While the show’s name is the Consumer Electronics Show, it’s actually a trade show not generally open to the consuming public (although at every CES some industrious consumers find a way in). At CES 2014, however, I thought it would be interesting to ask some veterans of the high-performance audio industry what they would, if they could, impress on those not in attendance, be they music lovers, established audiophiles, or aspiring newbies. These folks have seen it all -- I wanted to find out what wrongs they would try to right, what insights they’d like to pass along, what advice they might offer. While their range of responses was fairly wide, they developed into several key themes. Without further ado, I turn it over to the experts.
Trust your own ears
Paul Barton (PSB Speakers; Lenbrook Group): In judging and making sonic decisions about what you want to buy or what you don’t want to buy, trust your own judgment. In my experience with doing these double-blind screen tests with listeners -- both experienced and inexperienced listeners -- they all come up with the same answer. But many of the inexperienced listeners dismiss their ability to do that. We need to tell people that they, in fact, can make good sound judgments. One hint: Try to bring along some familiar source material. That will get you a long way into the process through which to make good sonic decisions.
Desmond Harrington (Pass Labs): Listen with your ears -- not your wallet, not the magazines. Actually sit down and listen. Don’t be on the never-ending upgrade merry-go-round. Many are always chasing the next “better.” Sometimes the next better isn’t better. If you have a system that you like and is well balanced, but you think you should have better speakers or a better amplifier, and you change that one thing, it may not work anymore. You’ve moved passed the synergy and you are now on this rapid chase to get back to where you were. You had a system you liked, you listened to music, you liked it -- but something (a magazine, a buddy, or something else) got you to change it, had you doubting, and all of a sudden you’re in a spiral. If you’re lucky, you’ll get back to where you were. But sometimes people get frustrated and shut down the entire system, which is the worst possible thing. Enjoy what you have, live with it, and never change more than one thing at a time. Go slow -- it’s not a race, but a hobby you should enjoy.
Alon Wolf (Magico): I’d like people to better understand how two-channel audio, and the products themselves, actually work -- instead of simply reacting to it emotionally, to understand more what goes into and the engineering behind the products, and why they sound the way they sound.
Andrew Jones (TAD; Pioneer): Trust your own judgment and be happy in it. Many people get this idea that they can’t hear the differences and would never think of spending that much because they can’t hear why it is better. They are wrong. They’ve been led to believe they can’t hear a difference because they are not interested in the equipment. But they are interested in music. You don’t have to be a hi-fi enthusiast to hear the differences in the way various systems musically present information. You may ask people for recommendations to narrow the field, but then, when you go and listen, trust yourself. No matter what someone else may have said, the question is, what do you prefer? Listen for yourself and trust your own judgment. If you keep questioning yourself, you are never going to enjoy the system. And once you’ve bought it, forget about what else might be out there, at least for now.
Jim White (Aesthetix Audio): You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get radically improved audio in your home. Look for the inexpensive products that are available from companies with a high-performance mentality and that are radically better than what you would get by simply walking into Best Buy.
Your dealer is your friend
Richard Vandersteen (Vandersteen Audio): I’d like people to understand the true value of having a really good consultant, a dealer who is making great sound, who loves and knows music, and helps customers put stuff together that works. I’ve traveled the world and heard systems that were just awful, despite nothing but “A”-rated stuff in them, because nobody was responsible to make sure that all of it worked together in the room. The resulting sound has been bleak while the investment has often been astronomical.
David Gordon (Audio Research; Fine Sounds Group): Here’s the short answer: Buy the speakers according to the room, the electronics according to the speakers, and get the best source equipment you can to play the formats you actually have and listen to. But how do you know what to buy? That’s the long answer.
If you go back 20 or 30 years, people read the reviews and they would too often buy off the reviews, picking one item from column A, one from column B, etc. A lot of times these things wouldn’t work well together. You can’t assume they will, unless they are all from one manufacturer. You really need to trust a retailer, even though people are trying to get away from retailers. They think the retailer is only in it to take their money. Of course a retailer is in business to sell audio equipment, but a smart retailer is looking for the long-term relationship. He wants to make sure you get what you need. He can sit with you and listen, look at your plans for your room, see what you have to work with. He can tell how loud you listen, what you listen to, and what trade-offs you are willing to make. We’re all looking for the sonic grail, but there are so many different tastes. Otherwise, how can you reconcile Quad ELS and Infinity IRS speakers 20 years ago, or Quads and Magicos today? They are totally different.
