Universal Components

A reader who asked to remain anonymous wrote to tell us the results of some tests he saw conducted on one of our top-rated loudspeaker systems. Frequency-response checks showed that the system had virtually no deep bass, a midbass peak, a midrange slump, and a high-end rise. Further checks had shown gross distortion at input levels of over about 6W, and a definitely limited (although adequate for Row-M listening) maximum output-level capability. Said reader then went on to ask how we could possibly consider such a speaker to be one of the best available.

Well, we aren't going to argue with measurements. All we did, in reply, was to reiterate what we had found on the basis of our listening tests: that the system in question sounds smoother and cleaner than any other we've come across. And that, in the last analysis, is what counts.

Now, this is the point in our argument where some of our more knowledgeable readers will leap to their feet and say, "Aha! That's their first mistake. It may sound good to them, but different people hear differently, and what's real to the Stereophile (footnote 1) may not be to somebody else." Only partly true. Different people do perceive sounds differently, for the simple reason that different people listen to different aspects of a total sound.

Suppose we take two listeners, whom we shall call A and B, to a live performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony. If they sit side by side, both listeners will be exposed to essentially the same set of sound waves, but listener A may concentrate on the patterns of harmonies and textures, while listener B may be "tuned in" to the main themes and the rhythmic groupings. Each is hearing the entire complex of sound, in the sense that his eardrums and nervous system are responding to it all, but each is perceiving—that is, is consciously aware of—different aspects of the sound.

Now, let's seat them both in a living room and play them a perfect reproduction of the same performance. If the reproducer delivers to their ears exactly the same patterns of air vibrations that reached them in the concert hall, each listener will perceive what he feels to be an exact replica of the original sound. Each can choose to "tune in" to whatever aspect of the sound he normally listens to, and as long as they are delivered to his ears in exactly the same proportions as they were originally, the reproduction will sound perfect to both listeners.

Now, suppose the reproducer is not perfect. (We're still looking for one that is.) Suppose it reproduces all of the information needed to hear the main themes and the rhythm, like a typical cheap phonograph, but tends to change harmonic structures and textures. Listener B, if he has no experience in analytical listening to reproduced sound, may notice that it is not a perfect reproduction, but will find it pleasing because it gives him what he wants. Listener A, equally inexperienced as a listener to 'fi, won't like the sound one little bit, even though he may not be able to explain why. The reason, of course, is because it is wreaking havoc with the things that he as a listener is interested in.

The fact that every loudspeaker is an imperfect reproducer of at least some aspects of the original sound is what accounts for the tremendous diversity of opinions as to what constitutes "the best" loudspeaker. Different listeners judge reproduced sound according to different criteria, and assign different "weights" to the various aspects of the sound.

This is why the Stereophile attempts, as much as possible, to describe the sound of the components we test, as well as simply passing opinion judgments on them. This way, a reader who has found that he does not generally agree with our opinions may still be able to ascertain whether or not he might like a particular component's sound.

He may, for example, have learned that he prefers some forwardness in reproduced sound, rather than a neutral or distant perspective. He may value full, fat bass more than bass detail, and his hearing limitations at the high end may make it immaterial whether the sound extends to 18kHz or rolls off above 13kHz.

In order for a test report to have any real validity, it must attempt to assess a component's inherent capabilities, rather than describe how it will sound with an amplifier or an acoustical environment that booms up the bass or rolls off the highs. Thus, all speakers, from the cheapest to the costliest, should be evaluated on the basis of their performance under ideal conditions—with the best possible associated equipment and in an essentially neutral but realistic acoustical environment. Then, when an amplifier or pickup is subsequently tested, and is described as having certain colorations (as heard through a top-grade speaker), the reader can get some idea as to whether the components in question will complement one another or aggravate one another's colorations.

Of course, components that are designed specifically for one another must be reviewed as a unit. But as long as most components are sold as "universal" items, intended for use with a wide variety of associated components, it seems to us that they should be evaluated as such.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: In 1975, JGH dropped the article from his magazine's title; plain Stereophile we have been ever since. But note that throughout this "As We See It," Gordon writes "the Stereophile," not Stereophile or The Stereophile. Was JGH easing into the present usage?—John Atkinson