High Fidelity: Decades of Decline

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.

LJC Summary

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.

 

 

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41 thoughts on “High Fidelity: Decades of Decline

  1. The only point I really disagree with here is the guy who seemed to imply that “Enjoying the Music” was NOT what is really important.

  2. In the comments section for the original article, at one point Qvortrup says this:

    “Over the last few years I have had my fair share of recording and mastering engineers and well known musicians through my music room and so far none have disagreed with me, so be my guest.”

    It’s comments like this that make it seem that while someone says they value different opinions and experiences, that in reality they actually believe that their way of experiencing things is objectively “right” or “correct”. Basically, you need to hear his system or a comparable one to hear “the truth of audio”.

  3. Wow. There is so much to untangle in all this. There were so many ideas expressed in both pieces I find it difficult to extract a general point here, though try I will.

    I appreciate that Qvortup emphasized that he did not mistake his opinion for fact, and I’m glad he did because I can think of several ways to create valid counterarguments to his views on the history of technological progress in audio.

    I wholeheartedly believe there is truth in the idea that quality has been compromised over the last five decades while large audio companies have ‘awoken’ to the realization that they can increase profits in doing so. I also agree that a lot of new technology is introduced with ‘better’ specs that only provide a very marginal ‘improvements’ if any, and only in certain very specific circumstances. But what exactly is the point here? After all of Qvortup’s ‘analysis’, the point really seems to just be ‘old stuff is better’, and I say this fully aware that he seems to believe that playback equipment and amplification is better than ever, because it seems to me that his real focus in the piece, emphasized here by LJC, is that certain aspects of the playback process like speakers, media (“software”), and recording quality have declined over the past five decades. Hopefully Qvortup’s goal was simply to point out these shortcomings, because if a solution to that problem was proposed I did not pick up on it. That’s a perfectly fine opinion to offer, though I personally don’t see much of a point in trying to make it into some sort of technical analysis that falls very far short of any sort of objectivity.

    I’m just not going to get into the plethora of valid counterarguments to his opinions, there are so many. I think you hit the nail on the head, LJC, when you said that Qvortup’s opinion “fits well with [your] prejudices”, and I question the article’s utility beyond its cheerleading for various things vintage including vinyl and speakers.

    Rich DG Mono

    • Old stuff IS better though, that’s the point. All of the best gear was already manufactured by 1960. What are your plethora of counterarguments, I’d be curious to hear them.

      • Ethel said, “Old stuff IS better though, that’s the point. All of the best gear was already manufactured by 1960. What are your plethora of counterarguments, I’d be curious to hear them.”

        Modern audio devices are universally better than almost anything designed and built in the 1960s or earlier. By better I mean in every way one can define fidelity. So that means modern devices are quieter, have a flatter response, and less distortion. Often by a factor of ten or more. Even loudspeakers, which have always been the weakest link (after the listening room), have become vastly better in the past 10-15 years. The fourth aspect of fidelity, time-based errors, is also better today. Back in the 1960s record players (or the records themselves) often had audible amounts of wow, and analog tape recorders suffered from two types of flutter. Compare that to modern digital devices with jitter so minuscule it’s never EVER an audible problem.

        Ethel, I have no idea where you get your information from, but you need to find a better source to learn from.

        • A speaker having flatter response and less distortion does not mean it sounds better. A lot of modern companies emphasize flat response and soundstage at the cost of compressed dynamics. Also, what “vintage” speakers are you comparing them to? I’m talking about the high end broadcast gear by the likes of Altec/Western Electric. What does your system comprise of Ethan? You sound like the kind of guy that listens to pink noise all day.

          • When all you have is insults, you already lost the argument. 😦

            I’m always amazed at people who like to think they care about audio and music, but show amazingly little understanding of how either works. Then when you try to educate them they insult you! Clearly “Ethel” has no real understanding about how audio fidelity is defined and assessed.

            • oh gimme a break, I already said my piece and if you can’t muster a response then that just proves you have a fragile ego.

