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Deviating from sonic neutrality: is it right to encourage others to do so?

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  • Deviating from sonic neutrality: is it right to encourage others to do so?

    You don't have to listen for more than a few moments to Harbeth speakers to appreciate that the designer does not see himself as an artist, but merely a conduit for the music, as recorded, to flow through. That designer is me. Although I have a lifetime of tools, tricks and techniques to shape and shade sound any way I want with a little boost or cut across the audio band to spice-up the sound in the interest of greater sales, I find the notion repellent.

    We have a persistent issue on this forum of contributions that heap praise on particular driving electronics, amplifiers in particular. When I design, I am aware that there is inevitably an electrical interaction between the driving amplifier, and the speaker's electrical load. I strive to make the speaker impedance as benign as possible - that's a design must for me since it opens the market to greater speaker sales. Aside from a good amplifier cost/performance ratio, proper after care provision and especially adequate power reserve to capture the dynamics of live music (if that is the listener's goal), Harbeth speakers are intentionally amplifier neutral. But amplifiers are not always speaker neutral. Far from it.

    There have been regular contributions raving about certain "boutique" amplifiers which their owner's claim, in combination with Harbeth speakers, take the reproduced sound to a new level of listening satisfaction. Upon closer examination of these amplifiers, there seems to be a strong correlation between the distinctly odd-ball technical performance under controlled lab conditions, and the sensation of enhanced listening experience. We have seen and reported here in depth that the lab measurements are providing an in-depth insight as to how the amp and speaker combination interact, and that interaction manifests itself in more or less electrical energy being applied to certain frequency bands of the loudspeaker load. Since the speaker has no intelligence whatever, it dutifully passes on those energy-modified frequency bands 1:1 as an electrical:acoustic conversion. In simple terms, whatever electrical load variation results from the amp/speaker combination, the very same sonic output from the speaker occurs. So it will be appreciated that if the amplifier is load sensitive, the combination of that amp and a particular speaker will act precisely as a graphic equaliser does. With the exception that the user can tweak the tone controls of a graphic EQ box; he has no influence over the amp/speaker interface.

    Taking just one element of amplifier performance that has a strong correlation with amp/speaker sonics, Damping Factor, we can say with extremely high confidence, that the lower the DF, the more individualistic and quirky the sonic experience over the amp/speaker will be. Change the speaker, and there will be a new electrical interaction between speaker and amp, and a new sonic experience. Change the amp to a design that has a very high DF (a transistor amplifier for example, where the DF may be 500 plus) and the interaction between amp would be expected to diminish to being both difficult to measure in the lab and consequent inaudibility.

    My question then is this. If I strive hard - very hard - to eliminate myself from the design process and to make speakers open, neutral and transparent, is it logically justifiable and a worthwhile high fidelity target to intentionally combine that neutral speaker with driving electronics which could introduce predictable dramatic changes in sonic balance across the audio band, however pleasing to the listener? And if it is entirely satisfactory, is it fair to then promote that combination to others as a universal sonic nirvana when, at best, it can only be one listener's pleasing corruption of the original recorded sound and maybe only on a subset of his music library?

    Discuss.
    Alan A. Shaw
    Designer, owner
    Harbeth Audio UK

  • #2
    The answer, of course, is that you should continue to design and produce neutral, accurate speakers for all to enjoy, whichever electronics they possess. You have done your bit and admirably.

    Comment


    • #3
      Just picking up on Alan's point regarding Damping Factor in post #1, I have no technical knowledge at all in this area but is there such a thing as too high a value in damping factor that might affect the speaker in other ways such as having far too much of a grip on the ability of the speaker to 'flex' its cone travel sufficiently?
      That is indeed precisely the point. The lower the damping factor (an amplifier issue) the lower the control the amp exerts over the speaker, especially but not exclusively in the bass. I suppose that you can think of amplifier DF as 'clutch control'. When the clutch is in good condition (i.e. a high DF) there is a crisp, snappy engagement of the driving wheels (ther speakers) and the engine (the amplifier).

      When the DF is low, its analogous to a slipping clutch. The driver's control over the delivery of power to the wheels (speakers) is weakened, and the wheels flap about. So a low amplifier damping factor is a sure fire way to turn a crisp, taught bass into a flabby mess. Someone, somewhere will love that sound, especially when playing a low level where the effect will be of a warm-up presentation, just what a loudness control of yore did. And, conncidentally or not, those low DF amps tend to be the low power ones, which imply that they are used in systems that are played at a low level. And we know, don't we, that in audiophileland, tone controls are anathema. Except, of course, when they are the consequence of an amplifier with low DF driving an otherwise flat speaker!

