Sunday, July 1, 2012
My father's "hi-fi" system also included an old cassette deck and even an 8-track player that I fondly remember using from time to time. I don't recall the brand name of the speakers (I'm thinking perhaps RCA) but they were the large cabinet type that provided a lot of noise when asked although I'm sure they produced just as much distortion as they did music.
When I was a bit older, for Christmas one year I was given a small tabletop stereo of my own. It had dual tape decks AND a turntable, so clearly I thought I had something. The speakers were those small cabinets connected by what appeared to be paltry 24ga wire, but at the time I thought they were pretty amazing. I played all types of records on that system and I made more than my fair share of mix tapes from the radio as I listened to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem.
Eventually my interest in audio led me to expand and improve upon what I had. In college I upgraded to what I thought was high end audio equipment at the time - or at least high end in my particular budget range. That setup included a Sony receiver that had surround sound, a Sony CD changer, and a set of Bose 201 speakers. They weren't necessarily bad components, but knowing what I know now there are much better options for the price. I do still have the Bose speakers and they are still capable of producing a good sound although I am the first to admit Bose is a lot better at marketing then they are at producing audio equipment.
My current receiver is an Onkyo which is paired to an Onkyo disc changer. I'm well aware this is nowhere nearly "high end" audio, but it is capable of producing clean sound and it didn't require me to take out a second mortgage to purchase it. I've used a number of different speakers over the years, but I'm the first to admit even when looking directly at the nameplates on the speakers my ears are hard pressed to discern a difference between a $500 set of Klipsch towers and a $3,000 set of Definitive Technology towers.
Throughout the years I've stayed fairly well informed as to the new technologies and I've paid attention to what works versus what people think works. I've read magazines and comparison tests, and in the past I've subscribed to magazines devoted to audio equipment (I recall a subscription to Stereo Review back in high school which was always one of my favorites although it has since been renamed to Sound and Vision).
I won't claim to be an audio snob, but I have been known to research what type of power supplies are found in various receivers and I've taken the time to research the various THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) levels of amplifiers. I'm not an electrical or audio engineer by any means, but I do have experience in electronics and at one point I was a Certified Electronics Technician and a Certified Broadcast Technologist, so I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of the science behind audio equipment and electronics.
This is probably why even to this day I simply cannot stand when a self-proclaimed audiophile brags about his (and they are almost always men in my experience) ultra high end audio equipment. These are the types of people who brag about their McIntosh tube amplifiers without having any recognition of the fact that the tubes in these amplifiers are notoriously noisy and require a lot of circuitry required to clean up their signals. Even with that said the THD level of a high-end $5,000 McIntosh tube amp might be in the range of 0.50% with a signal to noise ratio (SNR) of 100dB. Compare that to a off-the-shelf receiver from Denon, Onkyo, or Yamaha and you are likely to find a THD level of something like 0.08% and a SNR of 106dB.
This is the part where I need to try and explain what THD and SNR are and how they relate. Obviously anyone who cares can read detailed descriptions elsewhere on the Internet, but I'll keep it simple by simply saying these are two of the most often cited specifications provided for audio equipment. THD is simply a way to measure how much harmonic distortion exists in a particular device. A lower THD is better, and the lower the value, the better that device is at reproducing the original signal. So this tells us that the THD of a cheap receiver purchased at Best Buy or Radio Shack is much better at reproducing the original input signal than a "high end" luxury tube amplifier which costs thousands of dollars more.
SNR is, as the name implies, a measurement of the difference between the original signal, and the noise added by the power supply and circuitry of the device. In this case a higher number is better. It may not appear a difference of 100dB and 106dB is significant, but because dB is measured on a logarithmic scale, this is actually much bigger of a difference than it may appear. I don't want to get boiled down in the technical aspects since this bores most people to tears, but the bottom line is as far as audio quality goes and in terms of how faithfully a musical recording can be reproduced, a modern and inexpensive amplifier will almost always outperform a much more expensive tube amplifier that many audiophiles seem to worship.
There is a reason that tube amplifiers cannot pass the testing process to become THX Certified even though a $400 receiver from Pioneer or Onkyo can, and it all boils down to faithful rendition of sound. If these audiophiles would simply admit they prefer tube amps because they like the faint glow of the tubes and they think they are "pretty" I might cut them some slack... but I don't see that happening anytime soon.
The next component that annoys me greatly is the turntable. I like listening to records as much as the next person, but the reason why I like records is due to nostalgia... not because they are a faithful rendition of the original recording. The fact is, audiophiles often claim records "sound better" and that they create a "warmer" sound, but they are actually listening to the scratches, pops, and crackles created by the needle running over the grooves in the record itself - none of which would exist in a live musical performance or in a studio recording. There is a reason why modern sound stages and recording studios are all digital and why they don't burn things directly to a record these days, and it all has to do with how faithful the recording can be to the original performance.
