Unbelievable

Early in April I was visiting family and friends in the midwest. While there, I had an opportunity to visit a land of audio make believe and to behold the sound of a jaw dropping audio system. Stacks of equipment, separate multichannel and two-channel signal paths, digital music server and a CD spinner and a BluRay player, big towering speakers, mono-blocks for the mains, the subs and the theater surrounds. There must be well over a half ton of gear in this guy’s spacious, acoustically treated, dedicated A/V room. And talk about high-end. The speakers alone blast past the $50k mark, the main amps cost $1000, per watt, per channel. I can’t imagine how much more was put into the preamps, processors, power conditioners, racks, wires and other paraphernalia. It’s a gear-head’s wet dream.

Entering a room like that always makes me a little uneasy. I worry about expecting too much. Past experience prepares me to be disappointed, so I scale back my expectations. Nonetheless, these super systems have consistently shown some strong points, some very strong points, some so-so, and some not so. This time was a big exception. This time I was gobsmacked. I kept listening and listening in utter amazement. Eighty-some thousand US dollars (and this system probably exceeded that) should get you unbelievable, indescribable, inconceivable sound.

With every note of every piece of every recording I tried and tried to find something to nitpick. The only problem was I couldn’t find any small issues to criticize. Everything, from top to bottom, from side to side, sounded flat out wrong. I have to admit to you, I knew going in that the speakers were overrated. My expectations were low from the get go, but I was not prepared for what I heard. The treble was scratchy, the bass was muddled, the upper bass conspicuously absent. The speakers beamed so badly you couldn’t hear the high frequencies unless you were sitting; stand up or slouch, no treble. Worst of all was the strangely blocked transients, a weird lifelessness to the dynamics, as if a limiter were chopping off the peaks. (These are high efficiency speakers, which are supposed to be more dynamic. Another common misconception shot down.) To top off all that, a general grunge from midrange up into the treble masked detail and definition as I’ve never heard before. On orchestral music, instead of hearing violins, violas, cellos, and double basses distinctly, all I heard was a swish-swash of stringy-ish sounds. And of course, the most common and inexcusable flaw of them all, a scooped frequency response—strong mid-bass, drooping midrange, hot mid-treble. Just the kind of response uneducated and/or aging ears go for.

From the information available on the speakers and amps, the suspected causes for this train wreck are; high levels of harmonic distortion, both from the speakers and amps; huge amounts of linear distortion, mostly the speakers; and astronomical levels of intermodulation distortion, from the amps and speakers combined. The amps alone probably contribute the lion’s share of harmonic distortion since its THD spreads across all frequencies, while the speaker’s contribution is heavily concentrated around 2 kHz and 5 kHz. Two separate sources of independent test results reveal the horrific specs of those speakers. A stereo magazine’s tests included a cumulative spectrum decay on the front baffle. It is scary bad. Between that and the amps’ intermodulation, the most destructive form of distortion and the one probably responsible for most of the grunge, it’s no wonder that system sounds so unreal. But the real kicker in this mayhem is those amps were designed to produce that distortion—yeah, it’s on purpose. There’s even a knob to control how much.

The unbelievability ends there, but the disbelief begins with the unbelievably queer shift in audiophile goals. How did it happened? I can only make a stab. It seems to have started some time after the introduction of digital. The overblown sales pitch and overly optimistic expectations set up digital for an initial let down. Nothing’s perfect, and digital had a learning curve, yet many audiophiles during the early years failed to hear either the potential or foresee the destiny of digital audio. In short order, digital had taken over the market, but it’s real sin, the one gear-heads still find discordant, was to make high fidelity cheap and easy and accessible to every Tom and Dick and Hillary. Hi-fi became vulgar. Its exclusivity was over.

With high fidelity now commonplace, there was only one direction to head : backwards. Go back to analog, back to vinyl, back to vacuum tubes. It takes far more effort, far more time, far more skill to wrest out top notch performance from mechanical and valve technology, and tied with that, far more money. Although, I believe there’s another aspect to this retrograde movement. No, not playing the nostalgia card, rather, it’s “the sound.” Nothing sounds like analog. It’s special. Digital is too clean, too clear, too real. Its candid reality was, for some, hard to get used to. It’s near perfection leaves little to strive for. Digital sidesteps the qualities that make analog special. Those special analog qualities, mind you, are distortions. The very distortions hi-fi and audiophiles used to work so very hard to reduce, reduce, reduce, and then, in the blink of an eye, they vanished. What’s an audiophile to do? And what’s the industry going to do with profit margins getting tighter and tighter as digital got cheaper and cheaper?

The answer is plain to see. Give audiophiles what they want. Give them something to work for, something that takes time, skill, effort. Give them the impossible dream. Give them rainbows to chase. Analog, vinyl, vacuum tubes each takes fidelity back to a fairytale paradise before the fall. They restore the game. But a strange twist has been inserted. Instead of pursuing fidelity; forget about it. The goal posts of fidelity had to be torn down. Today the chase is marching to a blatantly militant anti-fidelity beat. To keep the game rolling, audiophiles need distortion. They need something to talk about, to wrestle with, to surmount. The industry needs something to talk about, to finagle, to sell. As long as a product is deficient, there’s always something to pretend to improve. The industry has responded in spades. Price it higher and make it sound special—price it more higher and make it sound more special.

Underhanded? Unethical? Unscrupulous?

Unbelievable.

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