WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW?
Actually it's been happening for the last 20 years or so. There has been a revolution in the ways music is sourced and stored. Music can be stored in a library on a computer and selections can be taken away on an iPod. Play lists can be assembled at the click of a mouse. Music can be downloaded from internet sites and with care the sound quality can be very good. Music can be streamed in real time. Never before has so much music been so readily available. This seems to have broadened interest in h-fi and also caused a subtle change of focus even among audiophiles. Here there is a little less preocupation with frontier pushing audio engineering and more interest in and excitement about the music. There are more people enjoying more music from more sources than ever before. Even discriminating (sound quality) listeners are asking that their equipment should be simply good enough and free of offensive vices.
By "good enough" we mean a standard beyond which further improvement is redundant - a standard which is sufficient to maximize musical enjoyment of the material to be played or at least most of it.This varies from person to person and application to application and there will always be people who want "state of the art" systems providing reserves of performance for those occasions when superb material is available. Suffice is to say that we operate between good enough and best possible (or at least well on the way). The equipment and the ancillaries we supply cover this range.
The changes which have taken place are so fundamental as to be reminiscent of 1972/73 when calculators replaced slide rules. We have no doubt that the trend is to have a computer (or other digital source) included in a hi-fi system. The utility of doing this is so great that to oppose this flow is to enter Canute territory. Parts of the hi-fi industry were taken by surprise with the result that there was a lot of finished stock which was no longer what people wanted and which became difficult to sell even if heavily discounted. FM tuners (because of DAB and on line radio), DAB tuners (because of on line radio), stand alone CD players (many cost more than a computer - even a laptop - plus a first class DAC), pre-amplifiers (often only needed for volume and input selection) and cassette decks (obsolete technology, archival use only) have all been affected. Power amplifiers and loudspeakers continue to be essential and the great survivor is, of course, the record player. Not bad for technology which goes back to the 1950s (if you think LPs) or the 1890s (if you think Emile Berliner and the first gramophone records).Vinyl is currently a strong growth area.
What is also clear is that using resources, materials and space more sparingly and less wastefully are now issues with hi-fi equipment buyers. The spirit of the times, perhaps. The new technologies reduce the number of separate items required.
The latest development has been a strong increase in interest in playing records. Classic and vintage equipment continues to grow in popularity. Perhaps there is a reaction to the latest technology. Sometimes the best way forwards is backwards.
There is a huge amount of mis-information put out on hi-fi issues. I'll cover some of them. Everything I say is backed up by real experience and real tests.(Tecnophobes go straight to (13)!)
(1)ANALOGUE IS BETTER THAN DIGITAL?
It can be. It doesn't have to be. It's a question of implementation. We have made live recordings on an open reel tape recorder which have been at least very good and which some listeners have described as better than any CD or LP they have ever heard. We have converted these recordings very competently to digital files using both 16 bit/44.1 (CD parameters but CD not in the test) and also 24bit/96. The latter gave results, when converted back to analogue, which were indistinguishable from the master tape by the group of listeners who participated in the test. The former gave results which were difficult to distinguish from the master tape. We concluded that for most purposes for most people for most of the time correctly and fully implemented CD was good enough. We also concluded that many commercial CDs do not even fully exploit the 16bit/44.1 parameters and are compromised by earlier inadequacies in the process of creating them. We would have no hesitation in making important live recordings directly to digital files using 24bit/96. The sound quality following conversion would be about as good as an analogue tape recording but would have better signal to noise ratio and wider dynamic range. It's worth remembering that almost all fresh program material is either supplied in digital format or has involved digital stages in its production or both. There are, of course, enthusiasts who use program material simply as a test medium for equipment. Generally it's the other way round. Most people simply want to enjoy the music in which case replay requirements are driven by available program material and media.
The whole issue of analogue v digital is not always understood. Any sound reproduction procedure for a real acoustic event starts with analogue (the event) and ends with analogue (the listening). Consider a performance in a studio and the analogue signal relayed via cable of uncompromised quality to a reference grade amplifier and reference grade loudspeakers in a listening room. The results would represent best achievable sound reproduction. Now consider insertion in the line of digital encoding and decoding. Digital encoding and decoding are not perfect processes. Distortion and unwelcome artifacts are always present to some degree. Even with a very high sampling rate and a large number of bits the result cannot be an improvement - but it can be indistinguishable if tested by listening. So far analogue seems to be ahead but this is only for a system as described. The real contest lies elsewhere. If the digital signal from the studio were stored then there need be no further degradation. The problems with analogue material are in storage (recording), transcription, transmission and distribution. In all these areas the analogue signal is vulnerable to degradation so in practice digital wins on convenience - given adequate implementation.The sooner the precious, vulnerable, analogue original master signal reaches the safety of a digital file the better if only for the safety. Putting it another way, analogue cannot be replicated without degradation whereas a digital file can.