The fact is, an uncompressed digital format such as a CD will always outperform something like a vinyl record when it comes to the faithfulness of the original sound when compared to the recording. The same is true for analog formats such as a cassette tape or reel to reel tape. That isn't to say some people won't prefer the sound from a tape or from a vinyl record, but if they are interested in reproducing the most faithful sound possible... a record or any other analog source simply will not do.
Audiophiles are also the same people who will spend thousands of dollars on connecting cables from brand names most people have never heard of. Many technical people will openly mock people for spending money on Monster Cable or other more expensive name brands because these people understand in the digital era, connecting cables are not nearly as vital as they once were... yet to an audiophile, even something as overpriced as a Monster Cable connecting cable would never suffice. These are the types of people who will spend $2,800 for a single pair of connection cables, or $5,300 for a set of six foot speaker cables.
$150 for a cryogenically treated audio grade receptacle with rhodium plating (because gold or silver would just be too mainstream I imagine).
The amazing thing here is that some snakeoil salesman not only convinced these people that they needed these high-end receptacles, but they turned the dial up to 11 and convinced the idiots that they needed high end power cables to plug in to their high end receptacles. Did I mention that these power cables can range from several hundred dollars to almost $7,000? Yes you read that correctly... audiophiles have been convinced that spending $6,900 for a power cable will improve the sound quality flowing out of their speakers.
Yes seriously. I'm not making this up... I'm just not cynical enough to fabricate a story like this.
Spending thousands of dollars on cables which perform no better and produce a sound no different than those which can cost less than $10 is bad enough, but these self-proclaimed experts will go so far as to claim they can actually hear the difference. The problem is, aside from the fact they are willfully displaying their ignorance as to how traditional AC power works, they aren't able to hear any differences when subjected to double-blind testing. Whether the testing is done by people involved in the audio equipment industry, or done in magazines such as Stereo Review in the 1980s, or even tests where name brand speaker wire was compared to ordinary disposable wire coat hangers, it seems even the most ardent supporter of this woo is unable to support their beliefs (and their own ears) with hard, replicable data.
In fact, notorious skeptic James Randi went so far as to offer $1 million to an audiophile if he could prove that a pair of $7,250 speaker cables sounded any better than a pair of off-the-shelf cables from Monster cable that cost around $80. However when push came to shove, even the company that sells the $7,250 speaker cables wasn't willing to put their reputation on the line, so they backed out from the challenge. It seems there just aren't any audiophiles willing to put their reputations on the line in order to support the very claims they make on a daily basis.
This is why I hate audiophiles - because they cannot support their beliefs with any type of legitimate data or science. It is almost as if they are begging to be openly mocked and yet they don't care, because they assume if they have tens of thousands of dollars worth of audio equipment then their ears must be able to tell the difference as if having a bigger bank account somehow suggests your ears are more sensitive than the average person.
There are so many flaws in their logic I'm not even sure where to begin, but I wonder if these people ever stop to realize that their high end $150 receptacles are connected to the rest of their household wiring with the same traditional unshielded copper wire everyone else uses. This wire runs back to a breaker panel and through a meter which is fed power from the same source as everyone else, through the same transformers, the same substations, and from the same grid. Do they really feel a silver plated or gold plated or rhodium plated electrical receptacle is going to improve the sound quality? What is next... sucking the oxygen out of the air and replacing it with helium to allow the sound waves a cleaner path from the speaker to the listener's ear? Granted the listener will be forced to wear an oxygen mask when they want to listen to music... but hey - anything to get the cleanest sound possible right?
When it comes to speakers, things get even worse. It is not unheard of for an audiophile to have speakers that weigh hundreds of pounds each and which measure over seven feet in height. These speakers are often hand built with exotic materials like rare hardwoods and carbon fiber, and they can cost more than $50,000 for a single pair.
I'm not naive here and I do admit there can and is a difference between a cheap speaker and an expensive speaker, however there comes a point of diminishing returns. I'll go on record and openly state I'm convinced if you take a quality set of speakers priced in the range of $2,000 and you perform blind testing against a set of speakers costing ten times as much, that most people (audiophiles included) will not be able to state which is the more expensive set of speakers with any consistency.
In fact, I recall years ago reading an article about a blind test that involved several sets of speakers behind an acoustically transparent curtain. A sample of music was played using each set of speakers in random order enough times to eliminate selection biases. In the end, a set of inexpensive speakers was selected as being the "best" although none of the speakers in the test was statistically superior to the remainder. So in essence, when the supposed experts can't see what they are listening to, and when they no longer see the expensive name brand cables or the dim glow of a tube amplifier or the movement of a turntable these minor nuances they claim to be able to hear seem to disappear. I find the irony that audiophiles who are often seen listening to music with their eyes closed seem to rely so heavily upon their vision when they are performing comparison tests.