      That's just in the bass range. Consider higher up the audio spectrum. Slightly different problem presented by a low amp DF. Does anyone remember HiFi News speaker reviews from the 1970s showing impedance v. frequency response charts with the caption 'This impedance plot does not indicate the sound output v. frequency of the loudspeaker ...'. Well, if the speaker is driven by an amp with a low DF, I'm afraid to say that to one degree or other, it will do. When the speaker impedance rises, so too will the sound output from the speaker in that frequency band.

      Comment


      • #4
        I read any and all reviews as though it is filtered through that specific listener (his tastes, associated equipment, room...). I appreciate reviewers who have a rich body of work for which I can research their bias. I try to place the review in that context. But if some goon off the street starts proclaiming speaker 'A' and amp 'B' are perfect nirvana, I will be skeptical and tend to ignore those claims.

        For me, I know that most components in my system have a signature sound -- I sound that I like. I greatly appreciate knowing that my speakers (SHL5+) are a neutral voice.

        Comment


        • #5
          I'm not sure how many people actually care about a neutral presentation. I believe fewer and fewer people in this hobby actually have a good frame of reference for what live un-amplified music sounds like. Couple this with a growing catalogue of 'audiophile' recorded music that is so unnaturally mic'd, it is bears no resemblance to reality. Without a good frame of reference, it is no wonder people are looking for solutions to colour playback to suit their own interpretation of audio nirvana.

          For me personally, I've always had the goal of bringing a mini concert hall into my home (fortunately most classical and Jazz music is well recorded). I love my Harbeths for the reason they sound as close to un amplified acoustic music as I've heard.

          As for my amplifier -- no romance I'm afraid. Even Alan Shaw would approve -- a Bryston integrated that measures beyond reproach. It isn't sexy, it isn't green and it doesn't glow in the dark, but does what it is meant to -- raise or lower the volume level to satisfying listening levels.

          While this video is obviously 'tongue-and-cheek', it does pretty much sum up what interests many audio enthusiasts today.

          Comment


          • #6
            One of the things I like about HUG is it is a place where the objective and the subjective can play together. Where enlightenment and romantic sensibilities can mostly coexist. Maybe I'm biased by feeling like I'm always dancing between the part of me that is drawn to more objective experience of music reproduction components and my aesthetic tastes. Thus I get a Hegel integrated and spend more than I objectively needed to for clean power, but I loved the simple design and decent inbuilt DAC. And objectively I could look to a number of reviewers who I respect who rated the Hegel. With my SHL5 + I feel like I get the best of both worlds.

            Comment


            • #7
              In some respects – and not for a lack of trying - it doesn’t seem as thought the needle has been moved very far from the sort of back-and-forth exchanges exhibited in this thread:
              http://www.harbeth.co.uk/usergroup/f...amp-with-m30-1

              Originally posted by A.S. View Post
              You don't have to listen for more than a few moments to Harbeth speakers to appreciate that the designer does not see himself as an artist, but merely a conduit for the music, as recorded, to flow through. That designer is me. Although I have a lifetime of tools, tricks and techniques to shape and shade sound any way I want with a little boost or cut across the audio band to spice-up the sound in the interest of greater sales, I find the notion repellent.

              We have a persistent issue on this forum of contributions that heap praise on particular driving electronics, amplifiers in particular. When I design, I am aware that there is inevitably an electrical interaction between the driving amplifier, and the speaker's electrical load. I strive to make the speaker impedance as benign as possible - that's a design must for me since it opens the market to greater speaker sales. Aside from a good amplifier cost/performance ratio, proper after care provision and especially adequate power reserve to capture the dynamics of live music (if that is the listener's goal), Harbeth speakers are intentionally amplifier neutral. But amplifiers are not always speaker neutral. Far from it.

              There have been regular contributions raving about certain "boutique" amplifiers which their owner's claim, in combination with Harbeth speakers, take the reproduced sound to a new level of listening satisfaction. Upon closer examination of these amplifiers, there seems to be a strong correlation between the distinctly odd-ball technical performance under controlled lab conditions, and the sensation of enhanced listening experience. We have seen and reported here in depth that the lab measurements are providing an in-depth insight as to how the amp and speaker combination interact, and that interaction manifests itself in more or less electrical energy being applied to certain frequency bands of the loudspeaker load. Since the speaker has no intelligence whatever, it dutifully passes on those energy-modified frequency bands 1:1 as an electrical:acoustic conversion. In simple terms, whatever electrical load variation results from the amp/speaker combination, the very same sonic output from the speaker occurs. So it will be appreciated that if the amplifier is load sensitive, the combination of that amp and a particular speaker will act precisely as a graphic equaliser does. With the exception that the user can tweak the tone controls of a graphic EQ box; he has no influence over the amp/speaker interface.