The above is commercial and practical reality but it is fair to add that some enthusiasts think that any journey into the digital domain is just another opportunity for degradation of the sound quality or even a certainty of such.
It has been our experience that most listeners find the results from competently decoded uncompressed files to be totally acceptable. Nor do we find that the end result is recognised as digitally sourced by listening alone. I don't think many people today would create a music library other than digitally. A library on tape has no random access. Play lists are fixed and access can only be sequential.
The reality is that we always start and end with analogue but often digital is a useful imtermediary. It's only fair to add that digital files are vulnerable to over-processing and information loss if not implemented competently.
(2)VINYL IS BETTER THAN CD?
This is a complex issue which is clouded by a lot of silly chauvinism from the self styled champions of both media. The following is our view.
All our tests and experiments indicate that a 16bit/44.1 digital file is sufficient for storing music so that the analogue sound can be recreated to a totally satisfactory standard using modern DACs. A higher specification for the digital file is redundant or nearly so. This implies that in principle a CD (being merely a portable device for carrying the data and using 16bit/44.1) is all that is needed. In practice it is not quite so simple.
It seems there is mounting evidence that CDs are sometimes corrupted in manufacture so that reconstituting the intended digital file becomes difficult. Conventional CD players are not as good at doing this as computers. In such cases it seems that better results can be obtained by re-writing to a CD-R using a computer and then playing that disk in the CD player (or replaying from the music library using an external DAC) following importation. There is some logic to this. Computers have to make bit for bit copies and will retry a disk at high speed until they get it right and have loads of processing power with which to do it. In other words a computer is better at restoring the originally intended digital file than is a CD player i.e. the error correction is better. If this problem is real, and we suspect it is, then CD playing on a stand alone CD player is handicapped. There is a spectrum of performance available from CD ranging from badly recorded/badly mastered/badly manufactured/badly read to well recorded/well mastered/well manufactured/well read and this is without considering the quality of the DAC. Modern DACs are generally good to excellent and should not be an issue. The algorithms and interpolations have been refined over the years. It is our experience that most listeners do not find the inherent compromises in the digital domain to be catastrophic. Some enthusiasts disagree.
Some listeners find the results from a good vinyl record on a good record player player "more musical" than any digital source.
It is worth emphasizing that the inadequacies of 16bit/44.1 (negligible) and the inadequacies of CD are not the same thing. One of the reasons for acquiring files with higher bit rates (which are becoming more available) is to avoid CD problems rather than for the higher resolution per se.
If everything is right with CD all the way through to the 16bit/44.1 file then it is a hard act to follow and certainly good enough for most listeners. The record player/vinyl LP system is today an extremely refined version of a very old technology. The system is vulnerable to distortion and colouration from start to finish as well as inconvenient in use. Speed stability (under varying load!) and rumble have to be addressed.The performance decreases towards the centre of the record because of the reducing writing speed and always the frequency response has to be distorted on both record and replay (RIAA). The primary reason for doing this is to increase the playing time per side by de-emphasizing the low frequencies so that the groove spacing can be reduced. Because the higher frequencies have smaller amplitudes anyway (for constant signal level amplitude falls with rising frequency) it is possible also to improve the signal to noise ratio by pre-emphasizing the high frequencies. The very fact that different top quaIity record players do not sound the same as each other is clear evidence that we are dealing with a flawed medium. It is actually impossible to get a truly clean sound off a record player. A moment's thought about the steps involved in the process should make this obvious. Nevertheless, very good and sometimes astounding results are possible. The system is good at recording and reproducing fine and subtle detail but poor on signal to noise ratio and dynamic range. Despite the inherent disadvantages in the system, the distortion and colouration need not be catastrophic (see 11 below) and a very good euphonious sound is possible. Under favourable circumstances it is possible for an LP system to compete with a fully implemented CD (and easily beat a CD which is poorly implemented) but the virtue balance would be different. The LP system will have at least a trace of colouration. It is no surprise that the sound from an LP when everything is right is preferred to the sound from a CD when the latter is sabotaged by being poorly made or poorly read. Some enthusiasts think that with a reasonably good record playing set up the results will always be better than those from a CD player. I guess it depends on the meaning of "better".
