Zen and the Art of HiFi Maintenance

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What is “the best sound quality” and how do you get to(wards) it?

(with apologies to Robert Pirsig)
 Music is one of the great pleasures of life. 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 being in the presence of the musical performance,  but rarely does, unless you overcome the many factors which degrade the quality of sound and blunt its emotional impact. Not all sound is equally good quality. Unsurprisingly, not all wine is equally good, because not all winemakers are equally skilled, or resourced.

What is “Sound Quality”?

There are the obvious technical attributes sound – the full frequency range of the instruments faithfully captured and reproduced. The obvious attributes include the depth of the bass floor, the gut-punch of the mid-range, the unmasked presence of the highest frequencies.  More importantly, fine reproduction captures the  fine detail of attack and decay of notes, cabinet resonance in piano notes, the tremor in vibrato, the breathing,  the smallest details captured in the original tape recording.

Engineers and equipment  can’t add anything to the recorded performance  but they can certainly lose things from it.

A lot of bad things have been done by engineers on a mission to “improve” sound: supposedly reduce tape hiss by rolling off upper frequencies (including important detail) increase bass for reproduction on bass-poor portable devices, simulation of stereo from mono recordings, compression of low and high volume elements to make the music overall louder, addition or omission of post-production reverb, right through to the cynical transfer of digital files onto modern vinyl to cash in on “the vinyl revival”.  The international distribution of licensed recordings through copy tape and local remastering and pressing held sound quality to ransom. Rarely did the export edition match up to the quality of the master.

Once the fundamentals of frequency and dynamic ranges are delivered, at a higher level, the  rhythm and timing should become seductive. The lack in something causes you to feel the music is slow in comparison with another edition, beginning to drag, causes your attention to wander, think instead about what to play next.

Ultimately, the highest quality delivery of musical coherence and emotional communication of the artist’s performance, especially the acute communication between the musicians in performance. No longer about more bass and treble,  music starts to “make sense”, an organic entity, not to a dis-assembled set of components polished and re-assembled. The hairs on your neck respond by rising,  The music will draw you in, wanting to listen, even to music you thought you didn’t like.

The song composition and the notes are more or less the same in either case of high quality and other quality sound,  but the experience is quite different.

An alternative view

Here is a blogger who believes something called “music” exists independent of the quality of sound. He “doesn’t care about”  formats or the issues that affect sound quality.

LJC says: The worth of something can not be judged by whether someone else cares about it or not. “Care” is a feeling, and feelings are not “facts”. There are no “facts” in a sensory matter like sound quality: sound quality is subjective (“sounds great to me”). It does not matter if your opinion differs from someone else. Being true to their feelings, both may be right, however there are many people online whose motivation in life is different.

The best you can hope for is an informed opinion, based on active listening and comparison that tells you which of two editions sounds better (to you). If you do not compare you can not know. If you don’t want to know, that’s your choice.

The benchmark of “the original”

The first mastering and original pressing of a recording session is generally the benchmark that offers the most satisfying listening experience (with some exceptions) though this may come at a price. Record labels, matrix codes and many other details, such as vinyl weight, help identify not only first pressings, but also steps in the reissue history of the recording, where sound quality can be close or near equal to the original, but without the price premium that collectors put on the original first pressing.

As an example, I recently A:B  sound-checked a 1958 US Columbia  promo mono of Kind of Blue ($400) against the 1st British Fontana mono issue($50) and 2nd British CBS mono issue ($35). The US original was breathtaking, fresh and transparent. The British reissues were mastered from copy tape, within a few years, and sounded not even close – audibly inferior to the US promo (so much for jingoism)  and inexplicably, the first UK Fontana pressing was the worst of the three (so much for expectation)

dummies_tip man

Learning point: experience is the currency, not explanation, which sounds better to you. You don’t have to know why, and in many respects, it isn’t possible to know why, as there are too many unknown factors. Maybe the initial copy tape transfer was poorer than the second. Maybe one sound engineer did a better job of mastering then the other. May be my pressing of one early in the stamper wearing, another copy might sound better.

The temptation is to identify the explanation and infer the experience. Doesn’t work like that. Best to draw back from explanation until you have many more observations.

You can’t ignore the effect the format and equipment has on the sound 

Music lovers want the most authentic music experience –  the closest to being in the room with the musicians, without artefacts of sound reproduction. However you can’t bypass the equipment and the format issues and go straight to “the music”. The music is delivered through equipment , even if you don’t “care” about it.

Here’s how I think of it:

HIFIandMUSIC-CHOICES-VENN-800While it is possible to exist in only one circle, the goal is the best music delivered at the highest quality. If you want to enjoy life in the green, you have to develop some knowledge about both in order to improve your experience. This is the zen moment – your experience is not a fixed thing, it can be improved. Both music choices and hifi choices are equally important, one without the other is a reduced experience, life in the blue.

The search for highest sound quality  – the recording and mastering engineer

The best quality of recorded sound is no accident. It starts with the recording engineer. 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. The engineer needed to have empathy with the music 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 analogue information and components

Historically, the recording technology of modern jazz was valves and tapes. Every component and process  was analogue : physical continuous signal, which is one of the main reasons for its retention of life-like “quality”.

The introduction of first transistors and then solid state circuitry, and finally end-to-end digital music production resulted in reduction in sound quality. Analogue continuous signal was turned into digitally sampled and managed “information”. This information became massively over-processed, through complex circuit boards, complex arrays of components, and the presence of controls, to exploit the ability to control and channel sound. Not to say that one day digital sound quality may overtake analogue, but in my experience that day has not yet come.

Good-sounding vinyl records, made before 1975…

Many modern vinyl pressings sound no better than CDs, because, in most respects, that is what they are: a digital file pressed onto vinyl. Unfortunately, they generally sound worse. Original Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse! Riverside and Contemporary ’50s and ’60s vintage  vinyl  pressings are for the most part great musical experiences. In between the two are several decades of variable quality reissues.

Things went badly wrong some time around the mid-seventies. The oil price rise of 1973 sent up the cost of vinyl, which was then being used to press millions of records. Economies in manufacturing, such as impure recycled vinyl, excessively reduced vinyl thickness, excessive numbers pressed before changing stampers, and insufficiently quality control,  undid much of the good recording engineering. However the gradual introduction of transistors to replace valves, and finally the arrival of solid state circuitry, finally destroyed sound quality. In addition, the necessary engineering skills largely disappeared, some brands of tapes degraded with age. Reissues of ’50s and ’60’s recordings by the ’70s and ’80s  became mainly inferior-sounding pressings.

The arrival of the CD and with it, the transfer  of recordings to digital formats, largely finished off vinyl as a viable means of music distribution. The Sony Walkman didn’t require it,  now we have the download and streaming to portable phones.  Commercially-speaking, convenience and infinite choice have won over sound quality.  Few know what they had lost, most will never know. For the music consumer, it looked like the “march of progress”. From the sound quality point of view, it was the reverse.

The lure of infinite choice is handmaiden to novelty and ever shorter attention-span. Ask what is lost when no-one can cope with reading a book, even a chapter is too long, perhaps even a paragraph, some find a sentence challenging, why can’t it be fitted into a few words… a headline, or 140 character limits of a tweet. . Thinking shrinks if you let it. So does the ability to listen and appreciate, to navigate uncharted waters.

The importance of the modern Hi Fi

Extracting accurately the musical information written in the vinyl groove requires good equipment. Other than as a figure of speech, Hi Fi can not sound good – only music can do that.  This is another  Zen moment. The best Hi Fi “merely” faithfully replays what was recorded. It becomes invisible. The more invisible it becomes, the more easily you  can focus on the music content and not artefacts of reproduction.

This pretty innacurate article in The Economist magazine (inaccuracy is their specialty) debates whether vinyl sounds warmer than CD : It is not “warm” or “cold”, or clinical. The medium should be invisible, delivering what was recorded, as it sounded with the musicians in the room. If you need warmth, turn up the heating.

Primary importance of the turntable.

One component makes more difference to sound quality than all the others put together: the turntable. It is the source of the signal. Equipment further down the processing chain, 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. Any weakness at source will go on to be magnified by amplifiers and speakers, magnifying noise with signal instead of just signal alone.

With a spinning vinyl disc, 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 manage the forces that degrade sound, and can not deliver the highest quality sound. I want the best and I can’t afford it!   No-one starts with the best.  It’s a journey, there are many stops along the way, and its up to you where you are happy to step off.

Arriving at  high quality sound producing system

After the turntable and its tonearm and cartridge, you will need a combination of quality amplifiers and speakers, linked by high quality cables, mounted on vibration-free supports, all supplied with very clean power. After much experimentation, I am pretty well convinced of the benefit of valve-based phono amp and pre-amplification, combined with a solid state main power amplifier. However this is a big subject, for another time and place.

