Listening #60

I don't want a symphony orchestra in my room: That's crazy. I want their music, played with enough realism that I can hear how it's done.

My room is 12' wide by 19' long, with an 8' ceiling, and it's made of wood and Sheetrock. There's no way any sane person would want to sit there and hear the same loudness level they'd hear in a concert hall, in the presence of a full orchestra. Count me among them.

I also wouldn't want to sit in that room and hear quite the same physical scale as a real orchestra —which is neither here nor there, since there doesn't appear to be any way of quantifying such a thing. But because it is possible to measure and quantify loudness peaks and the amount of voltage or current required to reproduce them, some people in our hobby have become obsessed with amplifier power, and many others are overly tolerant of merchants who would have us believe that a nice, neat number of watts can correlate with one's enjoyment of records —that, and not timing or momentum or flow or correctness of pitch relationships or anything else that might actually have to do with music, for God's sake.

The appeal of their message is easy to understand: When a consumer is led to believe that the enjoyment of music is quantifiable, he or she is left with the idea that that enjoyment is easy to attain. That conclusion also carries a hope in the existence of audio egalitarianism, of affordable satisfaction. Countless hi-fi companies have been built on little other than the promise of cheap power —more watts for the dollar —along with the suggestion that the more power you buy (from them, of course, since all other manufacturers are notorious liars), the more satisfying your music system will be.

It's rare to hear a thrifty-minded company offer more tone for the buck —or more tunefulness, more momentum, more flow. Not unheard of, but still —rare.

Like other people, I enjoy listening to music systems that can startle me with the strength and suddenness of their dramatic swings —or hold my attention with the sense of sheer physical touch they find in every recording they play back. But from what I've heard in years of serious listening, none of that requires an extraordinary amount of power: just a wisely designed amplifier mated to an appropriate and similarly well-thought-out loudspeaker. My own system, in which a 10Wpc Shindo Cortese amplifier drives 98dB-sensitive Audio Note AN-E loudspeakers, does quite well (footnote 1).

Would more power make my system even better? Maybe. And maybe not. Last month, while preparing a product review for the November Stereophile, I observed that swapping out my Shindo Cortese for an amp five times as powerful made my system sound flatter and less compelling. Nor was that the first such counterintuitively disappointing amplifier "upgrade" I've experienced.

A powerful amplifier may be capable of doing one or more things better than an amp with a tenth as much power, all else being equal. And there may well exist some disagreeable quality in music replay that's more surely banished by a high-power amp than a low-power one, and that I'm simply less sensitive to than other hobbyists —just as I'm less sensitive to being deprived of knowing every performer's precise location on something called a "soundstage." Whatever. The real question, as always, is: Which variables, of the hundreds that exist, are the ones that have consistently proven most important to me, and to my listening enjoyment? Me, me, me.

It's all about me
A memo to the electronics industry:

"I don't want you to sell me more power, any more than I want you to sell me more voltage regulation, more power-supply capacity, flatter frequency response, greater channel separation, or more damping factor. None of those things can guarantee that an amp will be good at the thing it was supposedly designed for —playing music —and no single one of them is necessarily more important than the others. What I really want is for you to sell me more music. When you think you're ready to do that, give me a call.

"But because the finest-sounding amps in my experience have mostly been low-power things, I dare say you'll help your own cause as much as mine by forgetting the watts-per-dollar thing for at least a little while, and concentrating on something else. You needn't worry: There's a growing number of new loudspeaker manufacturers that specialize in high-sensitivity, high-efficiency designs. Thank you."

One of my favorites is DeVore Fidelity —not just because they make very good loudspeakers, but because it's impossible to spend more than a few minutes talking with company founder and chief designer John DeVore without realizing: This guy just plain gets it (footnote 2).

A performer in his own right (on drums), DeVore also has great taste in music: the focus of virtually every conversation he and I have had since we met five or six years ago. During those years, two other things have dawned on me: Most DeVore Fidelity loudspeakers combine higher-than-average electrical sensitivity with sensibly high impedance curves, and most DeVore dealers also carry one or more amplifier brands noted for low power and high music quality, among them Shindo and Audio Note.

Footnote 1: In the technical measurements that accompanied my review in May 2006 of the similar Audio Note AN-E Lexus Signature, John Atkinson observed lower sensitivity than Audio Note had claimed in their published specs: 92.5dB vs 98dB. Still, John described the AN-E as "one of the more sensitive dynamic speakers I have measured."

Footnote 2: DeVore Fidelity, Brooklyn Navy Yard, 63 Flushing Avenue, Unit 259, Brooklyn, NY 11205. Tel: (718) 855-9999. Fax: (718) 855-9998. Web: