THE FIVE DEADLY SINS OF THE AUDIOPHILE
hen I sit down at home to listen to some music, every single time, regardless of what I was dealing with previously, I can’t believe my own luck. For it just PLAYS every single time. What’s more, every great product that I review sounds so good that its own creators probably didn’t expect that much of it. Weaker products sound inferior, but even they have their good sides. Even products that clearly belong in a different configuration sound awesome and it’s not hard to point out the things that make them special. I’m not alone in my thoughts on this phenomenon. My system’s not the best in the world; I’m not a megalomaniac and I know its limitations. However, because it was put together piece by piece, with a lot of thought put into every upgrade and with great care given to each, even the tiniest, detail, it forms a coherent whole; it’s a system.
Sin no. 1::
So when readers send in opinions about a product I was reviewing, an unhappy opinion or one that describes its sound in a bad light, there are only two logical conclusions: either I made a mistake, or the reader did. It’s only natural for me to make errors, since I’m human. But I think that my review methodology, which I have been developing for years, combined with my experience help me to reduce the probability of error to minimum and I can’t improve it any further. But it is equally possible that an error is on the reader’s side. I will go further to say that it’s much more likely. Pardon me for not faking humility, but we’re all adults, aren’t we? And I’m noticing a certain regularity. Over the period of ten years when I have been reading your emails, answering questions and advising you in your choices, I usually dealt with a few very similar problems. Their solutions have usually depended on noticing the mistakes that have been made, confessing one’s guilt and promising amendment. I believe that in a vast majority of cases when something sounded very good or even phenomenal in my system (and I value that highly), while sounding bad or “not quite right” in the readers’ systems, the problem has been caused by one or more of the following deadly sins.
Lack of respect for the room acoustics
The way the music is reproduced in our home depends both on the audio system, as well as the listening room. Audio magazines deal with systems and products on a daily basis, because that’s what we’re into. But room acoustics isn’t and we tend to perceive it as a “given” element, something that is the reader or music lover is responsible for. I’m not saying that’s good. But we have no control over that, and I don’t see how it could be possible for me to write about something I haven’t seen or heard.
But perhaps the assumption that the average listening room acoustics has no major flaws is wrong. Looking at what the readers write, most issues people seem to have with their audio products stem from not enough attention to or even the neglect of room acoustics. A perfect solution would be buying a textbook that would lead you step by step through the available options and showed a clear path to take. But there is nothing like that as far as I’m aware of; there’s no book for the perfectionists that we all are, a book written by people who know us and understand our needs. Perhaps that’s because there are so pitifully few people in my beautiful country with expertise in listening room acoustics (and not limited to professional environments, since those have completely different requirements). I’m not a specialist myself, and it’s a whole other world, but I do try to go by a few basic rules.
One of them is the necessity to arrange the room in which you intend to listen to music in a specific way. The rule of thumb is not to leave the room too empty, because that makes for a sharp, bright and garish sound. But if you do have a minimalistic interior with large, flat surfaces made of glass or concrete, as well as floors without carpets, you should be looking for products that sound warm and dense, with a rolled-off treble. That’s what many tube-based components sound like, things like Supra cables or Castle speakers from the Knight series.
The room shouldn’t be too crowded, either, with too many soft surfaces like upholstered furniture or wood on the walls. If that is the case, however, you should look for something dynamic, open and selective. Products from Cambridge Audio, Marantz and Denon, as well as Monitor Audio or Dynaudio speakers, will be best suited for this sort of setting. And when it comes to cables, something from Chord or Nordost.
In both cases it would be good to focus on proper furniture arrangement. The cheapest and best acoustic element are shelves for books and CDs. Set up on the wall behind the speakers or in the back, behind the listener, they improve the tone color and spatial localization, additionally eliminating many problems with bass. It’s also wise to lay a rug directly in front of the listening spot. A wall-to-wall carpet is quite OK, too, but a wooden floor with a wool rug is the best combination. It’s not recommended to put any sort of table between the speakers and the listener’s location. Although the Japanese do the most bizarre thing here: they put their systems on low racks right in front of them, i.e. somewhere they definitely shouldn’t be. I can’t explain this; perhaps there are just many things for me to discover in this area.
