Components, Unite! Page 2

But times have changed. Equipment designers are far more knowledgeable and sophisticated than they used to be, and new measurements such as TIM and FFT (footnote 1) have added an unprecedented degree of subjective relevance to objective testing. The days when an audiophile could produce a better product merely by listening to it, than an engineer could produce by measuring it are long gone.

This is not to say that amplifier A cannot be improved by replacing its Mylar capacitors with Wonder Caps, or that speaker B cannot be improved by substituting heavier woofer chokes in the crossover, but the shortcomings of most of today's high-end products are more often the result of economic factors than lack of design know-how. Most product designs must be compromised in some areas in order to be competitive, and those super-capacitors which the consumer can blithely add to his power amp for $25 would add $200 to the retail price if used by the manufacturer.

But what about those cost-no-object components? Certainly they aren't compromised, are they? Often they are, but for different reasons. It is not too difficult for a competent loudspeaker designer to produce an almost flawless system for use with a specific power amplifier. But he knows that in the real world of high-end audio most consumers are not going to use his speakers with that amplifier. Thus his design must be fudged in various ways, to prevent it from causing one popular amplifier to oscillate with it and another from drying up its low end to the point of thinness.

As things stand today, success in the marketplace requires that a component be, as much as possible, all things to all associated components. Because those other components vary so widely in electrical characteristics and sonic earmarks (colorations), a viable product must hew to the center in its own characteristics so as not to deviate too much in any sonic direction as a result of matching with the others. It must be a "universal" product, capable of the best possible performance with the widest possible cross section of associated components. Any attempt to optimize it for use with specific ancillaries is likely to compromise its performance with many others. This means, in effect, that it can never be as good as it could be if it were specifically designed for use with a particular power amplifier or tonearm or preamplifier.

If further improvements are to take place in perfectionist audio, we're going to have to rethink components. Mix'n'match may be more fun, but it's anachronistic and counterproductive. The way of the future is going to be component integration at the manufacturing level. And the sooner audiophiles recognize this and accept it, the sooner we will reap the sonic benefits of full and uncompromised integration. Amplifiers and loudspeakers should be designed specifically for one another, and phono units should be sold as fully integrated combinations of cartridge, arm, 'table and RIAA preamp with high-level outputs.

Today, component integration is usually done (when it is done at all) by the dealer, which is not really the best solution. As mentioned before, he does not carry all product lines, and he may not carry the tonearm that mates best with his best cartridge. Then there is the iffy question of that dealer's competence, not to mention his integrity. High-end–oriented or not, some dealers simply don't know what they are doing, or work from sonic priorities that may not jibe with those of a given customer. For example, the dealer who is obsessed with imaging and detail will probably put together the speaker/amplifier combination that maximizes those things. And as we have seen, those things are by no means the be-all and end-all of sound reproduction. To further cloud the issue, even the most prestigious dealers are not beyond "pushing" products for reasons other than sonic excellence. Nothing torpedoes dealer integrity like an overstock of a slow-moving or soon-to-be-discontinued product.

But then, component manufacturers aren't always the best judges of reproduced sound either. And they are usually not capable of effective crossover design (not loudspeaker crossovers, but crossing over from their specialty to another area). Even the most inspired loudspeaker designer is likely to be a bust when it comes to designing power amplifiers. Nonetheless, most of them usually have a pretty good idea of what ancillary components work best with their products. And while it is obviously too much to ask of Audio Research and Infinity that they offer "packaged" systems combining each other's power amps and loudspeakers, it does not seem unreasonable to expect a perfectionist component manufacturer at least to recommend what he feels to be the best associated components for use with his own products.

The usual argument against this is that it will give prospective buyers the impression that unrecommended ancillaries are unsuitable, and will discourage sales to people who don't own any of the recommended devices. This assumption may be correct, but a manufacturer's recommendations would also greatly improve the sound quality obtained by those who do buy his product and the recommended ancillaries. Perhaps the crucial question here is to what extent superior sound will—or, indeed, ever has—influenced the sale of any component?

In today's marketplace, products sell not on the basis of their intrinsic quality or worth, but on their hype quotient. It matters little whether a product is clearly superior to its competition. If it isn't trendy, nobody wants it. And in audio these days, component integration is about as trendy as AIDS. Yet solid information should be available from a manufacturer for the person who wants it, even if most don't.

Many times in the past, American audiophiles have demonstrated that they do not want integrated components. So-called powered loudspeakers, packaged with their own driving amplifiers, enjoy some popularity overseas, but they have never gotten off the ground in the US. And "packaged" front-ends have fared even worse. The P-Mount cartridge has given integrated phono units some respectability among casual audiophiles, but no self-respecting perfectionist will even look at one, let alone buy it. The truly integrated front end, containing its own RIAA preamp/equalizer (but no controls) has never even been offered to the consumer. (The first players sold by CBS and RCA for use with LPs and 45s were the last players ever sold that would deliver an equalized high-level signal from discs.)

This situation may change in the near future, however, as CD takes hold in the marketplace. Already, dealers are selling audio systems sans phono unit, with only a CD (or CD and FM) signal source. Since the CD player puts out a high-level signal, we can expect to see growing consumer resistance to preamp/control units having magnetic phono preamp stages, which will look increasingly like an outright waste of money. Of course, most music lovers already own a lot of analog discs, and will continue to need phono preamp stages somewhere in the system to play these. But with time, the logic of putting these in the phono unit rather than in the main control center will become abundantly evident.

As iong as CD and the vinyl disc continue to coexist—which will be for at least another five years and more probably ten—growing numbers of critical listeners will expect them to provide at least comparable sound quality. Most buyers will (justifiably, I think) assume the CD sound to be "more correct," and will look askance at the kind of analog-disc sound that so many audiophiles today assume is the one by which CD should be judged. (There is already a product on the market which caters to this view: Carver's Digital Time Lens, which purports to make CDs sound like analog discs. I hope it doesn't catch on, as it can only succeed in further confusing what could have been a quality shakedown in home music reproduction.) And the only way to ensure that a phono unit produces neutral sound is by integrating the whole ball of wax into a single active player unit including a (control-less) preamp.

Actually, what serious audiophiles want or do not want may be losing importance in the marketplace, as the public at large discovers better sound as a rewarding adjunct to its first love: video. High-end audio manufacturers find these days that they are selling more and more of their products to non-audiophiles, people who exhibit the audiophile's taste for high-quality sound but little of his appetite for diddling. They see (or hear) good sound as something to enjoy rather than something to play with, and thus have more in common with the "serious music listener" than with the true audiophile. They will probably be the first to appreciate the sonic advantages of integration in audio componentry, and since their numbers are far greater, they constitute an attractive-looking market for audio manufacturers who have been noticing signs of a retrenchment in the audio-only business.

Of course, complete integration of audio systems will not totally deprive the hobbyist of the pleasure of diddling. Buying a fully assembled and tweaked phono front end, or a powered loudspeaker system, will not preclude his modifying either one or both. It may just make it a little less justifiable. And I am not recommending that integration become the rule either. Much of the fun of audio lies in discovering those magical, synergistic component combinations which transform high-fidelity sound into truly musical sound. But preassembled and pretweaked phono front ends, and loudspeakers and power amplifiers deSigned specifically for one another, could advance the state of the audio art beyond where it is today, and could give the serious experimenter a head start towards better reproduced sound than he has ever experienced before. And that wouldn't be a bad thing at all.—J. Gordon Holt



Footnote 1: TIM is Transient InterModulation distortion, which occurs when a sudden impulse overloads an amplifier's circuitry before its compensating negative feedback can act to prevent the overload. FFT is the Fast-Fourier Transform. which analyses the reaction of a loudspeaker to an impulse, over a period of time following its emanation from the speaker, to reveal such things as ringing and hangover.
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