Listening #97 Page 2

And I wouldn't have noticed, except that, in their earlier days, those companies fairly crowed about the technologies they would come to abandon!

Seriously now, the question(s): In order to do great things, is it important for a manufacturing company to have a distinct point of view, in the same manner as an individual artist or artisan? And if so, does the abandonment of that point of view necessarily correlate with a decline in quality—of ideas, if not of consumer goods themselves? Compare, contrast.

The number of the color
In the earliest days of the CD, during a time when the evidence of our ears suggested that the medium was considerably less perfect than the mainstream industry and its most ardent supporters would have us believe, music enthusiasts were frequently and sternly reminded that the world of digital audio is governed by something called the Nyquist Theorem (footnote 2).

The Nyquist Theorem suggests that, for an energy continuum spanning a given range of frequencies, a sampling rate of just over twice the highest frequency present within a complex waveform is all that's required in order to digitally store and reproduce it—perfectly. So, if the audioband is defined as 20Hz–20kHz, the Nyquist Theorem suggests that the sample rate only need be slightly more than 40kHz. The CD's rate of 44.1kHz was chosen in the belief that the extra 4kHz was more than enough safety margin.

During the CD's first few years on Earth, the common response by the mainstream press (ie, Stereo Review and Audio) to those who suggested the need for sampling rates higher than 44.1kHz (ie, most audio perfectionists) was to deride us as self-anointed, golden-eared, high priests of hooey. Or words to that effect.

But within 15 years of the CD's launch, it became abundantly clear that even record-company executives and certain species of elm could hear and appreciate the improvements in sound reproduction associated with rising sampling rates—rates more than double those "proven" by the Nyquist Theorem as sufficient to the task.

My question: Why has the Nyquist Theorem, once so widely cited, now apparently been forgotten by those who used to brandish it as a weapon? Why do the mainstream manufacturers and the tin-eared, asexual nerds (or words to that effect) in their amen corner now act as though the Nyquist Theorem never existed? Why aren't they out there right now, in their newsrooms and their meeting halls and their table-tennis parlors, denouncing 96kHz digital technology—let alone 192kHz digital technology—as the wasteful sham engineering that it surely must be?

Or, as the garishly miscast Edward G. Robinson (or was it The Simpsons' Chief Wiggum?) so famously intoned in Cecil B. DeMille's second version of The Ten Commandments: Where's their messiah now?

Pause
Bonus question: If the Clash had recorded London Calling in mono, would the sheer rightness of it have set the stage for a better follow-up than Sandinista? Show your work.

Jealousy and pride
Imagine getting one more chance—today!—to buy the last four Beatles LPs, all mastered from the original two-track tapes. Or a bottle of the 1981 Opus One. Or the last Bitter SC to roll off the assembly line. Or . . . well, you can just fill in the fantasy of your choice, I suppose.

Our friends at Ortofon, the Danish firm that has pioneered Planet Pickup since 1958, seem to understand this consumerist mindset, and have addressed it with a new-old offering called The SPU Collector Box 2010, a presentation box containing four of their most historically important and desirable SPU pickup heads, all in G-style shells (ie, with a stylus tip-to-mounting-collet distance of 52mm, as opposed to the 30mm of A-style heads): one SPU Classic (alloy housing, spherical tip, alnico magnet); one SPU Gold Reference (alloy housing, alnico magnet, gold-plated cantilever, Replicant stylus); one SPU 85 (urushi-lacquered beech housing, gold and copper wiring, elliptical stylus); and one SPU 90th Anniversary ("grinded" wood housing with drinking-horn motif, elliptical stylus, rare-earth magnet; see "Listening," April 2009). Also included is a book dedicated to the history of the SPU and other of Ortofon's classic audio products. And, of course, a very nice presentation case/storage box, made from ungrinded wood. Only 100 sets will be made and offered for sale, and it is with no small amount of giddiness that I tell you that one of those sets will be diverted here for a brief trial.

The SPU Collector Box 2010, which will begin shipping soon, is priced at $13,000: extravagant, expensive, over the top, and no doubt wonderful. (How many would you like?) Watch this space, or throw all caution to the winds and reserve your set now at www.ortofon.com/where-to-buy, where you can also enter a drawing for the privilege of buying set No.001.

The stream's lullaby
I don't attend many audio shows. Of the ones I do, I go less for the gear—I'm grateful for the luxury of having products come to me, instead of the other way around—and more for the people. In particular, Montreal's annual Salon Son et Image has for years provided me an otherwise too-scant chance to hang out with Lionel Goodfield of Simaudio, Michael Manousselis of Dynaudio, Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio, Diane Koebel and Tash Goka of Divergent Technologies, Gerard Rejskind of UHF magazine, and our own Robert Deutsch—not to mention John Atkinson, Stephen Mejias, and publisher Keith Pray, to whose Manhattan offices I venture too seldom.

