The Rise and Fall of Sony

An article about Sony by the always-interesting Stephen Bayley.

I am trying to think what the last Sony item I bought was. I think it was the AV amplifier I am using for my active crossover system, and this really does seem like a good product – although it is just one of many similar products in a crowded marketplace.

I certainly used to regard Sony as a benchmark for quality design, but I recall a fairly up-market MP3 player that was just plain flaky. An amplifier of theirs distorts audibly when playing a 1 kHz sine wave. Another amplifier had been designed so that live uninsulated wires carrying mains were directly below a ventilation grille. An FM tuner needed its backup battery replacing after a couple of years and I think they wanted £70 to replace it – which of course I didn’t pay. A desktop PC looked very nice but ran hot and was incredibly noisy.

Yes, I think the article may be right.

UPDATE 01.03.16

How could I have forgotten this desperate, cynical ploy?

http://gizmodo.com/dont-let-sony-charge-you-5x-more-for-a-premium-sound-1686749071

 

Radiohead’s Bond Theme That Never Was

Always interesting to hear a new Bond theme. Radiohead produced one for the film Spectre, apparently, but for whatever reason it wasn’t used.

I know Bond themes are always designed to tick certain boxes, but is a certain something now being over-used? I’m thinking of the orchestral chords such as the one at the end of the Radiohead track at 3.05, having been used throughout much of the track. If I were a musical expert I’d be able to tell you exactly what type of chord it is (a particular inversion?) but it seems to me that that they’ve hacked a core element out of John Barry’s compositions, changed the orchestration to the most simplistic heavy-handed shorthand, added some ‘swell’ and are now using it like a ‘Bond preset’ in inappropriate ways. John Barry’s music was usually restrained or ironic in some way, while these chords are now being splashed about in irony-free grandiose fashion on many of the most recent Bond themes.

Beatles on Spotify!

As of today the Beatles are available on Spotify. It could be seen as a huge affirmation of the whole streaming thing, I suppose – a blow against Taylor Swift, Thom Yorke, Adele et al.

Or is it just a label bowing to the inevitable? The Beatles had a tremendous run, remaining a premium price best seller on LP then CD then LP for over 50 years. An EU directive designed to retrospectively extend recording copyright from 50 to 70 years will protect all their albums with the exception of Please Please Me for another 20 years. But by holding out against the latest ‘delivery platforms’ for as long as they did, the ‘brand’ began to fade from the zeitgeist. We oldies had already bought the CDs and it would have been difficult to persuade many of us to buy them yet again on a higher resolution format or vinyl. Maybe sales were dropping anyway, and without streaming it was clear that they would be cutting the ‘brand’ off forever from the upcoming generations.

I must stress that I don’t see the Beatles as just a ‘brand’, but I don’t think today’s youngsters view them as the peerless phenomenon that we (or at least I) did, and still do.

The amazing interior world of cables

colfairy

Looking at one of thousands of ‘reviews’ of audio cables that are out there, I was struck by the vivid language that described what the reviewer had heard. I looked at a handful of other reviews and compiled a far from comprehensive list of the words and language on offer. Here is a small fraction of it:

…happier; melody; emotion; sunlight; fast; tired; cold; “mood of the musician”; languid; darker; zest; tempo; warmth; iciness; sweet; confidence; insinuation; gesture; informative; provocative; calm; assuredness; forthright; frantic; “trying too hard”; somnambulant; fire; tantalising; insightful; relaxed; refined; composed; uplifting; gravitas; nonchalant; sympathetic; magical; “unearthing the feeling and meaning”…

Audiophiles like to say that “the best cable is no cable at all” suggesting that a cable can only degrade a signal. In this light, the findings of the cable reviewers are remarkable. In order to get the signal into the cable, vibrations in the air have been converted into a different ‘domain’ – electricity – where, presumably, things could happen to the signal that cannot happen in the acoustic world. Yet the reviewers of cables don’t hear electrical, signal-degrading effects and nor do they hear ‘no effect’. What they perceive is an amazing, coherent, functioning interior world of laughter, tears, sunlight, butterflies, palaces and fairies. All this is going on inside that functional polyester braided jacket and those often-lumpy applications of heatshrink sleeving that cover a multitude of sins.

And it gets even more amazing. In audio we can change the audio signal into yet another domain: that of discrete numbers. A handy way of transmitting those numbers is electrically via cables, but what is being carried is only the numbers. Amazingly, the same magical interior worlds exist there too!

When I was very young, my dad told me that inside our Hacker valve radio there were tiny people singing and dancing. He never told me that inside the wires themselves there was a far more exciting and exotic world waiting to be discovered.

