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.

Running the 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?

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What more do we want?

As I sit here listening to some big symphonic music playing on my ‘KEF’ DSP-based active crossover stereo system, I am struck by the thought: how could it be any better?

I sometimes read columns where people wonder about the future of audio, as though continuous progress is natural and inevitable – and as though we are accustomed to such progress. But it does occur to me that there is no reason why we cannot have reached the point of practical perfection already.

I think the desire for exotic improvements over what we have now has to be seen within the context of most people having not yet heard a good stereo system. They imagine that if the system they heard was expensive, it must therefore represent the state of the art, but in audio I think they could well be wrong. Some time ago, the audio industry and enthusiasts may even have subconsciously sniffed that they were reaching a plateau and begun to stall or reverse progress just to make life more interesting for themselves.

At the science fiction level, people dream of systems that reproduce live events exactly, including the acoustics of the performance venue. Even if this were possible, would it be worth it without the corresponding visuals? (and smells, temperature, humidity, etc.?)

Something like it could probably be achieved using the techniques of the computer games industry: synthesis of the acoustics from first principles, headphones with head tracking, or maybe even some system of printed transducer array wall coverings that could create the necessary sound fields in mid-air if there was no furniture in the room (and knowing the audio industry, it would also supplement the system with some conventional subwoofers). My prediction is that you would try it a couple of times, find it a rather contrived, unnatural experience, and next time revert to your stereo system with two speakers.

On a more practical level, the increasing use of conventional DSP is predicted. We are now seeing the introduction of systems that aim to reduce the (supposedly) unwanted stereo crosstalk that occurs from stereo speakers. The idea is to send out a slightly attenuated antiphase impulse from one speaker for every impulse from the other speaker, that will cancel out the crosstalk at the ‘wrong ear’. It then needs to send out an anti-antiphase impulse from the other speaker to cancel out that impulse as it reaches the other ear, and so on. My gut instinct is that this will only work perfectly at one precise location, and at all other locations there will be ‘residue’ possibly worse than the crosstalk. In fact we don’t seem bothered by the crosstalk from ordinary stereo – I am not convinced we hear it as “colouration”. Maybe it results in a narrowing of the width of the ‘scene’, but with the benefit of increasing its stability. (Hand-waving justification of the status quo, maybe, but I have tried ambiophonic demonstrations, and I was eventually happy to go back to ordinary stereo).

Other predictions include the increasing use of automatic room correction, ultra-sophisticated tone controls and loudness profiles that allow the user to tailor every recording to their own preferences.

Tiny speakers will generate huge SPLs flat down to 20 Hz – the Devialet Phantom is the first example of this, along with the not-so-futuristic drawback of needing to burn huge amounts of energy to do it. Complete multi-channel surround envelopment will come from hidden speakers.

At the hardware fetish end, no doubt some people imagine that even higher resolution sample rates and bit depths must result in better audible quality. Some people probably think that miniaturised valves will transform the listening experience. High resolution vinyl is on the horizon. Who knows what metallurgical miracles await in the science of audio interconnects?

For the IT-oriented audiophile, what is left to do? Multi-room audio, streaming from the cloud, complete control from handheld devices are all here, to a level of sophistication and ease of use limited only by the ‘cognitive gap’ between computer people and normal human users that sometimes results in clunky user interfaces. The technology is not a limiting factor. Do you want the album artwork to dissolve as one track fades out and the new artwork to spiral in and a CGI gatefold sleeve to open as the new track fades in? The ability to talk to your device and search on artist, genre, label, composer, producer, key signature? Swipe with hand gestures like Minority Report? Trivial. There really is no limit to this sort of thing already.

In fact, for the real music lover, I don’t think there is anything left to do. Truth be told, we were most of the way there in 1968.

