Monthly Archives: June 2014

The ten step program to headphone hype

With the ascendance of personal audio, headphones have become a bit of a hot commodity in the audio world and with that has come the proliferation of sites devoted to the subject. These sites are populated by everyone from industry professionals to serious students of the art to rank newcomers. And with this comes people of all levels of expertise sharing their experiences, often vociferously. And sometimes with intemperate hype. So let’s look at the birth, death and resurrection of a headphone as may be found on an audio site near you. Any resemblance to an actual headphone is strictly coincidental…

1) Headco announces their new headphone, the somewhat expensive HP-6SJ7GT, with 4 paragraphs, a handful of specs and one picture. One week later, first HP-6SJ7GT information thread is posted along with the first conjecture-reviews. Two weeks later online retailers post availability information. The new phone will be available in 1 month, preorders taken.

2) (3 months later) Online retailers post a few new pictures and that the first shipment will be in in one month, more preorders taken. Natives on information thread getting restless.

3) (2 months later) Online retailers post that first shipment has been received, but rather than the amount ordered, 5 arrive at each of the five on-line retailers. Much angst on information thread.

4) (1 week later) First phones delivered to lucky few. First reviews appear proclaiming the HP-6SJ7GT as the best phone ever made in the most immoderate terms. Others on preorder list eat their heart out.

5) (2 weeks later) Rumors that the manufacturer will make a few “improvements” before full production starts. The early owners either have units a) soon to be superseded or b) that are the “good ones before Headco screwed ’em up”. One month later, the phones ship in earnest.

6) (2 weeks later) Three new threads appear, “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread, the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread and the “HP-6SJ7GT. Overpriced?” thread. Everyone on the “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread loves them (except a few posts by the most Alpha personality members of the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread), everyone on the “HP-6SJ7GT; why do they suck so bad” thread hates them (except a few posts by the most Alpha personality members of the “HP-6SJ7GT appreciation” thread). The “HP-6SJ7GT. Overpriced?” thread basically could have been cut and pasted from every other “overpriced” thread. 90% of the posts on all three threads are by people who haven’t heard them or heard them for 5 minutes at a meet/store/friend’s house/in their imagination/in a dream.

7) (6 months later) Backorders satisfied, you can call the dealer and order out of stock, but few are interested anymore. People are awaiting the release of Phonemagic’s new “Excelsior 7” (see step 1). Headco threads drift down the boards.

8. (1 year later) Headco announces the discontinuance of the HP-6SJ7GT, Amazon blows out the last remaining units.

9) (5 years later) Famous reviewer makes a comparison to the HP-6SJ7GT in a review of a new mega-expensive state-of-the-art phone and mentions how great and overlooked the HP-6SJ7GT was. People put wanted-to-buy ads on head-fi, prices go up, new threads start including the HP-6SJ7GT owners thread complete with owners serial numbers. Arguments start about which S/N were the best and which ones were bass light and which ones were bass heavy. The first run of 25 is rumored to be the absolute best.

10) (1 year later) HP-6SJ7GT’s now go for three times the original price and are gobbled up in hours when they appear for sale. Much angst from those who can’t find a pair, more from people who had a pair and sold them. The word “legendary” always appears before HP-6SJ7GT when they are written of. They are venerated when someone shows up at a meet with a pair. In fact, advertising that they will be there ensures your events success. Threads appear wishing Headco would bring the HP-6SJ7GT back into production. The naysayers say why bother, they sucked anyway and warn everyone of the lack of parts availability. Which is caused by DIY guys who bought up all the repair parts to build various “frankenphones”.

Oh well, to quote Talking Heads, “same as it ever was”. People are so suggestible. It is to laugh! BTW, anyone know where I can find a pair of Excelsior 7’s? I hear a rumor that Tyll Hertsens mentioned them in a review on Inner Fidelity recently…

Quad Vadis?

If you go back to the mid 1950’s, it’s was said that many of the major British loudspeaker companies made quiet plans to get into new endeavors. Why? They heard the Quad Electrostatic loudspeaker (now called the ELS57 or old Quad). Their fear was that the new, revolutionary speaker was so good that old style dynamic speakers would fade into the sunset! Of course, this didn’t happen, but it’s not hard to see why they could have come to that conclusion.

That the Quad electrostats were advanced for their time is obvious, there may be more words spilt over the Quads than any other high end credible speaker. So finding something new and illuminating to say is not easy. But how can you talk about the historical aspects of our aural journey without at least acknowledging their effect? It’s also been said that, for many years, rival loudspeaker manufacturers secretly (and not so secretly) had pairs of Quads in the back room, used to assess the evolving quality of their designs. Many cite the Spendor BC-1 (reviewed elsewhere on this site) as the point where dynamic speakers at least started to become truly able to run with the Quads in their areas of excellence. The Quads were designed in the mid ’50’s and the BC-1 matured around 1970, so they were unrivaled for at least 15 years, quite a feat! And I think there is little doubt that the presence of the ELS57 spurred improvement in loudspeakers in general to try and catch up with Peter Walker’s handiwork.

