The 2011 Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture: "Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?" Case Study 4: Amplifiers

Case Study 4: Amplifiers
To many audio engineers, the amplifier is a solved problem. Static distortion and noise levels can be restricted to well below the threshold of human hearing at all audible frequencies and at all power levels short of clipping. Yet the darned things continue to surprise by sounding different—perhaps only slightly different, and sometimes for trivial reasons, such as too high an output impedance. But over the years I have been measuring amplifiers, some things have fallen out of the cloud of measured data: factors that are shared by amplifiers that sell well to audiophiles.

First, in a post–Peak Oil world, the high efficiency of class-D amplifiers is very tempting. Yet the paradox is that a class-D amplifier that measures as well in every respect as a linear amplifier of the same power tends to be as large and as heavy!

Second, if your design's small-signal measurements are relatively stable despite changes in the output current—that is, it offers the same THD+noise percentage into 4 ohms as into 2 ohms for the same voltage—people will prefer it to an amplifier whose THD is proportional to its output current.

Third, a wide open-loop bandwidth seems preferable to a low bandwidth, perhaps simply because you can use less overall negative feedback.

Fourth, if you as a designer can use loop negative feedback to linearize the open-loop behavior, you should err on the side of too little feedback rather than too much. If the result is a linear increase in second-harmonic distortion with increasing output power, and provided you don't also introduce too much intermodulation, listeners will like the sound of your amplifier.

Fifth, given that even short lengths of speaker cables have finite impedances, there seems little point in maximizing your amplifier's damping factor.

These last three points are all related, of course. Perhaps Harold Black's negative feedback is something that, like a spice, is best used in moderation; that the more linear the circuit is without loop feedback, the more it behaves in a manner consonant with the brain's need to construct internal models. And yes, this is conjecture.

But again I'm reminded of Richard Heyser, who decades ago showed a colleague of mine a box that measured superbly on continuous tones: it had suitably low levels of harmonic and intermodulation distortion, a flat frequency response, would pass a squarewave intact, and, with pure tones, would even pass an input/output nulling test with flying colors. Yet if you played music through it, it sounded terrible. The late Peter Walker possessed the rare ability to reduce a problem to a succinct expression of its essentials. When talking about amplifier design, expressed to me his opinion that it was all "Ohm's Law and common sense," something that has stuck in my mind ever since and has proved to be true. Peter suggested a similar black box to me. Again, it passed every steady-state test of goodness, yet its effect on a music signal was immediately noticeable, even objectionable.

The Heyser box was an amplifier with a series relay controlled by a side chain that analyzed for symmetry. With symmetrical signals—test tones—the relay would stay closed. With asymmetrical signals—music—it would be continually opening and closing, if only momentarily. The Walker box was an amplifier whose gain varied with signal level; in other words, it was a compressor or expander. A steady-state measurement using a repetitive waveform allows the unit to stabilize its gain, and it thus acts as any other "perfect" amplifier. With music, however, you hear the aberration in its response.

Both Heyser and Walker mentioned the multidimensional nature of audio-component performance. However, when you make a measurement on an amplifier, you have to limit those dimensions to just the two, or possibly three, mandated by your test. The very act of making the test procedures practicable has changed the situation so much that the results may not be applicable to real-life use. Perhaps, therefore, the real issue with amplifiers is that they are designed and tested in isolation, but are actually used as part of a complex system consisting of arbitrary cables and loudspeakers on one end and arbitrary sources on the other. (Note that difference testing, where the output under actual conditions of use is compared with the input, would be very revealing. As of yet I have had no results worth publishing with this technique, though the tools are now available.)

So an amplifier's absolute performance can't be considered in isolation. You have to consider its interactions with the source component, the loudspeakers, and the cables connecting them.

First, one of my bugbears measuring amplifiers, particularly if they have single-ended inputs: The first thing I always do is to try all the different possible ground arrangements, to get the lowest noise. I try floating the Audio Precision's output ground, and/or its input ground. With a stereo amplifier, I try floating just one channel rather than both. I float the amplifier's AC cord (with care). With some components, changing a ground connection can increase the level of hum and RF noise by a factor of 10. The lowest noise may not be achieved with a typical coaxial cable. It may be necessary to run a separate ground reference wire and connect the shield to just one rather than both chassis. The system's noise level may well change, depending on whether the cable's shield is connected to the source component's ground or the load component's.

So when that amplifier is used in an owner's system, there is no knowing what the noise level of that system is. When he reports that changing the amplifier to another model or even changing a cable made an audible difference, he may just be lowering or increasing his system's noise level.

Second, here is a block diagram of an amplifier, something with which all engineers will be familiar:

It has an input on the left and an output on the right. Here is a similar diagram, this time of a feedback amplifier:

Again, it has the input on the left and the output on the right. But now there is a second input: the output terminals are the input to the negative-feedback loop. It can be argued that the cable connecting the amplifier to the speakers is actually an antenna. At audio frequencies, that antenna is connected to very low impedances, so why would this matter? But think about this: the loudspeaker may have low impedance at audio frequencies, but this may well not be so at radio frequencies. These days, we all are immersed in a bath of RF radiation—in my basement listening room, I can pick up not only our own but several of our neighbors' WiFi networks—and it might be possible that at frequencies at which it best behaves as an antenna, the cable will inject RF energy into the amplifier's feedback loop. Even a few millivolts of RF can drive a feedback amplifier into slew-rate limiting. Martin Colloms in the UK published work showing that audiophile speaker cables varied by a large degree in their efficiency as RF antennas. Some "audiophile" cables use a weave to reduce RF pickup; others use an RC network; others don't do anything. Perhaps that may be one reason cables might sound different in different systems and locations. The effect is arbitrary and therefore unpredictable. But there might be something there.

Unless your listening room or studio is enclosed in a Faraday cage, therefore, whether or not cables make a difference in the sound quality—and any difference can be a degradation as easily as an improvement, of course—is as much a function of the system as of the cable. I am beginning to believe that when listeners report wires and amplifiers as having sonic signatures, they are actually responding to small, perhaps subliminally perceived differences in their system's noisefloor, which may not always be sufficiently low in level nor truly random in nature to ensure audible transparency.

Other than that, I will pass over the thorny topic of signal cables having an effect on sound quality that is due to anything other than the usual electrical parameters of resistance, inductance, and capacitance. We could easily be here all night discussing that subject. I won't say any more about cables except to point out that, as with light beer, gasoline, and tobacco, the brand differentiation of cables is achieved primarily through advertising. That doesn't mean that there aren't also differences in sound quality, only that, as with mass-market beer, those differences can be relatively small. But does "small" necessarily equate with "inaudible" or "unimportant"?

Incidentally, this is why judging a cable's value for money by comparing its retail price with its bill of materials is misleading, as the large cost of advertising needs to be factored in. And what if there were no advertising? Decades ago—and my apologies for not remembering which brand it was—a cigarette brand decided that they could make a lot more money if they drastically cut back on their ad budget. (This was at a time when cigarette advertising was ubiquitous.) Without ad support, their market share collapsed!

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COMMENTS
JohnnyR's picture

I haven't seen one iota of explanation from yourself yet as to why both of us and Harman Kardon and the other links George posted to are wrong. Still waiting ChrisSy.

ChrisS's picture

Has HK hired you guys as DBT consultants?

 

Hey JRusskie,

Can you answer this one?

If A=B and C=B, then A=?

If you pass the test, then perhaps someone will hire you... But you and Georgie might have to fight over the job.

JohnnyR's picture

"i think THESE are the sort of differences between individuals that make DBT difficult: everyone hears differently. there is no absolute sound."

The sole purpose of DBT is to see if the person listening can distinguish between A and B. If they can't then for all practical purposes there is no difference in the sound from A and B. You and ChrisSy seem to think it's all about what the person "likes". It's a straight forward test method and "likes" has nothing to do with it.

