On the Certainty of Science…

By Bryan Geyer

“What I see happening around me is depressing. The knowledge of how to create stunning reproduced sound exists, but because people in general don’t read, and many don’t believe in science, the average consumer ends up living with inferior sound when the same money could have purchased more. Countless hours in audio forum discussions are no substitute for a few days reading peer-reviewed science.” Also “…far too many audiophiles follow faith-based notions that the answers to perfect sound lie in distractions like power cords, speaker wires, and exotic electronics. This is money not well spent.”

These are the words of Floyd E. Toole, as taken from an article that appeared in the December 2017 issue of AudioExpress, in an interview by author Shannon Becker. Floyd Toole is the noted author of Sound Reproduction (Routledge, 3rd edition, 2018), a valued audio reference that’s now in its third printing. Prior to his recent retirement Toole was VP in charge of acoustical engineering at Harman International, one of the largest audio equipment conglomerates in the U.S. He is widely recognized and respected for a lifetime of research and achievement within the audio engineering industry.

One of the things that Toole finds vexing is the illogical means favored by audiophiles to assess the potential benefit of component upgrades. That process generally initiates with obvious and overt disinterest in any of the related technical issues. Critical detail like impedance compatibility, input sensitivity, and stage gain get dismissed without review, overrun by the compulsion to conduct listening trials of how stuff sounds. In truth, listening tests bear no consequence. A comprehensive 2012 paper (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/36/14580) that was devoted to the study of aural memory plainly shows that listening perception is a fleeting sensory response that’s readily swamped by overriding visual influences. Subjective aural impression is just too elusive to serve as a reference for later comparison. Barring cases of badly mismatched circuit compatibility, attempts to evaluate component quality by subjective listening will yield randomized results. The ear cannot serve as a viable accuracy indicator unless the response is monitored in a collective group setting, administered under “double blind” test conditions, and summarized with appropriate statistical oversight.

Another flaw innate in evaluating audio quality by ear is that the implied goal has become so very conflicted. The original aim was “high fidelity”, meaning faithful to the original; i.e. accuracy. In more recent decades this zest for accuracy has softened. The present target is more often “sound that I like”; i.e. a euphonious sound. This state of euphony gets variously described as lying somewhere between select extremes that are popularly labeled “too warm” and “too detailed”, a.k.a. “too analytical”. Of course, that’s a slippery scale, and alternate choices are likely to bob ahead dependent on the source material, mood, hour, choice of libation, and the velocity of warp speed when expressed in furlongs-per-fortnight.

Given this evidence, it’s apparent that mere listening alone is not a reliable basis for assessing the excellence of audio equipment. So, what’s a better alternative? What’s a good way to rate equipment and system upgrades without resorting to the groupthink blather that pervades most of the audiophile forums? Well, here are some suggestions….

Per Toole, try reading. Reacquaint your expectations with the glorious certainty of science. Do some basic study of the established physics, e.g. Ohms law, impedance requirements, voltage gain, load compatibility—the standard analog essentials that describe operative fit and function. Determine precisely what your equipment specifications mean; learn about their significance and the limitations that they imply. Understand why low resistance is the only parameter that will matter when you connect eight feet of cable between the output terminations on your power amplifier and the input terminations on your loudspeakers.

Seek objective resources. Most of the audio advisory publications are hopelessly subjective, but there are exceptions, notably the Audioholics site: https://www.audioholics.com. In addition to competently researched product reviews they also offer intelligent tutorial and opinion guidance; note the numerous technical articles that are cited toward the bottom of this section that introduces the Audioholics owner at https://www.audioholics.com/authors/gene-dellasala.

Last—buy this reference compendium*: https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=30158293718&searchurl=isbn%3D9780415788847%26n%3D100121501%26sortby%3D17&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title7. It’s The Audio Expert, by Ethan Winer (Routledge, 2nd Edition, Dec. 2017). Be absolutely certain that you buy only the new 2nd edition (Dec. 2017); ISBN-13 9780415788847. This book is a 783 page (fully indexed) source for “Everything You Need To Know About Audio”. The author is a solid science-based audio engineer who subscribes to all of the vital basics (nicely capsuled in Chapter 23). In addition, he’s a patient psycho-acoustician who can explain to you why you felt that the sound improved after installing those new $1,200 speaker cables. (There’s more to it than mere confirmation bias; refer p. 100.)

*The referenced site is that of bookseller C. Clayton Thompson (https://www.abebooks.com/c-clayton-thompson-bookseller-boone-nc/44399/sf). This shop’s collection of books relating to military history is unique; well worth perusing. As is Thompson’s vacation rental hideaway at https://www.petitemaisondulac.com/cabin.html. This is a nice place to buy books, regardless of theme.

BG (July 2019)

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa