Are You On the Road to Audio Hell?
by Leonard Norwitz
We audiophiles are always trying to sharpen our skills at evaluating audio
components. However, the very methods we use can result in precisely the
opposite of the effect desired, namely boredom or frustration with our
audio system before we have even paid for it: in other words, AUDIO HELL.
Take the following short quiz to help determine if you have traveled this
1. Do you try to arrange instantaneous A/B comparisons of brief segments
of music to maximize your memory retention?
2. Do you bring the same group of "reference" test recordings
to each audition in an effort to sort out specific performance capabilities
and to prevent any disorientation or confusion which could result from
using music with which you are unfamiliar?
3. Do you avoid using music of which you are particularly fond so that
you can properly attend to objective analysis rather than be distracted
by the music's pleasures and passions?
4. Do you believe that the true function of an audio system is to recreate
music; and that therefore you can only accurately evaluate audio playback
if you have an extensive knowledge of live music performance?
5. Do you believe that if your evaluation addresses such matters as frequency
range, signal/noise ratio, stage size and depth, instrumental separation
and balance, timbre, and textual clarity that whatever other purely musical
considerations there may be will take care of themselves?
6. Has it been your experience that some speakers are especially suitable
for rock, others for classical and perhaps others for intimate jazz? How
do you explain this phenomenon? Is this more or less inevitable?
7. When you ask yourself: "What should be the correct reference,
live music or the recorded session?" do you conclude that it is one
or the other? Are you comfortable with your answer to this question?
If you have answered "yes" to at least three of these questions,
you can feel comfortable knowing that, like many other audiophiles, you
are on the train to AUDIO HELL.
If you answered "yes" to most of them, you may be beyond redemption;
but we are here to help, and there is always hope.
If you answered "yes" to question #3, you probably require the
services of an audio exorcist; if the purpose of your music playback system
isn't to involve you emotionally, then why aren't you shopping at Sears?
Before we take a more critical look at the implications of this quiz and
your answers, it might be useful to go review the past few years to see
how we got into this mess in the first place.
A brief history
As the audio industry grew out of its infancy in the 1950's and began
to aspire to commercialism in the 1960's, an evaluation and review procedure
was adopted which initially attempted to mate the measured superiority
of the developing technologies with the goal of better sound quality.
It appeared that a conspiracy of purpose was entered into by the press
and many companies in the industry based on the thesis that technical
perfection - as demonstrated by measurements of particular specifications
assumed to be relevant as well as correctly obtained - also led to sonic
perfection. This thesis had the advantage that winners in the performance
race could easily be decided by the evidence of such measurements. Such
"proof" made possible facile marketing strategies which have
persisted to the present despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary
provided by our own ears in the most casual of listening auditions. By
the mid-1970's, the development of this thesis had reached a stage with
audio components where technical specifications were making further improvements
practically impossible. The race for lower distortion, faster slew rates,
better damping factors, wider bandwidths and more power had caught up
with itself and ground to a halt.
At about this point, a number of smaller publications appeared which abandoned
this thesis of measured performance (a kind of technical perfection) in
favour of a more subjective approach in which listening to music through
the components was considered the more useful tool; and its approximation
to "live music" its most sought after criteria. The editorial
position of some of these new "underground" magazines considered
measurements as irrelevant or even damaging to the evaluation process,
observing that audio components which measure the same can sound strikingly
different. The result was that the method of auditioning equipment became
more complicated; magazine reviewers spent hours listening to and comparing
different components in order to decide which sounded best. Out of this
history was born the "Golden Ear" upon whose judgment many consumers
trusted with their available income. Every month a new product would appear
which was hailed as the "best sound" and frequently the opinions
of different magazine experts varied widely. Consumers might then choose
an expert that they trusted, or become increasingly confused, or give
up altogether, returning to the safer criteria of measurements.
