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There have been some arguments on threads in the hi fi column that, imo, revolve around the question of whether audio--defined here as the sounds reproduced by our listening equipment--can be reduced to science, fully describable by measurements, or whether the appreciation of audio is an art, similar to the appreciation of paintings, literature, theatre, or the music itself.
There are those here that argue if two pieces of equipment measure identically, then they can't possibly sound any different. They argue that people that hear differences between gear are victims of marketing hype or sadly deluded by some type of Placebo effect. They also argue that audio appreciation and quality can only be done with randomized, double blind studies.
I am a Practicing Physician, so I am well acquainted with the concepts of double blinded studies, objective measurements, etc. I simply do not think that these concepts are relevant in audio discussions.

Imagine people from another Planet come to Earth and studying a Soccer Game. Imagine they have no concept of competitive sports. They measure the grass during the match, the amount of chlorphyl synthesiszed, how much it grows, etc. They measure the amount of sunlight that falls on the stadium. Perhaps they measure the beer and other foods consumed by the spectators.
They will have completely missed the point of the event and consequently not reported back anything meaningful about the event itself.
The Framingham Study is a large epidemiological study, ongoing, in the town of Framingham, MA,
since 1950. The Harvard School of Public Health Studied the townmembers, measuring everything conceivable. Some it turned out to be important, such as Cholesterol Subparticles, and bone density. Many other blood chemistries were measured that were not important then and have proved to be not important in the intervening time. They did not measure many important things that were discovered after 1950, because they didn't know they existed.
When we measure sounds, are we sure that we are measuring everything that can be measure?/ Do we know that we have discovered every variable that determines how a compnet sounds? The CD bit length of 16 was suppossed to be the limit of human hearing. Except that most people report hearing more on 20 bits, and nthen 24 bits, and ad infinitum. Are there unmeasured factors that sound better as bit length increases? I think anyone who thinks that we have discovered all that thmakes up sound is simply myopic.
Another problem: how do the people who assert that someone can't be hearing something that they think they are hearing know what is happenning inside that persons brain? Two people may look at a Jackson Pollock painting. One sees a mess of spilled paint. The other is moved and sees repreentations of thoughts and emotions. Isn't it arrogant of Person 1 to tell Person 2 that they can't possibly be appreciating something that they are not able to see?
Regarding double blind studies: the once that have been done that I have seen wouldn't pass peer review. I participated in one in college. We were paid $10, put in a sterile room, given two minute snatches of unfamiliar music to listen to. I don't think this has anything to do wit hme sitting at home, firing up my rig to listen to a favorite piece of music or a treasured recording.
Finally, I have read somewhere--and I don't remember the cite--that perhaps 20% of the population can't hear the difference between two componets. I have a freind that is a Violist in a very well known Orchestra. He can tell what Golden Age Violinist is playing a Concerto after about 10 seconds of listening, but he can't tell the difference betrween a cheap transitior radio and a stratospherically priced system. I suspect that some of the real belligerants who insist that others who hear differences in gear are mistaken may fall into that 20%. They can't hear a difference, and they can't conceive that others may hear something they cannot. As I have said before, they are lucky. Being tin eared, they can buy cheap gear and be happy. No Audiophilia Nervosa.
 

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Music is art.
Sound reproduction is science.

Some people just have no intellectual tools for analyzing the science part without slipping into the art part. Your Jackson Pollack analogy is a perfect example. What is painted on the canvas or the music played by the instruments is completely irrelevant to reproduction quality.

Ultimately, it's the music that matters, because that is what we listen to, not test tones. But science will do a great job making sure that the music is presented accurately. That's why they call it "audio fidelity".
 

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I believe that that sound reproduction is an imperfect science. My experience is that electronic equipment does affect the sound quality of reproduced music, and these qualitative differences are not fully captured by published technical specifications.

I also believe that people have differing sensitivities to various aspects of sound, and the debate about what different people hear in reproduced music will never be settled.
 

