The problem with IT…

…is that you can never rely on things staying the same. Here’s what happened to me last night.

By default I start Spotify when my Linux audio PC boots up. I often leave it running for days. Last night I was listening to something on Spotify (but I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been a CD or other source). I got a few glitches in the audio – something that never happens. This threatened to spoil my evening – I thought everything was perfect.

I immediately plugged in a keyboard and mouse to begin to investigate and it was at that moment that I noticed that the Intel Atom-based PC was red hot.

Using the Ubuntu system monitor app I could see that the processor cores were running close to flat out. Spotify was running, and on the default opening page was a snazzy animated advert referring to some artist I have no interest in. The basic appearance was a sparkly oscilloscope type display pulsing in time with the music. I had not seen anything like that on Spotify before. I had an inkling that this might be the problem and so I clicked to a more pedestrian page with my playlists on it. The CPU load went down drastically.

Yes, Spotify had decided they needed to jazz up their front page with animation and this had sent my CPU cores into meltdown. Now, my PC is the same chipset as loads of tablets out there. Maybe Ubuntu’s version of flash (or whatever ‘technology’ the animation was based on) is really inefficient or something, but it looks to me as though there is a strong possibility that this Spotify ‘innovation’ might have suddenly resulted in millions of tablets getting hot and their batteries flattening in minutes.

The animation is now gone from their front page. Will it return? I can’t now check whether any changes I make to Spotify’s opening behaviour (opening up minimised?) will prevent the issue.

This is the problem with modern computer-based stuff that is connected to the internet. It’s brilliant, but they can never stop meddling with things that work perfectly as they are.

[06/01/17] Of course it can get worse. Much worse. Since then, we now know that practically every computer in the world will need to be slowed down in order to patch over a security issue that has been designed into the processors at hardware level. At worst it could be a 50% slowdown. Will my audio PC cope? Will it now run permanently hot? I installed an update yesterday and it didn’t seem to cause a problem. Was this patch in it, or is the worst yet to come?

[04/02/18] I defaulted to Spotify opening up minimised when the PC is switched on. Everything still working, and the PC running cool.

But I would like to get to the point where I have a box that always works. I would like to be able to give my code to other people without needing to be an IT support person – believe me, I don’t know enough about that sort of thing.

It now seems to me that the only way to guarantee that a box will always be future-proof without constant updates and the need for IT support is to bite the bullet and accept that the system cannot be bit-perfect. Once that psychological hurdle is overcome, it becomes easy: send the data via S/PDIF. Resample the data in software (Linux will do this automatically if you let it), and bob’s your uncle: a box that isn’t even attached to the internet, that takes in S/PDIF and gives you six analogue outputs or variations thereof; a box with a video monitor output and USB sockets, allowing you to change settings, import WAV files to define filters, etc. then disconnect the keyboard and mouse. Or a box that is accessible over a standard network in a web browser – or does that render it not future-proof? Presumably a very simple web interface will always be valid. I think this is going to be the direction I head in…

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The First CD Player

sony cdp-101There’s an amazing online archive of vintage magazines that I have only just begun rummaging through. I was pleased to see this 1982 review of the Sony CDP-101, the first commercial CD player. The reviewer gets hold of a unit even before they go on sale commercially, saying:

I feel as though I am a witness to the birth of a new audio era.

This was the first time that the public had encountered disc loading drawers, instant track selection, digital readouts and digital fast forward and rewind, so he goes into great detail on how these work.

And at that time, the mechanics of the disc playing mechanism seemed inextricably linked with the nature of digital audio itself, so, after reading the more technical sections of the article, the reader’s mind would be awhirl with microscopic dots, collimators and laser focusing servos – possibly not really grasping the fundamentals of what is going on.

Audio measurements are shown, though, and of course these are at levels of performance hitherto unknown. (He is not able to make his own measurements this time, but a month later he has received the necessary test disc and is able to do so).

As I write these numbers, I find it difficult to remember that I am talking about a disc player!

Towards the end, the reviewer finally listens to some music. He is impressed:

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on seven different compact digital disc albums. Some of the selections on these albums were obviously dubbed from analog master tapes, but even these were so free of any kind of background noise that they could, for the first time, be thoroughly enjoyed as music. There’s a cut of the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Ozawa, that delivers the gut -massaging opening bass note with a depth and clarity that I never thought possible for any music reproduction system. But never mind the specific notes or passages. Listening to the complete soundtrack recording of “Chariots of Fire,” the images and scenes of that marvelous film were re- created in my mind with an intensity that would just not have been possible if the music had been heard behind a veil of surface noise and compressed dynamic range.