Building your own knowledge of what sounds good (to you)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sound in the ear of the listener: the only test for “good sound quality” is the subjective test of your ears. If it sounds good to you, it is. There are however some obvious sources of bad sound quality, for example where compression has been applied to make music overall louder, where excessive emphasis has been given to the bass (possibly to make it sound better on poor equipment, or just engineer’s preference),  the restriction of upper frequencies sometimes applied to reduce tape hiss, and inappropriate application or omission of reverb.

If you get past these hurdles, you are in with a chance. Whilst listener’s first point of comparison is often depth of the bass floor, more bass is quick to pick up, too often what they are hearing is booming uncontrolled bass. I’m thinking here of the acoustic upright bass, which has fingering and percussive quality.  When bass is controlled, taut, dry, more musical, good things happen in other parts of the register.

The late ’60s/ early’70s saw the switch to the electric amplified bass guitar, mainly the Fender bass, sliding down the strings, dropping bombs because with amplification you can. Similar things happened in the switch from acoustic piano to the electronic keyboard and synthesiser. Acoustic instruments and revealing hi-fi are a natural partnership but that is just my opinion, you are welcome to differ.

Auditioning hi-fi equipment 

Beyond the bass/treble issues, presentation, imaging, clarity, all the noise business, the  main thing you should consider is your emotional response to the music. Given an A and a B, which do you enjoy more?  Did one seem slower, the other more to tap your feet? Forget the why, get the what.

Some music-lovers become lost at this point because they have not yet learned to trust their ears. They want someone else to tell them which is better, seek the comfort of authority. They seek scientific evidence, electrical test charts, consult expert reviews, put their trust in dealers, or hope that buying expensive equipment and big-name brands will guarantee them quality.

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 or unbalanced system it may not sound any better, indeed it may perversely sound worse by revealing a weakness elsewhere.

Nothing is certain. Until such time as you know everything, uncertainty is probably as good as it gets ( LJC)

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 discernible 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.

Your search for highest quality sound  Hi Fi  starts here

Here is my suggested plan. You probably already have a “hi-fi” but be prepared to say good bye to older equipment if they can not take you to the level where you want to go, or only at exhorbitant cost. It was for that reason I abandoned my Linn LP12. There are some excellent  vintage components, lucky if you have those, otherwise, replace.

Build the best component separates system you can sensibly afford, in particular, the best turntable. I chose a new Avid turntable, retained my Linn main power amplifier (a workhorse that basically does as its told, like the Linn 242 speakers), but replaced the  Linn pre-amplifier with a vastly better custom-built World Design valve pre-amp, fitted with 1960s vintage “new- old stock” Telefunken ECC82 valves. The idea that it is better to have “matching components from the same vendor” may sound logical but in practice is not true.

I made my choice, there are many other good specialist hifi manufacturers,  and I have no experience on which to give advice, other than to ignore luxury consumer brands of hifi, like Bang & Olufson. Start somewhere, audition if you wish, but start. If I was starting again, and I am not, I would probably build amplification around Audio Note.

It all starts with the source:  the turntable (with separate power supply unit) then tonearm and cartridge, followed by a separate phono amplifier, pre-amplifier and power amplifier – not an integrated amplifier (and preferably all valve-based). Finally consider the speakers, often thought of as the most important but actually the least important. Buy the best components you can, then forget about upgrading them for long time. You are almost certainly not hearing a fraction of what your chosen equipment is capable of  – yet.

Then start to unlock the potential of your system. Upgrading to a better an interconnecting cable can make more difference to sound quality than upgrading to a “better” amplifier. You must improve the infrastructure –  power supply, component interconnects, cables, system supports. Component sellers can’t afford to supply the highest quality cables and still remain competitively priced, so they give just a starter.

Your objective is to extract and maintain a pure signal, free from processing artefacts, non-music information noise, and external distortion. Your enemies are impurities in power-supply, electrical resistance of connections, floor and airborne vibration, electromagnetic pollution, and quirks in room-acoustics, and probably more.  Each of these interfere with the tiny music signal as it  makes its way from the vinyl/stylus point of contact, through several stages of amplification, to its final speaker diaphram destination, in the process, magnified 100,000 -fold. Eliminating each interfering factor lifts a veil, and brings you one step closer to your goal of “musicians in the room”

Where to start with Infrastructure?