By the mid-1980's the merry-go-round had reached such a pace that most
manufacturers resorted to placing their efforts in the tried and true
marketplace of seductive advertising slogans and images, and hi-tech cosmetics
and gadgetry. It had become too difficult to compete otherwise. The rule
was that if the component and its advertised image looked expensive, then
it must sound good as well. (Not least of the distractions the audio community
has suffered was the switch from analog to digital, which led to such
manifestly preposterous notions as "digital ready" speakers
and amplifiers, as well as a nearly successful campaign to re-write the
definition - as well as the experience - of the term "dynamic").
As far as we know, there has been no rigorous critique of the critical
methodology long in place, a method which we believe has contributed to
the audio hell in which most of us find ourselves. None of the current
methods now in favour; measurements and specifications, blind tests, double-blind
tests, boogie factors, or comparisons to "real" music, have
been definitive. Nor has there been a serious alternative offered which
categorically presents an orderly, reasonably conclusive methodology by
which we can evaluate our components and playback systems. This is exactly
what we propose in this essay.
We believe that the basic reason why so many consumers are in AUDIO HELL,
or on their way, is that they are confused about what should be the objective
of their audio system, and therefore have adopted a method for the evaluation
of audio components which often turns out to be counter-productive. If
you agree that the goal of your audio system should be to involve us emotionally,
physiologically and intellectually with a musical performance, then we
would like to suggest the following description for its objective:
An ideal audio system should recreate an exact acoustical analog of the
If so, then it would be very useful if we had meaningful knowledge of
exactly what is encoded on our recordings. Unfortunately, such is not
possible. (This assertion may appear casually stated, but on its truth
much depends on the following argument; we therefore invite the closest
possible scrutiny.) Even if we were present at every recording session,
we would have no way of interpreting the electrical information which
feeds through the microphones to the master tape - let alone to the resulting
CD or LP - into a sensory experience against which we could evaluate a
given audio system. Even if we were present at playback sessions through
the engineer's monitoring (read: "presumed reference") system,
we would be unable to transfer that experience to any other system evaluation.
And even if we could hold the impression of that monitoring experience
in our minds and account for venue variables, such knowledge would turn
out to be irrelevant in determining system or component accuracy since
the monitoring equipment could not have been accurate in the first place.
(More about this shortly.) But if this is true, how can we properly evaluate
the relative accuracy of any playback system or component?
The old method: comparison by reference
We should begin by examining the method in current favour: The usual
procedure is to use one or more favoured recordings and, playing slices
of them on two different systems (or the same system alternating two components,
which amounts to the same thing); and then deciding which system (or component)
you like better, or which one more closely matches your belief about some
internalized reference, or which one "tells you more" about
the music on the recording. It won't work! ... not event if you use a
dozen recordings of presumed pedigree ... not even if you compare the
stage size frequency range, transient response, tonal correctness, instrument
placement, clarity of test, etc. - not even if you compare your memory
of your emotional response with one system to that of another - it makes
little difference. The practical result will be the same: What you will
learn is which system (or component) more closely matches your prejudice
about the way a given recording ought to sound. And since neither the
recordings nor the components we use are accurate to begin with, then
this method cannot tell us which system is more accurate! It is methodological
treason to evaluate something for accuracy against a reference with tools
which are inaccurate - not least of which is our memory of acoustical
data. Therefore, it is very likely to the point of certainty that a positive
response to a system using this method is the result of a pleasing complementarity
between recording, playback system, experience, memory, and expectation;
all of which is very unlikely to be duplicated due to the extraordinarily
wide variation which exists in recording method and manufacture. (Ask
yourself, when you come across a component or system which plays many
of your "reference" recordings well, if it also plays all your
recordings well. The answer is probably "no;" and the explanation
we usually offer puts the blame on the other recordings, not the playback
system. And, no, we're not going to argue that all recordings are good;
but that all recordings are much better than we you have let yourself
Recognising that many will consider these statements as audiophile heresy;
we urge you to keep in mind our mutual objective: to prevent boredom and
frustration, and to keep our interest in upgrading our playback system
enjoyable and on track. To this end it becomes necessary that we lay aside
our need to have verified in our methodology beliefs about the way our
recordings and playback systems ought to sound. As we shall see, marriage
to such beliefs practically guarantees us passage to AUDIO HELL. It is
our contention that, while nothing in the recording or playback chain
is accurate, accuracy is the only worthwhile objective; for when playback
is as accurate as possible, the chances for maximum recovery of the recorded
program is greatest; and when we have as much of that recording to hand
- or to ear - then we have the greatest chance for an intimate experience
with the recorded performance. It only remains to describe a methodology
which improves that likelihood. (This follows shortly).
