Though hi-fi makes a very important contribution to the quality of my day, I haven’t written much about it lately. I don’t read Hi-Fi magazines, as I find it impossible to keep up with all the developments and equipment. I respect these magazines, who providing gainful employment for equipment reviewers, but I rarely relate to their choice of music for the review: wrong decade, or wrong genre, or both.
However one link brought me to a Hi-Fi article which really made me stop and think differently: big ideas, put with clarity and precision, which took my own somewhat jumbled up collection of anecdotes and prejudices and rearranged them to make perfect sense. Well at least I thought so, you are welcome to disagree, but I will share them anyway..
In an opinion piece by Peter Qvortrup, MD of Audio Note, one of Britains leading Hi Fi manufacturers, Qvortup sets out his view of trends in the quality of music reproduction over past decades. With so much written today about what’s new!, someone taking a longer historical and more critical view, to put things in context, is surprising and to some, controversial. No wonder some of the industry view Peter as “controversial”. I have reproduced the full article under the Vinyl Tech heading (to avoid future dead links!) but I decided it was interesting enough to raise its profile through a full post.
Declaration of Interest: I had the pleasure of dining with Peter a couple of years ago. He has an extraordinary intellect and ruthless commitment to improving sound quality. Listening to his home hi-fi in Hove was the most without doubt the best music reproduction I have ever heard, and I have heard quite a lot of high end systems: it was – searching for the right word – ravishing.
Visiting high-end Hi-Fi shows occasionally, I can honestly say, Audio Note have been the exhibitor that offered unrivalled sound quality, bar none. However it is Peter’s ideas, not his hi-fi gear that I want to muse on. Read the whole thing, or kick off with my potted summary, which is a bit more free-wheeling and discursive.
High Fidelity: Decades of Decline – Peter Qvortrup.
Qvortrup identifies five separate main strands in the chain of music reproduction. I think there is at least a sixth, Electricity Quality, and probably an even more important seventh, Listener Quality, but that is for another day.
I’ll summarise as follows: the music reproduction chain involves the interaction of these five independent variables – note: independent variables, they change irrespective of each other:
Recording Quality – the skills, techniques and tools employed by the likes of Van Gelder, Roy DuNann: quality of microphones, tape recording, mixing, mastering, everything up to the creation of the storage medium. The medium evolved through shellac 78 rpm, the microgroove LP, reel-to-reel and cassette tape, to Compact Disc, and finally digital files, of increasing resolution.
Playback Quality – the mechanical hardware that retrieves recorded sound (containing recording quality) from the storage medium, from the 1950’s large domestic radiogram with its heavy tone-arm and crude stylus, through to todays ultra-sophisticated turntables and micro-engineering, and of course, CD players, portable players, apple Macs, digital streaming devices, and the ubiquitous mobile phone. “Alexa, play me some music.” No. Play it yourself, you lazy sod.
Amplification Quality – the electrical components that amplify signals from their capture level to full sound listening levels. This follows the development of the original vacuum tube/valve, from triode to pentode design, through to the transistor and solid state circuitry, Qvortup claims massively over-engineered to support “specifications as a measure of sonic quality” (but which still manage to sound awful)
Loudspeaker Quality – the box construction and cones that convert the amplified music signal into physical moving air, through which we hear it. Interestingly, Qvortrup reckons speaker development peaked with the movie-theatre creations of the 1930s- 40s, and has gone down hill ever since. I have very inefficient speakers, which require powerful solid-state amplifiers to drive them. My poor choice, Linn, a company that has lost its way into multi-room distribution, and offered the worst sounding high-end system I have ever heard.
Software Quality – signal processing programs that reside in various parts of the musical reproduction chain. I don’t really understand how that works and the contribution it makes, but I assume Qvortrup does. Interestingly, software quality improves and then declines in sync with recording quality. A connection?
Qvortup has looked at what he considers the hi-fi industry’s “best” at each strand in the chain in each of the decades we have had recorded music. He has given it a retrospective relative quality score, from worst (zero) to best (ten) – a subjective judgement of course, from someone who has spent a lifetime in hi-fi development, which, to me, makes some intuitive sense.
In passing, Qvortrup listens mainly to classical music, in which there are many prized recordings and performances on vinyl, some of which cost more than the rarest Blue Notes. Reproducing orchestral music may have different requirements to small combo acoustic jazz, or indeed, drum and bass. Perhaps there is no one answer that fits all, but give it a try.
Here is his take on “progress”, the rise and fall in sound quality over the decades (I have turned his numbers chart into a graphical presentation)
Example: amplification “progress” – forget the “retro” tag, components became smaller, more portable and cheaper, but do they sound better? Do you know?
