Too Good to Be True

Two letters from readers (see below) started us thinking again about something we've mulled at, off and on, for the past year or so: Does today's high-fidelity equipment, for all its vastly improved performance, actually sound that much better than the best of the early components?

Certainly, the best of today's pickups, amplifiers and loudspeakers are objectively far superior to anything available ten, or even five years ago. Pickups trace more cleanly at lower forces, amplifiers have lower distortion and higher stability, and speakers have wider range, smoother response and lower distortion than ever before. Yet increasing numbers of long-time audiophiles are complaining that today's sound reproduction is not as natural as it used to be during the golden age of monophony.

Some have even suggested that maybe we need a bit of distortion and peakiness to make things sound right, but good sense would seem to suggest otherwise. After all, fidelity is accuracy, and distortion and peaks are inaccuracies. Yet by comparison with yesterday's systems, today's crop is often accused of sounding rather gray and flat and, somehow, not quite realistic.

Reader Burks claims electrostatics just don't sound natural, despite the fact that the best of them measure better than anything hitherto available. Reader Vanderbilt harks back to an old Brociner-Brook-Fairchild system that he recalls as having been more natural than anything he's heard since.

Of course, it's easy to dismiss all this as the embellishments of memory, which can turn a 15" snowfall during our childhood into the biggest blizzard in history. No doubt, this does account for some of it, but it isn't the whole answer. There are still a lot of excellent, old monophonic systems in use today, several of which we have heard recently. We must admit that some of them do have a certain quality of realism that is lacking in many of the "best" modern setups—a quality that not even stereo can provide. They may have rather muddy bass, and be a bit spitty at the top, but voices and musical instruments sound so natural and alive that you feel as if you could reach right out and touch them.

Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is the number of times we have observed this intangible quality of realism from crummy little table-model radios that could not qualify as high fidelity by any of the standards we normally apply.

Does this mean our standards for evaluating components are all fouled up? Not basically, because distortion is still distortion, whether it makes the sound worse or better. However, it is possible that we have been forgetting or ignoring some "minor" factors that are actually more important than we suspect.

Hearing is simply our reaction to a pattern of pressure waves in the air around us. If we can get exactly the same set of air vibrations to our ears in the living room as would have reached our ears in the concert hall, we will hear a perfect replica of the original sounds. Hence, the search for smoother response, lower distortion, wider range, better transient response, and all the rest of it. Many loudspeaker designers, for instance, have long claimed that their field was an art as much as a science, which is another way of saying that their speakers somehowseem to sound better when they're designed with a couple of response deviations in them than they do when they're made to be linear by measurement.

In other words, perhaps it is necessary to compensate for some peculiarities of room acoustics or of amplifier coloration in order to produce linear response at our ears.

We won't attempt to volunteer any provocative theories about this at this time, but we will bring up a couple of points that might bear looking into. High fidelity started in movie theaters, and horn speaker systems became the standard of quality because, when used with contemporary amplifiers, they provided just the right amount of brilliance and "presence." But when audiophiles brought these components into their living rooms, the sound was far too brilliant and shrill.

Some slightly insane audiophiles, including the partially deaf, liked that kind of sound, but musically oriented listeners soon concluded that, while homs were fine for auditoriums (and palatial living rooms), they had no place in the average home. Direct-radiator speakers became the accepted standard for in-the-home use, because of their "smoother, sweeter" sound.

"Presence" became a dirty word, and most of the improvements in components that were made in subsequent years were aimed at "smoothing out" and "sweetening" their sound. We may have overshot the mark though, hence the recent complaints about the "sogginess" and "muted" quality of modem systems, and the upsurge of interest in speakers with more "presence."

