My experiments with sound… the conundrum (Part II)

By way of recap then, if it is going to be nigh on impossible to recreate what the artist and / or the recording engineer heard, or intended us to hear, what exactly have we, or in fact, audiophile industries and engineers been doing? Are high-end audio equipment nothing but a farce? Have we been short-changed or cheated, or worse, coerced into believing the audio equivalent of a placebo?

The unfortunate reality is that, just like everything else on earth, you cannot define absolute white or absolute black, and everything is, in fact, varying shades of grey. An example would be trying to set the white balance on your camera – you know that perfect white exists, but at any given moment, you simply cannot get that desired white set up on your camera no matter how much you fiddle around with the settings or the light, and eventually, you would either use one of the provided white balance options, or provide your own frame of reference for white; and that is pretty much how the high-end audio industry also works, broadly speaking.

But where light exists, there must, by way of balance, also exist darkness. And the high-end audio industry is no exception. For every person or group dedicated to opening the ears of people like us everywhere, there exist several that would rather impose their own, usually unsound (lacking in sufficiently scientific, logical and / or verifiable) ideas. Of course, since high-end anything is bound to be expensive, and usually, prohibitively so, most of us are stuck with trying whatever we can afford to audition (in showrooms or at friends’ residences or the like), or trust the opinion of established and / or respectable gurus in this area, and that is where audio journalism comes in.

Unfortunately though, that brings us neatly on to the dirty side of behind-the-scenes manipulation of audio journalism. I believe that no matter how honestly audio journalism* started, the original ideas behind the inception have inevitably lost their way eventually, into the realms of lies and deception and brand names and the ideologies of profit and advertising and marketing to such an extent that many a student has eventually found himself put off by the sheer opaqueness of these walls, or holding on to what he or she can, hoping for that mythical saviour to change the current high-end audio landscape.

Now, life is in fact, terrible as it is with just this problem**, but there is one more thing. No, please bear with me. This other problem is not subterfuge, but that doesn’t detract in any way from the fact that it is another massive issue to consider. Which is. Cost. Or more specifically, material cost.

Even if we were to restrict ourselves to only speakers for the time being, a basic speaker is something that all of us can make. The science behind it is really rather straight forward, being just that current, run through a wire that is attached to a magnet makes this magnet vibrate, and these vibrations are picked up by our ears as sound. It is in fact, not complicated to make one at all, and wikihow here shows you how to make a rudimentary speaker.

Of course, if only creating the perfect sound were so simple! The truth is, there is going to be so many areas that all contribute to improving the sound from a speaker (some of which are already explored in the wikihow article earlier), and ultimately, while perfection is something that cannot be attained in this universe, primarily due to one or several laws of physics that are at work, we can almost reach the closest thing to perfection – and this excellence is something that is still attempted and actually being attained!

The prohibitive problem that I mentioned earlier? Cost! And this cost follows the logarithmic curve, where smaller values x (cost) values correspond to a huge increase in the corresponding y (quality) values, but as the value of y increases, we soon get to the stage where huge increases in x no longer provide equivalent returns.

log curve

Now, if I have confused you way too much, here is an example to help you get back on track with the rest of this article. Imagine for a moment brand A, which costs P, and provides speakers of quality X, and brand B, which costs Q, while providing speakers of quality Y. Assuming these are the only pairs of speakers available, your choice is going to be between A and B. Your criteria for choosing, however, which should ideally be based on which is better, X or Y, would in fact be based on any of the above – A or B, P or Q, X or Y, or in fact, a combination of all the above! Now we have spoken about quality, X & Y, and we have spoken about the cost, P & Q. But A & B? That’s where advertising comes in – if brand A is more established, whereas brand B isn’t, there is every reason to factor brand name in the choice of speaker. But what if an audio magazine you trust gives a higher rating to speaker B even if speaker A is measurably, qualitatively better? Would it in fact be too much slim a chance that you and I would go with speaker B over speaker A, especially when you do not get to audition both in a blind A-B test?

I hate to say this, but I have actually seen and heard proof of this sort of advertising / marketing trickery by audio magazines and annoyingly, even showrooms. Sure, we understand the profit motive, but at what cost?! Besides, there are literally thousands of high-end audio brands that have come up these days, and pretty much every brand tries to cater to different price points, leading to what can be vastly differing sound signatures even within the same brand!

Now, all this squabble would be entirely pointless if there were no solution proffered by this author, and thankfully, help is at hand! And when I say hand…, on the one hand***, the simplest option involves checking high-end audio systems in a simple, blind A-B test, where you take any two products, A and B, and pit them against each other in the same listening room, against your favourite CDs, or even my favourite list of test tracks that I have graciously (!) compiled here****

Thank you very much for reading! If you have managed to control your free-wandering spirit so far, you will just love the next sentence!

PS: and yes, on the other hand, you could do a lot worse than wait for part 3 of this article, which confirms this experiment I have been working on for a long time, and simplifies the conundrum to realistically acceptable levels! Watch this space!!

*or just about any form of established journalism for that matter…

**… well actually, all the problems mentioned in part I, and this problem!

***pun intended

****looks like I will want to make some changes to this top 10 since it is no longer my current top 10! Watch this space for more!!

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