You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 29
january/february 2007

Dr. Sardonicus Speaks - A Follow Up To "Trash Reviews"

A quick word about constancy and reviewers

Since this is billed, nominally, as a follow-up to my rant on negative reviews ...I probably should actually do the follow-up first.

So here we go ...there is no such thing as an objective audio review. Even with great care to standardize the process, one cannot separate the observer from the observed.

Even Julian said when he liked and did not like stuff he was reviewing; that being said, there is also no such thing as an objective audio system. An audio system is a complex ecology, with diverse and often unpredictable interactions amongst its various pieces and parts. Stuff sounds differently in different combinations and in different contexts. Viva la difference! This is what makes this hobby so much fun. Putting together a satisfying system is a highly variable and idiosyncratic process.

Failing to acknowledge this produces crazy thinking. For example, it is absurd for a reviewer to declare what is fit and not fit, based on their slavish adherence to a referred source, or amplification ...or speaker of choice. The whole idea of a useful audio review is to give people a sense of the equipment under review, not so much from a static standpoint, but within a reasonable context(s). This means that reviewers have to adjust their system to whatever is under review.

A distributor recently vented his frustration to me about a reviewer who ONLY uses a SE tube amplifier in his reviews, regardless of its appropriateness. Whatever your personal feelings about SE amplifier topology, it is simply absurd to mate a barely-into-double-digit Watt output, impedance-dependent, powered tone control, to a sub-ninety dB efficient, 4 ohm, current-hungry speaker. A microcephalic can intuit the outcome of that pairing!

As a reviewer, I can either remain obdurate in my personal preferences, or I can try to provide the speakers I am reviewing with the amplification they were apparently intended to use, so I can actually hear what they are supposed to sound like.

This creates a bit of a paradox for the reviewer. They mostly don't have the luxury of changing only one variable (the piece under consideration). The scientific method would say if you change more than one variable, then you lose the ability to objectively (quote, unquote) assess the impact of the change.

When this happens you then have the choice of trying to maintain some sort of illusion of objectivity, or one simply embraces the madness and recognizes:

  1. Some phono cartridges are going to sound crappy in some arms, and wonderful in others.

  2. Wire often works as a mysterious tone control.

  3. The kind of music you use to review with has as much impact on the review as the equipment under consideration.

  4. There are an infinite—or at least a REALLY LARGE—number of combinations in phono and line preamplifiers and their interactions with power amplifiers, and some of them are great, and others are ghastly. It is very easy to put superb components together ...that hate each other.

  5. Some speakers are going to sound crappy in some rooms, and wonderful in others.

  6. Speakers interact with EVERYTHING in an unpredictable manner.

  7. If you still think that you can maintain the illusion of objectivity, please, I have a piece of the true cross I would like to sell you.

Perhaps ninety percent of audio journalism is info-tainment. You read what one person, in a single context, thinks of things. And this can be both very useful and very entertaining ...but always remember, no matter what they tell you, you are reading about an essentially subjective process, just as you do when you read music, art, and movie reviews.

When I was young, I used to find Steve Simmel's music reviews absolutely reliable. Our tastes coincided. If he liked something, I knew I would too. There is a local restaurant reviewer that serves exactly the opposite function; if she likes something; I know I will hate it, so her negative reviews always create interest for me.

But in either case, while your interest may be aroused by a review, before you spend your hard earned money, read other opinions and go hear it yourself. And always remember, you are listening to someone describe an entire context of variables; be aware your mileage may vary.

And now you get two rants for the price of one!

Speaker manufacturers, listen up! The Doctor goes on a rant.

Speakers are the black art of audio, and more idiosyncratic than any other part of the audio chain. The sheer variation is bewildering. I wonder if there is any aspect of audiophila more angst-producing.

There is a gentleman's rule of audiophiles; one does not criticize another's choice of speakers any more than one does their choice in romantic partners. You can bag on their sources, even disparage their amplification, but speakers are off limits to civilized audiophiles. It's just too sensitive.