              My question then is this. If I strive hard - very hard - to eliminate myself from the design process and to make speakers open, neutral and transparent, is it logically justifiable and a worthwhile high fidelity target to intentionally combine that neutral speaker with driving electronics which could introduce predictable dramatic changes in sonic balance across the audio band, however pleasing to the listener? And if it is entirely satisfactory, is it fair to then promote that combination to others as a universal sonic nirvana when, at best, it can only be one listener's pleasing corruption of the original recorded sound and maybe only on a subset of his music library?

              Discuss.
              On an idealistic basis, one can easily sympathize with the sense of frustration engendered by those who make an arguably illogical decision to select a type of amplifier which will demonstrably diminish the high level of neutrality with which you have diligently endeavored to endow your speakers. On a purely business basis, content yourself with the reality that you are successfully supplying a demand in the marketplace because your products are apparently being bought as quickly as you can produce them, regardless of how they are being used.

              Given your commitment to preserving neutrality in the audio playback chain, endorsement of comments by those listeners who claim to have scaled new heights of "sonic nirvana" by using a specific brand and model of amplifier would seem to be at cross-purpose and thus ill-advised.

              Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is to continue educating listeners on those essential technical factors to be considered when shopping for an amplifier. Such factors should include a sufficiently low output impedance (which will manifest itself as a relatively high damping factor), an awareness of input sensitivity relative to the maximum output levels from any source components and a power output capability sufficiently high to avoid instantaneous peak clipping.

              In addition, the necessity of conducting amplifier comparisons under blind, level-matched and instantaneously switched conditions should continue to be stressed.

              Concomitantly, there should be no harm in questioning the validity of someone’s choice of amplifier and/or the process used to arrive at that selection. Likewise, such inquiries should not be deemed a personal affront. Rather, it’s simply a matter of attempting to determine why certain listeners may be consciously choosing specific amplifiers that could impair the sonic neutrality that is the speaker designer’s goal.

              It might be worthwhile to review some comments from (the late) David Hafler, who designed his amplifiers to achieve maximum performance on a ‘straight wire differential test’ and therefore be as neutral and accurate as possible – or as QUAD’s Peter Walker phrased it, a “straight wire with gain.”
              https://www.stereophile.com/content/...rers-comment-0

              Originally posted by Luthier View Post
              I'm not sure how many people actually care about a neutral presentation. I believe fewer and fewer people in this hobby actually have a good frame of reference for what live un-amplified music sounds like. Couple this with a growing catalogue of 'audiophile' recorded music that is so unnaturally mic'd, it is bears no resemblance to reality. Without a good frame of reference, it is no wonder people are looking for solutions to colour playback to suit their own interpretation of audio nirvana.
              The (now deceased) owner of a (now defunct) speaker company (some of whose products I own) held season tickets to the local symphony and opera. Over time he developed a relatively well-honed sense of how the reproduction of acoustic music ought to sound and had his products designed to achieve that end. In so doing, he realized and accepted that his speakers might not have universal appeal. In order to reach those more attuned to the qualities of natural sound reproduction, he sought out dealers in locations that were home to notable music schools. When he scheduled a personal appearance at one of these dealers, he made sure to have the dealer personally invite the music school faculty and to post notices of the event around the school. Thus the audience for the presentation was heavily weighted with potential customers having a good frame of reference for the sound of live unamplified music.






              Comment


              • #8
                As a recovering audiophile I can fully empathize with many of ephemeral but genuinely held beliefs articulated in these posts and that A.S. is doing his best to answer with an amazing amount of patience, information and insight against the day to day reality of the commercial world in which Harbeth operates.


                The commercial world demands and operates on one side of the ledger with dry hard facts and figures, calculated cost vs markup vs profit vs ROI and the world of the incremental and measurable, and on the other side (after a drop or two of snake oil), turning that world into one of an open ended series of Rorschach tests.
                I digress….

