Ears versus Brains…

By Bryan Geyer

Audiophiles often say “trust your ears”, but rigorously controlled trials conclude that what you think you heard is overwhelmingly predetermined by what you saw before or during your listening session. Clearly, vision overrides hearing; refer “Sight Over Sound in the Judgment of Music Performance”, at http://www.pnas.org/content/110/36/14580.

When components are compared under conditions that are not restricted to double blind control, expectation bias* and confirmation bias** will swamp aural perception. What you’re predisposed to conclude (by previously viewing the evidence) is what your ears will reaffirm. Refer https://www.audioholics.com/room-acoustics/mind-over-music. Also https://www.audioholics.com/editorials/placebo-effect.

The ability to accurately assess the performance of a specific piece of audio equipment is heavily dependent on the skill of the examiner. At a minimum, some recent grounding in basic (repeat: basic) electrical engineering is essential, as well as some practical experience in the application of analog audio circuit design. When these qualifications are satisfied and there’s free access to the relevant product specifications, a competent technician should be able to…
     …accurately assess the component’s probable performance.
     …identify any implicit limitations, and judge their impact.
     …project potential means for improved performance, and rate the relevance.

The common recourse for those who are not qualified to conduct an effective technical analysis is generally a listening trial. Unfortunately, listening is a flawed substitute. In addition to the classic “sight over sound” shortcoming that’s noted above, listening yields insufficient data. Prominent performance issues are often hidden and might not be apparent when listening. E.g.: If a source impedance is too high relative to the ensuing load impedance (a common issue), the signal will then be attenuated. Obviously, one cannot readily detect unknown and unexpected attenuation. It’s tough to hear evidence that’s essentially inaudible, regardless of how glaring it might appear when quietly considered in technical analysis.

Impatient audiophiles who sometimes insist that “I know what I heard!” need to realize that…
     …the eyes always predetermine what the ears hear. The “sight over sound” syndrome (see above) is real.
     …what you do hear might not include everything that you should hear.

So what’s an audiophile to do, when there’s a need to evaluate audio equipment, if technical prowess is lacking and aural trials are unreliable? Well, some decide to search the audiophile forums. You can sometimes find helpful stuff there, perhaps at the Audio Science Review site (https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php). But the audiophile forums are saturated with cult-infused groupthink†. They’re all about magic power line cords and miraculous speaker cables, curing power line impurities (to push AC regenerators), and the eternal blessing of everything that (still???) utilizes vacuum tubes. Aside from polishing one’s patience, there’s little to be learned at those fiefdoms. You can “smarten up” faster with other alternatives…

Check Audioholics, refer https://www.audioholics.com. Their full product reviews are exhaustive and well researched, and their technical advice reflects solid, science-based fact; no groupthink.

There’s a vast assortment of general information and DIY guidance provided on the exceptionally comprehensive Elliott Sound Products site. ESP is truly an essential treasure; it’s packed with reliable info and solid, science-based opinion. Do take just a moment—preferably right now—to scan the vital ESP articles and projects index pages.
     ESP’s main index—https://sound-au.com
     ESP’s general articles index—https://sound-au.com/articles.htm
     ESP’s project index—https://sound-au.com/projects.htm
     ESP’s projects by category index—https://sound-au.com/projects-0.htm
     ESP’s projects by number index—https://sound-au.com/p-list.htm
     ESP’s classic white paper on interconnect and speaker cables—https://sound-au.com/cablewhitepaper.htm
     ESP’s audio myths pages—https://sound-au.com/articles/myths.html

Prominent author Douglas Self’s site (http://www.douglas-self.com) is full of interesting audio-related fare, and serves as the reference shelf for his many books about all manner of solid state circuit design. I currently own three of Self’s design books, and I research their content frequently. (Self, who lives in the UK, has also been responsive in answering my inquiries about specific parts of that content.)

Audio industry icon Dr. Floyd Toole has a very helpful video presentation that’s well worth watching; see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrpUDuUtxPM&feature=emb_title, and his opus, Sound Reproduction, 3rd edition (Routledge, 2018, ISBN 978-1-138-92136-8) belongs in your audio research library. Do also note this paper, by Toole, which appeared on the Audioholics site: https://www.audioholics.com/room-acoustics/room-reflections-human-adaptation. It’s all about optimizing small room acoustics.