Listeners claiming an inside track by virtue of having attended the recording
session are really responding to other, perhaps unconscious, clues when
they report significant similarities between recording session and playback.
As previously asserted, no-one can possibly know in any meaningful way
what is on the master tape or the resulting software, even if they auditioned
the playback through the engineer's "reference" monitoring system.
Anyone who thinks that there exists some "reference" playback
system that sounds just like the live event simply isn't paying attention;
or at best doesn't understand how magic works. After all, if it weren't
for the power of suggestion, hi-fi would have been denounced decades ago
as a fraud. Remember those experiments put on by various hi-fi promoters
in the fifties in which most of the audience "thought" they
were listening to a live performance until the drawing of the curtain
revealed the Wizard up to his usual tricks. The truth is the audience
"thought" no such thing; they merely went along for the ride
without giving what they were hearing any critical thought at all. It
is the nature of our psychology to believe what we see and to "hear"
what we expect to hear. Only cynics and paranoids point out fallibility
when everyone else is having a good time.
Another relevant misunderstanding involves the correct function of "monitoring
equipment". The purpose of such equipment is to get an idea of how
whatever is being recorded will play back on a known system and then to
make adjustments in recording procedure. It should never be understood
by either the recording producer or the buyer that the monitoring system
is either definitive or accurate, even though the engineer makes all sorts
of placement and equipment decisions based on what their monitoring playback
reveals. They have to use something, after all; and the best recording
companies go to great lengths to make use of monitoring equipment that
tells them as much as possible about what they are doing. But no matter
what monitoring components are used, they can never be the last word on
the subject; and it is entirely possible to achieve more realistic results
with a totally different playback system, for example, a more accurate
one. Notice "more accurate," not "accurate." It bears
repeating that there is no such thing as an accurate system, nor an accurate
component, nor an accurate recording. Yet as axiomatic as any audiophile
believes these assertions to be, they are instantly forgotten the moment
we begin a critical audition.
The proposed method: comparison by contrast
When auditioning only two playback systems using the usual method, we
will have at least a 50% chance of choosing the one which is more accurate.
However, evaluations of single components willy-nilly test the entire
playback chain; therefore efforts to choose the more accurate component
are compounded by the likelihood that we will be equally uncertain as
to the accuracy of each of the system's associated components if for no
other reason than that they were chosen by a method which only guarantees
prejudice. How can we have any confidence that having chosen one component
by such a method that its presence in the system won't mislead us when
evaluating other components in the playback chain, present or future?
The way to sort out which system or component is more accurate is to invert
the test. Instead of comparing a handful of recordings - presumed to be
definitive - on two different systems to determine which one coincides
with our present feeling about the way that music ought to sound, play
a larger number of recordings of vastly different styles and recording
technique on two different systems to hear which system reveals more differences
between the recordings. This is a procedure which anyone with ears can
make use of, but requires letting go of some of our favoured practices
In more detail, it would go something like this: Line up about two dozen
recordings of different kinds of music - pop vocal, orchestral, jazz,
chamber music, folk, rock, opera, piano - music you like, but recordings
of which you are unfamiliar. (It is very important to avoid your favorite
"test" recordings, presuming that they will tell you what you
need to know about some performance parameter or other, because doing
so will likely only serve to confirm or deny an expectation based on prior
"performances" you have heard on other systems or components.
More later.) First with one system and then the other, play through complete
numbers from all of these in one sitting. (The two systems may be entirely
different or have only one variable such as cables, amplifier, or speaker).
The accurate system
The more accurate system is the one which reproduces more differences
- more contrast between the various program sources. To suggest a simplified
example, imagine a 1940's wind-up phonograph playing recordings of Al
Jolson singing "Swanee" and The Philadelphia Orchestra playing
Beethoven. The playback from these recordings will sound more alike than
LP versions of these very recordings played back through a reasonably
good modern audio system. Correct? What we're after is a playback system
which maximizes those differences. Some orchestral recordings, for example,
will present stages beyond the confines of the speaker borders, others
tend to gather between the speakers; some will seem to articulate instruments
in space; others present them in a mass as if perceived from a balcony;
some will present the winds recessed deep into the orchestra; others up
front; some will overwhelm us with a bass drum of tremendous power; others
barely distinguish between the character of timpani and bass drum. In
respect to our critical evaluation process, it is of absolutely no consequence
that these differences may have resulted from performing style or recording
methodology and manufacture, or that they may have completely misrepresented
the actual live event. Therefore, when comparing two speaker systems,
it would be a mistake to assume that the one which always presents a gigantic
stage well beyond the confines of the speakers, for example, is more accurate.
You might like - even prefer - what the system does to staging, but the
other speaker, because it is realizing differences between recordings,
is very likely more accurate; and in respect to all the other variables
from recording to recording, may turn out to be more revealing of the
Some pop vocal recordings present us with resonant voices, others dry;
some as part of the instrumental texture, others envelope us leaving the
accompanying instruments and vocals well in the background; some are nasal,
some gravelly, some metallic, others warm. The "Comparison by Reference"
method would have us respond positively to that playback system, together
with the associated "reference" recording, that achieves a pre-conceived
notion of how the vocal is presented and how it sounds in relation to
the instruments in regard to such parameters as relative size, shape,
level, weight, definition, et al. Over time, we find ourselves preferring
a particular presentation of pop vocal (or orchestral balance, or rock
thwack, or jazz intimacy, or piano percussiveness - you name it) and infer
a correctness when approximated by certain recordings. We then compound
our mistake by raising these recordings to reference status (pace Prof.
Johnson), and then seek this "correct" presentation from every
system we later evaluate; and if it isn't there, we are likely to dismiss
that system as incorrect. The problem is that since neither recording
nor playback system was accurate to begin with, the expectation that later
systems should comply is dangerous. In fact, if their presentations are
consistently similar, then they must be inaccurate by definition simply
because either by default or intention no two recordings are exactly similar.
And while there are other important criteria which any satisfactory audio
component or system must satisfy - absence of fatigue being one of the
most essential - very little is not subsumed by the new method of comparison
The hell of conformity
The methodology of Comparison by Reference will necessarily result in
an audio system which imbues a sameness, a sonic signature of sorts, that
ultimately leads to the boredom which illuminates AUDIO HELL. The explanation
for this lies in the fact that there are qualitative differences from
recording to recording - regardless of the style of music - which have
the potential to be realized or not, depending on the capability of the
playback system. (This is one of the undisputed areas where the superiority
of LP to CD is evident, in that there is an unmeasurable, but clearly
audible, sameness - a sonic conformity of sorts - from CD to CD which
does not persist to a similar degree with LP).
A significant part of the attraction to CD is its conformity to an amusical
sense of perfection and repeatability: no mistakes in performance and
a combined recording and playback "noise" lower than the ambient
noise existing in any acoustical environment where real music is enjoyed.
(This should not be taken as a "sour grapes" apology for LP
surface noise.) We all know listeners whose entire attention in the audio
system evaluation is directed to the presence of noise or the need for
absolute sameness from playback to playback rather than on the playback
of music. Their common complaint is "this recording didn't sound
that way the last time I heard it." Have you ever considered that
the search for perfection and the need for conformity are head and tail
of the same coin, doubtless minted in the worst part of our human character?
It remains only for us to be aware of how these "virtues" operate
on us, how we are used by them, and in turn make ourselves into something
that much less human. (Star Trek has been addressing these issues since
the First Generation.) Perhaps civilization's greatest enemy is not war,
disease, or stress, after all; it's boredom! This is why we must take
the time from our daily routines to relax and reinvigorate ourselves by
listening (for those of us not talented enough to play) to music. For
this to happen effectively, the playback equipment must ensure the individuality
of each recording. Otherwise, boredom - a very close relation to conformity
and a direct descendant of colourised, sanitized, sound - will result.
This stuff is as subtle as it is insidious; it will always be there for
us to grapple with; and we must or we will end up like the tranquilizing
acoustic wallpaper much of our music is rapidly becoming ... or worse.
Qualitative differences are easily ignored if our methodology and goal
is to achieve an identity with a reference; and our habit of listening
for similarities with a reference will make for some awkward moments as
we trek out trying to sort out matters of contrast. The latter requires
a much broader attention span and invites every conceivable intellectual
and emotional connection we can make with not just one or two recordings
but many, and not just with their analogous counterparts in genre but
with a range of wildly different styles, venues, and recording method.
When our attention is directed to similarities [between that which is
under evaluation and another system, or our memory of a live music reference,
or of the "best-ever" audio], we naturally focus on vertical
(frequency domain) or static (staging) determinants. But the sonic signature
of sameness is not only to be found in the frequency domain, which is
where we usually think of looking for it and wherein we try to sort out
tonal correctness, but in the time domain, where dynamic contrast lives.
When our attention is directed to contrasts, we are more likely to focus
on musical flow, dynamic resolution, and instrumental and vocal interplay.
When we compare for what we take to be tonal correctness using the Comparison
by Reference method, we will end up with results not likely to have been
on the recording, but rather the effect of the complimentarity referred
to earlier. When a system is found wanting because it does not uniformly
reproduce large stages or warm voices, we will end up with a system which
will compromise other aspects of accuracy, for not all recordings are
capable in themselves of reproducing large stages or warm voices. When
a playback system can reproduce gigantic stages or warm voices from some
recordings and flat, constrained stages or cool voices from others, it
follows that such a system is not getting in the way of those characteristics.
Using this method of evaluation takes some time, and some getting used
to; but then we audiophiles have been known to spend hours sorting out
the benefits or damage caused by AC conditioners or isolation devices.
More to the point, after the 2 or 3 hours it takes to compare any two
components by this method, we will have ruled out one of them, permanently!
And if we find that neither is the decisive winner, then we can probably
conclude that they are both sufficiently inaccurate as to exclude either
from further consideration. In other words, we now have a method by which
we can guarantee the correct direction of upgrade toward a more accurate
Detail and resolution
We'd like to briefly examine one of the more interesting misperceptions
common to audio critique. Many listeners speak of a playback system's
revolving power in terms of its ability to articulate detail, i.e. previous
unnoticed phenomena. However, it is more likely that what these listeners
are responding to when they say such-and-such has more "detail"
is: unconnected micro-events in the frequency and time domains. (These
are events that, if they were properly connected, would have realized
the correct presentation of harmonic structure, attack, and legato.) Because
these events are of incredibly short duration and because there is absolutely
no analog to such events in the natural world and are now being revealed
to them by the sheer excellence of their audio, these listeners believe
that they are hearing something for the first time, which they are! And
largely because of this, they are more easily misled into a belief that
what they are hearing is relevant and correct. The matter is aided and
abetted by the apparentness of the perception. These "details"
are undeniably there; it is only their meaning which has become subverted.
The truth is that we only perceive such "detail" from an audio
playback system; but never in a live musical performance.