We can't advocate a return to the sound of yesteryear, but we would like to know what it had that most of today's equipment lacks. Does anyone have any ideas on the subject?—J. Gordon Holt

The Letters that Triggered This Essay:

Backward View?
Sirs: I have been waiting for a publication such as The Stereophile to come out! There are and have been publications that have given unbiased ratings of audio components (Consumers Union and Audio League), but I always felt that their reports were for the mass market rather than for the audio perfectionist. Top-quality equipment was seldom tested, presumably because the average audiophile would not be interested. Those of us who were interested in the finest equipment had to be content with superlatives, and very little in the way of comparison or criticism of the equipment.

One of the things that sold me on your publication was the statement in your announcement, "...we began to realize that there was a real need for some source of forthright, down-to-earth information for the audio perfectionist who wasn't satisfied with being told that 'all amplifiers sound pretty much the same.'" I have heard this statement, and have even read it in a high-fidelity magazine recently.

I was beginning to think that I had the world's only 24-karat golden ear, because I can hear a difference between amplifiers, especially preamplifiers. I now own the supposed "best" in amplifiers, Marantz, but I and most of my friends agree that it doesn't sound as good as the mono Brook equipment I had previously. Nor is the Marantz Model 7 stereo preamp as transparent-sounding as the Marantz monophonic audio consolette. I understand that the real perfectionists are buying up the Marantz mono preamps and using them in pairs for stereo, with the Marantz stereo adapter.

My goal in stereo, ironic though it may be, is to have the quality of sound I had 10 years ago with a Brociner-Klipsch corner horn, the 30 watt Brook amp and preamp, and a Fairchild 220 cartridge. It had a realism which made you unaware that you were listening to a sound system. Even in mono, it had depth. Perhaps the new transistorized components are what I'm looking for. I hope I will be able to find some of the answers in The Stereophile.—Richard Vanderbilt, Rumson, NJ

Musical Paper
Sirs: Re Irving Fried's pronouncement of doom for the paper-cone loudspeaker ("The Forum," Sepember–October 1962): I've spent hours listening to full-range electrostatics. Fine transient response and clarity, but the piano didn't sound like a piano, the clarinet didn't sound like a clarinet, the cello didn't sound like a cello. The characteristic timbres of the instruments were missing.

I've spent hours listening to expanded polystyrene foam speaker systems. They are extremely accurate reproducers but, unfortunately, unmusical reproducers.

Listening to paper cones and live music has ruined my ears. Pity, really.—G. E. Burks, Denver, CO

If transient response, clarity, and accuracy are unmusical, then why fidelity? Back to the acoustical horn?—J. Gordon Holt

fetuso's picture

Is it possible that the problem, if there is one, is caused by the recording process and not the playback equipment? I grew up using cheap playback gear, and now I own a decent entry level system; peachtree nova125se, wharfedale diamond 220's, onkyo cd player, and music hall turntable. In general I find recordings from about 1985 and before to sound much better than most of what I've heard since. Rock music in particular to me just doesn't sound as natural as it used to. Of course music today is mostly recorded on digital gear as opposed to analog, and maybe that has something to do with the complaints.

fetuso's picture

I realized after I posted my above comment that the complaint is that even older recordings don't sound as good to these folks played through the new gear. Sorry. I do, however, stand by my statement that newer music doesn't sound as good.

Critical Listener's picture

One fact I am aware of is most (if not all) preamps and integrated amps of the 40's and 50's all had bass and treble controls. Regardless of what some "golden eared" individuals say, because of room acoustics, speaker characteristics, and source anomalies, tone controls represent a _needed_ part of an amplifying system. Correctly designed, they will add the necessary boost or cut to some frequencies, frequencies that when reproduced at the correct level, may complete the "realism" that is sometimes lacking in expensive, high-end systems that still have a bland, lifeless sound.

