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Audiophile Column No 7. Quality Sound

Following the sixth issue of the Column, dedicated to the terminology of sound quality characteristics, there was a reasonable opinion expressed on the forum. That is, that sound quality and quality sound are two different things. There is hardly any disagreement about the very characteristics, since there exist some generally accepted evaluation criteria that may only differ in the extent, to which the audio patterns of sound reproducing devices are examined. However, there is no common opinion as regards what kind of sound is to be considered of high quality.

Occasionally, there arise arguments between owners of expensive devices, which as one may expect should allow for uncompromised sound quality. Alas, there exists no player, headphones, amplifier or speaker that would be absolutely ideal and appealing to everyone out there. How should one address the notion of "quality sound" then? But again, I received an excellent message after the previous issue of the Column, which I would like to share with the permission of the author.

Quality sound is when your favorite tracks sound nice.

Quality sound is not necessarily the top Mark Levinson set, albeit it sounds not bad, too; it can also be portable JBL speakers powered by four AAs and lying nearby in the sand on the seaside, or KOSS headphones on your way there, etc.

Quality sound is what a device relevant in a particular situation under specific conditions and available for a reasonable amount of money can allow for. As an example: imagine that you are lying on a beach surrounded by speakers, which are sideboard large and feeding on 100 kg terminators, and that you are being heated up not only by the Southern Sun but also by the light from audiophile lamps; or picture yourself having invited some three friends of yours to watch the second transformers movie while having only one pair of studio headphones at your disposal.

I don't know of any person who would be able to immediately tell a decent Yamaha set from the Arcam and B&W combo, although the latter is exactly four times more expensive. That doesn't imply that there is no place on this Earth for the Mark Levinson #53, B&W nautilus, Clearaudio, though.

-- Regards, Ivan78

Ivan, I second your point of view almost entirely. Yet there is one little issue of evaluating adequacy of the available options. As the time goes by, people tend to reappraise their values. Say, five years ago, I could not even imagine that my lust for quality portable sound would render using the Hifiman HM-801 into something quite ordinary. There exist even more "sophisticated" combos out there, and I'm speaking about portable solutions only. Against the background of some 100 kg amplifiers, both the iPod Shuffle and Hifiman HM-801 appear miniscule, yet there is a chasm between the two in terms of sound quality.

One should keep in mind that eventually audio hardware is tested by actual people, not by robots or sophisticated examining facilities. One's psychological state can have a significant effect, every now and again making some inexpensive headphones sound reasonable or making a handpicked set appear somewhat poor. This is where the relatively easy adaptation from expensive and quality combos to their simpler counterparts stems from.

Naturally, everybody has his or her own range, within which any movement is acceptable. For some, the range is a financial one, substituting for the quality scale. However, having listened to a large amount of devices, one is to converge to the quality scale. Indeed, a cheap device usually sounds worse than an expensive one. Yet, say the $400 iPod can't cope up with the Teclast T51 that costs 150 bucks.

One simple question arises here: who is to determine, who the winner and the loser are? What are the criteria? Once again, it is actual people who make the decision. And everybody has his or her own criteria. And I can say that I am aware of only a handful of cases when the iPod was chosen as the better one not due to the Apple brand related stereotypes or the device looks but because of its sound characteristics. That is, we can make an intermediate conclusion that the Teclast T51 is better than the iPod, Cowon, Sandisk Sansa in this respect.

To avoid speaking for all music lovers out there, let me tell you what I personally value in sound. First of all, it's the resolution capabilities. I simply like the feeling that nothing can escape my attention in a musical composition, and that if I want to pay attention to the violin part, it won't be suppressed by other instruments. Secondly, it's the naturalness of sound.

I don't go to live concerts very often, which is probably not quite right, but let's speak of voice reproduction. Hardly any audio system can reproduce the vocals naturally, without exacerbating the sibilants, without mumbling, without clunking. In the third place, sound should be pleasant in general, without any discomfort after long periods of listening.

Those are probably the main requirements to sound on my side. I believe that one is better off without any music at all if there is no access to decent audio hardware. But of course, if one has some "background noise" in mind, I am willing to use a pair of simple speakers without maxing out the volume.

Beside music, there exist, of course, audio books and podcasts, which do not require the most "featured" headphones or speakers to listen to.

Speaking of music content, regardless of how excellent your speakers, headphones and players are, you still need something to listen to. Interesting things may sometimes happen in this area – that is, when a seemingly ordinary composition can turn out to be very catchy so that you want to hear it over and over again. Is it a perception subjectivity problem? Maybe it's not much of a problem after all, more of a nice feature.

In a word, there are tons of various situations and we can't address all of them. Let me remind you of the Monster Cable slogan: "Life's too short to listen to bad headphones!" In my opinion, that must be commented upon.

The first thing is that «good» headphones need not be more expensive than RUR 1000 (translator's note: approximately EUR 25). The choice is yours, not that of a marketing department.

The second thing is that you should listen to the music you like, where you like it, and using what you like. And if you are willing to sacrifice some time and money to browsing through some optimal alternatives, it is most likely that the process itself will bring you pleasure. And if you happen to find an audio combo, which can make your favorite music sound even better than an existing one, it will be wonderful.

It is when I discover some new shades in seemingly familiar compositions that I realize what my time and money have been spent on. You may have your own criteria. Just follow them.

Do you want to talk about this? Please, go to our Forum and let your opinion be known to the author and everybody else.

Ilya Tarakanov (tarakanov.ilya@gmail.com)
Translated by Olexandr Nikolaychuk (meiam@inbox.com)

Published - 08 September 2010

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