It is perfectly OK to roll our eyes when the subject is out of the room, and then discuss their speaker's obvious shortcomings in great detail with others, but not in front of the owner; it's just not done in polite society.

But I am an audio reviewer, and thus immune to social conventions of most sorts (including, apparently, manners). So I am going to list some of my most enduring complaints. Be assured, most of these complaints are not unique to any specific speaker.

I have had enough so I am going to rant a bit.

Terminals - The ties that bind

Audiophiles need to arise and demand the ability to bi-wire/bi-amp any speaker that has even the slightest pretense of being intended for serious audiophile consideration. No patronizing excuses, no rationalizations ...just be quiet, split your crossovers and give us two sets of widely spaced, heavy five-way binding terminals, located far enough up off the floor so we don't have to tip the speaker to get heavy runs of cable hooked up.

I don't want to hear condescending language about how bi-wiring and bi-amping is not necessary and may even be harmful. It's not your call. You can always provide jumpers and place grave admonitions in your owner's manual.

I also don't care what you think of my choices in wire; it's none of your business what wire I pick and how much of it I use. If I want to use enough wire to suspend the Holland Tunnel Bridge, so be it.

Frankly, if the world obeyed my desires, we would long ago have transitioned to pro-sound XLR type plugs (that LOCK) for connecting everything, but alas, I am a voice crying in the wilderness. No terminals; just plug and play. Oh, the humanity!


At the next World Wide Audio Convention (WWAC) (tentatively scheduled for late 2007 in Fabio's listening room) let's all decide on what size spades we are going to use on speaker cables, standardize it, and then stick with it!


I am sure some designer at some boutique speaker manufacturer found those fancy terminals from Botswana to be very pretty but if they will not accommodate standard spades, back they should go!

You may want us to hook the speakers up using a specific connector type, but again, this is not your choice. I sure as hell am not going to re-terminate my gerzillion dollar speaker cables to accommodate your preferences and the next time I have to cable a five-figure speaker by sticking one end of the spade into a hole, or use a banana plug adaptor, I am going to throw a shoe!

Tilting and Tipping

There are high-end speakers that have to be tipped to achieve some semblance of time-alignment. Seriously; you have to tip them.

It's a trick that I have used with cheap speakers in the past. I suspect many of you probably have, as well.

I have two issues with this. The first is philosophical. Deal with time alignment and dispersion in the cabinet design, not with after-the-fact external mechanic solutions. It's annoying, especially on expensive speakers. If you are going charge astronomical prices, earn your keep through excellence in design and manufacturing, if not through weight.

A word about bass

It is becoming increasingly common for speaker manufacturers to use relatively small diameter bass drivers, but to use multiples and to employ "tricks" to get LF extension. However, these tricks pretty much give out around the mid-thirties. Most such speakers die quickly below that level. The specs may say they have output into the twenties, but in reality, you aren't going to get it. And if you have ever experienced a speaker that will authentically give you strong 20Hz, you won't get fooled again.

Thock, Thock, Boom, Boom

Of course there are advantages to smaller drivers. One of them may be to support this curious, almost inexplicable "audiophile" thing about over-damped, dry bass. You have to spend some time around real musical instruments to understand that amplified bass is NOT dry and damped. It is most often redolent and even boomy.

I stood next to a Fender Jazz bass for years, with a variety of amplification from an old tubed Fender Bassman (that actually caught on fire one night, and still survived) to SVT and Ampeg. It was NEVER dry or damped. We used to threaten to kill the bass player for routinely overloading the rooms where we performed. His defense was eloquent, "That's what it's supposed to sound like."

I personally heard incomparable drummer for the Count Basie Band, Butch Miles say the same thing when a band mate said a recording made his drums sound "boomy."

"That's how I sound," He said with a grin and a shrug.

Ah, you say, but that does not apply to acoustic bass. And where, pray tell, do you hear acoustic bass, other than in close proximity to a chamber group? At the philharmonic? Bzzzzzzzzzz, wrong, they mic and amplify through the overhead. At your local jazz club? Bzzzzzzzzz; show me a current jazz acoustic bassist who is not using some form of amplification.

Once upon a time I went to a George Winston concert in a very good auditorium. He had apparently insisted they turn the PA off. Everyone went to sleep because at best, the piano was a distant tinkle.

This dry, over-damped bass, with little or no energy below 30Hz does not reflect reality. It is NOT high fidelity!

We need real bass, and we need it down to 20Hz +/- 3 dB. And we need speakers that will reproduce bass at those frequencies at convincing SPL's.

This annoys me so much.

I KNOW the synthesizer on Chic Corea's, Romantic Warrior (first cut, whatever the hell the name is) descends smoothly down to the mid twenties, and I am sick of literally hearing it go away with most speakers. Same for Heart's, "Magic Man," as well as pretty much every Emerson, Lake and Palmer song ever recorded.

Sherman, set the way-back machine!

Quick nostalgia trip.

1970s, Infinity Quantum Line Source, bi-amped with two Ampzillas (that speaker had an efficiency of "4" and dropped to fractions of an Ohm in the low frequencies really needed a nuclear reactor to power it; even two Ampzillas routinely clipped). Down 3 dB at 18Hz. That same Romantic Warrior cut on the QLS's would shake the house and massage my buttocks, oh and light the clipping lights on both Ampzillas in the process.

My point is a simple one. The information is there on the recording, and we aren't getting it, because someone thinks it's more important to go to 50kHz, than to 20Hz. Screw diamond tweeters until you can do 20-20! (I am thinking about a bumper sticker ...FREE THE LAST 10Hz!)

Ok, back to the present time, rant ended.

I think part of the problem with speakers is that anyone with a wood shop can make them, regardless of what they know. This is not true for electronics; some knowledge and skill is actually required just to keep stuff from catching on fire. But making cables and speakers ...well, almost anything can and does go.

This is not to say there is not art and science in speaker manufacturing, just to say it is not required to get into the business.

This puts you the consumer at great risk. And, at the same time, this is where your audio journey finds its greatest satisfaction.

The Doctor's Dating Guidelines

Think of finding your ideal speaker the same way you you would if you were looking for a mate.

  1. Many (most) (Ok, ALL) of the prospective candidates are not telling the truth.

  2. Even worthy candidates lie sometimes.

  3. Your friends don't know any more than you do.

  4. The strength of a stated opinion and its validity are often inversely proportional.

  5. Like it or not, your room is the primary determining factor in which speakers you can, or cannot use effectively. Most audiophiles buy too large speakers for too small rooms.

  6. Exteriors matter no matter how we wish they didn't.

  7. You will make mistakes and you will feel foolish about them.

  8. That which impresses the most on initial contact may turn out to be the bane of your existence over time.

  9. Take your time. Decide in haste and repent at leisure.

  10.  Look around.

  11.  Size matters.

  12.  Weirdness is no assurance of anything but weirdness.

  13.  Complexity and esoteric materials guarantee nothing.

  14.  Price guarantees nothing.

  15.  Who gives a crap about what others think; you are the one who has to live with it.

  16.  Tastes and sensibilities change with time ...sometimes you just have to know when to move on.

  17.  Your room dictates your speaker choices; your speaker choices dictate your amplification. Your amplification and speaker chain dictate your wire (unless you get very lucky in what you select for wire ...a great deal of it is overpriced, cosmetically enhanced junk).

  18.  Date a LOT before you choose. Have fun. This should be enjoyable, not a trial.

I feel So Much Better Now

Ah, the balm of the rant. See you next time kiddies, when the good Doctor examines why some people should not drive cars, keep animals, or be allowed to reproduce.