Sunday, April 01, 2007

Audiophile humour

I take my music systems somewhat seriously. The average boombox isn't for me, and though I was initially impressed with my first "serious" system -- a pair of Bose bookshelf speakers coupled to a Kenwood amp, which fitted my budget then, and accompanied me for four years abroad -- I quickly realised that there is better stuff than Bose at lower prices. I gave away that system before returning to India, and resolved to spend a chunk of my savings on a good system. On moving to Chennai, I spent a few evenings at Pro Musicals' listening room, where the affable Sudhin Prabhakar allowed me to listen to various high-quality speakers and amps; I ended up with a pair of Wharfedale floor-standing speakers and a Rotel amp, which cost me a total of about Rs 45000 (US$ 1000).

To an audiophile, this would be about the lowest of the low-end of acceptable gear (Bose is not acceptable, even if more expensive), but I'm happy. Audiophiles tend to witter on about linearity of response, crossover, and whatnot. Most of the music I listen to was recorded in the 1950s or earlier, or in concert, on rather dodgy equipment; I don't expect any music system to make it sound like "being there". On more recent, high-quality recordings, I really can't tell the difference from a live instrument, and can't see myself spending ten times the amount on "serious" audiophile gear. But I don't claim to have golden ears. Many people tell me they can't distinguish the Wharfedales from an average Sony boombox, costing a tenth as much -- that's good for them. And many audiophiles claim they can tell the difference from a system costing ten times as much; I don't doubt it.

Unfortunately, audiophilia is not always accompanied by sound knowledge of science and engineering; and the human mind is very impressionable. This gives audio manufacturers freedom to charge extra for ridiculous products. The most common are:

  • High-stability, jitter-proof CD players: Apparently, many people think CD players, like LP turntables, need to be balanced delicately, rotate at a constant speed, and so on. Digital electronics is a mystery to them. So of course the manufacturers address that market.
  • Cables: Apparently things like "skin effect", capacitance/inductance effects, and so on can affect the quality of the audio that your speaker cables deliver to the speakers, so you should pay several hundred dollars per metre of audiophile cable that takes care of these things. Yes, these effects exist, but none of them operate close to audible frequency ranges. But that then leads to
  • Frequency response: even though the human ear can't hear above 20 kHz, apparently it's good for your amp or speakers to be able to reproduce much greater frequencies. It mysteriously affects the audio that you do hear. Similarly, the fact that CDs sample at 44.1 kHz, and therefore are limited to 22.05 kHz frequencies, means they're bad. Nyquist's theorem is irrelevant, as is the fact that earlier technologies -- LPs, tapes -- don't have a prayer of approaching such frequencies.

There are many, many more such audiophile myths. Here is an amusing discussion. Here is another.

And finally, here is a hugely entertaining list of actual voodoo-audio products that people, presumably, have been known to spend money on.

If you plan to spend serious money on an audio system, be sure to read those links before talking to a salesman.


Tabula Rasa said...

ha! my wharfedales are better than yours :-D

(glad you finally saw reason on boses, btw.)

Rahul said...

(glad you finally saw reason on boses, btw.)

...says the guy who had a Panasonic boombox (with some whizbang space-age LEDs) in those days.

Like I said -- when I bought them I didn't know better, and also they were relatively cheap (they were a retired model I think), about US$ 200, I couldn't have afforded more.

Tabula Rasa said...

hey, i was a student and i got it on sale.

Nath said...

I'm no audiophile, but you've struck quite close to a pet peeve of mine. I know far too many people who go from showroom to showroom looking for the right TV. They do their research, read reviews, decode acronyms, and so on. They buy nice, large, crystal clear widescreen flat panel televisions for small fortunes. And then they realize that most channels are still transmitted in 4:3. They stretch the picture grotesquely to cover the screen, because they find the sidebars 'distracting'. And they claim not to tell the difference -- 'it's just stretched a little bit, after all'. It's pretty darn frustrating to see people spend all that money on fancy TVs, when they'd be better served by a simple, cheap CRT box from the back shelf.

Rahul said...

Nath - thanks for visiting. Yes, TVs are fun too. I don't worry since I hate every channel out there equally. But since you bring it up, here's my list of peeves:

1. Aspect ratio -- as you say, widescreen TV is a rip-off.

2. Resolution -- in India most TVs are still low-res, 640x480. So a 20-inch screen makes little sense, let alone a 40-inch one. The picture just looks blurry at such sizes.

3. Therefore it also makes little sense to watch a DVD on such a screen. Much better to watch on a computer.

As you say, for standard TV resolutions and aspect ratios, the cheap, small boxes are best.

Narasimhan said...

Dear Rahul,

I was also initially awe struck with the BOSE systems and used stand in front of those systems whenever I go to Best Buy or Circuit City.

Later when I wanted to buy a 5.1 systems I thought I would rather spend some time researching the basic aspects of various speakers and the frequency response vis geometry of the speaker structuer. The forum at audioholics was very helpful. At the end of all this, whether I wasn't not clear of what I needed, but I was sure of what I WONT NEED and it was BOSE. As a joke goes, BOSE= Buy Other Sound Equipment. Check the following webpage for one more criticism of BOSE.

Finally bought JBL for 5 and B&W for .1, all together less than the Acoustimass speaker.

Happy listening.

With Regards

Rahul said...

Narasimhan - interesting link, similar lines to what I've seen before but different details.

I'm curious to hear my old Bose bookshelves again today. They sounded ok at that time, but not great. The key test is this: when listening to a good recording of an intimate instrument like a classical (nylon-strung) guitar or the human voice, you could tell it was a recording. With my present wharfedales, I, at least, can't tell. On the other hand, those things cost $200 and sound moderately good. $1200 for the acoustimass is absurd. I've heard them, and they sound nothing like real life. I have a $35 set of multimedia speakers (cube tweeters and a subwoofer under the table) that sound better.

Another observation is the settings of the amp -- the Kenwood that I coupled to the Boses had a "loudness" button, I don't know what it did, but I had to keep it "on", and turn up the bass and treble knobs slightly. Otherwise it sounded flat and lifeless. With my present system, I almost always keep the bass and treble "off" ("neutral"): with those settings, everything from scratchy 1920s recordings to Indian classical to rock sounds terrific.