Customers call us up all the time and want answers. They ask “What should I buy?” We don’t know what you should buy. You can have whatever budget you want, but telling me what you are looking for over the phone doesn’t help me to help you. I need to sit with you and listen to figure out what you like. We’re all willing to make different trade-offs. What is your room like? One person values air and detail and transparency, another wants soundstaging, a third may want great bass, while a fourth demands coherence over any particular attribute. I always joke that no sane person actually wants to buy a tubed product, because why would you want to buy anything that will require maintenance down the road and will cost you money (you can’t simply turn it on and forget about it forever)? You do it because it’s compelling. But some people don’t want to live that way.
Twenty years ago, people read the reviews and they talked. Now they go online -- and there is more misinformation online than anywhere else. They go to these forums and, based on what may have worked for some person in a particular setup, they think they know what something sounds like from reading about it or listening to their buddy. It doesn’t work that way. You really need to buy what is going to work for you. Going back to the retailer, the dealer will work within a budget, will know what components work together, and the key is that he wants to keep you coming back -- to him! He’s like a drug dealer. He is going to sell you a preamp, DAC, or system now, and he wants you to come back in five years to upgrade. But if he takes the time, he knows where you are coming from and what you are looking for, and will make sure you stay headed in the right direction to find it. He also wants you to get your friends into the store, because he helped you put together a great system.
Seek out products of value and know what you’re getting
Alex Brinkman (Ayre Acoustics): I’d like everyone to know how much it actually costs to make what we make happen. I mean cost in every possible way, shape, or form of the term, the least of which is money. I mean effort, I mean passion, I mean time -- I mean the availability of persons to perform the task of building what we build, servicing and upgrading our products over time, and providing dealer and customer support.
Gordon Rankin (Wavelength Audio): Quality! Too often, consumers don’t even look for quality these days. Instead, they look for what bells and whistles a product has . . . and then they want more and more features, which means the quality decreases. That is something they really need to understand.
Rich Maez (Boulder Amplifiers): A lot of people don’t know that Boulder is the last one to do everything itself. We cut the metal, we make the circuit boards, we do the engineering, we do the assembly. Nothing is outsourced except anodizing. Even the bead blasting, finishing, and engraving -- it’s all done by us. We have complete control of our quality and production methods. That is essential to us, both for fit and finish and for the sound quality of our products. A lot of people are familiar only with Boulder’s big-price-tag items, but that same quality trickles down to our smaller stuff, and they don’t know we make gear that is a lot more affordable. All of it, everything, is done in-house. For people who aren’t aware of what we do as an industry, I’d say don’t be intimidated by all the technologicalspeak, don’t be intimidated by elitists who claim you need to have a certain amount of knowledge to get it. If you have an appreciation for music -- or high-quality movie sound, which makes a huge impact on the presentation of a movie -- it is worth looking into something like our high-performance audio products.
Bruno Putzeys (Mola-Mola; Hypex; Grimm): As I’ve progressed, I’ve actually found that many of the ideas people have regarding technical performance vs. subjective performance are a bit wrong footed. A meme I hear constantly repeated is that the only thing that matters is what it sounds like. While that, of course, is absolutely true, it is then used to excuse rather mediocre measured performance. Whereas, it is my experience -- confirmed by every new thing I do -- that when you get into really high measured performance, really low distortion, super-low noise, then the ultimate subjective sound quality starts improving and continues to improve. At some point you will find that a product that measures absolutely perfectly under an extensive battery of measurement tests will sound a lot better than a product with more typical high-end audio performance that has been tuned by ear for years. With these products that have been tuned by ear, you get a coloration, and then they will try to tweak circuit values and types of components to counterbalance this coloration, and it works to a degree, as such products can sound very well balanced. However, if you contrast an ear-tuned product with, say, a phono stage that has absolutely no measurable distortion at all, the ear-tuned one is really just a jumble of inconsistencies. Whereas the one that measures really, really perfectly has at least the same level of neutrality, but it does so effortlessly, without having to convince you, and is so much more real and elegant sounding.
The upshot is that measurements do matter. The way you should translate this into a development process is not to listen and tweak your circuits, but rather to measure and adjust, measure and adjust, and then listen. If at that point something sounds off or not quite working, you ask yourself “What did I fail to measure, what did I miss?” Actually, you calibrate by ear your set of measurements and the methods by which you measure, but you optimize your circuit by measurement. That is much more logical. If you take out your soldering iron to replace a resistor, ultimately the choice you make has to be based on something technical, something electronic, and the measurements will tell you exactly what it is. Otherwise you can keep swapping out parts until the cows come home and you won’t have improved your understanding of what is happening.
More strongly, if you take science to the absolute limit and cross-check your scientific, technical procedures with what you are hearing, to make sure you’re not forgetting anything, the purely technical road in the end will yield a circuit that really sounds better than what you can get by mere philosophy and tuning parts. Start shooting for fantastically low distortion, fantastically low noise. I just hope that both consumers and my colleagues become more confident and trusting of science and measurement. Once you do start to fundamentally understand your circuits -- because you know how to measure what you are listening for and what you are hearing -- it is hugely empowering, and you can’t help but become a better designer.