He talks about

…the sheer magnificence of the sound delivered by Compact Discs

and concludes:

…after my experiences with this first digital audio disc player and the few sample discs that were loaned to me, I am convinced that, sooner or later, the analog LP will have to go the way of the 78 shellac record. I can’t tell you how long the transition will take, but it will happen!

A couple of months later he reviews a Technics player:

Voices and orchestral sounds were so utterly clean and lifelike that every once in a while we just had to pause, look up, and confirm that this heavenly music was, indeed, pouring forth from a pair of loudspeaker systems. As many times as I’ve heard this noise -free, wide dynamic -range sound, it’s still thrilling to hear new music reproduced this way…

…the cleanest, most inspiring sound you have ever heard in your home

So here we are at the very start of the CD era, and an experienced reviewer finding absolutely no problems with the measurements or sound.

In audiophile folklore, however, we are now led to believe that he was deluded. It is very common for audiophiles to sneer about the advertising slogan “Perfect Sound Forever”.

Stereophile in 1995:

When some unknown copywriter coined that immortal phrase to promote the worldwide launch of Compact Disc in late 1982, little did he or she foresee how quickly it would become a term of ridicule.

But in an earlier article from 1983 they had reviewed the Sony player saying that with one particular recording it gave:

…the most realistic reproduction of an orchestra I have heard in my home in 20-odd years of audio listening!

…on the basis of that Decca disc alone, I am now fairly confident about giving the Sony player a clean bill of health, and declaring it the best thing that has happened to music in the home since The Coming of Stereo.

For sure, there were/are many bad CDs and recordings, but it is now commonly held that early CD was fundamentally bad. I don’t believe it was. I would bet that virtually no one could tell the difference between an early CD player and modern ‘high res’.

Both magazines seemed aware that their own livings could be in jeopardy if ‘all CD players sound the same’, but I think that CD’s main problem was the impossibility of divorcing the perceived sound from the physical form of the players. 1980s audio equipment looked absolutely terrible – as a browse through the magazines of the time will attest.

Within a couple of years, CD players turned from being expensive, heavy and solid, to cheap, flimsy and with the cheesiest appearance of any audio equipment. They all measured pretty much the same, however, regardless of cost or appearance. Digital audio was revealed to be what it is: information technology that is affordable by everyone.

This, of course, killed it in the eyes and ears of many audiophiles.

A new listening room

concords in extension 1a

Here are my KEF Concords in their new home. Yes, a room whose walls are 1/3 glass! Since that photo was taken, floor-to-ceiling curtains have been installed:

The room is about 6m x 3.5m and has a ceiling height of 2.4m. Apart from the glass, the walls and ceiling are plasterboard, and the concrete floor is carpeted wall-to-wall. There’s a bed and various bits of junk in the room.

To some people it may look like an acoustic nightmare, but it’s actually sounding good. I’ve got the speakers wider apart than shown in the photo. I did originally set the bass -3dB point at 38 Hz, but I think that was too low and it is now at 44 Hz. Apart from that, I haven’t made any provision for ‘room correction’ as such. I am using 5th order crossover filters and the depth of the baffle step compensation curves has been set by ear.

I am pleased to find that I am achieving the desirable effect of the end of the room appearing as a clear window (literally and metaphorically!) onto the performance, particularly ‘purist’ classical recordings. There’s a nice level of clean bass and great imaging and detail higher up. It seems to work just fine with the curtains open or closed – when open the curtains are bunched up in the corners. Maybe looking out through the window does enhance the perception of front-to-back depth of the recording.

Beolab 50, Home HiFi Show 2017

For the first time in a while I have been to a hi fi show, this time in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. It was arranged by the forum HiFi Wigwam, and there were both commercial and amateur exhibitors. It was fairly low key: not all that many exhibitors and not too many visitors on the day I was there (Saturday). I liked the venue, The Old Swan Hotel.

