I have always considered the balance control on a preamplifier like a useless apendage – even worse, the extra componentry required for its implementation degrades the sound.
Why would anyone want a balance control? How many people actually ever use it? Come on, be honest, isn’t your balance control set dead-center?
Recently I may have come to a change of heart concerning balance controls and here’s why. They no longer add any degradation and, in some cases, they can be useful (despite my youthful stubbornness).
In days of old a balance control was another mechanically controlled variable resistor (like the volume control) placed in the signal path. Since we cannot make things better by adding a passive component (we can only make it worse) a judicious approach to adding components into the signal path has to be observed if we are to honor the sound quality.
But today, volume controls are handled electronically – and even if the electronics are only controlling a passive attenuator – the balance control becomes a free ride. So it’s a no-brainer.
But why use one? The room and the loudspeakers.
No room is symmetrical and it is the rare loudspeaker pair that’s matched any closer than 1dB and 3dB is typical.
A balance control that does not add any degradation thus becomes a necessary tool to achieving perfection.
Expect to see such controls in all future PS designs with volume controls.
Just when you thought I had abandoned everything high-end and gone over to wireless except the AC cord, along comes a post about adding more: bi-wiring.
Bi-wiring is the practice of feeding the upper frequencies and the lower frequencies with separate speaker cables, from the same power amplifier (as opposed to bi-amping which is the same thing except with two power amps and cables).
Over the last few weeks I have been asked, somewhat out of the blue, my opinion on bi-wiring. Good practice or market hype?
On those speakers that provide two sets of binding posts, one for the top end and one for the bottom end, I never use the jumpers or metal straps they come with to connect the two together. I always bi-wire and recommend you do the same. In this case, more is better.
Why does this work? Technically I am not too sure but here’s what I do know. Having spent time designing many cables (both power and audio) I can confidently suggest that a good engineer can design speaker cables tailored for the least loss at specific frequency ranges (despite what those who believe all cables sound the same think).
It’s much harder to design a single speaker cable that equally serves all frequencies.
If for no other reason, choose a speaker cable that isn’t just two of the same but one that has been specifically engineered to maximize performance at the appropriate ferquency range. It’ll make a great improvement to the performance of the system.
And, oh yes, make sure you’re not thinking about using cables to tune the system’s performance – after all, it’s just wire.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of mechanically isolating our equipment from vibrations; but do you know why it’s important?
Microphonics. Certainly not the only reason, but clearly the most important. Microphonics is the tendency of something to act like a microphone; picking up and reproducing sounds it “hears”.
The sound producer is, of course, our loudspeakers – which is why headphones and their associated equipment are far less sensitive and needful of vibration dampers.
On the receiving end, turntables are the biggest offenders, followed by tubes, capacitors, circuit boards, semiconductors, chips and magnetics. These components pickup the delayed audio from your loudspeakers and put small, out of time images back into the system. These images are like ghosts that ride on the music itself and confuse the presentation you hear.
Placing your equipment on spikes (including the speakers) helps to decouple the sound producer from the sound receiver and you get a clearer audio presentation that is quite apparent to most listeners.
The coolest thing you could do is have a network audio system in one room with the listening environment in another and only the loudspeaker cables common to both. In this setup you can use a WIFI connected controller to select and play your music without much worry about microphonics. Not many of us are going this route.
The next best thing is to do what you can with either homemade solutions like a simple sand filled box with a piece of wood floating in the sand to set your equipment on, to many exotic and expensive solutions available on the market.
Keep it isolated as best you can and leave the microphones to the recording side of things.
In yesterday’s post I suggested you can’t hear the difference between distortion levels that are already below audibility. That sparked a few questions about what you can hear and why.
Measurements sometimes help us understand an underlying change that is not exactly relevant to the actual measurement.
For example, measuring the THD on the power line is rather meaningless unless you use that measurement to understand the underlying cause of the change you are measuring. So this begs the question we get asked a lot “why does our company place a THD analyzer on the front panel of your power products if the measurement it provides is meaningless?”
The answer is simple: it helps us market the underlying change in the power we deliver that IS relevant.
In this case, the added harmonics we measure on the power line are there as a result of the AC power wave being corrupted. Once the equipment corrects the corruption we measure fewer harmonics. The improvement you hear, however, isn’t because there’s fewer harmonics (which is what the analyzer is measuring) but because the wave is no longer corrupted. We are interested in the cause, not the effect we measure.
In a similar vein, think about THD levels in an audio circuit. The measurements are relevant (below a certain point) not because there are fewer harmonics present (as in our last example), but rather as an indication of what the designer DID to lower them. Perhaps he used more or less feedback, made the devices more linear, rolled off the upper harmonics, etc.
The only things relevant here are WHAT the designer did – the measurements themselves only a crude indication loosely related to the change.
We use these measurements on our equipment as a marketing tool to differentiate ours from theirs. Manufacturers have been doing this in spec sheets and one upmanship for years.
For measurements to matter, you really need a broad understanding of the underlying changes being measured.
Engineering humor. Did you hear the one about the software programmer who died mysteriously in the shower? The only clue was a shampoo bottle that read: shampoo, rinse, repeat.
Sorry, I know that’s pretty bad, but fellow nerds will laugh.
Ten years ago I didn’t even know what an endless loop was. High-end audio equipment design has always been about hardware design, now it’s about programming.
Years ago when we wanted to add a push button control on a front panel, we used a simple circuit I understood – now we use a microprocessor that leaves me clueless.
Even died-in-the-wool tube and turntable manufacturers are using microprocessors for displays, controls and motor speed adjustment. They are everywhere in the high-end.
The shift from purely hardware to software/hardware happened pretty quickly and its pace is accelerating.
The good news is we’re doing things today that were simply impossible a decade ago.
I can only imagine what another decade of progress will bring to the high-end community.
I for one would be thrilled to have an image sensor turntable. One high-rez snapshot and every nuance embossed into the vinyl would be captured, quantized and ready for me to play on my PWD. Now that would be awesome.
Joined: Oct 21, 2005
From: Welwyn, Herts, UK
Posted: 2011-11-07 13:59
On 2011-10-28 05:25, mykyll2727 wrote: I've been running this post around in my head for awhile. I haven't decided if I accept his givens which lead to his conclusions or not.
Which brings up an interesting dilemma for us high-end types: if the problem is that the ear/brain can immediately pickup the difference between live on the original instrument vs. reproduced when not through the original instrument/medium, what hope do we have for high-end’s ultimate goal of recreating the sound of live music in our homes?
Hi Mike, this is a fascinating thread, and I'm tempted to write and agree with each and every post, adding my own experience. But then I'd never get any sleep.
The "through the window" scenario is an interesting one though. While I was working in the hifi shop, one of the things that stuck in my mind was being able, with experience, to identify the good gear from outside the dem room.
Its a measure of real quality to me that good audio equipment should sound good in the next room (or even outside) and not just when you're sat in the sweet-spot.
Joined: Oct 21, 2005
From: Welwyn, Herts, UK
Posted: 2011-11-08 06:42
On 2011-11-07 14:03, mykyll2727 wrote: Nick_Which one did you get? And please post away. You're input would be greatly appreciated._mykl
OK confession time. I agree with everything you wrote about active speakers, so I've put my money where my mouth is, and bought a complete Meridian system (without ever having heard a DSP speaker).
The system I bought has 2 x DSP6000, 2 x DSP5000, DSP5000C and D2500 sub, plus player, tuner and controller from the 500 series. I already have a modified 861V4 controller, which has a linear power supply, and is my new reference.
The controller I just bought is the C41R, the custom-install version of the compact G61R. I chose that for the challenge - if I can get a linear supply working in that, I can get one working in anything.
More than that, if it sounds anything like as good as its big brother, I'll keep it, and add a G08 player and HD621. That's the dream system I've been after for years; I hope it lives up to expectations.
This post wasn't by Paul directly but was still one of his emails. It presents something I've said as well and may touch on why the SQ of certain aspects of high-end aren't better. Some food for thought ahyway.
As much as one might like to think that all blogs are merely the verbal diarrhoea of hyperactive, self-opinionated journalists and wannabes who think that the world just can’t wait to share their thoughts, some of us do work to assignment. There’s a reason I don’t have a website: unlike certain of my colleagues, I don’t think the world awaits my every utterance.
This column, in fact, is as much a product of the mind of Paul McGowan as it is mine, because 1) it’s Paul’s site, 2) he’s been around long enough to know what works, 3) he finds me amusing, and 4) he serves as the editor. If I send in something he doesn’t think is suitable, then it doesn’t go on-line, period. His role is the electronic equivalent of what print magazine editors have been doing since time immemorial. Oh, if only all websites had such controls!
Anyway, this is the second attempt at writing this column, because the first proved to be untenable. Paul wanted me to write a story about US vs UK high-end retailers, which I duly researched by taking the opportunities presented at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and other shows to talk with dealers, as well as at a London event, where a few key retailers were present. What emerged were not differences, but far too many similarities. Visits to a show in Paris and another in Milan suggested the same for the French and Italian markets. The misery is global, the selling techniques are global, the consumer attitudes are global. And the messed-up economy is global.
It was with this in mind that I sent the following e-mail to Paul: “Am a bit puzzled by your request for the next column, US vs UK retailers. The only genuine differences I’ve been able to turn up are all region-specific matters that have nothing to do with universal audio-related concerns. They’re local economic conditions which affect the entire UK populace in all aspects of daily life, so they have no relevance in the column. The US has its unique issues that don’t apply to the UK, like the sheer size of the land mass, how it affects reps, distribution and the like.
