One flew over the cuckoo’s nest…
Years ago I wrote an essay titled, Why Horns, which you can find here on the OMA website in the About section. I wrote it to explain a bit why horns can be so valuable in audio, increasing efficiency, improving directivity and solving a host of other problems associated with conventional, low efficiency direct radiator speakers, which in audio today describes almost everything else.
So imagine my surprise when I find out (from an Audio Note dealer no less!) that my piece was hijacked by….. Audio Note. My essay was literally stolen, word for word, with all the inconvenient stuff for Audio Note removed, and their own products and information inserted as if I had written it. Audio Note even used the typeface and graphics from the OMA website and original essay: judge for yourself. The real piece shows you what was removed, the fake, Audio Note piece what was added.
If you are familiar with the Cuckoo bird, it does a pretty nasty thing, attacking the nest of another bird, kicking out its eggs and inserting its own, hoping the mother bird won’t notice and will treat the Cuckoo birds eggs as its own. The Cuckoo, in other words, takes no responsibility for its own progeny. So goes Audio Note. While saying their piece is “based” upon an essay I wrote, suggesting they did more than copy and then manipulate my essay word for word, they also wrote that OMA and Audio Note:
“appear to share some common philosophies when it comes to crafting World’s Finest Audio.”
“A key difference however is that OMA focusses on the craft of horn-loudspeakers, while Audio Note found a way to create high efficiency loudspeakers which do not exhibit the limitations of horn-loudspeakers (size and directionality among other things).”
Now, this is highly ironic, as I wrote Why Horns essentially as a critique of exactly the kind of loudspeakers Audio Note makes. Audio Note obviously want you to think they have something in common with OMA, but that’s wishful thinking, because the first problem is that they don’t even make “high efficiency” loudspeakers. All Audio Note speakers, no matter how much they cost, are based upon the same formula developed by Peter Snell decades ago, using a small, 8” woofer and a 1” dome tweeter in a very resonant, thin walled box. The original Snell was rated at 90db/1w/1m I believe. AN has a dishonesty problem beyond their fake OMA piece, because for many years they’ve been making truly ridiculous claims about how efficient their speakers are, such as the Lexus AN-E reviewed in Stereophile in claiming 98db efficiency with a frequency range of 17hz-22khz. Unfortunately for AN, the editor in chief of Stereophile, John Atkinson, measured this speaker at only 92db, which is a huge 6db less than claimed. The frequency extension is also impossible, btw. But imagine that a car company said their car reached a speed of 200mph. What if it only really went 50 mph? That’s exactly AN’s problem with their “efficiency” ratings- 92db vs 98db is 400% less efficiency, or 4 times slower if it were a car. Even worse, the impedance curves published by Stereophile indicate a 4ohm (not 8ohm) impedance which makes it more like an 89-90db speaker (like the original Snell) which is not only NOT high efficiency, its not even close. Most people who know would not call anything under around 95db a high efficiency design, and even 92db is half that at best. Basically, if cars were speakers, AN makes a less slow car, not a fast one. And especially not a really fast one.
A lot of my original piece focused on the importance of directivity that you get with horn speakers. That means the sound goes where you want it to go, not bouncing all around the room creating problems acoustically. But the AN people want you to believe that’s a “limitation” of horns, while not being able to explain why. You might also notice in the original essay that “Low efficiency speakers get a lot of bass from little woofers by making them move a great distance, which means they need a very loose “suspension”- the surround of the cone that allows it to move and keeps it in place. Such woofers need a high damping factor to make them behave. High efficiency woofers are larger, have stiff, light paper cones with big magnets and move very little.
Again, AN tried to insert their own speakers into the above:
“The Audio Note high efficiency woofers are larger, have stiff, light paper cones with big magnets and move very little. They need very low damping factor, which is typically what SET and other low power tube amplifiers offer.”
Well, this is just nonsense, because AN uses exactly the kind of woofer I was criticizing- small (8”) heavy cone with a RUBBER surround, which is needed for long excursion to go way too low for its own good (how else can it “reproduce” 17hz?)
If imitation were indeed “the sincerest form of flattery” I might find what Audio Note did ok, but it was actually extremely insincere and misguided. My suggestion for AN:
Design speakers that work the way you claim, and don’t steal other people’s intellectual work to try and defend your own.
The Meaning of Analog
I recently spent a Sunday afternoon attending a seminar on the “Chemistry of Wine for Professionals”. I’m not a wine professional, nor did I much like chemistry in school, and it turned out to be a very technical afternoon indeed. I found myself wondering what I was doing there. But some of the subjects, like how and why we perceive a wine to taste “mineral” seemed very interesting. The gentleman sitting next to me, who was very much a wine professional, at one point asked me why I had come? I told him I like knowing how things I like are made, what’s in the sausage so to speak. And often when I think about sound and music reproduction, I resort to metaphors and analogies that feel appropriate, usually ones that touch on things I like a lot, like wine and food. Both can be restorative, nourishing, transporting, and often deeply moving, which is really what I’m after when it comes to reproducing sound and music. And let’s not forget, without sound there is no music. I’ll come back to that.
It turned out that the fellow sitting next to me was the publisher and editor in chief of one of the world’s biggest and most important magazines devoted to wine and spirits. By the end of the day we were chatting about our experience and he inquired as to my background, being one of the few amateurs in attendance. When I explained what I do, he pointed out the similarities between our respective worlds, and of course the subject of turntables and vinyl came out of the closet, literally, because his turntable and records had been relegated there for some years, the victim of a broken belt on his Dual turntable and the malaise that 3 decades of digital has brought us. He had several thousand records, many from his father, basically the equivalent of having a very serious wine cellar filled with wonderful bottles to drink. While much good wine will improve with age, and some will last a very long time, properly cared for vinyl records will last virtually forever. And unlike opening a bottle of wine, you can play records over and over again, as long as you keep them clean, with no degradation.
After I made some suggestions as to how to get his analog vinyl setup running again, imagine my surprise when the wine editor asked me the best way to digitize the records as he played them, so he could play them in the future digitally? This really caught me off guard- why would you want to do that, I thought? Is everything now about the convenience of instantaneous consumption via your phone or device? Besides the fact that the record will never sound nearly as good played back through a digital system, whatever happened to the ritual that listening to a record involves, even demands?
Some people buy wine as an investment, with no intention of ever drinking it (and some people buy records like that too), but most of us buy bottles like we buy records- with a very strong intention of consuming it at some point in the future. We are led by the promise of the pleasure we expect in its consumption, be it music or wine. Here is where it gets kind of interesting (and weird)- consumption isn’t what it used to be. I’ve talked a lot about the digital and analog divide in this blog over some years, but there are aspects to this which don’t correspond with any of the usual technical issues. There is a much more basic problem- the digital universe we all now live in has so warped reality that we can no longer take for granted what anything is or is for.
For example- there is a wine app I use to help me remember what wines I’ve consumed, it takes a picture of the label, identifies it and puts it in my library, allows me to rate and share it, etc- all the usual stuff. The app is supposed to help you enjoy wine more (I hope!) but imagine if the app itself became the really important thing? That you just drank the wine so you could record that in the app- Been There Done That- and to show other people what you’ve been drinking? The appearance on the app becomes more important than the wine and the pleasure involved in its consumption. Appearance usurps reality.
When I’m in Dumbo, Brooklyn where our showroom is located and time permits, I like taking a walk down the new waterfront park that stretches from my neighborhood under the two bridges (Brooklyn and Manhattan) and runs along the East River opposite Wall Street, with views of Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty. This park has become a huge tourist draw. Thousands and thousands of people are out everyday in all but the coldest weather, and it seems like every single one of them, almost without exception, is busy taking selfies. It’s so bizarre it feels a bit like being in a SciFi or zombie movie, the cumulative effect of seeing so many people being in a place but not being present in any meaningful way. They are there just to take pictures, presumably to share with other people who they may or may not know, but they are not actually “there.” Are they taking those pictures so that someday in the future they can “relive” the experience? Or to show other people that they are in a special or desirable place? Problem is, you can’t relive something you never really lived at all.
Memory is a deep thing. People must have had much better memories before. Now they have limitless stored digital appearances that stand in for memory. Before, activity created memories. Now activities are instigated to create appearances, images to be stored and circulated for a myriad of new reasons, none of which have anything to do with the original activity.
Playing a record only once so you can digitize it, store and manage the files, is part of this same new digital world where the actual experience is subsumed into something else. The “ritual” of playing a record and listening with attention, allowing the music to communicate itself to you, is replaced by the appearance of doing so. Because you only get that experience when you do the ritual (which is one reason why rituals exist in the first place). Rituals come from a religious origin, what used to be our spiritual connection to life. Most of that is totally gone now, but in a world rapidly being hollowed out by a digi-verse that no one really understands the implications of, actually playing an analog record is a way to reconnect with what music always was- sound with a source in physical reality.
I deal with a lot of record industry people, doing demonstrations at OMA. I’ve talked with or visited most of the major labels, and many independents. Not a single record label (nor Apple Music) has a proper turntable and speakers setup in their offices or headquarters. Not a single one- it’s truly incredible. Imagine walking into Universal Pictures, or Paramount, or Fox in Hollywood, and asking to watch a film in the screening room, only to be handed a cell phone with the explanation that no one watches anything anymore on a real screen? Digital has literally sucked the sound right out of music, reducing not just the quality of sound but the expectations of what listening to music can be- to virtually nothing.
More Noise Please
MORE NOISE PLEASE
When people come to the OMA showroom for a demo, they always start with an analog LP, typically something around 50 years old. Time permitting, I’ll often jump to mono LP’s, and that can get even more ancient. I don’t do this because I have a fetish for old stuff, I do it because I want my guests to hear something many have never heard- what recorded music sounded like for most of its history.
I just finished an excellent new book by Damon Krukowski, The New Analog (The New Press, 2017). It’s well written and documented, easy to read, and has rather profound implications. His thesis is that digital technologies, in particular with sound production and reproduction (he was a musician in the rock band Galaxie 500) has changed our perception of the world in subtle but very important ways. Because sound is both arguably more significant than vision in how we orient and align ourselves in the world, and also largely an unconscious process that we almost never reflect on (even those in the audio industry) his conclusions are both valuable and disturbing. You might look at it as a metaphysics of sound, because even though he keeps his arguments firmly rooted in concrete examples about music production, microphones, studio technique, file sharing and the way our ears and brains work with sound, it’s really about how we know who we are and where we are in the real world in the age of digital sound. It’s about place, time and identity, albeit done in a very amusing way.
People rarely ask me why I play what I play during a demo, and I do mix it up. Time permitting, I like to cross as many periods and genres as possible. But the reason I open with the old stuff is simple- you can hear what three musicians in a room, playing with each other, sounds like (Muddy Waters, Folk Singer), or how Ellington on his piano with his big band and soloists, in Columbia’s studio on December 19, 1950 can each occupy physical space and be located in such, despite it being a mono recording (Ellington Masterpieces). Funny thing is, no matter how young listeners are, and despite their musical tastes, people get this.
In the popular press, when I read about digital vs. analog and vinyl records in particular, you always hear the words “cold” and “warm” but that’s because the underlying technical differences between the two medium are so vast, and a quotidian vocabulary to describe it has yet to evolve. And that’s where Krukowski’s book is so useful, because it led me to one of the most critical differences between the two worlds, and it can be described in just one word: noise.
For humans, you could say that all sound is either signal (what you want to hear, someone’s voice, music), or noise (what you don’t want to hear, what you filter out). While we obviously focus on signal, it never exists without the background: noise. There is no such thing as silence: Krukowski relates the time John Cage went into an anechoic chamber, which is dead quiet. He was disturbed to hear two sounds, one low, one high. The engineer explained that the low sound was his blood circulating, the high his central nervous system in operation. Even in a perfectly silent space, humans will never hear silence. The way we process signal is in fact dependent on noise. If you were to enter a loud party blindfolded, everything would be noise. Now if you removed the blindfold and decide you want to concentrate on what one person is saying, your brain filters out the rest as noise. You can’t listen to everyone at once, that would be all signal. Which would become… noise.
The LP’s I mentioned were recorded to tape, which is analog of course, and it has plenty of background noise. The better the tape machine, the less the noise, and that’s one reason why recording music back in the analog period in big studio’s was so expensive- you needed to keep the equipment as quiet as possible to have the best recording, i.e. signal to noise ratio (those decks and tube electronics cost a lot of money). You can hear what tape sounds like on a good system- in the quiet parts of a recording you hear a faint hiss, and on Led Zep IV you can hear how the tape “printed through” with a ghost track preceding what Page laid down subsequently. When the Beatles overdubbed track after track on albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, the accumulated noise from each layer of tape creates a texture like thickening a soup or stew. That’s the noise that was always part of analog recording.
Digital recording’s greatest breakthrough, sonically, was its complete, utter lack of noise. Digital presents only signal, no noise. You could call this sonic VR.
The basic components of analog music production and reproduction are remarkably ancient. The record is over 100 years old, the microphone and the moving coil loudspeaker, which share the same concept of a moving diaphragm that generates an electric signal- about the same. The carbon microphone invented by Edison that was in everyone’s telephone for most of its history picked up everything – not just your voice, but the family arguing around the kitchen table in the background. That’s why phone booths existed- without them the ambient noise, of the street, restaurant etc., would drown you out. Today, the smartphone has not one but three mics, which it uses to beam form and cancel out all the noise that’s not you speaking- the signal. That’s how you can talk in a crowded cafe and be understood while the person across from you can’t make out what you’re saying. We’re still used to the idea that a phone picks up surrounding sounds- yesterday I had someone hold up their phone to their speakers in the background so I could hear something- all I heard was blackness. Old phones used to have “side tone”- you could hear yourself talking. Now people yell into their phones because they have no idea what they sound like. You sound the same if you are in Croatia or Krumsville, PA. And the phone further filters your voice to remove everything in it which its algorithms don’t consider signal- all the little inflections, tonal nuances and other things which make your voice unique and human are filtered away to conserve bandwidth and preserve signal integrity.
Krukowski offers a cogent history of the development of digital loudness technology, which resulted in the “Loudness Wars” which persist to this day, and have dramatically reduced the dynamic range of recorded music. But he also delves into the concept of time in analog versus digital recording, a subject he’s clearly well versed in as a musician. Analog used tape to record music, which had to be manually spliced and recorded over to place sounds in time. Digital is freed entirely from any physical constraints, and as such, there is no “time” in digital music except an absolute, arbitrary time that is set within the computer. Any sound or effect can float anywhere in what you might call non-time.
I don’t think any of us reflect on how the operation of our cell phones may unconsciously affect how we perceive sound and music writ large. If you live in a cosmopolitan society, you have no choice but to face a barrage of contemporary music in just about every public space. The music you may be listening to on your commute, at work or leisure probably is unmoored in several important ways from the physical reality that previously contained it. All of this is bound to affect how we are and how we see ourselves in the world. Without our ever thinking about it.
In case you’re thinking OMA is like a wax museum of sound and its reproduction, I love techno, which has no connection with any music or reality that came before it, and in the last year alone we had LP release events at our showroom for albums from Patrick Higgins (Bacchanalia) and Nils Frahm which are far from purist analog works. But I cringe when I hear most music made today. Just as I have no desire to eat synthetic food, I want music that nourishes.
We’re at a very interesting point in audio right now. Music reproduction is at a crossroads. From now on people will be consuming music either virtually and digitally (streaming), or physically and analog (records). There will be no more digital, physical formats in the future, no more CD’s, SACD’s, or other supposedly superior digital formats on disc. CD production has fallen off a cliff. Streaming has essentially killed off the physical sales of music in the digital domain. The irony, of course, is that the one hundred year old technology of vinyl records, which has not really changed much since its inception, has prevailed over “Perfect Sound Forever” ™. Is the pendulum of history swinging back after a half century of worsening sound quality? Are people looking at audio differently than before?
