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Nikola Tesla
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Heretical Ramblings

Most audiophiles agree that there is an abundance of fantastic music available from outstanding musicians that was either poorly recorded or badly mastered or both. These productions naturally tend to sound less wonderful than others when played back on a good audio system. Older recordings were hobbled by the equipment of their time and were invariably mastered to compensate for the limitations of the available playback media, and some recent releases were just plain bungled. Since music productions continue to be at least as much art as science, every engineer caters to his or her own notion of “The One True Sound,” as does every listener, and rarely is there agreement with respect to what that is.

Audiophiles generally respond to this situation in one of two different ways. Listeners who adhere to the “straight wire with gain” philosophy simply eschew all “less than ideal” recordings, i.e. productions that don’t flatter their systems. But those who believe that “perfect” recordings, are scarce enough to severely limit their content choices, are willing to take a more assertive approach to their music listening. Members of this second group are willing to employ the various means at their disposal to best enjoy a lackluster production of a stellar performance. Over the years, my personal philosophy has evolved to coincide with this second group, because I have come to believe that there is nothing sacrosanct about the way any music was originally released. Mics differ; monitors differ; rooms differ; ears differ; preferences differ, and so forth.

I think most audiophiles would also agree that the primary goal of any music listening is to approximate as closely as possible the experience of hearing the performance live. But aside from the visual engagement and crowd interplay, what are the qualities of a live performance that inform our subconscious minds that what we are hearing is, in fact, the real deal? Or conversely, what are the qualities of much recorded music that most glaringly out it as a reproduction and render it pale by comparison? I submit for your consideration that one of the most blatant giveaways is a lack of dynamic range. Compression was originally employed to compensate for the shortcomings of available equipment and playback media, but more recently has been enlisted in service to the “loudness wars.” Regardless of the motivation, compression compromises the presentation. Hence, the emergence of a cottage industry dedicated to producing uncompressed recordings, which are more sonically convincing than compressed releases simply because their dynamic range hasn’t been constricted.

Back when we had only analog playback sources (yes, some of us are that old), we could always rely on the background noise inherent in each format to inform us that the content was canned. Transient noise events in the form of ticks and pops, with which records were – and presumably still are – blighted, most readily betrayed the illusion. And analog tape was always accompanied by some level of background hiss that even signal companders couldn’t completely eliminate. It was always still there to some extent. The advent of digital recordings, however, ushered in essentially noiseless music reproduction. Neither transient nor steady-state background noise is a factor with digital sources. And good modern audio electronics, in combination with capable speaker systems, can flawlessly reproduce the entire musical spectrum. Yet, the majority of commercial recordings still sound canned due to the use of compression, and, in the absence of background noise, this is likely to be the predominant subconscious cue that a presentation is canned.

Although the application of compression during commercial music production has been common knowledge among audiophiles for many years, it has rarely been discussed within the context of being a sonic aberration amenable to mitigation. Instead, the recordings themselves are typically considered inviolate for one reason or another. I suggest that such an attitude represents a tactical error for anyone in search of a more realistic presentation from recorded music, especially in light of the fact that equipment to restore dynamic range to compressed recordings has been available to the audiophile community for many years.

A small company headquartered in Newton, MA and going by the name dbx began creating consumer audio products in the early 1970’s with the mission statement, “To get closer to the realism of a live performance.” In addition to other audio processing equipment, the company developed a line of dynamic range expanders designed to mitigate the compression that had been liberally applied to all recordings of the time. The use of early dbx expanders required considerable restraint to avoid introducing audible “pumping” and was unanimously eschewed by the purist crowd. Nevertheless, the capability of these units steadily improved with each new generation, and they eventually became very adept at restoring the dynamic range that had been removed from commercial productions without introducing objectionable sonic foibles of their own. In doing so, they reduced the canned effect and restored life to recordings. Yet, these devices continued to be universally shunned by audio purists, arguably an error in judgment.

A notable side effect of the compression employed by the recording industry that further aggravates the artificial flavor of recordings is the softening, blunting, or rounding of musical transients. These high amplitude, short duration musical events contribute significantly to the vibrance of every live performance. Consequently, restoring blunted transients to recorded music further enhances the sense of realism. However, the correspondence between dynamic range expansion and impact restoration isn’t exactly 1-to-1, so transient recovery cannot be accomplished by merely restoring the material’s original dynamic range. Nevertheless, the engineers at dbx addressed this issue, as well. In addition to recovering dynamic range, some dbx expander models could also revive musical transients such as those produced by a triangle strike or the crack of a drummer’s rim shot by analyzing the attack, duration, and decay of these events, and then reconstructing their original peaks.

