Listening #166

They don't make 'em like they used to.

That aphorism has few fans among people shopping for cancer drugs, contact lenses, GPS receivers, and laptop computers, all of which seem to get better with each passing year. Hell, even I know that.

It earns a more positive reply from anyone who's shopping for an oriental rug, or a fly rod, or a tweed jacket, or a musical instrument—people who will tell you that their fond response to the market for vintage examples of such goods is motivated by two things: older products were better made than their newer counterparts (better designs, better materials, better manufacturing techniques), and some, if not all, of those products, over time, actually improve with use.

Take musical instruments: Many, if not most, adult westerners are aware that the stringed instruments made in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by Antonio Stradivari are prized not only for their superior sound but also for their seven- and eight-figure values. Less well known—though common knowledge among certain male baby boomers, a group for whom this magazine's founder felt a special warmth—is the extent to which other instruments, including those associated with more modern music, have earned similar distinctions. There are markets for vintage drums, mandolins, banjos, analog synthesizers—and, of course, guitars.

The market for the last is thought by some to have been kick-started by a 1975 auction in which musician Stephen Stills and a Japanese industrialist fought a bidding war over a WWII-era Martin guitar. Because the final price was in the high four figures—a remarkable amount for the time—the event is linked to the endurance of guitar shops that cater more to the investor than to the musician, and whose proprietors, many of whom are otherwise scrupulous, engage in a continual effort to raise prices for no reason other than the hope and expectation that the market will bear them (footnote 1).

All of which begs the question: Are vintage stringed instruments—or fly rods, or rugs, or what have you—really better than the newer products with which they compete for consumer attention? In numbers far too great to be written off as kooks, paying customers certainly think so.

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No one wants vintage computers and everyone wants vintage wines. (Indeed, the word vintage is derived from the Latin word for wine.) At what point on this continuum do we place our own little world? Can some vintage hi-fi components be considered superior to the domestic-audio goods being designed and made today?

That's thin-icier, especially for Americans, who arguably have a stronger-than-average connection to the whole technological-progress-is-always-a-good-thing thing. Consider also that, in addition to music lovers and record collectors—overlapping groups with distinctly if subtly different psychologies—domestic audio has also traditionally attracted considerable numbers of decidedly technology-friendly hobbyists (read: nerds), who inhabit our world for reasons of their own. Telling these people that there may exist some vintage audio products (or even just one) that reliably outpunch their modern counterparts is like telling them that the Mercury space capsule was superior to the shuttle Endeavour: they become agitated. Tell them that measurements currently in use do not explain these superiorities and they go apoplectic.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to their point of view, even as I find their prim rage silly and sad: As the very mortal voice in Robert Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star" demands in frustration,

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what Elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid . . .
The thing is, insofar as I know, bamboo fly rods tend not to be made by people in white lab coats who declare their products to be measurably superior to everyone else's—even though, with a bit of ingenuity, those manufacturers could surely cook up a regimen with the gloss of authority and do just that. (Once again do anglers distinguish themselves as the most moral of men and women.) The same thing applies to the makers, often nomadic, of hand-knotted rugs, who endure in their craft in the face of competition from vendors of cheap "hand-tufted" rugs that look superficially similar, and could probably be scientifically proven to be of comparable durability.

Apart from occasional flirtations with letting physicists design acoustic stringed instruments—the Gibson company's Mark series of guitars from 1973, which flopped, was the most notorious such episode—most luthiers adhere to proven designs and strive to refine their own techniques rather than create "revolutionary" new products. And every time the scientific community presumes to prove, by means of blind A/B testing, that most musicians can't tell the sound of a Stradivarius from a contemporary violin—I believe the most recent such farce was the 2012 test sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences (footnote 2)—the rest of us merely pause for a moment, laugh at them, and carry on as before.

But audiophiles? Nope. We're as cowed by the nerds in the white lab coats as we are by the bullies who insult us into submission on the chatsites and the swindlers who browbeat us into semiannually buying revised versions of the same overpriced shit at the audio salons. O, mensch! Tief ist ihr Weh!

Was mir das Elektromagneten erzählt
A précis of the problem so far: If there really are such things as vintage audio components—or even entire vintage audio technologies—that are superior to modern versions of same, it would scarcely matter to the considerable number of audiophiles who are even less likely than other consumers to admit it.