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Sound reproduction has been studied for over a century. It's totally worked out. The places where sound reproduction suffers isn't part of the technology. It's the aesthetic choices of the engineers who mike and mix the music. I've been a hifi nut since back in the early 70s, and everything that I worried about back then has been solved. No more audible levels of noise and distortion, no more frequency response imbalances, no more generation loss. Great sounding equipment is common and cheap today unlike the past. However, the quality of recording, mixing and mastering is MUCH worse in popular music than it ever was in the 70s. The quality of the average person's home speakers is much worse too. Those are the areas that need work, not fancy wires, hundred pound amplifiers and outrageously expensive players... that's sucker bait for the saps that still believe that you don't get quality without spending too much money.

The most important specification is the specs for human hearing. Audiophiles tend to know an awful lot about measurements of electronics, but absolutely nothing about how those specs relate to the thresholds of human hearing. If they did, they would stop worrying about numbers and start worrying about the things that REALLY matter- transducers, room acoustics and the way those two factors affect frequency response.
 

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I've also been a "hi-fi nut" since the early '70s, when I built a Dynaco pre-amp and power amp from kits.

I agree that decent electronic hi-fi equipment is readily available today for a reasonable price.

Where opinions apparently diverge: I believe that electronic hi-fi equipment can affect sound quality, and therefore the enjoyment of reproduced music. I'll focus my comments on amplifiers vs. CD players, because I'm better equipped to compare amps. I currently own more than 2 dozen amps, and 3 of my hi-fi systems have multiple amps from which I can readily select, and compare sound qualities. On the other hand, each system has only 1 CD/SACD/DVD/Blu-ray player, so I'm not equipped to readily compare disk players on a day-to-day basis. (In other words, I collect amps as a hobby, but I don't collect CD players.)

I'm not a technical expert on amplifier design, but from what I've read, amplifiers vary in several different aspects of their design. (E.g., solid state, tube, hybrid. Class A, AB, D, etc. Single ended, push-pull, ultra linear. Amps employing output transformers, or not. Cathode bias vs. fixed bias. Type of feedback. Type of power rectification. Etc. Again I'm not a technical expert - so my list is undoubtedly not 100% correct - but bottom line, there's a lot of variance in amp design.) Are you saying that you believe that all audio amplifiers sound the same regardless of their design? Regardless of who manufactured the components and the quality of the components? If yes, then the good news for you is that you will be satisfied by buying the cheapest amp that meets your system requirements.

In my experience - to my ears - there is a difference in sound quality between amps. Though this difference is often subtle - it's these subtleties that can make the difference between a hi-fi system "sounding pretty good", and what I call "being drawn into the music". I like vacuum tube amps, mostly from the late '50s and early '60s - though I do own one modern tube amp - plus two modern solid state amps (plus a few '70s "monster receivers" that I seldom use - they're just for fun). (These pics are not up-to-date: http://www.talkclassical.com/29613-not-hi-fi-myths-2.html#post607584 I've added a pair of McIntosh MC30 power amps, a Pilot SA-260 power amp, an Altec 353A integrated amp, and another McIntosh MX110 pre-amp. I'll post updated pics in the next few weeks.) The modern solid state amps sound good, but it's usually the tube amps that cause me to be "swept away" by the music. And - this is what I think is an important point - the published specifications are almost worthless in describing an amplifier's ability to be musically engaging.

Not only does every one of my amplifiers sound different, even swapping out a single tube can affect the sound quality of an amp. Here's a pic of the modern (current production) 12AX7 tubes in my inventory:



(This is just one type of tube in a hi-fi amp.) Note that not only were all of these tubes tested at the factory, they were all additionally tested, graded and sorted by the distributor - so they're all proven to be good quality. If you look closely you can see one of the design differences between these tubes: short plate vs. long plate. Other design differences are more difficult to see. These different tubes, although all variations of 12AX7s, all sound different in a hi-fi amp. And, some hobbyists prefer vintage 12AX7s (e.g., Telefunken, Mullard, RCA, Sylvania, JAN variants, industrial grade variants, etc) due to their sound quality. Same for other types of tubes. Some think that capacitors from a particular manufacturer sound better in certain applications in a hi-fi amp. I, along with every hobbyist that I've heard express an opinion, believe that amps that use 7189 output tubes generally sound different than amps that use 7591 tubes, 6L6GCs, EL34s, KT88s, etc. Also, some prefer single-ended triode (SET) amps vs. push/pull amps. Etc, etc. For the vast majority of hi-fi hobbyists, the assertion that all electronics sound the same is false. But of course YMMV.

I agree that it isn't necessary to spend a lot of money to get good sound quality. My modern NAD solid state amp is reasonably priced and sounds pretty good, but for classical music it's not as enjoyable as some of my least expensive tube amps, such as my early '60s Scott 222C that I bought for less than $500 (already electronically restored). Driving a pair of Klipsch RF-7s in my basement, it is capable of wonderful sound. One of my recent acquisitions is a Pilot SA-260 power amp (driving Snell Type CV speakers in my living room). Less that $1k (fully restored), and after a little "tube rolling" it sounds fabulous. I have a variety of amps in my TV room driving my Klipsch Palladium tower speakers, including a couple of vintage amps that I acquired for less than $1k. Let me hasten to acknowledge the obvious - vintage tube amps aren't for most people, because after sounding wonderful for a few months any of these vintage amps can start malfunctioning. (Usually remedied by cleaning the tube sockets,)

So I would say that sound reproduction is "totally worked out" for most consumers (i.e., people who aren't hobbyists), but not for audiophiles. Most people buy an amp from a big box store, or on-line. Which is OK for most people. However, I can tell you that the vast majority of people who have visited my home and heard one of my systems have told me that they've never heard classical music recordings sound so good. Let me be clear - I'm not saying that my systems are the best. I don't have purpose-built listening rooms (my house is not large), I choose to put paintings on my walls vs. acoustic treatments, and I don't own extremely expensive equipment (i.e., no $100k turntables, cryogenically treated cables of pure unobtainium, etc).

Of course if you dismiss any hi-fi equipment that you can't buy at a big-box store as "boutique", then you're only talking about a subset of products (i.e., mass market products).

Bottom line - for me - based on my experience there is a difference in sound quality between run-of-the-mill solid state amps and good tube amps. And that's based on me listening with my own ears. In other words, I'm not a sap who has been hornswoggled or bamboozled by snake oil salesmen.

Just because some manufacturers have made ridiculous claims about some products (e.g., extremely expensive power cords and audio cables, cable trestles, jars of pebbles, etc), doesn't mean that all "audiophile grade" products are shams. (That's a "straw man" argument.)

I'll stop rambling and repeat a statement that I made in my more succinct post above: "people have differing sensitivities to various aspects of sound, and the debate about what different people hear in reproduced music will never be settled".
 

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Sound reproduction has been studied for over a century. It's totally worked out. The places where sound reproduction suffers isn't part of the technology. It's the aesthetic choices of the engineers who mike and mix the music. I've been a hifi nut since back in the early 70s, and everything that I worried about back then has been solved. No more audible levels of noise and distortion, no more frequency response imbalances, no more generation loss. Great sounding equipment is common and cheap today unlike the past. However, the quality of recording, mixing and mastering is MUCH worse in popular music than it ever was in the 70s. The quality of the average person's home speakers is much worse too. Those are the areas that need work, not fancy wires, hundred pound amplifiers and outrageously expensive players... that's sucker bait for the saps that still believe that you don't get quality without spending too much money.

The most important specification is the specs for human hearing. Audiophiles tend to know an awful lot about measurements of electronics, but absolutely nothing about how those specs relate to the thresholds of human hearing. If they did, they would stop worrying about numbers and start worrying about the things that REALLY matter- transducers, room acoustics and the way those two factors affect frequency response.
All very true and no doubt why those early Living Presence and Living Stereo recordings sound so consistent and seem to catch the sound of the concert hall (which many recordings aim for and sadly, fail).