The prolific Ethan Winer (http://ethanwiner.com/index.htm) offers audio guidance on his multiple websites; also in the expanded 2nd edition of his 808 page book, The Audio Expert (http://ethanwiner.com/book.htm). It’s a well organized encyclopedic reference source for all things audio.

Bill Whitlock’s 2012 tutorial on audio system grounding and interfacing is well worth perusing, see https://centralindianaaes.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/indy-aes-2012-seminar-w-notes-v1-0.pdf. And Whitlock’s former company (he’s now retired), Jensen Transformers, has a comprehensive series of applications notes, AN001 thru AN009, that address related detail; see: https://www.jensen-transformers.com/application-notes/.

There’s useful general audio information available here: https://geoffthegreygeek.com. And Nuts and Volts, the DIY electronics magazine, offers this on filters: http://nutsvolts.texterity.com/nutsvolts/201807/?folio=16&pg=16#pg16. Sometimes Stereophile, the equipment review magazine, provides surprising guidance, like this info on output impedance…https://www.stereophile.com/reference/48/index.html. All worthy stuff.

In addition to the dozens of helpful papers compiled by the Audioholics team (https://www.audioholics.com), numerous product-specific manufacturer’s sites offer technical papers of merit. For example, Roger Sanders, of Sanders Sound Systems (where the principle product is hi-end electrostatic loudspeakers), offers 13 thoughtful, audio-related technical white papers; see…http://sanderssoundsystems.com/technical-white-papers. I personally recommend these papers without reservation. (Note: I’m not a strong proponent of electro-static type loudspeakers because they’re appropriate only in select situations. Full range ESLs are big, and require large listening rooms. They’re generally quite expensive, prone to narrow beaming, and all are inefficient; they eat lots (and lots!) of amplifier power. ESLs are also sensitive to some environmental variables (e.g., altitude, humidity), and some ESLs just seem to get buggy. All ESLs require periodic maintenance + careful cleaning, and all utilize hazardous high voltages.) Now please understand that my list of ESL caveats don’t have any bearing whatever on Roger Sanders’ excellent white papers, so read his papers. Use his ESLs, too, if they fit your personal profile. Sanders’ ESLs are probably the best ESLs that you can buy. They reflect all sorts of special measures to make them both practical and reliable, and they sound glorious, in addition to being highly accurate, but, hey, my stated comments still apply.

There are also good tech notes here: https://benchmarkmedia.com/blogs/application_notes, as compiled by John Siau, VP at Benchmark Media Systems. I don’t concur with his blanket implication that “balanced interfaces will provide better performance” (than unbalanced interface connections) at all times, but my objection applies only because John Siau’s unfettered statement was likely intended as a sweeping generalization. Clearly, there are times (especially in a home setup) when unbalanced RCA-type coax interconnects provide precisely the same level of noise immunity as when using balanced XLR lines. (Refer Roger Sanders’ paper on this same subject.) What’s optimum is often dependent on prevailing conditions.

What I’ve cited here is just a jump start. There are probably lots of other product-related sites with competent and unbiased guidance. But do take care, when considering technical advice, that the thrust is honest and impartial; not biased blather composed to push a product.

Subjectivist oriented audio magazines, e.g., Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, have never appealed to my science-oriented psyche. I subscribed to the latter for a one year trial back in the mid-1980s, then gagged on the content and cancelled. Your own take could well differ, but I don’t think that you will ever learn much of technical merit from their kind of commentary. The magazine audioXpress (https://audioxpress.com) represents the other extreme. It’s basically a tech-type journal covering audio equipment, circuit design, and testing, with a heavy DIY slant. I subscribe, and I find some of the articles of considerable interest. The editing is often sloppy, and some staffers write as if translating (sometimes poorly), and the technical depth varies widely. But it’s the best that we’ve got these days, so I’d say yes, order it here: https://audioxpress.com/page/audioXpress-Subscription-Services.

BG (July 15, 2020)

**Re. confirmation bias, see…https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias.
†Re. groupthink, see…https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink.

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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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa