And I Start Fidgeting

The question was asked on an online forum, “When is your HiFi good enough?” Here was one of the answers.

There are moments . . . when my heart/head tells me, ‘There ain’t no better than this.’ But then the next music starts to play and I start thinking, ‘This would sound so much better if. . ,’ and I start fidgeting.

Bingo! Can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me, but there’s a big difference between my reaction and the quoted person’s reaction. Whereas the above blames his equipment, and it may be equipment related, I ask questions. What is the fault? What is the cause? Where is it coming from?

“This would sound so much better if. . ,” gets us nowhere if we only guess at the problem and blame the first thing that comes to mind. A’philes fall into the mire of marketing, reviews, and all sorts of weird inexplicable electromagnetic effects. What if I had a better Digital-Analog Converter? What if I had a better amplifier? Better speakers? Better wires? Or maybe it’s the preamp? The power, the weather, who knows? We start chasing our own tails, swapping out this for that, and never really get to grips with the problem, or even if there is a problem. The merry-go-round of stabbing in the dark and escalating cost never stops until we run out of money or dreams.

A big part of the problem comes from not knowing the basics on the technical side of audio. That’s okay. You don’t need a PhD in electrical engineering to have a basic understanding. But some use their own ignorance to dismiss the technical, and rely simply on their ears. “I know it when I hear it.” That’s true, uh, to a degree. Yet, as far back as the 4th b.c.e., about 2400 years ago, Anaxagoras understood, “Through the weakness of the sense perceptions, we cannot judge truth.” Your ears won’t lie, but your perceptions will. If we could use our ears without their signals getting mixed up with our brains’ interpretation of the signals, and without the signals from our other senses crisscrossing, it might be another story. Consequently, we need reliable, repeatable, objective measures to confirm what we believe we hear. We need those measures to set us in the right direction. You’ll never fix a problem until it’s been correctly diagnosed. Blaming the power, the weather, or who knows, is useless.

But this still misses the first question that needs to be asked. How can this music sound so good, “but then the next music starts. . .” and now it’s not so? What has changed?

Bingo! The only change was the recording. Too often we blame the equipment, the immediate source, instead of the real source : the recording. We’ve been conditioned by marketing to do this. There’s no way, no matter how great your audio system, that you can have excellent sound if the recording you’re playing is inferior. And mind you, that’s coming from someone who has a financial interest in selling better equipment.

I know what my system can do, and what it can’t. I know from measuring it. I know from listening. I know because great recordings sound great, and lesser recordings not so much in proportion to the quality of the recording. I know this because I hear it every time I listen to music, not only on my system, but others’ too.

Stop fidgeting. Get real. Listen and measure. Then you’ll know.

Here’s another thing to stop fidgeting over, formats. I recently had a chance to hear the same recording played back in three different formats, LP, reel-to-reel tape, and CD. I was pumped for this. All three are commercial copies made from the original master tape, a Mercury Living Presence recording. The Living Presence recordings are still considered some of the best ever made. That may be too generous, but for the time period, they were outstanding, and even today they hold up well. My host played the LP first. For an LP it sounded pretty good. Had a few minor snap-crackles, but given the LP wasn’t pristine, quite listenable. Then he played the tape. Suddenly there it was, the whole orchestra. It was like heavy velvet curtains were pulled open from the stage. You could hear the vibrancy of the violins, the warmth of the cellos, the ambience of the concert hall. For a 50+ year old recording, it is remarkably good. Then came the CD. I expected it to be indistinguishable from the tape. Not even close. It was better than the LP, but still hadn’t the openness, liveliness of the tape. Whaah? There’s no excuse for this. My only suspicion is that it was equalized to take out some of the tape hiss. A questionable choice considering how good, and relatively quiet, the tape copy is. Let me stress that the tape I heard is a commercial copy, probably a high-speed dub, and therefore has more tape hiss than the original master. Each format had its distinct sound quality. But the contrasts needed no A/B listening. The LP, by the nature of dragging a diamond chip in a vinyl groove, has severe limitations that explain the loss of fidelity from the tape. The tape, by the nature of its noise floor, a consequence of the size of magnetic particle relative the area the signal is recorded, has ever present hiss. Digital, although not perfect, has neither of these highly audible problems. Had they simply digitized straight from the master, the CD should have sounded better than the tape.

Comparing formats is an interesting game. Unfortunately, it’s riddle with variables that can easily confound making absolute judgements. In the example above, there are other variables, of which I’ll only throw out a few—the turntable, its arm, cartridge, phono stage, the analog output stage of the tube-modded DAC, and of course, the unknowns of the mastering for the different formats that can take an excellent recording from one format and spoil it in another.

Read more about [comparing formats].

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