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Audio Genesis

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Let’s start back at the genesis of this whole project. Like way-back “In the beginning…” style. So yeah: Big Bang, buncha stuff, and then I was in college checking out a place to live. It was a place being rented out by my friend Jeff’s older brother Tim. After the tour was done, he showed us these new fancy British B&W speakers he just bought and I was blown away. I had never heard music sound that good before and didn’t even knew it could sound that way. Something magical had just been revealed and I wanted to spend hours just listening. It didn’t even matter what — it was all so good.

So I wanted those B&Ws pretty badly but didn’t have the space or money, so I just thought about them and listened to things in the $100 and under category. Usually with an itch to to go back to that magical place again.

Fast forward to this year, where I had some money and was ready to board the train to wonderland. I started the search like any other purchase decision– see what’s popular, read reviews on the web, you know the drill. Normally this works great and a landscape of clear options quickly comes into focus. Then it just becomes a matter of whether you really need that extra 8GB of memory or something that was designed in Switzerland by people with expensive glasses.

The problem is that speakers are indeed magical music boxes and there’s no way to describe in an Amazon-style 5 point bulleted list what you’re getting. There are plenty of reviews and opinions but the more you read, the less sure you feel about getting the right thing for you. Somebody says this $1500 dollar speaker sounds as good as this other $5000 speaker and then other people trash it for being junk and say you have to spend at least $3000 to get something that sounds good. What do you do with that? There’s no list of features either– just a bunch of nebulous words like “transparency” and “richness”. Speaker manufacturers know shoppers are looking for something more concrete so they try to help out with a semi-scientific term “Extended Wide Bandwidth soft dome tweeter” but there’s no standard set of terminology and each manufacturer wants you to think they’ve got the most advanced product out there (wouldn’t you like to have have dual 5-1/4″ CMMD high-output woofers for powerful, low-distortion bass???)

So I quickly discovered that the world of audiophiles (the gang of nerds who are looking for the ultimate magic music box) has no consistent framework for determining value in a speaker. Without listening, you just can’t really tell anything about the speaker and once you do listen, its really hard to describe what you hear and even harder to get a consensus on that. Your experience is also influenced by myriad factors all outside the actual speaker itself– things like the room you’re in, the amplifier, the wiring between the amplifier and the speaker, the quality of the source signal. Put this all together and it means that reading somebody’s glowing review of a speaker is even less reliable than reading a Yelp review for that new restaurant you’ve been wanting to check out. And we all know how crappy Yelp food reviews are.

Because there is no consistent framework for what makes speakers sound good and so many factors that affect it, there is a lot of “woo-woo” type stuff. Browsing thru that is both fun and a bit morally offending. Stuff like a “shootout” of $600 USB cables (hello, it’s a DIGITAL signal) and site selling 4″ thick maple blocks hand-planed by Amish craftsmen to ward off vibrations from entering your precious audio equipment (I’m not making this up). Inciting the placebo effect has got to be a multi-million dollar business here!! Even in something as simple as the wire connecting the speaker to the amplifier, you have people who think anything above $20 is overkill and then you have cables with an asking price over $20,000 (AudioQuest Everest)! For a fun read, check out the Amazon reviews for this $6,000 power cable. Anyway, this is the only area I know of where people are willing to spend so much money for things that nobody really can prove makes a noticeable difference or not. It’s madness.

Oh wow, we’re six paragraphs in already. Hopefully you’ve been entertained. I am probably coming off as overly dramatic but this area really is crazy and what I desperately wanted at the time was to cut the crap and get to something real.

Thankfully, I found a nugget of gold amidst the mountains of glittering nonsense. Back in 2004, a researcher at Harman International (parent company of audio brands like Harman-Kardon, JBL, Infinity) did a large double-blind study on hundreds of people where they correlated acoustic measurement data from 70 different speakers with the preference ratings of participants. From that data, they developed (and patented) a model predicts how a trained listener would rate a speaker’s overall sound quality on a scale from 0 to 10. Their model predicted preference with an amazing 86% accuracy and more importantly, they solidly established a set of basic principles that quantify what makes a speaker sound good.

Turns out that the magic isn’t so complicated after all. What they disclosed of their formula (remember the full thing is patented) is that there are three main factors driving listener preference. The first is called frequency response which basically means that if you ask the speaker to play a single, very short note, how loud is that note when it comes out of the speaker. It doesn’t matter really how loud it is by itself, what matters that it the loudness is even from the lowest notes all the way to the highest notes. If it’s not even, then you get things like the high notes sounding too loud and thus a drummer’s cymbals sound harsh or maybe the mid-range notes being too quiet and a singer’s voice not coming out clearly. Makes sense.

The second thing is that this frequency response needs to be even not only for the sound waves coming straight out from the speaker but for the sound coming out at angles. This sound bounces off the walls in your room and gets back to your ears and so if it’s uneven in loudness, you have the same problem as before. And the third thing is how low the bass goes. You want a speaker that can play the canon shots in the 1812 Overture or the epic Skrillex bass drops.

So that made sense to me and was enough for me to lock in on a speaker. Which one I locked in on and why… well that’s for another time. Let me know if you liked this story and I’ll get that yarn a’spinnin.

Written by admin

May 17th, 2015 at 1:16 am

Posted in Speaker Project