The entire concept reminds me of a professor who acts smart and seems to know so much about the material, but at the end of the semester you realize the only reason they knew more than you was because they had the book with all the answers printed in it. Take away the book and the notes you are left with nothing more than a nice tweed jacket and a laser pointer.
Now I realize it probably seems a bit harsh to say I hate audiophiles. I should clarify I don't actually hate the people, but rather I hate their (lack of) logic, their reasoning, their biases, and their tactics. In truth I probably hate the companies and snakeoil salesman who fool audiophiles into believing that they need a $7,000 power cable or a $150 audio grade receptacle much more than I hate the audiophiles themselves, however for the sake of simplicity I'm focusing on the audiophiles since they seem to be so vocal about their superiority.
Part of the reason I feel this way is because of how audiophiles can be presented with evidence proving their equipment is simply overpriced, and yet they make claims about how they can tell a difference. As mentioned previously we know they can't prove it, but that doesn't wipe the smug looks off of their faces nor does it remove the undertones of superiority from their voices.
Take for instance Michael Fremer who just happens to be senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine along with contributing to a number of other audio publications. Needless to say he is heavily involved in the audiophile community and could perhaps be one of the most influential or well-known audiophiles on the planet. Fremer has hundreds of thousand of dollars worth of audio equipment in his listening room and he will even make claims that he can tell the difference between a $2,600 power cable and a $4,000 power cable claiming the more expensive cable produces a "warmer, fuller sound".
In some cases, audiophiles like Fremer will even go so far as to make excuses for the hisses and pops coming from their tube amplifiers and turntables as if to suggest they don't matter. Really? The very same people who will spend tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars on audio equipment and cables and even little pucks to prevent their precious turntables from having to sit on a hard surface claim it doesn't matter? If these annoyances don't matter... then what does matter? If the sound itself isn't a priority, and if the faithfulness of the sound is secondary, then what is the point? Frankly aside from talking around the issue with fancy words and cliched phrases I'm not sure most audiophiles have any idea.
boggles my mind how someone can claim to care about sound quality when he has a room full of junk surrounding him. He has stacks of records leaned up against the walls and on the floor. He has pictures hanging on the wall that are covered in sound-reflecting glass. He has hard surface walls and furniture and stacks of equipment with wires running every which way. Does this sound like a place someone could detect minor subtleties in an audio track? Not likely.
Better yet, if the ultimate audio clarity is really what they are after, a quality set of headphones will outperform practically every set of speakers known to man. Headphones all but eliminate reflected sound and outside interference, and you don't need a padded room to be able to get the best possible sound. Aside from John Cusack's character in High Fidelity, I can't say as I've seen many audiophiles sitting alone in their listening rooms or dens with a set of headphones atop their heads.
The fact is, in the real world people don't really have rooms with ideal acoustics. In the real world most music is listened to in a room with windows and doors and hard walls and furniture where acoustics are an afterthought. Most home audio systems - even those owned and operated by audiophiles - reside in less than acoustically ideal rooms. Speaker wires are often laid next to or routed on top of power wires which could create inductive coupling (electromagnetic interference) and a slight buzz or hum, HVAC systems blow air through ductwork, and dust finds its way onto vinyl records.
Yet to an audiophile, they likely will ignore the rushing sound of conditioned air or the fact that their patch cables are incapable of transmitting a signal with as much accuracy as a $5 optical cable purchased from Amazon or Monoprice... not because they haven't thought about it, but because they simply don't appear to care. The excess noises produced by a record needle are just part of the experience apparently. As Michael Fremer says, "It's like when you go to the symphony, and the old men are coughing—same thing". For an audiophile to use this logic is probably what tends to frustrate me, because it is almost as if they don't even try to hide the flaws in their reasoning.
Another aspect of audiophiles that tends to annoy me is the way they speak when talking about sound. They use phrases like "a dimensional and rich presentation" or a "euphonic sound experience". They speak about the color of music and the flavor of the sound. They talk about a sense of openness or space and how dark or bright the sound is and they make comments about the dynamic envelope, the ambience, or the subtlety of the tones. It seems they try to rely heavily upon personification as if the sound can reach out and touch someone or that it embraces the listener.
Even worse they rely so heavily upon cliches such as "jaw-dropping" and "tonal texture" that you can swap out the product names in most of the equipment reviews and nobody would notice. The entire concept reminds me of a hipster who turns a simple three line Haiku into a 40 minute discussion about what the poet was thinking when they chose to use the word "crimson" as opposed to just saying "red".
Try as they might, all the fancy wordsmithing and pretentiousness used by these audiophiles doesn't change the fact that the man behind the curtain is far from a real wizard... and in this case the wizard not only refuses to admit he has been outed, but he claims removing his curtain doesn't really matter in the first place.