To improve your room acoustics, you can always resort to many ready-made acoustic treatment solutions and products. They are offered by many specialist companies, including Polish ones. I’d be careful about using them, though. They result in very strong and specific changes in acoustics, and it’s not hard to mess something up. Second of all, they don’t usually look that great and can change your room into a “geek cave”. If you’ve got a room for yourself, dedicated to your hobby, the aesthetic aspect obviously doesn’t matter that much. I’ll just add that I use a few Vicoustic panels in my room, myself. I’ve placed them on the wall behind my listening spot and they have proved their worth, both aesthetically and acoustically. The other walls are stacked with shelves full of CDs, LPs, magazines and books, and that works.
Another common error is an incorrect speaker placement in relation to the walls and the listener. Just as with room arrangement, the most important factor for music lovers is practicality, which means combining the sound factor with everyday domestic functionality. If it’s a separate room, this obviously doesn’t matter. In all other cases, the speakers need to blend in well with the interior design and not get in the way, with their sound being a secondary issue. That’s just what life is like and there’s no reason to get upset about it. But, whenever possible, let’s remember about a few things: the speakers shouldn’t stand too close to the back wall, they should be spaced 2-3 meters apart, and the distance from the listener shouldn’t be much larger than the distance between the speakers. It’s always a good idea to arrange the speakers along the longer wall and sit closer to them, instead of having them along a shorter wall and sitting further away from them.
Sin no. 2:
Manufacturers usually suggest a small toe-in, although in my room in 80% of cases the speakers sound best when toed-in more aggressively so that their axes cross approximately half a meter in front of me. This is especially true for all standmount speakers. This year at High End 2014 show in Munich, Ken Ishiwata, the ambassador for Marantz, displayed an extreme execution of this concept, crossing the speaker axes a meter from their base.
No respect for details
This sin is often committed with Sin no. 1. What I’m about to say seems so elusive that many audiophiles treat it as a luxury, as something extra, something that we may find the time for someday. That’s a mistake. In a properly assembled system, the elements I’m about to talk about create something more than the sum of what is already “given,” which cannot be achieved in any other way.
Sin nr 3:
The fundamental thing is a proper power supply, including power cords, a power strip or conditioner and perhaps AC power outlet. I have yet to come across an audio system that would not see a definite sonic improvement with properly-matched power-related components. Laying out power cords, it’s worth keeping them as far away as possible from interconnects and speaker cables. Whenever possible, they should run perpendicular to one another.
Another thing: anti-vibration accessories. A proper isolation board under your player and amplifier can be DIY made for cheap, using plywood or solid wood. Throw in some Vibrapod rubber cones and you’ve made yourself your own anti-vibration platform. But if you can spend more money on it, it’s worth considering isolation boards from Rogoz Audio, Divine Acoustic or Pro Audio Bono. I have tried them and they really do make sense. If you’ve got even more to spend, Acoustic Revive isolation boards are something that you will soon find irreplaceable. And don’t forget to sit your components on isolation feet, like the ones from Finite elemente or Franc Audio Accessories. Don’t try to skip anything, including a board under the power strip.
It’s also worth using special maintenance products for electrical contacts to improve conduction. I use the contact cleaner from Acoustic Revive, but there are cheaper alternatives on the market. If possible, you should use special plugs or caps on any unused inputs and outputs. The latter are manufactured by Cardas, for example, and the former are made by Acoustic Revive.
If you take care of all of these elements, the system will sound so much better that you will find it hard to believe these are still the same components and speakers.
Too much reading and not enough listening, or a lack of faith in oneself
An educated audiophile/music lover is someone who reads a lot about audio products as well as music itself. A really educated music lover is one who reads a lot, but listens to even more. Both at home, using one’s own audio system, as well as at concerts (more about concerts at Sin no. 5). An audiophile without a record collection isn’t a music lover but rather an audio tech junkie. I don’t have anything against the latter, but they aren’t the designated audience of my reviews and articles, and – the way I see it – of other audio magazines all over the world. Magazines like “T3” are fantastic. They deal with other matters than we do, however, with their central interest being on the product, and not what it’s meant to do. I respect that fascination, but I don’t share it.
Sin no. 4:
Passionate reading without equally passionate listening to music may also result from of a lack of faith in one’s own judgment. The meta level of audiophilism (where the basic level for us is music reproduced in the highest possible quality) is key to understanding what to do and how to achieve your goals. It should, however, be an element supporting audiophile’s primary concerns that involve listening to music and auditions (these are two different things and I’ve written about their differences elsewhere). With time, your judgments will get more balanced and realistic; they will become credible. Until you start trusting your hearing, you will just be r e a d i n g what others say about what you are h e a r i n g, which makes for a rather convoluted wordplay. This doesn’t, obviously, mean that your judgment is final and indisputable. You have to be open to other people’s opinions. The way I see it, this openness will fade with time, but you should cherish it for as long as possible. Eventually, you’ll hit a wall, though: after all, it’s you that’s listening to the music, you’re spending the money, and you’re supposed to like what you hear. That’s why it’s worth listening to music. Period.
Three CDs, or art for the sake of art
To be able to talk about auditioning a product and listening to music (we audition audio equipment for the best possible music listening experience), you need to have something to listen to. What I’m talking about is audio recordings: discs or audio files (or tapes and cassettes). In this perspective, the medium of format of music recording doesn’t matter at all; all that matters is what’s “on it”. I think that anyone who’s in love with well-sounding music should slowly, step by step build their album collection. In the case of audio files you should be wary of poor CD rips from unverified sources as they often sound tragic; proper CD-ripping is a true art. Whenever possible, it’s worth replacing MP3-quality files with CD-quality files, and the latter with hi-res files. If there are several album versions (editions), it’s worth having them all on files.
When it comes to physical media, there are many more shades to the story and it’s a far more interesting, separate world. We should buy the albums of our favorite bands in the highest possible quality. The collection will have more value that way, including emotional value. That means a ‘yes’ to the “basic edition”, but only as a last resort. The best option is buying a Japanese edition, especially in one of the newest formats like SHM-CD, HQCD, Blu-spec CD or BSCD2. The best CDs are those released as XRCDs; gold CD releases are great, too. Having a single album from a given artist it’s worth exploring his or her other works, read about the artist, listen to the music intelligently and understandingly; it all greatly enriches the experience of listening to music.
When it comes to vinyl, the rule is clear: the originals have most value. In the record industry, the term “original” denotes the first edition. All later editions are secondary and less respected. An exception to this rule are the re-editions prepared by specialist labels like Mobile Fidelity, ORG, Analogue Productions, Audio Fidelity and others. Usually the original is still regarded as the better version, although in this case the difference in value is much smaller.
It’s worth following some of the specialized online stores like CD Japan, where you can buy selected Japanese editions, as well as ebay, and other auction sites. Recently I signed up to the Audio Fidelity club to receive a discount for their releases and snatch low number releases (the albums are numbered). While I was in Munich, I arranged a deal with Mr. Andreas Spreer to buy all his future analog releases. It’s a small record company and it shouldn’t be much of a problem. But this is how collections are born. And without album collections, audiophilism makes no sense.
Concerts are a great place to meet new performers and artists, where you can also buy their albums at a lowered price. I’ll say a little more about that in a second, but you have to know that all the sins, big and small, tend to go together, and usually by redeeming one of them, you also address the others.
Sin no. 5:
No reference point
Albums (I’ll stick to this word, even though I’m talking about all recordings in general) listened to in different places, on different systems, are one of the most important reference points. After all, it is the sound recorded on a given medium that we attempt to play back in the best possible way. The often repeated axiom stating that what we’re really trying to do is to re-create a live performance in our homes is, in my opinion, fundamentally wrong. And yet what happens on stage is our second source of information about sound.
The easiest to verify is the sound of acoustic instruments, “unplugged”. You should know that they give you a good idea of what you can expect at home. The sound of an instrument depends on many factors, among which the performance venue is crucially important. For example, during the last edition of the Misteria Paschalia festival in Kraków (2014) I attended three concerts, one of them being Caldara’s Morte e sepoltura di Christo performed by Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi. It wasn’t the first time I saw this group perform in the Kraków Philharmonic and they sounded different again. This time the musicians were seated and the ensemble was smaller. It changed the sound propagation in an incredible way, decreasing the volume and introducing more silence (pause) to the sound.
It’s hard to say anything at all about the sound of rock concerts. Even so professionally mixed and mastered event as Peter Gabriel’s concert in Łódź, which I attended with my son, was only an approximation of the sound on the studio album. What makes such comparison valid is the fact that Gabriel performed his entire album So from 1986, with the same musicians on stage: Tony Levin on bass and Manu Katché on the drums. And yet…
We look for emotions in music – new ones, or those already within us. Audio products can help us access them, and the better the sound we attain, the easier it becomes and the closer we get to music. Each of the sins against the music pushes us away from our goal. So let us not sin. And if we fall, we must get back up quickly and carry on in our journey.
