Audio Opinions, Biases and Some Lessons Learned
By Chuck Hawks
It is legitimate to inquire about the history, experience and preferences of any non-fiction author and any writer should be willing to provide a summary of such information. My interest in home high fidelity and stereo systems dates back to 1970. My first Hi-Fi music system was monaural, controlled and powered by a used Leak vacuum tube pre-amp and (low) power amplifier. The program source was a Garrard RC-88 turntable with a Shure M-7 cartridge and the small loudspeaker was in a homemade enclosure. Within a couple of years I had upgraded to a 10 watt-per-channel Kenwood integrated stereo amplifier and a pair of Pioneer bookshelf loudspeakers with 8" drivers. If I remember correctly, the "speaker cables" were 18 AWG lamp cord. (It worked fine.) That was my first stereo system.
Many audio components of various brands have since passed through my hands and I have enjoyed (and learned from) all of them. Among the recognizable brand names I have owned and used are Altec-Lansing, Bang & Olufsen, Cambridge, Dynaco, Elac Miracord, Garrard, Harmon-Kardon, Hitachi, Infinity, Kenwood, Klipsch, Leak, Luxman, Marantz, McIntosh, Monster, NAD, Phase-Linear, Pickering, Pioneer, Realistic, Rek-O-Kut, SAE, SME, Sharp, Shure, Sony, Teac and Technics.
I have long preferred floor standing loudspeaker systems. For many years I bi-amped my two-way Altec-Lansing (12" Bi-Flex woofer/3000 Hz. HF horn/custom built, bass reflex enclosure) speakers. We're talking "active" bi-amping here, with a custom built electronic crossover between the pre-amp and the two stereo power amps. The 418-8b woofer was built on a massive cast aluminum frame and used a 3", edge-wound copper wire voice coil with an oversize, fully enclosed, Alnico V magnetic structure approaching 10 pounds in weight. The internally braced, ¾" (utility black) plywood enclosures were fully lined with fiberglass insulation to break-up standing sound waves. They were built in accordance with the Altec Enclosure Guide and measured 36" tall by 24" wide by 18" deep. (In loudspeaker enclosures, size matters!)
I learned from this experience that the drivers inside a loudspeaker system are a lot more important than the external appearance of the enclosure or exotic engineering claims. To this day, I check the drivers inside before evaluating any loudspeaker system. It has always amazed me that print magazine reviewers seldom bother to learn what is inside of the glossy boxes they review.
Two-way systems are superior to three or four-way systems, because they minimize the number of crossover points. More than one driver reproducing the same frequency is a bad thing, making the theoretical ideal a single, omnidirectional, full range (20-2000 Hz) radiator. (Essentially, a radiating sphere.) Unfortunately, such a driver has yet to be invented and perfected. Never-the-less, a two-way system is a classic case of "less is more." Of course, two-way systems require higher quality, wider range--and thus more expensive--drivers. This is why three and four-way systems remain popular with speaker manufacturers.
These floor standing Altec-Lansing loudspeakers served as the heart of my stereo system for almost 20 years. If you buy good loudspeakers, you don't have to change them very often, because you practically never hear speakers you like better!
They were eventually replaced by a pair of (even larger) Altec-Lansing A7-500 "Voice of the Theater" (VOTT) speakers. For audio newbies, I should explain that the A7-500 was a two-way system that used a 15" woofer front loaded into a short, wooden, exponential horn and back loaded into a very large enclosure with a reflex port. The woofer had a heavy cast aluminum frame, a fully enclosed Alnico V magnetic structure that weighed some 10 pounds and a 3", edge-wound, copper wire voice coil. The midrange and high frequencies were handled by a 500-22,000 Hz sectoral, exponential, cast aluminum horn powered by a massive, aluminum diaphragm, driver. This horn was usually mounted in, and subtracted from the area of, the reflex port. In those days, Altec-Lansing made all of their own drivers and speaker systems in the USA.