Yair Tammam (Magico Speakers): The problem is that people are judging things subjectively, without recognizing that the human brain does not have aural memory -- it just doesn’t have it. So I can fool anybody, including myself, because of looks, because of public relations, pedigree, and marketing. You cannot spec a speaker made out of plastic or MDF on the same level as a speaker made out of aluminum. This is all part of the product. Customers need to look critically at the product and see what is actually there. You cannot compare speakers that use lower-grade, commercially available drivers against something that is at the very top end of the industry as far as componentry and build structure are concerned.
Almost without exception, audio journalism fails to identify poor design and limitations -- they say “It’s all good, it’s all good” -- that’s just wrong. It is not all good. This would never happen in automotive journalism. There is no fear in the automotive press. If they don’t like something, they say so. And guess what? The car companies respond, and make things better. This “It’s all good” reporting kills the industry, because the price proposition varies from company to company -- some companies don’t care how much it actually costs to manufacture their products, they simply tag prices on them. So you are not comparing the real value of the product [based on its cost of manufacture -- Ed.], you are comparing the MSRP that was invented by the company.
For example, I saw a tubed amplifier, not very big and just 26 kilos, priced at €120,000. How can you make such a thing and charge €120,000? There is no correlation between manufacture cost and price -- no value. The industry suffers because, if you go to a consumer who is not an audiophile, and they look at the reviews and they are “It’s all good,” with no clear performance differentiation in the reviews, and you have multiple products that MSRP the same but have vastly different amounts of observable technology, quality of componentry, quality of materials, you can come to the conclusion that the industry itself is a joke.
To the customer: see what you are getting. The value is not in the MSRP. There are good examples that are not Magico, such as B&W, PSB, Paradigm (all fairly priced loudspeakers) -- you can see where the money goes, into materials, into research and development. If you can find a tin can and a ball of string that sound as good as our speakers, fine, buy it -- but don’t pay an inflated amount for it. Pay $100. The price should correspond to the cost. Look for the real cost of things to determine value.
The importance of the room
Laurence Dickie (Vivid Audio): In my particular field of loudspeakers, I have been reminded of the importance of the room and the fact that you can do something about it. We had an environment with a really problematic reflection from a hard-backed wall which was causing a cancellation (as well as causing resonances that were a secondary issue to the initial cancellation), and it was just killing the bottom end. Persuading the decision maker to actually invest in the time and resources to treat the back wall was a bit of an uphill struggle. But the transformation to the acoustics in that room was more than any improvement to any part of the rest of the audio chain. I was convinced that fixing the room was the answer to the problem, although the customer was seriously considering upgrading amplifiers, or going from a Vivid Giya G3 loudspeaker to a G1. While always perfectly happy to sell our bigger speakers, I told him that, “Actually, I think that if you are talking about use of resources, really sorting out this room would probably be the money best spent.” In the end, with the addition of a rock-wool absorber curtain 300mm from the back wall, that acoustic environment was so completely sorted out that you can’t imagine the change. It reminded me how important it is that people sort out their room acoustic, and how economical it can be.
John DeVore (DeVore Fidelity): Don’t judge any single component in any of these systems by what you’re hearing in these rooms [at CES or other shows -- Ed.]. The best-sounding rooms are going to be the ones that have the best setup guy. The worst-sounding rooms are going to be the ones where nobody was paying attention -- especially at CES. Take, for instance, the system in a room set up for a DAC. While the system will play, no attention may be paid to how good it sounds. The focus is on the DAC -- to show what different formats it will play, the sampling frequencies, the streaming options, etc. That is what the setup was about. A consumer might not understand that, but for the distributor or dealer who will come in, they want to see how it works, understand the specifications, and make their order. They won’t sit down and listen. For a speaker manufacturer it is a little different, because you’re showing off your speakers.
Nate Manfield (Kimber Kable): When shopping for components, with a dealer or online, you’ve got to try it in your own system. If you can’t try it, don’t buy it. You don’t even know what question to ask until you try it in your room. That is your reference -- only there can you draw a line in the sand to determine if it makes an improvement or not.
Don’t worry so much
Wayne Colburn (Pass Labs): Sometimes folks really worry about cables an awful lot, and what we at Pass Labs use for that interface. I think that, 90% of the time, it is not really that much of an issue. Another thing is an obsession over volume-control settings, worrying that it is set “too high.” We’re OK with that -- high is good, you want to be in that range [i.e., close to unity gain, maximal dynamic range, and minimal noise -- Ed.].
. . . Peter Roth