Articles for Audiophiles by Steve Deckert
AUDIO PAPER #029
MUSICALITY IS A BALANCE OF SPEED by Steve Deckert May 2000
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.
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. 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. For example you could have a speaker that is fast like a Lowther or some other 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 which we see much of as the speaker cone. While a 10 inch woofer we may have a moving mass of 85 grams, the high efficiency speaker of the same diameter may have a moving mass of 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.
This ability to to quickly change directions contributes to what we call 'linearity'. Think of how fast a tweeter can move compared to a woofer... wouldn't it be nice if they both were the same speed? Some would say that bass notes are slower and there is no need for a low mass driver with great speed, but this doesn't make sense because the woofers ability to accelerate is what defines the leading edge of notes.
So when we talk about speed in relation to a speaker, we are talking about how fast the cone can stop without overshoot or ringing.
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 sound you hear 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 a budget CD player becomes unlistable. This is because the electronics and speakers can now reveal the shortcomings of the source. Result: Fatiguing and non musical.
B) In the same system, a slower 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 subjectively faster the circuit typically sounds. 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 budget 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.
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. Affordable CD players still do not compare to affordable turntables and likely never will. It would be a safe thing to assume that most audiophiles are using a digital source. Given that, the source is often the weakest link in the vast majority of high end systems. Ironically the better the performance of a high end system, the worse the sound will be when paired with a budget source component.
As of the date of this article when streaming didn't exist I found that if you have a very high end system (fast) it takes around $5000.00 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
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.
Subjectively 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 as a result of having more complex circuits.
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 all the rage at the hifi shop.
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 many more things that should sound great actually sound terrible. The reasons are a 50/50 split between the musically or balance of speed within the system and the acoustics of the room it's played in. A inexpensive stereo can sound better in a good room than an expensive system in an acoustically challenged room. Over half of all audiophiles (and in reality it's 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.
So in summary, a high resolution source paired with a budget amplifier will usually sound more musical than a budget source paired with a high dollar amplifier. Subjectively the more expensive it is the faster it is.