The paradox of simplicity

car-crash-2

A constant refrain in audiophile circles is “the simpler the better”. Once beyond what audiophiles dismiss as ‘mid-fi’ then the more expensive the equipment, the ‘simpler’ it generally is. It is very intuitive of course: the fragile signal is making its way from A to B; each wire, connection or device in the way is supposedly corrupting the signal. Active devices become a necessary evil, as they are not inherently linear and generate excess noise, semiconductors being the worst of all. Transformers are worthy of veneration because they are passive but possess magical properties of being able to change a signal’s voltage or current up or down.

Some audiophiles dream of an amplifier comprising a wooden box with a single glowing valve on top (preferably one of those slightly bulbous ones) and a Bakelite volume control based on a rotary switch with three settings. Underneath, the wiring is ‘point-to-point’ because this provides the shortest signal path. The wire is unbleached cotton covered – it’s the simplest and most natural kind. The output goes off to a single driver horn speaker via some knurled terminals.

Contrary to this, I think that the impression most ‘lay people’ would have of vintage technology is the correct one: the ‘simplest’ systems sound horrible. It is the sound of distortion and strange frequency responses. It is the reason why the rational engineers of the past moved towards more complex hardware (and now software). The result was the sound that grabbed your attention in 1973, perhaps, when you heard your first proper stereo. It is the sound that audiophiles now want to sacrifice on the altar of ‘simplicity’ while divesting themselves of huge quantities of cash.

If only they would realise that the intermediate electrical signal is only a small part of the overall system and not an end in itself. It must be conditioned for its emergence back into the acoustic world via the medium of electromechanical transducers, meaning that the ‘simplest’ hardware renders the overall acoustic signal most susceptible to complex distortions. Audiophiles should stop thinking about what is happening in the circuitry at such a low, folk-intuitive level. What matters is the system’s overall ‘transfer function’ from input to output. It is a case of prioritising the various distortions and dealing with them sensibly.

Conventional non-minimal hi-fi systems are half way to the goal of a neutral transfer function. They provide enough power at low distortion levels to overcome the inefficiencies of direct-radiating drivers (which provide the most uncoloured acoustic output) and they cope with the fact that the signal needs to be split into several frequency bands in order to suit multiple drivers of the appropriate sizes. However, on an oscilloscope screen, what comes out of the speaker does not resemble what the microphone picked up. The standard-issue hi-fi system plays fast and loose with phase and timing because of the effects of the crossover filters and the phase shifts of the drivers themselves. The amplifier is unable to control the cones accurately because of power-wasting passive components in the way. But this is all supposedly acceptable, because we have reached the ‘sticking point’ for audiophiles in terms of the complexity they are prepared to countenance.

Active speakers double or triple the number of amplifiers in the system. This is perceived as a vast step up in complexity, and so active speakers are rare in the world of audiophilia. A further abomination for most audiophiles, but the only practical way to correct the phase and timing errors, is DSP which involves digitising the audio, performing calculations upon it, and then re-converting it back into analogue form. It can also replace chunks of electronic hardware by performing the function of crossover and EQ far more accurately than the analogue alternative. The folk-intuitive view of this is disastrous! The precious, pure, sinuous signal is replaced by hard, discrete numbers. The calculations performed on them are non-audiophile grade – indistinguishable from the same calculations performed in mobile phones and electronic doorbells – and the chips are made of plastic not Bakelite.

The truth, of course, is that digital audio is hardware-agnostic and unbelievably accurate. If audiophiles could just stop thinking in terms of the nuts and bolts, they would realise that such a system, although unimaginably complex internally, is the simplest system of all.

I’m Not in Love: the story of 10cc

10ccAnother excellent in-depth portrait of a band on BBC4. It took us from the individual members’ musical origins in the 1960s, through their self-built studio in Stockport, worldwide fame and global hits, management woes and eventual break-up over ‘musical differences’. The band of four members comprised two distinct duos: Gouldman & Stewart and Godley & Creme; their competitiveness in the studio pushing them to ever-greater heights of creativity and experimentation. Clearly all four members are geniuses who couldn’t help but be innovative and experimental. They also seem to have had quite a nice time doing it, and weren’t in it for the money and the fame.

They are thoroughly nice chaps who have aged well and seem to bear no ill will against each other. Godley and Creme went on to achieve the greater prominence and success after the break-up, moving into video production for other bands in the 1980s (virtually inventing the ‘look’ of the pop video genre) and having several chart hits of their own.

For the geeks among us, the programme went into some depth describing the studio trickery involved in creating the ultimate exercise in overdubbing, I’m Not in Love. We also got to see the inner workings of G&C’s musical instrument invention the Gizmo.

Having said all that, I, personally, have never really been drawn to their music. I was always aware of it, and maybe I admired it for its cleverness, but even after this documentary I won’t be rushing over to Spotify to listen to any of it. I am glad that other people like it, though.

Awkward glossing-over moment of the week: how Jonathan King dreamed up the band’s name.