In 1977, just as I was about to take my first faltering steps in hi-fi journalism, the UK's Hi-Fi News ran two articles, translated from French originals by Jean Hiraga, that seemed to me and many others to turn the audio world we knew upside down. The second of them, "Can We Hear Connecting Wires?" was published in the August issue and is the better remembered because it introduced many English-speaking audiophiles to the contention that cables can sound different. The earlier article, published in the March issue, was less earthshaking but still an eyebrow-raiser of considerable force. Simply titled "Amplifier Musicality," it was a response to the word musicality being increasingly used in subjectivist circles to describe the perceived performance of amplifiers and other audio components. It was implicit that musicality was a quality not captured by conventional measurement procedures—a lack of correlation that Hiraga's article sought to address.
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.
The introduction in 1982 of the compact disc ushered in the age of digital audio. Audiophiles now have lots of new digital toys and technologies at their disposal, including SACD, DVD-Audio, MP3 players, hard-drive–based CD players, and digital equalization and room correction, to name a few. Videophiles have similarly benefited from digital technology, with an armamentarium that includes high-definition television, DVD-Video, Blu-ray, HD DVD (the latter two still on the horizon), DLP, LCoS, and D-ILA, among others. Action-based films have also benefited from breathtaking, digitally enhanced special effects. Even those of us who still prefer LPs must acknowledge—reluctantly, perhaps—the incredible impact that digital has had on our hobby (footnote 1).
If there is one thing I've learned in almost 28 years (ouch) of audio writing, it's that audience reaction is fickle. Sometimes readers will swallow the most contentious pronouncements without indigestion, only to choke on throwaway lines you've invested with little importance. It just goes to confirm that human communication involves senders and receivers, and they aren't always in synchrony.
If you missed Part 1 of this article (Stereophile, January 2005), or it has faded in your memory, here's a résumé. (Readers who recall Part 1 with crystalline clarity, please skip to paragraph four.) The accurate measuring of loudspeakers requires that the measurements be taken in a reflection-free environment. Traditionally, this has meant that the speaker be placed atop a tall pole outdoors or in an anechoic chamber. Both of these options are hedged around with unwelcome implications of cost and practicality. To overcome these and allow quasi-anechoic measurements to be performed in normal, reverberant rooms, time-windowed measurement methods were developed that allow the user to analyze only that portion of the speaker's impulse response that arrives at the microphone ahead of the first room reflection. MLSSA from DRA Labs is the best-known measurement system to work on this principle, and both John Atkinson and I use it in the course of preparing our loudspeaker reviews.
Pick an expletive—one you would normally use to express deep intellectual frustration—but don't vocalize it. Hold it in reserve for a few minutes, letting it simmer to concentrate its intensity. I'll tell you when to let rip.
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?
If anyone ever thinks to compile a list of the 100 seminal audio papers that should be found in every tech-aware audiophile's filing cabinet, Harry Olson's "Direct Radiator Loudspeaker Enclosures" deserves to feature in it. Originally presented at the second Audio Engineering Society Convention, in October 1950, it was published in Audio Engineering in 1951. In 1969—in a rare and certain acknowledgement of its classic status—the AES republished it in its Journal (footnote 1).
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?
The Compact Disc clearly hasn't read the script. At a time when, in the autumn of its commercial life, the format is supposed to be stepping aside to allow younger blood to succeed it, CD has instead in recent years enjoyed something of a revival in audiophile opinion. While SACD and DVD-Audio, rather strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, are doing more plain fretting than anything, the best in CD sound quality has improved sufficiently for some to question whether we need the new media at all.
The fundamental object of the invention is to provide...the listener a realistic impression that the intelligence is being communicated to him over two acoustic paths in the same manner as he experiences in listening to everyday acoustic intercourse....—Blumlein, et al, British Patent #394,325, issued June 14, 1933
Charles Hansen said it best, in a recent e-mail: "People have been holding back from criticizing this technology because they weren't certain that some new discovery hadn't been made." Ayre Acoustics' main man was talking about "upsampling," whereby conventional "Red Book" CD data, sampled at 44.1kHz, are converted to a datastream with a higher sample rate. (Because of its association with DVD-Audio, 96kHz is often chosen as the new rate.)
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.
Most people who now listen to tube amplifiers began with a transistor amp, and know from experience that a tube amp of a given measured power output sounds louder than its nominally identical transistorized equivalent. The unofficial consensus is that you need two to four times the transistor power to achieve the same loudness as you would using tubes. In other words, given the (subjectively) undistorted sound level a 25W (footnote 1) tube amplifier can provide, if you want the same loudness from solid-state technology you would have to replace it with at least a 50W transistor amp (footnote 2).