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KIH #41 – Art vs. Science

  • Artsy not fartsy. A recent email exchange went as follows: “I’m Peter Lind from Gothenburg, Sweden. Really like reading your reviews on 6moons! You have been through a lot of fine preamps so far and I would like your choice between some of them. I currently switch back and forth between an active Leben RC-28CX and a passive TVC Consonance Ref 1.3. My system besides those preamps consists of an AMR CD-77, Coda 15.0 power amp (100wpc class A), Bryston SST 14 (600wpc class AB). The Coda drives the main MBL 121, the Bryston the dipole bass modules (15″ on each side). I like both preamps a lot with their different strengths. The TVC has amazing clarity and resolution while the Leben has plenty of dynamics, tone colour and control. A combination of those could be ‘da shit’. In 2013 you reviewed the Music Audio R-T1 that seems to be just that. How do you rank that machine compared to one of your previous favourites. The Supratek Cabernet Dual for instance? Is the Supratek top notch still? I have found a very interesting competitor in Australian Weston Audio’s range of preamps. The Touchstone for instance seems to be an active tubed model with TVC! All the best.”

    My answer: “In our digs, I move between the Nagra Jazz, Wyred4Sound STP-SE (soon to be upgraded to Stage 2) and Vinnie Rossi Lio with Slagleformer AVC. The first is tubed, the second an ‘activated’ passive (no gain but actively buffered), the last a pure autoformer passive. Depending on what speakers and amps are on duty, one of them will be my favourite. From a sheer bang-for-buck perspective, the Wyred has it all over the others. But asking me which one I like best would force me to settle down on one given system and room. Since we’re eternal renters and movers, sooner than later the room will be different again and suddenly everything changes. The Supratek moved onward to a reader.”

    “For the ‘perfect’ mix of passive purity and active balls, the Wyred would be my go-to tip. It’s $1’999 in the base version. I had it shelved after the last move but recently rediscovered it. It immediately smoked the €10’000-when-new Esoteric C-03 which since has hobbled into the video system. I was so impressed (again; I shoulda known; I reviewed it) that I committed to buying the review Stage II version of the Wyred upfront, sound unheard. It’s hard to imagine it could get any better than the base version but I have full faith in EJ Sarmento. Usual passives have issues with fluctuating impedance and compromised current drive. The Wyred doesn’t because it’s got a massive power supply and buffers on either side of its volume control. Plus, it’s fully balanced to boot. So that might be one to put on your list? Srajan. “

    Here the subtext becomes uncle Albert with his relativity. But there’s more. Quoting from my Wyred Stage 2 preview, “the majority of upgrades improve sonics because of material parts changes. This isn’t something we can measure yet. Other upgrades such as the power supply section we can measure, however. For instance, the Stage 2 preamp has about 1/3rd less noise. Most importantly, channel-to-channel balance is within +/-0.003dB. That’s about 15 x better than the standard unit. S/N and crosstalk measure better than 120dB. Dynamic range as tested on the Audio Precision comes in at 122dB with a 5V in/out balanced signal.”

    This confirms a strange hifi truth. Many parts can measure identical yet sound very different. If all a designer did was rely on measurements, he’d go after the very cheapest part of a target group, then call anything else illusory and pandering to snob appeal. Once he conducts controlled A/B and hears clear differences between parts that measure the same, one illusion is pierced but more questions arise. Now our designer must rely on his ears. Is what sounds better to him better, period? Is it just personal preference? Where do ‘more pleasing’ or ‘better’ meet ‘truer to the signal’?

    For those who believe in absolutes, it’s a conundrum. Even with a designer relying on a trusted cadre of experienced listeners as a control group, we still deal in averaged personal notions of what sounds better, with necessarily limited material, when nobody knows what’s accurate in the first place. All hardware leaves a fingerprint. Knowing what’s on a recording is possible only by listening to it via hardware which will imprint itself. So our ideas about the recording must be coloured by whatever our hardware did. We cannot subtract that action. Hence we’ll never know what’s on our recordings, exactly. Change the system and the recording sounds different. Change the room and it does. Where’s the truth?

    This is where measurements stop being useful. If parts can sound demonstrably different but measure the same, based on what authority is a designer to choose? Obviously it’s down to his/her ears now that the scope stopped being meaningful. If the designer plays an instrument, he might use multiple recordings of that instrument to arrive at an averaged best approximation of it. It’s not a perfect ploy but more of an actual reference than simply going by what, in general, “sounded best to me”. I’ve met designers who tuned their speaker against a live guitar. They laboured until the timbre of the actual instrument and that of its playback were virtually identical. Imagine their surprise when during their visit prior to the review, I played them some Patrick Chartol with very powerful low bass which showed up certain issues with their dual port loading. “We never listen to that type of music” was their reply. Another designer’s reference is live classical music exclusively. Being obviously very demanding, that’s clearly a broader musical reference than solo guitar. But one wonders whether it accounts for behaviour specific to amplified instruments, close-mic’d drum kit and synthesized bass.

    Some designers create their own reference recordings. For example, Sven Boenicke does. So does Leif Olofsson of Mårten Design with his Supreme Sessions. “Recording with just two high-quality microphones is the method most akin to human hearing. So listening to the session through our own loudspeakers in the same state-of-the-art room used for the recording gives us what we need to keep developing even better loudspeakers.” That reads perfectly rational. Yet the two men’s speakers sound radically different. No matter how one twists it, in the end high-end hifi is about personal visions of specific designers. A certain percentage of their work is scientific and can be visualized with graphs and measurements. The other part is artistic. The balance of these percentages can shift but it’s very rare to come across a designer who claims to design exclusively by measurements. When one think about the source of so much hardware variety, it seems to be that artistic aspect and how it is informed by a designer’s beliefs and preferences.

    To a shopper, said variety can feel overwhelming and confusing. But if we hold on to the word ‘art’, what’s the primary qualifier behind deciding what to buy? If it’s a painting or sculpture, size factors. Beyond that, it’s squarely down to whether we like it. Nobody else has to but us and whoever we share our space with. Explaining why we like it, to someone who does not, rarely changes the other person’s mind. Professional art critics can proclaim something the greatest painting or bronze of the 20th century. If you don’t see it, it matters naught. You won’t buy it, you won’t hang it onto your wall or install it in your garden. Why does audio have to be any more complicated than this?


    You can read more from Srajan over at his 6moons.com.


    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.

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