Home Systems Components Galleries Store Blog

'Sounding Off'

Our traditional critique of JV’s (Jonathan Valin) RMAF 2013 Show Report: Part II

Sunday, October 27th, 2013 by Mike

==== Tidal Piano Diacera powered by Audio Power Labs ====

JV: “…truly gorgeous, with Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre simply phenomenal through the Tidals and the Aurender/dCS source. This was another BOS contender: extremely sweet string tone, superb depth and resolution, and fantastic bass for a two-way”

Neli liked it a lot too. I liked it too, although in the final analysis the sound was just a little too pretty for me and not quite as dynamic top to bottom as I might wish for. I remember really liking the Audio Power Labs on the Tidal at CES’s THE Show a few years ago a heckuva lot, almost the same exact system… [Can’t find which show. Argh. Memory Player? Perhaps the larger Audio Power Labs amps? … ah yes, here it is at Stereotimes. Oh, and here it is on this very blog: Audio Power Labs, Tidal, Memory Player at CES 2012’s The Show]

==== Brodmann Acoustics Vienna Classic 2 powered by Electrocompaniet ====

JV: “…dark and rich in timbre, but somewhat boxy (Brodmann, a piano maker, deliberately uses material resonances as part of its enclosure design) with a forward presentation and little stage depth (this could’ve been aggravated by my close listening seat). That said, the timbre of Kissin’s piano was lovely with a nice sense of the ambiance surrounding it.”

Yeah, these guys are going for a different sound than most speaker manufacturers. The speakers are designed to resonate with the music, like Audio Note speakers do, and with a similar focus on the music as opposed to audiophile check-boxes, but - I think they are going for something different.

==== Neat Acoustics Ultimatum XL10 powered by Audio Flight ====

JV: “…very high resolution and superb transient response, with just a little suckout in the upper bass and power range thinning color somewhat. Nonetheless, this was an good presentation with outstanding definition and surprising deep bass.”

These speakers are light on their feet with high resolution and good separation. I liked these speakers way back when Jay Rein had them and still think they need someone to really put a top notch system [something wildly inappropriate, price-wise] around them to show off what they can really do [and, you know, so you and I can hear it :-) ].

==== JBL M2 powered by Levinson ====

JV wants to review these speakers. Sounds like a good idea, but that doesn’t necessarily make the sound in this room work. I would love to hear these speakers on something besides these amps. These amps need speakers that are supremely detailed and delicate to match their classically dark disposition. Those are not these speakers. These speakers need a small, colorful, dexterous tube amp.

And when I say ‘needs’ I mean that I would really love to hear these combinations someday soon or my life will have this hole in it - and that this hole just can’t be filled any other way [come on, you all know what I mean! It is not just curiosity. It is more like a vitamin deficiency :-) ].

==== Cessaro Liszt powered by Tron ====

JV: “…tremendous dynamics, very rich dark color; bass that is well integrated (though still not quite as fast or full as the horn midrange and tweeter) it was far and away the best horn at RMAF. Along with the Rockport Avior and another we will come to it reproduced Lt Kije with greater beauty, realism, and power than anything else at this excellent show. Obviously, a BOS contender.”

JV also talks about how horn speakers sound like a [often disconnected] collection of different speaker technologies. This effect can happen on many kinds of speakers - many times due to cables that mess with the frequencies or amps that are unable to control the speaker at various frequencies. I think he needs to close his eyes and ignore the fact that they are horn speakers.

Not sure what he means by ‘rich dark color’ which he is starting to use in several of these write-ups. I am thinking he means dense sound with liberal but over-damped harmonics mixed in. There are some people who prefer this sound [although we, to be clear, do not. preferring an open sound with lots of separation and clear as a bell harmonics. For us, dense sound reminds us of the wall-of-sound that occurs when a system cannot handle the complexity of the music it is trying to play or, similarly, when the music has been compressed].

We always root for Cessaro, really appreciating what good horn speakers can do better than any other speaker design. But here in this room we thought that perhaps the Tron was not up to driving the speakers or, conversely, that the horns had been so attenuated to mate with the bass drivers that they no longer had the dynamics and open sparkle of a horn speaker anymore.

I heard this the end of the 2nd day - but Kevin tells me that it sounded better on the 3rd day. I am envious of anyone who got to hear these play anywhere near as good as they look.

==== Von Schweikert VR-100XS Universe powered by Constellation ====

JV: “In the large tricky room it was in, with conventional sources, bass and power-range response were problematical—as was image focus.” … “At lifelike levels [on reel-to-reel] (which is to say about 90dB average SPLs with well-over-105dB peaks), nothing else at the show—and this was, once again, a great show—came as close to sounding real as the Universe/Constellation/UHA playing back The Doors’ L.A. Woman”…

JV liked this Von Schweikert speaker system when they used the reel-to-reel and played it very loud. I, however, just heard it playing quiet classical music and decided after several minutes that A) this was not going to change anytime soon and B) although I like quiet classical quite a bit, this was not doing it for me. The mastery, the emotion, the raison d’etre for listening to the piece, much less for the musicians to play it, was not present. And it just wasn’t loud enough for me to evaluate any other aspects of the playback. I like many of the Von Schweikert speakers and how they sound, and like the sound in many of their rooms at shows [even if their speaker designs seem a little crazy sometimes]. I wish I could have heard these, their statement speakers, in different circumstances. Perhaps at CES.

