March 1, 2005Mainstream Misconceptions Lately, it seems, the hobbyist obsession with audio has fallen on hard times. Sure, a hard core of enthusiasts remains who are willing to pay vast amounts to have the "ultimate" system, which usually means two-channel stereo and various components with exotic circuit elements. But the mainstream electronics press has switched almost entirely to home theater on the one hand and/or the MP3 culture on the other. The editor of the largest consumer-electronics magazine, Sound & Vision, recently prefaced a message to me with "As we become the iPod nation . . . " Anyone who even attempts to promote old-fashioned audio to a wider audience deserves a pat on the back.
But I long ago despaired of reading much in the way of informed comment in the nonspecialist media. Too often the assignment goes to a writer who has little or no technical expertise, and who thus is prey to whatever prejudices may come forth from his or her interviewees. Perhaps the worst example of this was an entire book, mistitled Good Sound, written by Laura Dearborn and published in 1987. Dearborn cited some reasonably competent sources in her bibliography (such as Edgar Villchurs unassailable Reproduction of Sound), but the journals she named were almost all high-end "tweak" publications, and she seemed to have taken virtually all her information from them. As a footnote, I recall that she joined the staff of one of them as an editor after her book was published.
Recently, somebody drew my attention to "Sound+Art," an article in Playboy by Kyle Kolbe, a name unfamiliar to me. I approached the piece with some trepidation, because although Playboy has ventured into the field of audio many times in the past, it has never proved itself very useful to anybody who wants to make an informed, technical buying decision. Kolbe makes the valid point that "High-end audio doesnt have to be insanely expensive," then goes on to recommend a system that will set you back about $22,000.
That cost might be justified if it really bought you top quality, but there are no guarantees of that. And Kolbes technical pointers -- which, presumably, are meant to help you decide -- are basically nonsense. For instance, he says that "Most speakers contain three separate drivers for handling musics highs, middles and lows. But since the three propagate sound differently, they need to travel varied distances for their sound waves to reach your ears as one. Waves arriving slightly out of sync with one another lack whats called timing coherence."
This theory that has been advanced numerous times over the years but is mostly discredited. More than 20 years ago, audio guru Dr. Floyd Toole wrote, "Phase shifts and time delays are on something of a bandwagon at the moment, although the audibility of these effects is very much a matter of debate. The limited scientific data that exists suggests that large time and phase errors may be audible in controlled experiments using contrived signals. But in normal rooms, with music signals, the tolerance seems to be very high -- certainly high enough to accept the errors that appear in most domestic products. In the listening tests that we have done, products that have gone to great lengths to improve phase performance have not distinguished themselves in any special way." Its interesting to note that very few speakers -- even many of the most respected models -- have been phase-corrected.
But Kolbe doesnt even understand whats supposed to be the problem: "Bad timing kills your sense of where each instrument is located, and because your brain must compensate you experience listening fatigue. "
Bull. First, "your sense of where each instrument is located" is a matter of imaging, which has to do with the phase relationships and location of the left and right speakers, not with the phase alignment of the drivers within each speaker. If the left and right speakers are identical -- and in phase -- they should have adequate imaging whether theyre time-aligned or not. And listening fatigue is one of those phrases that has no definition on which two audiophiles can agree.
Predictably, Kolbe also treads the well-worn rebirth-of-vinyl path. Ill save that until next month.
...Ian G. Masters