A couple of weeks back a couple of comments on the RMAF 2013 show got me to thinking.

The gist of their comments was that although several rooms sounded pretty good – they weren’t exciting. The implication being that… well, there are several implications:

1. That we are much more ready to like and buy systems and components that are exciting sounding

2. That many systems, components and brands go for a more ‘accurate’ sound, or a ‘palatable’ sound, or, to revisit our basic sounds: Impressiveness, Sweetness, Naturalness, Realness and Emotional sounds.

3. That many people hear so many non-exciting systems, that they are not only willing to ‘put up with’ somewhat boring sound – they have come to expect no different.

4. That, although systems with Impressive bass CAN BE exciting, and there were several at this show, they can also be not exciting; like at this show. There needs to be something more than big woofers and a big amp.

So what makes a system sound exciting?

Good question, I think. [thanks, glad I asked it :-)]

For me it is a combination of great midi-dynamics and speaker control and engagedness / emotion / soulfulness. Everything else has to be good, but not great.

It helps make a system sound exciting if I hear ‘my music’ on it – i.e. music I am familiar with, either recently loved or familiar from ages and ages ago [so it seems as I recover from Turkey Day] back in my youth.

At least for me, Realness does not come into it. Nor does [closely related] accuracy, or naturalness or Impressiveness or resolution.

Also, for me, and I can argue for the vast majority of people, mid-bass are the most exciting frequencies. Around 30-40 hz.

If this is true for most people then we can see that:

1. The industry is building and wanting their sound to be a ‘non-exciting’ sound.

2. That one pays the big bucks for things, like 20hz bass and very high-resolution and very high accuracy which are awesomely fun, but which do not make for an exciting sounding music [some people may, however, opine that this is required for just a good ole basic ‘good’ sound]. This means that for many people, an exciting-sounding system can be had for not too much money [inexpensive tube amp and pre on inexpensive horn speakers (good ones of which are hard to find – try high-efficiency speakers like Audio Note) with a cheap turntable as source].

Audio Note sets up an exciting sounding system every so often at the shows, when the room is of a shape and construction that allows the speakers to be happy in the corners. Unfortunately the amp [argh] and most of the gear is often on a table that acts like a vibrating string on a guitar, causing various parts of the midrange and mid-bass to be washed out. However the vast majority of people go out of their way to mention that they really love the sound in these particular rooms at these particular shows.

It have a feeling that Excitedness may trump all other aspects of sound, assuming their is no overt bad behavior in other parts of the sound.

Cross product of maturity of audiophile and hi-fi system design

I was thinking about all the different stereo systems at RMAF. Thinking about how each system seems to attract at least some people. Thinking about how bizarre this seemed to us, being that some of the systems were really quite poor sounding. Thinking about how Best Buy also does manage to sell some of their hi-fi systems from time to time. And thinking about how to sell things to those mystical members of the often talked about but rarely seen… General Public.

There seems to be a discrete set of stages, or levels, a person goes through when discovering just how some systems really don’t suck.

These stages of discovery are more or less these:

0. This sucker goes LOUD!
1. Whoa! big bass!
2. Hmmm… big bass and it can do soft delicate sound too
3. Oh my, resolution. I can hear things that I never heard before
4. Weird, I can ‘see’ the instruments and musicians! Imaging!
5. Coolness, some instruments and musicians appear to be close, and some way, way back beyond the front wall; soundstaging
6. Why do some systems make be want to tap my toe or dance? PRAT
7. Wow! Why doesn’t the (harmonica, brass, violins, etc.) on this system hurt my ears like all those other systems?
8. Discovery of ones own personal preference
9. *swoon* … engagement, soulfulness
10. Discovery of other’s personal preferences
11. Naturalness, organic sound, basic levels of believably, how some hi-fis do not have to sound like a hi-fi
13. Inner detail, texture, micro-dynamics. Cocaine.
14. Realistic resolution and resolution linearity. Deeper kinds of believably.
15. Reproduced note envelopes can really be like real notes? Wow.
16. Harmonic / timbrel linearity. Deeper, ever deeper believably.
17. Separation. No more mashed potatoes. Hear every instrument using your mental spyglasses.
18. Dynamic integrity / linearity. Deep, so deep believably
19. Inner harmonic detail. 12+14+16+18 = heroin.
20. Real-life harmonics. Recognizing the almost universal lack of such.
21. Real-life dynamics. Recognizing the almost universal lack of such.
1000. Forget it all, where’s the bliss?

Probably forgot a few. I keep swapping 8, 9, 10 and 11, and as far as the rest of the ordering goes, YMMV.