                My first real speaker buy at the age of twenty or so was in a shop with an array of speakers types and manufacture (maybe 6 or 7 pair) lined up in front of me all powered by an amplifier that I never saw nor was it even referenced in the owner’s sales pitch likewise the turntable, tonearm, cartridge set up that was not pointed out to me during his sales spiel (not that there was much of a pitch; how much can you afford?, have a listen, pick a pair) the speakers being played via a switch box.

                In Australia in those days there wasn’t many HiFi specialist shops and the range of product was fairly limited. Funnily enough there are more outlets these days and yet the range of product still remains fairly limited.

                Anyways….

                I relatively quickly narrowed it down to a choice between two, picked one, paid for them, stowed them in the back of a mate’s car and took them home, where they sat for about 3 weeks until I managed to afford to buy a suitably priced and amply powerful amplifier.

                A couple of measures I have taken in regards to sonic purity.

                When auditioning speakers I refuse to use recordings that I know very well and that I know inside out. I am happy to listen to recordings that I am not familiar with, as long as the instrumentation is familiar to me and that can be a cello, an oud, a Fender strat with a wah-wah pedal, the human voice, an orchestra, some obscure regional goat skin hand drum etc and the genres of music are what I usually listen to more often than not.

                One of the reasons for changing my methodology in regards to music choice when apprasing speakers, is because in my audiophilia, I found myself sometimes buying music not on the basis of what I liked, but what I thought would sound good, better, great on my “system”. Music that would highlight aspects such as imaging, highs, lows, midrange, you know all that stuff. In many cases this led me to come to appreciate new music I would not necessarily have come by if not for the system. But in the main it was to emphasize the positive aspects of my set-up, play to its strengths so as to reinforce a positive feedback loop, that ensured I had made the right choices as far as gear was concerned.

                If I trust my ears, if my memory serves me well, if I rely on my experience of being a guitar player, noodling around on a piano, listening to my daughter practice, clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophone, concerts I have attended, films I have seen etc. then I should feel confident in appraising a pair of speakers for their ability to reproduce music pleasing to my ear.

                Although, I find it very hard to enjoy large scale Classical music as I spent quite a bit of time as an extra on a theatre stage in Austria. I did my fair share of Opera, Verdi, Rossini, Wagner, Puccini and the rest. Being on the stage with the orchestra going hell for leather in the pit below while standing between three or four soloists belting it out amongst themselves with the chorus stage rear and either side lending their voices really spoiled me for listening in my lounge room. Some of the more memorable moments were during rehearsals in the beautiful empty theater and the singers with the pianist learning their parts.

                Don’t get me wrong, I still appreciate high fidelity to the degree I can afford it and taper my expectations accordingly. But I had to find a way back to listening to the music and not the system, I have found a way of doing both and enjoying both aspects, they are not mutually exclusive aims, but unchecked they can be.

                Comment


                • #9
                  My Sunfire amplifier has both a voltage and current pair of output terminals. The current pair being - as I understand it - a euphemism for insertion of 1 ohm resistor in series. Were I to choose to biwire my M40s using the current pair for the tweeters, I would attenuate the output to them. But I would be introducing the colorations typical of a tube amplifier. I've not done it, and have no desire to do it. Using the voltage terminals, the Sunfire is admirably neutral, which is exactly what I want in my electronics.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    "Supermusic" - polishing rubbish into gold? An audiophile obsession.

                    I do wonder if the driving force of audiophilia is the imagined 'what if' for almost any piece of recorded music. You play a track with pretty substandard quality, suppose a fairly shouty and thickly mixed rock track, it is very easy to imagine what you think this track should/would/could sound like if it were perfect to your ears, more space/definition/clearer vocal/harder hitting more clearly defined bass etc, etc.

                    You read a review of some equipment and think 'ah, maybe that would make it sound better'. I think what some want is actually supermusic a permanently enhanced version of what is actually on a recording. Many recordings really are poor and seem incredibly muted, indistinct and dynamically crushed, I can imagine bringing in a really bad recording to an audio demo and the salesperson as fast as they can persuading you to pop in a bit of Diana Krall.