Please explain to us all how Harman Kardon manages to use DBT all the time and do it well? I will be awaiting your reply Ariel.

ChrisS's picture

So every household has a Harman Kardon product? And you and Georgie have living rooms that look like anechoic chambers? No fireplaces, of course....

ChrisS's picture

Hearing a difference between a Harman Kardon product and another product in a anechoic chamber means what to you, Georgie and JRusskie?

Do you know that Ford makes the best trucks in the world?

ChrisS's picture

Are you sure I didn't say 'licks". You know maybe tasting an audio product will yield just as useful results in a DBT.

ChrisS's picture

JRusskie,

Now run out to your nearest Boris' Convenience store and get yourself a can each of Pepsi (do you even have Pepsi in the Former-USSR?) and Coca-Cola and set up your own Pepsi (or whatever passes for cola in Russia) Challenge.

Wiki has a nice explanation of how to do a DBT...

Once you've done your very own Peps(k)i Challenge, please send us your conclusion. We're curious...

The next step now is to get everyone in your subsidized housing project to participate in your Pepski Challenge.

Gather up that data, compare it your own conclusion and let us know how useful that information is.

I'm sure you'll enjoy the challenge of your doing your very own DBT's! (You won't even have to ask Harman Kardon to use their anechoic chamber!)

John Atkinson's picture

JohnnyR wrote:
The sole purpose of DBT is to see if the person listening can distinguish between A and B. If they can't then for all practical purposes there is no difference in the sound from A and B.

And that's the problem with these tests. If a formal blind test gives results that are indistinguishable from what would be given by chance, formal statistical analysis tells us that this result does _not_ "prove" there was no difference in the stimulus being tested, only that if there _was_ a difference, it was _not_ detectable under the conditions of the test. No more general conclusion can be drawn from the results. And as I have said, it is very difficult to arrange so that those conditions don't themselves become interfering variables. Even the fact that it is a test at all can be an interfering variable, as I explain in this lecture preprint.

JohnnyR wrote:
Please explain to us all how Harman Kardon manages to use DBT all the time and do it well?

I have visited Harman's facility in Northridge and their blind testing set-up is impressive. They have worked hard to eliminate interfering variables and their testing is time- and resource-consuming and painstaking. Even so, they have to make compromises. Blind testing of loudspeakers, for example, is almots always performed in mono. And despite the rigor of their testing, you still have anomalous results, like the Mark Levinson No.53 amplifier, which was designed with such testing but fared poorly in the Stereophile review.

While formal blind tests are prone to false negative results - not detecting a difference when one exists - sighted listening is prone to false positives, ie, it detects a difference when none exists or perhaps exaggerates the degree of difference. As neither methodology is perfect, we go with the one that is manageable with our resources. We therefore offer our opinions for readers to reject or accept in the context of their own experience and I believe Stereophile does  a better job of that than any other review magazine or webzine.

If you are uncomfortable with that policy, then you should not read the magazine. And if I remember correctly, JohnnyR, you admitted in earlier discussions on this sute that you neither subscribe to Stereophile, nor do you buy the magazine on the newsstand. So why should anyone pay attention to your opinions on how the magazine conducts itself?

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JohnnyR's picture

So you are saying that if in a DBT the listeners could NOT tell a difference between two amps using music of their own choice then that doesn't prove the amps sound alike?  Funny stuff there Atkinson. For one who thinks you should trust your ears to evaluate components you just bashed the ONE single TRUE way to test by USING YOUR OWN EARS in a DBT.

"And that's the problem with these tests. If a formal blind test gives results that are indistinguishable from what would be given by chance, formal statistical analysis tells us that this result does _not_ "prove" there was no difference in the stimulus being tested, only that if there _was_ a difference, it was _not_ detectable under the conditions of the test."

Your own words are saying that "if there was a difference it was not detectable under the conditions of the test"........oh you mean like letting the listener use the music of their own choice and switch back and forth endless times between two amps and then guess wrongly enough times so that they can't tell which one was which? LMAO if that's not proof that both amps sound alike then what sort of test WOULD prove that they do?  Come on Atkinson you just don't like DBTs because they would show up so many components that people think sound "oh so better than the rest"

Opinions from you and your reviewers are the Gospel now folks. No need to test anything really just trust good ol'JA and his flunkies. Yay.

"If you are uncomfortable with that policy, then you should not read the magazine. And if I remember correctly, JohnnyR, you admitted in earlier discussions on this sute that you neither subscribe to Stereophile, nor do you buy the magazine on the newsstand. So why should anyone pay attention to your opinions on how the magazine conducts itself?"

Oh just maybe because  a lot of people care for this little thing called the TRUTH? When magazines like your's take liberties with the truth by having shoddy reviews instead of in depth testing, then it's everyone's and anyone's responsibility to speak up when crappy falsehoods are published and the readers are supposed to take it all on faith. That's why. I for one do not take your opinions on anything audio related as worthwhile at all for the simple reasons that you show so much promise when you measure speakers but fail to even bother with the snakeoli products that you let slide under the radar yet let your reviewers give them glowing reviews sans any testing what so ever. Maybe that's the sighted listening bias you just spoke about yet you fail to even try with those type of products to get to the real TRUTH.

ChrisS's picture

JRusskie,

If you like Harman Kardon marketing, but you're not sure if Ford makes the best trucks in the world, then get yourself an F-150 and whatever truck you used to rumble across Afghanistan with, do your DBT (just like  the Pepski Challenge) and let us know what you come up with...

You are marketing TRUTH now? How pure is it?

I know some construction workers who might be interested...

ChrisS's picture

JRusskie, Just looking at your response to John's post and comparing word-for-word what John wrote and what you think he says, there's such a huge world of difference!! There's a war in your head!

[Flame deleted by John Atkinson].

GeorgeHolland's picture

"Even so, they have to make compromises. Blind testing of loudspeakers, for example, is almots always performed in mono."

Well Mr Atkinson the reasoning behind testing speakers in mono is to eliminate the dreaded comb filter affect that would otherwise show up if a stereo pair were auditioned and the listener moved their head even a couple of inces. I'm surprised you didn't mention that fact but then again you think DBTs are hard to do, so if you don't know how to do them then indeed they are hard to do. *Chuckle*  Any DBT done should be auditoned is such a manner. The rest of your "excuses" for not doing them is the same old same old from you, nothing surprising there.

ChrisS's picture

So Georgie Porgie,

Let's say JRusskie is DBT'ing a $1500 speaker and a $500 speaker and can't hear a difference, and you are DBT'ing a $4500 speaker and a $4000 speaker and you happen to have enough working neurons to hear a difference... Which set of speakers should the ex-shepherd construction worker buy?

John Atkinson's picture

GeorgeHolland wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
Even so, they have to make compromises. Blind testing of loudspeakers, for example, is almost always performed in mono.

Well Mr Atkinson the reasoning behind testing speakers in mono is to eliminate the dreaded comb filter affect that would otherwise show up if a stereo pair were auditioned and the listener moved their head even a couple of [inches].

That is a consideration, of course, but in my opinion a minor one. As I had understood from Floyd Toole back in the day, the additional complexity required  of  Harman's physical speaker shuffling apparatus to do blind speaker testing in stereo was not justified by the results, ie, they felt that the stereo performance could be predicted from the mono results.

I don't agree with that, but more importantly, this illustrates the thesis offered in my lecture, that when you move the testing situation a step away from how the product is going to be used, you can't be sure that the assumptions you make haven't invalidated the test. As I write in the abstract to the lecture, "perhaps some of things we discard as audio engineers bear further examination when it comes to the perception of music."

BTW, I am still waiting for you to acknowledge that the criticism you made of my lecture, that it was not about Richard Heyser, was incorrect.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

GeorgeHolland's picture

More excuses?  I see what Johnny meant. You are never wrong. I am pretty sure Haram Kardon knows what they are doing. Please address any criticisms to them not me.

I am afraid that comb filtering IS a big deal. That would explain why cables "sound" different. It's not the cable but the listener changing where their head is between "testing"

You will be waiting a long time for any ackowledgement about your "lecture". Stop being the primadonna already.

Regadude's picture

Georgie wrote:

"Stop being the primadonna already."

Look in the mirror and repeat those words!!!! laugh

ChrisS's picture

So how does one differentiate speakers that sound differently, amplifiers that sound differently, pre-amps, turntables, tonearms, cartridges, DAC's, etc., if a turn of one's head makes that much difference?

Where's your reliability, Georgie? Doesn't science depend on reliability?

JohnnyR's picture

I can see what George is up against in here with Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee tag teaming and showing their ignorance.

http://www.ethanwiner.com/believe.html

Golly look what he meant.I think Ethan was banned from here ages ago for showing up Fearless Leader and his cronies and out right showing how REAL science works. BWAHAHAHAHAHAH loser boys.

Regadude's picture
John Atkinson's picture

Quote:
http://www.audioholics.com/news/editorials/diy-loudspeakers

Just bookmarking the link for future reference.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JohnnyR's picture

......when you start doing a single DBT or even a SBT then you can talk about the "truth". Have you EVER designed and built your own speakers? Nahhhhhhhh you are too lazy or too "busy". Still finding plenty of time though to post online all the time though strangely enough.cheekyTill then you aren't an engineer so take your own advice and don't comment on speaker design anymore.

If you are going to save the link then please also save this link where discussion about it unfolded.

http://forums.audioholics.com/forums/loudspeakers/83412-diy-loudspeakers...

As you can see the original post was just one of many OPINIONS about the topic that is if you bother to read it at all. There are various OPINIONS about the topic and notice just how many of the so called "hobbyists" ended up being professional speaker builders. If you just pick and choose certain OPINIONS from the thread then you are guilty of leaving out facts.

For starters read the sixth post down by Jinjuku regarding Jeff's post that pretty much sums up where DIY has progressed.

ChrisS's picture

Not real science either...

GeorgeHolland's picture

Frick and Frack strike again. Regadude and ChrisS always come up with strawman replies and ignore the links posted."Not real science "? How pompus can you get? Mr Winer measured the effects of comb filtering, what did you measure ChrisS the length of your nose when you typed that reply? You dismiss anything people link to yet show us nothing in return. Regadude, posting opinions isn't real science just so you both understand. Now run along lil boys and study real hard, maybe in another 20 years you might be able to hold your own in a discussion.

ChrisS's picture

Has Winer's results been verified?

Did you know that Harman Kardon makes the best audio products in the world? And Ford makes the best trucks, right?

JohnnyR's picture

Or is that above your abilities like thinking?

Go ahead, put on a pink or white noise source and move your head about and tell me the sound doesn't change. You won't bother so forget it ChrisSy.laugh

ChrisS's picture

When moving a microphone while recording a person's voice, the sound changes. Did the voice change?

GeorgeHolland's picture

You never answer a question , you just put forth silly questions of your own. That's what people do when they don't know or are scared to try.

Moving a microphone while recording a person's voice? If that's how you do things then no wonder you don't know what Johnny was talking about. Yes the sound changes as recorded by the microphone so what?  Genius.angle

ChrisS's picture

I'll answer you this one... You and JRusskie always answer your own questions that you pose to everyone in these discussions. There's no need to provide any answer to you. As well, your attitudes and limited knowledge of the application of research methodology make civil and thoughtful discourse impossible.

So my questions to you and JRusskie are formed to reveal how each of you think whenever you provide a response.

You provide enough information for me to say that I find the "best" use of my time in these discussions is to make fun of you and JRusskie.

Ariel Bitran's picture

makes some sense of the whole darn thing.

Regadude's picture

The only duo that strikes here George, is you and Johnny. You both STRIKE OUT!

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