For many people, the thought of a high-end audio system conjures up images of huge, costly stereos. Certainly they can be large and expensive, but that is true of just about everything at the extreme edges of performance. Ironically, the largest and most expensive audio systems that I have heard have been remarkable in just how disappointing they were from a music-listening standpoint. This experience has been echoed by many of our readers as well and many times has been the reason that some listeners have even avoided high-end audio, thinking it was basically for people with more money than brains or musical interest. Like all stereotypes (no pun intended) this one is born, in part, from the reality of that market. Traditional high-end audio has for some time been best characterized as “toys for boys” and thrived on the market of excess and one-upmanship. While that market still exists, it has been slowly moving from the two-channel arena over to the surround sound arena and, with this move, dire predictions of the failing of high-end audio. If you read “Sonics” 2/02 p.26, you will see that I remain unconvinced that there is a high-end sound or sensibility in surround sound, separate even from the “toys for boys” mentality that pretty much permeates that market. I also remain unconvinced that high-end audio, as I define it (see below), is in any greater jeopardy than it has ever been. Critical appreciation and the time and effort required to listen to music in this fashion has always been and probably always will be a very niche market, a market that has more or less found the occasional gem of a product amongst the ever changing flow of new marketing ideas that represent progress for high-end audio.
For my purposes and that of many others, high-end audio is more about the goal of achieving a reasonable facsimile through speakers (or headphones) to a given source recording. Fidelity to a source involves many different requirements, some of which are not mutually related so that one can arrive at varying degrees of success depending on the resources one is willing to allow for this re-creation. I would break down the various types of fidelities into the following categories: tone, timbre, micro dynamics, macro dynamics, overall resolution, frequency extremes and overall volume level. It is possible with judicious compromises to arrive at a system that gives an honest attempt at overall fidelity – within the limitations of a budget – that still gives the illusion of a musically accurate system. (As an aside, the term “musically accurate” is one that the objectivists of the world will hate as to them it represents one of those wishy-washy un-definable terms that are the bane of accurate reporting. While on the face of it I would agree that the danger of introducing these kinds of phrases raises the potential for the snake oil to flow freely, I think it is just as foolhardy to outrightly discount “feel” as it is to discount using the science that we have. But, what measurement would one use to demonstrate that a piece of music has “swing”? How exactly would one measure what makes one take of a tune musically great while another is just so-so? Perhaps measurements could be made to “prove” these things but at this point no one has discovered just what to measure to those ends. In much the same way, I find little correlation between paper specifications of audio equipment and the resulting sound of the equipment except in the grossest of terms. A speaker that has a specification of rolling off below 100Hz will most assuredly sound bass shy, yet it will still sound different than another speaker with the same frequency specifications. Perhaps with enough study we will have scientific answers to these questions some day, but until that day happens I find that it is helpful to take what you can from both sides (objective and subjective) and use the information as a working hypothesis. Perhaps our science does not yet have the resolution necessary to discern these differences at this stage.) At any rate…
The first step in creating a budget high-end system is coming to terms with just how much bandwidth limiting you can tolerate. The single greatest expense in high-end audio is maintaining fidelity to bandwidth while maintaining fidelity to all the other variables. It would not be hard to find a reasonably low priced system that has a frequency response starting at the traditional 20Hz all the way out to 20kHz. But overall frequency response is not a good single point from which to hang your musical passion for, without some other fidelities, this will be a very unrewarding system on which to hear music. If you are willing to forgo the frequency extremes, it is quite possible to put together a reasonably priced system that does justice to the tone and timbre of instruments first. There are a surprising number of small speakers on the market that do this quite well and sometimes for an amazingly low price. Once you have this basic tenet of reproduction satisfied you can turn your attention to the triad that represents the next level of performance improvement (and where the price starts moving up): resolution, micro, and macro dynamics. These three are closely related with macro dynamics being the most easily singled out. A system with good macro dynamics has the ability to startle with things like rim shots or a kick drum. Simply, this is the ability of a system (and mostly this will be evident with the speakers) to respond to gross changes in volume level with speed and agility. Micro dynamics (for a discussion of both forms of dynamics, please see “Sonics” 8/03, p.33 are very closely tied to resolution because it is only with fine resolution that one can get good micro dynamics out of a system. Micro dynamics are the very fast but very subtle volume shifts that take place that are easily obscured by other factors. Overall system resolution is what allows you to hear not only micro dynamics but also all the fine detail that may have been captured in the recording, for example: the sound of brush strokes on a cymbal or its natural decay.
Once you have a system that satisfies these first five variables you can then make the expensive leap into the frequency extremes and overall volume category. Overall volume level will most likely come along with any system that satisfies the frequency extremes and most systems capable of everything up to that point will play louder than is safe for long term listening. Except for some very particular circumstances – live sound reinforcement for instance – a system that is built in any other order will fail to be musically satisfying, and attempts to ‘fix’ it by adding more of the same at increasingly higher price points will fail to produce a satisfactory result. This basic set of musical tenets with regard to sound reproduction is why it is possible to hear some ‘budget’ systems consisting of a reasonably priced integrated amp and speakers that, while not the “end all” in resolution or frequency extremes, nonetheless musically satisfy in a way many very expensive systems do not. It all has to do with attention to detail and judicious compromise.
The next time you hear a very expensive but musically bereft system, realize that the goal of that system was not musical satisfaction but satisfaction of another sort and that systems like those are not representative of the true craft of high-end audio.
© Cadence Magazine 2002