==== YG Acoustics Sonja 1.2 Passive powered by Mola-Mola ====

JV: “A BOS contender, even if the YGs were a little ragged at very very loud levels on sax.”.

The sound was a little ragged at not so loud levels too. There were also issues with unevenness in several areas as well. How I miss the old days when Bill just brought state-of-the-art gear and kicked butt [I know. I know! Things are supposed to be more affordable in this economy and shipping delicate stuff is a pain and a half. Still miss those days though].

==== Magico Q1 powered by Spectral ====

JV: ” …you can be sure that the Q1/Spectral/MIT room will be a finalist.”. Uh. Really?

When I heard this they were playing it quietly and were in a deep conversation with each other and it did not look like a good time to ask them to move a little out of the way so I could take more photos, or, you know, turn up the volume.

==== Nola Metro Grand Reference Gold on ARC ====

JV: “…dark and beautiful in timbre, with well defined bass on “Autumn Leaves” and lovely reproduction of vocals and piano, and spectacular staging, resolution, and dynamics on the Mercury Romeo & Juliet. There may have been a smidge of room resonance here…” … “Certainly yet another BOS nominee.”

I feel like JV is tossing Best of Show (BOS) Nominee awards around like the way most people throw eggs at the zombies.

It appears that

a) almost all speakers at the show are above $20K now and

b) the criteria for being a BOS nominee is only slightly more difficult than just showing up at the show and plugging things in.

I feel JV’s show report is degrading here as we near the end. If this continues we will have to do something else so we don’t just start ragging on the whole thing.

I feel these particular Nola speakers were not as able to hide the flaws in the upstream components as the larger ones they usually bring. The larger speakers in this very large room had, at the very least, compensations like scale, dynamics, bass, ease and stuff like that which I, at least, like quite a bit.

==== Scaena Dominus on ARC ====

JV: “…bass had a slightly different quality (slower, less defined) than the ribbon/cone columns.”

Essentially this is his only comment on the sound. This made me laugh. Yes, it is extremely hard to get the big depth charges to mate perfectly with the line array. They do a pretty darn good job at it though. But, no, it is not absolutely perfect.

That was not the problem in this room, though.

Neli also wanted them to play an LP on the Kronos turntable here. Maybe that would have fixed the issues. But you know that sound you get when there are no micro-dynamics, no ability to render subtleties of notes so, like, say a trumpet, being played really LOUD, makes notes that, instead of encompassing several nearby frequencies that all kind of rise and ebb a little differently creating a wonderful colorful sweeping brassy call to attention, instead just compresses it all into a single even louder frequency blast that creates a tsunami-like effect on the ear drum? If they had just turned it down some…

==== Wilson Audio XLF + Thor’s Hammer s powered by VTL ====

JV: “in spite of its many obvious virtues (color, speed, impact) “… “there was something not completely refined about the presentation—call it a want of very low-level texture—that bothered me just a bit. It was as if the XLFs got the big things really right but slightly (and I mean slightly) short-changed the littler ones. ”

He then goes on to blame it on Thor’s Hammer subwoofers and still grants it a “a BOS nomination”.

Wrong. Well yes. But why blame it on the subwoofers??? Pretty safe to throw stones at them, I guess, since they have the weakest constituency. Personally, the XLF are speakers we wouldn’t mind having here [and I am very picky. And Neli is even pickier than me (seriously. if I want to really annoy the heck out of her I just have to suggest with a straight face that we try a modestly excellent speaker here sometime. ouch.)] and the subwoofers? They seemed to integrate exceedingly well and get out of the way, in my opinion.

There were many more things wrong here and much more serious [and I feel for JV trying to put it into words and keep his job. The normally meticulously honest JA just bailed with a feel-good review] .

Still trying to decide whether to do a real review of this room. Some of the sound was so bizarre, I am still trying to figure out just what was going on.

The short description is this: The first track, which sounded like what I think of as the wooden mallets hitting copper Tibetan bowls on the American Beauty sound track, was awesome. Rich harmonics, detailed, awesome resolution and separation, swirling dynamics as the sounds ebbed and flowed. I had never heard anything better than this albeit unfamiliar music. It was lacking nothing.

Then we heard more traditional kinds of music. On these the imaging was all over the place, (for example, many notes would start in the center between the speakers and then gravitate immediately to one or the other of the speakers. And things on the soundstage would just move around all over the place), and, except for one track (!) of the demo the timber was off; every note sounded a little ’sharp’ [a little higher in frequency - as opposed to ‘flat’]. How could this one track sound OK and the rest not? This is what has baffled me for several weeks now and the whole experience had me doubt my sanity. Whenever I heard systems that had imaging or timbre issues for much of later that day my response was to back slowly away and seek temporary refuge elsewhere.

