Conventional Wisdoms & Recommended Components

Conventional wisdom has it that the perfect sculpture is present, but hidden within the raw material. And the same conventional wisdom similarly applies to magazine editing: all it needs is careful chipping away at the extraneous material in the raw text files we receive from our authors—sometimes the barest degree of reshaping, repointing, and restructuring—and you have a finished product that both maximally communicates the writer's message and makes the anonymous artisan-editor proud of a job well done.

Perhaps it's because of the similarity between editing text and editing music that I got involved with producing Stereophile's recordings. The editing of our recent Concert and Test CD 3 CDs, however, gave me cause to consider conventional wisdoms. Because the office where my music-editing Macintosh lives is shared by Kristen Weitz (ever-busy editing writers' raw copy at her PC) and the magazine's Audio Precision System One (over whose controls Bob Harley and Tom Norton serially wield masterful control), I do all my everyday monitoring over Stax Lambda Pro 3 electrostatic headphones—longtime denizens of the Class A department in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" (at least until this issue).

The conventional audio wisdom about headphones is that because they fire the sound straight into your ears and provide isolation from ambient noise, they're much more revealing than loudspeakers. The editing tasks for our two most recent projects were complex, yet I was confident that nothing would escape the superbly transparent Staxes.

Was I wrong! Time and time again, I found that a splice that sounded fine on the cans didn't work when I auditioned it at home on my B&W Silver Signature speakers (my 1994 birthday present to myself). Sometimes it was a disturbing discontinuity in the soundstages; sometimes it was too much of a difference between the character of the background noises or the surrounding ambiences either side of the splice; other times it was simply an amusical jerk in the flow of the melody. But every time, it was disturbingly obvious over loudspeakers, all but inaudible over headphones (footnote 1).

So much for one conventional wisdom! Are there others that don't bear close scrutiny?

How about system building—an apropos topic for our "Recommended Components" issue? The conventional wisdom (in the US at least) is to allocate most of your budget to the loudspeakers, because the loudspeakers make the sound. But, as first explained by Linn's Ivor Tiefenbrun nearly 20 years ago, this is wrong—very wrong. An expensive loudspeaker can't put back what has been destroyed by a poor source. All it can do is more accurately show how poorly the amplifier performs and how little music managed to escape the grooves and pits. Expensive sonic dreck!

So how do you put a system together?

What you do first is paramount: You accurately define your own needs and tastes. (From the letters we receive, it's apparent that many people don't do this.)

Second, use our "Recommended Components" to get an idea of what's available, at what price, and at what level of performance. Look for matches in our capsule descriptions of sound quality with what you feel your own tastes are. Then read the original reviews thoroughly. (Back issues of the magazine are easily available.) You should then be able to put together a short list of contenders to audition at the specialist retailers in your area.

What you don't do is scour the "Recommended Components" listing and choose at random, say, Class C speakers, Class C electronics, and a Class C source. While they may work together, they may just as easily have similar, reinforcing sonic defects. Even worse, you might have the ready cash to buy all Class A components, but take little care in setting them up or pay no attention to the room acoustics. Buy Class A loudspeakers and use them in a cubical room with rack-system electronics and you'll probably get a sound that would fail to qualify for Class E. On the other hand, get a pair of Class D or E speakers, set them up optimally in the room on good stands, use good cable, drive them with good Class C or B amplification and the best source you can afford, and you'll have something that'll make every recording in your collection take on renewed life.

Listening for yourself is the key to putting together a satisfying system. Stereophile's reviewers may have accurately described the sound quality of, for example, the MartinLogan Aerius, Thiel CS2 2, and Vandersteen 3A (to pick three similarly priced and recommended loudspeakers), but it's essential that the reader about to spend his or her money listen to these three totally different-sounding speakers before making a final buying decision.

In the words of Chris Sommovigo (footnote 2), designer of Kimber's impressive Illuminati datalink, "If you listen to experts, you might just get your system to sound like theirs. If you listen for yourself, you might get something you actually like."

Personnel notes

With this issue we welcome Shannon Dickson to the ranks of the magazine's writers. Shannon, a resident of Hawaii, has been a stalwart of The Audiophile Voice, the magazine published by The Audiophile Society of Westchester County. He contributes an essay to this issue's "Industry Update" on the European Community's forthcoming ElectroMagnetic Compatibility Directive.—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: My thanks to KW for putting up with me continually handing her the cans to hear whether or not splices I thought particularly risky worked. Every 'phile should have such good ears!

Footnote 2: In December 1994 on The Audiophile Network.