Thursday, August 23, 2007

What IS High-End?

What is high-end Audio?
The 60’s Art-Rock group “The Moody Blues” best album was a movie for your mind in the form of an LP entitled “”In search of the Lost Chord”. This may well sum up high-end audio. In same way listening to a song on a clock radio may never reveal the bass guitar line to you, the stereo systems most folks listen to will seem to reproduce all the music, yet subtle details you never miss are never the less there for the hearing, given the proper equipment.

One of the greatest complements one can give a system is “I’ve heard that recording hundreds of times and I noticed things I’d never heard before.”. Even with a system so revealing as to elicit that praise, it is unlikely to trick you into believe there is a marching band in your living room.

What are the elements in live sound that elude the Sound reproduction system? One is frequency range.. sound is created by moving air, when you consider the bass drum in that marching band is a 24 “ membrane hit by a cloth-wrapped hammer, it is obvious that deepest fundamentals in music such as the 16 Hz (largest) pipe in a pipe organ is not going to be accurately reproduced by the 4” speaker in your Bose wave-radio. It requires many, large drivers (woofers) working in unison to move the equivalent amount of air.

The next hurdle in accurate reproduction of live sound is dynamic range; this is the difference between the softest and loudest passages in a piece of music. An orchestral piece can range from the sound of quiet conversation, at around 50dB, to the volume of a police siren next to your ear, around 126Db. An efficient loudspeaker can produce 90dB, about the noise level of a busy NYC street corner, from one watt. One would imagine said speaker could easily reach the 126 db to recreate the peak level of the aforementioned orchestra, an increase of only 36dB. Herein lies the rub, it is commonly assumed that a doubling of watts in an amplifier yields a doubling of output, but not so, twice the electrical power (watts) yields only the smallest easily noticeable increase in volume, 3 dB. We need to gain that 3dB 12 times to hit our 36dB increase, and so have to double our mere 1 watt, 12 times! 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, 4,096 Watts!

This leads us to yet another impediment to realistic reproduction of live music, the dreaded distortion. The smooth rising and falling wave of a pure tone as seen on an oscilloscope is bent out of it’s smooth shape by the effects of normal amplifiers and speakers, the wave is distorted. Only the finest components, with the most expensive materials, designed by brilliant engineers through thousands of hours of labor can reduce those distortions beyond the point where the remarkably sensitive instrument the human ear is can detect.

Not only do we need a battery of huge woofers and gigantic, multi-thousand Watt amps, but they must be built with precision akin to the technology in the Hubble telescope. I half jokingly tell customers that, just as it takes 10 times the power to double volume, it takes ten times the money to double sound quality, but this is no joke, as even the finest sound systems in the world, costing a few hundred thousand dollars, still fall just a bit short of the ultimate goal, truly reproducing the sound of live music. So the struggle continues and the worshipers of high-end audio diligently continue their quest, no matter what it takes, and that, is what high-end really about.

No comments: