The audiophiles philosophy

Jul 23, 2021 14:57 · 3135 words · 15 minute read

During my vacation I got a DM from Dr. David Hildebrand.

00:04 - He would appreciate it if I would comment on his video.

00:08 - I get more requests like this and usually my priorities lie elsewhere.

00:13 - But this video fascinated me, so I did decide to make a video with my comments. Dr. David Hildebrand is professor at the University of Colorado Denver and associated with the Society for the Philosophy of Technology.

00:37 - He put together a top-level inventory of opinions on many subject concerning the audiophile world.

00:43 - It’s like having our world looking into a mirror.

00:47 - And I was happy to describe what I see. Before you watch my video, watch David’s video first. The link is in the top right corner, at the end of this video and in the description below this video in YouTube.

01:00 - I will take a number of topics and give my opinion on them. The term ‘audiophile’ is like the the term ‘sports car’.

01:13 - It’s not defined and heavily misused for commercial purposes.

01:18 - I have been working at a hifi shop for eight years - ages ago - and can confirm that customers buy equipment for all kinds of reasons.

01:27 - The way it looks, as a show off for the neighbours, for the price, for it was recommended by their popular consumer guide, to play music as loud as possible or even to play music at the highest sound quality.

01:41 - Here not only distortion, noise, resolution and tonal balance have to be good, but also the stereo image, focussing, spaciousness and pace and rhythm.

01:53 - The only binding factor between these groups - for as far as I can see - is that they buy audio equipment and recorded music.

02:01 - And although it can be questioned if someone that select audio equipment based on any of the reasons mentioned save sound quality can be called audiophile, lover of sound, in practice they usually are called audiophiles. Measurements can prove a device to be defective or poorly designed - although the latter is already a subjective judgement.

02:30 - Measurements should be able to judge audio equipment if we could fully understand what to measure.

02:36 - And we don’t. In the mid 80’s I heard a difference between two cables connecting the digital output of a cd-player to the digital input on a digital to analog converter.

02:47 - The measurement-says-it-all-brigade could not measure higher distortion or other non-linear behaviour, so my judgement suffered from the placebo effect.

02:57 - At least, according to them. Years later we learned that SPDIF interfaces are sensitive to cable properties.

03:05 - The cables had to be 75Ω otherwise the signal was bounced back and forth between sender and receiver and that resulted in jitter.

03:14 - It is a clear example from the past why measurements don’t say it all.

03:19 - The parameters mentioned by Winer are valid, the weighting of the outcome might not be.

03:25 - Over the last years brain research has shown that the time resolution of our auditory system is between 4 to 8 µs in stead of the 5 ms as thought earlier since that corresponds with the 20 kHz, which is considered to be the highest frequency humans can hear.

03:44 - And then only when young. In other words, where technicians expect that measurements up to 20kHz - or even 80 kHz - tell all about the sound quality, they leave out significant time resolution that especially with digital filtering leads to clearly audible artefacts. Why doesn’t the piano in a room sounds boomy? While the stereo does! I notices, that when the quality of the digital source, the amplifier and the speakers are high and the speaker placement is optimised, there often is no need for drastic acoustic treatment.

04:24 - Of course, room modes should be taken into account and early reflections should be dealt with, as I describe in my video ‘Loudspeaker placement, long version’.

04:33 - But when the quality of both source and amplifier is less optimal, the sound can get - and often will get - boomy.

04:42 - I have not researched this thoroughly but I wouldn’t be surprised if that has to do with time smearing.

04:48 - Room modes act up when a sound wave of a half the length or multiple of the distance between two walls has sufficient energy and duration.

04:57 - Then a resonance occurs until the energy has died out.

05:02 - The energy factor can easily be checked out by reducing the playback level.

05:06 - The time factor is harder to prove. The train of thought here is: Digital to analog conversion involves a reconstruction filter.

05:16 - Almost all of these filters, with the exception of some of the very expensive ones, suffer from severe time smearing.

05:23 - Amplifiers of a lower quality and operating according to the class a or a/b topology will always be slower in delivering power at low frequencies and will lack full control over the woofers.

05:35 - This also causes time smearing. Class D amplifiers /can/ deliver loads of power instantly but need to filter out the switching frequency and thus might have the same problem as the average digital to analog converter.

05:49 - In all these cases the signal will be spread out over time, increasing the chance of energy build up and so energising a resonance.

06:00 - So most people will suffer from room modes given the fact that far more affordable equipment than true high-end equipment is sold.

06:07 - Unfortunately there is a fair chance that this group of people have to listen to music in their living room where other factors may interfere with drastic acoustic measures.

06:17 - Dealing with early reflections might be doable, dealing with room modes will often be unacceptable to the aesthetic committee.

06:24 - The remaining group of people that will have their own listening room can have it acoustically treated.

06:30 - The biggest risk then is to overdo it. Damping or scattering early reflections is fine but killing all reverb - which I have seen (and heard) is - at least to my ears, totally wrong.

06:43 - And using too many bass traps might slow down transients at low frequencies too. Let’s see how a recording of an acoustical performance is made: microphones are placed in a room or hall and connected to recording gear, usually - although not always - through a mixing console used for balance, tone control and - when needed - effects like reverb.

07:10 - This all is monitored over amps and loudspeakers.

07:13 - So the quality of amps and speakers play a important role in how the music is recorded.

07:19 - In the paper ‘The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms-The Stereo Past and the Multichannel Future’ by Floyd E. Toole he describes what he calls “the circle of confusion” which is quite revealing.

07:35 - It says that loudspeakers are evaluated using recordings that are made by using microphones, EQ, reverb and effects which are evaluated by using loudspeakers that are evaluated by using recordings that are made by using microphones….

07:53 - You get the point. Consequently all this is used to evaluate audio products.

07:59 - It all starts with the recording engineer and producer.

08:03 - They decide what a good representation is of what happens in the recording hall.

08:08 - That is a subjective judgement as you can check out yourself by comparing recordings coming from the same hall by the same orchestra.

08:17 - When done well, the recordings will have the acoustic signature of the hall but might sound differently.

08:25 - Record companies don’t care about this all as long as the production is low cost and the record sells well. So if Rudy van Gelder recordings on Blue Note sell well and Max Bolleman - being a fan of the Van Gelder sound - makes recordings that sound and sell alike, Max got recording jobs as well.

08:45 - Regardless whether the recording is a transparent representation of the recording session. Which it isn’t as I know from sitting in on a recording session of Art Blakey at Studio 44 in the 80s.

08:58 - And recordings from both engineers brought pleasure to many jazz lovers.

09:07 - In rock and pop music there is no truth at all, the sound scape is fully virtual, synthetic.

09:14 - Then there is the phenomenon of compression of dynamics.

09:18 - That started in the radio world with the multi band compressors like the Optimod but is now part of almost the entire pop and rock scene.

09:26 - Compare, if you can, Michael Jackson’s Bad re-releases over the years and you hear the dynamics and overall sound quality drop.

09:35 - But that’s yet another discussion. Let’s go back to the pure and perfect reproduction of the acoustical concert that still is the holy grail for - at least a part of the - audio industry They might learn a lot form the film industry where initially the goal was to faithfully reproduce the stage play in a cinema.

09:57 - Initially using text cards since movie sound was not yet developed.

10:01 - But even when the talkies came, the experience in the cinema differed from that in the theater.

10:07 - A big change came when directors like Alfred Hitchcock deviated from the idea of reproducing the theater in the cinema and made it two different disciplines.

10:16 - In fact that is what happened with most if not all music recording as well but for some reason this should not be said out loud.

10:25 - Movie directors choose different focal length glass, lighting effects and today sets half dressed in green screen to later add a realistic environment.

10:35 - And that is what recording engineers do too: they pick certain microphones for certain applications, even if these microphones start rolling off at 17 kHz.

10:46 - They place gobo’s in between instruments to create track separation, use noise gates, compressors and tone control to clean up the sound, use delays and reverbs to create spatial information and so on.

11:01 - With classical recordings pieces of several partly or even complete performances are edited together to get one error free performance.

11:15 - As with movies the recordings are supposed to please, fascinate and entertain the consumer.

11:20 - And not the man with the scope. Does that mean that audio equipment does no longer need to be close to perfection? Of course not.

11:31 - Movie lovers use perfectly calibrated beamers or OLED TV’s.

11:36 - When watching the Lord of the Rings you want Mordor to look different from the Shire and watching the Matrix should look blue - the right shade of blue.

11:46 - It should be as the director intended it. But even here subjective judgement stands in the way of what looks like technical improvement.

11:55 - Film director James Cameron was criticised by film lovers for shooting films at 60 frames per second for that looked like soaps on tv.

12:03 - As where 60 frames per second create a sharper picture, especially on camera motion or for instance when panning.

12:12 - Apparently the motion blur at 24 frames per second added a feel of speed. We as reviewers are confronted frequently by people that want us to do scientific double blind tests to base our reviews on.

12:31 - Very few of them know what they ask for. They think that setting up a scientific double blind test is quite easy.

12:39 - Even in the scientific world double blind tests bring results that hardly ever come close to the results of the best reviewers in the world.

12:47 - This could mean that reviewers don’t do their work properly or that the tests are not set up well enough.

12:54 - One double blind test did achieve results that did make sense to me: the research the Institute for Perception Research, Eindhoven, The Netherlands set up to evaluate the subjective perception of the Precision Adaptive Sub-band Coding used for the Philips digital compact cassette, lead by the now professor emeritus Adrianus Houtsma.

13:14 - A computer program offered the test person an ABX comparison and the test person was allowed to make comparisons for as long as his score went up.

13:25 - Het could even pause and continue the next day.

13:29 - This way the test person was able to adapt to the listening conditions, was not pressed for time and got time to loose the stress of having to perform.

13:40 - It might be clear that to set up even this relatively simple test takes a lot of effort.

13:47 - While here only two different audio signals need to be switched between the original signal and the one with lossy compression.

13:55 - Comparing audio equipment is a lot harder to set up.

13:59 - And to do it truly scientific, one test person is not sufficient.

14:05 - Reviewers that have done their home work are aware of all the pitfalls reviewing equipment brings.

14:10 - One is of course commercial pressure, another is prejudice.

14:15 - But there are also basic rules like always using the same review equipment, setup up identically for every review, use a wide variety of music and listen not only in ‘evaluation mode’ but also in ‘enjoyment mode’.

14:30 - And he should be entirely independent, which is the hardest thing to achieve.

14:35 - It will cost the publisher add contracts and the reviewer access to review samples.

14:41 - Not too many are in a position they can afford that.

14:44 - It usually takes years to get in such a position.

14:47 - Having said that, when you compare reviews from the best reviewers, there is often clear consensus on products.

14:55 - Also in those cases where the reviews are published at about the same time so that they could not influence each other.

15:03 - This might indicate that there is a reliable way of non-blind testing when done by trained people. Taste develops over time, whether it is music or, for instance, food.

15:19 - With music I have noted there are three ways music gets to people and I called them Hips, Heart and Head.

15:27 - Hips stand for the danceability of music, whether it is modern dance music or Vienna waltzes.

15:34 - Given the right music and circumstances people will automatically start to move rhythmically.

15:40 - ‘Heart’ is also called ‘the soundtrack of your life’.

15:46 - Everyone has associations with certain pieces of music.

15:49 - They bring you back to earlier - often very positive - experiences.

15:55 - Like my first love that I met after she played violin in a youth orchestra that played Shererazade by Rimsky-Korsakov.

16:03 - This symphonic suite will forever be linked to her.

16:07 - ‘Head’ stands for the intellectual experience music can give.

16:11 - It can be the lyrics but also very clever harmonics or the sound of an instrument.

16:18 - All three H’s will differ from person to person and will be significantly influenced by the social and cultural environment a person grows up in.

16:26 - The chances a person in lower class circles will be confronted with music by Rimsky-Korsakov will be low, as will a person in nouveau riche circles.

16:38 - People with an active pub-live will learn to appreciate typical pub-music more than others and so on.

16:45 - I have observed that about the same goes for sound quality.

16:49 - When in the 90’s an American loudspeaker manufacturer actively started to trade in high quality loudspeaker against their satellite speaker system, many families ‘learned’ their young children that hifi sounds like those.

17:04 - These youngsters took refuge to headphones and in-ears since they clearly sound better.

17:11 - But also those children that grew up with a decent stereo will take the sound of that stereo with them for the rest of their lives unless they actively search for alternatives.

17:22 - Add to that the concert sound at rock concerts or the sound of the pub’s sound system and the expectations of the average young person is like fast food: sweet, salty and fat.

17:37 - And as every food expert can tell you, these are the three most addicting ingredients in food.

17:44 - For audio that is dynamic compression, MP3 distortion and heavy bass.

17:49 - There is a group of younger people that, when confronted with high quality sound, really get interested.

17:56 - It is this group that over time will buy audio equipment of proper quality and subscribe to a lossless audio streaming service.

18:06 - People suffering from the ‘gear acquisition syndrome’ are helpful here too since they support the audiophile industry with their frequent purchases. The term ‘audiophile’ is in fact an empty term.

18:25 - Measurements can only be objective on what they measure, not on the performance of an audio device as long as we are not sure what parameters define a perfect audio device.

18:37 - Whether a person over-emphasizes his gear is relevant for the manufacturer and keeps the business alive.

18:43 - But it has nothing to do with enjoying sound quality as the name audiophile implies.

18:51 - Seeking ‘Realism’ in music reproduction is pointless and - at least to me - naive.

18:56 - And on that bombshell we come to the end of this video.

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19:35 - I am Hans Beekhuyzen, thank you for watching and see you in the next show or on theHBproject. com. And whatever you do, enjoy the music. .