A Perspective on Equipment and Gear (Guide to Good Sound)

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Good sound rests on three equally essential and interdependent pillars— equipment, setup, and the recording. The equipment tends to be mistakenly made the center of attention—people who put thousands of dollars into a stereo system may invest only a few hundred in records and tapes. Yet the point of the equipment is to bring you the music.

Ideally, you could listen to a recording just by holding it up to your ear and so dispense with all the complications of equipment. This being impossible, you want equipment that interferes as little as possible with the recording. The equipment is not intended to create the sound (though some equipment adds so much distortion that it does effectively produce a new noise), but solely to release the original musical event frozen in space and time on the recording.

Stereo equipment is commonly viewed as a technological mystery, too complex to understand, let alone control. In truth, you no more need to learn audio electronics to enjoy good sound than you need to study botany to select fresh vegetables. Naturally, you have to know what the vegetable is supposed to be like in order to choose a good one. And you also have to know how to prepare that vegetable to gain the most pleasure from its eating. Similarly, no matter how fine the equipment may be in design, its actual performance is finally in the hands of the user. A system will give back just what you put into it.

People’s expectations of what is possible from audio equipment are so low that they will meekly accept the sound quality of a $40 table radio from a system costing many times more. Many not only accept but expect “canned sound” from their audio equipment—canned noise is ubiquitous, pursuing one in elevators and supermarkets, on TV and telephone “hold.” If cafeteria food is all you have ever tasted, you probably won’t know you’re missing out on good home cooking. Equally, few are aware of the excellent sound quality available from even modest equipment that has been carefully chosen and set up, and so remain unaware of how much of the music they are missing.

All playback, like recording, is a matter of compromise—the sound of the original performance can never be perfectly captured on a recording, nor perfectly released in playback. A copy cannot be the same as the original. Some distortion inevitably is introduced, but how much and what kind are the factors that separate the good from the mediocre. The problem with music played on a poor system is that it loses so much of its “aliveness.” It becomes only a referent to the original piece of mu sic, with little if any lingering connection to the emotion, the vitality, and the force of the original. Like a cheap reproduction of a painting, it provides the basic image but loses the significance.

You have to know what it is you want from your system before you will be able to get it. Knowing what you want starts with knowing what you can get—what each component is intended to do, and how to distinguish the few good models from the merely indifferent majority. If you constantly change your equipment because you’re struggling to find something but you don’t know what it is, then you will have em barked on a very frustrating and expensive search that causes many people to give up and lose the pleasure of music. The fact is that you are always at a crossroads—there is always another step that can be taken, another road to follow. But just because it’s there, this doesn’t mean you have to take it. Some people live with the same system for a decade and more, just maintaining it and replacing the cartridge yearly. Others change not only the cartridge every year but one or more other components as well.

GETTING TO THE ESSENCE

A component or system that provides good fidelity will always (assuming good maintenance) provide that same quality of fidelity, regardless of whatever technological advances may occur. It may be surpassed by other equipment, but that does not alter its own essential characteristic of fidelity. Old components or old recordings, because they are no longer “the latest,” are not therefore inferior. The simple designs of tube amps and preamps can compete with and often exceed the quality of the “more modem” transistor equipment.

High-end audio is a matter of refinement, not of the “latest technology.” Refinement means getting to the essence. Remember that playback is not intended to enhance the recording, to wow you with sonics, but simply to reveal the music. The basic technology of audio reproduction has been established, more or less as it is now, for about 130 years. Components from 50 years ago and more continue to be prized for their sound quality today.

In general, the less there is between performance and playback, the more faithful the recorded music will be to the original. You want a few elements honed to excellent performance rather than a mass of parts thrown at a problem. Elaborate solutions often indicate a failure to get to the bottom of the problem. This minimalism is a key in both recording and playback—anything inserted in the path between the original performance and its playback in your living room will add some distortion, because anything that passes through something else is changed by its passage. Given that the system’s goal is to reveal the original performance, change of any kind represents a distortion.

SYSTEM HIERARCHY AND THE IMPORTANCE OF THE FRONT END

All the music you’ll ever hear from your system is contained in the recording and it must all be released from the recording—musical detail that is not retrieved cannot be recaptured somewhere down the line. So the quality of the front end is critical.

So a system’s hierarchy, as first recognized by Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn, follows the flow of the audio signal. As everything the system has to work with at any point comes from “upstream,” then clearly if you have a mediocre front end, even the best speakers won’t do you much good—they cannot turn a poor signal into good sound. On the other hand, a system can only be as good as the weakest link in the chain. So even an excellent front end cannot fully compensate for poor speakers. There must be some balance of quality among the components.

Following this hierarchy, the recording itself is really the first component in the system. LPs, SACD/DVD-Audio/BluRay discs and downloadable "high-rez" files (e.g., 24/96 FLAC, etc.), CDs, and MP3s, are not equally good recording mediums. Consider carefully which you want to concentrate on—unless you are prepared to buy all the front ends and put together music collections in all the formats. Read Part III of this guide, particularly the sections on analog and digital recording, as well as the front-end sections in Part I.

THE ROLE OF SPECIFICATIONS

Given that the goal is fidelity to the music, it seems logical to establish a component’s quality by how close it comes to reaching that goal, rather than by measuring the playback equipment against some abstract numerical standard. Specs and measurements may tell you how well a component functions as a piece of equipment, but not how good or bad the music will sound. The issue is not distortion as measured by specs, but audible distortion of the music—these two are not synonymous. You would not try to establish how Carnegie Hall sounds without playing music in it. Even with music playing, attempts to spec it out would be of dubious success, because we know very little about how measurements correlate to what we hear. Music playback can be accurately compared only against its original: live music.

 

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Updated: Sunday, 2016-02-07 16:44 PST