Dr. AIX's POSTS NEWS — 14 October 2015

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I have a lot of FB friends that post images of high-end audio equipment on their own pages or on the pages of audiophile centric pages. These posts almost exclusively contain images of high-end equipment. Recently, I’ve seen expensive turntables, audiophile accessories, preamplifiers, cables, and exotic speakers. But I don’t remember seeing an album cover or picture of an artist. Which leads me to the following question: Are audiophiles more enthralled by hardware…the equipment that they purchase…or the content that they play through their systems? (Shades of the Alan Parsons quote I wrote about a few days ago.)

I read an article recently that concluded that the industrial design of a speaker (and I would assume the other components that we have in our systems) influences the sound that we perceive coming from the speaker. And the more exotic and the more expensive the better. Take the new Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 speakers. For a mere $80,000, you will soon be able to purchase a pair of these visually stunning, 50″ tall units for yourself (I don’t think they sell them in sets of 5 for my surround system).

As you can see from the picture, each one sports 18 individual drivers…seven tweeters, seven midrange drivers, and four subwoofers powered by fourteen ICE power amps and four additional Class D amps. Add all of this power up and you get a combined output of 8200 watts per channel! I get the feeling from the information I read that these are hybrids units of a sort. The directional capabilities of the BeoLab 90s can be digitally controlled through a Smartphone App. Called “Beam Width Control”, listeners can dial in their own personal preference between tight narrow dispersion and a 360-degree soundfield. Amazing!

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Figure 1 – The new Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 speakers.

I can’t help but think of the “atmospheric modulators” that I read about in the paper provided by Instrument Quality at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest…sound generation devices that activate sound in all dimensions…X, Y, and Z! Forget about the traditional drivers lined up in an array and pointed at you. The future of “speakers” is to excite air molecules the same way the acoustic instruments do.

Even as sophisticated as speakers are and recent developments in amplifier technology like the Benchmark AHB2, I can’t help but feel that the pursuit of better and better equipment is a fool’s mission because the same quest for high-end sound doesn’t drive artists, engineers, producers, and labels. Why bother perfecting the rest of the signal path until the source material…the albums and tracks…measure up to the capabilities of the hardware and audio formats we already have? This would argue against high-resolution audio and music…perhaps CDs are good enough.

Writers attend events like the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and write page after page of usually glowing reviews of a particular room or product. But I don’t remember reading about the source material driving each system. I noticed a major reviewer awarded Ray Kimber’s RMAF 2015 room with a “Best of Show” certificate for the room that he assembled in Denver with partners Martin Logan and EMM Labs. Was that for the sound of the system or the fidelity of the recordings that Ray produces using his unique “IsoMike” technology? I visited the room a couple of times and can’t honestly say that I was impressed by the sound of either…and I’m a fan of surround recording and playback.

The music industry needs to be an equal partner in the quest for high fidelity regardless of format. In my opinion, they’re failing miserably by over processing, over mastering, over auto tuning, and over hyping everything that I find attractive in music. We need to put more pressure on the individuals and organizations making the recordings.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(27) Readers Comments

  1. I don’t think anyone could have said it better about the state of the art of both playback and recording technologies in the audio world than you did in this article. It will certainly give the die-hard upper end golden ears crowd something to ponder. Is all that great equipment worth buying in order to try improving the terrible sounding low-end source recordings so prevalent today? It doesn’t take a genius to answer that one.

  2. “The pursuit of better and better equipment” is indeed a fools errand in my opinion, and not just for the reason you cite (source quality). Equipment has improved dramatically over the forty years I have.been following audio, and yet… It is just as easy to tell live from recorded as it ever was. A big improvement in some area “fools” the ears short term, but long term you can still tell the difference.

    At the recent Capital Audiofest, I heard cellist Vincent Belanger play live cello in the AudioNote room. A few notes of that and you can forget all the “sound of reality” hype all the vendors spew. Save your $80K for concert tickets. And as far as the multi driver setups go, I found the listenability of most systems there to be in inverse proportionality to the complexity of the system. As the AudioNote guy put it, “The more elaborate the driver arrangement, the harder it becomes to create the illusion that the sound is coming from one source.” This well has been run dry, which perhaps is why the audio world is now going down the rabbit hole of expensive and often ridiculous “tweaks”. Spend a reasonable amount of money on a system, get the room acoustics right, accept that it is not going to create a perfect illusion of ‘live’ no matter what the manufacturer claims, and relax and enjoy some music.

    • Dave, I don’t measure success by whether the reproduced sound equals the experience at a live venue. That’s not goal of most commercial recordings…maybe jazz and classical but certainly not pop/rock/country. I like produced records…imagined and realized in the studio. But the extreme processing applied to studio recordings makes them less listenable.

  3. Honestly Mark, I am really surprised that you would accuse audiophiles of being anything less than the most rabid music lovers. Would you expect a lover of fine food to be happy with plastic cutlery?

    For me, my 30 year plus odyssey through some really great equipment has been with one sole purpose and that is to get as close as possible to the original performance.

    Do I buy music that makes my system sound good as Mr Parson suggested was the case with audiophiles recently? Actually, no. If I find a great recording then, sure, I want to own it, but simply for the reason that I know it is going to be more musically satisfying due to a perfect marriage between recording and system.

    Given the complexity of system that is required to get the best from your surround recordings, I would have thought you’d be encouraging us all to go out and get better and better gear.

    • This was not a piece about audiophiles…it was a plea for the recording industry to provide us with better source material. We love listening to music and tweaking our systems to maximize the experience. But what if the fuel doesn’t match the capabilities of the system? That’s what I see as a huge problem.

      • Sorry Mark, I clearly misinterpreted your opening paragraph. Apologies for that.

        To be honest I’m still pretty enthralled by the quality of a lot of the music that’s out there. With the right equipment and the right recording, this is the best hobby in the world. It’s not all bad, but you’re right there’s plenty of room for improvement.

        A couple of recent trips to my local, very, very good, independent record store revealed where the record industry has perhaps been seeing an opportunity of late – vinyl. It’s not uncommon, at all, for new “audiophile” vinyl to be priced at 40 bucks or more for a single album. Outrageous, but it’s clear people are buying the stuff.

        • There is a lot of great sounding music…it’s not a requirement to listen to high-res music to enjoy it.

  4. Dr AIX asks:
    “Are audiophiles more enthralled by hardware…the equipment that they purchase…or the content that they play through their systems?”

    When I Google the definition of “audio” and the first thing to come up says:
    “sound, especially when recorded, transmitted, or reproduced.”

    And Googling the definition of “phile” returns:
    “denoting fondness for a specified thing.”

    Google tells me an “audiophile” is:
    “a hi-fi enthusiast.”

    So now I have “hi-fi” in the mix which, as a noun comes back as:
    “a set of equipment for high-fidelity sound reproduction.”

    And also “hi-fi” as an adjective being:
    “of, used for, or relating to the reproduction of music or other sound with high fidelity.”

    Most everything in these definitions points towards the “enthralled by hardware” answer to the good Doctor’s question. Only in the last definition is music mentioned and even then it allows for “other sound”. (I remember back when hi-fi demo records included sounds like trains, crickets, cannons, somebody walking across stage to demonstrate stereo, etc.)

    Not to say that audiophiles cannot also be enthralled by listening to music, but yes, I’d say the audiophile hobby is, by definition, mostly about the hardware and the way it reproduces sounds. Music is a generally pleasant “sound” that gives audio hobbyists a common ground from which to discuss equipment differences.

    Most importantly, THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. Many other hobbies are just like that. Some build and tweak high-performance cars but have little interest in actual high-performance driving. Lots of hobbyists collect LPs mostly for the covers, or the fact they are pressed in tinted translucent vinyl, with no interest in the music or sound quality. Trying to improve the sound of your system easily fits the definition of a hobby – “an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure.”

