What's Right?

A recent experience with two excellent loudspeaker systems and two of the top power amplifiers raised a question that has been cropping up more and more frequently these days: When one component sounds more toppish or more bassy than another, which one is really flat and which isn't?

The question arose this time in connection with some listening tests on a pair of FMI 80 speakers and a pair of IMF Monitor III speakers, using Audio Research Dual 75 and Crown DC-300A power amplifiers.

Both speakers, according to their manufacturers, had been designed to produce the flattest, most-extended high end possible. Yet there was an obvious difference between the high-end character of each. Either the FMIs were up at the high end and the IMFs were flat, or the FMIs were flat and the IMFs were somewhat dull.

Okay, how would you determine which was correct? Connect each to a power amplifier of unimpeachable credentials, and listen to recordings that are known to have a flat high end on them? Okay, now name an amplifier of unimpeachable credentials. How about the two above-mentioned ones: the Dual 75 and the DC-300A.

Let's try the Dual 75 first. With that amp driving each speaker, the FMIs were obviously flat, the IMFs rolled down at the top. Now we have the answer! Or do we? Let's try the other amplifier—the DC-300A. Now the IMFs sound flat and the FMIs sound obviously tipped up and fiery.

Which is right? The average person's answer at this point will be prejudiced by whether he is a solid-state worshipper or a vacuum-tube infidel. If he believes in the inherent superiority of transistors he will know that the DC-300A is right because its extra "snap" is due to its superior rise time. If he is a tube man, he will say the Dual 75 is right because its "softer" sound is due to the fact that it produces less high-order harmonic distortion than do solid-state amplifiers.

Both assertions are true, and could account for the audible difference. But is the sound of either one "right"? Or is it possible that neither is right, and that the right sound lies somewhere in between?

We have observed the same thing at the low end. The Monitor IIIs have truly awesome low-frequency response, with a slight tendency toward heaviness. With the DC-300A, the low end is merely a bit "rich." With the Dual 75 it is intolerably woolly and turgid. Yet it goes almost without saying that both amplifiers have absolutely identical measured frequency response from 30Hz to 20kHz. And the Dual 75, which starts to roll off below 25Hz, elicits more bass from the Monitors than does the DC-300A which is flat down to 0Hz (DC)! And both have such low distortion at levels below overload that it is impossible to measure with most test instruments, and should not be audible to the most critically tuned ear.

So why the difference at the low end? Available power makes for tighter bass? Or is it higher damping factor that causes the DC-300A to better-control the IMF's low end?

And which one is right? The Crown, because it makes the IMF sound more natural at the low end and makes some other systems sound too taut and sparse? Or the Audio Research, which underdamps the IMFs and produces just the right bass quality from some other speaker systems?

We did not cite the IMF Monitors or FMI 80s as examples here because they are unusual in the way in which they react to different amplifiers, but because they are typical in this respect. (They differ from most other speakers in that they are good enough to reveal the amplifier differences rather conspiciously, and from one another in that the FMIs were designed for use with tube amplifiers while the IMFs were not.)

The point we're trying to make is that, at least at the present state of the audio art, there is no right or wrong, there's only incompatibility. The IMFs sounded best with the DC-300A because that amplifier aproximates what was used to design them. The FMIs and a few other loudspeakers sound best with the Audo Research Dual 75 because, by design or (in the case of most electrostatics) by happenstance, they work best with tubes.

If you're looking for an earth-shaking conclusion, we can give you that, too. Conclusion: There is no "best" amplifier; there is only a best one of the type that the speaker was designed for. And it's a pretty safe bet that, as of today, one is the Dual 75 and the other is the DC-300A.

If in addition you're looking for something new to worry about in the wee hours of the morning, try this on for size: Can we really trust the device that is used to calibrate the microphones that are used for recording and for measuring the frequency response of the loudspeakers we listen to? Can we be even reasonably certain that anything is right? Have you ever had an audiometry curve run on your ears?

Sleep tight, now!—J. Gordon Holt

Venere's picture

...the more they stay the same. Written 42 years ago and still valid. I'm not sure if that's an indictment of the entire industry or simply the inevitable reality of reproduced sound. Even with all the new technologies that have evolved during this time, there is still no absolute right or wrong, only what sounds best to each listener.

finnemga's picture

I chuckle every time some reviewer makes definitive comments (which the smart ones avoid -- while not *looking* like they are avoiding it). As an aerospace and electrical engineer, this is what we always deal with when trying to manipulate signals in and out of the physical world. Transducers (speakers, microphones, etc.) ALWAYS have an interaction with the amplification/filtering used to drive or read them. There is never a Perfect in the real world. Just an A works better with B or C works better with D for the required signal fidelity. Of course, in audio the required fidelity is frequently on the slippery slope. What parameters are significant and in what degree? How do they interact? Are all of them even measurable? To me, that is the fun in this hobby. Besides being a music lover, I enjoy watching the debate continue to evolve in the industry. I guarantee that is what motivates many of the designers involved in today's top notch audio.

dalethorn's picture

All of my Stereophile-recommended speakers in the 1970's had wild sonic variations in my rooms according to their placement and the properties of the rooms themselves. If I were repeating that today, I would do the gross adjustments needed by a combination of room treatments and speaker placement, then fine tune it with my favorite equalizer.

corrective_unconscious's picture

Your post here directly contradicts your funny sounding claims about the FMI-80 you made in the other thread. You described them as the opposite of wildly colored, particularly in reference to other speakers you tried up to 2005.

dalethorn's picture

You would be best served to just understand that I know what I'm talking about and you don't. They were my speakers, I followed Stereophile standards, and apparently you don't know what those are. It's too big a subject for forum comments here. Perhaps you could do some research first, then ask a relevant question.

corrective_unconscious's picture

I thought your comments here, namely, "_All_ of my Stereophile-recommended speakers in the 1970s had wild sonic variations [due to room issues or whatever]..." contradict your claims made in your other post about speakers from that era:

"We bought the FMI-80's in the late 1970's when FMI had already more than doubled the price due to Stereophile's rave review. We used them until 2005 when they were destroyed by a shipper. During those years we auditioned several well-regarded loudspeakers, but all of them had unacceptable colorations compared to the FMI-80. Speakers we used prior to the FMI-80 include the LS3/5a, Dahlquist DQ-10, Advent."

That's from your post under an archived review of the little FMI speakers.

The two posts don't seem to be able to both make sense at the same time. You're saying _all_ your speakers were unacceptably colored and that the FMIs were not, or that they were much better. Not only do these posts appear to be contradictory, but I am skeptical of your extravagant claims for the FMIs just in the one post by itself.

John Atkinson's picture
I have deleted some of your posts because they were little more flames. Please attack the content of posts, as you have done here, not the poster.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

corrective_unconscious's picture

I hit "reply" at the proper post and yet my reply does not appear to be nested correctly. That intermittently repeating glitch makes following threads a lot more difficult.

maxmax's picture

i don't able to download the newspaper,whot i do? hallo Max

John Atkinson's picture
maxmax wrote:
i don't able to download the newspaper,whot i do?

If you have either a Zinio or Apple newsstand Stereophile subscription, you will receive an email every month letting you know when your issue is available for download.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

TracyLeon's picture

I do agree with the author. I experienced the same problem and would like to get any advice regarding it if possible.

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