A question was asked recently on an audio forum: What is "better" sound to you?
I had just been listening to a friend’s system a week earlier.
In the realm of ‘great’ systems, this one has always held a V high placement on my short list of reference’ systems. This may seem counter-intuitive when one considers this rig consists of a single 3-1/2 inch paper-cone driver in each of two speaker cabinets driven by 50 year old 14 peak watt tube powered electronics.
Why would such a system consistently leave me in such high regard of its performance? It certainly is not blowing me away with its wide, huge, rumbling macro dynamics. No super tweeter with spine-tingling highs. Definitely not the throbbing, tsunami generating low end. Especially when the bottom end does not realistically go much below 60Hz even when you optimistically factor in the gain you might get from room effect placement. In fact, when you compare the hardware in this system against any of the others on my list of ‘reference’ systems you might see it as a blatant error. Or possibly the perceptions of a fool (I will allow consideration of this last possibility off-line, please).
But for me, perception is what it is all about. A subjective sense that all is right with the world; if even for just a few minutes.
You do not always need 5-zero signal-to-noise ratio amplifiers or mass loaded, 5-driver cabinets of resonant-cancelling unobtainium that require a small fork-lift to move them, along with a perfectly timed, zero jitter DAC with its ytterbium atomic clock.
In fact, it may just be the unabashed & abridged simplicity of this flea watt system that is its most crucial characteristic. There is so little between it & the music. What is physically there is similar in economy to the Wright bros’ first flying machines. Consider the parts-count of one of their early planes to that of an Airbus A340. They both fly, most of the time, anyway. But when it comes to making heavier-than-air machines defy the laws of gravity…….one accomplishes the task in much simpler & frugal fashion.
I like to consider the use of a single driver, its practicality & the pure ‘righteousness’ of it. Like a perfectly matched key for the most precise lock. When you start adding drivers you must carefully control when one driver begins to drop off in its frequency generation & the adjacent driver begins to pick up its generation of sound. This is the crossover point. And for every driver that is included to handle just one region of the total frequency spectrum, so too must a crossover be added to facilitate a smooth transition between them. Easier said than done. And like most things, to do it right typically is not inexpensive. Many speakers also have this crossover point at frequencies that are difficult to handle. For example, the frequency range of the human voice is centered at around 1000 Hz, and covering a range from around 200 Hz to 3 KHz. Putting a crossover in this region is quite dicey & easily detected when poorly executed, weather due to price point constraint or simply poor engineering. And the more drivers you have spread across the spectrum the more crossovers required. And every time an instrument produces frequencies that must pass through the crossover transition the more likely your ear is to notice unrealistic characteristics.
This is the reason you find many V good two-way speakers. The design is simpler than three-way & full-range speakers. Some can deliver quite excellent value & performance relative to the quantity & cost of parts required ….. when they give up trying to produce the lower registers.
There are other advantages inherent to single-driver arrangements, too. Take the recent trend of coaxial drivers used in some V high-end designs. And Kef’s latest LS series utilizing their Uni-Q driver. Reducing the number drivers in a system makes good imaging & sound-staging much easier to accomplish. Again, it is matter of physics. Single drivers, being a point source, do not suffer the same level of negative influences from lobing, timing & directivity as multi-driver designs. Sometimes, simpler can be better.
But please, do not misunderstand me. I am in no way, shape or form implying flea-watt, single driver systems are ‘The’ answer to the audiophile’s quest. Such a system can in fact be quite limiting. What I am saying is, when executed correctly & fed a diet of less than complex & smaller scale acoustical & vocal repertoire they can bring to life such sound likes of which you may have never heard before.
Getting back to the original topic, it is this meager system & its ability to let the naturalness of the music & human voice just flow that never fails to amaze me. Obviously, its sweet spot is in the mids. A place where human voices & acoustical instruments spend most of their time. It was once said, “We live in the mids”. The mids account for the vast majority of what we hear as we go about our normal day-to-day routines. When a system can reproduce sounds we are most familiar with in the most natural & realistic of ways at a level where we feel as though they are genuine, that is what I call ‘Better’.