Though all infrastructure is important, probably the most important is your electricity supply. Household mains electricity is “dirty” – and dirt flows through your system alongside the music signal unless you take steps to “clean” it. Delivering stable clean power will enable your components to work with only the music signal and not accomanying noise.

Tip!: I experienced the most profound change in musicality somewhat late in the day by having a dedicated domestic electricity spur for the hifi diverted from the main domestic consumer unit, connected to audio-optimised wall sockets, and then passing power to components via a balanced mains unit (these electricity supply modifications made the most significant of all improvements I have heard)

All power leads and equipment interconnects supplied require ugrading, which should be cables made with multiple wires woven and screened to reject airborne signal-pollution (radio and wifi frequences) and connections which offer the least electrical resistance.

Finally, eliminate vibration through system racking, individual components support, points of floor-contact. Most critical is sorbothane-based support of the turntable and its power supply.

What changes in the sound?

Each improvement enables changes throughout the system, which is a complex set of interlocking dependencies. Everything part in the system needs time to adjust to other changes. 200 to 500 hours is not unusual. Some changes make things briefly worse until finally the corner is turned. Faith may be tested, but when everything is in place, the music will fall into place.

Rhythm and timing will make music come alive and fresh, proper control of bass will render it “musical” instead of boom and stop suffocating the upper registers. Artistic intent becomes immediately recognisable, emotion is palpable, communication between musicians laid bare, artists technique revealed in individual notes not smeared or blurred. The soundstage will become firm, forward, and expansive beyond the speakers. You will have arrived at physical presence of Musicians in the Room.

You will rediscover the qualities of music previously dismissed. You have a new record collection awaiting rediscovery. It is a journey worth making. Or maybe you are still grappling with the CD or Vinyl frontier..?

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8 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of HiFi Maintenance

  1. I just made an amazing discovery. My new VPI turntable came with a weighted outer ring and a fairly heavy spindle weight. But the outer ring produced an amazing sound improvement on about 80% of my records. As an example, I practically gave up on my Blue Note stereo copy of Freddie Hubbard’s “Breaking Point,” The entire record was filled with a scratching noise. When I played it with the ring, it sounded like a different record. Like magic, it was transformed to a clean, NM record. I don’t know if it had a slight warp or the problem involved an issue described by Bill Stevenson in the VPI Forum: “The ring adds mass to the platter, which is fine, but it also adds capacitance to the platter. I have been fighting with static discharge issues and the less static that is stored in the rotating mass, the less of a problem this is. Less static is very noticeable and extremely desirable.” http://vpiindustries.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=7746

    I don’t know if you already use a weighted ring made by Avid. But I am thoroughly impressed by the build quality of the VPI ring. It is heavy and adds a considerable amount of mass to the platter, even if not placed on the record. (There is a lip on my VPI platter that holds the ring if one doesn’t want to use it on the record.) The question is whether your Avid motor can handle the extra weight. Even without any extra weight, VPI recommends giving the platter a push when it is started because most of the wear to the motor occurs during initial startup.

    • The Avid Acutus platter is “massive” and the double-twist record clamp ensures any stray energy is annihilated. I don’t claim to understand it, but I think the principle is that nothing is active except the interface between the groove wall and the stylus tip. Nothing else is contributing, which is why the information from the stylus tip is so clean.

  2. All the above neglects an extremely important factor: cleaning the vinyl record. Painstaking effort is required, or all is lost.

  3. Thank you for the intelligent dialogue. I certainly agree that your ears are the most important “instrument” in determining sound quality. I live in the U.S. and for years went to an honest dealer who would let you take a piece of gear home for a few days (with a swipe of of your credit card) for a no obligation audition. Sometimes this was akin to the heroin dealer giving you the first few shots “free” 🙂 I also agree about the turntable being the starting point of your enjoyment. I can also suggest “biting the bullet” snd investing in a proper cleaning machine for your vinyl. I have owned a VPI 16.5 for 21 years- it is built like a tank and has repaid me a thousand times what I paid for it, while it will NOT repair a scratched record, it will GREATLY reduce the background noise better than any pad or brush. I also recommend Audiogon – it is like e-bay for high end Audio. I have purchased excellent quality used equipment for a fraction of new. Cheers ans good listening! Jeffrey

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