I think it's fair to say that
designing a system to extract information from a vinyl record cleanly and completely is something of an engineer's nightmare. The issues raised above are only part of the problem. The stylus excites the vinyl disc creating resonant and non-resonant vibrations which need to be conducted away so as not to compromise the signal by getting back via the stylus. This function falls to the turntable mat (if any) and the platter. In both cases the absorption is frequency selective so the balance of the sound is affected by mat and platter choice. Stray vibrations from the stylus/cantilever also travel in the other direction and pass into the headshell and arm where they excite available structural resonances and some energy from these feeds back into the cartridge and colours the sound. Then there are the issues of arm bearing play and friction. And so it goes on.
LPs suffer from problems caused during manufacture. I'll describe just two. Contamination with mould release agent is normal. Happily this is easily treated by record cleaning machines and explains how new records commonly sound better after a good clean on a Keith Monks machine or one of the others. The other problem is more serious as there is currently no treatment available. This is where the spindle hole is located off centre and it is not uncommon. The effect of this is to cause variations in reading speed about the written speed of the groove. If this is slight it may well pass unnoticed. If severe it will manifest as audible wow
(pitch variation at a slow rate). Reading speed depends on the radial distance from the centre spindle and needs to fit with the written speed which it will if the hole is truly central. As far as I know there is no deck in current production which features centre hole correction.
Despite all the problems with playing vinyl many of us strive to overcome them with great enthusiasm. Extremists think vinyl is the only true sound. I must admit that after looking at the complexity of CD replay the vinyl/record player approach seems elegantly simple at least in principle!
We are well aware that some listeners prefer vinyl or even judge it to be more accurate, more realistic and "more musical" than good CD or anything else. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the realms of psycho-acoustics and physiology as well as audio engineering (see 11 below). A well known blind test was conducted some years ago where a master tape was compared with an LP made from the same master tape and played on a well known record player of the day. Many of the listeners thought the latter was better! No sound retrieval system is perfect. This applies to both analogue and digital systems. Even with uncompressed files digital to analogue conversion is limited by the algorithms and interpolations used. Likewise analogue to digital conversion. Nevertheless in practice we find that competent digitally sourced material when competently converted to analogue is acceptable (i.e. good enough)
for most listeners and they don't even recognise it as digitally sourced.
A top grade LP played on a top grade record player can compete with competent CD on perceived sound quality - though not on signal to noise ratio, dynamic range or freedom from colouration. Getting every bit of information from an LP is hard and many enthusiasts expend a great deal of effort and expense in this direction. For reassurance we ran tests similar to (1) above where we took the signal from a very good record player and very good LP and created digital files in 16bit/44.1 and 24bit/96. The conclusion was the same as in (1) i.e on re-conversion there was no discernable difference with 24bit/96 and precious little with 16bit/44.1 - when compared with listening directly to the LP. That's what our listeners concluded. The first implication is that no program material should be inadequately reproduced just because it has been encoded and stored digitally. We think any audio analogue signal, however pleasing and for whatever reason it pleases, can be encoded and decoded so that the listener is unable to tell the difference.The second implication is that the extra performance from 24bit/96 does not bring a significant improvement. This brings the conclusion that even if vinyl could beat CD there would not be any useful ground to occupy. CD on a good day (i.e. perfect 16bit/44.1 file) is good enough. Getting the best possible results from vinyl is expensive and difficult. It costs thousands, not hundreds, if the equipment is bought new. Most people are interested in what can be achieved easily and cost effectively rather than in proving points and winning contests. What we can say is that a good LP played on a good record player will produce results which are wholly acceptable i.e. "good enough". Likewise a good digital file competently decoded. I know there are dissidents who abhor anything digital. I sometimes wonder how easily they would tell the difference on a blind test. We've learned by experience how listeners' judgements are affected when the source and equipmeny used are unknown.
A present trend is for record players (LP and 78RPM) to become retrieval devices used for transcribing records to computer libraries. It is very interesting to see the way attitudes change when LPs are transcribed to a computer library. Suddenly presentation is an issue. Given good sound quality, the priorities become avoiding noises at the start and finish, dealing with dirt and damage and considerations of rumble and recorded hum. Judgement about sound quality is inclined to change when the listener does not know what equipment has been used.
What is the importance of this contest between vinyl and CD? Ultimately none at all. The equipment used is surely dictated by the medium carrying the music so you just give it your best shot in either case. Today both media often become no more than transit camps en route to a digitally stored music library on a computer.
(3)OPEN REEL TAPE RECORDERS GIVE THE BEST RESULTS?
