Articles for Audiophiles by Steve Deckert
AUDIO PAPER #021
AUDIOPHILES IN AMERICA
by Steve Deckert
"I once had a 350 watt triode amp driving some Bose HPM100's." Did I bother explaining to the guy that Bose never produced a HPM100, and that in fact the HPM series was a Pioneer speaker, or that audio triodes don't get that big and that if they did he could never afford one? No way. All I'd get is an argument.
I've had many years to notice that audiophiles get around cool audio gear and feel obligated to share delusional stories of former audio exploits. In fact most audiophiles have experienced this phenomenon, and likely participated. It's almost involuntary, a subconscious device used to sort of rank yourself compared the coolness of the gear you're ogling. For example, to approach a Wilson WATT System owner and to mention, "I have a modified Haffler amp," is to say, "I realize I'm nowhere near as cool as you, but at least I have a greater appreciation and understanding of your stereo than you'd expect judging from my Michelob T-shirt."
That's OK. But I truly have no idea where people like Mr. Audio dream up their stories. "A 350 watt triode? Yea, I knew a guy that had one of these in his living room." Sure you did---it's just that they called them radio tower transmitter tubes back then and required a complete HVAC system to cool them, not to mention the tube alone is a couple feet tall. "And it had giant heat sinks on the back." Oh, I see, so now it's sold state triode huh? But there is no... oh, never mind.
I'm not making this stuff up, The insistence upon the inaccurate is inexplicable, yet often predictable. Probe deeper about the gear in question and you'll find that .005% DISTORTION is always involved. Speakers are always HUGE. Wire is always SPECIAL and connectors are always GOLD. Adding SILVER SOLDER to virtually any component is always good for credibility too. If you field a correction, the storyteller will certify that "It was a rare special edition." And besides, the gear in question is always either the best sounding in the area or at least the only one (or the first one) sold in town. Countless neophytes have insisted that their stereo could do a 130 dB in their room. Right. To prove it, you'll hear tales of blowing away a Krell, Levinston, or Sonic Frontiers-- those being a few of the apparent standards by which all performance is judged. The longer ago it was, the better it sounded. Nine times outta ten, it was sold way too cheap ("It'd be worth $100,000 today.") or blown up one night while drunk. That I wholeheartedly believe.
You'll also run across what can best be described as the urban myths of the audio world. My friend, unfortunately a one-piece rack system owner, has a favorite: CD's blow away records. No. I just nodded when a recent admirer of my custom built corner horns (the only two in the world---built by myself) pointed out that they were available in a rosewood finish about 6 years ago. And did you know that Mac uses thicker wire than HK? Hear tell, every significant amplifier was "grossly underrated" in advertised power.
I suppose the tall tales stem from years of overstatement in high-end audio publishing. Glorification sells. Add up a bund of nebulous audiophile buzz words and you're sure to sound like an authority. So when an onlooker strings together a set of incongruous audio facts, I have to step back and realize that he's simply uninformed and not just plain stupid. All he really wants to do is admire a great sounding stereo and feel like he's part of it. For many audiophiles, the attention is what they really love about the hobby anyway. That and the ridiculing of those who know less than they do. So it all works out in the end.
The point of view above is mostly paraphrased from a letter originally written by the editor of Car Craft magazine---about car lovers. I just switched topics as a sort of twisted form of entertainment.
I guess what makes it so interesting is the human nature behind both is exactly the same. The original letter started out "I once had a Hemi 350 in a '66 GTO with a 400 four-speed." Of course there is no such thing and so on the letter goes.
On the flip side, I find it interesting that cars and amplifiers are so similar. This summer I came across a '72 monte, pictured above, and have spent the whole summer tweaking it. A process that began with a new set of aluminum 2.02 heads. By the middle of the summer after having accumulated 3 and a half carburetors and rotating them on an almost weekly basis, I started to realize just how similar this is to tweaking an amplifier.
Finding just the right fuel curve against the weight of the car, gear ratio, tire diameters, horsepower and torque to achieve just the right throttle response and feel turns out to be an endless quest of infinite possibilities. Just like building an amplifier and getting the perfect signature that makes everything come together and sound right. Perfect sound and the way I want my car to feel when I drive it are both subjective. The infinite variables that combine to yield the result are indeed infinite. This means that success can be measured in direct proportion to the amount of time you spend trying the combinations, which are remember, infinite.
Another thing I realized is that there are two distinct levels of performance and grace in auto tuning. Carburetors are where this became obvious. Because air temperature, gas quality, and altitude all affect the fuel curve of a carburetor, manufacturers can only set them up with so much resolution and accuracy. To get one perfect, modifications far beyond the "known" adjustments are required. At one point, when this car project began I found myself buying the best heads, the best carburetors, best everything and putting them together per the manufacturer's recommended combinations. I was disappointed in the results. Then I decided I need to find a guru engine tuner, I know some must exist somewhere. The top commercial name that came up was a guy who built cars for the speedway and was said to be the best. Certain he would do more and know more than I did, I took it to him to have the valves adjusted and the carb and timing tweaked. I was very disappointed. The car actually ran worse than when I took it in. Hey wait a minute, this seems like audio...
I was in a grumpy state because I actually knew more about engine tuning than the appointed "expert" and now was going to have to do it myself. Unsettling to say the least, because compared to the guru I envisioned, trust me I didn't know shit. This obviously means that the experience or perhaps "quest" would be a better word, is going to be just like audio. And like audio there is an underlying level of knowledge that seems to contradict popular knowledge and I was going to have to find it.
Everyone calls my Monte the "Zen" car because I went though the same process of relentless tweaking and experimenting on it as I did during the design of the Zen amp. Ironically, or maybe not, they both came out very similar to each other and I'm not sure which one I enjoy more. Riding in the car is not the same as driving it, so few people get to share the experience. The Zen amp on the other hand I get to share with everyone, and it's only human nature to enjoy sharing ones discoveries. For that reason it's safe to say I enjoy building and selling the amps more.
Is there a point to all this? Not really. That's why these papers fall under the title:"Ramblings about Audio."