This series of articles was initially written (in slightly different form), as a paper presented at the 103rd Audio Engineering Society Convention, New York, September 1997. The preprint, "Loudspeakers: What Measurements Can Tell Us—And What They Can't Tell Us!," AES Preprint 4608, is available from the AES, 60 East 42nd Street, Room 2520, New York, NY 10165-0075. The AES internet site, www.aes.org, offers a secure transaction page for credit-card orders.
Wouldn't you just know it. As soon as I decide on a formal regime of measurements to accompany Stereophile's loudspeaker reviews—see Vol.12 No.10, October 1989, p.166—along comes some hot new technology that changes everything. Robert Harley reported in last month's "Industry Update" column how impressed he and I were with the new MLSSA measurement system from DRA Laboratories.
Looked at from one viewpoint, DVD-Audio and SACD appear to be exercises in sheer profligacy. In the case of DVD-A, why provide a maximum bandwidth almost five times what is conventionally taken to be the audible frequency range, and couple it to a dynamic-range capability far in excess of that achievable by the microphones used to record the sound? In the case of SACD, why provide a potential bandwidth in excess of 1.4MHz, only to fill more than 95% of it with quantization noise?
At the February 1991 Audio Engineering Society Convention in Paris, Audio Precision's Dr. Richard Cabot (see my interview in January 1991, Vol.14 No.1) proposed a new technique for measuring noise modulation in D/A converters (footnote 1). The method, based on psychoacoustic principles, attempts to predict the audible performance of D/A converters. Now that Stereophile has added digital-domain signal generation and analysis to our Audio Precision System One, we can employ Dr. Cabot's technique and see if there are any correlations with subjective performance.
Time to 'fess up: How many of you actually read the "Measurements" sections of Stereophile's equipment reports and understand what's being measured, and why? I suspect that many readers skip over the technical assessment of the reviewed product and make a dash for the "Conclusion."
On a number of occasions we have commented on the effects of an amplifier's output impedance on a system's performance. A high output impedance—such as is found in many tube amplifiers—will interact with the loudspeaker's impedance in a way which directly affects the combination's frequency response. The Cary CAD-805, for example, has a lower output impedance than most tube amplifiers, and should be less prone to such interaction. Some months back—before the CAD-805 arrived—I investigated this phenomenon in conjunction with measurements for a forthcoming review of the Melos 400 monoblock amplifier. Since the Melos 400 also had a relatively low output impedance for a tube amplifier (at 0.43 ohms at low and mid frequencies, rising to 1.2 ohms at 20kHz, from its 8 ohm tap), I took that opportunity to run some frequency-response measurements using an actual loudspeaker as the load for the amplifier.
As mentioned by two readers in this month's "Letters," amplifiers are used to drive loudspeakers but are almost exclusively measured into resistive loads. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) real loudspeakers both produce neighbor-annoying sound levels and tend to break when driven with typical amplifier test signals; and 2) the question as to which "standard" loudspeaker should be used is impossible to answer---at least the conventional resistive loads are consistent and repeatable.
In the world of digital audio, jitter has been a focus of audiophile attention for well over a decade. It is blamed for many of the sonic ills of which CD and other digital media have been accused. But here's a puzzle: The major source of frequency intermodulation distortion in audio systems—the loudspeaker—has largely escaped such withering inquiry. Why?
Much as I like the prospect of being able to grunt a heartfelt Je ne regrette rien immediately before expiring, I know there will be too many what-ifs and wish-I-hadn'ts to make that even remotely possible. But here is one missed opportunity that won't flash before me, because John Atkinson has granted me a second chance.
One of the challenges I faced in optimizing the performance of the Thiel CS7.2 loudspeakers that I reviewed in February 2000 was controlling and tuning their interaction with my listening room. Intuition, experience, trial and error—all came into play, as did several of the procedures and calculations covered by Jonathan Scull in his "Fine Tunes" column.
Subjective audio is the evaluation of reproduced sound quality by ear. It is based on the novel idea that, since audio equipment is made to be listened to, what it sounds like is more important than how it measures. This was a natural outgrowth of the 1950s high-fidelity "revolution," which spawned the notion that a component, and an audio system as a whole, should reproduce what is fed into it, without adding anything to it or subtracting anything from it.
High-end audiophiles are space freaks---we relish the warmth and spaciousness of a fine, old performing hall almost as much as we do the music recorded in it. But my attendance at a series of orchestral concerts held last summer brought home to me---as never before---the sad fact that our search for the ultimate soundstage is doomed to failure: we're trying to reproduce three-dimensional space from a two-dimensional system, and it simply can't be done.
In his very English way, Sony's then managing director for the UK, Tim Steele, was getting a touch, er, desperate. His oh-so-cultured voice rose a smidgen as he resorted to a direct selling of the benefits of what he was talking about. "Look, you're all sitting on riches," was his fundamental pitch. "You can sell music-lovers your entire back catalog all over again—at a higher price!"
Although Philips invented the Compact Disc, it was only when Sony got involved in the early 1980s that it was decided—at the prompting of conductor Herbert von Karajan, a close friend of Sony's then-president Akio Morita—that the CD should have a long enough playing time to fit Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a single disc (footnote 1). Even if the conductor was using very slow tempos, and even given the minimum pit size and track pitch printable at the time, the 16-bit data and 44.1kHz sampling rate they settled on gave them a little margin.