My experiments with sound… the conundrum (Part I)

To put it mildly, why on earth would one person put so much emphasis on sound, whereas another, genetically identical, of same species, cultural background and as so often happens, living under the same roof, misses the point of all this emphasis so completely? Well, I shall try to explain this, in my own terms, as plainly, and exhaustively, as I can, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason for this post*.

Without getting into a very technically detailed discussion here, I would like to start by saying that there are two primary approaches to sound. The first, and you would be surprised as to how any people belong to this category, would obviously be that sound is sound, and there are no two ways about it, and if you had to split hairs, sound can be louder or quieter. These are the people who would vociferously cry out what Jerry M. Wright put so eloquently, “the first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left”.

The other approach is as diametrically opposed as to say that no sound can be reproduced so as to sound the same as the original, anywhere else. Now, I am going to assume that you, the reader, are as afflicted by this terrible malady as yours truly, and completely ignore the first faction. So, with that in mind…

I truly do believe that, no sound can be reproduced / replayed in exactly the same way unless all the circumstances and factors surrounding and involved in the reproduction of the original are exactly the same. Tall order? You would be surprised by how willing you are in terms of accepting this fact. This neatly brings us on to the factors, and/or the circumstances that would play a part in this surmise.

Firstly though, it would probably make more sense to get the factors we truly do / would NOT care to do anything about, out of the way: factors like ambient temperature, barometric pressure, air density… oh, and our ears!

Why ears? Because unless I am very much mistaken, our ears are the gateway to our brain receiving and processing sound. And since it is very possible that our ear canals are not perfectly identical, person to person, there is a very good chance that each person’s brain hears sound ever so slightly differently**.

Now that we have got that out of the way, we can put our mind to focus more on things we actually can control (to varying degrees, naturally). Most of us would accept that the speakers – the transducers that actually convert the electrical energy to sound waves that we can hear – would make up the most significant factor. Of course, the speakers cannot do anything by themselves apart from looking good (or terrible) in your listening room, so we would need the source of the sound – it could be a CD of your favourite artist’s music, or files from the computer – and then, since these are digitally stored, and speakers require something that’s more akin to a waveform, we would need something that converts this digital signal to an analog waveform – which, unfortunately, will be pretty much inaudible unless the waveform is amplified. And, not getting too carried away, there are wires that connect the speaker to the amplifier, power supply to the amplifier, and in fact, how clean or fluctuation-free the power supply is…

So, what we have are, in effect, several factors that would broadly affect the sound we actually listen to, even if the source is the exact same Master used by the artist when signing off the record. Sure, some factors would affect the sound more than the others, but amusingly enough, one factor that almost always gets forgotten is the room, and the inconceivable number of items in there, almost all of which affect the sound you hear!

No really! Think about it. The studio where the recording was made would have had a very low background noise threshold, and in any case, would be sound-proofed, and with enough sound absorption material to ensure it does NOT look like your living room, and certainly will NOT have a fan (or several), or a perfectly smooth surfaced coffee-table, or mirror-finished marble or tiles for the flooring. Now, you might tell me that this is hardly going to affect your perception or expectation and that you have taken this into account. But wait, have you really? Even if you aren’t expecting your listening room to be anything but your living room or your den, when was the last time you had high-end audio equipment demonstrated in what looked like your average living room?

So there you go. All of the above factors are going to affect the sound, but naturally, some factors affect the sound or at least how you perceive it a lot less than others. For example, if you consider how much the room affects the sound, or having the fan turned on affects your perceived clarity of the soundtrack, it would be far higher than the difference you would notice, in the same room, in terms of playing a high-quality compressed file (for example, a 320 kbps MP3) or a CD track. Similarly, taking a typical listening room into account, the speaker and even your listening position (and in the case of most speakers, in some cases, how ‘toed-in’ the speaker is to your listening position) affects your perceived clarity of the soundtrack more than the source. And to top it all most annoyingly, that very cool AV Surround Receiver that handles Dolby Atmos with aplomb and even upscales HD video would do a poorer job of music than a budget stereo amplifier***.

Therefore, if we were to recap, it is going to be nigh on impossible to recreate what the artist and/or the recording engineer heard (and so for most part, no one really bothers, and those that do wouldn’t really be reading this post themselves – they could probably not afford wasting the time taken to read this post)

* and to be perfectly honest, I realised could not put up my group test post without giving sufficient background to the nature of sound, or at least, how I perceive sound, as it is reproduced through different speakers.

** that said, I have noticed similarities in how some of us describe sounds being heard during an audio sample test of the same speaker or earphones, so there is a very good chance we don’t hear sound that differently. Besides, in my personal tests, the amount of earwax does not seem to change the sound I hear, so differences in ear canals may not sufficiently change the sound received by our brains; or conversely, we humans might even have some form of neural DSP sort of auto calibration going on in our brains!

*** trust me on this one – I chose that very cool AV surround received myself, and how it has backstabbed me is a story for another post…



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