My basic premise when designing an audio system is to start with simplicity. The concept behind creating the most perfect sounding audio system is to have a "straight wire with gain" architecture. This means that an ideal audio system would take the original signal and simply make it louder, neither adding nor subtracting from what was recorded. (Recordings involve the same issues, but I will save that for another column). As with many theories this sounds great on paper but is much more difficult to achieve in practice. In order to get the recorded signal louder, amplification is needed and amplification is inherently signal altering. The amplified signal must then pass through a speaker of some sort so that you can hear the result, and while amplification is getting closer to perfect, speakers have a really long way to go to achieve perfection.
In my experience it is more common to find inexpensive systems that seem to have achieved the elusive goal of intrinsic musicality than expensive ones. Almost two decades ago I was listening to a very simple, inexpensive audio system that consisted of an integrated amp, two small speakers, and a basic turntable. I was immediately struck by how effectively the music was able to get through the system and out into the room. It was by far the best sounding system I had heard up until then, and I think the price at the time was about $1,600.00. (As an aside, you can put together a much better sounding system for the same amount of money today.) That experience has stayed with me and has been the guiding image that I aim for when putting together an audio system. So why the dearth of honest sounding, expensive, high end audio systems? Believing that bigger and more are always better has just about sunk the exotic high end market.
The growth of high end audio has mainly occurred in the area of market sophistication. It has not been growth born of technical innovation, fresh thinking, or even new discoveries and for that reason more and more equipment is becoming more and more alike. Like the soda choices in the supermarket: a little difference here and there, but overall it is all cut from the same cloth. Market maturity perhaps, but at the expense of honest innovation: bigger magnets in speaker drivers; more purity in the copper, silver and gold wires; more massive and inert cabinet construction; complex circuit designs in preamps; more power in amps; bigger, more massive everything. Surely with enough brute force we can tame the musical signal and make it do our bidding. Sadly this has not been the case, as evidenced by the inability of many of these systems to get your foot tapping to the music. Somehow the magic is not getting through. All that complexity, the circuit boards, the crossovers, the distortion-reducing feedback, has a subtle yet important influence on the signal as it passes through each part. This is why the inexpensive, yet simple-by-design (because if you are interested in musical integrity and creating budget electronics there are very few ways other than just making simpler circuits to reduce the cost) systems can work so well. Cheaper speakers have fewer drivers, smaller cabinets, and more basic crossovers. There are an amazing number of reasonably priced small speakers available that are quite remarkable sounding. These must be simple in order to keep costs down. This is also the reason why systems created for video sound reproduction will always suffer in the musical department. They have gobs of circuits all designed for purposes other than the re-creation of an acoustic audio event. So what is the reason, or where can you go if you want an even better system without creating complexity?
One thing that an expensive high end audio system should not do is lose the basic musicality of the simple system. What we can expect is greater resolving ability, maybe an octave more, and greater clarity of the bass line, larger scale reproduction, and finesse when pushed hard. This is accomplished by taking the simple concept and, without creating more complexity, using better engineering to reduce circuitry. For example, negative feedback is used to reduce the distortion of an amplifying device. It means one can produce a less rugged or perfect power delivery system because the feedback will correct the deficiencies further up the ladder. However, negative feedback has its cost and that is directly related to sound quality. A better product might be able to produce the same amplification without any need for feedback of any kind. This will require a more costly power supply system, but not one that adds anything to the intrinsic circuitry that the music signal must pass through. Ironically the simplest systems of all can be some of the most expensive because working without nets (so to speak) requires great attention to build quality and circuit topology.
So why doesn’t everyone do this? Simple. The belief that bigger is better; more is better. It is hard to convince people on paper and in advertising that a particular product which seems to have so much less, is worth so much more. That, coupled with the difficulty users have reconciling better sound coming from a cheaper product, means that there will always be a much larger market for the complex approach. I have seen intelligent listeners trying to come to grips with why preamp A, at $1,000, sounds better than preamp B, at $3,000. It is not easy for them. Going simple means re-learning what is now second nature to us (that bigger and more are better). Not only does price not always go hand in hand with quality, but musical integrity does not always come from the apparently most impressive product.
© Cadence Magazine 1999