A very good tape recorder which is very well aligned is capable of recordings which are good enough for just about any application. Signal/noise ratio and dynamic range limitations are less than many suppose and the results from live recordings on tape are about as good as it gets. Wider tape brings greater signal to noise ratio and dynamic range. A digital recording system using 24bit/96 or better will come out close. The older technique is a huge achievement in inter-disciplinary engineering. The new technique is simple and cheap once the chip designers have done their job. Both systems are capable of providing results which are "good enough". Although a tape recording provides the best result the program material cannot be published without adding another medium be it LP, CD or a file for streaming etc. All one has is a master tape for demonstration or for transcribing to another medium with its own limitartions. A master tape is fine for proving a point but in commercial practice it is the the next medium which sets the limits.
(4)DAB IS NO GOOD AND WORSE THAN FM?
Implementation again but not much of an issue now with so much broadcast material available on broadband. We believe DAB is capable of good results but a good tuner is essential together with a high bit rate broadcast. Almost all program material is handled digitally by the broadcasters before transmission whether this is by DAB or FM. All the feedback we have had from DAB users with AVI tuners has been very positive.The number of stations is much greater with DAB than with FM. It now looks like FM might not be switched off for a while. Nevertheless, with DAB providing more stations and sound quality sometimes about as good as today's FM it seems radio listeners are better served by DAB - given a good tuner. If FM does not offer so many stations and the sound quality from today's FM is not significantly better than DAB then it would be a mistake to buy an expensive FM tuner especially as FM might be switched of in a few years time (now looking unlikely). We stress "today's" because we think FM is not as good as it could be or used to be. With the availability of on line broadcasting all this is becoming history.
(5)IT'S WORTH SPENDING A FORTUNE ON CABLES?
No it isn't. The cables need only be competent. Interconnect cables first.
Interconnect cables are a necessary evil whenever hi-fi separates are used. Most published cable tests are not done with reference grade equipment and lack scientific method - there is no control. The control should be no cables at all i.e. the two pieces of equipment should be plugged directly together. Any cable which changes the sound is then revealed as defective i.e. introducing distortion. Most tests simply arrange cables in order of preference. If all the tested cables give results which sound differently from each other then either only one cable is acceptable or none of them is acceptable. We think some of the "exotic" cables are actually functioning as tone controls or filters and possibly masking the vices of defective electronics. Another issue rarely covered is that the demand on connecting cables depends on the relationship between the source impedance and the load impedance i.e. the demand on the cable depends on the actual items connected together. A low source impedance on the output of the sender feeding into a much higher impedance on the input of the destination component (typical of AVI) means mainly voltage transfer and little current flow hence less demand on the cable and connections. With less difference between source and load impedance there is more current and less voltage transfer hence more demand on the cable and connections. Suffice is to say we are generally happy with cables costing tens of pounds rather than hundreds. We believe these satisfy the competence requirement. The advice which recommends spending 10% of system budget on cables is nonsense. Our much praised analogue recordings were made using £2 per metre studio microphone cable and played back using different £2 per metre cable from the tape recorder to the amplifier. The results were generally considered to be exceptionally good. How then could the degradations present in more commonly available program material be reversed by selecting expensive cables? Nor is it possible to remove the defects from a bad system by cable selection alone. "Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" springs to mind. Signal cables do need to be well made with good terminations. They do need to be immune from work hardening of the conductors with repeated flexure. The insulation and dielectric materials need to have long term stability. High purity of the conductors and immunity from corrosion are necessary. So is screening against external interference. So is freedom from microphony. A pair of interconnect cables to meet all our requirements does not need to cost hundreds of pounds. Perhaps £100-£200 for a really well engineered set but that's about it.
It is, of course, essential that all mechanical electrical connectors e.g. plugs and sockets should be clean and make good contact. It's not a good idea to create unwanted diodes/rectifiers/resistors.
With the tiny signals involved the wiring between the cartridge and phono stage needs to be considered with some care. This applies to the internal arm wiring as well as the cable from the arm to the phono stage and also any junctions involved. As a cautionary note, high cost is certainly no guarantee of a good outcome. We recently had an interesting report from a customer. He took a Din to RCA phono plug lead from an old deck where it connected the output from the arm base to a phono stage. It was a perfectly ordinary low cost lead. He substituted it for the supplied lead which came at some expense with his famous tonearm and reported an improvement. He also tried the lead in a friends system where the friend had purchased a supposed upgrade cable which cost more than £10000
(yes 10k) and both listeners thought the simple ordinary cable gave better results.