Walking into the Crate and Barrel store at the corner of Broadway and Houston in NYC, the first thing you see is the vinyl kiosk, complete with record players, sofas and furnishings that suggest taking the time to enjoy the music as something valuable in its own right. West Elm, another home furnishing and design chain, has its own version of the same idea, courtesy of Sonos. Around the corner from West Elm’s flagship store in Dumbo, Brooklyn (also home to OMA’s showroom) is Shinola, the Detroit based luxury goods brand that now offer turntables and audio consoles as were common in the 1950’s. And a few blocks from Crate and Barrel, on one of the most expensive streets in Soho, next to Tiffany, both Sonos and Devialet (owned by luxury giant LVMH) have set up boutiques dedicated to only one product- wireless, one box sound systems. We’re starting to see the emergence of audio as lifestyle again, fifty years after its last iteration.
With people’s discovery (or rediscovery) of the pleasures of vinyl records comes the realization that you need something to play your records on. This is driving a lot of big corporate players into an audio market that that was not attractive until very recently. The market had previously been dominated by small audio companies dedicated to a very different market- audiophiles.The decline of that audio market over the last 40 or so years is the result of what happened to music reproduction itself- it became digitized, which meant it became virtual, could be stored on any computer or mobile device, and with earbuds, required no other physical equipment. The only people who seemed to care about audio, read audio magazines and attend audio shows were “audiophiles”. This audiophile world became increasingly closed off from the rest of society which was busy downloading free music or getting it from iTunes.
Now people want to have real equipment to play music again, but there’s a problem. The big companies new to the game don’t know good sound or how to create equipment that makes good sound. They probably don’t care, either- they want to make stuff that looks good and sells. The audiophile companies think they know good sound (which is highly debatable) but could care less about what it looks like, and even disdain design and craftsmanship as not being important. This leaves a chasm between the two, a zero sum game: if you choose looks, forget about sound, or vice versa- something essential is sacrificed either way. And that assumes a big “if”….. meaning that the audiophile aspect of the marketplace actually delivers on the promise of good, better or best sound.
That will be the subject of my next post.
Too True to be Good
Every once in a while, I’ll see something published in one of the audio magazines, especially in the newsletter emails I receive, which has me perplexed: Are they really giving it up? This passage is from an entry titled “Too Good to be True”.
“Two letters from readers (see below) started us thinking again about something we’ve mulled at, off and on, for the past year or so: Does today’s high-fidelity equipment, for all its vastly improved performance, actually sound that much better than the best of the early components?
Certainly, the best of today’s pickups, amplifiers and loudspeakers are objectively far superior to anything available ten, or even five years ago. Pickups trace more cleanly at lower forces, amplifiers have lower distortion and higher stability, and speakers have wider range, smoother response and lower distortion than ever before. Yet increasing numbers of long-time audiophiles are complaining that today’s sound reproduction is not as natural as it used to be during the golden age of monophony.”
Here’s the clincher (the giveaway is the last word: monophony)- the above passage was published on January 1, 1963, by J. Gordon Holt, the founder of Stereophile. This was written more than half a century ago, though it sounds entirely accurate as a summation of high end audio today. The irony is twofold: equipment made and sold today is not as good sounding as what was available 50 years ago, and even 50 years ago, people were complaining that technological progress was not improving sound, but making it less “musical”. The piece continues with this observation:
“High fidelity started in movie theaters, and horn speaker systems became the standard of quality because, when used with contemporary amplifiers, they provided just the right amount of brilliance and “presence.”
Holt goes on to temper any enthusiasm for horns and triode tube electronics by adding this:
“But when audiophiles brought these components into their living rooms, the sound was far too brilliant and shrill. Some slightly insane audiophiles, including the partially deaf, liked that kind of sound, but musically oriented listeners soon concluded that, while homs were fine for auditoriums (and palatial living rooms), they had no place in the average home. Direct-radiator speakers became the accepted standard for in-the-home use, because of their “smoother, sweeter” sound.”
What was really happening in 1963 was the revolution introduced into high end audio by the likes of the little Acoustic Research AR1 (see my blog entry “I Hate Horns”) bookshelf speaker and solid state amplifiers. This allowed the audio industry to go mainstream with small, cheap products, and the magazines followed suit with their justifications such as above, which were ridiculous. For instance, while horns have far more potential output at high frequencies than dome tweeters, virtually all amplifiers at that time had tone controls which allowed the user to adjust “brilliance” to their liking. Horns do require at least 10 feet of distance to the listener, but that’s not exactly a “palatial” demand. Holt goes on to admit that the quality of “presence” which these older system had in spades is now missing in favor of the “smoother, sweeter sound”. So what is presence, anyway, when it comes to sound? It’s the experience of being present when music is being performed. In other words, its truth- to the musical event. What is “smoother, sweeter” sound? It’s sound which has been de-natured of transient response and dynamics through the use of small, inefficient box speakers with solid state amps, all of which can be made to measure better in frequency response and harmonic distortion, but which even 50 years ago were not fooling people who knew better.
(Read the Stereophile article here)
Blog Sound Quality 1950 to Today
Last Sunday I had the pleasure of hosting a dozen young industry professionals and soon to be professionals, mainly graduates of the program at the University of Connecticut at Hartford in acoustics. Some were working as acousticians in New York City, others were music producers or engineers, I think everyone was in their 20’s. There was a theme, suggested by the young man who organized the event (an acoustician) who had visited OMA prior, and heard me play a reissue of Duke Ellington’s Masterpieces on vinyl, a Long Play mono LP recorded on December 19th, 1950. If you ever have the opportunity to listen to that record on a good system with a real mono cartridge, you’ll understand. Sixty five years later, you sit there shaking your head and wondering what the f—-k happened to recorded sound in the last six plus decades. Adam, the organizer in his 20’s, had the same experience and suggested both the event and the title for the day.
We listened, and we talked, some of the attendees brought music they had made or recorded or wanted to hear (as digital files) and Steve Guttenberg of CNET and Stereophile fame was kind enough to share his thoughts and experiences too. It was a very enjoyable day I think for everyone, but it really brought a number of things home to me.
These young people had all attended their university specifically because they wanted to study and graduate with a degree in the science and art of sound (at least one degree at Hartford demands that you intensively study/play a musical instrument in addition to the academic training in acoustics). They have already dedicated years of hard work, study, and student debt I presume, towards the reproduction of sound. I don’t think any of them had ever heard a really good audio system before, not in school or anywhere else. That got me curious, because I wondered, why would you want to do this if you had never had the transcendental experience of hearing amazing sound reproduction? With musicians, it’s about the music. Musicians can put up with the worst sounding crap for a speaker system, because deep down they know what the music is supposed to sound like. An acoustician, whom I hope would love music, is nonetheless interested in sound in a far more abstract and scientific way. So I asked, what did the concept of sound quality mean for them? The answers were illuminating. A young woman who presented a very well done multitrack recording which she was working on for her degree, answered that consistency was the most important attribute for her, that the quality should be evident across different sound systems and venues. While others voiced different aspects of this basic theme, the relevant idea remained that sound quality was most importantly about averaging things out so that whatever was being recorded, played, made, etc, would sound best for the most people. No one brought up the idea of making the best possible sound, period. That’s because the notion behind “the absolute sound”, a phrase coined by Harry Pearson who built a magazine of the same name that is still published today after 40 years, is not relevant for any of the young people who visited OMA. (Note- while I appreciate the name of the magazine, that’s as far as it goes vis this discussion.)
The concept of “the absolute sound” was simple- perfect verisimilitude to an acoustic performance in a real space. The problem is that recorded music today is very, very rarely an acoustic performance in real space. It is made by musicians and singers who record (closely miked) in isolation booths, with take after take which get digitally stitched into and over myriad other tracks. And then everything is processed to a point where any resemblance to a human voice, for example, is tenuous to say the least. Kraftwerk did this 40 years ago, but I doubt they anticipated everyone sounding like this today… Adele, you listening?
We connected to the big OMA Imperia system via a laptop or a Bluetooth device that allows you to play anything you want off your phone. Either way, I know exactly how compressed a file is immediately- I just look at the position of the volume knob for any given loudness. A lot of the files played required the knob to be just barely open- that means the music is highly compressed to sound loud, and that is the end of any dynamic range in the music. Steve Guttenberg gave an impassioned plea to let music have some, but despite the youth of this group, everyone knew about the need for your music to sound as loud or louder. Steve also brought up Adele’s record breaking album release from the week before, and how incredibly awful it is from the standpoint of sound. The inevitable outcome of that discussion was: this is the sound people actually want. They have become so culturally conditioned to heavily processed sound, as Americans have become dependent on processed food, they want something that can only be described as “bad.”
That’s where the penny dropped for me. We started the day with the Ellington LP, which was a masterpiece of recording genius at a time when you could not multitrack (put multiple individual performances together seamlessly) or do any of the other things taken for granted today. Elvis studio outtakes from 1957, Muddy Waters from 1964, the Weavers live at Carnegie Hall in 1963; all were recordings these young people were not familiar with (nor anything similar), and certainly would have never heard properly. And it’s not just them. In the last six months especially I’ve had more than a few engineers and producers visit the OMA showroom who walked away with a new conception of what “sound quality” means. It’s important for me to share this with people in the industry, because I want sound quality to be better on the supply side, not just on my end. But we have a very, very, very long way to go. It really does feel like some point in the 1990’s in the US with food and beverage, where you could not find an espresso without going to a place with Italian waiters, cheese was American, Swiss or Monterrey Jack, beer was Coors, Miller, and a Heineken was something special.
Things changed, really changed, but it took a while.
What is loud?
There are certain things in our experience as humans today that are unprecedented. We experience things which before you would not be able to live through and tell about. Speed is one such experience- to experience great velocity meant falling off a cliff or into a ravine, not exactly something repeatable or pleasurable. Being on a horse was about as fast as you could go until the 20th century. Now owning a car or motorcycle capable of 200mph is, if not commonplace, possible without even being a professional racer. Speed is so seductive in large part because of the adrenalin it releases, and we like adrenalin. It’s a key component of our “fight or flight” survival system, reacting to potentially dangerous situations. People love roller coasters because they put us in a very strange situation – your mind knows you’re completely safe, your body is telling you the opposite.
Loudness is actually very similar to speed in the kind of adrenal system reactions it provokes. That’s because loudness in nature was almost always keyed to great peril for primitive humans. Avalanches, proximate lighting strikes, tornadoes, stampeding anything (like elephants) are not a good thing for humans to be around, and our hearing and brains are hard wired to tell us so. Very loud sounds trigger a lot of adrenaline. Our hearing never goes to sleep, the pathway between the ear and the brain is direct and requires no thought. Just as with roller coasters and speed, we’ve discovered how powerful loud sounds and especially music can be, addictively so.
The ability to produce or reproduce very loud sounds, excluding warfare, is an extremely new phenomenon. Outside of marching bands, the technology just didn’t exist. Film soundtracks were not very loud until very recently, and it was not until the movie Earthquake (1974) that theaters were even equipped with equipment that could reproduce very low sounds, which are essential for the full physical effect of loudness. Sound is energy and low, bass sounds contain most of it. If you drop a metal spoon on a concrete floor the resulting sound (about 135db) is incredibly loud (a jet engine on takeoff is about the same SPL) but its so short in duration and so high in pitch that we don’t feel it as such. A sound level of 115db with a large bass content is so loud that you feel it in your sternum and your pants (provided they’re not skinnies) are flapping in the sonic wind. There was a Maxell tape ad in the 1970’s which showed a man in a chair literally being blown away by the sound from a speaker. The speaker shown in the ad could never produce that effect, but we wanted it so bad that we pretended it was true. That ad has been embossed on the collective memory of everyone who ever saw it. This kind of sound reproduction is only several decades old, the equivalent of the blink of an eye in human history.
With a big enough horn and enough juice, you can create sound waves powerful enough to punch holes in reinforced concrete, and Tom Danley of Danley Sound Labs built horns for NASA that couldlevitate things. That’s so loud that if you were unfortunate enough to be present your hearing would be instantly destroyed, forever.
Rock concerts are about as loud as you’ll ever hear. In the beginning of pop/rock music reproduction, a single cinema horn speaker like an Altec A-7 Voice of the Theater would have covered a whole venue. That’s how two kids did it back in the late 1950’s. Roy and Gene Clair, a couple of teens from Lancaster, Pennsylvania started the whole industry of touring rock concert sound reproduction with that speaker, adding more and more of them until you had a veritable wall of sound. Later, Roy Clair developed his own horns which were more powerful and more compact, so you could fit more firepower into a truck and fly them over the stage. There has been a virtual arms race in the PA industry to develop ever more compact and powerful speaker systems capable of ever greater SPL’s (Sound Pressure Level, measured in dB). Almost all of these systems still use horns, but the advent of incredibly powerful and cheap solid state Class D amplifiers enables these horns to be very small because they can be fed by huge amounts of power. I recently visited the Clair facility in Manheim, Pennsylvania where they have a full size concert venue to test and demonstrate their systems. There were two very small amplifier racks running two huge line arrays (the current, dominant type of PA speaker configuration) hanging over the stage. The sonic power of this system was actually frightening. Each amp rack was rated at 40,000 watts.
In these types of systems as many as 8 compression drivers feed into a single horn throat (for each array module, and there are always many of them), in the same way as the Western Electric BeachMaster system used on landing craft in WWII and later on helicopters. If you remember the battle scene in Apocalypse Now, with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries blaring down from the copters, those were BeachMasters. Just one of the compression drivers in a line array horn can reach 120db spl or more, and when you feed 8 of them into a single, rather small horn throat there is so much energy pouring into such a confined volume that the air in the throat can actually break down and not behave, as seen by the sound waves, like air any longer. In terms of physics, that marks the limit of how loud the speaker can be. With bass, a whole new generation of obscenely powerful 21” woofers with enormous Neodymium magnets has emerged, and when two of these are placed in a refrigerator size box, as I recently heard at a pro sound demo, SPL’s of 125db with virtually no distortion can be achieved. At that volume level at 40-50Hz your internal organs feel like they are being massaged within your body. Its an uncanny sensation, one that no one has really experienced before, because such speakers never existed before.
At OMA we actually use those same 21” woofers, though a version with the best sound for our Imperia system, not the highest possible power handling. The idea is not to get your pants flapping, but to have sound at any level with no distortion. This makes an OMA speaker like the Imperia a potential hazard, because you can turn up the volume to extremely high levels and not have any idea how loud it really is. When I demonstrate the Imperia at our Brooklyn showroom using something that should be played really loud, like Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” or Kraftwerk’s “Elektro Kardiogramm”, I usually use the sound pressure meter app on my iPhone to show the listener just how loud it is – around 110db peak. At that level, you can actually have a conversation- the distortion is so low. Distortion is what tells you that music or the sound inside a restaurant, for example, is annoyingly loud. I’ve measured sound levels in Manhattan restaurants like MoMoFuKu’s Ramen bar at 94db, and in that reverberant space any kind of conversation was just about impossible without yelling in someone’s face. Absent distortion, you might keep turning the music up, because all the signals you’ve learned to analyze loudness by are gone. Add alcohol into the equation, which reduces our sensitivity to loudness, and you might find yourself listening at 115db, which is not a great idea for your long term hearing.
Maybe we need to add a warning for the Imperia – Listen Responsibly.
“I hate horns”
People tell me, “I hate horn speakers”. Only audiophiles tell me this, of course, but more often than you might think. Ordinary people don’t even know what a horn loaded loudspeaker is, and many of our customers talk about the “cone things” on top of their speakers. Horn hating is an audiophile thing.
Audiophiles have a good half century of training behind this prejudice. When Edgar Villachur and his company Acoustic Research invented the first small direct radiator speaker in the late 1950’s, the AR1, it changed audio forever. From Wikipedia:
“AR’s line of acoustic suspension speakers were extraordinary for their time, as they were the first loudspeakers with flat response, extended bass, wide dispersion, small size, and reasonable cost.”
Just about everything that follows the AR1 in the realm of high end audio for the last 50 years is essentially the same from an engineering standpoint. The AR1 was a little bookshelf speaker, its progeny today might weigh 600 pounds and cost over $200,000, but the concept is the same. Horns were out after the AR1. The magazines in bed with the high end audio industry made sure of that. If you were a serious audiophile, you needed a direct radiator loudspeaker.
I actually don’t have a problem with audiophiles telling me how much they hate the sound of horns, because every single high end company making horn loudspeakers makes them completely differently from OMA. If you look at any other horn, you’ll see the walls are curved. This profile can and usually is of the exponential flare, there are also parabolic, hyperbolic and other flares, and in the exponential category there are sub species such as tractrix, spherical, LeCleach, etc. They are all similar in that their walls have curvature. That may not seem like such a big deal, but it is.
Conical horns are completely different. They have straight sided walls. The sound comes out of the driver at the throat end and sees a perfectly consistent expansion rate, which means the sound wave emerges as a spherical wavefront without any perturbations. That’s not what happens with a curved horn, because the sound wave is now seeing curved walls, a bit like playing pool on a curved billiard table. As the frequency goes up, the sound waves don’t even “see” the horn walls and start to beam, which is why you’ll often see conventional horn speakers toed in to aim at a central listening chair or position- if you’re not sitting there with your head in an imaginary vise you will miss part of the essential high frequency information because its only to be heard on axis. This makes a listening session at a horn afficianado’s home frustrating, because only one person at a time can really hear the music properly.
Conical horns don’t have any of these problems. In fact, one of their attributes is a technical term called “constant directivity” which is one of the absolute most desirable characteristics in the pro audio world. What it really means is that everywhere the horn is aiming (defined by looking at the angles of the horn, and pretending that if it were a fire hose nozzle, who would get soaked sitting in front of it) gets to hear the same thing in the same way.
Many pro horns have been created to have constant directivity through complex throat and mouth geometries, but conicals have this naturally. The other thing they have is a totally natural sound, without colorations typical of other curved horns. This is the real sticking point to my mind, why audiophiles have issues with horn speakers. The problem is the constriction at the throat typical of these horns. Its kind of like the difference between a trumpet and a megaphone. A trumpet is loud, really loud, and its quite short. A megaphone is not so loud, but a voice coming through it is clear. The trumpet is much louder because its more efficient, specifically it couples the air in the mouth of the trumpeter to the surrounding air better than the megaphone, because that constriction presents a small air column which rapidly expands to the sound waves. The conical horn does not have that constriction.
When audiophiles tell me they hate horns, my usual response is, well, you’ve never heard conical horns. If they argue, I simply ask them what company’s conical horn loudspeakers they have heard? Because there are none. OMA is the first company to ever make hifi conical loudspeakers, and there are only a handful of pro companies (actually the best ones) which make conical loudspeakers for use in concerts or venues.
Sometimes audiophiles tell me how much they hated horns after hearing conicals for the first time, such as in our showroom, and its typically offered as a heartfelt confession. “I thought I would hate them, but they don’t sound like horns.”
You may wonder, if conical horns are so great, why is OMA the only company that makes them (for domestic use.) The answer is simple. Size. Conical horns are a lot bigger than their curved cousins. The reason the AR1 was such a huge success, and why it put most horn speaker companies out of business, is size (and cost, which follows from size.) The whole history of audio for the last 50 plus years has been making things smaller and cheaper. Conicals are neither and horns in general have not been on the home audio map since gas was 20 cents a gallon.
Before electronic microphones and amplifiers arrived in the mid 1920’s all recording was done by the musician or singer performing into a big horn. Its the exact reverse of what we do at OMA- the energy coming from the musician’s instrument or singers voice is concentrated by the horn onto a little device which physically cut the groove into a record. The funny thing is that when you look at the historical photos, you only see conical horns, never curved ones (which were used exclusively on the phonographs of the era.) It seems they already knew that the conical horn was the only one which did not color the sound of the performance. They didn’t have the benefit of all our science and technology. They just used their ears.
I Can’t Get No…
I recently found a small neon sign on Ebay made by RCA in the early 1930’s. It guaranteed “Sound Satisfaction” for any moviegoer because RCA equipment was in the house. That was a time when sound really mattered. I lost the auction but it did get me thinking on the subject of what sound quality means today and what’s happened since that sign was made.
It’s impossible to understand the impact of recorded sound on human civilization. It’s a little more than a hundred years ago since you had to be there to hear music. Sound was made and consumed instantly. It left no trace except as tradition and written scores. The technology to capture and reproduce sound was like magic, as are all great technological innovations, as Arthur C. Clarke famously noted.
The man who really started the revolution in sound reproduction was Thomas A. Edison. His first device, a wax cylinder, was not very good, but later he moved into disc recording, which is what we now know as records, vinyl, LP’s, etc. To convince people to buy his new technology, Edison hit upon the brilliant idea of doing thousands of live demonstrations across the US, with a performer singing versus a machine playing back the same recording on disc. This was quite successful. Many people could not tell the difference, even though if you heard this comparison today you would find it impossible to believe. How did he manage to fool people?
One way involved double blind testing- meaning the listeners were blindfolded and the blindfolds were wide pieces of cloth that covered not just their eyes but also their ears. Another much more devious method was to have the singers listen to their records, which were pretty poor in quality, and then sing in that poor quality (I really can’t fathom how they did that but I’m no performer). Edison chose music carefully, with nothing challenging in terms of dynamics, detail or complexity. Edison himself was hearing impaired, almost deaf. Even more shrewd, as Sean Olive (seanolive.blogspot.com) notes in his piece on the history of live vs. recorded, Edison thought that-
“People will hear what you tell them to hear”. 
“The expectations and perceptions of his listeners were manipulated before the test to produce a more predicable outcome. Audience members were given a concert program before his Tone Tests that clearly told them exactly what they would hear, how amazing it will sound, and what an appropriate response would be.”
Plus ça change…
Another interesting facet to the live vs. recorded demonstrations is that usually the performer would be faking (lip synching) over the recorded section of the presentation, and this brings the McGurk effect into play:
Your visual sense effectively overrides what your brain is telling you is the truth when it comes to sound. Humans have incredibly good hearing, as recent important scientific studies have shown (see my previous blog entry Second Time Around) especially in the most important areas of our frequency range, like the human voice, or an infant crying. So you are probably wondering how it’s possible that we can be fooled so easily into thinking we’re hearing something we’re not, or that it’s any good. The study of how humans hear, as opposed to how a microphone hears (a very important distinction, as a microphone does not have a brain) is called psychoacoustics, and it explains a lot of these questions.
At the beginning of recorded sound, the scientific emphasis was on both understanding human hearing and how to make the best possible sound. There was a lot of money involved, think the telephone system, radio and talking motion pictures- i.e. movies. For the phone system, there were minimum thresholds for reproduction, intelligibility for example. It’s funny that today I often have a hard time understanding what someone is saying on my iPhone 6, because the system carriers do everything they can to reduce bandwidth and increase profit, thus sound quality remains the same despite technological progress- barely good enough.
For the last four decades or so, a lot of psychoacoustic inquiry has been focused on areas of our hearing that allow us to be fooled. Our hearing is incredibly sophisticated- it’s adaptive, and actually changes depending on the situation you’re in. For example, in a crowded room, like a cocktail party, if you want to hear what someone is saying at a distance, you are able to filter out surrounding chatter, and your sense of loudness changes as well (this is actually known as the “cocktail party effect”).
Psychoacoustic researchers made many discoveries about how the ear and brain perceive loudness and the arrival of sounds of different intensities, in particular a phenomenon known as masking. We hear sounds actively, meaning our brain does not hear a loud sound or transient the same way in a quiet room or in a very loud or noisy environment, and if a quiet sound is followed by a loud one, it will mask the earlier sound (and vice versa). Understanding masking led to ways to “fool” the brain into thinking that a sound was present when it was not. Without knowledge of masking the MP3 would be impossible. Other research concentrated on the limitations of human hearing, showing that we could not hear past 20Khz, for example, and it’s true, we can’t, at least not consciously. This was very important for the development of early digital sound technology and the CD, which has a brick wall filter at 20kHz so effectively shuts out everything higher in frequency. The MP3 came hot on its heels when a group of German academics figured out how to get rid of most of the music in music. The MP3 algorithm is a 1:12 ratio- only one part in twelve of an original music file is retained, the rest is thrown away as being “redundant.” This was all verified by tests using snippets of music. The problem is no one listens to snippets of music.
All this research was based on the underlying question: “How bad can we make sound before anyone will notice?” The emphasis in our culture for the last 50 years has been to make sound and music cheaper, more convenient and ubiquitous, and like fast food, has created an epidemic of obese hard drives and overall malnutrition in sound quality.
We’ve gotten to the point where any sound better than the earbuds that Apple gives you or the 2” drivers in your TV or computer speaker is now considered high fidelity. When RCA coined that term in the 1930’s it meant twin 15” field coil woofers on a 7’ wide horn for bass, and a pair of field coil compression drivers firing into an 18 cell horn that weighed about 200 lbs. Times have changed…
 Andre Milliard, “Edison’s Tone Tests and the Ideal of Perfect Sound Reproduction,” from Lost and Found Sounds’, NPR. Program for Edison Demonstration.
The speed of change has become daunting. Our personal lives have changed because of the computer, the smart phone, the creation of social media and the new ways in which people relate to each other. As I walk down the street in New York City, most people no longer look around, they’re busy with their phones. Even at nice restaurants many would rather be with their phones, taking pictures of their food or selfies, than enjoying the company of others. On a larger scale, whole industries seem to vanish overnight, taking their jobs with them and creating a vague but persistent sense of insecurity, that nothing can be counted on. Everything can be rendered obsolete, and in the blink of an eye. The psychological effect of this cannot be underestimated, because the insecurity it generates is pervasive throughout our societies.
I just finished reading a new book by Stephen Witt, “How Music Got Free, The End Of An Industry …” which traces the downfall of the music industry because of the rise of digital music and piracy. The ceaseless drive of technology, of making things smaller, cheaper, easier and more convenient, also contained the seeds of the industry’s own destruction. The CD was a lot cheaper to make than an LP, and of course far more convenient, and the record companies knew how to make people dissatisfied with the existing technology (LP’s), throw their whole collection of music away and pay for it again in digital form. The LP had tics and pops and unless you had a good turntable, arm and cartridge you might not get great sound, but with the CD you got “Perfect Sound Forever”™. The player required no skill to operate or set up, and promised no worries in playing back a plastic disc which supposedly could not be scratched or harmed like records could. Right. But it was really the MP3 and its algorithmic progeny which opened the gates of hell for the music industry, creating an environment in which file sharing and then streaming destroyed the business of selling physical music. The only bright spot for actual physical sales of music is, ironically, the reinvigoration of vinyl, which long had been considered a deceased format. Witt closes the book with the confession that his own collection of over 100,000 songs, contained on multiple drives that spanned over a decade, have now been rendered worthless by streaming media. So he threw it all away (better, actually, he writes about watching the drives physically destroyed by a professional with a pneumatic nail gun). For many, the point was seeing how much free, compressed music could be accumulated. Listening to it was an afterthought.
This uncertainty and insecurity generated by what we call technological progress is not inevitable. It’s the outcome of our attitude towards technology, towards history and really towards life itself. When people visit our Brooklyn showroom they often comment that there is virtually nothing “new” to be seen anywhere. It’s true- most everything in the loft is an antique, or at least vintage. I’ve always figured that with the passage of time, the value of something finally reveals itself. It’s easier to pick out, after a period, the good designs, whether it be art, furniture, even appliances or common household wares. That period might be decades, or hundreds of years- good stuff lasts. I think this is exactly what is happening with people’s rediscovery of vinyl records, still in its infancy, but a noteworthy trend. And because the LP is not going to change, the record players that people buy also will be seen in a different light than buying an MP3 player, or any other digital device. You know the digital device is going to be worthless after a time, probably very shortly in fact. With the record player, you’ll figure that making an investment is a good bet- it’s not going to be obsolete in the future (as long as there are records to play) and you’ll get more pleasure from it too.
As I watch everything around me change with such alacrity, such as my neighborhood in Brooklyn (Dumbo looks different every week now) one thing I don’t ever worry about is what my company makes. In any other industry, I’d better be concerned that a new technology is about to seismically alter the marketplace and render our business model outdated. But we already inoculated ourselves- the DNA of OMA is in fact Old School. The value of our products, based on technologies that are so old they have been forgotten by the audio industry itself in most cases, derives from a quality that is largely absent today. It’s best described by the word “heirloom,” something which gets passed down within a family, or in the case of a plant or seed something good enough to not need further alteration or genetic manipulation. There is no reason our loudspeakers, amplifiers or even turntables won’t be running and playing music in a hundred years, just as the RCA equipment in our reference collection, most of which is 80 years old, still works just fine. That equipment, made for professional cinema use before WW2 and planned obsolescence became the norm in US industry, was built so well that it too could easily be running a hundred years from now, and that is exactly how we approach our own products. It’s been more than 50 years since anyone bought audio equipment thinking they would give it to their kids, let alone their grandchildren. But there is no reason it should not be so- sound waves can’t be miniaturized, and despite literally billions of dollars of industry research into how to make digital and solid state sound good, the earlier, more “primitive” technologies are still the absolute best in terms of sound quality. Nobody throws out a fine Steinway or Bosendorfer grand piano, or a good violin- if audio equipment is made from materials that age beautifully, like solid hardwood, slate, cast iron and bronze, it too will be handed down and cherished.
Old, New and Irrelevant to Most of You
I’m not a Luddite. I have a profound respect for past technologies, but sometimes they deserve to be just that- past technologies. And so I felt until recently about one of the most obscure aspects of speaker technology: the power supplies for field coil speakers like the Cogent drivers we use in the OMA Imperia.
Back in the golden age of sound, the cinema speakers of the 1920’s and 1930’s, virtually all of the speakers were “field coil” or electromagnetic. At that time, the kind of permanent magnets we now take for granted in speakers did not exist. They came later, a result of the improved metallurgy after WW2 (specifically, AlNiCo). Those field coil speakers are a high point in the history of sound, and most are very rare and highly sought after (and expensive).
Because these speakers use electromagnets, they also need DC voltage to energize them (typically either 13v DC or 110v DC). To produce DC voltage from the AC mains is a process called rectification, and today it’s a simple, easy and cheap thing to do with solid state devices. But it was very different 80 years ago. General Electric had invented a rectifier tube filled with argon gas and a tungsten filament in 1916 (which was really cool looking, by the way) trademarked Tungar, and ever since these kind of huge tube DC supplies are just called “Tungars.” After WW2 permanent magnets became powerful enough that those wonderful old field coil drivers were no longer necessary, and they became extinct, along with the big, expensive Tungar supplies necessary to run them.
This stuff is so obscure that if you try talking about it with professional speaker designers today they would probably have no idea what you were going on about. The industry is either a-historical or deeply amnesiac.
Although I knew that Japanese audiophiles in particular had always claimed that Tungar supplies made their vintage speakers sound better, I was skeptical, to say the least. I’d seen the cult of Western Electric, with its irrational exuberance, and the idea that everything old is good strikes me as absurd. The DC power supply that a speaker uses, whether its the RCA MI -1428 or the Cogent driver we use in our Imperia system, is only using that 13 volts DC to energize a magnet. Thus a battery should be the best source of DC. So I bought a huge 200 pound monster battery used in Caterpillar earth movers from the Deka battery plant across the valley from Oswald’s Mill in PA and hooked that up to my RCA speakers back in the old days before OMA. I could hear no difference between the battery and cheap, switching power supplies from Radio Shack, and so for years I assumed that DC power made no difference. How wrong I was…
Many years later, a trusted friend with a lot of experience with field coil drivers let me on to something he’d recently discovered; those old Tungar supplies really did sound different, and a lot better, than anything else. As I already had some vintage RCA Tungars in our reference collection, it was not a big deal to hook one up and have a listen. It’s such an odd thing to feel happy and stupid at the same time. And that’s exactly what happened.
Normally when you try something in a system and there is a really big improvement in sound quality, you are happy. I was happy to hear a system I knew very well sound much better, because we had changed nothing more than the power supply. I was chastened, however, because for years I had not bothered to investigate for myself whether these old Tungar supplies would make a difference, and in fact I was prejudiced against them having any effect at all. I felt like an idiot for not finding out for myself sooner.
