Last Updated: December 31st 2018
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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 of equally good quality. Unsurprisingly, not all wine is equally good, because not all winemakers are equally skilled, or each blessed with the best climate and soil resources.
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 (apart from reverb) but they can 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 (usually US) 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.
Comparing high quality and poor quality sound, the composition and the notes are more or less basically the same, 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. Sound quality is not important to everyone, not to him at least, just happens to be important to me. It does not matter if your opinion differs from someone else. Sound quality is subjective: “sounds great to me”.
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.
Ironically, there are enthusiasts who care passionately about sound quality who have very little interest or taste in music. Often found sniffing about Hi Fi shows, there are still others whose main interest is the equipment. I guess it takes all sorts.
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)
Learning point: experience is the only currency: 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. Maybe my pressing was late in stamper wear, another copy might sound better.
There is a temptation is to select the explanation and infer the experience. Best to draw back from explanation until you have many more observations, perhaps even discard explanation. It is human to speculate why, but that doesn’t change the experience.
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.
Here’s how I think of it:
While 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. Commercially, convenience and infinite choice have won over sound quality. For the music consumer, it looked like the “march of progress”. From the sound quality point of view, it was the reverse. Few know what they had lost, most will never know.
The lure of infinite choice (30 million songs on Spotify) is handmaiden to novelty and ever shorter attention-span. 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 music, 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 same warm/cold analogy has been repeated ad nauseam, the fruit of search engine plus cut-and-paste journalism. If you need warmth, turn up the heating. The best sound system should deliver exactly what was recorded, as it sounded with the musicians playing, in the room.
For this purpose I am referring to artists playing analogue musical instruments. Laptop composers mixing digital samples and computer generated sound may have no actual “sound quality” in terms of fidelity with an original instrument, though it may have some of the same attributes. If this is your bag, I would just buy a technics deck and the biggest speakers your floor will support, forget about quality and concentrate on quantity.
Primary importance of the turntable.
In the early days of popular hifi, I can remember many of us thought the speakers determined sound quality, because that is where we heard the sound coming from. Very primitive. It was Ivor Teiffenbrun of Linn who stood the equipment heirarchy on its head, declaring the component closes to the source the most important, and so down the chain, ending with the speaker being the least important.
The component which makes more difference to sound quality than all the others put together is the turntable, and the most important part of the turntable is its power supply. The turntable is the source of the signal. Equipment further down the processing chain, amplifiers and speakers, can only work with the information they are given. Speakers mostly just do what they’re told.
Retrieving a signal engraved in the groove wall of a revolving vinyl 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. A lot of attention now has been focussed on absolute perfect constancy of power voltage, eliminating micro-fluctuations which affect platter speed and therefore constancy of pitch. 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..?