[my current explanation to myself is that because the one track with realistic timbre was a recording off of an LP recording of a jazz session - it had 2nd harmonic distortion that filled a void somewhere in the system signal chain - and when that void was not filled, as it was not on the other tracks, then it would get filled by somewhat random harmonics. My previous explanation was that there was 3rd harmonic distortion on the other tracks that my ears were interpreting as an elevated frequency]. As for the soundstaging and imaging issues, perhaps something was wired backwards [but not everything, because we all know what that sounds like, and this was not that].

Because of my surprise and obsession during he demo with the above issues, I did not get down to the point about caring about the lack of texture / micro-dynamics / inner-detail, whatever you want to call it. Kudos to JV for pointing it out, though.

But… weird huh? Kevin pointed out the lack of soul in the sound of the demo - and we have to agree wholeheartedly - but as we all know soullessness does not perturb our reviewer friends much [JV, JA, Fremer…] nor some percentage of listeners apparently [oh, but if they only knew! :-) ].

Missing: JV did not review the two Sony speaker rooms: one with Pass Labs and the other powered by Emmlabs. Nor the Vapor room powered by Atre Forma.

OK. Hope you all enjoyed the show.

Heart and Mind Ratings of Common High-end Audio Gear

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 by Mike

In order to help describe what we think are the key differences between the Audio Note U.K. Gaku-On and Lamm ML3 amplifiers we came up with semi-subjective rating that has to do with how much the characteristic sound of the amp appeals to one’s mind versus how much it appeals to one’s heart.

We will now try our hardest to apply this same approach to all sorts of other gear. However, it seems like perhaps a change might be useful here. Instead of just rating things based on a simple HEART < ----- > MIND scale we will instead try and rate Heart and Mind separately, on a scale from 0 to 10.

One reason why these kind of ratings may be really useful is that people who like the quality of the sound to affect their Heart really hate sound directed at their mind. And visa-versa. Really hate. Spending lots of time to let everyone know how much they hate a particular component or system when what they are really saying is that they do not like the fact it is Mind-centric (or visa-versa).

Mind-centric sound is often called ’sophisticated’, or ‘high resolution’ or having ‘lots of inner detail’. This is completely UNRELATED to the possibility of the sound being ‘cold’.

Heart-centric sound is often called ‘emotional’ or ‘involving’. This is completely UNRELATED to the possibility of the sound being ‘warm’.

[NOTE: real world values are very fuzzy and depend heavily upon the music played and system the component / cable is in, and, for Audio Note components, the tubes used]

Name Heart Mind
———– amps ———–
Audio Note U.K. Gaku-On amp 10.0 7
Lamm ML3 amp 8 10.0
Audio Note U.K. Kageki 2A3 amp 9 4
Audio Note U.K. Kegon Balanced amp 8 7
Audio Note U.K. Kegon amp 9 6
Lamm ML2.2 amp 7 7
Edge NL10 amp 5 8
———– speakers ———–
Marten Coltrane Supreme speakers 4 10.0
Kharma Mini Exquisite speaker 9 8
Marten Coltrane 1 speaker 4 8
Marten Coltrane 2 speaker 6 10.0
Acapella Triolon Excalibur speaker 8.5 7
Wilson Alexandria II, XLF speakers 6 8
Wilson MAXX III speakers 5 7
Acoustic Zen Adagio speakers 5 4
Audio Note AN/E SPe HE speakers 5 5
Audio Note AN/E SEC Signature speakers 7 7
Sonus Faber Stradivarius speakers 7 4
Sonus Faber Extrema speakers 8.5 3
———– cd players ———–
Audio Aero Capitole Mk. II CD player 8 4
Audio Aero Capitole Reference CD player 8 6
Audio Aero Capitole LaSource CD player 9 7
Emm Labs CDSA CD player 6 7
Emm Labs XDS1 CD player 7 8
Esoteric K-01 CD player 4 8
Audio Note Level 5 digital 11 7
Audio Note Level 4 digital separates 8 7
———– cables ———–
Nordost ODIN interconnects 7 9
Nordost ODIN speaker cables 7 8
Tara Labs the Zero GOLD 7 7
Nordost ODIN power cords 9 8
Nordost Valhalla interconnects 6 6
Audio Note Sogon cables 8 4
Audio Note brown PALLAS interconnect 7 9
Audio Note black PALLAS interconnect 7.5 4
Stealth INDRA 4 7.5
ELROD classic (average) 6.5 4
ELROD new (average) 7.5 6
Pranawire (average) 9 4
———– preamps ———–
EMMLabs PRE2 preamp 4 6.5
LAMM L2 preamp 6 6
Audio Note M9 preamp 8 5
Audio Note M10 preamp 9 7
———– phono preamps ———–
Audio Note M9 phonostage with S9 step-up transformer 10 7
Lamm LP2 phono preamp 6 5

Rated 0 to 10 and we are assuming they are in a system that really shows off their capability. There are a lot more components and things we can rate, but this is hopefully a decent start.

OK. You all know this is just my Wild Eyed Opinion. But I think most people would agree that the relative values here are close and in proportion to what we experience when we listen to these things.

There are, you know, components with a value of 0,0 and we won’t point fingers but it is an interesting state of affairs for those that own them. The more educated we are about the REAL comparative performance of our gear the less chance end up with stuff that is not what we are looking for.

From this table, one can see why the Gaku-On amps on the Coltrane Supreme speakers was such a significant system. Even though the ML3 on the Supremes was awesomely intense and deeply subtle, the Gaku-On on the Supremes whacks ya, you poor defenseless listener you, over BOTH sides of the head. A roller-coaster ride to wheresoever the music takes you.

This kind of pairing of opposites works well for the most listeners, I think. Like the Edge NL10 amps driven by the Audio Aero Capitole player - it entertains both sides of the brain. On the other hand, there is something kind of special about well-balanced components, components who heart-centric rating is close to the mind-centric rating.

It seems, looking at things here, that some gear uses either some warmth and/or dynamics and/or well-integrated micro-dynamics to appeal to the Heart.

Is Better really Better?

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 by Mike

Interesting article [with a stupid title designed to appeal to Digg readers - and it worked, because that is how I found it ;-/]:

The science of snobbery

It talks about rating [essentially AB testing] fine wine, classical musicians, and Greek art. It points out that we also all have another what we would call, based on the previous posts, a mental processor that judges the sound, in our case, based on External Factors unrelated to the sound:

External Factors Processor

Price, appearance and brand quality influence some of our decision making when it comes to evaluating quality.

I also want to add that this is in addition to contextual temporal things like the ambiance and comparative level of inebriation in which we experience the playback.

[A few notes about the article.

The judges of the classical music competition did exactly the right thing. As revealed in Chia-Jung Tsay’s experiment, all sorts of people judged the quality of the playing by the top 3 contestants to be essentially equivalent - a tie. But the contestant who LOOKED like they were the best won. I ask: how else would you break a tie, if you were a judge, but to take visual flair and style of the musician into account, when the actual playing was insufficient to differentiate the contestants from each other?

Another point is that not all people are so susceptible to intuitively derived impressions of quality. If, as in the article

“In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he describes our two modes of thought: System 1, like the adaptive unconscious, is our “fast, instinctive, and emotional” intuition. System 2 is our “slower, more deliberative, and more logical” conscious thought. Kahneman believes that we often leave decisions up to System 1 and generally place far “too much confidence in human judgment” due to the pitfalls of our intuition described above. “

Then, it may be good for you to know, as you read this series of extremely weird posts, that many people [including Neli and I] are more primarily ‘System 2′ people [which based on our background in math, engineering and the sciences makes some amount of sense]. So when we reach opinions it is almost always after deliberate boring-ass multitudinous comparisons and geologic time-periods of fractious debate. Doesn’t mean we are right, necessarily [even though we are :-) ], and it does mean I am probably, no definitely, more boring that people who make snap judgments about things then move on, but it does mean we aren’t at all easily taken in by marketing BS and personality blitzes and ‘expert’ opinions.

But, taken in by high [or low, you know who you are] price tags? Nah. Deliberative and attention to fact-based reality. You bet.

But what subsumes all of this is that we all can [and want to be! :-) ] taken in by good music [which is what this blog is all about].

Music can [forcibly. the more forcibly the better] strip away all this long-winded deliberation and logic and shallow marketing-driven prejudices and counter-insurgency-like anti-marketing prejudices and reboot us in the deeper, System 3 part of the mind. The Be Here Now reality with the Pluto fly-by imaginative. To be really truly awake in a way that is just… that is just so fine and hard to achieve in any other way.

So AB tests are almost always useless for determining absolute quality [yes, for System 1-type people and also for the rest of us because the time- and ambiance-constraints are so fearsome and tend to dominate the decision-space] but they can be fun and can be good for providing the fuel to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life in this tired dried up news weary world we all got stuck in.

The Listener: The most important component. Part II

Monday, September 9th, 2013 by Mike

[continued from part I …]

I think there may be other Mental Processors that we have to use if we want to get more out of our music and life. Higher-level processors. This is where we all have to make a choice, the choice of whether to take the red pill or the blue pill.

The blue pill will allow you to maintain believing in the dominant illusion. That an audiophile just needs a perfect system; perfect speakers, amplification, cabling and source gear and room; the perfect source media, perfect recording gear and mircophone and an excellent recording engineer; and you will have a completely accurate reproduction of the studio or live event.

This laudable goal is the bettering of having any band or musician play right in front of you with push button convenience. Better than live with no audience issues to distract one from their enjoying the music.

But perfection is in reality impossible to achieve and the closer you get to it, the more expensive it will be. And, when you get down to basics, this approach is all a kind of scientific curiosity of a sideshow if your goal is to enjoy your time listening to music, enrich your life and increase your well being. And, perhaps, just maybe, to experience some of the deeper meaning of life. If this, then, is your goal, then perhaps it should be pursued in a more direct manner.

And so we have the red pill. Herein we examine the process where one tries to experience the ecstasy of music directly; not through how well the reproduction succeeds and how well it measures, but how well it achieves its goal of making us enjoy the music and hopefully, sometimes, experience the Beauty of It All.

Our Pattern Detection Processor

This processor finds patterns [patterns are just relationships between one thing, like a note or a steadily increasing volume for example, and another thing or things, like other notes or the chirp of a whippoorwill or Spring, for example], often wonderfully complex and intricate patterns, fractal patterns, chaotic patterns, patterns of patterns, the lack of patterns, and the interplay between patterns, often simple and elegant patterns, in Music, in the dynamics, harmonics, transitions, timings, melodies, and more.

Some people are most sensitive to, say, geographic/location patterns and they are all about the depth of the soundstage, or its width, or about the size of the imaging. Others are more sensitive to timing issues, and prefer good rhythm. Others, like me, are most sensitive to spacetime, and like good separation in time and space between the notes.

But pattern detection [and pattern matching to some extent] is one of the things our brain does very well. Mostly renowned for its capabilities in the visual processors of the brain, it seems to work just as well on sonic input as it does on visual input.

Our Pattern Matching Processor

This Mental Processor of ours finds relationships between various patterns. How a simple patterns might mimic the broad nature of various intricate patterns. How the swell and decay of a note on a piano is similar to the blossoming of a rose. How a loooong note played by Roy Buchanan on his guitar resembles the sudden overpowering emotion that occurs when your significant other smiles at you [as, say, played on “the messiah will come again”].

The number of possible relations is a very large number and is effectively without limit.

Our Emotional Contexualizer

We actually frame all our experiences in these emotional contexts. Think of it like nostalgia. Can you play “Born to be Wild” without flashing back to the emotions you have while hearing it the several thousand times you have heard it before? When you hear emotion in a voice, to understand that emotion you have to empathize with it, or even to have experienced it yourself.

There is a lot more to be said about this. For a long time I have been wondering whether this may be the supercomputer part of our brain, which can see and process information more holistically and in very large chunks. But moving on…

Our Beauty / Wonder / Spiritual Processor

This Processor sees beauty and wonder in the way patterns match and offset and highlight other patterns that we see in reality and in our mental models of the universes we live in.

Not sure how the Spiritual comes into this except that it is, when you go down this path, easy to be overwhelmed with all the beauty and the wonder of it all… and your brain just sort of short circuits and kind of gives up and goes…


[I know. Some of you are thinking “Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”. But the rest of you are hopefully thinking… “hey. That red pill ain’t so bad”. In fact, it is not only a lot more real, it is not only a lot more mentally healthy and spiritually rewarding, it is also just plain more fun].

The red pill is more real in that it gets right to the core of the reason we are listening to music in the first place.

[use the ears, luke]

As audiophiles it is right and just that we pay homage to accuracy. But only to a certain extent. Only to the extent that gear in its pursuit of accuracy, like doctors, ‘does no harm’. That the system does as little harm to the signal as possible, given our very real technological and budgetary limitations, but, AS IMPORTANT, is to do as little harm to the listening experience as possible and to the, yes, the most awesome component ever: the Listener.

This was just a strawman model of how we process music. The model is only as good as the extent to which we can use it to optimize the listening experience. It may or may not correspond to anything in real reality. But neither does most people’s conception of electricity as a flow of electrons. But that doesn’t mean that those people can’t design electrical components and it doesn’t mean we can design mental ones.

Next: now that the listener is recognized as the most important component in the system, how do we optimize it in order to increase enjoyment and the number of awesome experiences.

The Listener: The most important component. Part I.

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 by Mike

The most awesomest, bestest component EVERRRR … is the one most of us can find on top of our spinal column.

I was at a local Blockbuster, which is going out of business… again. And they were playing “I Want My MTV” by the Dire Straits. The POS(r) speakers built into some kind of TV were behind a pile of something or another, and it was hard to hear just what the words were.

Our Believability Helper Processor

So what did I do? I sang the words [no. no. NO. NOT out load. Silently. In my head :-) ] filling in the blanks. We also sing the *music* in our heads, filling in those blanks. The blanks where the bass should be. Where the harmonic color of the guitar should be. The corrected decays for all the notes.

It came to me then that this happens a awful lot when we hear only snippets of music, or when we hear not-so-perfectly rendered music from, say, a stereo system.

This component, this Believability Helper Processor feature of this awesome component most of us have, does this ‘filling in’ for all systems at all sorts of levels. Systems with all sorts of intrinsic and relative qualities - the great and the not so great. Even on the best systems we might fill in the music with a little more lushness, add a little more slam to the bass., add a little more emotion to the voice, a little more color to the brass section.

Our Whiteout Processor

Sometimes the music has offensive sounding things in it. We like it enough to continue to listen to it, but some parts we would just rather not hear. For example, a cover of, say, a Beatles song might put in some distortion at some places in the music that just seems gratuitous and stupid. Our Whiteout Processor helps us ignore this part of the song, and as long as we do not focus too much on it… it just isn’t part of the song for us [or is at least significantly minimized].

Of course, more common examples abound: anytime the treble is bright, or the bass linger too long, or the singer sings off key [and not on purpose, which seems to be fashionable at times]. I often have to tune out somebody whacking the side of a drum as is so popular on some hip-hop, and symbols. Symbols in general as the clash clash clash I find sometimes drowns out the melody and the musicians who are actually, you know, playing the song.

Our Rainbow Processor

Sometimes we get ambitious and our Rainbow Processor helps makes things sound better than they ever could have possibly sounded. We add a ton more slam to the drum solo at the beginning of “I Want My MTV”. There are no windows left unbroken in the listening room. Perhaps we add a little more lewdness to “money for nuthin and chicks for free”. We add harmonics with more color than Timothy Leary saw when looking at a Dr. Who scarf.