"Resolution" on the other hand is the effect produced when these
micro-events are connected ... in other words, when the events are so
small that detail is unperceivable. When these events are correctly connected,
we experience a more accurate sense of a musical performance. This is
not unlike the way in which we perceive the difference between video and
film. Video would seem to have more detail, more apparent individual visual
events; but film obviously has greater resolution. If it weren't for the
fact that detail in video is made up of such large particles as compared
to the micro-events which exist in audio, we might not have been misled
about the term "detail", and would have called it by its proper
name, which is "grain". Grain creates the perception of more
events, particularly in the treble region, because they are made to stand
out from the musical texture in an unnaturally highlighted form. In true
high-resolution audio systems, grain disappears and is replaced by a seamless
flow of connected musical happenings. [cf. "As Time Goes By"
Positive Feedback Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4-5, Fall '93].
Returning to our suggested methodology - let's call it "Comparison
by Contrast" - we strongly urge resisting the reflex to compare two
systems using a single recording. This may require a few practice sessions
comparing collections of recordings until you have been purged of the
A/B habit, which tends to foster vertical rather than linear attention
to the music. If you listen analytically to brief segments of music, switching
back and forth, there is no possible way to get a sense of its flow and
purpose in purely musical terms. Music and its performance (which are
or ought to be inseparable) are very much about the development of expectations
which are subsequently prolonged or denied. It is not possible to respond
to this aspect of music as an A/B comparison and it may come as a surprise
that an ability to convey this very quality of musical drama is the single
most important distinguishing characteristic of audio systems or components.
By using the Comparison by Contrast method of evaluating components, we
have in place a reliable procedure for sorting out the rest of the playback
chain even in a pre-existing system whose components have not yet been
put to the same test. Once you have ruled in a competent as being more
accurate, it will fall out that some aspect of the sound will be less
than completely satisfactory, simply because the more accurate the component,
the more revealing of the entire playback chain whose errors become more
apparent. The next step is to pick a component of a different function
in the system - it is usually easier and more revealing to work from the
source - and repeat the Comparison by Contrast method for each component
in turn. This includes cables, line conditioners, RF filters, isolation
devices, etc., as well as amplifiers, speakers, and source components.
The methodology of Comparison by Reference leaves us without a clue as
to how to proceed when the inevitable boredom and frustration resulting
from its compromises set in. The Comparison by Contrast method, which
also results in compromise as any audio system must, will always offer
more hints of a live performance - for this is what is usually recorded
- since it has enabled us to get closer to the recording. And as more
components are substituted using Comparison by Contrast, the result will
always be positive in greater proportion to Comparison by Reference. By
the way, a delightful outcome of continuing to advance your system by
the Contrast method is that you will not only be required to broaden your
supply of hitherto unfamiliar recordings to comply with the method, you
will also find that your own library is already replete with recordings
whose sonics are much better than you had previously given credit. In
this way, you will not only become better acquainted with a hitherto back-shelved
portion of your collection, you will discover how much more exciting music
is immediately available to you; and voilá: AUDIO HEAVEN.
The false prophet which diverts many audiophiles from the road to AUDIO
HEAVEN is the notion that their audio system ought to portray each type
of music in a certain way regardless of the recording methodology. An
accurate playback system plays back the music as it was recorded onto
the specific disc or LP being played; it does not re-interpret this information
to coincide with some prejudice about the way music ought to sound through
an audio system. (This explains why many people think that some speakers
are especially suitable for rock and others for classical; if so, both
are inaccurate.) To put it another way, you can't turn a toad into a prince
without having turned some rabbits into rats.
Only if your audio system is designed to be as accurate as possible -
that is, only if it is dedicated to high contrast reproduction - can it
hope to recover the uniqueness of any recorded musical performance. Only
then can it possibly achieve for the listener an emotional connection
with any and every recording - no matter the instrumental or vocal medium
and no matter the message. Boredom and frustration are the inevitable
alternatives. Think about it.
[used with the permission of Mr. Leonard Norwitz]