But the fact is, some vintage-audio products really are better made than their present-day competition. More to the point, some vintage-audio products—and I know a few intelligent, reasonable people who would change some to most—are better designed than modern products that purport to do the same job. The people who designed the classic products sold by Western Electric, RCA, Siemens, Tannoy, and other golden-age companies weren't just reshuffling the audio-technology deck in an effort to get last year's consumers to buy next year's models: they were using all of their engineering know-how and the best materials at their disposal to achieve a breathtaking level of realism in music and speech reproduction. The companies they inspired—including Altec, Acoustical Quad, Leak, Neumann, Ortofon, Garrard, EMT, Klipsch, Jensen, and Marantz—strove to do pretty much the same.



Footnote 1: Here I make a shameless plug for TR Crandall, in Manhattan's East Village, a vintage-guitar shop that is, with Nashville's Gruhn Guitars and Carter Vintage Guitars, one of the most congenial and most reliably honest of sources, whose repair and restoration work are superb, and whose prices are very fair.

Footnote 2: "Player Preferences Among New and Old Violins" by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, January 3, 2012.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
rt66indierock's picture

First fly fishing is more objective. Have you hiked above 10,000 feet on the Kern River in California and caught a native Golden Trout? And have you caught a native Steelhead in the “holy water” (upper 50 miles) of the Rogue River in Oregon? Skill trumps equipment.

More importantly as it relates to audiophiles “cowed by the nerds in the white lab coats?” Why I didn’t see any especially knowledgeable people at Newport this year. Maybe you could point out me in the direction of some knowledgeable people who will be at RMAF? Any bully on an audio chat site is similarly unknowledgeable. As for “the swindlers who browbeat us into semiannually buying revised versions of the same overpriced shit at the audio salons” remember what Herb Reichert wrote “buying a satisfying music playback system from a high-end audio salon is nearly impossible.” So why do it?

Anton's picture

I love high altitude fishing.

We used to spend spring breaks at Thunder and Lightning Lake at 11,500 or so feet and that time of year, the trout (planted the previous year(s) were so hungry we could use dental floss and tin foils with our hooks.

Tasty, but peaked out at about 9 inches.

Thanks for triggering the thought!

doddsa-in-oz's picture

Thank you again Mr Dudley for some more wonderfull writing and insite into our hobby. Your "think pieces" are always something for me to look forward to each month.Iv'e just spent the afternoon listening to Yamaha's new (retro) NS-5000 speakers might be everything old can be reborn, no matter how modern they may be there is a link to the past in them.

A. Hourst's picture

I’m always surprised by how stagnant this debate about blind A/B testing can be, but, in the same time, still draw a constant amount of interest from reviewers like Art Dudley who constantly punch it from the same angle. The men in white coat and his measuring tool vs the artist and his intuition. They never fail to place themselves in the second category... What saddens me in this dualist vision of the world is the implication, first, that scientists are necessarily immune to the sensual and poetic nature of things, and secondly, that artists who can think logically don’t exist. You either measure a Stradivarius or listen to it (but not blind!). I don’t have an explanation why someone would find comfort in these stereotypes, all I know is they are harmful for the honest and sensible search for the truth. Blind A/B testing tells us about the fallibility of human perceptions and the possibility of being seduced by hype rather than substance. Why someone would laugh at that, I don’t know.

rt66indierock's picture

Blind A/B testing is a good place to defend against testing that disrupts the production of the magazine. To properly compare components the person comparing must level match the components and competent review would include a statement such as “level matched at 72 dB +/- .2 dB.” Level matching is never going to happen since it is too time consuming. Similarly there is no consistently used music by reviewers because it would be boring reading.

The comfort in the stereotypes is they are harmful to an honest sensible search for the truth. High-end audio is all about maintaining the status quo. Sensible searching for the truth will disrupt the status quo and must be resisted.

Jon Iverson's picture
When reviewing and comparing DACs I always match levels first and often perform blind tests with both me and volunteers from our local audio club. Both are noted in my reviews.

About the blind tests - I've found that educated audiophile listeners always do better. Also, once we've figured out the nature of the differences between DACs we can nail which is which 100% when testing each other. But there is a learning curve until we hit this point, which can vary depending on the nature of the differences. However, sometimes we get stuck and can't pick anything out. I'll always note if that happens in the review.

John Atkinson's picture
rt66indierock wrote:
Blind A/B testing is a good place to defend against testing that disrupts the production of the magazine.

Why do we need to defend how we test at all? If you don't trust our testing methodology, then please don't read our reviews.

rt66indierock wrote:
To properly compare components the person comparing must level match the components. . .

