July 14, 2010

The red or blue pill?

Morpheus on the Matrix offered Neo a choice between the red and blue pill. He could choose between blissful ignorance or facing the stark naked truth. The consequences aren't so great, but in audio we face the same choice and I notice that many prefer the blue pill. In case you are wondering, that's the one where the truth eludes you. Let me put the question another way. In an industry where many would take your money without offering anything substantial, are you a sitting duck?

If you enjoy the seduction that goes on before an expensive cable purchase, you probably should stop reading now.

I'm about to suggest what you might begin to see after you take the red pill. The effect won't be as quick as in the Matrix. Taking the red pill is an educational journey. You might do a blind comparison of a low cost amp vs a high end unit. You might start reading white papers. You might get into some theory.

Have you swallowed the blue pill?

Let's do a quick test. Do you believe:
  • the only way to evaluate a component is by audition
  • blind tests have no value at all
  • objective measurements aren't valid
  • the human is the ultimate measurement tool
  • the ear can hear things that can't be measured
  • everything in the signal chain makes a significant audible difference
If you answered yes emphatically to more than one of the above, you have taken the blue pill!

So what will happen if you take the red pill? I have some suggestions. I don't claim to have the final and definitive answers to everything, but I'd like to gently suggest what I consider some sensible opinions that should hold up quite well to scrutiny.

CDs and Recordings
CDs are as good as they need to be. In a reasonably high end system, even one moderately priced, the recording will often be the weak link. It's not because engineers are incompetent, it's because they cater to the majority who aren't audiophiles.

Notorious for fund suckage. Often called the "dark side" for good reason - you don't want to see how much you are spending! Everything in a turntable becomes critical and you need to spend serious money.

Speaker cable and interconnects
They do make a difference, but there is no magic here. The differences can all be accounted for - if you can hear it then it's measurable and science can explain it. Better to admit that you don't understand, than claim no one does. In a system without unusual quirks, the differences between well designed cable are difficult if not impossible to pick. Those on the blue pill will disagree emphatically during their sighted comparisons, but things get interesting when they don't know what they are hearing.

Sources, DACS, preamps
With the exclusion of components which deliberately add a sound of their own, these items even at a low price are generally as good as they need to be. Differences here are subtle.

The task of an amplifier is to supply a clean unclipped signal into the load the speakers present with low distortion. An amplifier that often clips is inadequate for the system. Any modern well designed amplifier that can meet these requirements is likely to work well. The advantages in spending more once this has been achieved are small.

Here is the real challenge. You can cut corners everywhere but here. 90% of the result is decided here. They are the most difficult part to get right and should be the most expensive part by far.

The room
There is a close relationship between the speakers and the room. Try to improve it as much as you can. Together they are a system.

The hardest aspect of room acoustics. It needs serious attention, often including things like multiple bass sources, acoustic treatment and EQ. You can buy great midrange, but great bass must be tuned to the room. It's the one area where you can't avoid measuring. If you don't have a measurement mic and a mic preamp to hook it up to your PC, you need to buy one now. No excuses!


While this may offend some audiophiles, my intent isn't to offend or aggravate anyone. Instead I want to offer some suggestions to those who want value for money. There are many who would separate you from your money while promising things they can't deliver. Audio is one of the few areas where some will spend 10x as much as they need to without any real improvement. The bizarre truth is that when the mind expects a change, it will often find one, even if the same track is played twice without any change but the mind simply finding something different to focus on. Some have discovered this by accident or even by setting up a trick comparison.

"Did you notice the difference?"
"Definitely. The first time the sound stage was compressed, the midrange veiled! Those cables were terrible!"
"Really, that's interesting, I didn't change anything!"

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated.