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KIH #74 – Reheated takeaway

  • An opinion piece about an opinion piece about a review in Stereophile. With that segue, any reasonable readers will have buzzed off already. They can read and think for themselves. They don’t need a third party to explain a review they’ve already read elsewhere. Still, indulge me for a few minutes.

    The article in question is a SoundstageUltra editorial by Jeff Fritz entitled “Takeaway on Stereophile’s Review of the Dan D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Momentum HD Preamplifier”. Read it here.

    In it, long-time Krell owner Fritz belabors the fact that according to John Atkinson’s measurements accompanying the review, D’Agostino’s latest HD model ($40’000) measures worse than his non-HD model yet costs $8’000 more. Jeff’s stated personal policy is that “my listening experience of a component and its measurements must both be outstanding. If they aren’t, I don’t buy it. Why not have it all when you so easily can?” As to why Stereophile’s review sample measured less well than the model it replaced, “perhaps there’s a plausible explanation”, he mused. “Maybe the sample measured was damaged in some way.” In his manufacturer’s reply, the designer simply didn’t challenge the measurements.

    Jeff’s argument looks compelling. Why not have it all?

    But what if measurements, at least some of them, don’t mean what we think? In the first place, why would as illustrious a designer as Dan D’Agostino release an expensive upgrade if it didn’t sound demonstrably better? He’d be outed sooner than later. If, as it ought to, it does sound better, why belabour the measurements? Wouldn’t this be another case of insufficient knowledge about what to measure? Or about lack of knowledge on how to correctly interpret an interdependent three- dimensional suite of measurements? Or that beyond a certain threshold, shiny figures exceed our hearing’s ability? Now they’d just be about bragging rights in the specs sweepstakes.

    That said, I’m convinced that if I followed Jeff’s hi-fi purchasing rule–of starting out with only superlatively measuring gear from which to pick my finalist/s by personal audition–I could indeed build a wonderfully satisfying system. But wait, doesn’t that imply trust in my own hearing? After all, the final selection mechanism is my own audition. That means my ears. Or should the best-measuring kit win if my audition leaves multiple choices standing? Still, if I trust my own hearing, why not apply that same trust unconditionally, to all gear? It makes my options far broader.

    But let’s return to shiny measurements. How do we set minimum requirements for “outstanding”? Is a 100dB S/NR sufficient? Must it be 120dB? If we call it 140dB because the very best of today’s digital sources approach it, can we find preamplifiers, amplifiers and (cough) speakers which match it? How about THD? Should we worry more about minute amounts of high-order distortion like 0.01% of the 7th harmonic? Are higher amounts of low-order 2nd/3rd-order distortion more or less benign than that? What about rise times, slew rates and a speaker’s impulse response? What about phase shift? Does the time domain matter? What figures are acceptable? Which ones aren’t? Who says so? Where’s the true authority? Where is a Buyer’s Guide which only lists components whose measurements are outstanding? And if it is just us who decide, what engineering degree, how many years of design experience, what quality of measuring gear and education do we possess to carry out that job in any meaningful way?

    None of it challenges Jeff’s buying criteria. We all apply our own. They’re all equally valid. It’s our money we spend. If it improves our enjoyment to know that our hi-fi doesn’t only romance our ears but also measures brilliantly (whatever brilliant means to us) – why deny ourselves that extra enjoyment? I simply wonder. Will we ever figure out how to measure emotional persuasiveness? Will we ever identify the underlying causes for that near-psychic displacement into a higher feeling dimension which behaves like an altered state and is brought about by the best listening sessions?

    If not, how to go about assembling such a magical system? I say that it throws us right back to where we start each and every time we hit ‘play’: onto our own perfectly subjective experience and our ability to judge its value. No measurements. The greatest listening satisfaction comes from deep engagement, a quiet mind, evolved listening skills and at least marginal success at solving the strange reasons why our system’s sound can fluctuate from one day to the next without making any physical changes at all. In my book, the only things that help us with that are endless very personal experiments to build empirical observations which are based on an unshakable trust into our own experience. If it doesn’t sound good to us, it doesn’t sound good, period. So we keep buggering on.

    What’s wrong with trusting our own experience? Why do we look for proof that it is… what, correct? That it is okay to have our experience in the first place? Are we really worried about being tricked by poorly measuring gear?

    Are you kidding?

    If you are not, I would remind you that hi-fi is a parlor trick to begin with. It’s about a suspension of disbelief like a stage magician’s sleight of hand. We know perfectly well that it’s just us facing inanimate machinery. There are no musicians in our room. Our eyes aren’t lying. In fact, they’re reminding us incessantly that we’re just trying to bullshit ourselves.

    So… I don’t know about you but I want to be tricked. I want to fall for that same old trick hook, line and sinker, over and over again. If poor measurements or no measurements do that more convincingly, that’s what I want. On their own, measurements don’t mean a thing. It’s what they can facilitate which matters. I’m simply in the dark about how to correlate measurements with personal bliss. It’s why I don’t much bother with them. Other listeners will be far savvier about measurements and how to apply them to their own experience. That’s why we have magazines which cater to such listeners. If you’re one such, I salute you. You’ve learnt to leave your component selections to less chance by adding spec-based selection criteria that really work for you. That’s seriously brilliant.

    Now let’s jump to one of my reviews for a quote from Alain Pratali, the designer of its speakers:

    “I start by looking for convergence between theoretical predictions and actual listening. Everything worth knowing about bass reflex has already been said. For the interested reader, very good theoretical studies start with the Rossi professor of Lausanne’s Polytech for the theory, G.A. Briggs for the know- how. All essentials are to be found there to make it compulsory reading. Then come the classic Vance Dickason and Joe d’Appolito books. Today Bjørn Kolbrek and Thomas Dunker have written the 1’000+ page definitive audio bible on Horn Loudspeaker Systems which traces the history of my passion. For the M1, I start with the basic Helmholtz resonator principle which goes back to Greek and Roman times. Then we talk about alignment and set up a system which reinforces the low frequencies. Nothing in life is free so a basic port degrades the speaker’s overall response in the amplitude and time domains.”

    “The first thing we must consider is the woofer we want to use. That’s an art well beyond basic Thiele Small parameters so we need our own measurements to understand how our driver works in free air. After that software is very useful to calculate the volume and surface of the port but it’s not enough. We must create a tunnel that dances with the music to not go against time and step on our toes. Now we develop a very simple system which gains in fluidity yet all the while respects the driver. We don’t force anything. We try to understand the totality of the requirements and our engineering obligations toward them. For the quarter-wave it’s similar. It aligns with the resonant frequency of the driver and cabinet. Here I studied the work of Martin King including his Facebook page.”

    “I know that my proprietary tweeter works best with a 3.3kHz high-pass. So despite its bigger mid/woofer, the M1 shares that with the smaller M3. Theory might suggest otherwise but with absolute certainty, theory does not make for good music. Theory without listening is always only a dead end. Each driver has its own personality. One must understand and respect it to correct for its shortcomings like where it becomes directional, how it behaves in the impulse domain, how it distributes spectral energy across its band for tone color, how it reacts to different filters and alignments. From there we isolate a dozen promising crossovers, then listen to each one in succession. To call any speaker design complete, I look for the emotions and poetry like Matila Ghyka does in the book The Golden Number. Without love and magic, it’s impossible to make a musical reproducer. In fact, I don’t design loudspeakers. I try to make instruments capable of reproducing the emotions which are encoded in the music.”

    This was said by someone with 22 years as a master mariner in the French merchant navy, as a captain of long course and an electro-mechanical engineer. He needs measurements to design. But his final choices are made by listening. And listening is the only thing I would use his creations for. If I’m smitten by them, why should I bother checking up on Alain by questioning the measurements which led to my now being smitten? How is that relevant to my experience?

    But again, if knowing that your hi-fi components conform to your measured ideals adds to your listening enjoyment… you should only consider such items. Having real fun with this stuff is why people like Alain bother designing and making it in the first place. Having anything less than fun would be an insult and waste of time and money, wouldn’t it?

    Whereby this opinion piece about an opinion piece about a review somewhere else has run its course. The end.

    Did that measure up?

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    Written by Srajan

    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 Chai the Bengal cat in a tiny village overlooking the estuary of Ireland’s Shannon river at County Clare’s border with County Kerry. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.

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