Which is what we do and why I included a 1kHz tone at -20dBFS on all the Stereophile Test CDs. I aim for 0.1dB maximum difference in my own testing. I believe you are projecting your own stereotypes on to us.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

A. Hourst's picture

So what you're telling us is that when Kalman Robinson compared the Bel Canto Ref600M to the NAD Masters Series M22 and the Theta Dreadnaught D, in his Bel Canto review, he did it with the level matched to 0.1 dB?
http://www.stereophile.com/content/bel-canto-eone-ref600m-power-amplifie...

John Atkinson's picture
A. Hourst wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
I aim for 0.1dB maximum difference in my own testing.
So what you're telling us is that when Kalman Robinson compared the Bel Canto Ref600M to the NAD Masters Series M22 and the Theta Dreadnaught D, in his Bel Canto review, he did it with the level matched to 0.1dB?

Please do not put words in my mouth. I was clearly talking about what level match I aim for. With different amplifier sensitivities and the fact that preamplifier volume controls don't often have steps of less than 1dB, this goal can't always be reached. But if you read, for example, my comparisons between the Ayre Codex and Pass Labs HPA-1 in our July issue - www.stereophile.com/content/pass-labs-hpa-1-headphone-amplifier - I was able to achieve a level match within 0.1dB.

Level matching is good reviewer tradecraft and the original poster's blanket declaration that this magazine's reviewers don't do it was incorrect.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

A. Hourst's picture

You wrote "Which is what we do and why I included a 1kHz tone ..."
It appears that level matching is only done when convenient after all. The example you provide is clearly an exception, rather than the norm. I don't think that rt66indierock's comment was that much off-track. Most of the time, stereophile staff reach conclusions without level-matching...

John Atkinson's picture
A. Hourst wrote:
The example you provide is clearly an exception, rather than the norm.

I don't recall you sitting next to me when I level-match electronics components for comparisons.

A. Hourst wrote:
Most of the time, stereophile staff reach conclusions without level-matching...

I am sure you are not sitting next to the magazine's reviewers when they do comparisons also. As I said to the original poster, you are incorrectly projecting a generalized criticism of reviewers on to this magazine. And this is despite my pointing to an example that contradicts what you write.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

A. Hourst's picture

Someone says "you should brush your teeth every day". You reply "I brushed them yesterday". Well, that's not exactly an answer...
Did Herb Reichert proceded to level-matching when he compared the different combinaisons of First Watt amplifier and speakers? What is the ratio of level matched reviews vs not in stereophile magazine?
http://www.stereophile.com/content/first-watt-j2-power-amplifier#tdFpyLA...

ChrisS's picture

you take an Oath Of Truth.

Otherwise, what you say, never happened.

John Atkinson's picture
ChrisS wrote:
A. Hourst Must Have you take an Oath Of Truth.
Otherwise, what you say, never happened.

I guess so. Mr. Hourst reminds me of the skeptic who when asked what color a cow was on the hill facing him answered "Brown - on this side."

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

A. Hourst's picture

I just wanna know if your experience of level-matching is the only occurrence in the last fifteen years. Please prove to me that I have no reason to be skeptical...

John Atkinson's picture
A. Hourst wrote:
I just wanna know if your experience of level-matching is the only occurrence in the last fifteen years.

Every direct comparison I have done between electronic components, not just over the past 15 years but since I started reviewing audio products in the late 1970s, has been with levels matched as close as I can get to the 0.1dB goal.

A. Hourst wrote:
Please prove to me that I have no reason to be skeptical...

Why do I have to prove anything to you? If you are that skeptical of what appears in Stereophile, why do you even bother subscribing to the magazine?

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

A. Hourst's picture

ok

rt66indierock's picture

John,

Don’t forget my comment about a competent review including a statement about level matching. If the reviewers are level matching it will be easy for you to report it.

Rereading your Crystal Cable Arabesque Minissimo Diamond Loudspeaker review you wrote about eight pieces of music. And you are telling me you level matched every piece of music to an average dB level you consistently use. And if you did what was the average dB level? I ask because “the speakers ran out of steam” with a 25 watt amp and “the peaks measured around 93 dB”.

