This is the history of a successful charlatan.
> We like to think, or at least we like to say, that each writer's voice is unique, but it isn't. Too often, what a writer most fondly feels is his unique voice is actually a combination of bad habits and received language and tones shared with all too many other not-very-good writers. The inspired copyeditor's task is to bend an ear finely tuned to hearing the least hint of unique music in a writer's voice, strip away the accretions of junk language and tone picked up in a life drenched in TV and marketing and promotional copy and political obfuscation and bureaucratese, and then revise, even rewrite the piece in whatever authentic voice remains. The job is to produce a final edited article written in the writer's own voice, but in language and tone more consistently and authentically the writer's very own than that writer can produce herself or himself.
As someone who's done a little writing myself, I can relate to this. A good editor is someone who can cut the thing you're actually trying to say out of the tangle of spaghetti you carry around inside your head. And this passage would apply just as well to an editor working at any other magazine, it has nothing to do with Stereophile's particular editorial bent or the relative merits of green Sharpies.
Its tough though... I know of a couple times in my life I've thought something was OK until I saw something else.
Examples, Glass. Binoculars, camera lenses, rifle scopes, telescopes. Glass differences are very real. You might be A-OK with some Bushnell Binos, but USE Swarovski or Vortex Razor or something lower-highend and you'll get it. Now, I didn't write LOOK THROUGH, I wrote USE. This has an obvious point of diminishing returns. I would never buy higher-highend glass.
Another example is something like TV black levels. If you don't notice black levels - good for you! Don't look for it. Because once you have a dark room and notice it, you'll see it forever. I notice soap opera effect, black levels, local/regional dimming, burn in, and it all removes me from the material. Again, Sucks. I wouldn't buy a higher-highend TV, but I pretty much can't get by with low end anymore.
So... I KIND OF WANT to believe there is a serious quality range with audio gear, but I guess the difference is in glass or TV black levels, I can snap a picture and prove a difference. Audio is only ever perception. I can't prove a wave on an oscilloscope is more pleasing than another exactly within reason.
That said.... You're right. Sterophiles and Audiophiles seem to be people with too many dollars and not enough cents/sense, and lots of people taking advantage of that. But maybe I just haven't used the right gear yet.
For example, I love a great beer. I'll go out of my way to try something new. But when I'm sitting in the sun watching baseball with my wife, I'll get a Budweiser with my hot dog and it will be glorious.
There was a time in my life where I would complain about the lack of craft beers at the ballpark. I was an idiot and enjoyed life less.
The most telling thing about the audiophile world is how allergic they are to anything that resembles this sort of blind testing.
I mix records. I use two different sets of monitors for mixing - a pair of Tannoy System 12 DMT monitors (equivalent would cost about $4000; they were very popular in hip-hop studios back in the '90s), and a more modern pair of Focal Alpha 50 powered monitors (about $800/pair new). Both monitors are quality professional gear. In terms of frequency response, they're both quite flat, although the big Tannoys have more bass extension.
They don't sound anything alike.
I find the Focals much more useful and predictable for the critical listening of mixing. They're also more tiring to listen to for extended periods. They're brutal, especially for transients and the very leading edge of sounds. I don't trust mixing on the Tannoys. But if I want to listen to music, rather than mix, I'll take the Tannoys any day. They treat transients more gently, and make for a much more pleasant, euphonic experience.
Internet audiophile wannabes will then tell me I'm hearing distortion. Which is nonsense. Two speakers say the same thing in different ways, and the differences are very, very difficult to measure - but they are nonetheless quite real and plainly audible.
Unfortunately most places writing reviews of audio equipment don't bother to go much beyond frequency response and distortion. Audioxpress ran a really nice 2 part article a decade ago describing a bunch of different types of speaker measurements and summarizing some research into how audible each aspect is.
And that's the goal, isn't it? Measurements provide expectations. And that's where the conversation breaks down - the "objective" mind gets so preoccupied with the measurement that they assume what isn't measured cannot exist. The map replaces the territory, and there are no hills because the map is obviously flat.
These things aren't particularly difficult to measure, we even have standard plots for them. Polar response, energy time curves, cumulative spectral decay, electrical phase and group delay are all standard measurements for a loudspeaker.
I think this stuff says a lot more about psychology than it says about technology.
When I'm mixing music, my "final arbiter" for mix quality is the crappy stock speakers in my car. A mix may sound great on my studio monitors, but if it's not happening in that extremely inaccurate car system, it's not happening. A lot of professional mixers use "bad" speakers like Auracubes or Minimus-7s just to emulate that experience.
And of course, this kind of experience is also inseparable from context. It's not just that they're car speakers... it's that they're in a car. They're in the door, not aimed at my ears. Their bass-reflex behavior is from the volume of the door and whatever venting it has, and reflections are completely crazy.
What we can't do is prove that makes a difference to your ear vs mine and that's the real problem.
So there are two difference classes of scam here. The one where it's true there is a difference in this $10 and $10000 cable, but they're effective identical. And the scam where this is no measurable or even logical difference at all.
It's the former scam that I think allows the "audiophile" industry to thrive.
It probably makes sense to go first class when you have professionals with big budgets who are trying to get every detail just so. All the very high-end microphones and lighting gear probably make less sense for a shoestring budget podcast or YouTube series.
And the absurdity becomes much more obvious when contrasting with the differences in speakers and speaker crossovers...
As a guitarist, I did guitar cable listening tests. With passive guitar pickups (high impedance, low output devices), different cables have easily audible fingerprints. With active pickups, there's no difference at all. The difference between cables is no longer enough to audibly affect the signal.
And within this realm, more expensive doesn't always mean better. I've had cheap cables sound better than expensive cables.
Some of the expensive cables are over-dimensioned or crazily constructed leading to excess capacitance and/or impedance which would lead to terrible performance with a high impedance driver.
Is it transformer-coupled? (Rare in hi-fi, common in pro audio) Capacitor coupled? Direct coupled? Differential? All of these have different and frequency-dependent capacitative, inductive, and resistive behaviors. Put in those terms, it's kind of a no-brainer that cables would matter.
But in "objective" internet-land, it's all straight wire with gain, perfect flat resistance. Which is fine on paper...
Well, I assume this. Perhaps people buy high end audio equipment so they can listen to sine waves.
On the other hand, the highest THD in a sound reproduction system comes from the physical transducers. Worrying about the THD of an amplifier makes little sense when the speakers provide an order of magnitude more distortion.
But - from an engineering perspective, music can in fact be decomposed into a series of sine waves - and effectively all digitally recorded music goes through this process as part of a/d conversion (sort of; it's complicated) or FFT-based digital equalization. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourier_analysis
I spent the better part of a year building cables and trying out different designs to isolate the noise, such as having a floating woven metal shield with a small capacitor at one end to ground the shield. I don't remember all the different things I tried, but they definitely had varying levels of material impact. That said, with RCA cables I never got the noise completely out of the system and eventually switched everything out for something with balanced XLR connectors, which eliminated the problem.
tl:dr; expensive cables don't really matter. cable design does to a point, but if you really want great sound without interference, you need to switch to a system with a balanced design. Unfortunately, this requires changing all components, not just the cables.
-Aye. I had a rather absurd discussion with a colleague here the other day; he keeps a pair of el cheapo grande binoculars in his office, some 10x50 monsters which he proudly announced cost less than $100.
The colour cast was so bad that even I (being tritanope) immediately spotted it and found it annoying. Colour fringing like you wouldn't believe. A tiny, reasonably sharp spot in the centre of one pupil, the other was nowhere near acceptable. Light falloff and softening was quite aggressive as you approached the edges.
I then brought out my Zeiss Victory 8x32s, as they happened to be in my office that day after a field trip. His first impression? 'The colours are off, and it looks unnaturally sharp.'
Sigh. Never mind that one could read the (comparably) small print on a sign across the sound on the 8x Zeiss whereas even the headline was a smudge on the 10x cheapos.
At the risk of sounding elitist, I think that for some people, low cost makes for excellent quality in the same way as high cost equates same for others.
Some things that are reasonably easy to notice with a stereo system:
1) Dynamic range: how loud does it get, how quiet does it get? Does it sound good when its loud? does it sound good when it's soft? Small/inefficient speakers will struggle at high volumes, resulting in high distortion. That's measurable and often not hard to hear. Big speakers with the powerful amps needed to drive them which sound good at high volume often suffer from audible hiss at lower volume, short distance listening, due to inadequate power supply noise rejection relative to the gain. Big speakers also will generally have further-spaced drivers, and that bigger geometry can have a noticeable effect on spacial coherency, especially at short distances. (Ideally you want your speakers to be a point source, not different frequencies coming from different angles)
2) Flatness in frequency response: this is easy to measure with equipment, but also quite easy to hear by playing a sine wave that slowly sweeps the audible range. If the amplitude of the wave in the signal is consistent, there shouldn't be a ton of variation in volume of the reproduction. It can be heavily effected by the room they're in, usually in the bass & mid-bass range where the wavelengths are similar to room dimensions, but some speakers will be much more consistent than others across the rest.
3) Dispersion characteristics: when you move your ears around relative to the speakers, does the frequency response change dramatically? Some speakers don't sound very good in the high frequencies once your ears go a few degrees off axis from the source.
