Back: to The Audiophile Index
(with apologies to Robert Pirsig)
I assume you love listening to music. Perhaps, like me, you like music sounding at its best.
Unless you listen only to live performance in concert hall or studio, you are listening to music as recorded and sound as reproduced. At its best, it should sound like the original experience of “being there” but rarely does, unless you take positive steps to overcome the many factors which degrade the original quality of sound. All sound is not equal.
What is “Sound Quality”?
In practice, sound quality is the difference between a disengaging, flat and lifeless sound, and one which engages and draws an emotional response from you. It can cause the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck, your eyes well up with emotion, your feet tapping or your feet still. The song composition and the notes are (more or less) the same in either case. The difference is due to the quality of the sound. Here is a blogger who does not “get it”. He believes something called “music” exists independent of the quality of sound.
Knowledge of catalogue numbers, record labels and matrix codes is necessary because these are signposts to the best quality of recorded sound, which derive from being the closest possible to the original performance, with the least degradation in the sound signal. They distinguish first pressings from subsequent pressings, originals from reissues, early reissues from later reissues, and good recordings from bad ones.
The importance of the Sound Engineer
The best quality of sound is no accident. It starts with the engineer, who is as important as the musicians themselves. Engineers decided the make, model, number and positioning of microphones, managed the recording process itself, and finally transferred the recorded music from tape to a master acetate via a cutting lathe. The engineer needed to have empathy with the style of music being recorded if they were to make the right artistic decisions. Legendary engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, Tom Dowd, Richard Bock, Fred Plaut, and Roy DuNann assured the quality of sound etched into the groove. Their name on the credits tells you you can expect an exciting listening experience.
The importance of analog information
Historically, the recording technology of modern jazz was dependent on valves and tapes. Every component and process was analogue : physical continuous signal, not digital sampled signal, which is one of the main reasons for its retained ”quality”. Digitally sampled sound results in information loss, typically the smallest elements of the attack and decay of notes, ambience and transients. Transistors, solid state circuitry and finally end to end digital music production and the (evil) silver disc, in combination, results in a deficient copy of the original performance. Many modern vinyl pressings sound no better than CDs, because, in most respects, that is what they are: a CD, pressed onto vinyl. In my experience, unfortunately, they generally sound worse. The vinyl version is a futher generation away from the original – a copy of a copy.
Good-sounding vinyl records, made before 1975…
The vinyl groove is best possible medium for storing and retrieving musical information, apart perhaps from the original recording tape. Things went badly wrong some time around the mid-seventies, after the oil price rise of 1973 sent up the cost of vinyl, which was then being used to press millions of records. Economies at the vinyl pressing stage undid much of the good engineering, such as vinylite being cut with impure recycled vinyl to reduce cost, reduced vinyl thickness, excessive numbers pressed before changing stampers, and insufficiently frequent quality sample checks . Original Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse! Riverside and Contemporary pressings are for the most part great musical experiences (Though Bob Weinstock of Prestige reputedly farmed out pressing on a lowest cost basis, with sometimes less than satisfactory results). Reissues in the Seventies and Eighties by Capitol/EMI, Fantasy/Berkley, Atlantic/Warner, ABC Impulse and Polydor are in the main, universally poor, dull pressings, not worth even the few pounds they cost.
The importance of the Hi Fi
Finally, a record from fifty years ago reaches your hands. To extract all that musical information written into the groove requires good Hi Fi equipment. Counter-intuitively, the better the Hi Fi, the more invisible it becomes, and the more you can effortlessly focus on and follow the music. Hi Fi can not sound good – only music can do that. This is the Zen moment. The best Hi Fi ”merely” faithfully replays what was recorded. Contrary to this pretty innacurate article in The Economist: It is not “warm” or “cold”, or clinical. It should be entirely neutral and transparent and allow you access to 100% of what was recorded, as it sounded with the musicians in the room.
Importance of the turntable.
One component makes more difference to sound quality than all the others put together: the turntable. Amplifiers and speakers can only work with the information they are given. Retrieving a signal engraved in the groove wall of a revolving plastic disc requires absolute rotational steadfastness of the turntable, physical sensitivity to one thousandth the thickness of a human hair captured by the tiny cartidge stylus and its coils, and amplifying this microscopically small signal to become moving air. There are many physical forces to be managed – the constantly varying drag of the stylus in the groove against the rotation of platter, the isolation of components from vibrations in their immediate environment, tiny variations in the stability of electrical supply to the motor, acoustic feedback from the speakers through the floor supporting the staging supporting the turntable, the list is a long one.
Sadly, cheap components do not deliver high quality sound, though the law of diminishing returns applies to HiFi as it does to most everything else in life, except wives. Any weakness at this stage will go on to be magnified by amps and speakers, as will a bad recording or pressing, in all its awfulness. Vintage hifi can not do the job.
Arriving at high quality sound system
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is sound. Unfortunately there is no scientific assurance of “good sound”, only the subjective test of your ears. Auditioning equipment requires developing confidence in tapping into your emotional response to the music. Some music-lovers become lost at this point because they have not yet learned to trust their ears, and seek the comfort of authority. They seek scientific evidence, electrical test charts, and expert reviews. Others put trust in dealers, and hope that buying expensive equipment will guarantee them quality, .
Building your own knowledge of what works
As well as all the paid-for sources of information, and dealer advice, one source of hopefully “independent advice” is in enthusiasts forums. But not in Hi Fi. Unfortunately these tend to be plagued with trolls, who spread fear of ridicule aimed at would-be improvement effort, especially fear some “charlatan” might be making money out of you. Most online forums are haunted by
trolls experts such as these -
HiFi forum trolls never have any experiences to share, because they have never tried these things for themselves, because they “know” they don’t work. Their idea of a great day is typing “You are wrong because you are stupid“ insults. The only way to know what difference anything makes is to try it. Then you are entitled to an opinion, bearing in mind what works for you may not work for someone else and vice versa. Even then, if you apply a tweak to an insensitive unbalanced system it won’t sound any better, indeed it may show up weaknesses elsewhere.
Nothing is certain. Until such time as you know everything, uncertainty is probably as good as it gets ( LJC)
Your Hi Fi journey starts here
Here is my plan. First accept you may have to say good bye to old and loved equipment. They can not take you where you want to go. You can upgrade incrementally, but that will slow down your journey. Buy the best component separates system you can sensibly afford. I chose an Avid turntable and Linn amplification, but there are many other good specialist hifi manufacturers. Ignore luxury consumer brands of hifi like Bang & Olufson. Where possible, audition equipment as a start point, but start you must, somewhere.
It all starts with the source. The best return on investment is the turntable, then arm and cartridge, followed by a separate pre-amplifier and power amplifier - not an integrated amplifier. And last of all, speakers. Forget about upgrading the components for a long long time. Out of the box, you are almost certainly not hearing a fraction of what your chosen equipment is capable of. Improve power supply, interconnects, cables, system supports, even “small” components such as fuses, whatever your budget will run to. I have heard a £3 fuse make more difference than a £4,000 component, fine tuning the Vertical Tracking Angle transform a system, for nothing. Price is only loosely correlated with value. That precious tiny signal needs looking after.
The importance of electricity
Household mains electricity is “dirty” and dirt flows through your system alongside the music signal unless you take steps to “clean” it. Starting with clean power will enable your components to work only with the sound that should be there and not what shouldn’t. When you are amplifying only pure music signal you can play louder because you are not also amplifying “rubbish”. Everything will fall into place. Rhythm and timing will make music come alive. Bass becomes “musical” instead of dance-floor boom, piano will sound like piano, and the human voice may break your heart. It is a journey worth making.
Assume nothing, be open to try anything, let your ears be your guide. Everything is a variable, which can make things better or worse, or make no difference. Value your experience – it is a trustworthy friend. Learn to ignore your worst enemy – your expectations. Have fun. Trust your ears. That simple, and that difficult.
Or maybe you are still grappling with the CD or Vinyl frontier..?