Continuing on you misplaced the speakers and spent part of the review using an amplifier with half the recommended power. Leading to questions such as if “the 50Hz and 40Hz tones shelved down” does the speaker produce enough sound at 40Hz to be considered Class A? And “when it came to tonal quality, getting a handle on the Minissimo Diamonds was less straightforward.” Would assessing the tonal quality been straightforward if the speakers were placed properly and you used an amplifier with enough power to drive them properly in your room?

John Atkinson's picture
rt66indierock wrote:
Rereading your Crystal Cable Arabesque Minissimo Diamond Loudspeaker review you wrote about eight pieces of music. And you are telling me you level matched every piece of music to an average dB level you consistently use.

No, and nor have I claimed to. I have been very clear about matching levels when performing comparisons of electronic components. It is not necessary to match levels between different pieces of music when auditioned serially, In fact, given music's constant-changing loudnesses and crest factors, how would that even be possible? Please note that when I compare speakers, I do match levels using pink noise. However, given the "bounce" in the spl reading with a noise source, it is not possible to do so within 1dB or so.

rt66indierock wrote:
you misplaced the speakers...

No, I did not set the speakers up in the wrong places, just further out from the wall behind them than the manufacturer recommends due to practical restraints. You can see from the in-room response that this did not unduly compromise the tonal balance.

rt66indierock wrote:
. . .and spent part of the review using an amplifier with half the recommended power.

Because I felt that was useful information for those with small rooms that might expect the Crystal would work well with such an amplifier, especially as this speaker has a sufficiently high impedance that it should be a good match with the First Watt amplifier. The First Watt is a superb-sounding amplifier, just not powerful enough for a speaker with such a low voltage sensitivity.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

rt66indierock's picture

I disagree about level matching music, too easy to draw the wrong conclusions if you don’t. How is it possible to level match music? In the digital world use ReplayGain and a decibel meter to match music volume.

Not a comprehensive test but after your response I moved my office speakers to the positions recommended for Arabesque Minissimo Diamond speakers and listened to a couple of reference albums. That changed the sound slightly; moving them out from the wall four feet reduced the bass output. It was not in my plans to visit Crystal Cables room at RMAF but now I’m going to and listen for myself.

I view preplanning as an important part of properly testing stereo equipment and using an amplifier without adequate power when it is obviously under powered is poor planning and unfair to the manufacturer .

ChrisS's picture

What possible wrong conclusion can one draw if you don't level match Bill Evans "Waltz For Debby" with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra playing "Pomp and Circumstance March No.1"?

rt66indierock's picture

Actually a very good question, I often listen very close to the point the room is pressurized. If one of your examples is quieter than the other by a couple of dBs then when I play louder one it will pressurize the room and cause slight smearing of some instruments if the Moscow Symphony Orchestra is louder or some of the bass if Bill Evans is louder.

As for the wrong conclusion one can draw if you don’t level match. Read Harry Pearson’s first review of stacked Advents ten of us have tried over the years to recreate the slight smearing he discussed. We could only do it with high volume heavily pressurizing the rooms. Not the way we listen so to me an erroneous conclusion.

ChrisS's picture

I had to read this several times, even out loud a couple times, but I'm not sure I get it.

What did rt66indierock actually say?

(rt66indierock, are we "sort of" talking about level matching?

Like John "sort of" doing blind testing?)

rt66indierock's picture

Even when I am listening casually I at least use the frequency analyzer and decibel meter on my phone. I always use an actual decibel meter to level match components and regularly use it for music not in my digital library so no “sort of”.

To back up a bit if you play music loud enough you will pressurize the room. As rooms are pressurized sound issues increase rapidly and the cost to fix them rises exponentially. So I avoid doing it. I get better sound and avoid unnecessary cost by keeping my average sound level at 72 dB or less. All my testing is done at 72 dB average for consistency
This morning I put on “Hungerstrike” covered by Halestorm and Corey Taylor in the office and set the sound level to 72 dB average. It sounded great. Next I fired up “Gimme Shelter” covered by Stone Sour and Lizzy Hale. Without level matching the average volume rose to 75 dB. I just left the volume as it was. The bass was now off as were the lower notes the rhythm guitar. What I’m saying is things get distorted and smeared when the room is pressurized as they did in Harry’s first review, as I heard at Newport this year and will hear at RMAF because the volume is cranked up to an average of over 80dB.

ChrisS's picture

...acoustics may easily be "treatable", and may not cost much, if anything, at all.

rt66indierock's picture

Sorry this is late but I went to RMAF and had some other time consuming issues last week.