And Nizar Akhrass. It would take several column inches to list all the various audio brands represented through the years by his Toronto-based company, May Audio Marketing, and its Canadian and American offshoots. Of their most familiar brands—Castle, Reimyo, Stello, Target, Totem, WBT, and a host of others—it can be argued, reasonably, that the Syrian-born Nizar put them on the map. And at least two of the companies he represented, Quad and Roksan, are among the two dozen greatest names in all of British Audio.

Nizar's Niagara Falls office was also close enough to central New York that he was able to visit us from time to time, always with sweets for Julia (almost 13 now!) and a bottle of the Palestinian olive oil that Janet and I prefer above all others. (Try it for yourself by visiting www.zatoun.com.)

But the past few years were hard on Nizar Akhrass and May Audio. Nizar's beloved wife, Alice, who accompanied him to every audio show in memory, passed away late in 2009. And after the 2010 Son et Image, just a few days after I enjoyed a meal with Nizar and Gerard Rejskind at their favorite Italian restaurant in Montreal, Nizar's daughter, another Julia, called with the news that her father had passed away, apparently as a result of a heart attack.

Julia and her brother, Nabil Akhrass, will carry on with Nizar's business, the loss of which would be difficult for the industry to suffer; for all who knew him, the loss of their father will be harder still. Vale, Nizar.



Footnote 2: First propounded by Harry Nyquist of Bell Labs in 1927, decades before the advent of any practical digital audio system.—John Atkinson
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COMMENTS
Drtrey3's picture

I was reading something from Listener rather than the Listening column. What fun, I expected to turn the page and be mystified by something Harvey wrote.

Trey

volvic's picture

Gave great customer service and a true gentleman, was a sad day for us customers when he and May Audio left Montreal and even sadder when we heard of his passing.
Nick

deckeda's picture

Lack of self-restraint was its issue, not stereophonic recording. It would have made a great EP or perhaps LP, because it certainly had a few tracks that were "right."

WillWeber's picture

Hi Art,

Were you expecting us to answer your three questions? After reading the second question I could not resist the bait. You sucked me in! I do not wish to offend; I do wish to clarify some misconceptions… bite hard:

Q1: No, it is not “necessary” for a manufacturer to have a distinct POV. Such may be an inspiration for creative new approaches, sometimes actually resulting in something good or even great; ah sometimes. But, all too often, a narrow POV, even if initially yielding a great result, becomes a marketing tool to distinguish a manufacturer from its competition. So this can be an encumbering factor toward further innovation/evolution - quite the contrary of your leading question.

Q2: This is the one that got my goad. The Nyquist Theorem does NOT claim to provide “perfect” reproduction of said frequencies. Any respectable engineer will shun the word “perfect”. Such claims are made by people who either do not understand the physics or have an agenda, such as selling CDs that can fit 74 min of music on a disc “…forever”. Such misconceptions are then propagated by foolish disciples, those self-appointed experts. Serious listeners know there is something amiss.

I hope to dispel this myth somewhat (how many words are allowed here?). The Nyquist frequency is the minimum sampling rate needed simply to “detect” a desired frequency, i.e. at f < 1/2 the sampling rate. That is a far cry from “reproducing perfectly”. Any lower sampling rate will produce artifacts that appear as indistinguishable from lower frequencies, think moiré, termed “aliasing” in the information theory arena. Sampling rates greater than the Nyquist limit will in fact detect the desired frequency, but not necessarily without some other artifacts. It would be tempting to maybe write an article that would show some insightful (or incite-full) examples.

The Nyquist Theorem was indeed developed long ago, well before digital audio, and applied appropriately and effectively to imaging science, among other fields. It is naïve (or arrogant) to believe that this was conceived in a vacuum to await the dawn of digital audio, only to find the subsequent abuse of this elegant science.

This all gets more complicated, as sonic waveforms are rarely simple sine-wave fundamentals. Impluses (percussive) are especially far from this condition, these containing many higher harmonics, and are very difficult to sample adequately. Furthermore, the math and physics models here generally assume linear combination of frequencies, such as with Fourier decomposition. However, our ears, as with all biological sensors, are not linear at all. So claims that good hearing is limited to 20 kHz are misleading, and apply only to sine waves, the usual test tones. This explains why careful listeners can hear distinct differences in reproduction of audio that has much higher bandwidth than we might believe is needed. And why 44.1 kHz sampling is a bit rough around the edges.

So, getting back to my admittedly subjective answer to the question: manufacturers (some) might hush the dirty little “Nyquist” word because they are either embarrassed about their misunderstanding, or ashamed of getting caught in their greedy big lie.

Q3: OK, I’m not looking for extra credit with a “bonus question”. But I’m curious: why do we assume here that “mono” would be “shear rightness” in this case? Maybe surround sound would have been more effective, especially for the wolf call.

Thanks for indulging my ire,
WillW

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