The basic test is: how much better do you want the experience of summoning invisible musicians to your living room to be? I can’t imagine many worthwhile improvements over what we have now. The sound achievable from a current neutral stereo system is already at ‘hologram’ level; the solidity of the phantom image is total – the speakers disappear. It isn’t a literal hologram that reproduces the acoustics in absolute terms, allowing you to walk around it, of course, but it is a plausible ‘hologram’ from any static listening position, allowing you to ‘walk around it’ in your mind, and it stays plausible as you turn your head.

It isn’t complete surround envelopment, but there is reverberation from your own room all around you, and it seems natural to sit down and face the music. You will hear fully-formed, discrete, musical parts emerging from an open, three dimensional space, with acoustics that may not be related to the space you are listening in. You have been transported to a different venue – if that is what the recording contains. In terms of volume and dynamics, a modern system can give you the same visceral dynamics as the real performance.

And all this is happening in your living room, but without any visuals of the performance – it is music that you are wanting to listen to after all. If the requirement is to experience a literal night at the opera, then short of a synthesised Star Trek type ‘holodeck’ experience you will be out of luck.

You could always watch a high resolution DVD of some performance or the BBC’s Proms programmes, for example, and such visuals may give you a different experience. They will, however, destroy the pure recreation of the acoustic space in front of you because, by necessity, the visuals jump around from location to location, scene to scene in order to maintain the interest level, and your attention will be split between the sound and the imagery. Anyway, a huge TV will cost you about £200 from Tescos these days so that aspect is pretty well covered, too.

The natural partner to a huge TV is multi-channel surround sound. Quadraphonic sound seemed like the next big thing in the 1970s, but didn’t take off at the time. We now have five or seven channel surround sound. Does this improve the musical experience? Some people say so, but that could just be the gimmick factor, or an inferior stereo system being jazzed up a bit. While the correlation between two good speakers produces an unambiguous ‘solution’ to the equations thereof, multiple sources referring to the same ‘impulse’ could result in no clear ‘solution’ – that is, a fuzzy and indistinct ‘hologram’ that our ears struggle to make sense of. Mr. Linkwitz surmises something similar in the case of the centre speaker, plus he finds it visually distracting; with just two speakers, the space between them becomes a virtual blank space in which it is easier to imagine the audio scene. Most recordings are stereo and are likely to remain that way with a large proportion of listeners using headphones. For these reasons, I am happy that stereo is the best way to carry on listening to music.

Can DSP improve the listening experience further? Hardly at all I would say. So-called ‘room correction’ cannot transform a terrible room into a great one, and it doesn’t even transform a so-so one into a slightly better one. It starts from a faulty assumption: that human hearing is just a frequency response analyser for which real acoustics (the room) are an error, rather than human hearing having a powerful acoustics interpreter at the front end. If you attempt to ‘fix’ the acoustics by changing the source you just end up with a strange-sounding source. At a pinch, the listener could listen in the near(er) field to get rid of the room, anyway.

I am convinced that the audiophile obsession with tailoring recordings to the listener’s exact requirements is a red herring: the listener doesn’t want total predictability, and a top notch system shouldn’t be messed about with. As a reviewer of the Kii Three said:

…the traditional kind of subjective analysis we speaker reviewers default to — describing the tonal balance and making a judgement about the competence of a monitor’s basic frequency response — is somehow rendered a little pointless with the Kii Three. It sounds so transparent and creates such fundamentally believable audio that thoughts of ‘dull’ or ‘bright’ seem somehow superfluous.

The user doesn’t have access to the individual elements of the recording. What can be done in terms of, say, reducing the volume of the hi-hats (or whatever) is crude and unnatural and bleeds over every other element of the recording. The only chance of reproducing a natural sound, maintaining the separation between fully-formed elements and reproducing a three dimensional ‘scene’, is for the system to be neutral. When this happens, the level of the hi-hats likely just becomes just part of the performance. Audiophiles who, without any caveat, say they want DSP tone controls in order to fiddle about with recordings have already given up on that natural sound.