This impact restoration circuitry worked well with tape but was counterproductive with vinyl. The problem with records was that their transient noise events (ticks and pops) exhibited the same waveform characteristics as musical transients and was therefore processed identically by the transient recovery circuits, making surface noise even more prominent. This was unacceptable to record fans, but listeners who had transitioned to CD’s were able to take full advantage of impact restoration, increasing the advantages of digital sources over analog.

A third giveaway that betrays the nature of most commercially available recordings is the attenuation or even complete deletion of ultra-low frequency content, robbing the material of power and further compromising the illusion of a live performance. The absence of bottom octave content makes music sound thin, dry, and weak compared to live, but high-pass filters are commonly employed during recording and mixing to reduce or remove very low frequencies in order to eliminate mic rumble, prevent stylus jump, or just “clean up” a mix. (Side Note: although audio dilettantes often equate what they refer to as a “phat” sound with good bass, this effect is actually accomplished by emphasizing the frequency range between 120 and 240 Hz. Content below 100 Hz is typically rolled off via high-pass filters as a matter of policy, phat sound notwithstanding.)

Of course, digital plug-ins to restore the “undertones” or subharmonics omitted from commercial recordings are readily available nowadays to clubs, DJ’s, and other professionals (as are plug-ins to tweak musical transients and adjust dynamic range). But dbx manufactured subharmonic synthesizer units for many years to accomplish the same thing in home systems. These dbx units restored deleted undertones by tracking the mid-bass content of material and fortifying it with consonant undertones one octave lower. One of these units could bring a sense of power, warmth, and spaciousness to any system capable of solid bottom-octave bass reproduction.

As we know, the dbx company has changed hands multiple times over the years and, sadly, now caters to only the professional market, primarily with assorted compressors, gates, crossovers, and rack effects processors for use in production environments. But good examples of all the aforementioned legacy consumer devices are still available in the used market, and these units can still perform magic in any capable home system, even though the company no longer produces gear for home audio enthusiasts.

I have employed various dbx equipment in my own systems for decades, a dead giveaway that I haven’t subscribed to the audio purist philosophy for quite a while. In fact, in addition to multiple dbx audio processors, I currently run various types of signal processors from other companies in conjunction with REQ software, bass traps, and acoustic panels to help dial in the sound of my system. Each component is engaged, as needed, to help improve the music’s realism and tame my room. My position is that as long as I must remain at the mercy of room limitations, as well as a diverse cadre of recording and mastering engineers at the production end of my music and their varying notions of what sounds right, I am free to adjust my listening experience to suit myself.

On a related note, let’s consider multichannel music listening, which continues to be broadly shunned by audiophiles. Over the years, I’ve heard some astonishingly sophisticated stereo and 2.1 setups that have done respectable jobs at recreating the acoustic space of live performances. But the speakers of those systems were enormous and egregiously expensive, and very few of them ever really nailed it. Conversely, with its audio processing mode set appropriately, a modern multichannel preamp-processor is capable of generating a very convincing acoustic environment by recovering ambient information from stereo recordings and directing the signals necessary to sonically create that space out to the system’s surround and height channels. As a bonus, none of the speakers of a multichannel system needs to be gigantic or outrageously expensive in order to do this.

The resistance of the larger audiophile community to advance beyond stereo is disappointing, and strikes me as analogous to listeners clinging to monaural long after stereo had arrived on the scene. (As we know, stereo technology was developed by Alan Dower Blumlein back in the early 1930’s, but not broadly adopted for home listening until the late 1950’s, despite stereo being a major sonic leap beyond monaural.) Considering the transition from mono to stereo took nearly three decades, it’s likely to be decades more before multichannel listening supplants stereo for most home listeners, because the majority of us resist change in general, with neither commercial music production nor listening habits being any exception. Nevertheless, I have embraced this transformation of my own home listening experience and cannot imagine ever reverting back. To my ear, the sonic improvement of multichannel music over stereo is at least as large as the jump from mono to stereo was, if not greater, even with synthesized multichannel. And when listening to music that was mastered and released in uncompressed multichannel, such as the Bu-ray offerings from AIX Records, the audible superiority over stereo is nothing short of astonishing.

Audio purists tend to recoil in horrified disbelief at heretical mutterings such as mine, and I can certainly understand this reaction, having long ago transitioned through a purist mindset myself. But I trust my ears. Although I’ve been immersed in the wacky worlds of both production and playback equipment for quite some time, live music has always provided the benchmark against which I measure every playback system. I attend live performances often and in diverse settings, and I rely on my takeaways from those experiences to guide my home equipment choices. Prudent application of the audio processing technology available to me, courtesy of those choices, enables me to close my eyes and be sonically transported to a live venue far more often than I ever was during my purist days, especially with recordings that sound woefully deficient without considerable help. Signal processing has enabled me to enjoy such productions every bit as much as I do my embarrassingly meager collection of well-produced, uncompressed music, and this paints a smile on my face.

geoffkait
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For sure overly compressed

For sure overly compressed CDs, LPs, Blu-ray and hi res downloads are the hobgoblin of audiophiles everywhere. There’s no denying that. But aggressive compression is only one of the problems that plague us, maybe of which have been inherent in home playback systems like forever. External vibration, self inflicted vibration of capacitors and compact discs and transformers, scattered background laser light, and a great many others beyond the scope of this forum. I generally avoid overly compressed CDs like the plague and when in doubt consult my trusty Unofficial Dynamic Range Database.

COmusicaddict
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I might be in the choir on this one.

‘Nikola Tesla’, I have read and reread your thoughts and don’t find them to ramble. (Mine might.)

I used no correction or equalization for most of my audio life (so far). In 1995, new Martin Logan SL3s were positioned optimally well-out in my space and enjoyed until 2011, finally replaced by Dynaudio Sapphires, lasting until 2016. I did use a DSPeaker 8033 for sub-woofer blending with main speakers which did help, but that’s it.

Fortune smiled on me in 2016. I traded the Sapphires, and two other mint speaker sets with cash and received a pair of used Raidho D2 floor-standers in the Walnut Burl (sealed ribbon tweeter, two 5.5” mid-woofers, rear ported). Raidhos have a bass hump, maybe 80-125 or so, and reviews mention it. Even with D2s out from the wall, it stays, by design.

I bought and learned how to use a DSPeaker Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core room correction system with digital equalizer. Using the room correction calibration only, the hump was gone. With careful use I also shelved down some excessive treble/high treble due to picture windows. Although it allows a lot of parametric equalization settings I only ever used two-four, and not to boost frequencies.

If you only heard the D2s well positioned you’d love the detail resolution, sweet open tweeter, and richness of sound. Once you hear the system with DSP engaged, using the room correction and minor equalization, you’ll NEVER EVER go back. It is simply that much better, night and day. An old R.E.L. B1 was dialed in afterward for near full range sound and the system is lovely. The caveat is dynamic peaks only to 90-94 dB, and very program dependent; you can get burned...

I have enjoyed all of the ‘talk talk talk about phase’ and how absolutely critical it is, and most all else be damned. I say its nuts, but that’s my experience. I beg someone to teach me how to listen for and hear it. Most of what I read from published work says it is not audible. I wish the ‘golden ears’ good luck trying to hear it in a blind test. (Oh, they don’t do that; but neither do I for items tested over time…)

My point is I hear a large and, to me, a positive difference with careful equalization that moves a speaker system back to a near flat response so you can year what the artist recorded. That’s a lot more important to me, and it is REAL to my ears, always sounding better. (As discussed in other threads I see the future of speakers as active with DSP equalization.)

If I had a quality digital range expander I’d sure give it a try, especially for a lot of rock CDs I own that are compressed. I have heard of undertones/subharmonics and it is intriguing although I find with a full range system I don’t feel I miss deep bass so much any longer (who knows though?). The idea of multi-channel is interesting to me but I’d need more $.

P.S. After a brain lapse lasting too long I got the wild-ass idea of turning the sub ON during bass calibration. Wow-how long did that idea take to ferment? Arbitrarily setting the B1 at 30Hz and volume 10/40 was a great start with calibration. Ended up at 28Hz and 9/40 and it runs down flat to 25Hz now, not kidding. It takes some bass from the D2s which may help dynamics some. (Borresen B03s sure would help too…). Anyhow it is clean with the most extended bass yet.

P.S.S. Got permission and have an SVS SB-3000 in gloss black coming here in days. I’m hoping/expecting the much newer technology in a sealed unit will probably make easy work of the old B1 (still very adequate). We shall hear…

And the extra big ‘smile on the face’ thing, yeah-I know it well. I put it on all year long, daily, thanks to DSP.

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