How to hear!

What? Just WHAT do you mean by that?

man playing guitarIf you have been a musician or involved in sound engineering, you know about how a trained ear can be invaluable. It is also a good thing for anyone who wants good quality music playback, especially given the current audio product market. I would like to offer a few suggestions.

This is a tricky subject. There are two camps in the audio universe: the “Objectivist” who goes by the numbers and only believes in science, and the “Subjectivist” that is commonly called the Audiophile community. Both sides can be a bit extreme in their views and, as often happens with anything in the real world, the truth can often be found somewhere in the middle.

Objectivists will try to convince you that all amplifiers will sound the same and are basically perfect, and that double-blind tests by people smarter than you have proved it. Of course, if you have tried different amps and listened, you know this is not true. There is even a website out there that tries to “Debunk the Bi-wiring Myth” by showing the math that actually proves that it does make a difference, but then tell you that you could never hear the difference. Seriously, they actually say that! Apparently, they think we are stupid enough to just take their word for it because they are “experts”. Well, even “smart” people act stupid sometimes….

So, my first suggestion is not to take anyone or any theory too seriously, including me. Electronics and acoustics put together makes for a very complex subject that often frustrates any effort at simple conclusions. Things that make a difference in one case don’t always work in another case. My own experiments with Bi-wiring indicate that it can make a significant difference with some speakers, but not so much with others. There is no replacement for experimentation and experience, but don’t allow previous experiences to make conclusions that may not be true under different circumstances. Always be open to try things and learn! Continue reading

It’s a Digital World!

DigaudioMore info added 25May2014

Okay, I am an old guy. When I went to school, computers were still new, and I studied some Boolean algebra for basic digital circuits, and some Fortran…. And I did not care for it. So I tried my best to stay away from it, and became an RF/Analog guy. I loved it! Who knew that computers and digital would come to dominate the electronics world, I sure did not see that coming!

Which brings me to another point: while I have spent some time in this field, I do not consider myself an expert on the audio equipment that’s out there these days (it is hard for one guy to keep up). I have a little experience with Class D amps, more with Class A and A/B, and some speaker design experience, but nowhere near guys like Andrew Jones. I can design a pretty good tube amp now, and speakers that are good enough to impress most people. But I am more known around the net for a practical paper that I wrote on compact antennas for low power applications.

I started this website over a year ago to help steer people to some of the better products that are available at very low prices. I mean dirt cheap, like stuff the audiophile press won’t look at. I included some DIY (do-it-yourself) info since doing mods seemed to be popular and can help save money. Most of the comments I get here are DIY related. So I’m thinking about doing more projects here, or suggesting interesting kits. Continue reading

About Amplifiers

Additional comment added 1Jan2014!

There are not many low-cost receivers or integrated amplifiers that I feel good about recommending. Virtually all of them use a “Class AB” integrated circuit (or “chip”) that is actually a very high gain Class B circuit that trades away most of its gain (in the form of negative feedback) to try to correct the massive distortion of this type of circuit. This is the popular modern method of design and, as I will show below, it has problems.

I can recommend the Topping amplifiers that use the Tripath Class D circuit, which they call “Class T”. There are a number of models, and if you need at least 2 inputs, there are versions that have that for less than $150, like the Topping TP22 shown in the picture.

Do amplifiers really make a difference?

When I started to get back into audio over 10 years ago, I started with a Yamaha “Natural Sound” receiver. I did not like the Yamaha speakers, so I built my own using audiophile quality components. It sounded nice. After some time, I began to notice some things. While it sounded “nice”, it was too nice. Compared to live acoustic music, it sounded dull and not very dynamic. And some things, like bass drums, did not sound right at all. I have been to live acoustical performances and this was not doing it. Continue reading

More Power Scotty!

Do you really need hundreds of Watts?

Most non-audiophiles that I talk to seem to believe that you need a lot of power to drive speakers. They are truly stunned that I am happy with 10 or even 5 Watts! Fortunately, power is cheap these days, and with transistor amplifiers, better to have too much than not enough. But most people don’t know how much power they actually need, and corporate advertising has convinced them that they need hundreds of Watts.