Although this gets very technical and very arcane quickly, the fact that just the kind of DC used to energize a magnet in a speaker could make a very audible difference to the sound quality of that speaker means that the quality of the magnetic field, or flux, in a speaker is yet another meaningful aspect in sound reproduction. And that arguments about the different types of magnets used historically in speakers (field coil, AlNiCo, Ceramic and now Neodymium/Rare Earth) have ground for validity. In the best of all possible worlds, loudspeakers would be made with field coils and powered with DC Tungar supplies. In the real world, that is too impossibly expensive to ever happen. The results of our experiments with the Tungar supplies did have one beneficial outcome- the new OMA TS-1 DC Power Supply. After hearing the difference for myself, there was no way we could not offer this technology to our clients with systems using the Cogent driver, and in the future, we’ll be manufacturing our own field coil loudspeakers. There are also plenty of great vintage field coil speakers which would benefit from the TS-1 DC so although I know it’s never going to be a best seller, it’s another one of those things which OMA makes not because of our bottom line, but because our line is the best possible sound.
Don’t Play That!
When people visit the OMA showroom in Dumbo, Brooklyn, they rightfully expect to listen to music. Sometimes they bring their own music, vinyl, CD’s or a hard drive with digital files. We even have a tiny device that allows anyone with a smartphone to use Bluetooth to play anything they have on their phone. I encourage people to play or request whatever music they like- there’s no point in putting on a very impressive classical LP for someone who wants to hear pop, rock, rap or punk (I have not had any punk requests yet, I must say). The important thing is that I get the listener to connect with the music. Often I’ll play things that are obscure, instead of taking the path of least resistance and just playing music that everyone knows (although I do some of that too). We keep wooden record crates on the showroom floor, each crate containing a genre (rock, jazz, symphonic classical, even solo piano and solo violin/cello, etc) and I really enjoy spontaneously crafting a demo for someone as I watch their reactions to what I’m playing for them. It’s a very organic thing.
When I have gone to other audio showrooms, the demo process could not be more different. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me (I try and do this anonymously) what I want to listen to. That’s because they don’t care. The dealer wants me to hear what he thinks is most impressive on the system. That music will most likely fall into a playlist which is even more limited than that of most FM rock stations today. It contains maybe a hundred albums, many of which have very little musical value (for me, at least) but spectacular sonics. The Hugh Maskela choo choo train song comes to mind, along with singers like Norah Jones and Diana Krall.
When you go to an audio show, this whole thing is even worse, because you will hear the same songs coming simultaneously out of different rooms, a truly sad phenomenon. It’s as if the dealers and manufacturers are actually afraid of playing something that is not on that audiophile play list. This is one of the reasons why we don’t do audio shows any more.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found the following piece in my email inbox from the least likely source: Stereophile Magazine, telling the story of Grammy Award winning producer and chief engineer of the San Fransisco Symphony, Jack Vad, who had gone to the 2014 RMAF show (Rocky Mountain Audio Fest) –
“When he’d carried his latest recordings, which I think are superbly recorded, into rooms at the show and asked if he could play them, exhibitors were anything but enthusiastic.”
Vad “had brought along a flash drive containing high-resolution tracks from SFS’s new, Grammy-nominated West Side Story and Masterpieces in Miniature SACD/CDs, both conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The latter included a performance of Fauré’s Pavane whose beauty nearly overwhelmed me...” writes Stereophile’s Jason Victor Serinus.
“I wasn’t asking to play cuts that were overly challenging, such as something by Anton Webern,” Vad told Serinus after the show. “I thought they were selections that would be entertaining, and I knew them really well. But in most cases, if there wasn’t a technical snafu— there were some playback systems that couldn’t grab the material— there basically wasn’t one room I went into where people didn’t want to get my music off the system.” (emphasis mine.)
“What Vad found especially confusing was that his music never drove other show attendees out of rooms. In fact, at his formal demos, people were enthusiastic, and even applauded. ‘There was a sort of ubiquitous editorializing going on,’ he lamented. “It was almost as if there was an invisible hook, and a feeling that, somehow, there were so many problems that this material brought out, either in the components’ integration or execution, that exhibitors didn’t want to be heard. I’m assuming this, because it happened to me many times.”
Exhibitors never declared that Vad’s West Side Story tracks sounded poor. Instead, they stopped them midstream, according to Serinus.
“It’s not that I went in there undercover, pretending to be someone else,” Vad continued. “My name tag clearly said I was connected with the San Francisco Symphony. By the end of the show, I began to wonder if I had to be a Stereophile reviewer to be treated decently.”
I’ve emailed Jack Vad with an invitation to bring that drive and any other music he likes to OMA next time he visits New York.
Where wine meets audio
I’m in Argentina. It’s supposed to be a break from work, but I’ll confess that I met with a person in the industry today. He told me something interesting, that he doesn’t really trust his ears when it comes to “high end” audio components. He wants to audition them side by side. Then you really know which is better, he said.
Of course this is impossible in Argentina as it is almost anyplace else. To do real side by side, A/B or A/B/C comparisons (even better if they were blind) is an extremely expensive proposition and you almost never see it done commercially. But it got me thinking….
The main reason this fellow did not trust his ears is that when he went to shows, what he heard from room to room at CES, CEDIA, was such similar sound that he thought the differences were so minuscule they would only be borne out through a direct comparison as you might make with TV’s or projectors (and with speakers this is much more difficult to do, because there are many more variables involved with attaining identical SPL, amplifier matching, cables, etc). He did not trust his own hearing, in short, because all the stuff he heard sounded the same.
I like wine. The first time my wife and I came to Argentina was in 2004, and we went to Mendoza, which is the Napa Valley of Argentina. It was virtually impossible then to find any small wine producers- almost all the vineyards within striking distance of Mendoza were huge affairs, producing what I would call very commercial wine. We left disappointed. My feeling about Argentine wine was that it was a victim of the international market. Great wine is a product, of course, but it is also something far beyond that.
Globally, Argentine wines have been a big success story in the last decade, especially considering the rest of its economy. And there are a lot of new, small wineries here, maybe not as small as in Europe where people may have a vineyard of only a few acres, but still, this is a good thing. I found a great little wine shop in Buenos Aires, which also is a book store (a very cool combination, and they are serious about both) with a highly knowledgeable proprietor who was more than willing to spend over an hour going through his offerings, to try and locate bottles from producers which might interest me.
I ended up with a bit more than a case of wine (i.e. more than 12 bottles), all from different, small producers, different grapes, regions, altitudes. Not just Malbec, but Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Tannat and Bonarda. And as I sampled these wines, I realized I was really just drinking one wine. A wine all these producers aspired to, because it would give them, hopefully, a plus 90 rating on the Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate or other international rating system. A wine with too much fruit, too much alcohol, overly extracted, basically too sweet (residual sugar) unbalanced, heavy and only good with a grilled steak. It actually became kind of a joke- no matter what I opened up, it tasted the same.
Economic globalization has generally been a great downward leveler. Especially with products or cultures which are unique, or which you might say express a point of view. Countries like Chile and Argentina, which never had a fully developed high quality wine industry are now stuck producing the sweet, fruity, alcoholic wines that uneducated American and other 1st world customers want, probably because it reminds them of the Coca Cola they had with meals before they discovered wine. There is an alternative, of course, like producing wines such as the best of those from the Rhone, Loire, Languedoc, Piedmont or Mt. Etna, etc. But these great wines are not mass market wines, they are very individual. Argentine producers don’t even seem to know about the existence of these kind of wines, probably because they can’t even buy them in Argentina, with its devalued peso and isolationist government.
When the audio guy I spoke with today asked what our speakers sounded like, I told him they were entirely different from what he had heard at CES or anyplace else. They do not require careful A/B/C comparisons with other speakers because they might as well just be a different animal. If someone has never seen a deer, it’s hard to explain how it’s different from a cow. When you see a deer, you don’t need to put it next to a cow to understand the difference.
Audio today is just like the same uni wine problem I’ve found in Argentina. Loudspeakers look the same, sound the same, with an array of inefficient, too small woofers and a dome tweeter in a direct radiator box with a narrow front baffle so that they “disappear.” Basically the same wine poured into bottles with different labels, with different prices which reflect little else but the efficacy of marketing.
Stereo as Furniture
I bought a pair of late 1950’s speakers recently, Brociner corner horns. Really rare. I doubt they made many, most people in audio have never heard of Brociner, which was a bit like Fisher, Scott, Marantz, but a notch better (and more expensive). I was not in the market for these things at all. In fact, a friend who is an inveterate collector of all cool old good things audio bought them first. I had accompanied him to the apartment where they were being sold to check them out. I’d never seen or heard a Brociner before.
The building reminded me of my Russian grandparent’s apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. It was on one of those wide, grand old boulevards in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that had seen better days. The hallways even smelled the same as my grandparent’s building (old school New York apartment hallways have had so many stuffed cabbages cooked behind their doors that the smell will probably never leave). It was apparent the apartment was being cleared out. The living room’s long wall was occupied by the stereo equipment, in the Danish Modern style that dominated the console designs of that era. The Brociner corner horns were placed, no surprises here, in the corners. They were designed to use the corner of the room to extend the horn inside the triangular cabinets and create even more bass. Clever design, acoustically and aesthetically. They looked great, although the finish needed some spiffing up after more than half a century. My friend got the system working and we listened to them, I don’t remember what music it was, but it was very, very good sound. I was impressed. My friend bought the system on the spot. I was happy, I figured I’d get to listen to them at one of his residences.
My friend is an audiophile with a capitol A. Real audiophiles love audio equipment, they also love trying new things, and that means that things already tried must go at some point. The next thing I know, I own the Brociners. I couldn’t resist. Some day OMA may make a speaker like these, so I’m calling it a “reference” acquisition. None of this actually is the point of my blog entry, except for what happened next. I got an email from a man identifying himself as the son of the original owners of the Brociner system. He went on to inform me that the system made such an impression on him as a child that he became an audio engineer and has had a career in pro audio of 42 years so far. And that the system was featured on the cover of Audio Magazine in Feb. of 1962. Sure enough, I looked up Audio Magazine online, and the cover of the magazine was indeed those Brociners, and in fact it was EXACTLY the same apartment I’d entered a few years before with my friend. NOTHING had changed, it was a veritable time warp, a vault or, more morbidly, a crypt.
What struck me about that cover was how you would never see that today. I subscribe (yes, I’m admitting it) to both US audio magazines and often look at their overseas counterparts, and I have never, ever seen an audio system in someone’s home on the cover, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a picture inside the magazines either. Why is that? The covers are always a single component which you are supposed to buy and almost always the manufacturer is an advertiser in the magazine. But why would you never see a pic of a room with the audio gear in it? Perhaps because of the guilty recognition that no one except the hard core subscriber base would even care. Audio equipment does not occupy the same place in our culture as it once did. Audio equipment is no longer designed with the understanding that it is part of interior decor. It is designed as if it were an isolated thing, not part of a larger whole.
Mid century modern is now shorthand for a highly sought after form of modernism in architecture and interior design. Audio equipment was designed to fit that look. It was expensive, (the Brociner was nearly $500 each in 1957, almost $5000 in today’s dollars) and an audio system conveyed status, culture and wealth. It was big, it was beautiful, and along with a TV, it was something you were proud to have front and center in your living room.
Today even manufacturers of $100,000 speakers, which tend to be large, go to great lengths to make the front baffle of their speakers as narrow as possible- the result is tall, skinny and deep. This is a very bad idea acoustically speaking, but it does address the unspoken fear in the industry of people not wanting to look at a speaker in their living room – at all. They are in effect trying to make a very expensive thing disappear, which is sort of insane. This is the space audio equipment occupies in our culture today, guilty fetish objects, trying to disguise themselves because no one loves them. A pity.
The engineer son who contacted me asked if he could come over and listen to the Brociners. He had not heard them in decades. Of course I’ll oblige. I love the idea that a little kid is so blown away by the stereo system in his family living room that he dedicates his life to reproducing sound and music for others. I hope that happens someday to a kid who grows up with our speakers.
The Big Bamboo
People often ask me what makes the most difference for the sound in a high end audio system- is it the speakers, the amplifier, vinyl vs. digital?
I always say that everything matters, though it does not matter in the same amount or in the same way. And sometimes I’m amazed myself how something that seems very small or inconsequential can make a real difference in the sound of a big, complicated, and often very expensive system.
I recently had the opportunity to try a new phono cartridge made by the Japanese man responsible for the Miyajima Lab line of cartridges which OMA represents. This cartridge was essentially the same as the top of the line Kansui cartridge which I use to demonstrate our best systems at our NYC showroom . The only difference with this new cartridge, called the Madake, was a tiny piece of bamboo.
Cartridges virtually all use a little stick of something metal or crystalline (aluminum, boron, titanium, ruby or sapphire or diamond), called the cantilever to which the tiny, pointy bit of diamond, called the stylus, is attached. Think of it like a piece of broomstick with a nail pounded through one end. You drag the nail end through the groove of an lp and sound comes out, which is a rather miraculous feat if you cogitate on the simplicity of it all.
Madake is a highly prized species of bamboo grown in Japan (although it does grow elsewhere) and is used for things like Shakuhachi, the Zen bamboo flute. Miyajima San wondered whether substituting a tiny sliver of bamboo for the aluminum he usually uses for the “broomstick” or cantilever in his other cartridges might damp the resonances which flow from the stylus through the cantilever and into the audio system as a whole. Thank you Mr. Miyajimafor thinking like this.
The Madake cartridge, with its bamboo cantilever, sounds so much better, it’s really hard to fathom. All because of a piece of bamboo barely visible to the naked eye. Everything counts, and in small amounts.
One of my favorite expressions is “The cobbler’s children have no shoes”. It’s so true, I always run into chefs who have no real kitchen at home, and of course the audio industry is full of people with no proper stereo at home. My favorite record store owner does not even listen to music at home (I can kind of understand that, though). We don’t have that problem, fortunately, with many systems using vintage speakers and amplifiers from my collection in use all over Oswald’s Mill. The NYC showroom is of course replete with OMA products, but for 20 years there was never a system in the kitchen and dining area of the loft, the lack of which Cynthia has long pointed out. My excuse: the cobbler has to put the customer’s shoes first.
So here’s the Cobbler Speaker- something I’ve had in mind from a design standpoint for a long time, but of course it’s not horn loaded, and in fact it is a rather “conventional” speaker, except that it’s a throwback to the high efficiency two way designs from the end of the tube audio era in the 1950’s. Instead of using a small horn it uses a vintage top of the line Heil AMT (air motion transformer- great driver!) It also uses the ultra cool alnico JBL white cone woofer, both being mounted directly to a 1″ thick piece of water jet cut cleft Pennsylvania slate, itself captured in 1″ thick Pennsylvania black walnut. The box, and bless my woodworker, was not an easy thing to make, either, as all the sides slope inward, with no parallel walls, and are connected by hand cut dovetails using a Japanese hand saw. Finished in oil and wax. So heavy, I couldn’t comfortably pick one up myself, about 80 Lbs.
If people have an interest, we could make this into a product. We’d use the modern equivalent of these rare vintage drivers, but that’s doable.
Art vs. Furniture
I was reading an essay by the sculptor Donald Judd recently, in which he talked about art and furniture. He made both, also some architecture. I’m not a fan of Minimalism, of which Judd was a founding father-it’s always struck me as somewhat Fundamentalist. But Judd was honest and straightforward, as you can imagine from his art, and he tackled a very difficult subject, one which has become even more important today than when Judd wrote 30 years ago. He asked, what is the relation between art and furniture, between high art and household objects, design, and also architecture? As art has become ever more important as our highest, near mystical value in Western societies, there is a tendency to use art to market anything and everything. Stella Artois and Heineken billboards tout the Art of Beer and Beer as Art; the nonsense has become pervasive. Most people have no idea what art is, they just know it’s important and expensive, which makes it ideal for marketing anything.
Judd talks about how he was asked to make a coffee table, and so he took a sculpture which might resemble (to some people) a coffee table and tried to modify it to actually be a coffee table. The result was a failure, as he put it, which “debased the work and produced a bad table which I later threw away.” In trying to figure out why this happened, Judd concluded that the ”configuration and the scale of art cannot be transposed into furniture and architecture.” Judd also noted that the intent of art is nothing at all like the intent behind making a chair or a table. These are functional objects, and art is not functional, its intent lies elsewhere. Judd points out that without that functionality being central to the chair, it becomes ridiculous…. a ridiculous art object pretending to be a chair. We see that kind of thing a lot nowadays.
For a chair to be good it has to be good as a chair, a functional chair, which seems obvious. But if it really is good, it will start to have the feel of art itself- a very interesting and true conclusion of Judd’s. In other words, you can’t start off trying to make an “art chair” and make either good art or a good chair, but if you are a very good designer, you may inadvertently arrive at the “art of the chair” – by keeping art out of it.
Judd really hated virtually all the chairs made in the 20th century, pointing out that they fell into two camps- historical copies of overstuffed 19th century furniture, à la Victorianism, and a debased kind of pseudo modernism which was really just a thinly disguised “sentimentalizing of the machine.” WIth the former, you were buying into a style which you hope projects a higher social class than you actually inhabit, with the latter, you project your desires into a future which you don’t actually inhabit either. Both camps reveal a basic dishonesty about (your) reality.
So, you may wonder, what does this have to do with audio? A lot, actually. Because audio design is much like furniture, in that the relationships between form and function are easily convoluted. We live with these things in our homes, surrounded by other domestic furnishings. Because of that, we project the same codes that inform our furniture onto our audio equipment. Yet we like to think the form of something like a loudspeaker, follows from its function.That is not necessarily so. Virtually all box type speakers have made terrible engineering (read-function) compromises to fit the expectations of what the manufacturers think the consumer wants. They then try and decorate and fancify these boxes so they blend into the disaster that is most modern domestic interiors. The fact that sound comes out of these boxes at all is really just an alibi for their form. In fact, many loudspeakers are placed in ceilings and walls in affluent homes, where they exist (barely) only as function. The form is simply gone. This gets around the issue of how to deal with the loudspeaker as an object, at least until you have to listen to it coming out of the ceiling.
I thought Judd’s essay very useful to understanding a new OMA speaker, which will certainly be accused or confused with being art, not a loudspeaker. When you think of a loudspeaker, people think of a box. The box thing comes from wanting to have as much bass as possible from a very small enclosure. Sound does not have to come out of a box however, nor your ceiling. Planar and electrostatic speakers don’t look like speakers at all, for example. One type of speaker which the DIY crowd love (because it’s so easy to build) is called an open baffle. Usually it’s just a sheet of plywood with one or more speakers stuck in the middle, propped up on the floor. Sound comes out of the front of the cone driver, and also out of the back, and depending on the size of the piece of wood (baffle) there is cancellation of the low frequencies where they meet at the edges of the baffle and annul. Thus open baffles are not renowned for their bass output. But they do have something special- no box sound. Once you get rid of the box, the speaker radiates freely, and this sounds very different, often more natural and lifelike than box speakers. As I’ve noted in other entries, the audio world has a problem with size- manufacturers, and even DIY’ers (whose wives have a say) are afraid of making too big an open baffle, so they usually don’t work very well being too small, and nothing made on a sheet of plywood is going to win any beauty contests, veneer notwithstanding.
Years ago I stumbled on a cache of extremely rare 15” wide range, field coil or electrodynamic speakers (most people would just call them woofers), which came out of 1930’s Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Back then, if you wanted to have a really efficient speaker, you had to use an electro magnet, because permanent magnets did not get strong enough until after WWII (with AlNiCo.) These field coil speakers required a separate DC power source, and were quickly abandoned by the industry as being too expensive. The speakers I found were able to produce the whole range of sound found in the recordings of the day, which means not much or low bass and not much treble, but they have an amazing midrange, and are astonishingly efficient (about 104db at 100hz.) Inside the jukebox, they were mounted in an open baffle. Which is exactly how I envisioned using them 80 years later.
As I talked with our industrial designer, David D’Imperio, about how we might make an open baffle OMA speaker, adding a custom built, extremely efficient ribbon tweeter to extend the frequency range out past human hearing, we both began to ask ourselves- why make the same speaker as everyone has before?
The form of these kind of OB speakers in the past was really nothing more than a materialization of the economics of production. A flat sheet of some wood product like ply with a speaker in it is easier and cheaper to make than anything else. Which does not mean that it is more functional, say, than a plane which has multidimensional relief. In fact, such a complex, planar surface forms a far better launching pad for sound, as it diffuses and diffracts the part of the waveform which wants to wrap around the back of the speaker.
As we started to look at how this planar surface would be modulated, David asked if we had to conform to a regular, geometric pattern. It was a very good question. In fact, anyone who has been to professional recording studios has seen these odd shaped, often very sculptural looking panels on the walls and ceiling, called quadratic diffusers. Although a quadratic diffuser looks random, it actually conforms to a mathematically derived formula for breaking up sound waves (in a good way.) These quadratic diffusers are almost always made of square forms, of seemingly erratic height, because again that is the cheapest way to make them. But could you do the same thing with circular forms?
I’m not going to deny that inevitable point in the design process where you ask yourself, how the hell are we going to make something like this? Fortunately, our new friends at the cast iron foundry had a suggestion. Why not make this speaker in cast iron, of a special kind (hypo-eutectic grey iron) which is so non resonant and well damped that its used for bases for photolithography machines (to make computer chips). If there is a better material for an open baffle speaker, I can’t think of it- high mass, non resonant, well damped. We could cast our speaker, instead of assembling it out of pieces, or whittling it away out of a larger piece of something else. The problem is there is no way to make a pattern for the kind of complex form we envisioned. Again the foundry had the answer- 3D print the mold.
So we end up with an open baffle speaker made of cast iron, using one driver from the 1930’s and one ribbon driver which pushes the state of the art. It has no enclosure, is made from a material which no one has ever used before for a speaker, and has no resemblance whatsoever to anything that suggests audio, a loudspeaker, or even consumer electronics. It will look completely out of place in almost everyone’s home, because it does not try to conform with the usual codes of domestic furnishing. Yet every aspect of its design was dictated by its anticipated function, to the most minute detail. And I am very sure that we will be accused of making speaker art, when all we are really after is the art of sound.
In America, I think there has always been a prejudice, a resistance, to modern design. It seems to go against the national psyche. When you drive around the suburbs and exurbs, it’s almost impossible to find a “modern” house- new houses, or even just post WWII homes, are virtually all traditional in style and construction. Even in New York City, creative, well done architecture is a rarity. Most buildings are just ugly brick boxes. I’m not going to even get into the aesthetics of the American mall, strip or enclosed. The best that even Frank Gehry could do was wrap his mall (Santa Monica) in chain link fence. Sad.
Behind the bleak aesthetic landscape I suspect there lurks a suspicion that good design costs a lot more, and why spend the extra money when a house is just a house, a chair a chair, and so on?
I always found Europe very different in this regard- far more attention paid to the beauty of not just buildings, but the things inside. Better, more well thought out interior design in general, a higher overall level of design awareness.
This is changing, of course, and companies like Apple have brought a much higher ethos and aesthetic to the design of things which we know are going to be disposed of even after only a relatively short period of use. That’s a big change.
The world of high end audio equipment is, like the American house, a design wasteland. Even the European segment of the industry manages, overall, offerings of only slightly improved styling. In short, the high end audio industry makes unattractive things that only audiophiles desire. And then the industry complains that the general public overlooks audio in its lust for high end cars, watches, fashion, and now art.
When we started OMA, I realized we had to take a totally different approach to audio. From the audio engineering standpoint, we would go back to a point in history where quality of sound diverged from the demand for smaller, cheaper technology for the mass market. And because our products would be much larger, I knew that they would have to be beautifully designed, because otherwise no one would want them.
Since OMA is concerned first and foremost with the quality of sound reproduction of our equipment, there should be a perfect congruence between what we make and what audiophiles want, right? Audiophiles by definition are supposed to care only about audio, about sound reproduction (and music, one hopes.) If it were only so simple….
It’s helpful to understand some of the history of the industry, and how home audio became a mass market business.
Audiophiles expect to see a box when they look at a speaker. Ever since Edgar Villichur, who founded Audio Research, invented the modern small monitor or bookshelf speaker, (the AR1 back in 1954, adding a dome tweeter which he also invented in 1958), we’ve been looking at the same design repeated endlessly. The sound can be better or worse, the box bigger or smaller, the number of drivers two or twelve, but the design has not changed. Materials got more high tech (also cheap, with most boxes made from MDF, which is nothing more than compressed sawdust) as did drivers, and more finish options became available, but, a box is a box is a box.
When audiophiles look at OMA speakers, they don’t see a box. Even if we use a box, as in the Mini speaker, which does have a square box enclosing the woofer, the speaker does not look like a box. This is a (big) problem for audiophiles, evidently. I don’t have to guess about this, I’ve been told so. I’ve had industry veterans with decades of experience selling high end speakers tell me straight out that OMA makes the best sounding speakers they have ever heard, and that their audiophile customers don’t care. Their audiophile customers don’t want OMA speakers, because OMA speakers don’t look like a box. They look weird, especially so if your house is furnished in Ethan Allan or LazyBoy. People have actually said to me, “Love the sound, can’t have those in my living room.”
Audiophiles want ugly speakers. Really. This sounds almost funny. Why would you want something that’s ugly?
The reason is very simple. If it’s ugly, you think–it must be good. No one in their right mind would pay $100,000 plus for a box with some cones in it, an unattractive thing at best, unless it was GOOD at doing what it does. Conversely, a speaker which is beautiful, or at least one where a great deal of work is evident in its industrial design, is not to be trusted. That speaker is, in the mind of the audiophile, trying too hard, like a woman all gussied up, hair, cosmetics and clothes all concealing another reality. Could not possibly sound as good as it looks, to be blunt about it.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite fifty years ago. Before that AR monitor speaker, owning a really (sonically) impressive horn speaker was the ultimate. And those speakers, made by companies like JBL, Voight, Klipsch, Electrovoice, et al., were often very beautifully designed as pieces of furniture, a trend almost entirely absent today. Speakers such as the Paragon, Metregon and Hartsfield would not be out of place in the Museum of Modern Art, or any contemporary interior design magazine. Most audiophiles have never even heard of these speakers, let alone listened to one.
Back to OMA, I’ve always tried to explain to people who ask how we design things, that the design process starts (and ends) with the acoustic engineering. We begin by modeling a prospective speaker based on what we want it to do- how big must the horn or horns be to accomplish their task? How will lower frequencies be handled, and how low will we go? This process is devoid of any aesthetic considerations, it’s pure engineering. Later, our industrial designer, David D’Imperio, works with us to maintain the engineering integrity of the design while making it look like something you want in the middle of your living room, not hiding in the corners.
The high end audio industry has been successful at convincing a very small audience that they should want things that are baffling to everyone else. To reverse the downward spiral that describes the high end industry today requires a rethinking of both its audio engineering and its industrial design.
Second Time Around
My favorite record label today is MA Recordings, a tiny outfit run by Todd Garfinkle. Garfinkle spent most of the last 25 years living in Japan, where a lot of people care a lot about sound quality. You can’t get any better quality recordings than those released by MA. Garfinkle is a musician himself, and he uses only two microphones to capture a performance, no matter how many musicians or sources. The recordings are done on state of the art, super high resolution recorders- digitally. Todd has incredible taste in music, and travels the world finding very interesting, obscure acts to record- a Gypsy troupe that ordinarily plays the Paris Metro, medieval string ensembles, Moorish music from Andalucia, a Chinese pipa virtuoso, and many others. They are almost all recorded in very reverberent spaces, and capture not just the music but the space in which the music unfolds, a topic for another blog post (soon). My favorite has always been a group from Argentina, inspired but not confined by the Tango tradition, and recorded in an old church in the Pampas outside of Buenos Aires.
MA Recordings come on CD and SACD, which makes sense- they were digitally recorded in the first place. But that favorite album, Sera Una Noche, was Todd’s only LP release in the last 20 years. It’s been out of print a long time, and I treasure the copies I own, especially since I use them as a reference when I set up turntables. The beautifully recorded acoustic instruments and vocals with their attendant decay in the space of the church are perfect for judging whether a cartridge, tonearm and turntable are doing what they should.
I usually see Todd at shows, and for years I’d harangue him about releasing more vinyl. I know he’d like to- it’s just so expensive to do at the level one would expect from the MA label. There are many ways for a great piece of music to become a bad record. The recording must be cut onto a lacquer master by an engineer who specializes in nothing else- it’s an art. If the master is not properly cut, you’re done. The lacquer must be rushed within 24 hours to the plating operation (some facilities have the mastering operation self contained, eliminating that problem) and if the plating is not well done, again, you’re done- lousy record. Finally, the record must be stamped, and there are less than a handful of plants in the US which can do this at a really high level. And even those places make mistakes. To have a small run of LP’s stamped at these houses is a bit like getting your kid into an Ivy League school, and then you want to package the LP (double LP, actually) in a heavy, beautiful gatefold sleeve, with appropriate artwork that is more than just an afterthought because it’s bigger than a postage stamp….I can understand why Todd does not produce LP’s on a regular basis.
Still, my badgering may have had some effect, because there now exists the followup, companion LP to Sera Una Noche- La Segunda (literally, The Second). Same great musicians, same great venue, even better production and music. I was really happy when I got the news of the sequel.
At last year’s NY Audio Show, Todd came over one evening with the lacquer master of La Segunda, pre pressing, to play on the big OMA Imperia system at our showroom. Remember, the lacquer master is like the father of an LP- it’s as close to the source as you can get, short of playing the master tape (which can be analog, or digital.) The lacquer can only be played a few times before it wears out (lacquer is softer than vinyl). So, this was going to be something very special. Even more so since Todd had the actual master recording of the LP with him as well (on the master recorder, no less) so we could compare the two.
He brought along a friend in the business, who represents the world’s most expensive turntable (Continuum) amongst other things. Someone with decades in the business, and experience with recording as well.
That evening Todd started with connecting the master recorder to the OMA amplification system, so we could hear the “original” recording first. That made sense- the lacquer disc is at least a generation removed from the digital original. So we would listen to that, and see how the analog version differed afterward. If you’ve never heard a master tape through a good system, it’s a memorable experience, one which tells you just how good anything will ever sound reproduced on your system.
The master file of La Segunda was shockingly good. We sat quietly after it was over, digesting. Like great wine, the “finish” or aftertaste went on and on.
Then came the lacquer. Now the turntable used (OMA Tourmaline) is a professional broadcast direct drive motor, anchored to 225 lbs of Pennsylvania slate, sitting on an air bearing vibration isolation table used for things like tunneling or scanning electron microscopes, the arm is the world’s best, with zero friction bearings because the tonearm wand is suspended in the eddy current field between two extremely powerful neodymium magnets, the cartridge costs more than any car I owned until I was 30, and so on. In short, a really good, well setup turntable. Nonetheless, it’s a turntable, and a copy no matter what the format is never supposed to sound as good as the original.
As soon as the needle hit the lead in groove of the lacquer, you knew (the industry guest told me the exact same thing later). It was all over. The master file sounded incredible, the lacquer sounded like music. It was that simple. One was superior (and only by a tiny bit) in detail, the other was organic and just flowed out from the speakers. If you were listening for detail, (and detail only, like many audiophiles) the master, digital file was better. If you listened to the music, you went for the lacquer.
So, here’s the conundrum- how can a record sound better than the original source? Simple question, yet with all the research and basic science behind both digital and analog formats, there is no easy answer. The analog recording must have LESS information on it than the digital original, unless you believe (I don’t) that the physical process of cutting the grooves adds pleasing overtones or harmonics. The only other explanation is the actual means of playback- a needle tracing a groove is ANALOG- it is the thing itself, to get Kantian, not a transliteration. Digital, however hi-res, is always an APPROXIMATION of sound, a sampling of reality every so many tens or hundreds of thousands of times a second.
If you’re smart, you’d be wondering “How can there be a difference when the record had to be created from a digital file in the first place?” Indeed there was a DAC (digital to analog converter) between the digital recorder and the recording lathe’s amplifier, just as there was that same DAC between the La Segunda file and the OMA amplifier when we played the cuts on the OMA system.
So the key must lie not in the source material, but in the playback medium, i.e. a digital player vs. a turntable.
One anecdote that particularly impressed me concerned a psychologist, Dr. John Diamond, who used music therapy to treat (often severely) disturbed patients. The advent of the CD was a boon for him- no more interrupting therapy to flip an LP or hunt for a track by lifting a stylus. All you needed now was a remote. But something very strange happened when the doctor made the transition to digital and the CD. His patients reacted in a completely different way; the music had calmed before, now it was making the patients agitated or even violent. Even though the music was often EXACTLY the same. The doctor found CD pressings of the same LP’s he was using- same piece of music, same conductor, same musicians, same label, same everything, except one was analog, the other digital. The doctor returned his practice to vinyl, but now he was extremely interested to know what was going on with this new digital technology underlying the CD. He wrote a paper on his findings, which he presented at an AES convention (Audio Engineering Society, the worldwide professional body behind audio reproduction) and found himself shown the door, his work castigated.
Besides the inescapable conclusion that some mentally disturbed people are better listeners than the majority of audiophiles, this episode points to the extreme sensitivity of the human ear and human brain (let’s consider them together for the time being.) A recent study at Rockefeller University in New York City by Oppenheim and Magnasco, showed that the limits of human hearing predicted by science (specifically, a theorem known as the Fourier Uncertainty Principle) was wrong.
“For the first time, physicists have found that humans can discriminate a sound’s frequency (related to a note’s pitch) and timing (whether a note comes before or after another note) more than 10 times better than the limit imposed by the Fourier uncertainty principle.”
Read more here.
Judging by the fact that your sense of sight while watching a movie is fooled by just 24 frames per second into perceiving motion, your hearing is far, far superior in analyzing and differentiating aural phenomenon in time. You are hearing and analyzing sound many thousands of times a second, and can do so far beyond that rate. The Fourier Uncertainty Principle predicts the limits of those abilities, based on linear assumptions about sound and your ear/brain, but the beauty of the ear is that it is a non linear device, with all these strange hairs in spiral forms that pick up sound not like a computer or a theorem, but like a human ear. In other words, better than anyone thought.
When digital was introduced; at a really crap sampling rate of 16 bits and 44Khz, with no shame it was touted as “Perfect Sound Forever” ™. Of course it was neither, as today those first CD’s are self destructing, and early digital sound was not a pretty thing. Today, we have the possibility of much higher sampling rates (if you want them, and worse options with MP3 and other compressed files too) and Todd’s recorder was working in the megahertz range. So the digital file we heard that night was robust; no problems there. The issue in this case is the way in which digital is played back via speakers or headphones.
Most engineers who create the equipment we use for digital are very proud of the ever improving measurements and specifications for their product. I’ve read numerous interviews with famous designers, like Weiss (no relation) in Switzerland, where they brag they never use listening (to their equipment) as a part of the design process. It’s all done by measurements. and in fact, all digital equipment always measures better than analog equipment on just about every typical yardstick, like distortion.
But as the study mentioned shows, our powers of hearing surpass the boundaries set for them by scientific theory. With digital, we are hearing (or, more precisely, not hearing) something our brains do not like as much as the same sound reproduced by earlier analog technology. Since there is no reason economically to investigate why this is so (in fact, the opposite holds true) I’m not expecting any answers soon. I’ll just keep playing records, and some day the truth will out. And maybe MA Recordings can be persuaded to issue another LP?
Too Big To Fail
There’s a big hole in the OMA NYC showroom right now. The Monarchs flew out the door last Thursday. Columbia Pictures is remaking the movie Annie, and the film’s set decorator wanted them for the penthouse apartment of the tech billionaire Stax, who I understand replaces Daddy Warbucks, at least in name. The speakers were trucked right to World Trade Center Tower #1, which is still unfinished. The filmmakers got the whole 55th floor to make into the Stax set, where I hope the Monarch’s play at least a walk on role.
I had a nice chat with the art director. The only time he had ever looked for audio equipment to put in a film before were as set pieces to recreate a recording studio or radio station. Otherwise, as we all know, no one wants to look at speakers, which is why interior designers always press their clients into putting speakers in the ceilings or walls, as in department stores, hospitals and other places which do not invite lingering. In short, speakers have earned their reputation as ugly boxes which people who like music put up with. With OMA, we obviously took a different path, but we really did so out of necessity.
The Monarch is a big loudspeaker. It’s a bit over 6 feet high, and almost as wide wing tip to tip. Because it’s a very striking design, the obvious inference is that OMA makes these things to look striking, and then figure out how to put the actual speakers inside and make them sound good. In fact it’s the opposite. We come up with an acoustical design, which any other audio company would reject out of hand as impossible to market (if only by virtue of size) and then make it look like something you’d want even if you never listened to it.
You may have read elsewhere on our site that we’re the only hi fi company in the world making conical horn speakers (a conical horn has straight sides, all other horns have curved walls, like a megaphone vs. a trumpet.) I’ve often wondered why this was so – conical horns sound so much better and more lifelike, but I think the answer is pretty simple: size. Conical horns are much, much larger than their curved counterparts. Conicals can be twice as big, something we knew at OMA from the beginning. And since the non horn (bass) part of the speaker also has to be really large if it is going to be ultra high efficiency (like horns, in the high 90-100db/1watt/1meter range) you are dealing with very big things. The high end audio industry has been following exactly the opposite path for the last 40 years- reducing the size of all audio components, and especially loudspeakers, to the smallest possible size and footprint. They did that thinking the consumer wanted everything as small as could be.
When we first finished the renovation of the Mill in the late 1990’s, (and by finish I mean the floors were no longer covered with two centuries of dirt, and we had a single toilet, shower and a cookstove), I showed some pictures around. It didn’t take long. Ralph Lauren rented the Mill for a week to shoot their new line of “Cottage” furnishings. I was thrilled, not just because of the check; I’d always liked the Lauren interior look (their stores are acknowledged as having some of the best set decoration anywhere). So for an entire week I’d get to see the Mill transformed with literally truck loads (2 tractor trailors) of product and props, by talented art directors. And I was a little sad, too, because I knew it was expensive stuff and there was no way we could afford such things, and so it had a bit of a Cinderella quality.
You can imagine my surprise when the movers started bringing the “merch” inside. Or at least tried. The Mill was an industrial building, albeit from the 1700’s. The front door is wider than a typical house door, and I’d given the crew the critical dimensions of every door into the building to an 1/8”. A lot of stuff was not getting through the front door nonetheless. I made some calls, and a friend built a wooden bridge into the second floor double width opening over the arch where water entered the Mill, and 9 and 10 foot sofas were carried over the guard rail and onto the bridge in a scene evoking the days of porters carrying unspeakable loads for British lords. Quite Ralph Lauren, actually…
I’d never seen furniture like that before. Everything was supersized by 50% or more. It was kind of like Ethan Allen on steroids. I knew that Americans were getting a lot heavier, but this stuff was for people who weighed a quarter ton. It was also exceedingly ugly, which made me happy because I didn’t want a single thing staying behind.
That was also the time I had a really classic early Jeep Wagoneer (4 door, no wood on the sides.) That car was really one of, if not the progenitor, of the SUV, which was just showing up. In traffic, my Wagoneer, which was of substantial size, looked miniscule.
This supersizing of every day objects continues unabated, having destroyed the aesthetics of wrist watches, which are now virtually all larger than the real ones the Luftwaffe bombers wore (so they could see the time easily at night) during WWII. Those were big watches, by the way. This process of the ballooning of things has a very cartoonish quality to it.
So back to loudspeakers. While there is no good reason, and also a lot of bad ones, to enlarge the proportions of domestic vehicles, furniture and other such things in our lives, there is a very good reason to do that with loudspeakers. One reason is what you can call “source size.” Small musical events, like a girl with a guitar, can be reproduced nicely by small drivers, especially if you are sitting on top of them. But if you want to listen to the Stones live or a symphony orchestra, that’s just not going to happen convincingly from a vertical collection of some 6 or 8 inch woofers with a little dome tweeter. The radiating area of the cones and domes is not large enough to convey the sonic event. Efficiency is way down with these systems as well, necessitating huge amplifiers with hundreds of watts of power just to get any realistic sound pressure level (SPL). The only place where supersizing makes any sense, if you still believe in “form follows function” as the sine qua non of design, is with loudspeakers.
If you still don’t believe me that the larger the speaker, the larger the sound, ask yourself why pianos in concert halls are still so big. “Can’t they make them smaller, with today’s technology?”, you might ask. And who ever walked into the Steinway showroom looking for a grand piano and said to the salesmen: “What’s the smallest thing you’ve got?” We want big when it conveys wealth and status.
We knew we were bucking the trend by using conical horns, and coming out with purposefully big loudspeakers, like the Monarch, because we knew it was a sonic necessity. And we also knew that would never work unless we made speakers so beautiful in design, so sculptural, that people would desire and be fascinated by them, having never heard them. The man from Annie came to us looking for that special something. His film’s billionaire was different from his predecessors. No old masters hanging in dark wood paneled rooms where men smoked cigars. This new billionaire is modeled on someone like Bill Gates- his art collection is digital, and is projected as virtual art. But sound is not virtual. So for this film’s Big Daddy, looks like the Monarch is the new Steinway.
Last Autumn I received an email out of the blue from a Professor Edgar Choueiri who introduced himself thus:
Dear Mr. Weiss,
I am the director of the 3-D Audio and Applied Acoustics (3D3A) Lab at Princeton University, where my research group has been focusing on binaural audio reproduction through two loudspeakers using optimized crosstalk cancellation filters.
Over the past few years, I have developed a method for deriving crosstalk cancellation filters (called BACCH filters) that are optimized to minimize spectral coloration while maximizing crosstalk cancellation between two speakers and the contra-lateral ears of the listener. The resulting audio is of unprecedented spatial reproduction realism from a two-loudspeaker system (it is able, for instance, to reproduce the sound of a buzzing fly around the head of a listener, or the detailed 3D staging of a musical ensemble with high spatial accuracy). This is not an attempt at a standard surround sound but the goal is rather a highly accurate spatial reproduction of 3-D sound fields. The technology, called BACCH 3D Sound, has been patented by Princeton University and is being licensed in the audiophile, pro and consumer audio markers.
He went on to say that he’d like to demonstrate BACCH for me, either at our showroom in NYC or at his lab at Princeton, and he was interested in our horn loudspeakers too.
I was rather surprised to get this email. I’d read about Choueiri and BACCH in the New York Times a few years prior. It seemed interesting in a theoretical sort of way. But nothing that I thought would have anything to do with my area of hifi.
How wrong I was.
Now I was curious about Choueiri. This is just the list I found of his positions at Princeton University:
Professor of applied physics at the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department ofPrinceton University, and Associated Faculty at the Department of Astrophysical Sciences,Program in Plasma Physics. Director of Princeton University’s Engineering Physics Program. Chief Scientist at the university’s Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Lab, a recognized center of excellence in research in the field of advanced spacecraft propulsion.”
Basically, Choueiri’s day job is designing plasma rocket ship engines for space travel. He also has been a very serious audiophile for decades, with an enormous collection of priceless master tapes (the reel to reel tapes from which records are made) and has done his own recordings as well. Princeton had given him carte blanche to pursue a solution to the holy grail of hifi- 3D sound from a pair of stereo speakers. Private corporations like Sony were also involved, and Choueri’s sound lab at Princeton was almost as big as the one with the rocket engines.
Choueiri was not the first to try to create 3D sound- there have been many attempts and all failed. I attended a demo of a technology called Ambiophonics years ago, and the results were miserable, worse than not trying in the first place.
3D sound is really very similar to 3D visually. You have two eyes, as you have two ears, and the reason a movie, for example, is visually flat is something called crosstalk. An easy way to understand crosstalk is to look at the first gadget that allowed you to experience a 3D image- the stereoscopic viewer. You wore this device on your head, and looked at two images of, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, each taken slightly offset. To keep your left eye from seeing the right image,and vice versa, there was a little piece of cardboard that was stuck in the middle of your forehead. With the visual crosstalk thus eliminated, your brain miraculously processes the two images as a single, 3D image! The colored glasses you wear in a 3D movie theater do the same thing. If you remove the glasses, the result is blurred and discomforting.
As Choueiri later explained to me, listening to stereo sound is like watching a 3D movie without the glasses. Stereo sound is not a natural thing. The sound from the right speaker should only go to your right ear, same for the left. But that is not what happens, and the resulting crosstalk is confusing for your brain. You generate (best case scenario) a phantom image between the two speakers in stereophony, but if you could get rid of the crosstalk, you would have 3D sound, and you would also enjoy music more because your brain could relax and not have to process the crosstalk.
To do this, two things are required. An incredible mathematical and engineering feat, and the hardware and processing power to enact it. Choueiri, with Princeton’s backing, had seemingly mastered both.
Within a very short time from receiving that first email, Choueiri arrived at my doorstep with the proverbial black box, about the size of a powerful amplifier. The box connects to your system, between the source (like my turntables or CD player) and the amplifier. Choueiri had me sit in my usual spot, and gave me what looked like a stethoscope with two tiny, laboratory grade Danish microphones which went inside my ears. The BACCH system uses an iPad, which Choueiri has programmed for the user so intuitively and simply that it could have been done by Apple. With a couple of touches on the iPad the black box sent a test signal through my system, out of the speakers, and measured what each of my ears was hearing. This took less than a minute. The stethoscope thing was retired, and the box now had an extremely accurate measurement of my “head transfer function” or the way my head, torso and pinnae (the outer ears, which are unique to each person) effect how you hear.
The way you can uncannily identify the direction of a sound source, like where you dropped your keys, is by the tiny difference in time and level that it takes for a sound to reach each ear. Your brain makes unbelievably fast and precise calculations that tell you where a sound is coming from by judging the differences in time and level of a source as it reaches each ear. The way BACCH works is by correcting the sound reaching each ear from your stereo speakers, in real time, and even if you are moving about the room (via a camera which tracks your head’s movements.) How this works is beyond my meager technical abilities to explain, but for the math inclined an elucidative white paper can be found on the BACCH website.
Sitting in my own showroom, surrounded by equipment which I know intimately, because we make it, I did not know what to expect. What happened next, however, is certainly one of the great surprises of my audio life.
With world class speakers and attendant electronics, you cannot tell that the sound is coming from the speakers, it just appears in front of you, but between the speakers (and always, between the speakers.) It does not surround you, it can’t do that. It does not approach you or envelop you either, it can’t do that. As good as it can be, you are always aware that you are listening to music reproduced through a stereo system (at least I am.) When Choueiri ran music through the BACCH box, all that changed. Suddenly music was everywhere, and it was definitely three dimensional The better it was recorded in terms of spatial cues, the better the 3D effect. If a fly was recorded using a binaural head, the most sophisticated way to generate accurate spatiality, then the fly was buzzing around your head. As Arthur Clarke once noted, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What I was now experiencing was audio magic, but it really felt like someone had slipped me some LSD, to be honest. Hallucinatory.
Even if a recording did not have any spatial cues, because it was created, for example, by multi-tracking in a studio, where there is no space surrounding the performers, I noticed something else happening with BACCH that was also amazing. The music felt much more enjoyable to listen to. It was like taking off a pair of too tight shoes, you don’t know how unpleasant they were until they’re off. Without the crosstalk, all music was much more enjoyable, a very unexpected result.
Choueiri left that evening as swiftly as he had come. He’s an elegant man, in an old school European way (he is Lebanese) always impeccably dressed, someone for whom aesthetics matter greatly. He had explained to me one problem he had- for BACCH to work well, you need a loudspeaker that has very good directivity. That way the crosstalk cancellation will be effective. You can get BACCH to work perfectly with any speaker (even a really bad, cheap speaker) in an anechoic chamber like he has at Princeton- there are no reflections of sound in an anechoic chamber. But we don’t live in anechoic chambers. Choueiri has a pied a terre around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, furnished with beautiful Scandinavian and Czech art deco furniture, pre Hellenic vases and ancient art. The space was basically a sonic nightmare, with virtually no absorption and little diffraction, a very reflective and reverberant room. He knew this, and he was not about to change the room one iota to make it more audio friendly. Choueiri asked if I would bring the OMA Mini loudspeakers over for a test. He needed speakers which mitigated the problematic room acoustics and let BACCH do its thing. They never left his apartment.
Eight months later, the first BACCH SP units are in production, and are slated for release this Summer. OMA will be the first North American dealer/distributor and representative for BACCH. I hope to have a unit available for demo at our Brooklyn showroom from August of this year. I’ll be posting more about this soon, but suffice to say, it’s a great vote of confidence by Choueiri to choose OMA to release what I fully believe is the most important qualitative innovation in audio in more than half a century.
We’re already working on the new BACCH SP section of the OMA website. Stay tuned…
For whom we make audio
OMA booth at ICFF
This is my first blog entry and I think a good place to start is a question: for whom do we make audio equipment? You might think we make it for audiophiles, but that is not the case.
In the past we have done two audio shows, although I’ve helped friends on a number of others. In the US, these audio shows are held in hotels, and the exhibitors set up their equipment in rooms emptied of their beds and furniture. The shows are attended by men in their 60’s by and large, women are only there accompanying their husbands (the shows even organize bus trips for the bored wives to go shopping). If you could sum up the average attendee, he would be an orthodontist from Illinois. People would enter our room with a poker face betraying no reaction. This is how serious audiophiles behave, and like the reviewers they read in audio magazines, they want to appear impartial. They listen with their minds, not with their ears and bodies. Because of that, in the brief process of listening to an unknown system (OMA’s for example) what really happens is a mental process of retrieving everything they ever read or heard about things like horns, low powered triode tube amps, vinyl. That information is then used to “listen” to the music played. This is not a happy process, and you can see it on their faces.
We just did the ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) in New York City this last week. It’s the biggest show of its kind in North America, probably the biggest anywhere outside of the Salon del Mobile in Milan. It was an incredible experience. We’ve never done this kind of show before. People attending had no background in audio (mostly) and had no preconceptions. The OMA booth was thronged pretty much all day every day, playing music of all different genres, from baroque classical played on period instruments to Michael Jackson and Kraftwerk. You might wonder what our neighboring booths thought about that, especially as the sound sometimes was rather loud (you can’t play Billie Jean anything but loud). I was a bit worried about this in the beginning, to be honest. But booth owners surrounding us were so enthusiastic about what we were doing, and playing, that we started fielding requests for the next day’s playlist. At show’s end, our closest neighbors asked if we would keep the same booth placement for next year’s show….
From my perch on the outside corner of our booth, I could watch people’s reactions. Incredulity is a very interesting thing to see on someone’s face. The mouth really does go agape. My favorite thing is what happens next- an involuntary, unconscious smile appears. The kind of smile that little babies have when delighted. This is a really beautiful thing to see, especially on otherwise jaded design professionals, architects, and the like. These people simply listened. They had never heard music properly, beautifully reproduced. They had never read years of audio magazine articles explaining why they should not trust their senses, and rely on the experts who make their living “reviewing” an endless parade of the same conventional audio equipment.
These are the people, in short, for whom OMA makes audio equipment. People whose ability to hear has not been impaired by their minds. In future posts, I’ll talk more about what audiophiles are really doing in their audiophilia, but I can assure you, it’s not listening to music. It’s listening to their equipment.
One last thing- at ICFF, half the people who wanted to talk with me about the sound were…. women.
In another part of the About section (On the History of Audio) I describe how horn loaded loudspeakers were the first to be used in audio, and why they were later abandoned. Our project at OMA is to reverse this course. Let’s start with loudspeakers, because that is ultimately what you listen to in an audio system.
A loudspeaker is a transducer- it transforms an electrical signal (like music or speech) into the physical movement of a cone, or diaphragm- basically something that will move air and make a sound wave. It’s a very simple system, and you do it yourself, albeit organically; an electrical signal from your brain is sent to your vocal chords, which move and make sound, which is hopefully intelligible. If you put a megaphone to your lips, that sound is far louder, and will carry much further, too. You’ve increased the efficiency of the system exponentially with the horn. Because the horn makes your voice so much louder, you won’t shout yourself hoarse. The same thing happens when a horn is added to a loudspeaker- the speaker can relax and not strain, and this is extremely important for good sound.
Regular loudspeakers, such as a cone in a box, or even worse, electrostatic or planar speakers, are incredibly inefficient. A typical speaker (85dB/1w/1m@4ohm) is .1% efficient! That means that for 1000 watts input, you get exactly 1 acoustic watt output. An acoustic watt is actually a lot of sound, but compare a horn loaded loudspeaker, which can easily be 60% efficient (108dB/1w/1m@8ohms) or 600 times more sound from the same input as the regular box speaker. Imagine we have two loudspeakers, a conventional one (the 85dB one) and a typical high efficiency horn speaker (105dB/1w/1m @8ohms). To reach a realistic sound level of 96dB at one meter, the conventional speaker needs 50 watts of power. The horn speaker needs less than half a watt.
Many solid state amps produce 500 watts or more, so power is not so much an issue (except on peaks in music, which can easily reach the maximum of even a powerful amplifier). The problem is thermal. When you pump hundreds of watts of power into the incredibly thin wire which is the voice coil at the end of the speaker cone, it gets very hot. This heat causes “thermal compression’ which creates distortion as sound gets louder. This compression is never an issue for horn speakers used in the home (it can be in a rock concert).
For any speaker to make sound, it must move air. The movement of the cone or diaphragm, forwards and backwards, creates the sound wave, and a critical fact is how much the speaker has to move to make the desired level of sound.
If we stood 6 feet apart in a swimming pool and I wave my hand towards you underwater, you will feel a vague wave of pressure. If I have a 2 foot long, 4” diameter pipe, and I hit my hand against one end of the pipe while aiming it at you, you will feel a much stronger wave. The pipe couples my hand to the water far more effectively than simply waving it, because without the pipe the water goes everywhere, not just where I want it. This is exactly the difference between a normal direct radiator speaker and a horn, which is just a flared pipe. The cone in a regular speaker also has to move a much greater distance to create the same sound pressure as the horn. And when the cone moves, it does not instantly stop when the signal does. It can’t- its a moving thing with mass and inertia, and so it oscillates back and forth, the more so depending on how much it has to move in the first place. Imagine a recording of a drum thwack. The speaker cone moves out to convey the strike, then backwards, and keeps doing so even though the drum strike is over. Since horns and high efficiency drivers have to move so much less to convey the same sonic information, they stop moving quicker. The sound does not get smeared, seems more real, more lifelike, faster.
In a room, a conventional box speaker produces sound which travels in all directions. Some sound wraps around the speaker and heads towards the rear wall, some goes to the ceiling, the floor, and the side walls. Some sound also reaches you directly; this is called the “near field” which is defined by a predominance of direct sound over reflected sound which reaches you later. Reflected sound, if delayed enough, does not sum with the direct sound, and the result is confusion for your brain. If the room is very reverberant, you have echoes and a complete loss of intelligibility. People with normal speakers often go to great lengths and expense to acoustically treat their rooms with absorption to combat all these reflections.
With horns, this problem is greatly reduced. One thing that horns do so well is direct the sound to where you want it. If you aim the horns where you sit, the vast majority of sound gets to you, not the rest of the room. This gives horns a much larger “near field” and that improves imaging (less reflections means more specific stereo image) and lets your brain relax because it doesn’t have to figure out what to do with reflections. Crosstalk cancellation is also far better, for the same reason (that’s a complicated subject in itself).
Horns in general obviously have a lot of important advantages over conventional speakers, but not all horns are created equal. In the audio world, many horns have acquired a reputation for sounding “shouty”, colored or nasal. Indeed that can easily happen if the horn is not properly designed, but the real culprit is the practice of curving the walls of a horn, like a trumpet, to increase the efficiency while reducing the overall size. If you blow into a megaphone, which has straight sides and a very open throat, the sound is loud and clear. When you blow into a trumpet, with a tiny, constricted throat the sound is much louder, but also sounds like a trumpet. The megaphone is a conical horn, the only type made by OMA. In fact, OMA is the only hifi company in the world making conical horn loudspeakers. Every other company uses curved horns. One reason why conicals have been overlooked is size. A conical horn is much larger for the same bandpass (the frequency that the horn covers) than a curved horn. In an industry obsessed with reducing size, conicals have never even been on the map. But only conicals can have a completely natural presentation of music, and also “constant directivity.” This term refers to how even the dispersion of sound is within the field defined by the shape of the horn. So if a conical horn has a flare of 60 degrees, and you walk around in front of it in that segment of space, the sound will be constant, even as the frequency goes up and down. Curved horns do not have this quality, which is why you usually seem them pointed directly at the listening chair. As the frequency goes up, the horn “beams” and the sound becomes focused like a laser, so if you are not sitting right where the two beams come together, you will miss part of the music. You don’t have to have your head locked in a vice to enjoy OMA speakers. Everyone in front of them gets to enjoy the same sound.
All speakers require an amplifier, to increase the electrical signal coming from the source, whether it be a microphone, a record player, CD or DAC. The amplifier has to have enough power to drive the speaker to the desired sound pressure level (SPL).
Amplifier power is given in watts, and SPL is measured in decibels (dB) The decibel scale can be very confusing, because it is not linear, it is logarhythmic. Every 3dB increase in level (SPL) which is pretty much the smallest db difference you can hear, requires double the power from the amplifier. And if you want to double the perceived level of sound, that requires a 10dB SPL increase. That extra 10dB will require ten times more amplifier power. If you listen at a normal level of 88dB, for example, and you want to turn the music up to a loud 98dB, that demands an amp go from say 50 watts of output to 500 watts. Musical peaks, such as with symphonic orchestras or in rock can exceed 20dB. That would most likely put your amplifier into red line territory.
What this means in reality is that with conventional speakers you must have enormously powerful amplifiers to play at the same level as a tiny amplifier with a high efficiency (horn) loudspeaker. The big amplifier will still be struggling while the little one will be happy. This has some very significant implications.
Because solid state amplifier power has only gotten cheaper (especially with the new Class D switching amps) speaker manufacturers have reduced the efficiency of their wares which allow a small woofer to produce very low bass (important for marketing and magazine reviews) and have an equally small package. Solid state amplifiers are designed to produce brute power, they don’t have the finesse, detail and lifelike quality of the best tube amplifiers, especially the triode tube ones which are typically under 10-20 watts. These amplifiers are designed with the first watt as a foremost priority- that is the watt you will be listening to most of the time (with horns). The rest is reserve. There is a world of difference between the first watt of a SET amplifier (single ended triode) and a 100 watt plus solid state or even tube amplifier. It’s only with horns that you get the full beauty and impact of the best sounding amplifiers.
A further consideration when pairing a speaker with an amplifier are electrical parameters which never get proper coverage in the magazines or online. Besides impedance, the “damping factor” presented to the speaker by the amplifier is a significant factor in sound quality and especially, bass reproduction. A speaker actually forms an electrical circuit with the amplifier, it’s a two way street, so to speak. Every woofer has a “damping factor” which is the force necessary to restore the woofer to equilibrium after movement. The amplifiers output stage can have a very wide range of damping factor. Low efficiency speakers get a lot of bass from little woofers by making them move a great distance, which means they need a very loose “suspension”- the surround of the cone that allows it to move and keeps it in place. Such woofers need a high damping factor to make them behave. High efficiency woofers are larger, have stiff, light paper cones with big magnets and move very little. They need very low damping factor, which is typically what SET and other low power tube amplifiers offer.
While the complexity involved in assembling a horn loudspeaker system may seem daunting, the results when successful far surpass any other loudspeaker technology. Dynamics are one of the most important attributes in what makes reproduced music sound real, for example. Amazingly, in the audio world with all of its tests like frequency response, acoustic and electrical phase, waterfall plots of time domain response and so forth, there exists no test for dynamics. Horns are the only type of speakers with realistic dynamics. With horns, problems with room acoustics are dramatically reduced. The range of amplifiers that can be used with horns is limitless. Distortion is radically reduced. The sound is spellbinding.
But of course, there is one more thing to consider. Horns can be beautiful like no other speaker.
the oma story
Oswalds Mill Audio is an odd name for an audio company. Who is Oswald? What does a mill have to do with audio? It does suggest some kind of story…
A good place to start is with Oswald’s Mill itself. It is the only known example of an integrally built “house-mill” left in North America. Only 8 or 9 are left in the world today, in Southern Bavaria and Northern Switzerland, where the people who settled in Eastern Pennsylvania came from. Mills were made to grind grain, but in Germanic Europe, where large building materials were already scarce by the 16th Century, it made sense to build a house and mill into one structure to save on material and labor. That did not make much sense in the new world, where the colonists were greeted by enormous trees to be felled, and rock to be cleared from fields, but old habits evidently die hard. Sometime about 1800, the Oswald family built an enormous stone mill and a house together, 4 stories and 10,000 square feet, with water rushing through the middle to power the wheel and grinding stones. Mill’s don’t have walk in fireplaces, bedrooms, chair rail, and the other accouterments of domestic living, but this one did.
The Oswalds made a lot of money, and must have discovered that living in a grist mill, which is noisy and full of flour dust, was not to their liking, so they built a new house up the road and moved out of the part of the Mill which was their domestic quarters. The mill itself shut down around 1900, a casualty of the industrial revolution, which had finally made its way into agriculture and food production. With no one living there, and no milling to be done, the Mill sat empty for almost another hundred years. Until the day I saw it.
I was not in the market to buy a mill. In fact, I was completely broke. I was a filmmaker, and had just directed my first feature film (The Atrocity Exhibition, from the book by J.G. Ballard). I was living in New York City, where I had a huge loft which was also my film studio. The sound engineer on my film was from Pennsylvania, and had bought a run down but beautiful old farm there, and I often visited him to help with the renovation. One day another character helping out on the farm suggested we take a drive to a very special old building he thought I should see. That was Oswald’s Mill.
I think I might be strange in that every major decision I have made in my life never felt like a decision at all. When people talk about decisions, I assume a process that involves careful consideration, weighing different factors and outcomes, and so forth. I’ve never done that. It always just seemed obvious what I should do. Sometimes the “decision” did not lead to the outcome I thought it would, like with my education (I studied International Relations and Political Philosophy at Princeton, and Public International Law at London School of Economics, but ended up a filmmaker, for which I had no education). But that never bothered me, because life is not composed of straight lines. When I found my loft in NYC, I knew it was the right place instantly, as I knew my wife was the right person to spend the rest of my life within the first 10 seconds of meeting her. I just knew those things in my bones.
When I got out of the car and looked at this huge, incredible stone building, partly hidden by trees and weeds which threatened to swallow even such an enormous structure, I already knew it was trouble. My friend led us around the back to a loose piece of plywood where a door should have been. As soon as I was inside for five minutes, I was done. I figured out a way to buy the mill, and began a process of restoration that is still not finished, 16 years later.
It was a very, very big job, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The mill had no electricity, no windows, no plumbing, no heating, no kitchen, no bathrooms (obviously) no well, and no septic system. On the positive side, it was the only one of its kind outside of Europe, and because no one had lived there for a hundred years, it was completely original- no linoleum, formica, plywood cabinets, and other signs of life in the 20th Century.
A few years later, with the utilities and other necessities installed and the mill now a livable space, I realized that I had 10,000 square feet of empty space on my hands, surrounded by 2 foot thick stone walls and no neighbors. The same fellow who had taken me to the Mill in the first place had been involved in sound twenty years earlier. He DJ’ed at places like Studio 54, with big Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater cinema loudspeakers, McIntosh tube amps and broadcast idler drive turntables. We talked about that a lot. I had worked in a movie theater when I was 14 years old in Westwood, California- the Bruin Theater. It was really an art deco movie palace from the 1930’s, and was used for world premiers, like Apocalypse Now (I just missed that one) and American Gigolo. It had a fantastic sound system, with the biggest Altec speakers (A2’s, over 2 meters tall) and tube amplifiers. If the projectionist liked the soundtrack, I’d be hearing it at 105db when I got to work in the morning before opening, to clean up the popcorn and soda left by the late show the night before. To hear Blondie singing Call Me at simply astonishing loudness levels with no strain, distortion or other artifacts turned out to be a life changing experience. Because I never forgot that deep, physical pleasure in sound, and I always wanted, in the back of my mind, to replicate the experience.
My friend remarked that with all that space, and no neighbors, why not try and recreate the cinema sound experience? With the internet in its infancy, this turned out to be more difficult than expected, but eventually I found movie theaters in New York City and elsewhere being demolished or renovated, and that yielded excellent results. Soon I had a pile of very large horn loaded speakers, and very little idea of what to do with them. There is simply no manual for this kind of thing.