Audiophilia is much a religion now, a set of beliefs. The ads don't tell lies - they mislead, picking up on remote theory that's valid but irrelevant in practice then preying on the innocent. Terms are often misused. There's a new Biblical belief about "balanced" circuitry and cables (which as you'll know has a clear meaning to professionals and engineers) yet some hifi aficionados believe their twin core cables terminating in RCA phonos are "balanced".

It's all rather expectation bias to me. Most amplifiers, if they're to sell at all, have a high degree of linearity and are pretty noise free. They do sound different across the price range - can't be helped: built with cheaper consumer quality components sometimes inappropriate for the job, they'll present a different sound from something carefully constructed with superior components. (Cheap ICs that have (relatively) high distortion and noise figures aren't going to compete with the vastly more expensive ex-Burr Brown / Texas op-amps) etc.

But what goes into an amplifier is always to be suspected. Even with classical music too many sound desk merchants have their sticky little fingers on the sliders far too much.
 

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Try doing some A/B tests with recent solid state amps, cables, DACs and players. I think you'll find that things have changed in the past ten years. Just about all consumer electronics now (aside from esoteric colored hi end junk or retro tube amps and turntables) are audibly transparent and accurate far beyond human hearing. Just about every one sounds precisely the same. This isn't surprising, because most of it is built from off the shelf, mass produced parts. The guts in an expensive CD player are about the same as the guts in a cheap one.

The trick is in the transducers and the room acoustics, not the electronics. Unless of course, if you *want* colored sound, in which case you get to roll the dice and pony up with the cash and swap colored stuff in and out until you come up with some kind of combination that works for you. I don't have the patience for that. I just want accurate sound quality so I can swap any decent amp or player in and it sounds perfect. I put all my fine tuning into the speakers, room acoustics and equalization calibration. That way, just about anything I buy is plug and play and sounds perfect. I don't have to worry about having one EQ for my turntable and a different one for my CD player. Everything upstream is calibrated precisely out of the box. I only have to worry about the end of the chain.
 

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Yup, working with an accomplice (!) we set up a test rig with 2 kinds of switching: 1) switchable op amps (NJM2120, respectable enough characteristics) but in case of concern about crosstalk/feedthrough etc, we put together: 2) a relay board so that inputs/outputs are isolated. This was initially set up to settle a discussion about stepped volume controls, one person claiming that tantalum resistors "sounded better" than standard metal film (both at 1%) - and invited people to test, switching between them as listeners required. The few who did couldn't tell the difference. There may of course be other factors but it's a case of all other things being equal.

The local hi-fi fraternity don't like us.
 

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That's usually the case. The use of tube amplifiers, for example. Those are actually old technology and measure much worse than the solid state ones. Mainly, they underamplify high frequencies, and cause a distortion that is called "euphonic" because it sounds kind of mellow and sweet and people tend to like it. Nothing wrong with that, unless you ignore what is happening and try convince everybody that those amplifiers are much better than the "cold" solid state ones. It is the ignorance together with the snobbism that many "audiophiles" use to try to enlighten us.
 

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I tune out when folk start talking tubes. Anyway, since 1972 and my first system (Utah speakers, Fisher receiver, Garrard tt), I've found hifi to be excellent value. Each succeeding generation produces great buys and not so great. For the most part I've been lucky with help from others. With a few questions and a little reading, one can easily come up with a decent system from the lower end of an always astronomical price range, that will please one greatly. Over the decades, I've stayed with the thinking that speakers are the most important thing. Next, power--get more than you think you need. Next, cable and interconnects--don't get the cheapest, don't get the most expensive, middle's just right for most. Different sound? Three ranges for my ears. 1. Crap 2. Very Good 3. Heavenly. I don't ever see myself spending more than is needed to obtain the "Very Good" category.:tiphat:
 

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I don't see anything wrong with frequency response roll offs or "euphonic" harmonic distortion or phase shifting. However, I would MUCH rather do that through a good DSP that allows me to fine tune the effect precisely, rather than to depend on a vacuum tube with a hardwired sound alteration that shifts radically as it warms up or grows old. Once I find the "sweet spot", I want to lock it in and not have it drift. I use a few different DSPs in my system and they make a big improvement on the sound quality.