This stuff gets a lot more obvious when doing A/B comparisons. You're right that you can't really tell how good a system is just by listening to a random song and judging it's sound quality like you can with video on a TV, and I think that stems from an inherent difference between hearing and vision. The sound you hear is ALWAYS heavily effected by the space its in, reflections and sympathetic vibrations, the angle you hear it from, and so on. Source material varies wildly in quality and recording/mastering technique. It's much harder to perceive "wrongness" in audio because it's so varied to begin with.
The interesting thing about power response is that it's one of those things that you can't fix with an EQ.
IE, if I have a speaker that's too "hot" or it's too rolled off, I can address that via EQ. But if your power response is bad, there is very little you can do about it.
It IS possible to improve the power response by tweaking the crossover, but that is one of those things that separates the good engineers from the great ones: nearly anyone can make a speaker that measures flat on axis. The hard part is getting it to behave on axis AND off.
If you look at brands like KEF and Genelec, they've paid a lot of attention to this.
There are high-highend products that AREN'T REAL. Things that come out of shops that sell 100 all year, things that can't be used like normal products. Etc.
In this case, Miyauchi Binos or something like that. It's a bad descriptiong I made because you have have practical highend and impractical in the same brand.
Maybe a good test is if you can buy them at typical store vs only a specialty store. My local sporting goods store has Swarovski optics, but they top out at $2,000 because nothing higher would sell - after that you are in the point of diminishing returns anyhow.
For two summers in college, I worked at a Home Theater company. They did custom home theaters, distributed audio, and a ton of mixed AV stuff. Needless to say, the majority of our clients were very rich and most of the theaters we installed were in the 300K-500K range.
The funny part was the owner constantly talking about how much better a $25K pair of speakers sounded than a $15K pair of speakers. I've heard a lot of great speakers, but was never good enough to tell the difference at that level. I finally asked the owner's son why he would push something that didn't seem to be a big upgrade from 15-25K for these speakers.
The answer was simple. His margins on the more expensive ones were better. His rich clients never questioned his expertise, it was pretty eye opening. The next summer, I finally realized everything he pitched his clients on were always about maximizing his own profit, not necessarily designing the perfect bespoke theater for his clients.
The funny thing is that it's actually the complete opposite. Due to the law of vanishing returns, the difference between a $25K unit and a $15K unit can be subtle.
It is astonishing how good speakers are these days. I'm running a set of Behringers that cost $300 and they exceed anything you could buy for a $1000 in Y2K.
Of course, this assumes that you buy new. If you buy used, there's a lot of great stuff under $1000.
For some of these people, it was if they just discovered Santa Claus wasn't real.
People pay crazy amounts of money for some paintings so I don't see an issue paying crazy amounts of money for audio gear that looks and sounds nice.
I visit Stereophile from time to time to see what's new but never bothered to read all the crap. If you are into audio gear/hifi there is 10% useful content though(i.e pictures, price range and measurements)
After a while it starts to look like an extremely dysfunctional religious cult.
It's worth reading because the prose is actually quite good and you can also see just how people determined to believe things can ignore or dismiss rational arguments.
They’re just careful to never let the actual measurements influence the glowing prose of their main review; at most Atkinson gets off a mild shot or two in the conclusion to the measurement section (“somewhat idiosyncratic measured behavior”, “even with its rather lively cabinet”, “don’t measure as well as they could”)
Basically Stereophile has tons of articles that are clearly nonsensical, like reviews of $100,000 tube amps. But they also do objective measurements of equipment, which most magazines do not.
That data is an absolute treasure trove; it's one of the best places to develop insight into the engineering of quality loudspeakers.
I think it was around the time people were arguing about using a green felttip on CDs. Yes, it was quite a window into the high-end audio mindset--something I can't begin to appreciate even when there are legitimate differences between gear (which, of course, there often isn't with high-end audio).
My first impression most "audiophile gear" and specifically on ShakiStones below is "well, that's so ridiculous it shouldn't be legal" but on better consideration, good for them. If someone is that dumb, they need to be relieved of their money before they do something dangerous with it.
I ask because I've often wondered if this trait of American culture, wherein we've decided that defending oneself against predators & charlatans is up to the individual and not up to society (and if the individual fails at this, then "good for" the predator), might be the key difference between the U.S. and other first world nations which tends to land the U.S. at or near the bottom of various social goods & services metrics (balanced against the relative cost and our relative wealth). Because if the bias is toward rewarding predators for having been successfully predatory, then the result of the incentive seems like it will be that the ecosystem will be dominated by predators.
Typical mass produced consumer stuff is often pretty awful, but there are so many disingenuous or foolish reviews of equipment out there, the lesson people learn is that anything more expensive than the current deal on massdrop or at best buy is just a waste of money.
I have figured out through a lot of research and consultation with honest experts what gets you good bang for the buck in the "higher quality" audio space, and what is purely gimmick, but it should not be so hard.