So how much do you need? And why are some people happy with low power levels?

The power you need depends on the efficiency (or sensitivity) of your speakers. It also depends on how deaf you are, or how loud you want to go. So let’s make this simple by assuming that most people with good hearing start to get uncomfortable with a loudness of about 100 dB. In my limited experience, this seems about right. The chart below shows how much power you need to hit this level with a given speaker efficiency.

Speaker Efficiency

Power in Watts

80

100

83

50

87

20

Average home speaker

90

10

93

5

(my speakers)

97

2

Pro live sound

100

1

Klipsch Heritage line

Speaker efficiency is the output level at one meter away with 1 Watt input (sometimes 2 Watts with 4 Ohm speakers because they test with the same Voltage as for 8 Ohms). Continue reading

A reason NOT to be an audiophile!

I get close to my speakers!

On my last post, I mentioned the danger of becoming too critical about music reproduction and losing the enjoyment of the music itself. I was talking to a few friends recently about becoming obsessive about what we do, to the point of becoming frustrated, then giving up and selling everything off! This happens all the time, not just in audio, but in any avocation or hobby.

I have reached the point with my living room system that I will not even listen to some recordings that I like on this system. The distortion on these recordings may not be noticed on typical consumer equipment because the inherent intermod distortion tends to cover up low level details and distortion. But the tube amp and ribbon speakers reveal these things in a sometimes brutal way! Distortion that others don’t hear (even in the studio) can be obnoxious in an audiophile system.

This brings up an interesting question: how much do you really want to hear out of a sound system? The answer to this question depends in part on the answer to this: what kind of music and record quality do you listen to? If you like the popular music with all the processing and distortion added, buying expensive audiophile equipment is like buying a Ferrari to use only for driving across the street to the store. It may look impressive, but you will never know what the car is capable of. That’s a waste of money to me. Continue reading

What about cables?

(More info added on 19May2013)

Truth is, cables can make a difference, but not that much most of the time. Under some conditions, the difference can be obvious, but in many conditions, the difference can be very hard to tell. Salesmen love to tell you that it makes a big difference, and most people just believe them, without checking things out for themselves. Experience is a good teacher here, but even experiences can be colored by personal bias and high expectations of all that money you just spent on new cables.

There are theoretical reasons for using better cables, but being able to actually hear the difference is a another issue. I don’t want to go into theory and bore you here, but I will try to explain why there may or may not be an audible difference, and what practical experience has shown me.

First, Speaker Cables:

Since speakers have a very low impedance of 4 or 8 Ohms, resistive loss of cables and connectors is the issue. Capacitive and Inductive effects are usually small unless the cable is very long.

For a small amplifier of 25 Watts, the peak current into a 4 Ohm load would be less than 4 Amps. An 18 Gauge wire is plenty big enough to handle this amount of current. At 100 Watts, or 7.5 Amps of peak current, I would recommend going up to 16 Gauge wire. You can always go larger in diameter (smaller number), but not smaller. Is there a benefit to going larger? Yes, larger wire does have less resistance, but only by a few thousandths of an Ohm per foot of length. Not that much of a difference, is it? I have tried Monster and Kimber cables, and there were slight differences. But I just ended up going back to 18 Gauge wire because it was cheap, easy to use, and sounded good. It helps that I keep speaker cables short. If I had to use long cables (6 Ft or 2 meters or more), I would probably use a larger size to keep the total resistance down. Continue reading

Best $100 speakers

Rarely will you find cheap speakers talked about in the audiophile community, but there’s been a lot of press lately about some Pioneer bookshelf speakers. The big surprise? They typically sell for 129 USD a pair! Of course, I just had to check them out.

I went to my local Best Buy store and sampled their speakers. I found the Pioneers on a shelf next to some $99 Polk speakers, as well as some more expensive Polk and Klipsch bookshelf size speakers. A nice young man offered to play them with some music that I might prefer, and we tried them all. By the way, Best Buy is a good place to check out better quality speakers like B&W; I had a very impressive demo of some small B&W speakers that sounded HUGE! They cost $480, but they’re worth it.

