Articles for Audiophiles by Steve Deckert
AUDIO PAPER #024
MUSICALITY IS A BALANCE OF SPEED
by Steve Deckert
One of the things I find myself discussing with people on the phone quite frequently is the relationship between speed and good sound. More specifically how the speed of components combine to effect either a nasty or musical sounding system. BTW, price has nothing to do with it.
In fact, you can spend 20 or 30 grand on gear and have a horrible sounding stereo, and in contrast your neighbor may have some old junk that wouldn't total $1500. and sounds pretty good on almost everything. Always musical. Now I've seen this happen hundreds of times, and the reason I'm writing this is to help you to keep it from happening to yourself, if it's not already.
Every component can be subjectively judged on the criteria of speed, among other things. Speed can be tied to transient response, dynamic range, and clarity. It is largely a function of the power supply. Assuming that the circuit or speaker has low distortion and low coloration it will have good clarity, but the speed is determined by the design itself.
For example, in electronics, speed is largely a function of capacitor discharge rates, voltage swings and part counts. In speakers, speed is largely a function of efficiency, mass, and flux density.
You could have a speaker that is fast like a Lowther or some low mass paper cone speaker with a large high energy magnet (usually an efficiency of 100dB +) or you could have a speaker that is slow like a 12 inch woofer with high mass and a normal or low efficiency of say 86dB.
Speakers are the easiest component to relate to speed because the largest factor is always the moving mass. In the 12 inch woofer we may have a moving mass of 85 grams. In the Lowther or similar speaker we may have a moving mass of (I'd guess) 11 grams. Without understanding anything else about the dozens of variables that affect this, simple physics dictates that the lighter something is, the faster it can change directions and move.
Electronics are far more complex from a speed standpoint, but equally as important. A simple example of how the speed of electronics can affect the end result consider the following two examples:
A) If your speakers are fast, and your amplifier is fast, and your preamp is fast, you would find that the average $500.00 CD player becomes unlistable. Reason being the electronics and speakers can now reveal the shortcomings of the source. Result: Fatiguing and non musical
B) In the same system, a slow preamp is installed in place of the fast one. Now the grainy top end is gone, the digital sound seems smoother more analogue and the end result is pleasing non-fatiguing sound. The reason being the preamp has masked the shortcomings of the source.
Masking, or altering the sound is often the side effect of complex circuits that use lots of parts. The less parts in the signal path, the faster the circuit typically becomes. Other factors that influence the speed of audio circuit are the speed of the power supply and coupling caps.
Now suppose in the examples above that the source was a world class turntable and cartridge instead of a $500.00 CD player. In that situation both A and B would be musical, however A would sound far superior with greater dynamics, loads more detail, and far better clarity.
A good stereo system is an artful balance of speed between components. A good component is an artful balance of circuit design and power supply speed. Going a little deeper, the speed of each coupling cap and each gain stage should be artfully balanced to that the component as a whole is musical. A fast circuit with a low cost power supply would sound spongy with high distortion and a lower overall speed. This imbalance is called stress. Some components. have stress built in, stay away from those.
How does this all trickle down into usable advise you might wonder? First you need to understand that the quality factor of your component hierarchy should always ideally be as follows: Source, Preamp, Amp, Speakers. That means your source is 400% more important than your speakers.
Since the advent of CD's, for the masses music quality went up, but for the audiophiles, music quality went down. CD players still do not compare to turntables, and likely never will. It would be a safe thing to assume that most audiophiles are using CD players as their source. Given that, the source is most likely the weakest link in the vast majority of high end systems. The better the performance of the system, the worse the sound as it reveals deeper and deeper the qualities of the source.
Now, I've found that if you have a very high end system (fast) it takes around $5000.00 at the time of this article to put together a musical front end for CD's. Most of us don't have the budget for that and the majority are using mid-fi CD players and or entry level DACs and transports. Ironically most spend lots on a DAC and little or nothing on a transport when the transports usually make far more difference. In any case, the majority of people who feel they're systems are approaching high end, have an inferior source and constantly fight with an overall lack of musicality.
Here are the symptoms of a speed disorder:
Fatiguing to listen to over time
Sound good sometimes and terrible the next for no reason
Sound quality is very CD dependent. Some CD's can't be listened to.
Grainy top end, with traces of glare
Occasionally shouts on certain passages
Irritates your wife
Constant fighting with speaker placement, and cables.
Sound like you?
You have two choices. Step up to the plate and buy yourself a REAL source for the real big bucks, or slow something down until nothing sounds great but nothing sounds bad either, the result being a musical system that no longer distracts you with the above symptoms.
Slowing things down from a component standpoint really means masking things. This can be done with lower quality cables, such as entry level audiophile type cables between components. This can also be done with speakers by going to higher mass lower efficiency, or just plain smoother better sounding speakers that have a warmer exaggerated bass and or rolled treble. It can also be done in the amplifier(s) or preamp by finding models that are less revealing.
It can be a hard pill to swallow sometimes but if you want some insurance or a safety factor that your system will be musical and enjoyable to listen to, odds will be in your favor if you shop for new or used gear that sings well together. Odds will be against you if you automatically go for the most expensive matching gear you can afford. This is in fact one of many audio paradoxes and is why a guy who found an old Dynaco ST70 at a garage sale and a pair of old Advents usually has better sound than his neighbor who owns the big name high dollar amps and speakers that were supposed to be the shit.
Unfortunately since how good something sounds is subjective and the mind is a powerful thing, those who've spent big bucks on gear and gotten poor results usually don't know it. This is because any time you spend a painful amount of money on audio gear and take it home the sudden change from what you had fools you into automatically thinking its better, followed by the need to justify the money you've spent which always has the effect of biasing your judgment.
And of course during this trial and error time of trying new things that are on the expensive side, you will find it usually doesn't sound as good as you'd hoped so you let it burn in for weeks hoping it will get better. And while things do improve once they're burned in, you have also grown more accustomed to it, and more tolerant of it.
Speaking of hard pills to swallow, I have seen over the years so many things sound good that shouldn't, and at least 200 times as many things that should sound great sound terrible.
I have found the reasons for this is the musically or balance of speed within the system and the acoustics of the room its played in. A 50/50 split down the middle. A $500 stereo can sound better in a good room than a $5000 stereo in a bad room. Over half of all audiophiles (and in reality it probably more like 80%) have poor rooms. Add to that overpriced gear that's too fast for the quality of their source and you have the very fuel that feeds the industry., i.e.. Frustration and the never ending search for a musical system which grows in intensity in direct proportion to the amount of money you've spent.