Loudspeaker circuits are low voltage high current things. The resistance/impedance values involved are just a few ohms so it is obvious that cables of very low resistance are required. We recommend multi-filament cables with plenty of cross sectional area and high copper purity. We believe this requirement can be met for around £3 per metre for cables of modest length (the longer the cable the heavier it needs to be). There is some empirical evidence that the dielectric material (insulation) used has some influence on the results. Even on an extravagant "peace of mind" basis about £20 per metre is the upper limit of our recommendations. More expensive "exotic" cables are in the area of interesting experiment and are likely to be a waste of resources. Again with expensive exotic cables there is a risk of buying tone controls and filters - not the right way to go. We are happy to use £3 per metre cables when playing our best program material. With active loudspeakers (amplifiers and loudspeakers combined as one piece units) loudspeaker cable is not an issue as there isn't any.
Always when offered a new device
(or procedure) it is a good idea to ask the question "TO WHAT PROBLEM IS THIS DEVICE A SOLUTION?"
(6)VALVE AMPLIFIERS ARE BETTER?
Well designed and built valve amplifiers are undoubtedly capable of first rate sound quality whether recommissioned classics or current production. A problem is that they are not always sufficiently powerful for the job in hand. Sometimes powers of around 100 watts are demanded, sometimes unnecesarily or misguidedly but nevertheless demanded . If valve amplifiers were to be this powerful they would not be cost effective. Valve amplifier design peaked more than half a century ago. Designs have hardly progressed at all although modern resistors and capacitors are much better. So much depends on the excellence of the output transformer, that is its design and its execution. This is typically the most expensive component and something of a challenge (both then and now) and it needs to be scaled up in size (and cost) with the power output specified. Valve amplifiers take time to warm up to achieve their best results and have an ongoing maintenance commitment because valves are consumables. They can be something of a luxury and tend to be less cost effective than solid state equivalents (and there are some). Having said that and where cost is not an issue seriously good valve amplifiers are a hard act to follow. They have simple circuits and usually an absence of surface mount components (which are our pet hate). There is a handful of affordable new valve amplifiers of modest power rating which gives good results when matched with suitably sensitive speakers. I particularly like the"Little Italy" and "25/45 Triode" from Unison Research. The latter is fairly universal in its application as it is often powerful enough to do the job.
On the issue of power there really is no scope for argument as measurements can be taken. There are few if any serious high fidelity loudspeakers with efficiencies (sensitivities) significantly above so called average. If modern digitally sourced program material of wide dynamic range is played to a robust and perhaps somewhat excessive sound level using a powerful amplifier then the loudspeakers can often demand 100 watts to accomodate the peaks in the signal. This is beyond the capabilities of most valve amplifiers. This problem also leads to catastrophic degradation in sound quality with over stretched solid state amplifiers where the users mistakenly think they are sufficiently powerful (the perceived differences between small transistor amplifiers are often due to differences in overload behaviour).
While the above is true it is also true that for domestic use power ratings below 100 watts are often sufficient. Some of the reasoning is covered below.
There are two reasons for needing plenty of power with a transistor amplifier. One is to make sure there is enough power to give the required sound pressure levels. The other is to have sufficient head room to be sure the amplifier is never pushed outside its operating envelope ( i.e. distortion thresholds are never crossed) as the consequences are catastrophic. Valve amplifiers are more forgiving. If driven too hard they tend to be self limiting (soft clipping) and the distortion valve amplifiers produce tends to be harmonic which is not especially unpleasant and even harmonics are often perceived as pleasant. Nevertheless, we are still talking about distortion. In practice a transistor amplifier needs a safety margin in power rating compared with a valve amplifier doing the same job. Valve amplifiers are, of course, less challenged by record players where the maximum possible dynamic range is less than with CD or other modern digital material. Also, perceived loudness does not have a linear correlation with the amplifier power in use.Twice the power does not make the system sound twice as loud or anywhere near it. The difference is 3db. The smallest discernable change in volume is 1db. This equates to an upward change in power of 25% or a downward change of 20%. Bearing in mind the foregoing, a 15 watt valve amplifier can be quite useful. Many people still enjoy valve amplifiers made by Quad and Leak and rightly so.
Putting that into perspective, a 150 watt system would be 10db louder (i.e. ten times the sound pressure level) than with a 15 watt amplifier but would not be perceived as 10 times louder by a listener. Hearing is logarithmic. Most listeners would reckon that around a five fold increase in level is required to make the sound seem twice as loud. In practice the amount of power required from an amplifier depends on the efficiency of the loudspeakers, the scale of reproduction required and the dynamic range to be accommodated. In use the difference between 10 watts and 100 watts is much less than people think. It's quite possible that if 10 watts won't do the job 100 watts won't either. Most of us have been exposed to discos or big bands with sound reinforcement where the sound quality is appauling. This is commonly due to insufficient amplifier power for the exceptionally high sound pressure levels they (perhaps mistakenly) want. Applications like this using loudspeakers of normal efficiency (and hopefully sufficient power handling) can easily need more than 1000 watts of amplifier power.