I think those are the most common Processors we bring to the party when we process music and information in general.

A lot of learning how to really listen has to do with learning how to turn these internal Processors off - and just HEAR what is really happening. [A lot of learning how not to be a Sheeple also has to do with turning these puppies off when we, say, listen to the news].

And a lot of learning to explore the music-human interface has to do with learning how to manipulate these Processors for our own benefit.

For example, a glass of wine [or three. Or if you prefer, a toke or three] modifies these Processors of ours [or makes us want to or be finally willing to modify them ourselves] and you can just see the knobs being turned up a little bit on all 3 of these Mental Processors as the Tipsy Listener listens.

But what about when you want to go beyond this kind of passive mental manipulation of what you hear. What if you want to enjoy music itself as a drug [without chemical or medicinal assistance]?

[continued in part II]

Tube-bias? Me? I say thee nay.

Friday, August 30th, 2013 by Mike

Well. Maybe a little bit.

I do tend to favor the underdog. Or whatever alternative there is to the choice the obnoxious people are being… you know… obnoxious about.

The Better Technology

But, like I said in a recent post - I really would prefer it if solid-state was better than tubes, CDs better than LPs, streaming music better than CDs, that everything was better than reel-to-reel [what a pain in the tush], but it just ain’t so. In fact, it is a truism that, in the vast majority of cases, the opposite is true.

I want these newer technologies to be better because, like many people, I like convenience. I like simplicity. I like reliability. I like as wide a selection of music as possible.

This is not to say that you can’t find various components that violate this general truism of what technology is better.

For example, if you pick up a used Edge NL10 solid-state amp for around $3K [ :-) Neli has lots of guys who have done this ], which was going for $15K or so new before Edge started changing owners; and which would probably go for $30K - $35K in today’s inflated marketplace, then this is going to beat most tube amps anywhere near this price for most systems.

Similarly, some manufacturers try and keep their prices reasonable, and some don’t, and for some [and this seems to be the trend] the reasonability is different for different models, and is set on a model-by-model basis. So, depending of the reasonability of the price of the particular model of, say, a solid-state amp and the unreasonbility of the tube-based competition, for example, you can again upset the truism that tube amplifiers provide a better sound, per dollar, than solid-state [for audiophiles who care about the sound. I would think ordinary folk would prefer solid-state no matter what the vast majority of the time].

But back to the list of the what technology is better: Note that in this list:

1. The Better Technology, at a given price point, is more forgiving. It fails nicely. Like when, say, you can only afford a very inexpensive version of something. Using the better technology the component will err on the side of by being overly musical, the lesser technology will err on the side of by being overly harsh and unpleasant.

For example, a $1000 tube amp will be most likely be, when not perfect, overly lush, or too warm harmonically, or, at worst: dull-sounding. The $1000 solid-state amp will most likely, when not perfect, have harsh treble, be lean sounding, and render a harsh, aggressive attack in the midrange.

The same can be said for LPs versus CD, CDs versus streaming, etc.

Note also that:

2. The state-of-the-art is implemented with the Better Technology.

The best reel-to-reel is better than any turntable. The best turntable is better than any CD player. The best tube amps are better than any solid-state amp.

3. That at any given price point, the Better Technology is more likely not to sound unpleasant [or horrific, as Neli might put it]


Cool huh? Make’s it clearer what technology to choose given your personal preferences.

But… if we try to explore some of the other areas where we must make technological choices [assuming we don’t just, you know, listen to the thing in several highly resolving systems and determine quality with our very high precision portable measuring devices… aka ears. Remember them? :-) ], there seems to be some fuzziness about which is better.

For example: speaker driver materials. Paper is more forgiving than ceramic or metallic substances [I do not know enough about Kevlar or hemp drivers to say]. BUT, I do not think the best state-of-the-art speakers are made with paper drivers. BUT, at a given price point, one is most likely to have a paper-driver speaker err on the side of musicality and forgiveness than the other technologies [which is why, if we had to choose between two average looking speakers, and one had paper drivers and one ceramic, or metal, drivers we would choose the one with the paper drivers, all else being equal].

So for speaker driver materials, paper is a safe bet (1, 3) but if you are looking at the state-of-the-art, other technologies may be best (not 2).

Similarly, take horms versus box [cabinet] versus planar speakers. Planar speakers are typically more forgiving and err on the side of finesse, horns typically sound horny and have various hard-sounding resonance frequencies, and box speakers are typically all over the place, [though they are usually too hard to drive and therefore sound dull and uninvolving, and maybe this could also be considered forgiving].

But the best state-of-the-art speakers are [arguably] horn speakers, then box speakers, and finally planars. Again this could be argued that this is the opposite to what one might expect. But, one could also argue that box speakers are Most Often found in a list of state-of-the-art speakers. So again we have planars being a safe bet (1,3) but box speakers also being a pretty good bet (1,3 and maybe 2).