None of this is to say that the Quads were everyone’s favorites at the time. There were things like Tannoys, Altec (and other Theatre) horns, Klipschorns, early Acoustic Research, JBL’s and the like that excelled in certain areas, especially in the ability to play loud and deeper in the bass, both relative weaknesses of the Quads. But in the areas of their strengths, the Quads reigned supreme. Some would say they still do. They are still treasured by their owners and sound excellent even by modern standards. It’s quite a tribute that Walker’s design has stood the test of 60 years and still is relevant here in 2014 for their midrange purity and low distortion above their bass range. It was interesting to see a pair of these at an audio show with their anachronistic looks amazing new generations of audio enthusiasts with their performance. There has even developed a small industry dedicated to the care and repair of this classic design.

Walker struck again with the ESL63 which hit the market in the early ’80’s. This was perhaps even more innovative than the ELS57 employing concentric ring radiators coupled by delay lines to simulate the theoretical ideal of a point source radiator. But, as good as it was and as much as it at least started to address some of the limitations of the older Quad, it never gained the traction of that design. I suspect that one reason for this was how far speaker design came in the interval between the old and new. Another reason, in my view, was the audacity of loudspeaker designers in designing all out assaults on the summit without respect to practicality like the legendary Infinity IRS. Walker designed speakers with an eye to size and room compatibility (a bigger issue in the UK than the US) and, I suspect, his personal esthetic that mega volume levels and flat to 20 Hz bass extension were not characteristics desired by true music lovers.

But I suspect that the biggest reason was the very triumph that the ELS57 was. After the leap that it represented, a speaker that could revolutionize the market like the ’57 was just not possible. Still, it seems every “most influential loudspeaker article” that hits the audiophile press has the ELS57 at or near the top. Which is as it should be.

Why Audio is not all that good, but it’s great

When the era of Audio recording began, it changed the face of music. Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.

But, for many of us, getting the sound as good as we can is a most worthy objective. It’s why I am typing this and why you are reading. What can be frustrating to folks like us is that there is seemingly no end to the trail, even as sound keeps getting better it seems the goal keeps moving away from us. Sometimes, it can even seem doubtful that progress is even being made as listening to vintage gear that can sometimes seem in certain ways closer to the goal can show. The crux of the problem, as I see it, is that even in principle, perfect reproduction is not possible. Facsimile reproduction would be the end of the line, but it’s nowhere near.

I liken home audio to a blind man in a shooting gallery firing at a moving target. It seems every steps of even the recording/playback process has it’s shortcomings. Start even before the hardware, with recording techniques. So which combination of recording and playback techniques are “best”? Well, we all can have our own personal takes but really, even among professional recording engineers, there seems to not be any kind of true, absolute consensus, no perfect way to record. Where there is no perfect technique, there can only be differing compromises. Over time, some have ben employed and largely discarded, at least sonically. For example, you just don’t see many Classical extreme multi-track recordings any more, though it must be said that the best recording engineers that employed that technique could sometimes produce quite credible recordings. On the other hand, you don’t see many completely purist 2 mic recordings or indeed, even true Blumlein recordings (despite their oft-touted technical desirability). The reasons? Some are economic. The fewer the mics used in a recording, the harder it is to find their optimum placement. This placement requires expensive orchestra time to attain, so having a few more mics allows you to cover your bases better.

You could say that using the “best” mics (whichever ones that might be) with “proper” placement (wherever in the hall (hell?) that might be) and employing the proper recording technique (Blumlein?) would result in as good a recording as is possible to produce. Maybe that’s true. But if at least if one technique (whatever it was) had been settled upon at the beginning, one could arrange their playback system as a compliment to whatever had been chosen. But the reality is that recordings are wildly different, so we have a problem in reproduction right off the top.

Moreover, whatever the sonic truth of the original recording technique, complete faithfulness to that is not, even in principle, (at least with today’s technology) attainable. Mics are far from perfect. Our digital recording systems are quite good these days (not so much earlier on) and the old reel to reel master tapes, if in good shape, are pretty credible, too. But Records are imperfect, CD’s are variable and limited technically in their ways, SACD’s can be good but are limited in availability and depth of catalogue and downloads of less that lossless formats mediocre (true hi-rez files are probably the best we have). And there’s nothing to say that a particular format will be “transferred” well from the masters.

Then we get to Turntables, Cartridges, Tonearms, CD players, SACD players, D/A converters, Preamps, Amplifiers, Speakers and our listening rooms. All have at least potential problems. It seems like all hope is lost. But…

Let’s go back to the opening paragraph; “Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.” This is why we try and slog through all this and what’s amazing is that somehow, with all that is working against us at times the sound is good enough to take us virtually to (pre “renovation”) Symphony Hall or Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall or any of the (scandalously) now gone venerated rock venues or Abbey Road studios or wherever.

And that’s why we keep typing and reading and listening.