DEPECHE MODE A.D. 2014
“I’m an audiophile and proud of it” series:
- A concert at home – what a beautiful disaster!, “High Fidelity” May 2014, No. 120, see HERE
- Unboxing – a few words about boxes, “High Fidelity” March 2014, No. 118, see HERE
- Transport, also known as the drive, “High Fidelity” December 2013, No. 115, see HERE
- Audio accessories, or a story of a certain misunderstanding, “High Fidelity” August 2013, No. 111, see HERE
- My first system, “High Fidelity” July 2013, No. 110, see HERE
- My place on earth, or what a music-loving audiophile dreams of, “High Fidelity” March 2013, No. 106, see HERE
- Audiophile in the reading room, or audio magazines, “High Fidelity” January 2013, No. 104, see HERE
- Exhibition – a world of opportunities, “High Fidelity” December 2012, No 103, see HERE
- Classification, or Satanic verses?, “High Fidelity” November 2013, No. 102, see HERE
- Audio gear – a few words on what makes us really excited, “High Fidelity” October 2013, No 101, see HERE
- Auditioning – a short introduction to atypical behavior (or why listening is not always auditioning and what it means), “High Fidelity” June 2012, No. 97, see HERE
- Audiophile – a short introduction to the man (a few arguments for sense in the audiophile business), “High Fidelity” April 2012, No. 95, see HERE
Music On Vinyl | BSCD2
Music On Vinyl is one of the most interesting enterprises related to the vinyl record market in the recent years. It’s also one of the biggest LP pressing plants in Europe and beyond. Discs with its characteristic logo can be seen on many music store shelves. It’s worth noting that it is there, in the Dutch city of Haarlem, that Columbia Records as well as Sony have been – and still are – pressing their discs. I’ll try to introduce this fascinating story, soon after finishing my interviews with the people at MOV, also presenting and reviewing some of the most interesting releases of the last few months. But this time I’d like to say a few words about the re-releases of Depeche Mode albums, made available to the band’s fans by Music On Vinyl.
In February 2014, the band’s official webpage brought a notice about new pressings of their entire discography. Their release has been divided into several stages, the first one offering four albums: Some Great Reward, Music For The Masses, Songs Of Faith And Devotion and Black Celebration. A Broken Frame, Ultra, Construction Time Again and Violator were planned for March 24th, and the releases of Speak & Spell, Exciter, Playing The Angel and Sounds Of The Universe were scheduled for May 27th. Out of all the above albums, Playing The Angel elicited a strongest response, having long been out of print.
The basic question that was being asked concerned the source material the company would use, i.e. whether they would be the same re-masters that had been used to press the 2007 versions released by EMI/Mute (bearing a “Limited Edition Remastered Deluxe Heavy Vinyl” sticker), or perhaps the recordings would be mastered again.
We already know the answer, although it could have easily been guessed analyzing the situation and looking at the calendar. Music On Vinyl is a record company that presses discs for big record labels, including Sony Music. Sony bought the rights to release Depeche Mode’s catalogue after the band moved from EMI/Mute in June 2013 (see HERE). The announcement of releasing the band’s entire catalogue, with the first albums scheduled to be released merely nine months later, indicated that Sony wanted nothing more than to seal their rights to the band’s music. Especially since the earlier edition had long been out of print.
When you take a look at the new versions you can see that the cover art remained the same, with identical embossing and print type, etc. The only difference is the changed logo on the back cover. In a few cases the original version has a stronger embossing on the center label, which is flat in the new versions.
What is much more important, however, is the information on the inner side of the disc, after the last track. You can see MOV signs there, with some other symbols right next to them. It turns out that they’re the signatures that were visible on the previous edition. It points to an inescapable conclusion that the company used the exact same master to press the new releases as before. That means there’s no chance for a new remaster, not to mention a new cutting.
What’s interesting is that the old and new editions sound different. These are not big differences, but they are audible on better turntables. Whether it even matters is a different question; I doubt that it does. I auditioned four representative (in my opinion) albums: A Broken Frame, Construction Time Again, Music For The Masses and Songs Of Faith And Devotion (MOVL944, MOVL946, MOVL942, and MOVL943 respectively).
The new pressings have their tonal center slightly higher. You could say that their bass has a slightly lower level. The treble seems nearly identical, although the MOV versions have slightly more traveling noise. The definition of the lower frequencies is more important, though. The EMI versions have a lot of bass and sound rather low. The albums from the first period, such as A Broken Frame, need that, because they are dense and dark. The maxi-single releases from the album confirm that. This causes the MOV edition to sound less like the original. Not worse, but different. When it comes to Songs Of Faith And Devotion, cleaning up this range brought benefits in the form of reduced clutter and better-defined midrange. In the EMI version, the clutter in the bottom end made it difficult to focus on what was going on above.