                    I actually find a lot of rock music to sound really congested due to the recording, then I realize that this music in a sense was designed to exist on the end of a PA system in the real world, a 'hifi' rendition can be ruthlessly revealing.

                    edit: the added frustration of deteriorating hearing as we age (whether we notice it or not) no doubt adds to the audiophiles problems as a track you played 25 years ago is simply not going to sound the same today.
                    Getting to know my C7ES3

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      I think it's useful here to establish the definition of 'sonic neutrality', especially in the context of loudspeakers. If you were to listen to a live orchestra from some way back in the audience the sound signature, as a result of the hall acoustics, would generally be one of enhanced bass with a gentle roll-off at higher frequencies. Suppose now you were to listen to this same performance on your hi-fi, recorded, as is often the case, with microphones placed up-close to the orchestra. The sound they pick up will be entirely different to what you remember hearing in the audience. If the frequency response of the hi-fi is ruler flat from the source to the speakers, it will not be a sound you recognise as being realistic, based on your memories of the event. One solution to this problem is to tweak the frequency response of the speakers with a slight lift in the bass, and a gentle roll-off in the higher frequencies. However, you've now deviated from absolute neutrality with regard to frequency response.
                      Also consider the effects of the listening space acoustics on the recording, in the absence of significant room treatments. You're hearing the sound signature of the concert hall on the recording superimposed on the sound signature of the listening room. So once again the listener is tempted to compensate for this with components that deviate from neutrality, for example valve amps or NOS dacs. The audiophile in him doesn't want to use tone controls, because in his mind the signal is being 'corrupted' by additional circuitry.
                      Now all of this applies to a classical music enthusiast who attends live events and has an idea what live music sounds like. What about everyone else? Fans of rock, jazz and electronica, the latter not really having a 'live' sound at all? It's highly likely they will all have their own perceptions of how their music should sound. What is a listener to do when his ropey recordings sound almost unlistenable on a revealing system?
                      What I'm trying to say with all of this is that there is no general consensus as to what 'neutral' and 'correct' sound actually is, because there are so many factors involved. What sounds correct to one listener, in their environment, with their music, with their ears will be different from others. My opinion is therefore that there is a strong case for a deviation from neutrality, but a very weak one for trying to sell your individual preferences as universal truths.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        A couple of weeks ago I attended a screening of the film “There Will Be Blood” at the recently acoustically updated Hamer Hall in Melbourne. The performance was a mixture of a big screen presentation of the film with the soundtrack provided by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra live in the concert hall.

                        I was seated high up in the balcony pretty much in the middle of the hall.

                        The music was varied including small ensemble passages, piano, cello, violin up to and including an extended excerpt of a Brahms violin concerto.

                        When I closed my eyes, there was little left or right noticeable instrument placement that was discernible and the scale height of the music seemed like a vertical curtain, if I directed my eyes down towards the stage the music would appear to come from the stage but not exclusively so, and if I looked straight ahead the music would appear maybe 30ft in front of me but not exclusively suspended in mid-air. I drew the conclusion that visual perception/prompts could baffle the brain and seemingly physically manipulate the origin of the source of the music.

                        The acoustic renovations have made a huge difference to the way the sound of the orchestra sounds, much more cohesive as a sound entity. The solo violinist’s playing slithered, weaved, ducked and dived within the orchestral backing, remained distinctly audible throughout although nevertheless embedded in the overall orchestral texture.

                        What was clearly noticeable with the soundtrack provided by the live orchestra was the revealing of the shrill electronic glare of the recorded track of the actors’ speech and the ambient sounds of the film’s action. This may be due in part to the way the hall’s acoustic settings can be set to accommodate anything from an AGM conference, a small jazz combo, an electric pop group for example by hiding or revealing speaker stacks, using ceiling speaker fill-ins and various baffles and wall hangings and the like being used.

                        My own audiophile ambition constrained as it is by a tight budget is not necessarily to achieve one hundred percent verisimilitude of natural sound, because I admire the “art” in artificial but as best as possible remove the obvious electronic glare, enough to fool my ears.

                        Hearing that orchestra once again reminded me of how far my little system is from reproducing the sounds of music making in the real world, and yet this afternoon my modest sound system still managed to produce a performance of stereophonic chicanery enough for me to take the leap of faith and mistake it for true coin.

                        My system can’t sustain the total removal of the electronic glare, that thin filament electronically translating curtain that seems to hang in the air, but as I have said before there have been moments when it does, almost irrationally or with a wanton caprice that for the life of me I can’t quite figure out. But can I expect the air to move in such a way as it did at Hamer Hall sitting with a couple of thousand people breathing, sweating, simply taking up space and reproduce that sound from a couple of small boxes a few feet in front of me?

                        Marvelously and perhaps with a little imagination, a little lying to myself, a little artistic license and the assistance of the likes of A.S. or the guy that built my speakers you can get close.

                        Comment

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