IMG_2186

My main reason for going was to hear the Bang and Olufsen Beolab 90s, but those weren’t there. Instead the Beolab 50s were being demonstrated in a very large room as shown above. There was a technical problem: they couldn’t change the settings for the speakers because of wi fi issues – it can only be done from a phone app (I think) and it needs to find the speakers on the network. So they were stuck on a fairly omni-directional setting and I could really hear this: I desperately needed them to be more focused. But anyway, very generously, the sales guy allowed me to play tracks off a memory stick I had brought, and gave me control of the volume.

My impression was of a beautifully clean, effortless sound, and incredible bass, but the setup was just ‘not right’ and everything sounded too diffuse and distant. Nevertheless, I enjoyed playing some good demo tracks and it was easy to hear that these speakers are not troubled by high volume levels – although I didn’t get anywhere near the volume they normally run demos at!

I must try to get a demo when they are set up properly – I expect great things from them. (I feel a bit of a fraud though, because at over £20,000 I won’t be buying them!).

My friend was very impressed by the looks of these speakers: solid-looking aluminium, fine wooden grilles, and a tweeter ‘pod’ that disappears when the speakers are inactive. In fact, he was very taken by the whole B&O ‘ethos’. Even the remote control for the system was a work of art, being made from a single piece of aluminium. And B&O do the best brochures of any hi-fi company, I think!

In the rest of the show, we heard some enormous horn speakers – I am not a fan, KEF LS50 wireless, some BBC-style LS5/9, some early Harbeths, some Focal speakers, some tiny actives based on balanced mode radiators, and quite a few others. There were various vintage components from the 1970s onwards. My friend was quite taken with the sound of some very classic-looking Tannoys with concentric tweeters, and anything that sounded good on a lower budget – I don’t have the brochure to hand, but may fill in some more details later.

Valves were on show of course, a few turntables, some outrageously inefficient Class A solid state amplifiers, and some active crossovers. In some setups, vinyl sounded OK, but because of the pops and clicks I often found myself wishing for digital sources!

There were the usual vinyl stalls, cables and accessories at eye watering prices, an interesting exhibition of photos of pop stars from the 60s and a great jukebox.

Acoustics-wise, the standard rooms were quite good, I thought, having higher ceilings than some other places.

Artisanal Audio

Just enjoying reading an article about Artisanal Audiophilia – a phrase that makes you look twice, I think – by Richard Varey (who was kind enough to link to one of my posts on his web site). I am looking forward to reading many more of his articles.

…artisan audio is handbuilt, usually by the designer, and is not mass-produced but made in small batches, made-to-order as a customised one-off, or is customisable and upgradable. They carry the name of the creator as the brand. They combine boutique audio engineering with design creativity driven by functionality and craftsmanship. They are made for audiophiles, promising authenticity, so not for the hipster or fashion conscious, nor the casual listener.

I was going to leave a comment, but it turned out a bit too long!

I take a sceptical view about boutique audio in general. I think that the crucial factors are:
1. It’s very hard to make audio equipment that doesn’t work to some extent.
2. Music is an exquisite, possibly expensive art form created by very talented, skilled people, and at the same time something that we hear spontaneously when birds sing or someone drums their fingers.
3. While other ‘artisan’ products (pens, watches, etc.) have to create their own ‘art’, audio equipment merely passes through someone else’s art.

Put these things together, and it becomes easy to equate a beautiful hand made passive volume control (or whatever) with art, craftsmanship, skill, etc. But my view (please challenge me on this) is that the reality is that its sound is all in the user’s mind. Of course, this is not in itself a bad thing – the perceived sound is real at the only level that really matters. However, it may be cheaper for the listener to train themselves to go into that state of mind when listening to a standard volume control!

What many people may not understand is that it would be very difficult to make a piece of wire or some other electrical conductor do anything at all to the signal except pass it unchanged. Creating an audiophile passive volume control or connecting cable is not like creating a fountain pen or a watch – even if the creator of it borrows the same aesthetic. All audio equipment, particularly the passive variety, *will* ‘work’ – you cannot stop it from doing so even if you try quite hard!

Skruvsta

I am currently installing myself into a new room in our house extension. My KEFs will be housed there.

I did want to buy a vintage 1960s or 70s swivel armchair for listening to my stereo in the ultimate style, but they are expensive and/or shabby. I bought this one from Ikea for £75 instead. (I have no association with Ikea btw!)