In summary, I see the way music was ‘consumed’ 40 or even 50 years ago as already pretty much at the pinnacle: two large speakers at one side or end of a comfortably-furnished living room, filling the space with beautiful sound – at once combining compatibility with domestic living and the ability to summon musicians to perform in the space in a comprehensible form that one or several people can enjoy without having to don special apparatus or sit in a super-critical location. And the fitted carpets of those times were great for the acoustics!

All that has happened in the meantime is just the ‘mopping up’ of the remaining niggles. We (can) now have better performance with respect to distortion, frequency response, dynamic range, and a more solid, holographic audio ‘scene’; no scratches and pops; instant selection of our choice of the world’s total music library. The incentives for the music lover to want anything more than this are surely extremely limited.

The active crossover in 1952

In the archive of magazines mentioned earlier, I decided to try to find the earliest reference to active crossovers. By sheer good luck, the first magazine I clicked on at random contained an article on triamplification (not yet named “active crossover”) from 1968.

six amplifiersIt lists the following advantages of active crossovers:

  1. Improved damping
  2. Lower intermodulation distortion
  3. Improved frequency handling by drivers
  4. Higher power handling
  5. Smoother response
  6. Adjustable crossover frequencies and slopes

It mentions that there were several biamplification products in the late fifties, but that when stereo came along the concept was forgotten.

This article then led me to one on biamplification from 1956, and finally to possibly the earliest article on active hi-fi crossovers, from 1952.

biamp title 1952

biamplify 1952

In this article, they design and build their own low level crossover.

1952 xover

Switching back and forth produced a subtle but distinct difference in listening pleasure. The low frequencies seemed a little more pure and less obscured, the middles and highs cleaner. The overall effect was that we had moved one step forward toward exact reproduction of the music as inscribed on the phonograph disk. There was a definite improvement in sound over a considerably better than average single amplifier system with a carefully designed dividing network and well balanced speakers.

They find that other compelling reasons to use the system are the freedom it gives to mix and match drivers without having to worry about their relative sensitivities, and the ability to adjust crossover frequencies easily and quickly.

Conclusion

Hi-fi manufacturers and customers alike are still struggling with passive crossovers despite the problem having been solved 65 years ago! This is as much to do with the ‘culture’ of audio as any technical or economic reasons.

Vinyl worship at the extreme

Hats off to the people who thought of this wheeze:

…a £6,300 lacquer of Sarah Vaughan that only survives one play

Yes, it’s a recording on a lacquer-coated aluminium disc, such as is used in the manufacture of LPs. It’s soft, and if it is played it is destroyed in the process. You can buy one of a limited edition of thirty for £6,300, to be played just once. And if you like Sarah Vaughan that would be a bonus.

Presumably the idea is that it gets you one step closer to the original musical event.

But not so fast. This one is derived from a digital transfer. And not just a straight transfer. They digitise the original live recording tapes and then do a bunch of signal processing, explicitly removing some of the original event in the process.

Once the signal is digitised, it’s treated using processing algorithms to try and reduce residual noise – a process that isn’t always easy. While the tapes were in good condition, the Peterson performance proved the most difficult. The tapes hadn’t been opened since 1962, and had much more analog noise than the others.

D’Oria-Nicolas also told us how, in the Evans’ recording, “the drums were too close to the piano and some frequencies did make some drum skins vibrate… We successfully managed to delete that.”

Obviously, the closest you can get to the original event is by playing the analogue tapes, and a straight digital transfer of these will be indistinguishable from the tape. Noise, drop-outs and all.

‘Photoshopping’ is the next stage, and you can actually download the photoshopped version and listen to it. Digital cleaning-up of scratched, dusty images can be a very positive thing, and the audio equivalent may be too. This version may, or may not need some further manipulation in order to cut the lacquer master on a lathe, plus it needs filtering for RIAA equalisation.