VOTT's were the dominant loudspeaker systems used in commercial movie theaters from the 1950's into the 1970's and many are still in use today. They were also widely used in sound reinforcement applications. I remember attending a Beach Boys concert sometime in the 1970's where both sides of the stage were flanked by a tower of stacked VOTT systems, something like 16 to a side! There were home audio versions finished in fine hardwoods, but mine were the utility gray versions. They served for another 20 years. (Both the VOTT's and my earlier Altecs are still serving in the stereo systems of friends.) Top quality loudspeakers last a very long time, another valuable lesson learned.
In 2010, I decided to downsize my entire audio system and ultimately replaced the very large VOTT's with (merely large) Klipsch Reference Series RF-7 II floor standing towers. These have a much smaller footprint than the VOTT's. However, they are also two-way systems assembled in the USA, in this case Hope, Arkansas. Inside each real wood veneer RF-7 II bass reflex enclosure you will find two 10", cast frame woofers with massive magnetic structures and a 1200-24,000 HZ Tractrix horn with a 1.75" titanium diaphragm driver. Horns are highly efficient and extend the direct sound field, so you hear a little more of the recording's acoustics and a little less of your room's acoustics. Woofers must move a lot of air if low bass tones are to be audible. Since a 14" woofer would not fit in the RF-7's tower enclosure, Klipsch used two 10" woofers to achieve the same radiating area. RF-7 II's come with a very attractive cherry wood finish, but mine are black ash. I guess I have gotten used to the utility loudspeaker look.
Big speakers, particularly when they are horn loaded or bass reflex designs, are usually more efficient than small speakers. This is important, because live music, even when not amplified, is loud. (Ever hear a symphony orchestra?) It is present. It has incredible dynamic range. Perhaps the highest praise lavished on a premium home audio system (especially loudspeakers) is that it sounds like live music. If you want your home audio system to sound realistic, it must be able to play at high, dynamic, volume levels. Not all of the time, of course, but when necessary. Small speakers and inefficient speakers simply cannot meet this basic requirement. If you listen to rock, pop, country or classical music, think high efficiency and large size. Acoustic jazz (particularly trios and quartets), new age and chamber music are less demanding of loudspeakers, which is why such music is so often used to demo speakers at your local audio emporium.
It is also worth noting that the great majority of live music concerts employ sound reinforcement systems, particularly top tier performers, who tend to play in large venues. Even bar bands and club performers typically use sound reinforcement. These sound systems use large, professional Altec-Lansing, JBL, Electro-Voice, Klipsch or similar loudspeakers. Care to guess which speakers are most likely to allow your home music system to sound like a live performance?
I prefer discreet electronic components (separate tuners, pre-amplifiers and power amplifiers) to integrated amplifiers or receivers. The reason for this is easy to understand. If you buy a $500 power amplifier, the entire purchase price is in the power amp. If you buy a $500 integrated amplifier, you are really getting a $250 pre-amplifier and a $250 power amplifier. Guess which is likely to be better? Integrated amplifiers, of course, have a similar advantage over receivers. It is another case of "less is more."
I also prefer that my audio components (including loudspeakers) be built in technically advanced countries (including the UK, Japan, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA), rather than farmed out to cheap (but less qualified) labor in Red China and other third world countries. This has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but everything to do with the education and technical expertise of the work force. I like my components built by people who themselves can afford to own components.
I favor sensible speaker cable and interconnects. Yesterday in a local audio shop, I auditioned $2000 Magneplanar loudspeakers connected to the power amplifier by $1800 (15') speaker cables. Something is wrong with that cost/effectiveness equation! If you want better sound, it would be a heck of a lot more intelligent to buy $3760 loudspeakers and $40 speaker wires. In fact, despite all the flowery and completely subjective prose used to sell and review speaker wire, 12 gauge zip cord performs as well as any exotic speaker cable. This has repeatedly been demonstrated in rigorous, double blind listening tests. For shorter runs, 16 gauge or 18 gauge zip cord (lamp cord) will suffice.
I have been buying interconnects (shielded RCA cables) at Radio Shack for decades. They sell cheap, as well as somewhat more expensive, interconnects. I favor the high priced Radio Shack spread (about $20 for a 3' pair, if I remember correctly), because they seem to be better made. However, I cannot hear any difference in use. Nor can I, or anyone else I know, hear any difference between Radio Shack RCA cables and the most expensive "audiophile" cables. From the manufacturers and audio retailers perspective, however, there is a HUGE difference in profit margin. That is the ONLY reason for the existence of expensive "audiophile" speaker wire and interconnects. Another important lesson learned.