Also, when I'm applying DSPs, I find it is always best to start out at a calibrated accurate spot- clean with a balanced response- and use that as a baseline. Then I can toggle coloration in and out and decide if it really is an improvement or not. If I don't start out with accurate sound reproduction, my corrections can tend to wander around and never end up with what I'm shooting for.
 

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That's usually the case. The use of tube amplifiers, for example. Those are actually old technology and measure much worse than the solid state ones. Mainly, they underamplify high frequencies, and cause a distortion that is called "euphonic" because it sounds kind of mellow and sweet and people tend to like it. Nothing wrong with that, unless you ignore what is happening and try convince everybody that those amplifiers are much better than the "cold" solid state ones. It is the ignorance together with the snobbism that many "audiophiles" use to try to enlighten us.
fjf: Your last statement is an interesting generalization. I own solid state amps and tube amps, and as I stated above I prefer the sound of my tube amps. Does that make me guilty of "ignorance" and "snobbism"?
 

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fjf: Your last statement is an interesting generalization. I own solid state amps and tube amps, and as I stated above I prefer the sound of my tube amps. Does that make me guilty of "ignorance" and "snobbism"?
There are no problems with tube amps. It's down to the listener's taste. I've had people grimace at their high (by today's standards) THD but most of this is at the second harmonic which is why the sound seems brighter. Semiconductor amps initially suffered odd-numbered harmonic distortion which around the 7th and 9th was particularly horrid and noticeable. Bigshot is right about attenuation at high frequencies, partly because of the dreaded Miller (capacitance) effect in triodes (between the grid and anode) and this has to be accommodated. Most tube preamp and phase-splitting stages use triodes.

If there were problems at all it's about tubes ageing. The other major problem brought to them is microphony, if they're sited in the same room as speakers or a lot of movement. Their innards are physical/mechanical and prone to vibration.
 

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You should read my comment. I say there that there is nothing wrong with liking tubes (or anything that does not harm others, for that matter). What I think is wrong is to say that tube amps are much better (technically) that solid state ("cold", etc). The better amplifier, and more transparent (because it does not alter significantly the signal they amplify) is the modern SS amplifier.

Having said that, a good tube amplifier sounds very nice and I understand people like it. But if you are an smart, educated person you know what your poison is.
 

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A really good tube amp can sound as good as a solid state amp. There are tube amps that achieve audible transparency. Nothing wrong with them. There are just much easier ways to get the job done.

However the glow of tubes in the dark is very nice while you're listening to music. I have Christmas lights strung up over my stereo components to kind of imitate that nice glow.
 

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I don’t use DSPs or equalizers in my systems. I’m not criticizing that approach - I think it has merit. A friend has a 5.1 channel Anthem amp. My understanding is that the amp employs DSPs, and that the in-room frequency response was calibrated by a technician by using a microphone. This hi-fi system sounds good, particularly for movies. However, DSPs and equalizers are simply not products that I’m interested in investing in. For classical music I like my tube amps.
 

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All very true and no doubt why those early Living Presence and Living Stereo recordings sound so consistent and seem to catch the sound of the concert hall (which many recordings aim for and sadly, fail).
I also enjoy many of the Living Stereo reissues on SACD of classical performances from the '50s and '60s. The Technical Notes associated with the SACD state: "In remastering these tapes, we kept the signal path as short as possible." "No signal processing was necessary to "improve" these extraordinary tapes." I find it interesting that in these Technical Notes the engineers apparently are touting the value of minimal audio processing. And I find that when I play these vintage recordings using my disk player directly connected to a vintage tube power amp (i.e., no tone controls, and arguably one of the simplest types of amps) I enjoy wonderful sound. (Unfortunately I've never heard a Class A SET amp, which some claim takes this approach of simplicity further.)
 
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