ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

September 1, 2008

Finding a Balance

I had a phone call the other day from a fellow audiophile. He was auditioning several new tweaks in his audio system, and was going through the prescribed process for inserting these tweaks. He told me that he was going to listen to them for a few days, and begin comparing them over the weekend. Midway through the conversation my mind began to wander, and I realized that I just didn’t care that much.

I do believe that cables such as power cords can have a slightly positive or negative effect on the sound of an audio system, and I am not immune to hearing the benefits of such tweaks as isolation devices and component footers. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent a Saturday comparing the sounds of five different footers when placed, in turn, under my preamplifier. There’s nothing less appealing to me than the thought of straining to hear the differences -- or, in some cases, imagining that there are differences -- between Sorbothane, brass, and Delrin-tipped steel. It has been my experience that the effects wrought by such tweaks are, at best, incredibly subtle, and certainly not of the magnitude brought about by, for instance, a change of loudspeakers.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of knowing when I’ve gone too far. It’s common these days to read about an audiophile’s "journey" with some genre of tweak. If an average person read these, they’d wonder whether they were witnessing a real scientific experiment or an insane person’s spiral into dementia. The problem for me, beyond the fact that I find such articles terribly uninteresting, is that they are, in my opinion, unreliable -- and, far more likely, misleading. Granted, this is my personal opinion, but it’s based on years of comparing components, cables, tweaks, and the like. And more recently, a revelation regarding room acoustics has only solidified my opinion about where audiophiles should be spending their time and effort.

And if, in such an exercise, the psychoacoustic factors that inevitably come into play are ignored, the reviewer himself is irresponsible, and especially when he suggests to others what they should buy. All of those critics who pooh-pooh blind testing -- which can have its problems, but which is, in my opinion, also quite useful -- should voice the same misgivings when a reviewer says that a component became better after 800 hours of break-in. As if the reviewer’s response to the component hadn’t also changed in that period of time! Once when, after having listened to an amplifier for many weeks and developed an opinion about its sound, I then voiced my less-than-automatic recommendation, I was told that the sound of the product would transform -- after it had "broken in" for about 1000 hours. OK, gotcha.

It’s easy for a casual listener to hear the differences between most loudspeakers. I can typically pick out the sonic signature of an amplifier in short order as well. Making changes to the acoustics of my listening room also makes clearly apparent changes in the sound of my system. I recently inserted in my system a D/A converter that was laugh-out-loud better than what I’d been listening to before -- the difference was easy to hear, blind or sighted. These are the types of changes in my system’s sound quality that I like to write about. What you won’t see me doing is a month-long comparison of various types of fuses to be used in my power amplifier.

Does this mean I’m so jaded that I won’t consider the changes -- however small -- that I actually might hear in such an exercise? I wouldn’t say that. Instead, I think what’s more relevant to the average audiophile reader is that I focus on the bigger picture: room acoustics, speakers, amps, sources, and signal delivery. It’s also a better use of my time. And really, is it all that helpful to a reader for a reviewer to compare the sound of a tweak when the reviewer is testing that tweak using speakers that themselves have gross frequency-response aberrations?

In the world of audiophilia, it’s entirely possible to miss the forest for the trees. I try not to fall into that trap. With kids, a full-time job, vacations, and other hobbies, such as fishing, my life has grown busier. But I think the less time I have to obsess, the better I am at reviewing audio equipment, and the better I can strike a useful balance between what really matters to me and most of my readers, and what likely matters to only a few. Overall, I think that coming to that realization has been healthier for my sanity as well. I’ve found a balance, and for a critic, that’s a very good thing.

. . . Jeff Fritz

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