Image result for skruvsta

It may seem like something hardly worth mentioning, but you don’t want a chair that has a high back because of acoustic reflections (as highlighted in the £3150 Lobster listening chair). This one is low but very comfortable, and you don’t have to fit the castors. It’s very light, and the adjustable height means that it can double up as an office chair even without the castors. Clearly it was designed for audio with its carefully shaped, acoustically-absorbent surface. Anyway, I find I can sit it in it for long periods very comfortably, and the stereo sounds pretty good without having to spend three grand…

Audio – Literature Analogy

An audio recording is a bit like a book: created through artistic or intellectual endeavour, then ‘fixed’ as a collection of pure information and distributed to customers for them to ‘consume’ in their own environments. In the case of digital audio, a recording is literally the same as a book, being stored as numbers in a file; you could store a book as a WAV, or an audio recording as a MSWORD file if you wanted.

In rendering the content to be read, there are things you could do to detract from the content of a book:

  • printed too big/too small
  • lighting too dim/too bright
  • inappropriate use of colour
  • blotchy printout
  • typeface varies with content, or randomly
  • corrupted: missing/duplicated/erroneous characters
  • peculiar paper
  • non-neutral typeface – difficult to read or inappropriate e.g. science fiction font for a Jane Austen novel
  • in the case of some ‘boutique’ printing, an appropriate analogy with unreliable ’boutique’ hi-fi equipment might be a book that spontaneously becomes too hot to touch, or occasionally ruins valuable furniture.

The emotional or intellectual force of the book would actually be reduced because of these problems. In other words, it is not true to say that the quality of reproduction doesn’t matter.

However, there is a finite envelope of neutral, even ‘mundane’, reproduction which achieves an optimal result for the reader – after reading the book they can’t tell you anything about the quality of the printing; all they remember is the content, and the content was thrilling.

Maybe the author specifies the typeface. Some books may include fine illustrations or intricate frontispieces which are intrinsic to the book. In these cases, the reproduction needs to be particularly accurate in order to do justice to what the author has created.

Beyond this, is there anything that the printer can do to enhance the appeal of the book? Well, they can create a fancy binding that the reader notices before they start reading; they can use particularly high quality paper; they can print the characters with micron precision. But only a book collector or printing technology enthusiast would care about these refinements – they have no effect on the actual experience of reading the content, and could easily detract from it.

The manufacturers of the ink and the mains cable that powers the printing press could read lots of books in their spare time, attend evening classes in English Literature, study the physiology of the eye, get diplomas in grammar, and tell us in interviews with speciality magazines about how it all informs their craft. But clearly the results would do nothing whatsoever to change the reading experience.

The printer might decide to dabble in science for the first time since they left printing college. They could do scientific trials in aspects of book reproduction where lucky participants get to read snippets of text or passages from ‘typical’ books, responding with their perceptions of differences, preferences, or even ‘emotional stimulation level’ in aspects such as:

  • typeface
  • ink
  • reading light
  • paper texture and weight
  • reading room shape/dimensions/finishes

But the results would be rather obvious and predictable, with anything slightly interesting being clearly the result of fashion, novelty and human fickleness rather than being a universal law.

The only way to actually enhance the book would be to change its content. An algorithm that replaces certain words? Re-writes sections to make them longer or shorter? Clearly in the case of literature, such a thing would be meaningless and idiotic. It is not so different in the case of audio. There is nothing but the recording: there is no technology, effect or algorithm that can meaningfully enhance it.

Conclusion

Domestic hi-fi is no more than the equivalent of rendering the printed content of a book: it can be done adequately or badly, and beyond that there is no meaningful way of improving on it. People become deluded by the idea that the rendering technology can enhance the content – which is obviously ridiculous in the case of books, but less obvious with audio.

But this is not to say that hi-fi is, in itself, boring: achieving ‘adequate’ is not trivial.

Many people are simply not used to hearing adequate reproduction regardless of how much money they spend, so they are not aware that the experience vs. quality graph has a horizontal flat top. And needless to say, the audiophile quality vs. cost graph is more-or-less random, which makes it even more confusing.

The audio enthusiast would be much happier and richer if they got a sense of proportion of what matters, then put all their creativity (and money if they’ve got nothing else to spend it on) into building the equivalent of a pleasant reading room, comfy chair and attractive bookcases rather than a solid gold and diamond reading light.

[Last edited  30/05/17]

The Trouble with Hobbies

Have you ever suddenly been inspired to embark on a brand new hobby?

Maybe you’ve never owned a boat before, but having seen one chug by on the river you have thought “I’d love to do that!”. A quick browse in the classified ads shows lots of boats that look fine, and they don’t cost all that much. Basically any boat would be great, and you could gradually do it up, even if it is a bit shabby now. In your mind’s eye, your family will love you when you are able to take them on spur-of-the-moment, cheap weekends messing about on the water, starting in a few weeks’ time.

From this high point where the world is your oyster, you begin to take the advice of the magazines and other experienced hobbyists. Before you have even owned a boat, you become aware of the hierarchy of boat owners, and the boats that would render you a laughing stock if you owned them. You become aware of the general consensus on different types of bilge pump – not something you ever wanted to know. You begin to form an idea of the boat you should really go for – and it is not one of the bargain basement jobs you first saw. You might just about be able to stretch to a boat that would put you in the lower echelons of boat ownership but, importantly, not on the very lowest rung. You could always, perhaps, move up from there over time.

It now turns into an all-consuming hobby with the goal of having a boat on the river at the end of the year. In the end it costs thousands, and your children have grown up and left home before your boat finally takes to the water. You hit a bridge and rip the top off your boat the first time you take it out. You feel sick and abandon the whole hobby (a true story).

That’s the nature of male hobbies. They start out as wonderful, spontaneous ideas, but can turn into nightmares – mainly due to the existence of other hobbyists! Audio is one of those hobbies, I think. Ridiculously, the prices paid for bits of audio knickknackery rival the costs of boats.

A person could be seized one day by the idea of hi-fi as a way to improve their life, buy an amp and some secondhand speakers off Gumtree for £100, and plug their tablet or laptop headphone socket into the amp using a £2 cable. Hey presto, a hi-fi system that will sound much better than what they had before, and which has tinker-ability via the buying and selling of speakers and the audio streaming/library software options; there is no urgency in changing the amp and tablet hardware as they are pretty much perfect in what they do. The speakers are almost like pieces of furniture, so the person can indulge their tastes in how they look as well as how they sound, and they can be restored using standard DIY skills – a nice mini-hobby.

But what if the person does the natural male thing, and starts to read the magazines and forums? Immediately they will realise that their tablet’s headphone output is a joke in the audio world. They need to spend at least a few hundred pounds on a half-decent ‘DAC’, plus a couple of hundred on a budget cable. And of course, this is only for convenience: real audio quality can only be had if they own a decent turntable and a special vibration-free shelf to put it on. Where do they go from there? They need to make a decision on which turntable and which cartridge to go for. They need to take a view on cables, power conditioners, valve or solid state amps, accessories like cable lifters and record cleaning machines. Each decision, they are assured by their fellow hobbyists, will result in “night and day” differences in the sound.

After some months agonising over it, they assemble a beginner’s system for about £3,000 – they will upgrade as budget allows. It sounds OK, but they know that even though the brand is a highly recommended one, the particular model of valve amplifier they could afford has “hints of a slightly reticent mid range” – one of the magazines said so – and if they listen carefully, perhaps they can hear that… But the more powerful 18 Watt model cost £800 more and they decided against it. Perhaps they made the wrong decision. The nightmare unfolds…

KEF Concord in print

I just noticed that Ken Kessler’s lavish book on the history of KEF contains several pages on the Concord – the speaker I have been re-building in active form. He makes it sound like a much better speaker than I found it to be prior to conversion, but maybe I just had a bad pair.

The mark IV version looked subtly cheaper and less sophisticated than the III due to small details like the badge, base plinth which was now plastic and the texture of the all-round fabric. It had a removable plastic cap on the top of the enclosure, and it seems that this was to allow users to change the ‘sock’ for different colours, although no one ever bought anything but black and brown, leaving warehouses full of the other colours – how I would love to have some of them now!

There’s also a story of one of the bosses getting his wife to try one on as a boob tube…

UPDATE 07/10/16

I bought some KEF Celeste IV (the Concord’s smaller sister) for the original stands, in order to use them with my Concords. It isn’t all that straightforward to re-use the stands with my version III speakers, however – some engineering is going to be required. One Celeste tweeter wasn’t working so I replaced both with the ones from my Concords which are supposedly the same type. They now actually sound quite good – much better than I remember my Concords sounding.