Stereophile's Writers on an Audio Quest Page 7
Low: It's so interrelated. Stores tailor what they carry to what's gotten good reviews. Along with the politics of distribution—I talked to a dealer in Albuquerque and he doesn't want to carry his favorite speaker because it's carried by a dealer in Santa Fe who has business practices, he believes, that result in the business in Albuquerque being stolen away. You do get these politics and that's unfortunate. And that has something to do with what kind of speakers are going to be sold in Santa Fe and what kind of speakers are going to be sold in Albuquerque. But it's a real fact of life. If the guy recommends his favorite speaker but can't stay alive doing it, he hasn't done anybody any good.
Consumers, again. There's this real fragile male ego problem. The consumer is his own worst enemy. He wants to know more than the salesman. And it takes a surprising amount of confidence on the consumer's part for him to actually listen to what the salesman has to say, to allow himself to sit in the sound room and actually enjoy the music, not just to listen to a test record going "boom, bang," and say, "Wow, that's amazing!" It requires a surprising amount of sophistication on the part of the consumer to get past that initial feeling that he doesn't want to be had, therefore he has to know more, therefore he's going to go to Consumer Reports or Stereophile or whatever he takes as his bible.
Those of us in high-end all make fun of something like Stereo Review. Well, the people who read it think it's serious. They're taking it seriously, even if we aren't. So whatever information they come into the store with, there's a credibility challenge between that previous information and what the store is saying. And that's true whether it's Stereophile or Consumer Reports.
The consumer buys bad equipment because bad equipment is made because consumers will buy it. Not all bad equipment is some plot on the part of the Japanese or whoever—they make direct-drive turntables that have weighted rumble figures that look fantastic even though their real rumble's much worse because consumers buy it that way. The manufacturers didn't think up the system. Sometimes they contributed to it and they bear a lot of responsibility, but as the consumer gets to buy what he wants, the consumer bears the responsibility for the fact that most of the larger market is garbage. It's not our fault, it's not Stereo Review's fault, it's not the Japanese manufacturers' fault, it's the consumer's fault. He's the one who ultimately keeps those people in business or puts them out of business.
Atkinson: But the very concept of a free market carries with it the idea of total dissemination of information to those involved. Now, maybe the mass-market people buy the bad equipment because their access to relevant information is restricted. The kind of products we review in the main aren't within their reach. Magazines such as Consumer Reports and Stereo Review, both of which review the equipment that those people buy, back off from saying anything critical. I feel that's a failing on their part. They're not giving those people the information they need for the free market to operate and thus weed out the bad and promote the good.
Don Scott: With equipment designed and manufactured in Japan, Korea, or Taiwan or wherever, it's sent over here with a sales quota—"We're sending you 5000 units, you have to sell these by x date." Say I give the product a negative review, the US company says, "Thank you, because we have been telling these people, they've been sending us this crap, and they won't listen to us. Now, with the magazine's credibility, we have a little clout to go back and tell them to make that product better."
Robert Harley: The American distributor of a famous brand of 32-track digital recorder didn't think the machine sounded good so they gave it to a third party here in America and said, "What's wrong with this machine? Measure it, listen to it." They discovered that the performance at 20kHz was 12-bit at best, and never better than 14-bit. So they rebuilt the machine, put new converters in it, all new circuits, they made it sound infinitely better. They gave it back to the American distributor who listened to it, couldn't believe it. The third party, the company that evaluated it, wrote a full engineering report about what they'd measured before and about what they'd done, but the Japanese said, "No, this isn't true, the machine was perfect. We made this machine and it's right, and that's the way it is." And that was three years ago, and thousands of records have been made on these machines that sounded bad. The manufacturer just wouldn't accept that it was anything but perfect.
Atkinson: I'd like to point out, in case readers think this is a case of Japan-bashing, that this also applies to American companies exporting to Europe, which I saw a lot of when I lived in England. In general, it's the failure of an exporter to recognize the needs of the market his distributor serves.
Low: It's a universal problem.
Mitchell: Bill, you said that customers are ultimately responsible for the fact that there's a lot of mediocre equipment on the market because they're content to buy it. That establishes a context for a quotation you began with. You quoted Michael Riggs as saying, "I used to believe amplifiers sounded different but I learned better, and so now I no longer care about the differences in sound." Within the context of his learning experience, that is a valid statement. Which is that in his early life he did in fact hear differences among amplifiers. He didn't account them as important but he was aware that they existed. Then there came a time when he was involved in a controlled test of amplifiers out of which emerged the fact that the principle audible differences among these amplifiers were all clearly related to differences in their frequency responses. From which he logically and properly concluded that the most important audible differences between amplifiers are not mysterious. They're due to conventional engineering design errors, and could easily be compensated for with an equalizer if one cared to do so. So the point is not that amplifiers never sound different, but that there isn't anything fundamentally mysterious about why they do so. Within the context of the market he focuses on, which is basically under-$3000 systems, it's a perfectly valid comment.
Low: No, it isn't. Again, it's unfortunate that "high end" often means pricey. I'd rather see the phrase "merit-based"; that is, a high-end design attitude rather than just a high-end price. You can put together an $800 system that is far better than what people would get by spending $3000 at their local mega-store. Low price doesn't mean that there aren't differences. It so happens the kind of manufacturers that are most likely to pay the most attention and therefore make the products that distinguish themselves the most are not primarily in that market category. That doesn't mean that there isn't the $200 speaker occasionally or an NAD 3020. There is a beautiful example of such a sweetheart product; that whole company was created because there were people paying attention.
Mitchell: That was another example of a case where sonic differences between amplifiers were not mysterious. They are created by well-known engineering factors. People often misinterpret the argument about whether amplifiers sound different as to whether there's any audible difference between them, or whether there's a mysterious difference between them. At the very high end, there are, in fact, unexplained differences between amplifiers, differences for which we do not know how to measure what's going on there. We don't know what the factors are. But people assume that if that's true for the very high end, it must be true with all audible differences. And the fact is that there are many audible differences that are traceable to fundamental engineering measurements that are readily doable.
Low: When you look at the NAD 3020, would you say that the frequency discontinuities in that product are the only reason why it's distinguishable from anything else?
Mitchell: Not at all, no. The important thing about that product was the fact that it had a high peak current output. So it could drive reactive loads without getting strained the way most Japanese amplifiers did.
Atkinson: That can't be the whole story. NAD hasn't been able to follow up the 3020 with a product which has that same degree of success at that price.
Mitchell: Well, I don't think the 3020 would be successful these days either. The standards of the market have changed.
Atkinson: What surprises me about the "all amplifiers sound the same" school is that I can't see its basis in logic. As all amplifiers measure differently, even grossly differently, how can it be an accepted truth that unless there's evidence to the contrary they should sound the same?
Norton: The assumption is made that those measurements are below the threshold of human hearing.
Mitchell: Or are inconsequential compared to other differences in the system. The big differences you can measure between amplifiers in the mass-market price range are relatively inconsequential compared to the differences among, for example, loudspeakers in the mass-market price range.
Atkinson: But if that were true, then the NAD 3020 would not have been the commercial success it was. Because here was a mass-market-priced piece of equipment which actually sounded great! The assumption that the differences between mass-market amplifiers are inconsequential compared to loudspeakers can't hold water.
Mitchell: It was an exception to the rule.
Low: If there's an exception, there can't be a rule!
Mitchell: You can't tell me the measurable differences between a Sansui amplifier and a Yamaha amplifier are important at any level.
Low: Well, that's because we're not paying attention. There are some very real differences out there.
Atkinson: There may well have been 15 years ago but those amplifier designs have had a convergent philosophy. They're all tending to be more and more alike.