  4. Nah I’m not watching that video. I don’t think you can just use frequency response as the barometer for which to judge technological advancement with loudspeakers. It’s still a crude measurement that doesn’t exist in a vacuum and I’ve heard many many loudspeakers that looked good on paper and then sounded like shit. Also everything distorts

  5. Ethan Winer included a LOL in his comment, so I was already feeling a bit dismissive of him, but then looked him up and he has some credentials. I have also heard Tim De Paravicini express a few similar observations about the demise of hi fi design that Peter Q made. It is mostly in the interest of people in the industry today that current design is superior, but having heard loads of equipment, I have opted for a heavily modified vintage turntable with Phono stage, pre and power amps made by an audio designer for recording studios (like Ethan himself appears to be) with sixties speakers. I liked the 50s Quad ESL 57’s even more, especially as a stacked pair, but my family situation does not allow me to indulge myself to the maximum. Apart from the speaker compromise (and I love my old Kefs more than all the modern speakers I have heard) I would go for horns and valves if I had the space time and money as well, my last A/B. I have swapped stuff in and out of my system for 30 years to be this content with it. Room tuning does make sense, and loads more difference than cables. I am with you LJC on clean electricity, but it partly depends on if you live somewhere with surges in the supply. Some people would live somewhere where the supply is even and high quality so a conditioning device would add very little. The thing about Ethan and Peter’s views is you just get to choose your Guru. I see loads of sense in you having gone to Peter’s house and heard his system with some quality acoustic music through it. I went to a guys house who had spent a quarter of a million on a system with avant garde trio horns and it sounded overblown on everything except rock to me. I think the point about recording quality is mixed, as yes I adore all those valve amp driven recordings of the 50s and 60s , but then in the 70s a new audio engineer rises to the top for me in the shape of Jan Erik Kongshaug. His work is astonishing. There is though, a proliferation of awful recordings and there is very few people making hi fi equipment today whose first principle is to make it sound its very best. The guiding principle in hi fi for the majority of companies is sourcing the cheapest components they can get away with using whilst charging as much as possible. The scale of units sold has collapsed to such an extent that the economies of scale of the old days have just gone.

    • Ethan’s LOL was quite rightly used. Look at the graph above. Audio software/software quality is on the graph at 1910. LOL.

      • I think quite a lot of people on this forum base their audio equipment decisions on the type of music they plan to listen to, which is often older lps, so we want to extract the information in the grooves in the most pleasing listen. I have done the flicking of the pre amp between 78s. lps and cds of Charlie Parker with fellow jazz fans, and the 78s sounded best, the cds worst. As for “popular movie orchestral sound tracks ” its the kind of crap audiophiles with poor taste choose to judge systems by. My situation is the reverse of that sometimes, I am looking for the best sound from my early 50s lps, so a mono cart and a valve phone stage can sound better than a high end system which gives loads of surface noise off lps like that. I keep trying cds ever since the 80s, they are just not as engaging a listen, whatever the measuring equipment claims.

  6. I have to add that “electricity quality” as a factor in audio fidelity is ridiculous, unless maybe you live in a third world country. And the one thing that matters more than anything, other than the source, and is at least as important as what loudspeakers you have, isn’t mentioned at all: There’s not one word about acoustic treatment, or the fact that good modern listening rooms are designed with acoustics in mind. Versus the typical high-end audiophile living room setup with $50,000 worth of “gear,” but the speakers are off-center, the couch is directly in front of a hard reflecting wall, with no bass traps or other treatment.

    • Electricity quality is definitely a factor! If you have never used an AC electricity cleaner, you won’t believe it! I live in Switzerland (hardly a 3rd world country!) and the amount of noise and hiss coming from the mains directly into my system is easily measurable just with my own ears! Even my LCD TV picture has more noise if I don’t use an AC mains noise cleaner!
      If you have never experienced this yourself, you won’t understand that it is a real problem!

  7. That graph is exactly backwards for pretty much every category. Loudspeakers are vastly better today than even 10-15 years ago. Same for amplifiers and most other electronics. Who writes is nonsense?

      • Supporting evidence for what? That speakers are much better today than they were in the 1930s? That amplifiers really weren’t worse in the 1970s as some people believe? The entire graph is nonsense. LOL, what audio software was used in the 1910s? And what does Recording Quality even mean? Media today is vastly better than anything used in the 1950s, with CDs and even high bit-rate MP3s besting analog tape and vinyl in every way one could possibly assess fidelity. I’ll grant that big-band and orchestra music was recorded (mic’d) better than many amateur bedroom hip-hop productions today. But by and large, major modern productions such as popular movie orchestral sound tracks sound much better than what was done in the old days.

        The real point is we have enough fake news in the world, and nonsense like this should be shunned and ridiculed, not published. If you’d like a lesson in how audio really works, and what really matters, this hour-long video will give you a college-level education:

      • Loudspeakers are better in the usual ways fidelity is defined. The main ones are frequency response and distortion, though with speakers there’s also off-axis response. You really should watch the video I linked earlier. It addresses all of this stuff in great detail.

