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.

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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.

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.

Vinyl in Space

jack white

Jack White aims to play the first vinyl record in space.

From The Guardian:

With the aid of a ‘space-proof’ turntable and high-altitude balloon, the singer’s Third Man Records will try to beam Carl Sagan’s A Glorious Dawn from orbit…

The Guardian link writers came up with

The Vinyl Frontier

Now that’s quite good…!

HD Vinyl

Apparently there is talk of developing “HD Vinyl”

Imagine a vinyl record that has 30% more capacity, 30% greater volume, and double the audio fidelity of a typical LP sold today.

The layers of irony inherent to this concept are many:

The HD Vinyl process… involves… perfecting the topographic, computer-generated, 3D modeling imprint before any physical manufacturing takes place.  “We adjust the distance of the grooves, we correct the radial/tangential errors, and we optimize the frequencies,” Loibl continued.  “You could say we ‘master’ the topographical data, which is a totally different approach.”

After that, a ‘pulsed high-energy Femto-laser’ burns the audio directly onto the stamper.

Over a year ago, I was pondering on the idea that the way hi-fi was going, we would end up with 3D-printed phonograph cylinders. I am glad that the process is well under way.

Going backwards…

One of the running themes of this blog is the observation that the hi-fi industry is going backwards: it reached sonic perfection (almost literally) in digital audio, yet most audiophiles now aspire to own ever-more ‘retro’ hardware (“My digital system is OK, but not as good as vinyl, obviously”, as one person told me) and they want to hear recordings via the media of the past. We have had valves and vinyl for a while, then the mono cartridge, and we may be seeing the first stirrings of the mechanical-only movement that I thought I was predicting a while ago.

In this piece, the writer is squarely in the hi-fi mainstream in his certainty that vinyl is superior to CD:

Maybe I’ll buy an inexpensive CD first to see if I like his albums a lot and then upgrade to the vinyl…

But he then goes on to describe the joys of the mechanical-only playback system:

When I play 78s for friends, I sometimes see a look of confusion on their faces as they somehow expected a high fidelity stereo recording to come out of the monaural gramophone. Instead they hear this loud-but-small music which somehow punctuates and fills the room, much in the same way my 5.1 surround system does.

I have to remind them that this is a different medium and you have to listen differently. You have to be involved with it, getting up every few minutes to switch discs, needles and cranking up the motor.

I can enjoy a mono 78 RPM disc of Duke Ellington from the 1920s just as much as Steven Wilson-produced 5.1 remix of Yes’ Close to the Edge or Beck’s Morning Phase on 180-gram vinyl made at a fancy European audiophile pressing plant in 2014.

Clearly, people are craving less ‘sterile’ experiences in their lives, and I think the actual music may only be tangential to this; the collecting of 10,000 LPs and the messing about with old hardware is the bulk of ‘the experience’.

There may also be something else: at the real technological cutting edge (not that many audiophiles ever get anywhere near it at overall system level) absolute progress in audio quality is now more-or-less impossible. By going ‘retro’, a very attractive prospect presents itself to high end manufacturers and hobbyists: the chance to apply modern techniques to technology that was developed using slide rules and old school manufacturing methods. If, at a stroke, we simply define vinyl as inherently better than digital, then absolute progress is suddenly back on the agenda! Technology has progressed in the few decades since vinyl was ‘put on hold’, so we can now start designing and manufacturing low cost turntable parts using CAD/CAM, regulating platter speed with microcontrollers, making things out of carbon fibre… because we can. And so on.

Many ‘retro’ audio products are amenable to this ‘progress’. For example, speaker horns can now be 3D printed to exact mathematical shapes derived from simulations (- it doesn’t mean they’re valid, however; they will no-doubt still sound wrong!). It is an engineer’s playground that can be extended as required by simply re-defining various old technologies as inherently superior to the misperceived sterility of solid state, digital audio.

It’s not real without physical media?

disc musical box

[http://www.cowderoyantiques.com]

In this article on Audiophile Review the author talks about streaming versus physical media, and his coming to terms with the idea that in future we may not be able to buy our music in physical form.

I find it surprising that this might worry someone in the 21st century. I would have thought that changes in the workplace over the last two or three decades would have made us aware of the advantages of making everything digital, backed-up and available via the internet or ‘The Cloud’. Certainly in my work, if I were to draw an olde worlde pencil sketch I would feel that it was the opposite of permanent, whereas if I produced the drawing digitally it would be there forever – or so it would feel. Years later, not only could I find it easily, but at any time I could produce a pristine physical copy, un-yellowed by coffee rings and the passage of time. Until something is committed to the digital world, to my mind it feels ephemeral.

Of course, if the argument is that the quality of digital audio can never match an LP, or that streaming and downloading will always be inferior to CD quality, then the poor, anxious audiophile has a problem.

New, in Mono!

There have recently been vinyl re-releases in mono, and there must be loads of mono LPs available at car boot sales and charity shops. Such is the strength of the new vinyl religion that there is now a marketing opportunity for the mono cartridge. In a review of such a cartridge, the reviewer says:

I feel that I am ‘going off’ stereo altogether. I am now determined to seek out more mono pressings on vinyl.

And here’s an article on portable vinyl players that eulogises the Dansette and other mono players that are only one step up from the Lego turntable. A worthwhile feature is the ability to play 78s too, apparently.

Within audiophilia there is without doubt a movement that is regressing to more primitive technology – but I don’t think the afflicted see it as a regression. They are too young to remember mono and 78s, and digital audio is pretty well perfect now, so this is the nearest thing to genuine progress that they can experience. Can it really be very long until they begin experimenting with purely-mechanical audio?

Update: another mono convert:

As I get deeper into black-disc connoisseurship, I’m more and more attracted to the gestalt of listening in mono… If I were a flush dude, I would have a dedicated mono system with a Miyajima Zero Mono ($1995) or a Miyabi Mono ($2800)

Update 06/05/17

Last night I was listening to a Kinks album that comes with mono and stereo mixes for various tracks. Give me the stereo every time! Stereo separates the individual voices and instruments, and whether the ‘effect’ is real or artificial, it allows you to follow the individual lines with ease. Grotty recording of the individual instrument/voice tracks adds up to a wall of grottiness in mono, but with stereo the individual grottiness clings only to its own track, making the recording sound far better. Individual tracks that are clean can be heard uncontaminated. Stereo works superbly!