    A bad thing would be a situation where only the “real music-loving audiophiles” were buying good sounding equipment and the “hardware-loving audiophiles” all pursued other hardware-oriented hobbies (like say building computers). The market for equipment beyond consumer mid-fi would be so small that it basically wouldn’t exist. And we would not be reading and commenting on this blog.

    • Thanks Mark…very well presented. Playback equipment is better than fidelity we get from the records we want.

  5. Nothing really new under the sun they say. Bose 901 Direct/Reflecting speakers since 1968, very familiar to me.

    It’s very easy to pick up this months Stereophile or TAS and spend well over a million dollars putting together a system made up of components from their Class A+ lists. But I also know it’s also true that an educated music lover could assemble a system that would sound equally as good for 1/10th of the price or less. So in the end its very difficult to tell a true music lover from the audiophile status symbol seeker.

    Something it did take me about my first 25 years as a high quality sound seeker to learn. After I got my system to a certain level the more I spent and the better my system got, the worse my system sounded. Why? In general I was better able to hear into the recording and hear how crappy the average popular music recordings actually sounded. After that my enthusiasm started to ebb as far as constantly looking for ever better equipment.

  6. You may be reading the wrong forums. And to be fair as far as I know new albums are not announced at these shows, but new equipment is shown, so that is the news people report and post about.
    Wil a technical wellproduced album always sound fantastic no matter how the quality of the rest of the system? if so many of us are like you suggest on the wrong path.

  7. OT from yesterday, sorry.
    Maybe I missed it but was the issue of MQA being a lossy codec something that was released
    before or is this a newly released detail of the system? I just don’t remember MQA being discussed
    as lossy.

  8. At this point, I have learned to ignore the audio press. I still subscribe as I get the mags for essentially free. I have read glowing reviews of rooms at many shows that I have visited with friends and we wonder if were in the same room as the reviewer, who loved the sound that we thought were dreadful. I have also seen that the reviewers always seem to love the rooms with the mega bucks equipment, which far too many of the mags focus on in their reviews. A connection there per chance? As audiophiles die off or lose interest, there are fewer and fewer people to sell expensive equipment to. As a result, the manufacturers continue to raise prices, resulting in even fewer sales. It seems to me that they increase the bling factor of their equipment as part of an effort to justify the cost of the gear. Personally, I support companies that give great performance at reasonable, as I perceive them, pricing. Those are the companies that have and will continue to get my business.

  9. Mark, I think people talk about equipment, because as audiophiles, we have a goal of getting the best sound possible in our price range.
    Taste in music is a personal thing, so other than discussing the quality of a recording, sharing music is usually done on an individual basis. When someone comes over, I play them what I am listening to, or something I think they would like.
    Some of the music I have been listening to, as of late, are local bands, that now thanks to websites like Bandcamp, can record their own albums, with software and hardware that is affordable. The recordings aren’t to audiophile standards, but the music gets out there. Do the Sugar Stems sound better on my high end system, than on a smartphone, with earbuds? Well, yes, of course it does. We put together systems that will get the most out of the music we listen to.
    Lucinda Williams released a deluxe version of “Blessed”, the 2nd Cd is demos of the album recorded on a Samson Zoom Q3. I think you can buy one for around $400. It is very listenable, an audiophile recording, no, but it doesn’t take away from the emotion, the feeling of being there in her kitchen.

    As a music lover, I am striving to get the most out of the recordings that are available. Most of my music collection is music that will never be available in your definition of hi-rez, If money allowed, and favorites were remastered in versions that would get me closer to that music, I would buy it. Do I want all new recordings to be true hi-rez, yes, but that isn’t going to happen overnight. I’m hoping that Neil and Pono has made bands/artists aware of the desire for better recordings. When the artists start demanding nothing less than 24/96, we will see some progress. Until then, I do what I can to get the most out of the music available.