RCA, located in Camden, New Jersey (across the river from Philadelphia, an hour from the Mill) created some of the first and best theater sound systems from the 1920’s, and continued its Cinema Products Division until closing 50 years later. I found retired RCA engineers and began a long process of understanding how these kinds of sound systems were designed and operated, all the way back to the beginning of sound in movies. These engineers were quick to explain that some of the earliest speakers and amplifiers made by RCA were also their very best. That knowledge and their help pointed me in the direction of assembling very rare, early equipment that literally no one in the world (at the time) was using. One reason is that no one had the space to do so, even if they would have wanted to.
Word began to get out about this guy in a big mill in the middle of nowhere with speakers so efficient that they could blow you away with a couple of watts of power. Other essays in this About section explain this aspect of horns, but the tremendous sensitivity and efficiency of big horn systems like the mill’s meant that you could use any amplifier, even ones using rare, vintage triode tubes which people had started building themselves. Such amps were the domain of a tiny group of insanely devoted audiophiles with highly developed skills, who communicated with each other largely via the internet. These low powered, usually single ended triode amplifiers (known as SETs) were almost impossible to buy in the US at the time, so it was very much a DIY field.
For a SET amp to sound its best, a really big and efficient speaker is needed. Very few people had anything like that, but when this crowd discovered Oswald’s Mill, an annual event crystallized, and became known as the Oswaldsmill Tube and Speaker Tasting. It soon took on a rather mythical stature, and people were coming from all over the US and Europe to attend.
Even at this point, it did not occur to me that the audio business was in my future.
Two of the people who attended the Tastings decided to go professional, and build a new version of a very special, legendary field coil loudspeaker driver which we all loved- the RCA MI-1428B, which ceased production around 1939. This was a unique driver, with nothing like it before or after in the history of sound. Of that duo, one was an aerospace master machinist, the other a master piano technician who tuned concert grands, and neither had any experience running a room at an audio show. So they asked me if I was interested in that job.
When I got to my first audio show, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in 2005, I had never read an audio magazine, never shopped in an audio store, never owned any consumer equipment, and had no idea whatsoever what the mainstream hifi high end market was like. It was a real shock. I walked into room after room, hearing the same kind of awful sound coming out of ugly equipment with price tags that belonged on vintage sports cars, not MDF boxes.
I began to realize that there was something terribly wrong with this commercial audio world, akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes. The years of experimentation and the Tastings had taught me what great sound could be like. Restoring Oswald’s Mill had introduced me to the enormous potential of the surrounding area of Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the US. With companies like Bethlehem Steel, a 200 year history of machining, wood working, and high tech small manufacturing, anything could be fabricated within a short distance. The local forests provide hardwood of such high quality, like black walnut, cherry, and ash, that most is exported across the globe. And I became friendly with the owners of the last functioning slate quarries in Pennsylvania, a priceless material for the construction of audio products.
In short, it was another decision which just happened, it didn’t even need to be made.
OMA continues to be the joint effort of an incredibly talented group of world class experts in their field. Bill Woods is one of the world’s top horn designers and is responsible for all acoustical engineering of OMA speakers, while industrial designer David D’Imperio translates those designs into the compelling forms for which OMA has become known. Our circuit designers include Paul den Hollander in the Netherlands, and Jonathan Knight in Japan. Cynthia van Elk is our photographer and graphics designer, and Justin Wagner our web designer.
On the History of Audio
When we think of the history of audio, it appears to be a series of continuous improvements, from primitive origins to our current state of the digital art. The earliest recorded music, Edison wax cylinders from the 1890’s, were indeed crude, just as iPods and iPads are extremely sophisticated. No one wants to use a television or computer from 5 or even 10 years ago. Yet somewhere in the progression of music reproduction technology in the 20th Century, the quality of sound did not improve and even declined. This deterioration is so counterintuitive it requires more than just an explanation. We need to look at the history of audio reproduction to understand what happened.
It’s impossible to know when man started to make music. Perhaps it was even before man was human, or Homo Sapiens. It is safe to assume it was a very long time ago. Some conjecture that music is a defining quality of what makes humans human. But one thing is certain- for at least tens of thousands of years, when music was made, you had to be present to hear it. A much larger number of people played an instrument, or sang, because that was simply the only way to have music. The advent of musical reproduction should be seen as a watershed in human civilization, and a high point in the history of technology. And the history of musical reproduction turns out to reveal a hidden secret about technology in general, one that belies our implicit faith that technology is like evolution in the natural world.
Virtually everyone today is immersed in music. It may come from your iPhone or iPod, but you certainly endure it in nearly every shop, store or public venue. Music is everywhere, and for most, costs nothing. And what costs nothing, is often considered without value.
When music was first reproduced, the situation was entirely different. The fact that you could hear music without being present for its live performance was nothing less than magical. Before electronic microphones, musicians and singers had to perform into long conical horns, which fed a mechanical transducer that cut the signal onto a cylinder and later, a record. It was the actual force of the voice or instrument which physically moved the transducer which created the signal on the recording medium.
Electronic microphones arrived in the 1920’s, and changed everything. A voice or instrument could now be electronically amplified, and anything could be recorded, such as a symphony orchestra.
The 1920’s were a period of unprecedented prosperity in the United States and Europe. An enormous amount of money and effort was expended in the US, Germany, and elsewhere to develop the technology for advanced sound reproduction- meaning the telephone, microphones, recording technology for records, radio, and of course, talking motion pictures. Movies were an integral part of life like television or the internet are today. There were newsreel theaters in major cities that functioned like television, and ran 24/7. The invention of the “talkies” or movies with sound was an enormous event. It immediately and permanently changed film and all media.
Two huge corporations would literally dominate American and even worldwide communications technology for most of the 20th Century: RCA and Western Electric. These companies were responsible for nearly everything we take for granted today- the telephone system, RCA (at the time Victrola) invented record technology, created television, the VCR, and both were responsible for virtually all of the seminal development of sound for motion pictures, which is the reason for this essay.
It’s useful to remember that in the 1920’s and early 30’s, when the most significant theoretical and engineering work was being done by W.E (Bell Labs) and RCA, there were no computers, no space program or nuclear energy or weapons, and WW2 was not even on the horizon. The best minds in the world were working on the problem of how to reproduce sound effectively and realistically, and one of the most difficult challenges was how to make sound work in movies. It obviously requires a lot of sound, and that was a problem.
Theaters were not the small multiplexes of today. They were usually enormous caverns often holding thousands of people. Theaters have lots of upholstered seats, heavy drapery, and the audience themselves absorb a lot of sound, making sound reproduction even more difficult. The demand for loudness was great, but the first generations of amplifiers, which used the simplest type of vacuum tube, called a triode, produced very little power, usually not more than 10 watts per amplifier. Even if you had multiple amplifiers, which were very large and expensive, the total power available to produce credible sound for a big audience was tiny, much less than any mass produced audio amplifier made today. How did they turn so little power into so much sound?
THE GOLDEN AGE
The answer was horns. Not that horns were a new thing- since antiquity, horns were used to make music, to communicate over long distances (those long Swiss ones) and to destroy buildings (Jericho, the Old Testament.) Engineers at Bell Labs and Western Electric (Wente, Thuras, Fletcher) and RCA (Volkman, Masa, Olson) took horns to a new level. These new horn loaded loudspeakers, which were very large and located behind the screen (see the essay “Why Horns”) were so efficient that they could convert the tiny electric power of the triode vacuum tube amplifiers into plausible, realistic sound levels in even the largest theaters. Without the aid of computers, in an almost miraculous way, these engineers mastered problems in acoustics and psycho-acoustics which are difficult even today, with our battery of modern technology.
Even die hard audiophiles, including the people who write audio magazines in the US like Stereophile or The Absolute Sound have never heard (or have any idea) about this combination of low powered triode amplifiers and large, horn loaded speakers. It has become the secret domain of a tiny group of advanced audiophile collectors, mainly in Japan and Asia, who have bought most of the vintage equipment that remained in North American theaters after World War II. There are only a few hundred such systems in use in the world today. What happened to make something that sounded so good simply disappear?
THE SLOW DECLINE
Most of us measure technology by its benefits. Computers get smaller, thinner, lighter, cheaper and more powerful every year. Those computers now allow us to store inconceivable amounts of information for a tiny sum, including music. Convenience and economy would seem to be the end of the story for most people, who now view music as wallpaper, background, or just distraction. Music is no longer an event, an end in itself, or most importantly, a source of deep pleasure and spiritual renewal. It can’t be, because it has been hollowed out at the core. This destruction has happened in several distinct ways. Let’s start by looking at why those great cinema loudspeaker systems from the 1930’s disappeared.
CHEAPER, NOT BETTER
Before WWII, all cinema loudspeakers, which were mounted in horns, used a speaker “driver” which is essentially an electrical motor. An electrical signal (from the movie soundtrack) is turned into mechanical movement (of the drivers diaphragm) and this produces the sound, which is greatly increased by the horn. In the early days of cinema sound, permanent magnets powerful enough to make the driver work properly did not exist- the metallurgy after the war made them possible. The early drivers all used “field coil” technology, which was electromagnetic. These field coils were very expensive to make, and because the permanent magnets were so much cheaper, the early technology was discarded as soon as possible (after WWII.)
Equally important, the triode amplifiers of the first generation of sound systems, being low powered, were quickly replaced by pentode and tetrode type vacuum tubes, which were acknowledged to sound inferior, but again were cheaper and produced far more power.With the economic boom in the US after WWII, and the introduction of the LP record, and a lot of men trained in electronics by the war effort, home audio enjoyed enormous popularity. Because sound was monophonic, only one speaker was necessary, and they were always large, and virtually all of them used at least one horn, a vestige of the work done on cinema sound decades before. These speakers were all high efficiency, because amplifiers for the home rarely boasted more than 20 watts of power.
Power in audio is of the utmost importance, because it dictates how efficient, and thus how big, your speaker must be. Low power means a big speaker, which is a more expensive speaker, but a better sounding speaker. With more powerful tube types, speakers could be reduced in size and cost. The tipping point came with the introduction of solid state amplifiers; transistors replaced tubes entirely. If a watt of tube amplifier power cost $10, a watt of solid state cost 25 cents. Suddenly, loudspeakers did not have to be large at all- you can engineer a tiny speaker to produce the same sound pressure level as a big speaker, if you hit it with 100 times the power. Since power was cheap, and efficient speakers were expensive, the combination of cheap power and cheap, small speakers drove the audio industry into a downward spiral of sound quality from which it has never recovered. Solid state amplifiers continue to increase in power and decrease in cost. In turn, speaker manufacturers reduce the size of their product to conform with the perceived desire of the consumer for a speaker as small as possible. The actual result is ever worsening sound, with most people today having no real stereo system at all, and a tiny, insular “high end” audio industry which is dying.
DIGITAL VS. ANALOG
Few things are more deceptively simple than the vinyl record. It has been around for over a century, so how could anything that old work so well? Just as the original patent for the moving coil loudspeaker of Rice and Kellogg (1924) nailed the design of every cone speaker ever made since, the record was a stunning technical achievement which is still unsurpassed for audio quality (excepting master tape, from which records are cut.)
It sounds vaguely Luddite, but the earliest vinyl format, the 78rpm record, is still technically by far the best. Almost all surviving 78’s have a lot of groove damage (played by countless steel or cactus needles) and surface noise, but if you listen past that, something amazing happens. There is a lifelike quality, which is no mystery- 78’s spin much faster that 33rpm records, and with faster playback speed, more sonic information is conveyed. But 78’s only contain a few minutes of music per side, and were quickly replaced by the LP or Long Playing Microgroove record, the monophonic precursor to stereo sound.
Records, whether 33rpm, 45 or 78, contain musical information in the “analog” format, which means the signal is continuous. A little tiny diamond point, sitting on the end of a tiny stick of aluminum, sapphire, boron or other material (the “cantilever”) literally traces the musical signal in a record’s grooves which look like squiggles and bumps. That tracing movement is turned into incredibly tiny electrical signals inside the cartridge, by the movement of magnets or coils at the other end of the cantilever. It’s like an electrical motor, but in reverse. This is all taking place at a physical scale so small it belongs in nanotechnology, with electrical signals that can be so infinitesimal that they are nearly on the molecular scale (pico volts.) The fact that this works at all is remarkable, but that it works better than anything we have today, in terms of sound quality, is mind boggling.
The problem with records is that they were expensive to make, as were record players and everything associated with analog reproduction. The compact disc was supposed to take care of that- no more scratched or dirty records, broken needles, and of course, the CD was far cheaper to make, about 20% of the cost of making an LP. The original marketing slogan for the CD was “Perfect Sound Forever” TM even though it was understood by Philips and Sony, the creators of the CD, that the sampling rate was far too low, with the final irony being that the material from which CD’s were made is now decomposing quickly, rendering many, if not all CD’s worthless in the future. The unintentional byproduct of making music digital, for the music industry, was its own destruction. The major labels used the introduction of the new format and technology to both raise the price of music for consumers (CD’s were more expensive to buy than LP’s, even if much cheaper to manufacture) and force people to abandon their analog music collection to conform with the new market reality. What they never anticipated was a Pandora’s box- with music now a stream of bits, it could be easily and endlessly copied, destroying the market for the physical purchase of music.
It has been 30 years since the CD format was introduced, and by now, even in the high end audio industry, no one is saying that digital is better than vinyl. If you open an audio magazine, it’s common to see ads for extremely expensive digital players which suggest that their product is “as close to analog” as possible. It’s also useful to note that although there are many technical theories as to why vinyl and analog are better than any digital medium, there is no proof as to why this is so. Human hearing is so complex and so accurate that science has not been able to fully understand why we can hear what we hear.
With digital file sharing, the MP3 format, Apple and iTunes, an already poor situation was made much worse. To enable easy and fast transmission of music files, not to mention ease of storage, compression was employed resulting in the (permanent) removal of as much as 80% of the original information. If we were to look at an image which had that much information removed, our impression would be negative. But the brain is very adept at filling in missing sonic information, based on a set of presumptions about what the unaltered musical signal should be. Thus even though low bass may not be present in an MP3, or on our headphones, our brains make believe that it exists. This wondrous ability comes at great cost, however, which is known technically as “listener fatigue.” Because hearing is such an unconscious activity, we are unaware of the brain’s work in restoring damaged or altered sounds. And since virtually no one sits down to seriously listen to music anymore, instead using music as a soundtrack to other activities, listening fatigue isn’t much of a problem. It does help explain why most people don’t own real stereo systems today- with digital, it’s not much fun to really listen to music.
On the professional side of digital audio, an equally disturbing phenomenon occurred in the middle 1990’s. With analog, a vinyl record can only be cut so loud, because if cut too loud, the needle will literally jump out of the groove. The record will not be playable. The CD has no such physical constraints, but until 1994 with the introduction of digital limiters, digital music was still recorded with dynamic range, which is defined as the relationship between the quietest parts of a recording and the loudest parts. Because record producers wanted their acts to sound louder over the radio than the competition, with the new technology they could eliminate dynamic range and make their music “seem” louder- by destroying a vital aspect of what makes music music. By the 2000’s, this phenomenon was referred to as the “loudness wars” and defines most digital music production today.
Technology is now advancing at such a rate that the amount of literature generated by it doubles every few years. Increasing specialization in the sciences and engineering has become necessary because no person can master even a single discipline with the proliferation of knowledge and information in any field. If you wander around an A.E.S. convention (the Audio Engineering Society, the worldwide professional association for audio) you can see the problem. Everyone is focused on a solution to their particular area of audio, improving digital algorithms, or reducing jitter in clocks, but the big picture (how does it sound?) is lost.
Scientists, engineers, and industry professionals furthermore are ignorant of the history of their field, and harbor a prejudice that with time, knowledge is both increased and perfected. In other words, history is irrelevant. In audio this is clearly not true, but to even acknowledge the possibility that prior art was superior would be epistemologically destabilizing.
We assume that technology is a progressive force, continuously improving and making our lives better. Looking at the history of sound reproduction belies this belief. Yet there are glimmers of a countermovement. The sales of vinyl records are growing enormously every year. That has led an avant garde of enthusiasts to discover vintage audio equipment, and even more esoteric horns and triode tube electronics. These are the people who listen with their ears, not their minds.