“For an exclusive brand, five retailers can cover the whole of the UK, which isn’t much larger than Pennsylvania. Five retailers can barely cover Greater LA.
“The following British ‘realities’ do not affect the day-to-day behaviour of US dealers, nor are they hi-fi-centric, e.g. the UK has 20% VAT [sales tax], much higher rents than the USA, gas costs $7.50-$8.00 a gallon, and the 50% income tax threshold is MUCH lower than in the USA (50% taxation starts at £35,001, or $56,000 at today’s exchange rate). Other than that, it’s the exact same gripes and attitudes. If you were to ask about other countries in Europe, it would be the same.
Paul wanted me to investigate a broader question – what could manufacturers be doing to put high-end audio ‘on the map’? Paul’s glass is half-full. Mine is 2/3rds empty, cracked, and leaking.
It was recently pointed out by the CEA, I believe, that the high-end market in the USA has halved since 1995. It is, however, still worth something like $275m, which – while not enough to impress Bose, Sony or B&O – means that a number of companies with sub-$10m p.a. total turnover could survive in the whole of the USA.
Consider that a substantial sum is invested by manufacturing companies just in getting access to those customers willing to pay for the goods – that cost being the difference between what the manufacturer gets and the customers pay. That’s a lot of cost to get the goods to the market. Manufacturers design, build, pay for parts, shipping, marketing, advertising, and play the role of the bank when they finance the dealers. In return, dealers provide the customers.
What this exposes is the usual Catch-22 dilemma, the high-end caught between two stools. What remains of the high-end industry are products too complex and sophisticated to be sold in the manner of a former hippie down the road selling jars of homemade jam, and the “big boys” like Bose, Sony, and B&O, who have the kind of turnover that allows them to promote their products beyond the confines of the audio community. And yet it’s breaking out of the audiophile community that is what’s needed if the high-end is to survive the economic crisis.
Bluntly put, there are not enough audiophiles with sufficient funds to absorb all of the high-end gear being produced. Our market is saturated with hardware of which 40-50 per cent is professionally-manufactured and worth supporting, another 30-40 per cent is borderline, while the remainder is unsalable and has no right occupying floor space at even the dumbest, most obscure and ill-attended of shows.
Like the ex-hippies selling jam and cookies and beads in stalls on the road to some beach resort du jour, the freak show brands should not be allowed to infect the serious companies. Least of all, they shouldn’t have their products reviewed in magazines that purport to be professional. They are self-indulgences that do not deserve our respect, let alone our patronage. Here’s what I mean:
By sheer coincidence, around the time Paul brought up this subject, I had attended a dinner with some industry veterans, at a recent hi-fi show. They shall remain nameless, but they included one of the most successful high-end distributors in the world, a veteran show organiser, and two manufacturers, one of whom is among the biggest, most professional and most accomplished in our field. The topic was precisely the same as that which Paul posited: “What could manufacturers be doing to put high-end audio ‘on the map’?”
They cited the same roster of luxury items like artisan pens, fine wines, supercars, bespoke suits, custom-made shoes, and the other myriad commodities on which those with ample funds spend freely, while ignoring high-end audio completely and absolutely. [Please: no e-mails about what constitutes “luxury”. I resolutely accept that the definition of luxury is “anything you don’t need.” And whether you like it or not, high-end audio is a luxury, EXACTLY like Ferraris and weekends in Cancun and bottles of Siepi.]
Their verdict, with only one person disagreeing, was brutal. They concurred that the same old so-called “high end” brands that don’t sell doodly-squat, but which turn up at show after show, do nothing but dilute the industry. They agreed that presentation, salesmanship and perceived value are the primary differences between the retailing and marketing of the best of high-end audio, and, say, an Hermès scarf or Purdey shotgun.
Suggestions from these sages included severely selective high-end audio areas at any of the “salons privées” around the world, wherein companies such as Bentley and Patek Philippe and Louis Vuitton showcase their wares for people who can afford them. All at the dinner were fascinated by the acquisition of Meridian by one of the world’s five most important luxury goods conglomerates. This would be the litmus test: could high-end audio actually be sold the people who can afford it, rather than depending on impoverished audiophiles? Could the company that owns Cartier and IWC and Piaget sell DACs and active loudspeakers?
If this sounds too elitist for you, then it’s time you had a reality check: what’s more elitist than a $100,000 turntable? A $20,000 cartridge? A 2W amplifier for $80,000????
I’m sorry if, like me, you’re not rich. But unlike so many of my fellow audio journalists I don’t resent the people who earned the money to buy the stuff I wish I could afford.
Maggie Thatcher is credited (and paraphrased) with the observation, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” To that I add:
High-end audio is wonderful. But somebody has to buy the stuff.
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