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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 1
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Auroville
by Srajan Ebaen

REALITY? PERHAPS

The vicious whooshing of the helicopter blades made my skin crawl. The irregular detonations of cruise missiles and the violent impact of cluster bombs wreaked havoc with my gut. The smoking skeletons of derelict buildings, the festering carnage in the streets, the mangled body parts and the heart-wrenching cries of the survivors, the choking stench of death and mayhem—I came to in a sweat, feeling momentarily disoriented.

A BAD DREAM?

Of sorts. I had drifted off during one of those hyper-realistic modern action flicks. The reality was even worse than the dream. Why was I putting myself through this crap? Real veterans would give an arm not to remember any details whatsoever. They sure as hell wouldn’t volunteer to enjoy surgical closeups of soldiers turning cannon fodder in bone-chilling, gory glory on high resolution flatscreens while virtual reality soundtracks assaulted their scarred nervous systems from all conceivable angles.

Just kidding—I needed a gripping intro to catch your attention. Relax, I don’t do home theater, just good old-fashioned two-channel music. To be sure, I’m not dissing the movies, I simply prefer to see select ones at the theatre. Frankly, the whole home theater craze eludes me. If that means I’m not with it, so be it. I presume you can sympathize. Why else would you have logged onto this website devoted to music-making equipment, right?

REALITY? IT’S MINE FOR SURE

Welcome to Auroville, the new asylum for the hopelessly addicted, not-with-it carryovers from a time when entertainment was meant to nurture and elevate the spirit, not blow it to smithereens. I am somewhat of a veteran, not of the trenches of war but of audio retailing and manufacturing. I served a four-year tour of high end audio retail duty in the Bay Area, followed by years of working as sales manager for Mesa Engineering, Meadowlark Audio, and Soliloquy. I also started to write, first for SoundStage! and GoodSound!, then EnjoyTheMusic.com. Coincident with the launch of this website, I started my own webzine 6moons.com (www.6moons.com) in June 2002. I will continue to submit this semi-monthly Auroville column for my friends and fellow music lovers at Positive Feedback Online. I’m also once again working with Soliloquy, no longer in sales but as their website maintenance manager and in-house creative and technical writer, producing sales materials and helping with ad campaigns and review loans.

These activities give me first-hand exposure to a lot of audio gear. Much of it is considerably more expensive than I can afford. Before I somehow ended up in the industry, I stood on the outside, just like you, pressing my nose against real and imaginary audio shop windows. I fogged those windows, blurring my vision with my own ignorance. And I was always wondering about whether spending more money would make better sound, and if so, how much better?

A year ago, I wondered the same thing sauntering past a closed door on the second floor of the New York Hilton during the 2001 Home Entertainment show. A few guys were guarding this entrance like it was the Queen’s private bedchamber. I recognized Luke Manley of VTL. We shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries. (That’s what your usual industry envounters amount to, brief moments during show events, traditionally terribly hectic for any exhibitor.) I asked what was behind the door. By way of answering, he let me slip in. Joe Reynolds of NordOst was holding court in front of a captured audience, about thirty heads strong. He explained how, as an industry first, requiring considerable logistics, Nordost, Clearaudio, VTL, Burmester, Conrad Johnson, Wisdom Audio, and Edge Audio were collaborating to recreate Harry Pearson’s dream system, the one he describes in poetic detail in The Absolute Sound as one of the very best audio systems on the planet. In fact, the former editor of TAS had personally signed off on this installation just one day before, proclaiming that the system we were about to hear was a fair match to his own setup at Sea Cliff. This endorsement by the Grand Poobah of High End Audio, pickled in $250,000 worth of fever-pitched expectations, tugged on me despite years of being jaded by hyperbole. Hope, springing eternal, reared on its hindquarters and pricked up its ears, waiting for the stylus to drop or the laser to lock. Alas, the very name Nearfield Acoustics should have clued the presenters to the likelihood that three rows of listeners ten heads wide were counterproductive to their ambitions. Plenty of traditional and virtual ink has already been spilled about this. Hope eternal suffered hip dysplasia. It didn’t rear, but kinda collapsed and sat on its butt. For me, this was a doubly spoiled experience because of the obvious effort involved. And while I was disappointed by the sound, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d feel any different had I left slack-jawed. Can any audio equipment be worth such excessive cost?

Following CEDIA 2001, many months later, emails and phone calls raised this issue again. An equally over-the-top multi-channel setup involving arrays of Nearfield Acoustic Pipe Dreams and Halcro amplifiers had left showgoing friends of mine not just cold but in actual revolt. They called the results mediocre at best. I received enough such reports that I doubt much to the contrary actually occurred, save for those attendees whose hearing was affected by industrial design and the whole concept of trophy hi fi. My personal experience, from eight years of attending CES and sundry other shows, as well as some of the finest retail show rooms in the country, create a similarly dark picture: the more it costs, the worse it usually ends up sounding.

MORE REALITY, THE BITING PART

I don’t believe that this is an innate truism as much as that the requirements to make such ubersystems strut their stuff tend to either be neglected due to ignorance, or are simply not fulfillable despite the best intentions and expertise. There are many reasons for this. Take truly full range speakers. To design them properly requires immense and very stout cabinets. They are a bear to build and expensive to ship, never mind purchase. Once delivered, their size and weight creates challenges, drastically minimizes options on where to put them, and often affects soundstaging. Never mind that speakers with 20Hz bass are exceedingly fussy about setup precision and hardly ever integrate properly without cut’n’boost EQ. If you’ve got the scratch but not the room, or the room but an interior designer with opposing notions, don’t even go there. In fact, some of my favorite systems involve superior two-way monitors and subwoofers. The inherent freedom of placement choices, the ability to control monitor and bass gain independently, and to account for room gain and stiffness with the subwoofers, not to mention effectively bi-amping the system using the sub’s internal amp and thereby relieving the main amp of high current bass duties, spell better overall performance, and for far less money.

MORE REALITY, THE LIBERATING PART

As any speaker designer will tell you, it’s much easier to design a good two-way than a three-or-more-way. Crossover complexity is the bane of our precious audio signals. It also makes life harder on amplifiers. Paralleling output devices makes them more powerful, but amplifies not only the signal but noise and distortion. One of the cures, negative feedback, isn’t unlike chemotherapy in that it introduces its own potentially fatal liabilities. And on it goes. Keep it simple instead. For a given budget, you’ll obtain fewer but better components. You’ll definitely get performance that integrates appropriately into your space rather than becoming the insatiable monster that consumes more and more of your worries and resources in a fruitless attempt to patch up deficiencies.

Consider power distribution. It’s the audiophile equivalent of rubber on the road, the existential point of contact. I’ve reviewed and listened to quite a few power conditioners. I now consider them vital components in their own right, in certain respects senior to the others as they influence all of them simultaneously.

Keep cables away from carpet containing nylon. Treat all electrical contacts with contact enhancer. Make sure that the channel-to-channel path length of your speakers is precisely identical. Ditto for their distance from the side and front walls. Those two measurements should be different from each other, but the same for each speaker. Don’t overlook resonance control and room tuning devices. Lead-filled Ziploc bags can be awfully effective if not the last word in decor appeal, while efforts from Walker Audio, Vistek, Combak, Symposium, and Golden Sound cover all the fronts. In short, dialing in whatever you have will often go much farther than replacing a component for the flavor of the month. That, more often than not, is a short-lived fantasy perpetrated by crafty marketing guys like yours truly, fueled by slick ads and a review machinery that is lubed by nothing more than novelty.

YET MORE REALITY, IF YOU’VE SEEN IT FIRST HAND

In Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer’s philosopher-cum-warrior android uses the final moments before his chip expires to share his dreams with the outwitted Harrison Ford bounty hunter. He speaks of battle ships on fire, and of the foreboding outer colonies, telling the cop about sights off limits to human eyes. In a similar sense, I’ve seen and heard very pricey components and compared them to far less costly ones in ways that, for purely practical reasons, are off limits to most prospective buyers. The lure of the unknown, of the potentially better or more exotic, is progressively undermined. After many years of chasing, you finally come to realize that the differences grow more minute by the day. Battleships on fire alright. Instead, the real magic lies in how well a system is assembled and how carefully it is tuned, not how expensive it is. Beyond a certain point, money really has precious little to do with it. Incidentally, that point isn’t in the six or high-five figures, but much closer to what I presume is home for most of us, components for a couple of thousand dollars each, or less.

Take it from this veteran, technology has advanced so much that the differences between the mega-priced eye candy and the affordable stuff are first and foremost the former’s overkill build quality. So many circuit topologies have been tried and perfected that what really distinguishes components is often merely skin deep. Very few companies build CD transports or DACs, which means that no matter what digital gear you buy, it’ll contain more or less the same parts, making implementation more important than actual hardware.

As always, speakers remain the last frontier—literally, as they transform an electrical signal into mechanical motion. They interface with a three-dimensional physical environment, and are thus prone to non-linearities that the other components in the chain don’t suffer from. Speakers are still rather primitive, Model-T-Ford devices. The trick remains finding a designer whose compromises appeal to your personal priorities, not in believing that throwing excessive funds at the problem will make it go away.

ERGO

While the subject of high end audio pricing is worthy of far more than one short column, it seems fair even in this context to pronounce as insanity components that, in certain parts of the world, could feed and clothe an entire village for a year, or in our society exceed the cost of a truly decent car. You may still be curious about such exotically-priced components. I was. Having walked down that dim alley many a late night, I can tell you that if you had the same opportunity, you’d likely end up believing as I do: Most of it is merely trophy hi fi for those unfortunate enough to not know how to spend their money wisely.

Visit Srajan Ebaen at his site www.6moons.com

 

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