|More info here.|
|"Sunrise Sentosa" - March 2019, Singapore|
As discussed before, I do believe (at least here in North America), Stereophile has been the most reasonable when it comes to portraying the audiophile hobby... By "reasonable", I mean that it at least has the courage to include objective measurement results with product reviews, though not always and not with the most contentious products - ever seen a magical audio cable, one of the many ridiculous Synergistic "Research" products, or even MQA fully reviewed or measured?!
The measurement results are often very telling of the actual performance of devices out there. A good example recently is the review of the Naim ND5 XS 2 streamer which while I'm sure sounds very competent, from a performance perspective is lacking compared to many modern devices when judged at the highest technical levels. Have a peek at the jitter performance through the SPDIF TosLink input and the loss of low-level precision with the undithered 16-bit LSB signal. These limitations have already been overcome without great difficulty in devices much less expensive than the Naim's asking price of US$3500. Clearly, the asking price of something in itself is a subjective estimation of what a company believes the market will bear and can be divorced from the quality of its utilitarian high-fidelity playback function.
As expressed previously, we need to remember that these days, objective measurements can be so precise and audio electronics have achieved such a level of performance that if a device "measures bad and sounds good", maybe the reviewer's hearing just isn't good enough to tell a difference. After all these generations of digital equipment, should we not be entertaining the "possibility" that sonic differences have already surpassed human hearing abilities (the acuity of which sadly degrades as we age)? A reviewer these days can probably say essentially any combination of positive comments or minor negatives about a reputable US$300-$30,000 DAC/streamer and it would still be just fine because audible differences might already be at best very minor, if not insignificant.
|"Eternally Mid-20th Century" (except for the cars!), March 2019, Lukang, Taiwan|
Presumably it is with some sadness that Atkinson "sighed" at the feedback he received from his "longtime" copyeditor Mr. Lehnert about soundstaging. It made little sense thus inspiring the need to talk about the basic principle of what we audiophiles call "soundstage" - the perception of sonic localization, and the testing methodology as it applies to hi-fi. This article seems to address the frustration of Mr. Atkinson having to make a decision as Editor between two subjective perspectives (the submitted text from Mr. Rubinson and Mr. Lehnert's review). Ultimately, describing his adjudication of the matter which not surprisingly includes discussion of a controlled "standard" signal like the mono pink noise to check for the ability of a hi-fi system to allow faithful reproduction of a synthetic signal that is intended to be "staged" right at the center between stereo speakers when heard.
Atkinson is right. "Soundstage", as perceived by the mind, is a secondary phenomenon of the technology feeding the auditory system with a reasonable facsimile of a recording through 2 channels. It's a result of the placement of "sound objects" be they voices, instruments, noises as captured by the microphone in whatever configuration, processed by the audio engineer in the studio, and then laid down in the 2-channel carrier whether as physical media or virtual files. Whether the final recording sounds like it has a wide soundstage, allows pin-point placement, sounds diffuse, or is presented as a "wall of sound" was to a large extent decided in the process of the audio recording and production long before you and I got to hear it on our systems.
|"Gardens, Supertrees, and the S.E. Asian Trade Flotilla" from 650 feet, March 2019, Singapore|
While the mind enjoys music and reconstructs the "soundstage" of the performance, all the "machine" is doing is reproducing the source it was fed. If the recording contains old-skool ping-pong effects, can the DAC/(pre)amp/speakers reproduce this with high channel separation? Is the equipment (especially speakers) "fast" enough and have accurate time-domain performance (ideally time-aligned drivers) to extract those subtle differences in correct phase? Is the resolution good enough to accurately reproduce the nuances as well as the dynamic bursts accurately from the two channels? These (and more) can be each assessed objectively and in isolation. Together, when done well enough, the intent is that the mind has a much easier time extracting all that wonderfully recorded "soundstaging", tonality, rhythm, texture, dynamics, etc. We as audiophiles can appreciate this level of achieved fidelity, thus the "value" and joy of owning a good high-fidelity system; willing to part with significant disposable income to obtain these products (hopefully rarely needing to take out loans!).
Going back to the question of clowns and jokers. Do they still exist in audiophilia? (Consider that a rhetorical question! :-)
|"Salt Fields", March 2019, Jingzaijiao, Taiwan|
Over the years on discussion groups and forums, it's interesting that the words "clown" and "joker" have been used to describe some in the audiophile press. Yes, there is inherent humor in watching neurotic grown men obsess over their toys and I certainly don't think audiophiles need to take themselves too seriously. However, there comes a point though where the ongoing presumably unintentional, foolish beliefs or conclusions expressed by some writers draw contempt and ridicule. This is unbecoming of the "professional" regardless of what can be considered "fun". The unintended effect is that when repeatedly unchecked, eventually the magazines and "audiophile hobby" end up as the butt of jokes, and audiophiles are seen as nothing more than fiscally unwise, poorly educated, faith-based, superficial and gullible consumers.
|"Distance", March 2019, Jiufen, Taiwan|
In all that time, I think Stereophile (and Mr. Atkinson) could have taken a stronger leadership role to advance audiophile education, addressed mythical audio products, and made it clear when some manufacturers are obviously selling snake oil. Not only would this clean up the poor actors in this hobby, but also would empower magazine staff in the process to write reality-based opinions and provide reasonable editorial feedback. Indeed, even further promote the importance of objective evaluation as a way to minimize biases.
Some in the Industry might not be happy with a no-nonsense publication willing to call out those of poor repute. Certain companies of certain products will not advertise in such a respected publication, but the best ones will, especially those that provide true technological progress, worthy new features, and can bring value to the consumer. In turn, the consumer will be steered to purchase products worthy of their hard-earned dollars. IMO, this is the only way to build a firm foundation for an Industry based on engineered devices with an honest media aligned with consumer interests.
|"Singapore Flyer", March 2019, Singapore|
Atkinson: Do you see any signs of future vitality in high-end audio?
Holt: Vitality? Don't make me laugh. Audio as a hobby is dying, largely by its own hand. As far as the real world is concerned, high-end audio lost its credibility during the 1980s, when it flatly refused to submit to the kind of basic honesty controls (double-blind testing, for example) that had legitimized every other serious scientific endeavor since Pascal. [This refusal] is a source of endless derisive amusement among rational people and of perpetual embarrassment for me, because I am associated by so many people with the mess my disciples made of spreading my gospel. For the record: I never, ever claimed that measurements don't matter. What I said (and very often, at that) was, they don't always tell the whole story. Not quite the same thing.Looks like Mr. Holt expressed the embarrassment of having clowns and jokers all around and associated with him. Compared to the late 2000's, I suspect if JGH were alive today, he'd probably recognize that thankfully there seems to be more rational audiophiles online these days in the late 2010's.
I wonder what Mr. Atkinson thinks about that response above. It would certainly be fascinating if in the rear-view mirror, and with some distance from running the business side of Stereophile, his assessment could end up not much different from the late JGH in the years ahead.
|"Gao Mei Sunset", March 2019, Taiwan|
Mono Pink Noise
The file was created in 24/96, in total 1.5 minutes long. I've made the sound fade in and out over 20 seconds at the beginning and at the end to make sure there's stability of the focal point at varying amplitudes. I've also included an inverse polarity version where instead of the narrow inter-speaker imaging, one should hear unfocused diffuse sound from your speakers. Peak RMS amplitude around -15dBFS which isn't too loud. Over the years, I have used a variant of this pink noise track along with jitter samples and MP3 recordings at various quality (128kbps, 192kbps, 320kbps) when auditioning sound systems. These kinds of tracks can certainly help show off technical insufficiencies within seconds even if pristine "audiophile-quality" recordings still sound excellent.
I hope you're enjoying the music, art, creativity, design, and culture all around us. Wishing you fantastic results with your high-fidelity system; which in itself holds great beauty at the intersection of science and art... Being "in the middle" is often the best place to be.