There are further complications. The power of an amplifier is usually measured using a purely resistive load which says little about what the amplifier will do when connected to a speaker (all of which present complex loads) but gives the highest figure on paper. Another point is that amplifiers do not necessarily maintain their best performance throughout their power ranges. This gives rise to the concept of "useful power". It's quite possible to have an amplifier rated at 100 watts which only gives of its best in the 0-20 watts range making its useful power only 20 watts. Another amplifier rated at 25 watts (e.g. the Graham Slee) could well maintain its high standard over the full 25 watts making it just as useful if not more so for critical applications. For critical applications the 100 watt amplifier would have no greater utility as the extra output would be bought at the expense of sound quality.
There's another complication. Amplifier power is normally given as watts (RMS) into 8 ohm loads with both channels driven by a steady (sine wave) signal. Music isn't like that. The frequencies are all over the place and the power requirements vary from tiny ones to huge peaks of short duration. Notwithstanding what I have said previously about some amplifiers running out of steam qualitywise before their rated powers are even reached some others will provide useful outputs of good quality above their power rating for a fraction of a second which is just enough to accommodate signal peaks. Putting together the foregoing, it really is possible for a 25 watt rated amplifier to allow music to be played louder than a 100 watt rated amplifier using the same speakers and program material.
Another issue is that some amplifiers have a poor power response. In such cases the rated power is not available at all audio frequencies. This could, for example, cause a droop in power response at low frequencies which might be where the power is needed.
Hi-Fi loudspeakers vary in efficiency (sensitivity) by around a hundredfold between the least and the most efficient. This really does mean that one loudspeaker driven by 1 watt can be just as loud as another driven by 100 watts. The most accurate and realistic speakers tend to be grouped towards the low efficiency end of the range. Exceptionally efficient speakers may well provide a pleasant sound but probably not an accurate one.
From the above it follows that while it's nice to have plenty of amplifier power it's crucial to look at what one actually has and make sure that the distortion threshold is never crossed. This is especially important with solid state amplifiers. Remember an increase in dynamic range from 60 db to 80 db requires 100 times as much power! In practical use there is no significant difference between 50 and 100 watts provided there is no distortion threshold between the two.The Quad 303 really is powerful enough for most domestic applications.
It is actually quite difficult to tell the difference between good amplifiers, including between valve and solid state, PROVIDED EACH AMPLIFIER UNDER TEST IS KEPT WITHIN ITS OPERATING ENVELOPE BOTH IN RESPECT OF POWER AND BAND WIDTH.
AVI solid state amplifiers (now only available second hand) provide sound quality which is comparable with the best valve amplifiers but with plenty of power for domestic applications and more. In our experience they do not suffer quality loss as more power is drawn. They are also very cost effective. Today valve amplifiers have limited utilitarian value outside the audiophile arena and perhaps the musical instrument arena (i.e. rock groups etc.). I have to admit that some extreme enthusiasts get pleasing results with very simple high quality valve amplifiers of low power (often under 5 watts and in one case we know 2.3 watts) partnered with speakers of exceptionally high sensitivity/efficiency (often horn loaded). I don't doubt that the results can be pleasant but I am inclined to query the accuracy. Valves are now the province of audio engineering historians and retro minded enthusiasts as well as today's audiophiles. With their "purist" approach today's audiophiles often find valve amplifiers beneficial. Incidentally our reference grade tape recorder is full of valves. It works rather well. Sometimes simple is best. Good old technologies are usually rejected for cost reasons rather than lack of merit.
A message which emerges strongly from this section is that sound reproduction is a logarithmic world.
(7)GOOD CD PLAYERS HAVE TO COST THOUSANDS?
This is an area where consumers are especially vulnerable. It's worth explaining what is involved in playing a CD. A CD is simply a convenient device for moving around digital files. It is not like a cassette or LP both of which carry an analogue of the music which can be replayed in real time. The CD is put into a disc reader which reads the digits in packets and stores them temporarily in a buffer after which they are passed on to a digital to analogue converter (DAC). There's filtering out of spuriae and a bit of analogue amplifation to give the required output level and that's about it although component choice, power supplies and circuit layout are issues. There is a timing issue when decoding CDs. This is to do with the spacing of the digits (jitter). The necessary reference clocking is now done very well by high quality standard chips making special custom devices unnecessary. There is no justification for CD players costing thousands and players such as the AVI one was on the limit for a state of the art machine. There is a huge amount of charlatanism and deceipt in this sector. We heard recently of a customer who bought a £3000 supposed audiophile machine (not AVI!) and then bought an £80 machine from a well known supermarket and found it to be better. Today it looks like CD players are not even the best devices for playing CDs (see (2) above).
(8)HI-FI LOUDSPEAKERS HAVE TO BE LARGE?
This is not the case. Larger speakers are usually associated with greater bass extension. For high quality accurate sound reproduction bass extension is a secondary issue. The primary issue is always absence of distortion. A good result here may be achieved (perhaps even more easily) with a small speaker (e.g. LS3/5 or LS3/5a). Even small speakers can be competent down to about 70Hz and rolling off below that. In acoustic music and human voice there is not much content below 100Hz and very little below 70Hz. Provided this is the intended application it seems that larger speakers are something of a luxury. Nevertheless a good big one will beat a good little one provided they are equally good. More easily said than done.
It follows from the above that high quality sound reproduction is available to people who cannot or do not want to accommodate floor standers or stand mount speakers in their living spaces. Compact speakers (e.g. LS3, LS3/5, LS3/5a) are very tolerant of installation and may be placed on furniture or included in book cases etc.
(9)CONTROL UNITS (PRE-AMPLIFIERS) NEED TO BE COMPLEX.
This is not really a contentious topic. Pre-amplifiers are either separate or incorporated in integrated amplifiers. What has happened is that the required functionality has evolved over the years. In the past pre-amplifiers have been designed to provide most or all of the following functions:
1) Volume control.
2) Input selection.
3) An electronic buffer (a partition or firewall which enables all inputs to see an optimal loading for all settings and the power amplifier to see an optimal souce impedance for all settings)
4) Tone controls.
6) Balance control.
8) A phono stage.
Today it is quite likely that 4 to 8 are not needed or not wanted. With enthusiasts wanting stand alone phono stages it turns out that most signal sources provide a volt or so and most power amplifiers have input sensitivities around 500mv. - 1 volt. This means that no net gain is required. If only one signal source is required and it has an output level control it may be connected directly to a power amplifier. Otherwise only 1 to 3 are needed.
This may suggest using a so called passive control unit. These generally cover 1 and 2 but not 3
(unless very clever). If the matching between sources and power amplifier is carefully optimised the results can be very good as would be expected. The problems are shifting impedance matching and possible interaction with the capacitance of the output cables. In other words passive control units can give good results but not always. 3 does matter.
(10)COMPUTERS AND IPODS HAVE NO USE IN HI-FI?
It is a simple matter to replicate the CD playing proceedure in (7) using a computer and a computer can even store the file for further use. Ordinary low cost consumer grade computers usually need a sound card upgrade (£50 - £150) to reach the standard of a good CD player. Alternatively an external DAC may be used. Music libraries can be created on computers ("iTunes" is very good software for this purpose - and it's free). Even LPs can be put into the library as digital files ("LP Recorder" is very good software for this). Files can be copied to an iPod for remote use. The iPod can also be connected to a hi-fi system and if "lossless" files are used the results are very good. If the library is stored on a lap top computer and wireless transmission of the signal is available then any track in the library can be played through the hi-fi system without wires and (apart from size) the computer does the job of an iPod as well. This whole area is currently very active and computers are undoubtedly here to stay in h-ifi sytems.The conventional hi-fi industry is now under attack from the computer industry. This is a change we welcome as it brings extra levels of convenience and utility. A computer running iTunes is a good example and is also very cost effective.
(11)WHAT IS PERFECT SOUND REPRODUCTION? WHAT ABOUT DISTORTION?
To define this we need something akin to the Turing Test for artificial intelligence (person in one room is having a dialogue with a computer in another room and cannot tell whether he is talking to a computer or a real person). Here it is: Perfect sound reproduction occurs when a blindfolded person cannot tell the difference between the reproduced sound and the real acoustic event. Very difficult to achieve but at least it indicates what to aim for.
We are well aware that some listeners like the replay chain to modify the sound. Perhaps they find real musical instruments too bright or enjoy warm colouration and sometimes even greater distortions. These are requirements we cannot address as they diverge from our goal of providing accurate realistic reproduction. We don't see the replay system as a musical instrument but rather as a "silent witness" which neither adds to nor subtracts from the sound. We are about sound reproduction, not sound production. We find that most listeners like clean, clear, realistic sound reproduction when they hear it.