  10. Mark,
    Suppose the following happened:
    Rolex stopped making watches because many people just look at their phones for a time check.
    Aston Martin stopped making cars because the speed limit is 65 mph.
    Chateau Margaux stopped producing wine because most people want a $10 bottle with a screw top.
    Your beloved and oft-mentioned Benchmark did not improve their product because most people are satisfied with MP3’s.

    To say that the quest to improve hardware is a “fools mission” is beyond belief. My flabber was gasted.
    Perhaps you need that two-week sabatical away from this blog to re-think your mission. Then when you come back from your travels you may want to consider publishing every other day so that you can dedicate more time to proof reading. You have raised so many good subjects in the last few years but often the messenger gets in the way of the message. I apologize for any errors as typing into a small box is restrictive.

    Thanks

    • Here’s another similar thought process:

      McLaren’s P2 $1.15 million dollar high performance automobile rolls up to your house but aren’t able to experience all of the potential performance because you can’t fill the tank with anything but 86 octane fuel.

      Victor, my point is that the equipment we have access to is far beyond the quality/fidelity of the media we play through it. It’s time to focus equal attention to getting better recordings.

      I haven’t decided what to do during my travels to Europe…stay tuned.

      I

      • Mark,

        I think you mean a P1 but have good vacation anyway…..

        V

        • Victor, I mean the McLaren P2…the dealership is right across the street. They rolled one off of a flatbed truck recently and I went out to ask about it. They’re making 370 of them at $1.15 million dollars each…an I think they’re all claimed.
          McLaren P2 outside my window

          • Nice!

  11. Amen, Mark! The chain is no stronger than its weakest link and at this time it is the first few links that need reinforcing!

  12. Rudy Bozak produced a spherical speaker in the late ’50s in the quest to move the air in the listener’s room in the same way an instrument would. Others did similar things. Today Richard Shahanian produces speakers that radiate a half globe of sound (the top models use W shaped tweeters and have been in production for multiple decades. He sells all he can build with almost no advertising and no show appearances. The Larsen 8 and 6 produce a quarter sphere of sound. There is a lot to like about omni directional speakers. Even the new (and very impressive) Carver ALS speakers are producing a very near cylindrical pattern of sound, 270 degrees or so and deliberately uses the room walls to distribute the sound in a very musically involving way. Who wants a sweet spot only a few can enjoy?

    Audiophiles use music to listen to their equipment? Didn’t you know that? What a surprize! A good 5.1 system will amaze and delight music lovers and equipment lovers at the same time. And it’s a great excuse to get more than twice as much gear! Try it! You’ll like it!

    • Hank Wolcott made an omnispherical speaker…I brought two of them. I didn’t like the sound and returned them…too diffuse. I think there’s a difference between directing sound in all directions and trying the recreate the dispersion of sound from an instrument or ensemble.

  13. The music industry needs to be an equal partner in the quest for high fidelity regardless of format. Yeah, good luck with that statement. The moribund industry is struggling on how to profit, screw and squeeze a penny from the public using Spotify, Pandora and digital downloads. They would never accept high fidelity as its saving grace.

    • You’re probably right. High-resolution audio is not part of the equation.

  14. When you go to those audio enhanced showrooms the sound reverberates also off the speakers in the room NOT being used in the demo. The same is true when you audition a boombox ion a shelf in a WalMart where in fact they may have all systems tuned to the same station at a lower volume. No one seems to talk about the effect of that excess vibration adding or subtracting from what you hear yet it is much the same as the difference between open and closed headphones.

    • Good point!

  15. I concur with you on this on Mark. I feel that many audiophiles get so caught up in the chase for a bigger and better sound (which only expensive equipment can provide) that they lose sight of the reason why they got into this hobby in the first place. The music itself.

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