The paradox of simplicity

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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.

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