Gorm's picture

My equipment has much improved since I started this insane hobby fifty years ago but that doesn't mean that every recording I enjoyed at one time or another has kept pace. The best (including those of my vinyl, CD and SACD collection) now sound better, and the less good (I never saved many poor recordings unless the performance was worth it) now sound worse.
I believe a Camera Lens analogy works here: using a poor quality(or dirty?) lens makes the distinction between photos of beautiful and plain models less obvious. My better cables, vibration control and superior amplification now makes great recordings sound stunning, but sadly some of the "almost"good ones have their flaws revealed more clearly.
Of course some cartridges, amps and CD players trade "musical" values for endless detail but I have managed to cull those products from my system. I am still an all tube man but they are no longer sloppy puppies like those of yore.

Sal1950's picture

I remember after years of us Klipsch owners being made fun of with the old "cup hands over the mouth" actions some people have started to realize that something is missing.
Back sometime in the 80s David Manley showed up at one of the big HiFi shows with a pair of Klipsch's being driven by a very expensive front end of his tube designs. Reviewers were tongue tied but a couple of honest ones raved over the "real" sound of his show system.
Then in Nov 2006 Sam Tellig reviewed a pair of Klipsch LaScala's in Stereophile and was over the moon with the sound. Again most in the industry were tongue tied, they didn't know how to respond after so many years of making fun of the sound of horn speakers.
Now again today good horn systems are all the rage, specially in Asia but there is big interest all over the globe.
Until my retirement three years ago and movement into much downsized digs I ran a set of LaScala's I bought new in 1978 for the next 33 years. With VTL monoblock tube amps and a SOTA source, they had a way that presented a wave front that could sound as "real" as just about anything I've ever heard.
Yea, the Acoustic Suspension revolution gave us speakers that had a good Wife Acceptance factor, but lost something that wouldn't be admitted to for years.

Ronald Koh - SG's picture

A very complex subject with both objective & subjective effects. So, there is more than meets the ears and the "eyes" if one reads John Atkinson's technical reviews with sensibility & coherently all of his technical analysis relating to aural perceptions by himself and of his reviewers too.

A. Respectable Professional opinion.

1. Late John Crabbe of Hi-Fi News of which Stereophile's Chief Editor & Engineer John Atkinson was associated with had once said of Hi-Fi as:

"The wider you open the window, the more dust flies in"! Meaning that the more transparency of a system, the more musical caveats there will be.

2. Another whose name I've forgotten said that:

"A system should be like a straight wire with no gain". Meaning as with computers, rubbish in rubbish out and good in good out. It may have been Quad Loudspeaker's designer or other?

B. Technically Speaking - Don't get me wrong, but this is not for the non-technically and non-proficient in basic electrical engineering science.

1. The impedance modulus and matching for either Constant Current or Constant Voltage designs topology is of importance. As:

1.1 Tube power amplifiers should generally fall under the Constant Current amplification device. As it is a source to load impedance matching power source for maximum power transfers, its output current to the loudspeakers WILL vary according according to its design capabilities and the varying loudspeakers' load impedance as JA always point out in his technical reviews.

1.2 Solid State or transistor power amplifiers should generally fall under the Constant Voltage amplification device. As it drivers a speaker load much like an Electrical Power Generator that within its capacity will drive up to its designed power output rating, the current it can output to a load down to its designed capability within its voltage design + - limits.

1.3 That said, the complexities of source power to load is further more complicated by complex speaker crossover networks and frequency related too.

1.4. And what of the multi-way arrays of loudspeaker designs types that JA always write about too. Waterfall plots, frequency responses on & off axis. Vertical & horizontal dispersions too into a typical home type room with furnitures that are a great source of negative effects for modern wide frequency range and high dynamics loudspeakers? This is call eigentones, apart from room wall reflections, echoes etc!

So technically, these things are just exactly what John Crabbe said about Hi-Fi systems as "The wider you open window, the more dust flies in"!

Gary Koh of Genesis tell Hi-Fi system lovers of the typical audiophile genre that "90% of a systems musicality is in the placements of the loudspeakers". How right but in simple terms only.

C. Last but not least, i would like to let others who know enough of these thing both theory wise and practical experience wise to comment & share. As "Experience is indeed the finest teacher" we are told. That said, perhaps a the simple table radio without crossover networks and wider frequency ranges, hi-dynamic capabilities is not so much affected by room acoustics! Food for thought?