The Polk and the Klipsch speakers clearly had a lot more highs than midrange, and little bass. In comparison, the Pioneer speakers sounded weak and muffled in the store setup. But when we turned them up, the midrange sounded more balanced and bass was incredible for such small speakers. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to try buying the Pioneer, but a sale price of $99 made me take them home. Continue reading

Why “Audiophile” is not popular

Since reaching a high point some decades ago, everyone has come to believe that audio electronics had reached perfection, and that all electronics now sounds the same. The advent of Compact Disk helped to reinforce this idea, so cables and speakers became the big issue. Then “Home Theater” appeared, which made music reproduction less important, and wall-shaking bass for special effects more important.

While all this was happening, companies were facing new pricing pressure, as well as trying to find other ways to stand out in the crowded audio market. At the same time, the music industry was changing because of the “Loudness War”, which forced companies to process music to make it louder (through compression) and not just allow, but even encourage distortion in order to make music sound different and more “interesting”.

Audio companies took note. Nobody seemed to care about low distortion anymore, just more features. This was fortunate, because that meant that inexpensive components could now be used, and the savings could now be used for profit margin or more features. Some speaker companies discovered that many customers didn’t notice clarity in a speaker and actually preferred exaggerated highs that sounded like bacon frying! This was a dream come true for companies… you no longer had to spend money on good crossover and speaker components. And the change happened slowly enough over time that very few even noticed the degradation in quality! Continue reading

Turntable Suggestions

New information added Feb 21, 2013.

Way back before the digital age, but sometime after dinosaurs, turntables had no amplification and required special preamps with RIAA Equalization in order to work, and most receivers and integrated amps had them built in. After the CD came out, this feature was dropped. As vinyl records came back in, companies were forced to put preamps inside their turntables, in order to provide standard line-level outputs to interface with other equipment.

However, most included preamps are made very cheaply and are not of audiophile quality (badly smeared highs, and so on). Some turntables allow you to bypass the internal electronics, but usually do not have the ground wire needed for using an external preamp of higher quality. Without this wire, amplifying the very low levels from the cartridge can result in a lot of noise picked up from the turntable, nearby equipment and power cords. Many people are forced to find a ground point on the turntable and add their own ground wire.

In addition, the included cartridge is usually not very good. Buying a decent sounding cartridge will run $60 or more. So let’s add up the cost. The cheapest new turntable worth considering might be the Audio Technica LP120 at about $220. Add a decent cartridge and preamp; you’re talking about $350. That doesn’t include getting the cartridge properly aligned and adding a ground wire. And this turntable has specs that are considerably worse than most older turntables. For another $100, you can get a much better turntable with a good cartridge. But there is a cheap alternative….. Continue reading

Quality Music for Cheap

While digital formats and downloads have dominated the audio market, there has been a surprising return of the vinyl LP (Long Play “Record”). Some of this may be the novelty of an old format, but many are finding that they like the sound, even while others scoff at old technology. As for me, I quit LP’s after CD’s came out. My initial experience with CD told me that it was not quite as good as the LP, but still acceptable given its low cost and convenience. Later, SACD’s elevated the digital format to a superior level.

Recently, I started to find (and buy) some of the records I used to have, plus more that I have taken an interest to. I have been averaging around $4 per used record at Half Price Books. At this price, I feel like a kid in a candy store! This has also brought me to a point where I could make a comparison between LP and CD formats, and the results are interesting.

First, I should mention that I am not using an expensive turntable and cartridge. I am using a good quality but inexpensive used turntable, an inexpensive cartridge with an upgraded stylus (needle), and an external preamplifier that has been modified to improve its performance (see Turntable Suggestions above). At less than $250, this setup is better than anything else under 400 USD new. It is not at the level of the best equipment, but still capable of an “audiophile” quality sound to me. Continue reading