So, this is all to say that my bias for reasonably priced or state-of-the-art gear is that they do not make listening a chore, unpleasant, and harmful to my good disposition [which is hard enough to come by these days]. And therefore I prefer technologies that, when they fail to be perfect, fail in such a way that they still resemble Music. After all, the Music is why I am listening to them in the first place. And at all costs they should not saw through my gray matter with a newly sharpened chain saw and rip my head clean off. ;-) [aka notes too sharp, atonal harmonics, etc.].

The fun and the frustration

Sunday, April 15th, 2012 by Mike

This hobby can be so much fun.

There is the music. Lots of great music. Tons of great music.

There is the pure wonderful exhilaration of hearing a little deeper into our favorite songs when we tweak the system a little or get a new component.

There is the joy of self-discovery as we learn more about our personal tastes and how we are so unique but also the same.

There is the geeky fun of playing with the cool-ass gear.

…… This is so excellent.

Then there are the frustrations.

The dealers or press who convince you to buy something you later find out they misrepresented.

The distributor who gives your friend 40% off while you pay full retail.

The forums deleting your favorite threads for some reason maybe because, well, it *is* Tuesday. The forums that convince you to hate dealers, or hate people with expensive systems, or hate people who like/dislike tubes, LPs, CDs, cables, rap, opera, country, and on and on.

The sites whose underlying philosophy is that audiophiles are marks, or can’t be trusted, or must be treated like children, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to talk to each other or about whatever the heck we want to talk about who cares if we are a little off topic.

…….This is so, so, so freaking mucked up.


So, yeah, some dealers and press are always just so danged bored. And there are those who, face it, are just way too excited about everything [:-)].

And some distributors are too all-knowing like they think they are Yoda or something.

And some… well, really, a lot… of manufacturers spend all their time in their lab and never get out and hear what everyone else is doing and, well, really just don’t get out much.

But that is just because we are all… just… plain… nuts.

And that is so cool.

So. Do you see the disconnect?

There is this layer of… unpleasantness… between the audiophile nuts and the industry nuts trying to get together and be their nutty selves.

So, in a somewhat self-serving [in so many ways] conclusion, it is now time for us to see what we can do about this unpleasant middle layer.

CES 2012 - All these laptops and Music Servers and USB DACs…

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Mike

So many systems were completely…

[OK, yes, you might call this a rant. But it is really a lament]

They spend all that money and effort to set up a room, and then they muck it all up. They sit there with their remote control enjoying how they can sit on their bums and play this track and that track - and it all sounds like itchy and scratchy, get me out of here, 1984 again [not the Eurythmics album, 1984, that was GREAT. Currently watching the associated movie it was the soundtrack for… But, back to the lament:].

Sorry to be such a curmudgeon, guys, but I spent my 20’s with early CD sound - and I do not intend to happily relive that particular audio hell again. Not without a fight,, anyway ;-)

You young folks… go for it. See you in 10 years [takes about this long] when you all are lamenting the youthful hours and disposable income misspent , along with all the previous generations of audiophiles - as the rest of us wait for the technology to mature and sound like music [or at least hack up something that pays attention to the actual musical nature of music].

Hey, the generation before me had to live though the solid-state amp / preamp ‘revolution’ - apparently each generation has to suffer [insert wild, hellish screaming here] … The reel-to-reel guys probably thought the same thing about the arrival of LPs - the first turntables probably sounded like poop. .

Won’t Get Fooled Again - Computer Audio

Saturday, January 7th, 2012 by Mike

We have NOT gone over the the Dark Side

I have been talking about streaming music here a bit lately. While bored waiting for CES to get here, I surfed around a bit and came across an article on Audiostream.

Audiostream,com is Stereophile’s new spinoff computer audio zine.

Some of the perspective there on this stuff got me to thinking that you all might think we’ve gone to the Dark Side.


Not us.

Not ever.

Not to pick on anyone in particular, but lets look at this article on the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II.

He does a excellent job describing the Musical Fidelity family sound and hints at their version-itus. But the overall context of the review reveals even more about how we are are experiencing yet another…

Worse is Better - Don’t You Clueless People Out There Get It?

… event in high fidelity audio.

Kool Aid Flavor #1 - If you don’t get it then you must be old or stupid

Now, about the AARP crack in the article… and that young people being are comfortable with ripping, no wait burning, no wait… downloading? streaming? digital music? computer audio? online music?

Heaven help me but I agree with Sam Tellig - “There’s so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads.”

First, I think young people, the under 23 crowd, think all this junk is for middle aged geeks who have a lot of extra time on their hands. The desktop is seen as old school and not seen as an entertaining piece of hardware.

Second, if one tries and follows where the big money is going, what is being invested in, it is not,… well, it IS really confusing.

Kool Aid Flavor #2 - There is no confusion

First, there is Amazon and Apple and Google investing in their cloud services - which are, in this context, essentially, places to store music and videos and photos on a website somewhere. This is all because they figure this is currently the best way to monetize music and videos [they can make money off of subscription services (my prediction as the winner of the end game) - but not nearly as much. I mean, otherwise, how are they going to sell you the same pieces of music, over and over again… DSOTM say, about every 3 years we have to buy a newer better one right? :-) ].