John Atkinson's picture
Ronald Koh wrote:
Late John Crabbe of Hi-Fi News of which Stereophile's Chief Editor & Engineer John Atkinson was associated with...

It was a little more than "associated with" - I worked for John on Hi-Fi News's staff from September 1976 to the summer of 1982 and succeeded him as editor-in-chief from September 1982 through May 1986.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Ronald Koh - SG's picture

Thank you John. Wrong choice of word by me.

In fact I subscribed to Hi-Fi News as far back as 1967 and knew you became it's editor till you moved to Stereophile I also subscribed for several years. Always enjoy your technical reviews as learn much from them both in technical as well related subjective effects.

Since this is such a complex issue that audiophiles are always at odds in controversies by listening mostly to the "sounds" of a system. Especially those in Singapore! I tell them I am not an audiophile nor even a "musicphile" but purely a music lover. Because I clarified that a playback system's music must touch my heart and not my "skin" like bass massaging it that is. So I think a few considered simple questions for the common interest I feel is not out of place here to get back to the basics of listening to music as in live venues rather than to - Hi-Fi systems. Thus,

1. Of musicality or tonal accuracy, which is the better choice and why?

2. I choose musicality as no one without accurate knowledge of the live venue and a singer's voice heard directly at a decent distance can really know what tonal accuracy is or is not after recording as well as a playback system set up subjective negative effects as I've have basically shared. What do you think?

3. As there's just too much or many "quirks" that can hamper a system from sounding musically satisfying. Meaning the artefacts of live venues' acoustics, especially mostly listening to singers' voices via loudspeakers anyway. So I find that musical instruments as easier to sound musically satisfying than the human voice singing into microphone(s) with none to irritating sibilance due to the singer's lips being too close to microphone(s). Microphone type and cavity also can affect this effect. What do you think?

4. Last but not least, briefly what do you say about these things John Atkinson?

Thank you all for reading.

JUNO-106's picture

Many times I prefer a "historical", mono recording of symphonic music over stereo. I can't explain it.

But jazz and rock I don't like to hear in mono at all.