The term "distortion" means little unless the type of distortion is specified. There are many types of distortion which vary greatly in the damage they do. Two common types are examples of the differences in consequences. Harmonic distortion is relatively benign and is not catastrophic up to a few percent. Intermodulation distortion is catastrophic in tiny quantities. Few people realize that the analogue tape recording system has about 2% harmonic distortion at full modulation yet master tapes are generally held in very high regard.
We are very interested in the ways people judge sound reproduction for accuracy and realism. We are not talking about conscious preferance for a degraded sound just about judging what is right. The human senses involve receptors or transducers followed by interpretation in the brain. These systems are more interested in differences (i.e. changes) than absolutes and use stored models for reference. All this makes the senses systems less than wholly reliable. Optical illusions are well known. Colour perception depends on the environment in which the colour is observed. We suspect that judgements about sound are affected by the auditioning environment (not meaning the acoustic environment) as well as by the stored reference models. The blindfold in the first paragraph matters. This is perhaps a fruitful area for scientific investigation. There is also the common negative reaction to anything new. Different tends to be percieved as different worse rather than different better. Many listeners are excessively loyal to existing systems which to an outsider are obviously distorted. To some people (not many) a truly clean sound comes as something of a shock, provoking instant rejection. These phenomena might go some way towards explaining why some listeners in a domestic environment perceive an accurate digitally sourced sound as too "raw" and the coloured sound from a record player as accurate. Some program material suppliers use a "sweetening" process. Typically this involves an analogue stage which adds a little euphonious coloration and "softens" the sound. This is commercial expediency at work.
We can't over-emphasize the utility of the "good enough" concept. This enables the listener to enjoy a very wide range of program material without anxieties about whether further improvements in sound quality are available or needed. Chronic anxiety about sound quality makes the listener easy prey to the excesses of the hi-fi industry. We are not always good judges of reproduced sound quality and the placebo effect is very powerful. So is cognitive bias.
WHAT ABOUT COST?
There is no way a first class high quality sound reproduction system will ever be a low cost item. This is true whether it is executed with all new items or a mixture of new and good classic products. Having said that, it needn't and shouldn't be ludicrously expensive either. Some of the very high prices we see today are an insult to the intelligence of the prospective customers. How on earth can a pair of loudspeakers cost more than a new car and in some cases an up market new car? The work and the intrinsic content are just not there. A loudspeaker is a tool to do a job so how is it that so many expensive examples are more like scultures than functional tools? They involve extra cost and aim for aesthetic appeal where the audio engineering alone should be sufficient. How can a moving coil cartridge cost several thousand pounds when the content is similar to that in the good examples at about £1000? How can DACs and CD players be thousands when the components used are only a few pounds or ten of pounds each? Some very expensive items are actually good in terms of the job they do and the results they give but usually alternative items at a fraction of the prices give comparable or even better results if carefully chosen. It's about informed choice. We've heard reports from people who've spent over £50,000 on a system only to realise they've been duped when they hear a much cheaper competent system such as AVI actives or a good passive system. Forget the notion of diminishing returns. Dearer can be worse as well as better. There is no correlation between price and performance in hi-fi. Where hi-fi is concerned truth is all to often an early casualty. We dislike the title "High End" as it isn't clear whether the "High" refers to the price or the performance (or both) and there are no objective standards by which judgements may be made. The Emperor's new suit springs to mind. Unfortunately the hi-fi industry is fertile territory for charlatans and mountebanks. Today there is a huge number of products aimed at the hi-fi market which is after all quite specialized and small. Sometimes it seems like there are more products available than potential customers. We see numerous attempts to "re-invent the wheel".
(13)WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT ANYWAY?
We think it's about enjoying music. High quality sound reproduction increases the enjoyment. It's as simple as that. The equipment we supply (and ancillaries we recommend) amply covers these requirements and we can offer whatever level of user convenience is needed or wanted.
For general use we don't think it's very productive to have a competition for the best replay medium in respect of sound quality. If CD is the source a CD playing facility is needed. If LPs are the source a record player is needed. If DAB a tuner is needed. If tape a tape player. If a cylinder a phonograph. If the internet a computer or equivalent.
We think pushing the frontiers to achieve further progress is best left to the engineers. That's what the creators of the program material do. They are simply consumers of technology trying to be commercially successful. It is a self evident truth that with the more capable storage/replay media the limiting factor is often the original recording (including any processing) rather than the reply chain - if the latter is of first class quality.
ENJOY THE MUSIC!
John Townrow FRAS
Above clockwise are Graham Audio LS55 LS55F LS8/1 VOTU (all shown without grills)