But you have all these blogs talking about ripping your CDs and saving them in some format or another across hopefully striped terrabyte drives on some noisy PC and playing it back using clumsy itunes or some such software. Seems like a big disconnect to me. Besides ripping being illegal [another stupid law written by corporate lobbyists, I agree, but…] and the RIAA and unscrupulous lawyers happy to use these laws to extort the most harmless of people, this is just a Transitional Technology - people making some money as we all make the transition from physical media to online media.

But on the hardware side, there is real confusion, IMHO. You have Google TV and Android TV versus Apple TV versus Smart TV versus the now ancient iPod and several thousand it seems boxes that sit on your network and pump music from place to place.

There IS a lot of confusion here because nothing is winning [although I heard that 9 million people have now permanently dropped cable and moved 100% online - aka cutting-the-cord - to netflix et. al…. so people WANT a solution now, they are diving in even without one], The idea being that music is online and coming back to the family living room from a long hiatus - and if 99.99% of people are going to be listening to music in their HT then that is the hardware source we maybe should be looking at making high-fidelity hardware work with.

Kool Aid Flavor #3 - The cheapest of the new sounds better than the most expensive of the old

Remember those $200 CD players back in 83 and 84? How they were better by far than any turntable? Well, they’re… back…. [here is where the horrified scream needs to be forcibly suppressed so as not to freak out Neli].

You really going to let yourself be fooled again?

Here is the quote [and I see this kind of thing said EVERYWHERE by the computer audio crowd, not just on this site] “That’s because I can enjoy a bargain as much as the next guy and the idea that you can buy a device for $349, connect it to your computer on one end and your hi-fi on the other and play music that’ll make your CD player weep with envy is cause for celebration. ”

[OK. Hard to hold back that scream huh?].

Be interesting to put up an $200 Oppo DVD/CD player [the cheapest player that is widely recommended] against this combination of several thousands $$$ [check audiogon if you do not believe. Well, when they get a category for this, anyway, until then search CD players and these show up] computer audio system with $349 external DAC. Interesting also to see which wins on the typical - usually bright sounding - solid-state system most computer audio people have and an ultra hifi system and see if the Oppo weeps or, perhaps, kicks ass. I think it would be close, but it would be a fun shootout, huh? :-)


In conclusion, We are Not Drinking no Darn Kool Aid.

As we explore various approaches and solutions for incorporating online music into our casual, or exploratory, focused, or ultimate music experiences we will do the following:

1. We WILLfocus on fidelity fidelity fidelity

2. We will NOT lie and tell you it is Better than what it is not better than [ *sheesh* ]

3. We will NOT say people are stupid if they do not see how obvious all this non-obvious stuff is

4. We will NOT throw away the good of the past [but we do expect to see a lot of very cheap CDs at yard sales in a few years. Can’t wait. :-) ] but we will NOT hang on unnecessarily to past assumptions that are no longer as important [ultra flat screens now allow video to be brought into the high-end audio listening room, similarly the tablet/smartphone now allows more interactivity with our music in the listening room, etc.]

The New Audiogon

Saturday, January 7th, 2012 by Mike

According to the vocal hordes on the Asylum and AudioCircle … nobody likes the New Audiogon [right now it is down, although you still can get to the forums if you are sneaky].

Having been on the receiving end of the ire of the same vocal hordes [e.g. w/r to Spintricity Magazine] seeing this happen to Audiogon is really fascinating. And we have also seen this backlash happen to Digg and Facebook, but not Twitter [which is bizarre because the Twitter UI changes by-and-large are non-intuitive, even after repeated use… much more like Facebook now, in fact]

It is fascinating because I think it allows us to rule out the validity of this or that particular feature and instead focus on the social dynamics of the situation.

Fact #1. Only techies like websites to change in any way

Many people claim to be techies, because they own a business that has a website, or they played with HTML some [and many have gotten paid for it!] , but really are not, are confused by web technology, and hate these kinds of changes. [This behavior really confused me for a long time]

Twitter is largely techies, so they got away with it. Digg, a counter example with supposedly a large techie population, has lots of people who, seriously, just like to be nasty and whine a lot.

Most of the home audio sites are horribly designed and implemented, but audiophiles love them because they are now used to them.

Rule #1. If you make a change to a site popular with non-techies, make it look exactly other sites they are comfortable with.

Stereophile changed its site to look just like an ordinary blog. This was largely accepted by audiophiles because they are now used to blogs. [I personally think it was nuts, they gave up their claim to fame - that of being a successful print magazine - to compete at the same level as 1M other blogs. Best thing they can do now is try to implement meta features like Engadget has done - but this will take time and be expensive].

When we recently changed Audio Federation, we copied a couple of other well-known luxury brochure sites as well as several very popular luxury shopping sites.

Audiogon is, unfortunately, making their site look like eBay - which is a quite unloved, albeit successful, site

Rule #2. Try to make a big change by making lots of itty bitty changes over time.

This is often extremely hard to do [i.e. very expensive], from a programming point of view.

Assuming Audiogon’s troubles go on for awhile, and even if they do not, I wonder if there is an opportunity here for a competitor to step in and break the Audiogon monopoly?


Presented by
Audio Federation

email: mike&neli@audiofederation.com
Copyright (c) Audio Federation, Inc.

The names of all brands of equipment are copyright and/or trademark their respective companies

Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).