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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.

Written by Srajan Ebaen

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 Blondie the cat 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 DAR pro bono.

23 Comments

  1. “I’ve met designers who tuned their speaker against a live guitar.
    Imagine their surprise when (…), I played them (…) 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.”
    .
    VERY IMPORTANT points to whole “Audio Testing&Revieving Industry” !!!
    some reviews are made with jazz trio music as the most difficult material ;)))
    rap,techno or metal fans may be very confused listening to “the outstanding system”
    .
    my test music : the densiest and the fastest and as rhytmically broken as possible – for testing BASIC skills of audio system . I just don’t like to be disappointed …

    • @leon – to each his own…rap,techno or metal fans are well served by beatz headphones (misspelled intentionally) as any high fidelity is not required. Please don’t confuse high end systems with broken rhythms – you might be sorely disappointed…instead get the basic kit from Best Buy as those are designed for the very specific music…

  2. Great post Srajan! Each record label has its own house sound, each band has its own sound, each orchestra playing the very same symphony sound different as each concert hall does.
    Different countries have their own cultural sound preferences…
    We all hear differently and we all have certain preferences…
    Recommending a particular gear is solely based on personal experience and is ultimately biased.
    Prime example are reviews in British HiFi rags – one product gets 5 stars from What HIFI and the very same product gets 3 star rating from HiFi+ and vice versa…
    Folks can certainly align themselves with particular reviewer and their preferences might be similar – thus one can make decisions based on that. Nothing however bests personal experience. Read, read some more, buy some gear, go to the audio shows, go to the dealers – listen there a lot and buy there as well. Don’t be a dick inundating a dealer with your pestering visits and then buy gear on the internet because its few bucks cheaper. Then do the same all over again and go listen to the live music, listen how real instruments and vocals sound in a jazz club, at a trio recital, at opera house…then buy some gear and listen again…it’s a hobby and its lots of fun!!! Enjoy it!!! Discover the gear that suits you, discover the music that moves you. And then buy the dream preamp…

  3. I honestly think that we don’t really know what to measure. Not to say that SNR (which is measured as the amount of noise produced with no input or shunted input), THD+N, and IMD are useless, far from it, but they show only a small part of the picture. Under a certain threshold, they don’t matter anymore.

  4. I respectfully suggest that 6moons takes a cue from DAR when it comes to presentation

    DAR website:

    * Mobile friendly

    * Easy to read

    * Images are helpful

    * Really easy to navigate site

    6moons:

    * Nearly impossible to read on phone

    * Small font, particularly in relationship to the size of the images, which makes it harder to read, even on desktop computers

    * Images distract

    * Just use Google for navigation …

    Just my opinion, of course, and I mean no disrespect to anybody.

    • Every site is different and for different reasons. Can you help us understand why you consider DAR’s images as ‘helpful’ and 6moons as distractions when 6moons gives readers far more internal shots and in higher res than DAR.

      • I’ve had similar comments made about online products i’ve made and my response is, “The page isn’t made to be read on a phone screen, its meant to be enjoyed on a larger environment where the images are in proportion to the script and the links are where I want them to be”. As well, my fix to that comment is to have a separate content mobile site with a larger font and fewer images. The reality is Mobile Friendly is a necessity for increased readership but in the end it’s the web page owners prerogative.

        • Steve, I generally agree with what you’re saying. It is, to a large degree, a business decision. I’m only offering an opinion.

          In addition to that: Frederick the Great said that “He who defends everything defends nothing”. I’d paraphrase him as: “He who tries to please everybody will lose all his business” (or readership)

          I’d nonetheless like make the following comments:

          * I don’t see any good reason for not making a mobile-friendly site for audiophile reviews, other than additional cost. Which is a good reason, of course.

          * Expressions such as “it is made”/”it is meant” oftentimes skew the argument in a subtle way, by placing one side of the argument on a pedestal. “I made this” – I find it more honest 🙂

          * Google will demote sites that are not mobile friendly.

      • Of course.

        I find the ratio between image sizes and font sizes a lot better on DAR. They also tend to be cropped/framed on the essential feature.

        On 6moons, images are considerably larger (size as a portion of the screen, not necessarily resolution), and the fonts a bit smaller. In addition to that, there are simply many more images on the average 6moons review.

        I find myself getting a lot more eyestrain on 6moons (this size contrast sometimes makes me refocus for instance), and I can’t stay as focused on the narrative. Yes, I’m a middle aged man, my eyes are not as good as 20 years ago ;).

        Are high res pictures critical for audiophiles? Here, a picture is not worth a thousand words, as most of the critical information is conveyed using words. Sure, aesthetics matter a lot – a Chord Mojo looks quite different from, say, an Audio-gd or a piece of Schiit, but it’s not the primary criterion. And aesthetics of the site matter too.

        All of the above is my biased opinion. May I suggest talking to a usability expert for a more seasoned opinion?

        Oh, here’s a more objective reason to make a site mobile friendly – Google will demote the site otherwise.

        • Just as I run DAR my way, I’m sure Srajan runs 6moons his way. And from what I can see, he has zero issues with Google rankings. 🙂

    • Vlad,
      Android Chrome does a very good job of rendering webpages onto a small screen that would otherwise be indecipherable on an Android device. Have you tried this feature? Even 6moons looks much better.

      • Meant to say the “make-page-mobile-friendly” is now offered in newer builds of Chrome on sites where the viewport isn’t defined in the sites meta tags. The browser doesn’t see that the site has a responsive design and will ask if it can present the site using this mode.
        Srajen, as a matter of interest, you can preview how your site will look on most platforms by opening it in Chrome, clicking F12 and then clicking on the little mobile icon on the top left hand side of the developer panel when it opens.
        This is how you change the type of device that you want to emulate https://thebroodle.com/tricks/mobile-view-in-google-chrome/
        This is a useful resource if you’re changing the site yourself – https://search.google.com/search-console/mobile-friendly?utm_source=mft&utm_medium=redirect&utm_campaign=mft-redirect

        Totally off topic but hopefully this will help in the painful process of updating the site!

        • Something I’m missing – the links above show how to do a mobile view in a Chrome browser, but I’m not sure if I need to do something different on an Android phone/tablet (on both I run the latest Google-clean Android and Chrome).

          Well, there’s a great overlap between what I’m saying about 6moons and what the above mobile tester is saying 🙂

  5. This is why all full range speaker builders should be made to strap their creations to their back and do a lap around the Nurburgring on foot. The one who does it quickest has the best speaker. What’s that’s Mr Gryphon? The skinny Yamaha engineers have an unfair advantage because their NS-10s are much lighter than your Pantheons? Then I suggest you get fitter!!

  6. The new Schiit preamps allow you to switch between Tube, passive, and active SS modes (SS just on one model).

  7. As Vlad explained, his comments pertain to wanting to read 6moons on mobile devices. I have no issues with my iPad mini but by the time screen size shrinks to a phone, yes… I can see why big images that take up the whole screen or more to requite scrolling over to continue reading can get in the way. On a big screen or just ‘normal’ laptop screen, they break up the text so you’re not endlessly looking at what I call *crawling ants* – black type on a white background.

    When I designed the site, mini-screen mobile consumption wasn’t a factor. But times have changed. Incidentally, I’m having a first meet today with an expert coder to see how we can accommodate those folks who insist on using a tiny screen to read us -:)

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