  8. Thought-provoking post, thank you. It set me thinking also because I teach history of jazz and play back a lor of music to the students. The Conservatory provides a good quality playback system, nothing earth shattering, but I plug there my laptop with a dedicated usb soundcard to listen to lossess, sometimes high definition files. Students – musicians – are constantly amazed of the quality of sound, because for them “listening” is a youtube video on the telephone. They say “it sounds better than music recorded today” almost every lesson, because they genuinely think that a telephone can do everything better than anything did before, and they are shocked of the discovery that it is not true.

  9. “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..”

    But isn’t that exactly what opponents to CDs and digital recordings do? Judge CDs only by the worst sounding, brick-walled examples? Are digital recordings inherently loud and brick-walled? Most certainly not. Do fantastic sounding, uncompressed and well mastered CDs exist? Absolutely. So why not judge those by peak quality? Instead, most criticism towards those is based on the assumption that digital recordings or mediums compress the recordings. That’s not true. It’s a choice made during recording and/or mastering. Digital mastering allows for more compression and limiting, but it’s not a necessity. If engineers could do the same while cutting vinyl, they would have done it 60 years ago, in pursuit of the best possible s/n ratio. Anyway, I just mean to say: let’s not apply double standards.

    • Sound engineers did use compression & limiting 60 years ago. Back them it was even more important than today to get a good signal to noise ratio in order to reduce tape hiss. In digital recordings it’s much easier to have a good clean recording without compressing too much but today most commercial music is mastered to sound good on laptop & phone speakers, hence the loudness wars & no dynamic range.

  10. First of all, what Peter is expressing here is nothing new and certainly not a “big idea.” Many “industry” people have been making these observations and criticisms for years, especially those that championed the triode renaissance in the 80s and early 90s. So for you to imply that this is some revelatory finding is lazy and irresponsible on your part. Also, I find it funny that in an article that does not mention van gelder or dunann by name that you somehow find a way to shoehorn both of them into this writeup. There have been many talented, brilliant engineers and for you to keep fetishizing blue note and van gelder is really boring. I’m also surprised the “author” doesn’t talk about sound stage and imaging as factors in the direction of hifi design and consumption.

    • Qvortrup: ” I started writing this discussion piece in the first half of the 1990s”,…

      So nothing new then, in his own words, he started writing this piece over 20 years ago. I’m an Electricity Quality guy myself, know very little about Hi-Fi, a late starter I’m afraid, so it’s big to me, but as I say, all views welcome.

    • I found the tone of these comments unnecessarily rude. Obviously all comments are welcome, but civility helps.

  11. LJC, yourself and no doubt, thousands of others, have spent thousands on hi-fi equipment and everything that goes with getting the “best sound”. I’m not knocking that. I just find it a pointless endeavour. Just buy the records, cds, cassettes or downloads, and just enjoy them.

    There’s a video on YouTube of Miles Davis playing So What, in a tv studio. It has been watched 16,459,584 times.

    I’ve watched it myself a few times. I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve watched it, even on my mobile. That’s all that counts at the end of the day right?

    Just enjoy the music.

      • Searching for the “best sound” in an home environment really is a pointless endeavour. You’ll never be able to get what you’re searching for. Especially in a Victorian house in 2019. Furthermore, even if you managed to get the “best sound”, whatever that is, within six months there’ll be a better version of part x available. Not only that, you’ve spent a fortune on your system, wiring, electrics etc and when you’ve put the needle on the record, you sit down, and you hear a car/bus go by outside your house.

        Pointless endeavour.

        • This seems ignorant. I got what I’ve been “searching for” ten years ago and never looked back. Unlike so many audiophiles, I never fell into the vicious cycle of constant upgrades. The key difference between me and most audiophiles is I know what matters for audio quality and what doesn’t matter. So I don’t waste money on “wires” and “power” products or expensive components, but I did focus very much on room acoustics and speaker placement.

          • What about soundproofing, acoustic glass and making sure that everyone in the house keeps quiet while you’re listening to your records?

            I mean, what’s the point?

    • I see your point, though I don’t see anything wrong with speculation so long as we recognize it as just that. I think most of us understand that experiencing the actual art (listening to music, in this case) is what the truly meaningful and valuable experience is.

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