As I understand it, in the LP process (which I view with affection, rather like any other ‘heritage’ industry such as keeping steam trains going), the lacquer is then coated in metal and the two layers separated to produce a metal negative of the lacquer disc. This is then coated in metal and the two layers separated to produce a metal positive copy of the lacquer. This is then coated in metal and the two layers separated to produce a negative: the stamper. Multiple stampers are produced – stampers wear out. The stampers are then used to press blobs of hot vinyl to produce the final LPs! It is amazing to me that it works so well.

You can then play the vinyl record using a tiny stylus, a cantilever, and a coil/magnet arrangement to produce a tiny voltage. This is amplified and filtered with the reverse RIAA curve before sending it via the volume control to the power amp and speakers.

A vinyl record is quite a long way from the original event!

In this case, the earliest point in the chain that we have access to is the processed digital file. This is regarded by audiophiles as the poor man’s version of the recording. We pay extra (a lot extra) to listen to the output of the next stage – the self-destructing lacquer. Or, for somewhat less, we can buy the result at the end of the chain: the standard vinyl LP.

Obviously, the people behind this scheme understand exactly what they are doing, and have a good sense of humour. But it does highlight a particular audiophile belief, I think: that music – even the devil’s own digital music – can be purified and cleansed if it is passed through ‘heritage’ technology built by craftsmen and artisans.

The rational person might assume that the earlier in the chain you go should give you the best quality, but audiophiles will pay more – much more – to hear the music passed through extra layers of sanctified materials, such as wood, oil, cellulose, varnish, bakelite, animal glue, silver wire, diamond, waxed paper and plastic vinyl.

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.

KEF Concord Step Response

I recently decided to measure my converted KEF Concords to check their time alignment. In theory, they should be time aligned because the individual drivers have been corrected for linear phase and then delayed appropriately based on distance to the listener, but I hadn’t quite ‘closed the loop’ by making a direct measurement.

In order to do this, I measured with a microphone at tweeter height and 1m away from the speaker – just to make it the standard measurement position. I didn’t change anything about the normal crossover setup I have been using. I used REW to make the impulse response measurement using a sweep from 10Hz to 20 kHz and duration about 24s. Without completely re-arranging the room I could manage about 3.5ms before the first (major) reflection – it would be good to try it in a bigger room or even outdoors. I am curious about what sort of windowing people normally apply just before the main impulse: depending on what you choose influences just how clean everything is leading up to the impulse and, to some extent how clean the leading edge is. Some of the Stereophile graphs look suspiciously ‘sharp’ at the start.

IMG_2170

This is the result I got:

concored step response

I am assuming that the above graph shows that the time alignment of my speakers is pretty reasonable. In Stereophile’s article on measuring speakers they show a similar image:

Fig.11 shows a good step response produced by a time-coherent, three-way loudspeaker, with the outputs of the three drive-units adding in-phase at the microphone position. There are not that many speakers that produce this good a step response. Of the speakers I have measured for Stereophile, only about 10—models from Quad, Thiel, Dunlavy, Spica, and Vandersteen—have step responses this good.

Fig.12 shows a more typical step response, again of a three-way loudspeaker. This time there are actually three step responses apparent in the graph: a narrow, positive-going step response from the tweeter; the next, negative-going step is the midrange unit (as will be seen, it’s connected with opposite polarity to the tweeter); with finally a slow, wide positive pulse from the woofer.

Stereophile is the go-to publication for these sorts of things.

If you do a Google Image Search for ‘stereophile step response’ the results are quite interesting: true step responses are still quite rare. DSP should make it trivial, but for a passive speaker it can generally only be achieved using first order crossover filters, and these, of course, result in the drivers having to cope with substantial bleed of frequencies outside their comfort zone as well as being inflexible.

Strangely, the Beolab 90 looks nothing like a step! – although extenuating circumstances are listed.

117Beo90fig5.jpg

The Kii Three is more like it:917Kii3fig1.jpg

 

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…