is to expand this awareness for things to which you may be unaware.

When learning to critically listen, one must get beyond the notes, measures, and bars and reach into the mind of the performer. Interpretation comes in all art forms and music is no exception. Conductors interpret the music of the masters and every performance sounds different – but yet every performance sounds the same. If you listen to the Richard Straus tone poem "Also sprach Zarathustra" with Maestro Klaus Tennstedt conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it will sound different when this same orchestra is conducted by Maestro Seiji Ozawa. The tempo will be different, some instruments will be louder, others will hang on a note slightly longer, an still others will drift more quickly into the background. All of these techniques create a different sound and feel to the same piece of music performed by the same musicians – if you just listen.

These techniques – and many more – are used by performers create a mood or a feeling they wish to convey making it their own style and their own expression of that piece. In other words, this is how they choose to invoke their art. Another great example is the national anthem performed at the beginning of sporting events. How many times have you heard your country's anthem sung in a way you liked less than someone else's performance? Why was this so? What is it about that interpretation that caused this judgment?

Analyzing your biases can help you understand what you prefer and what you do not. While in any performance your nature is to focus on the things you like, doing so will cause you to gloss over the other more hidden and nonetheless magical details that makes it enjoyable.

So in Part one, your assignment is to listen to as many unamplified live performances as you can and take notes about what you hear beyond the melody. Do you prefer the emotion of the hall ambience or is it too dead and lifeless? Are you sitting in a spot that only reveals the double bass and causes the string section to be less loud than you prefer? Is the guitar in tune? What facial expressions accompany certain passages and what do you hear coinciding with those facial expressions? Can you hear sheet music turning? Do the strings buzz against the frets? Can you hear someone's foot tapping? Can you hear the guitarist lightly slide his or her fingers along the strings between notes? Can you hear the artist take a deep breath just prior to bringing his or her lips to the reed of a trumpet? Can you hear the breathy whooshing sounds inside a clarinet the moment before its reed vibrates?

Similar subtle details are constantly going on in any live performance. Listen for these little details and expand your awareness of music. Appreciate one interpretation not only on the merits you already know but also on the merits you have just learned. In the next part of this series, I will show you where such details crop up in common recordings so you can see if your system is refined enough to reveal these subtle details. Understand more clearly about a performance you like and one you dislike and learn more about who you really are deep down inside. Until next time, listen carefully to these live performances, take notes, and enjoy the music!

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.

My other titles include:

·  Extreme Audio 1: House Wiring ·  Build an Extreme Green Hot Water Solar Collector
·  Extreme Audio 2: Line Filtering ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Wind Turbines
·  Extreme Audio 3: Chassis Leakage ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Solar Electricity
·  Extreme Audio 4: Interconnect Cables ·  Meditation for Geeks (and other left-brained people)
·  Extreme Audio 5: Speaker Wires ·  Althea: A Story of Love
·  Extreme Green Guide to Improving Mileage ·  Build an Extreme Green Raised Bed Garden
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening ·  Build an Extreme Green Rain Barrel
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening 2012 ·  Build an Extreme Green Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder
·  Build an Extreme Green Composter ·  Extreme Green Appliance Buying Guide

Copyright © 2015 by Philip Rastocny. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

High-end Soundstages - Part 7

Speaker position influences the size and shape of your soundstage along with the bass smoothness of your system. Unfortunately, optimizing one usually means compromising the other. Can you have the best of both worlds? Read on and let’s see.

If you have been following this series, in Part 1 you saw how monophonic sound progressed into stereophonic sound and from there into what is presently called the high-end. From Part 2, you know what happened in the audio industry as the 3-dimensional soundstage developed favor and why rectangular listening rooms are preferred. You also learned how moving speakers influences bass prominence and how the listening room itself influenced the overall sound. From Part 3 you learned how to minimize room bass resonances by mathematically positioning your speakers based on your room dimensions and roughly how high off the floor they should be. You also know that floor rugs are good and that your listening chair (a.k.a. the "sweet spot") are about the same distance from the rear wall as the speakers are from the front wall. In Part 4 you identified the locations of first reflections in your room and hung sound absorbers and diffusers in the appropriate places. In Part 5 you assured yourself that your speaker wires had proper electrical and absolute phasing. And you used an RTA app on your smart phone or tablet to take a snapshot of your system’s smoothness. Part 6 explained how to create a map of your soundstage and use RTA measurements to show you the compromises encountered when moving your speakers. Part 6 also explained how to keenly listen to music so you can know when moving your speakers made a constructive or destructive change in the soundstage beyond mere positioning clues.

As you moved your speakers about your starting point in Part 6, you eventually found a location that just starts to make the sound fuller where the psychoacoustic image perceived while listening to a recording got dramatically wider and higher. You thumb-tacked colored string onto the front wall and pointed your finger to an instrument’s perceived location on that grid to keep track of where the image moved as you moved your speakers. At some point during this moving process, the psychoacoustic image locations appeared to be well beyond left side of your left speaker, beyond the right side of your right speaker, and high above them both giving you the largest soundstage possible.

Along with an increase in the height and width of your soundstage, you may have begun to notice some unexpected magic also occurring at this position. Typically you will begin to hear an increase in the front-to-back depth, that is, the relative position of vocalists and instruments layered between you and the front wall. Your music begins to take on a realism that up until that point was overlooked and the closer you get to that magic location, the more this 3-D effect is enhanced. Here in Part 7, we will switch to a higher-quality signal source than the Red Book version and make final tweaks that may surprise you.

ASYMMETRY: While uniformity conjures up the highest, widest, and deepest soundstage it may also create the most unpleasant bass resonances. That is, with speakers positioned exactly the same distances from the front and side walls, bass smoothness will suffer the most. There is a really simple trick to prevent this from happening: move one of the speakers away from the wall(s) while keeping the face of the speaker parallel to the front wall. Moving one of the speakers compromises the size of the soundstage but can also eliminate one or more nasty room resonances. So how do you know if the bass has suffered?

As you listened before to the size of your soundstage from your sweet spot, listen now more critically to the smoothness of the bass. If there is a sharp rise at some note or group of bass notes, your speakers are most likely exciting inherent room resonances. For example, as the notes on a bass guitar or double bass go down the scale, some notes will sound much louder than others. It is these louder notes that tell you your speakers may not be in the optimum position for this room. You may be able to measure the low frequency behavior with a pink noise source and your cell phone’s RTA app although some cell phones have built-in low-frequency limitations to make your voice more easily understood. For example, I own a Samsung Galaxy S3 and my carrier is AT&T. This phone has this built-in limitation so frequencies below 200Hz are predictably attenuated. Nevertheless, room resonances can be observed as irregular rises in this reasonably smooth attenuation curve.

Picking Out Room Resonances

To observe room resonances, point your cell phone’s microphone at the midpoint between the speakers at your ear height from your listening position. It is best to place the cell phone on a tripod (or similar small, high table). Play pink noise (inter-station FM noise is good in a pinch) and look for peaks especially below 100Hz. Most likely, there will be some small peaks and possibly one or two larger ones. On the side of the room that is most uniform (no windows or doors nearby), move that speaker toward the other speaker (about two inches should do nicely) while keeping the face of the speakers parallel to the front wall. Recheck the effect on the size of the soundstage by pointing toward the grid as you did before and note the effect on its change in size. Then measure the room resonances again with the RTA app and pink noise from exactly the same position and see if the resonant peaks disappear or at least improve. Confirm your measurements with your ears to assure that other subtle changes in inner detailing are not adversely affected.

Move One Speaker 2” Toward the Other

Next, move this same speaker forward (toward the sweet spot) keeping it parallel to the front wall and repeat the RTA measurement and listening evaluation.

Move This Same Speaker Forward 2”

This new position (Ds+2” and Df+2”) is your asymmetrical starting point. As you did in moving your speakers around the Ds/Df starting point, do so in small increments around the asymmetrical starting point until there is a suitable position where room resonances are minimized. Again, use the grid lines and the RTA measurements to understand how moving a speaker impacts these resonances. For now, find a position that has better uniform bass smoothness (makes minor compromises on the sound stage size). There are more adjustments that will help return the size of the soundstage next.

TILT AND TOE-IN: Changing the orientation of a speaker (no longer parallel to the front wall or the floor) can achieve additional benefits to the size and shape of the soundstage, especially its depth. By tipping and twisting each speaker, minor adjustments in the soundstage are possible. Compared to just setting your speakers at any convenient position in your listening room, what you should gain as a result of optimal speaker tilt and toe-in is extended frequency range, wider dynamics, better transient response, and less distortion. Optimal tilt and toe-in allows you to hear in the newly-created soundstage additional details about a performance (either live or studio versions) like:

·         The acoustics of the hall or studio were the recording was made (far corner ambience)
·         Subtle noises of instruments (inner detailing of finger movements on strings, breathing just before reed instruments are played, or drumsticks striking the skin just before making a bass note)
·         Very low-level sounds (tapping feet of musicians or sheet music turning)

You will find yourself listening to a familiar performance – on of your favorite pieces – in a whole new light listening for these subtle clues deep into the silence of the recording. You will find more information in these quiet passages than you ever thought possible and within these more-silent moments are where these subtleties hide. They were always there but the interaction between the room and your system prevented you from fully appreciating them. From this magic position you may also more easily hear subtle effects when swapping interconnect cables, speaker wires, and power conditioning. Part of this ability to detect such minor changes synergistically occurs as you train your ear to hear these effects since with proper positioning such effects become more audible.

Once you find this magic position, now is the time to change your source material to the higher-resolution version since these last subtle tweaks will reveal even more nuances and bring them into the foreground.

TOE-IN: You should now be hearing things that you never realized were there from all of the music in your collection. From that magic speaker location, background details, whisper-level nuances, and instrument inner detailing all are more easily observed and seem to change their intensity. Echoes and reverberations reveal a dramatic sound space and your playback system is definitely not the same as it was before. Nothing has changed in your equipment, but the sound is radically different and far more captivating. Swapping to a high-resolution source will now reveal even more things about your system’s ability to pull out those nuances and permit your final tweaking. Here, focus on the far corners of the soundstage and listen to the amount of front-to-back depth.

Start by aiming your speakers toward the sweet spot so that the face of the speaker directly faces you. Rotate the speakers at the center of this position and twist them inwards about 2-3 degrees. See how this small change impacts the depth of your soundstage. There will be a point that the depth will increase and then decrease. Back off just a small amount from that angle and continue to listen.

Twist (Toe-In) Both Speakers Toward the Sweet Spot

For example, in the first three seconds of Track 3, “Cold, Cold Heart,” Lee Alexander introduces the song by artistically taping his finger on the vibrating double-bass string making it momentarily buzz as it quickly comes to rest. The double-bass is positioned by the recording engineer in the center channel relatively forward in the soundstage. After one second, Adam Levy joins in by plucking a muted a chord on his guitar. Adam is positioned to the left of Lee at a similar front-to-back location (as if standing next to each other on stage). Four seconds into this duet Norah’s piano joins in again in the center channel but its position is behind the double-bass (recorded at a lower volume so as to not overwhelm her melodic vocals).

Her piano resonances reveal information about the size of the studio in which it was recorded (this is a different studio from where the guitar and the double-bass are recorded). You should be able to hear low-level echoes in the far right and far left corners of the soundstage, especially at the ceiling level. Norah’s voice joins in at about 12 seconds, her center-channel voice is positioned forward of the double-bass. Notice that the artificial reverberation in her voice adds no hint to the size of the room in which her voice was recorded but makes it far more appealing than a flat, non-reverberant vocal. Although her voice echoes, it has no depth as does the piano and consequently as her voice fades, the reverberations remain forward of the double-bass even though the left and right sides of the soundstage indicate their borders.

It is difficult to graph what is happening to the psychoacoustic illusion of three-dimensional space from these movements since everything is purely subjective. But you can point to where you perceive the most distant corners of the soundstage and try to map that on your paper. At some point the sound from this performance appears full without emphasizing either the left or right sides of the sound stage. Once a twist-angle position is optimized, the next step is to tilt your speakers.

TILT: If you have not already done so, now is the time to clearly tape the floor marking the present position of the speakers including toe-in. Now is also the time to make sure that your speakers are on quality adjustable spikes (like the high-quality Track Audio models or the economical Dayton Audio versions). What is important about the spikes you use are that they remain sharp and they lock securely into place. And since room floors are not themselves completely level, leveling and tilting your speakers with adjustable spikes becomes an easy task. If your speakers do not have provisions for spikes, I highly recommend adding them now. I prefer using 3 spikes – 2 in front and 1 in back – as opposed to 4 spikes since 3 spikes are easier to tilt in any direction than 4.

With the speaker spikes in place, the speakers properly positioned from the side walls and the front wall, and the speakers properly toed in, now is the time to start tilting them. But first, you must make sure that both are currently tilted back in equal amounts. Hopefully, there is one flat surface on your speakers to which you can place a digital level. Matching the tilt angle with such a level assures that both speakers are tilted exactly the same amount.

Tilting the speaker aligns the time sound arrives at your ears from the individual drivers of your speakers. Once properly tilted, transparency, focus, and presence are optimized. With the bottom of the speaker parallel to the floor, start by listening to the current size and shape of the soundstage paying attention to focus – the ability to distinguish one instrument in free space from another. Tilt both speaker backwards about 1/8” (a half-turn at a time) by raising the front spikes. As before, make small adjustments and adjust both speakers by the same amount of tilt. You will eventually find a reasonable tilt position where instruments are rock solid within a performance (very little drift left/right, up/down, or front/back).

From any familiar high-quality favorite recording of yours, you should be able to observe this improved focus effect. A good source for this is Track 14, The Nearness of You, observe the studio ambience revealed by the piano. If your speakers do not reveal the furthest corners of this room, sit up really straight to raise or slouch down a little to lower your head at the sweet spot. If the room ambience improves with your head slightly higher, the speakers are tilted back too much. If the ambience improves with your head slightly lower, they are not tilted back far enough. You should find a tilt angle where the sound just clicks where the music really locks into both time and space. Just like pressing down on the gas pedal to achieve a certain cruising speed in your car (pressing down too much on the pedal makes you go too fast and not enough makes you go too slow), so does the optimum tilt angle allow you to enjoy a more clearly defined soundstage and a more purposeful sense of pace and rhythm.

Usually, the midrange driver in your speakers will be pretty much in a direct line to your ears at this optimum toe-in and tilt angle are achieved. Minor variations to this line achieve optimum clarity, focus, and imaging. Once you have fine-tuned that angle, lock the feet in place and you are all done.

Your soundstage should now be full and highly emotional charged with life and energy. Reverberations should begin to take on a fading effect that degrades into the distance beyond what you can see of the front wall. If your arms were long enough, it’s as if you could reach through the front wall and touch the distant corners. Typically, echoes in the upper right and upper left extreme edges are impacted by these last few tweaks and those changes can be again plotted on your paper. If you have a difficult time in correlating echoes to depth, focus on these same extreme corner positions to make these final adjustments.

Remember, you must decide the best speaker position for your own musical preferences. There will always be a tradeoff between smooth bass response and optimal soundstage size. My ears are more tolerant of bass bumps and dips and more critical of soundstage sizing and inner detailing. You must decide what you can tolerate and what you cannot and adjust your speaker positions accordingly.

I hope that this seven-part series helped you to enjoy your system even more than before and at the same time taught you a little about how to listen to music. It amazes me when asking an audiophile, “So what differences did you hear?” a long delay of utter silence results in the inability to describe clearly what one’s emotions feel. Most people know what they like when they hear it but have a difficult time putting that into words. With patience and time you will be able to clearly enunciate and accurately convey exactly what you hear and what you do not in any system. Once your speaker positions are properly “dialed in,” a whole new world of enjoyment and listening pleasure awaits. You may find yourself saying things like, “I never heard that before…” or “Did you hear that?” or “Wow! That was amazing!” Keep making small changes in all ways to complete your fine-tuning process. Oh yes, lastly, remove the tape from your floor and the strings from your walls, turn off the lights, and listen to what you’ve been missing!

Links to the entire series:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

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.

My other titles include:

Copyright © 2015 by Philip Rastocny. All rights reserved.