If you don’t pressurize the room the acoustic tools are needed are inexpensive and the way you would treat the room can be more about planning and small adjustments.

Bump average sound level up to 77 dB and the issues multiply. Now I need more expensive acoustic tools, the room treatments become more complex and expensive and I need more amplifier power to allow instantaneous peaks to reach 107 dB. And I may need different speakers as well.

Now increase the average volume up to 82 dB. There enough issues to require changes to the structure. Different amps and speakers will definitely be needed to reach instantaneous peaks of 112 dB. As for room treatments well they are going to make room unusable for other activities. The acoustic tools will now cost thousands dollars.

ChrisS's picture

...you need to do.

No one else does.

rt66indierock's picture

I never minded being the only one. I’ve guarded goals in soccer and hockey. I’ve played golf in front of galleries in the hundreds and taught tax classes to hundreds of CPAs. And I was able to moonlight as a consultant in the broadcasting industry because of my hearing and knowledge of testing. Something I generally did by myself.

And the seminar with the largest attendance at RMAF this year was about measuring rooms so I’m not the only one who does this or interested by the topic.

ChrisS's picture

...help others to set up or optimize their systems, rooms, and listening experience?

rt66indierock's picture

Of course I help people. A large number people helped me learn about audio. They wouldn’t have spent the time to teach me if I wasn’t going pass the information along. And I’ve started to write about how make my audio decisions see KIH#35 for an example.

ChrisS's picture

What's nice about this "hobby" is all the different ways we go about it.

John Atkinson's picture
rt66indierock wrote:
I disagree about level matching music, too easy to draw the wrong conclusions if you don’t.

Reviewers are not comparing pieces of music, they are comparing components. You agreed with this in your original post when you wrote:

rt66indierock wrote:
To properly compare components the person comparing must level match the components...

As long as you match the levels to the components being compared, whatever music you choose to play will therefore also play at comparable levels.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

rt66indierock's picture

Specifically when testing components the music should be level matched. The recordings I use to evaluate soundstage give me different results based on the volume they are played. In general instruments should have spacing I want when the volume is slightly softer than the volume that would start to pressurize the room. Specifically I don’t want the drum kits stretched and Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC should have the width and depth I expect. I know it well. I’ve been listening to my soundstage reference recordings at various volumes in preparation for RMAF.

ChrisS's picture

People (only some) insist on blind testing audio equipment.

But, no one, in the entire audio retail and consumer industry, does.

Why even bring it up?

rt66indierock's picture

John Atkinson did in his Listening to MQA posted August 18, 2016. Scored 4 out 7.

ChrisS's picture

Just the average consumer does not shop by doing "blind testing"...

mink70's picture

Thank you, Art, for this fun and well-written reminder about where things stand in our hobby. This morning, beside your column on this website I spotted John Atkinson's review of a $20,000 tiny two-way speaker with 83.5dB/2.83V/m sensitivity. I'm not picking on it particularly; I'm sure it sounds fine. But it's a reminder of the tradeoffs that were made decades ago, tradeoffs that to my ears are not at all consonant with enjoying music in the home (particularly for us members of the economic 99%). It always amuses me to play my Garrard 301/SME 3012/SPU, tube electronics, and Tannoy Ardens—a system that can still be acquired today for less than the price of those tiny speakers—for audiophiles and watch their reactions. Please keep writing the terrific essays.

PS. Someone at Rodale should build a palanquin for the great Herb Reichert, so he can be transported like a Moghul prince.

Anton's picture

It seems a little like Art is in an audio rut. The hobby has its own cycles and we all have peaks and troughs and is not a good/bad thing; we are following him on his audio journey via his column.

I think Sam had it before he left, talking about "exit level" gear and such.

Hi Fi is a pursuit as much as it is a destination. I can see Art getting sick of the usual thing and responding to something different. Why not? Art is on a different path this cycle. I like it.

There is one big pit any of us can fall into, however: Different is often confused with better. I'll be interested in seeing how things go the next few years, or is Art at exit level?

One last added thing: How many of you double blind A/B types shop that way?

Anton's picture

"And how was it that companies in the 1930s could offer, for reasonable prices, technologies that all but a few modern manufacturers declare are "too expensive"?"

"It's a remarkable product, experience of which has reinforced much of the above—and poked at and punctured some of it, too. I look forward to describing it in detail next month."

So, how 'affordable' should we expect these to be?

What 'reasonable price?

I will guess 20k+ and chuckle about "reasonable."

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