There are many "hot button" topics in the audio world, but nothing is more passionately argued than the analog (primarily LP record) vs. digital (primarily "Red Book" CD) debate. My view is that digital is inherently superior. I freely admit to enjoying analog sound, particularly from well-recorded LP (33-1/3 RPM) records and reel-to-reel tapes. I have spent untold thousands of enjoyable hours listening to these sound sources. Many audiophiles believe that top quality analog sources reveal more subtle detail than CD's. Maybe so.
However, the areas in which CD's are superior are not subtle and "golden ears" are not required to hear and appreciate them. In fact, practically everyone can hear the difference. CD's offer much lower background noise (hiss, ticks and scratches), lower distortion, superior dynamic range, superior frequency response, superior channel separation and a superior signal to noise ratio. CD's are not indestructible, but they are far more durable than LP records or audio tape. These are not minor differences; they are big, important and easily audible. To any rational person, major areas of superiority should be more important than minor, very subtle differences (usually described in subjective terms), so I have to come down on the side of CD's.
Another hotly debated topic in audio circles is vacuum tube vs. solid-state electronics. During the late 1960's, I was serving in the USAF as long-range Aircraft Control & Warning radar (electronics) technician. All of our radar sets were old and relied almost entirely on vacuum tube circuits. We technicians were responsible for the maintenance, repair and correct operation of these radar sets and all of their associated equipment, including the CRT displays the radar operators ("scope dopes") watched. There must have been a hundred vacuum tubes in one radar scope console. I can tell you, based on considerable personal experience, that the part most likely to degrade or fail in virtually any audio circuit is a vacuum tube. Nothing else even comes close in unreliability.
When I got started in home high fidelity, I used vacuum tube preamplifiers, amplifiers and tuners. (Solid-state components were fairly new and I could not afford to buy new components.) I did a lot of very enjoyable listening to vacuum tube electronics. However, getting rid of tubes is the best thing you can do from a reliability standpoint. Solid-state electronics generally offer higher power, lower distortion, greater dynamic range and a wider frequency response. They are also usually more economical. It is difficult to see why vacuum tube components persist. As usual in such cases, their "advantages" are described in subjective, rather than scientific, terms.
If you have read this far, you can conclude that I am an old, but I hope not entirely hidebound, audiophile. I think that I can hear the differences between loudspeakers, as can virtually anyone. I think that there is a performance difference between average, good and excellent electronic components and program sources. The audible difference is more subtle than the difference between loudspeakers, but it is real and can be measured. I think that component reliability and longevity--and thus the quality of parts and assembly--are very important. I have never heard anyone complain that they bought "too good" of a component!
I prefer solid-state electronics to vacuum tubes and CD's to LP's and tapes. I know that size matters in loudspeaker design and high quality drivers are fundamentally better than economy drivers. For the reasons mentioned in this article, I favor efficient, floor standing loudspeakers, particularly those with horn-loaded midrange/tweeters.
I have listened to enough live music to have a good idea of how it sounds. I have also listened to a large number of components and audio systems, enough that I think I can tell good from bad sound reproduction. I have read audio print magazines for over 40 years, long enough to realize that most of them, particularly "audiophile" publications, such as Stereophile and TAS, exist to serve their advertisers, not their readers. This applies equally to most audio e-zine websites. The more subjective their reviews and articles, the less you should trust them. Objective and repeatable scientific data are in short supply in most consumer audio publications, as is critical analysis and reviews. Praising the "musicality" of a component or writing that it sounds "pleasant," especially when it is something completely passive like speaker wire, is a sure tip-off that they are trying to sell you a bill of goods.
I think that, ideally, audio components should have no "sound" of their own. Their job should be to reproduce the signal fed to them with absolute fidelity, without adding or subtracting anything. They should not sound "musical" or anything else on their own. To the extent that they depart from the original signal, they are flawed. There is an objective term for such departure: distortion. I expect that these values are expressed in the articles I have written for Audio Online. Now, at least, you have an idea of where I am coming from.
Copyright 2011, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.