ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

March 1, 2006

Nostalgia Audio

The concept of measurements is sure to stir up a hornets’ nest of controversy among audiophiles, and the staff here at Ultra Audio and its sister site SoundStage! are in no way immune to such provocation.

The most recent example of a divergence of opinion among like-minded individuals sharing a common hobby came about when we got wind of Harman International’s attempts to determine which measurements of loudspeakers best predict listener preference. Harman, the manufacturers of JBL, Infinity, Revel, and other speaker brands, has invested a bucketload of cash in anechoic chambers and what they call their multichannel listening lab. This room has a series of motorized speaker stands that allow the Harman engineers to rotate speakers in and out of the optimum locations in order to compare the speakers in real time. The combination of the anechoic chamber, the multichannel listening lab, and both trained and untrained listeners has allowed Harman to come up with a formidable set of repeatable measurements that, they claim, reliably predict what type of speaker most listeners will prefer. Sounds like a good idea, no?

If these measurements do what Harman says they do, there’s basically no point in buying any speaker other than theirs. They claim to have nailed it down and produced a transducer that will win every shootout, and that everyone will prefer.

Not so fast, Kato. Considerable progress has been made on this front in the past three decades by the researchers at Canada’s National Research Council, located in Ottawa. Floyd Toole, Harman’s VP of engineering, was once one of the principals running the show at the NRC, and he’s parlayed some of the knowledge gleaned there to advance the state of the art at Harman. Other companies, such as API (Energy, Mirage, Athena), Paradigm, and Axiom, have also availed themselves of this pool of knowledge, the result being various lines of great-measuring speakers that include, but are not limited to, the Paradigm Studio and Signature lines, Energy’s Veritas series, and the Axioms. Each of these speakers sounds somewhat different from the rest, but all have one thing in common: they measure well. This translates to good sound that’s repeatable from one person’s listening room to another.

So from Harman International’s viewpoint, we should all be quite happy with, say, a Paradigm Reference Studio 100 from now until Judgment Day. After all, it’s full range, sounds great, measures well, and is built with quality materials and workmanship.

What Harman’s research fails to take into consideration is the perversity of the consumer.

The choice of a stereo component is a very personal one. When we audition a speaker at a show or at a dealership, there’s no curtain between us and the transducer. We can see what we’re buying, and this can affect our choice far more than we’d care to admit. The appearance and cachet of the unit, and whatever preconceptions we bring to the audition -- generated by advertising, reviews, and brand placement -- can do more to close a sale than the sound itself. That’s why, at Paradigm and API, speakers are hidden from view while being developed and tested. The designers want to isolate the sound from any preconceptions that visible cues might trigger.

That consumers are almost perversely fickle, and are very good at purchasing products that don’t necessarily perform their intended functions in any sort of optimal manner, are givens. However, this was brought home to me in a markedly personal manner recently when I sent an e-mail to our internal mailing list in which I said that horn speakers and Harley-Davidson motorcycles are similar in that both are anachronisms. I can hear the howls of outrage from dedicated Harley riders from here, but before you demand that the management fire me this very minute, hear me out.

Harleys and horn speakers materialized at pretty much the same moment: the first 45-degree V-twin Harley debuted in 1909; the moving-coil loudspeaker with a voice-coil centering spider was patented in 1908, and its use in horn speakers became widespread not long after. Today, it’s still possible to purchase V-twin Harleys and horn loudspeakers, neither of which would be much out of place in Depression-era America.

Nearly 100 years after the introduction of these two inventions, you don’t have to look very hard to find adherents and proponents of each. Harley-Davidson motorcycles are red-hot sellers; they’re rarely discounted, often in short supply, and their resale value is through the roof. Yet, despite their aforementioned virtues, I wouldn’t ride one, let alone lay down hard cash for one -- and for the same reason I wouldn’t want to own a set of horn speakers.

As a reviewer, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a wide range of speakers, and while I’ve enjoyed being exposed to one or two oddball designs, I’ve always found myself drawn back to speakers that offer wide dispersion, clean off-axis performance, and flat frequency response. I’m always able to hear the character of a horn speaker, and that includes single-driver units with whizzer cones. While they do some things very well, I’m not willing to give up the good all-round performance of a modern speaker that takes advantage of the last century of research into electronics and acoustics.

Likewise, in the 25 years that I’ve been riding daily for both pleasure and transportation, I’ve experienced an astonishing range of motorcycles, from open-class two-stroke motocross bikes to long-range Italian sport-tourers. I’ve loved them all -- some more than others, obviously -- but the 45-degree V-twin cruiser, of which the Harley-Davidson is the Platonic Conception, is the one facet of the wide world of motorcycles that I simply do not get. In much the same way that the Lowther/horn enthusiast is willing to endure extremely limited bass response and an obvious peak in the lower treble, so the Harley rider must suffer with the heavy weight, slow steering, poor braking, and uncomfortable riding position that are the inevitable tradeoffs of a motorcycle designed more for looks than performance, and is based on a design almost 100 years old. In return, the Harley rider gets...? Well, I’m not exactly sure that I understand what the return on investment is with Harleys, but aficionados of the 45-degree V-twin tell me that there’s nothing quite like the throb of Amurican I-ron and the outlaw exclusivity that comes with the cruiser lifestyle.

Likewise, I’ve never been able to hear past the eccentricities of the horn sound, and therefore have been unable to cotton to that lightning-quick midrange that horn lovers are always going on about.

What keeps Lowther owners listening to strange-sounding, old-fashioned speakers, and Harley riders riding strange-sounding, old-fashioned bikes? Well, I guess it comes down to that perversity I mentioned earlier. We’re often unwilling to purchase the products that work the best, instead springing for those that call out to our sense of individuality. I spin vinyl and use a tube preamp, so I’m guilty of some of that perversity myself. A CD player and solid-state preamp would probably be more sensible, but I don’t care. Likewise, Harley-Davidson riders move along down the road just fine, and owners of horn speakers get plenty of pleasure from their systems. Who am I to argue that their viewpoints are incorrect?

After all, it’s this facet of human personality that enables me to find work reviewing both loudspeakers and motorcycles. There are so many different models of loudspeaker, and so many different motorcycles out there, and their very existence points out the futility of trying to distill from all this diversity a single universal preference. If we were all the same, we’d all be riding Hondas and listening to Infinity speakers. In all, I’m quite happy with the way the world works.

...Jason Thorpe

PART OF THE SOUNDSTAGE NETWORK -- www.soundstagenetwork.com
All contents copyright Schneider Publishing Inc., all rights reserved.
Any reproduction, without permission, is prohibited.

Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.
A world of websites and publications for audio, video, music, and movie enthusiasts.