Industry Innovation Drivers
Improvement in quality of music reproduction is not necessarily a manufacturer’s main objective, though that may be what is claimed. For much of what passes for “progress”, the aim is to make a component more cheaply to improve cost and competitiveness, reduce size and weight to improve portability, reduce storage capacity requirements, add user control and convenience. Pursuit of these goals has often compromised sound quality, by an amount which manufacturers hope will go un-noticed by all but the most discerning and critical listeners. Possibly you value portability over sound quality, who is to say you are wrong?
At the end of the day, the hi-fi industry still has to “sell stuff”, so the illusion of progress is part of the deal, new improved, featuring technology previously found only in the top of the range model... and…State Of The Art…the new Mark IV, it’s a marketing treadmill.
What Does Qvortrup’s model tell us?
In any field, progress is rarely, if ever, linear and incremental. It may be static, or in decline, or a sudden new technology leads to big jump in sound quality, or indeed, a sudden fall in sound quality. Qvortrup also suggests that improvements in the quality of some strands actually masks the decline in the quality of other strands. A big idea.
The progress chart suggests that , for example, we are now better today at replaying music, which over time is being more poorly-recorded. That is certainly true of quite a few modern recordings I have heard, particularly where compression/ loudness and “brick-wall” filters have been applied in processes. It is rare to find any modern recording after the ’80s that sounds good in comparison to previous decades. Your experience may vary, but I stand by mine.
It also implies that we can take the best of any decade of a strand and apply to it the best of another decades’s output, to optimise overall quality, pick and mix, for example, play the best engineered 1950s-60s recordings on modern super-quality turntables, with vintage valve amplification. How’s that for confirmation bias? The only thing I am now to look for are a pair of 1940’s movie theatre speakers: it has to be a winning combination.
The Debate: Reader Comments
Thoughtful comments are posted to the Part-time Audophile site reprint, naturally some in disagreement. I have no problem with disagreement, all points of view should be taken into account, even wrong ones.
Qvortrup has generalised his categories and scores in order to bring some shape into the big picture. There is always going to be the occasional exception that deviates from the general truth, but exceptions are just that.. In my view Qvortup’s picture is a working hypothesis that is useful. It makes good sense, or perhaps fits well with my prejudices.
Some commenters seem upset by the suggestion that recording quality peaked in the ’50s and ’60s, an idea which tends to upset modern recording engineers as it devalues their achievements. However, their feelings are not necessarily facts. I don’t know what they have been listening to, but I reckon even Van Gelder recordings in the ’80s are well below par with his recordings in the ’60s.
Equally challenging is the claim that 16/44 CD is much better than it sounds, (potentially) but requires massive and costly improvement in the playback transport and software to realise that potential, which is not within the scope of common commercial hi-fi CD players. I believe that. I have heard a demonstration at an exhibition of an Audio Note CD player, and I swear it actually sounded alongside the best “analog” I have ever heard (shook head in amazement)
Particularly of interest is Qvortrup’s opinion of the pursuit of ever higher resolution digital files to improve sound quality, beyond red book standard 16/44, to 24/192 or 24/384, which he sees as a blind alley because resolution alone doesn’t address more fundamental problems earlier in the reproduction chain (I think that is what he means).
Hi Fi Forums weigh in on technical progress
Applying Qvortrup’s historical perspective of Decades of Decline, a lot of the debate on-line between “tube-people” and “solid state people”, or analogue vs digital, seems based on music poorly recorded in the digital age. They are judging the “quality of vinyl” and recording, based on current production standards, not peak quality, which they have never heard. They are judging it on equipment of indifferent ability to reproduce sound, which they do not recognise.. So you can see how someone could write this:
“Sorry man, but vinyl is the absolute most compressed and limited medium on the market. ….
My cellphone has a lower noise floor, less distortion, and better dynamic range than any turntable I’ve ever heard…
You’re not going to find a guy less sold on vinyl than me. I’ve heard it. I genuinely don’t like it. I hardly grew up with it and never learned to look past it’s glaring failures to see redeeming virtues…
I’ll never look at anything but lossless digital as the best”.
Abundantly opinionated but with no tangible points of reference. He is not stupid, just uninformed, a young closed mind, “and don’t you think you can persuade me otherwise”. I don’t follow hi-fi forums, other than as a reminder that half the population is of below average intelligence, by the definition of “average”, a statistical fact. The rest of the debate on Audiogon is painful but popcorn-demanding.
So that’s it for now, I needed a change from spinning ideas, back to spinning disks. Does any of this make sense to you? People come from different directions, often to justify choices they have made, rather than pursue improvement, which can be expensive or painful or both. It makes sense to me, but what do I know?
The floor is yours.