kelven's picture

A timeless article, indeed.
I often perceive the collective (imperial) “we" as a group in search of definitive answers, with some from this group silently hoping the scientific method's first premise of an objective causal order will come through in accounting for all that exists in the universe (including subjective experience).
“To infinity and beyond!"
Both then and now.
According to the late JGH: "Hearing is simply [simply!?] our reaction to a pattern of pressure waves in the air around us. If we can get exactly the same set of air vibrations to our ears in the living room as would have reached our ears in the concert hall, we will hear a perfect replica of the original sounds."
Good luck on that one, y'all.
Those silly things called variables can be messy, especially the confounding ones and those yet known.
And for whatever it is worth, alcohol deleteriously messes with one's sense perception (as does smoking, high blood pressure, pharmaceuticals, and so many things deemed necessary in modern times).
This objective-subjective dilemma is akin to the brain trying to understand the brain.
For example, the brain coordinated the development of all kinds of cool (really cool!) tools and metrics to observe brain function (EEG, PET, fMRI, NIRS), but has yet to come to terms with itself enough to make sense of our senses, let alone the human condition and a few of the "crazy" attitudes and antics we "live" by.
One need not look far to try and make sense of what appears to be a mass suspension of disbelief as it relates to the large number of individuals said to be in support of Donald Trump.
Clearly there must be a confounding variable or two obstructing (distorting) signal transmission at the source. And more likely than not, there are a few unknowns of similar character at the receiving end.
If I only knew how to apply the scientific method to help us better understand the root cause these distortions.
But so it goes, and birds of a feather. . .
As a longtime lover of music and hi-fi, I have been happy to experience an overall improvement in music reproduction (both analog and digital), albeit often heard cosmetically beautiful gear costing more than my home (literally), only to experience disappointment. Some (not all) of this uber-expensive gear has literally hurt my ears, causing a temporary disequilibrium of pressure in my eustachian tubes.
I can’t help but wonder if the people who "enjoy" listening to such products, do so only because they are no longer able to "tolerate" products that do not assault their senses.
My wife and I recently visited a store on the west coast and listened to some expensive loudspeakers with comparably priced electronics in a treated room. The storeowner claimed the nice looking set of loudspeakers to be: "the most accurate speakers made" (yawn).
What I heard hurt my ears, and it hurt my wife's ears, too.
The cost of the speakers with amps, source, and cabling was greater than $100,000 (what some might consider the low to middle range of outrageous).
The major magazines have given this speaker (and associated electronics) rave reviews, but aside from passing as well engineered products (based upon a group of measurements), I remain unable to understand how they passed the listening test. . . ?
Several years back I purchased a not inexpensive DAC after reading a glowing review of it in a major magazine. After burning it in for well over 1000 hours and trying different cabling, transports, music servers, speakers, amplifiers, etc., I concluded the reviewer was hearing impaired, and/or tone deaf.
Picking on the expensive products again (amps, speakers ≥$30K; passive monitors ≥$15K), there have been many given “gold stars” according to their measured performance. Unfortunately, after listening to these items under what were described as optimal conditions, I would frequently leave the audition with the word, "a-musical" stuck in my head.
On the other hand, I have heard less expensive products (typically from smaller companies) and have left smiling, relieved by what I would call improved timbre and a more natural reproduction of high frequencies.
The word "technology" is like a drug to many, however leaves much to be desired if it does not serve the most basic element of survival: the facilitation of equanimity in our senses.
Besides, technology did not invent itself; it is the result of a method of inquiry--a method of inquiry born of, yet again: the human brain.
The brain trying to understand the brain in its myriad capacities and expressions (to the infinite and beyond!) may be mirrored back to us through all we have manifest, technology included.
On a smaller scale, in the world of high-end audio, when the objectively measured "reality" does not correspond with the subjective evaluation as per our sentience, where do we go from there?
One approach would be to apply more scrutiny (isolate more variables), to try and understand how what is done to “clean up” the signal pathway (as measured) could result in more “dirt” (the subjective experience of the reproduced sound as "questionable").
Another might be to learn more about the role of hearing as it relates to physiological changes, and our perception/interpretation of these changes within different contexts.
I suppose a third could included attending more live, acoustic performances with a group of friends, then go immediately to one of these friend's home to listen to their hi-fi. . .
And scrutinize with a wrinkled forehead over the painfully disparate qualities between live music and its recorded playback.
Maybe the brain trying to understand the brain will prove simply, simpler.
Maybe the (willing) suspension of disbelief has its place.

dalethorn's picture

I've heard expensive things in showrooms that didn't sound right, but now years later, I've learned to listen for the inner detail and tone, and to ignore (for the moment) any anomalies caused by the room, the ancillary gear, the salesman, etc. If I feel that the system has a potential that I can realize in my home, and I just "want" it, then I move to the next step. It's not a perfect system, but it works if you get a refund guarantee.

georgehifi's picture

Back then whenever someone had a audio/hifi night, someone always inevitably lit a certain naturally grown something up to compliment the booze you were drinking. Today you would'nt go near it.

Cheers George

Sal1950's picture

"Today you wouldn't go near it."

Speak for yourself please. ;)

makarisma's picture


dpudvay's picture

sounded better because our ears were better? It's well known we start to lose the upper frequencies as we age. Wouldn't that explain why new systems sound flat compared to our memory?

makarisma's picture

A couple of contributing factors, IMHO, to the dissatisfaction with modern sound is the demise of tape, which sounded warmer and more natural, plus the fact that most of the speakers of yore had bigger drivers that provided prodigious bass instead of the smaller ones nowadays.