OK. Here are some weird observations.

The Wilson demo at RMAF was designed for people between level 1 and 2 [you can watch the video of the presentation on YouTube]. The demo was largely successful among the people who type things on blogs, forums and online magazines. But not so successful among people who call us looking for expensive speakers.

Our rooms at RMAF had been designed for people around stages 15 and 16. This was fairly successful among the people who call us looking for expensive speakers. This received quite a bit less public fanfare, however, than the Wilson room. Lamm rooms typically seem designed for people around stages 9 and 10 (same Wilson speakers, more or less, as above).

Audio Note tries to convince people they should just skip to level 1000. They have some success with the general public with this idea. They also have some success with people all along the way at the other levels because of their basic approach, innate quality and the ability of some of us to create hybrid systems with the gear.

Wilson also has some success with people all along the way at the other levels because of their basic approach, innate quality and the ability of some of us to create hybrid systems with the gear.

At shows, you can find systems targeting audiophiles at all stages of maturity, just like you can find audiophiles at all stages of maturity.

Here on the blog, we like rooms where the stage of the system, as a function of the price, makes it either a good deal [like Acoustic Zen speaker-based systems, or, lately it seems, like the Magico S1 speaker-based systems] or where the stage of the system is very high, unfortunately often commensurate with its very high price.

I like all the in-between stages, not just level 1000, because I think they are really fun and entertaining in ways that just plain great music is just… not.

And I would be willing to argue that from just experiencing some of these stages one learns how to reach deeper and deeper into reality and discovers several secrets about what it means to be alive and how to better enjoy existence. Certainly more so than the vast majority of things that people do for fun in their spare time. 🙂

Anyway, the choices exhibitors make when it comes to what stage of audiophiles to design their systems for is interesting and has many consequences, many of which are not at all clear.

Evaluating Gear using the Heart versus Mind Approach

Different than Warm versus Cold Sound

Looking at gear in terms of where it lies on the Heart < --- > Mind scale is different from comparing things based on their sound’s relative warmth or coldness. For one, we are talking about the effect on the listener and not some under-defined properties of the sound [typically 2nd harmonic distortion and plentiful micro-dynamics versus overly aggressive note attacks and/or flat note tops and minimal ability to render subtleties].

For another, we are removing any assessment of the quality of the sound. Sound quality is on a whole separate scale. We can talk about high-quality and low quality components and why they are of this quality completely separate from talking about whether they primarily target the heart of the listener or their mind.

How to Assess Basic Quality

How the component performs with respect to our 3 main mental Music Processors gives us a sense of the basic quality of a component [the other, Pattern Detecting/Matching Processors help us assess the drug-like possibilities of the component]

Our Believability Helper Processor

How much effort does our mind have to exert to convince us that the sound we are hearing is actually music. Typically non-audiophiles ignore how much effort they are putting into this processor and almost all audio gear sounds believable to them.

Our Whiteout Processor

How much of the sound is so bad that we have to completely erase as it is coming into our ears. This may vary for person to person: for me it is often the beginning of each note that I mentally erase when the sound is too aggressive. Hard to do this forever [more than a few seconds :-)] though.

Our Rainbow Processor

How much of our mental energy are we having to add to make the sound sound Grrrreat.

How to Assess General Location of a Component on the Heart versus Mind Scale

This is hard to put in words.

For me, I figure out which part of me is listening to the music. If it is mostly mental: hear that awesome note, hear that tight bass note, boy those chines sound so beautiful – then you know that the sound is appealing to your mind.

If you keep getting swept into the music, having to fight to ‘maintain’ your adult [cool, calm, collected] demeanor when others are around, a feeling of wanting to smile or cry or dance, then the sound is appealing to your heart.

Some gear doesn’t appeal to either Heart or Mind. This kind of gear is unappealing and one has to rely on one’s Rainbow Processor to make it appealing in some manner.

Usually the sound of a piece of gear is a combination of Heart and Mind and depends somewhat on one’s mood to start with, and also the particular piece being played [but not as much as one might think].

Building Systems

Usually we build systems for people that balance Mind and Heart, with good doses of both, unless they really have a preference one way or another. This is kind of like balancing a warm component with a cool component, except that it works independent of how warm or cool the components are [terms which are derogatory terms to many people] – instead addressing directly what affect the listener wants to achieve. For example, one can build a Mind-centric system composed completely of what some would call warm tube gear.


We apply this approach to the real-world and compare popular gear using their position on the Heart < -- > Mind scale.