The differences that I’m talking about might result from a slightly different vinyl formula, since it is the same remaster and the same master discs. The higher traveling noise I’ve mentioned previously isn’t annoying and is only audible on really good audio systems, so I wouldn’t really give too much attention to it. However, the change of the tonal balance might really be the one thing to convince you to get familiar with the new edition. If you already own the 2007 releases, stay with them and don’t buy the new ones. But if you don’t have them, and only own the originals, the MOV re-release will nicely complement your collection, showing the same recordings in a slightly different light (see HERE).
New vinyl releases have always fascinated me, with no exceptions. They’re surpassed by only one medium: CDs in one of the “high resolution formats” (the inverted commas are necessary, since the format is still the Compact Disc and these are just its various proprietary implementations): XRCD, HQCD, SHM-CD (Platinum) and Blu-spec. Hence, when the Japanese online store CD Japan posted a notice (in April, if I’m not mistaken) about their upcoming release of Depeche Mode’s catalogue in BSCD2, i.e. Blu-Spec CD2, the newer version of Blu-spec, I ordered the whole thing without a second thought. I responded like that because: we’re talking about BSCD2 discs (the Krakow Sonic Society’s latest auditions of this medium can be found HERE), we’re talking about so-called “mini LPs”, and because we’re talking about my favorite band here. It doesn’t matter that I own most of the editions released so far; Japanese versions in their full possible glory were something I just couldn’t resist.
Before I got them, I received a newsflash from some of HF’s readers that share my fascination with the boys from Basildon about the albums (they got them sooner) and about two Uniondisk boxes being available now (I hadn’t known about that earlier).
The auditions and comparisons of the BSCD2 discs took place after I listened to the newest vinyl releases. You could say that made them “tainted” in a way. But it gave me the opportunity to quickly form certain observations. The material on the new releases is identical to the one on the “Collector’s Edition” from 2006. Even the descriptions are exactly the same – on the “mini LP” you’ll find a note saying the material was prepared for the “Collector’s Edition” (more about the collection, see HERE). Hence, we’re dealing with the exact same material, i.e. remaster, except that it’s released in Japan and on BSCD2. The previous version was available in two forms: as a two-disc SACD/CD + DVD or as a CD + DVD. A large number of the latter were pressed by the Polish company Takt, while the SACD/DVDs came from Sony’s Austrian press.
Fun fact: when in the beginning of the 1990s Sony was looking for a partner in Europe that could press CDs for it, the most serious candidate was the Dutch company Artone that had a long-running history of co-operation with the Japanese. At a meeting with Sony’s CEO, the head of the Dutch company that prepared Sony vinyl discs for Europe came a little late. Otto Zich, who got to the meeting first, didn’t have any experience in pressing discs or even a pressing plant. He did have a gift for convincing people, though. And this way Artone lost the opportunity of a lifetime, and after some time disappeared. Fortunately, not entirely – it’s on this company’s foundations, using its machines and employers, that Music On Vinyl was born. Things just don’t disappear…
The comparison of the new and older version was extremely interesting. I’d love to say that the BSCD2 version stomps on EMI’s release and you have to buy it as soon as possible, but I can’t lie like that. The differences that I could hear weren’t big enough for me to talk about any qualitative change. The new releases are slightly smoother, have a slightly better-defined treble and they sound a tiny bit warmer. These differences only matter on the band’s newer albums that have a “digital” signature. The older ones really don’t gain that much from this.
Hence, I believe that Sony used the same move as it did with the vinyl releases: they secured their reign and showed everybody who’s in charge now. The Japanese mini LPs, with OBI, precise replicas of the disc sleeves, and pressed using Sony’s BSCD2 machines, are very tempting. But the older release is worth a lot more, starting with the most important – the additional disc with audio and video material. What’s important to many people is that these are in fact SACDs. If you own them, the new Japanese versions won’t be any change. I say that with a heavy heart, because I’m a fan of Japanese releases. I can’t help it, though: in this case, the way the material was remastered and the choices that were made back then have a much larger influence on the end effect than the way the discs were pressed, physically. This is true for both vinyl as well as digital editions. We’ll have to wait for a new remaster to justify any change.