The Spendor S-100, audio’s hip ol’ Granddad

In a previous log entry, I talked about the Spendor BC-1/SP-1 loudspeaker. The BC-1 first hit the market back in the late 1960’s and was designed by Spencer Hughes of the BBC to be a high quality monitor, good enough that a Radio network famous (back in those days) world-wide could reasonably judge the sound quality of their broadcasts (back when people cared about such things). The BC-1 was a large bookshelf and used high quality (though a bit fragile) drivers. In order to provide for more extended bass and higher sound levels, Spendor designed and built a physically larger model intended to keep the quality of the BC-1 and they named it, rather unimaginatively, the BC-3. This model has evolved into today’s SP-100R2. The S-100, subject of today’s evaluation, was the first evolution of the original BC-3 and hit the scene in the late ’80’s.

The SP-1 and the S-100 both employ 3 drivers, but this is a bit misleading. The SP-1 was really a two-way consisting of a woofer and two tweeters (done originally, believe it or not, as a tax dodge!) while the S-100 is a standard woofer/midrange/tweeter design. Interestingly, the original BC-3 employed the twin tweeter design of the BC-1 (making for four drivers), but this did not make the transition when the S-100 came into being. The new design replaced the Coles/Celestion tweeters with a single Scan-speak model. It’s also interesting to note that when the SP-1/2 lost its Coles/Celestion tweeters they stayed with the twin tweeter concept (again by Scan-speak). Go figure…

So we have here a resolutely old-school looking speaker of a type rarely seen these days, a large stand mount. It measures 27.5″ H by 14.5″ W by 17″ D and weighs about 80 pounds. Not exactly the definition of SAF, ’tis true. But it was nicely veneered and to me has a bit of stately elegance. Form follows function indeed. To me, it looks like a REAL SPEAKER, pre the “Virginia Slims” era that holds forth to this day. And there is something to be said for full frontal speakers in a technical sense, though either can be made to work well. But let’s be honest here, speakers these days are slim mostly because they are perceived as more attractive that way. Me thinks there is a bit of anthropomorphism happening here not unlike the aforementioned cigs…

One of the chief tenets of speaker design back then was the idea of primacy of tonality and frequency response. And here the Spendor does quite well. Measured response was pretty flat from the midrange up with a bit of roll-off in the extreme treble and a peak in the upper mid-bass designed to counteract the floor bounce that can thin out the response in this area in-room, all in all, a pretty sensible design. And it sounds well-balanced in action. Not perfect, of course. The room and placement within has a significant effect on the mid-bass and it should be said that in most rooms (especially smaller rooms), it will err a bit on the midbass generous side. Personally, I think this is preferable to the often thinned out mid and upper bass of many “modern” speakers with (if they are large enough to reproduce low bass) the low bass booming away below without proper mid-bass support (though I guess this is a matter of taste). The imaging is good, but doesn’t do “tricks” like large planars (an effect I actually like) or have the small but pinpoint image of a point source (the KEF LS50 scores highly here). And, while modern drivers have can have other problems, it must be said that they often resolve somewhat better than the polyproplyne midrange/fabric dome tweeter in the Spendor.

And it must be said that the S-100 can sound a bit boxy, after all it IS a box. This is a bit of a design choice. What you have here is a large box of moderate wall thickness with damping pads on the walls and other internal damping designed to damp out the relatively low resonant frequency of the large panels. The design is made to take this into account and it works, of course, but not perfectly. So you can hear the box. You don’t hear the box in the LS50 as much, but this is a small speaker with limited bass, so this is as you would suspect. It’s another matter altogether to build a physical large cabinet (to support bass) that’s construction and materials result in bringing the resonant frequency up enough to get it out of potential trouble, by the time you do you end up with a heavy and quite exotic and expensive speaker. Consider that the S-100 itself weighs in at 80 pounds…

Now I wouldn’t set up the S-100 as a perfect speaker. It’s not as good as the Harbeth Monitor 40, for one, which itself is not the ultimate loudspeaker system. These designs may be old school, but they are executed exceedingly well. One “expert” I read ragged on the Harbeth because of the cabinet resonances, the wide baffle and the general design and hyping the modern high mass, narrow baffle with hi-tech driver designs to the heavens. Well, I guess these must be even harder to get right than the old school, quite a few of them I have heard don’t sound so hot even with today’s seemingly advanced drivers and computer simulations, nowhere as good as even the S-100. But there are modern planars like the big Maggies and companies like Vivid, KEF, Wilson, YG Acoustics, TAD and Raidho to name a few that are on the right track from what I have heard and these certainly have models that better the S-100 in many ways. Not to mention Vandersteen, Sony, Focal, ATC and the like that have their feet straddling the line between tradition and hi-tech.

But there is definitely life left in the S-100, especially considering their typical price on the used market. They have that natural, free-flowing, warm sound that one would encounter in a concert hall (classical music is really well served here, to be sure). Their flaws are mostly of omission and they do not sound overly “vintage” in the pejorative sense. Don’t be afraid to rock out a bit here, either. They are middle-aged, but can still teach the kids a few things about musicality (in the non-pejorative sense).