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ANATOMY of a WORLD-CLASS AUDIO-SYSTEM, Pt. 1:

The PREAMBLE; The Way We Were - Is It Live Or Recorded?   

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I've heard it disingenuously argued, by reviewers and audiophiles alike, that (due to short-comings in equipment, listening-rooms, and recordings) hi-fi will NEVER be able to reproduce a live performance, EXACTLY. Therefore, in essence, it doesn't make sense in trying for really-high Fidelity - i.e. a close approach to sonic-reality. We should just be content with the currently-popular thinned-out, overly-sweetened, un-dynamic, counterfeit excuse for high-fidelity, as we marvel at the wonderful artificial levels of detail and artificial soundstaging supplied by most popular speakers, today.

Well, that's the gist of what we're told - if not in so many words.

I agree. And I disagree!

I do agree that we may never be able to reproduce every single nuance of a live performance, exactly. But, neither do I believe we need to. Nor do I believe that this was/is the aim of high-fidelity. This is impossible, so far as I'm aware. Yet, I also believe that, historically, we've been very close. And those of us who use speakers which sufficiently incorporate these historical achievements will garner fairly realistic performance. I believe that, throughout the history of hi-fi, some manufacturers have built components and speakers which achieve a very good copy of what live instruments sound like, in general terms. And, with that, it's possible to achieve a fairly good copy of what any live performance might have sounded like - though not exactly

This is the limit of our technology. I also believe that most good components (amps, pre-amps, CD-Ps, TTs, etc) are capable of this high level of realism - that is; all, except one. The main component that undermines and prevents most good audio-systems from achieving this high level of realism, today,  is the ubiquitous modern small-coned conventional speaker-system - the weakest link in the chain, by far. These are, generally, bereft of two of the most important elements for realism; dynamism and realistic lower-midrange tone. If these less-competent small-coned speakers, in most systems, were simply replaced with good large-coned speakers, featuring these missing elements (by Altec, Tannoy, JBL, etc) then realism, in virtually all of these audio-systems, would automatically increase, very significantly.

So, yes, I do believe the sound of live instruments can be fairly accurately replicated, for a fairly good semblance of what a live performance might have been like, in so far as direct instrumental sounds are concerned. And that's around 80 to 95% of the experience, in my view, depending on the type of performance, and the effects of the venue - especially whether it's anechoic (outdoors) studio-generated, or naturally-reverberant. Large bands/orchestras are also more difficult to reproduce convincingly, in most typical listening-rooms. [Stereo-reproduction may be the main limiting factor precluding more accurate reproduction of ambience and/or atmosphere (which would take us even closer to the unattainable 100%). And, for improvement in this area, I'd agree with the late J. Gordon Holt who suggests that surround-sound (with proper recording of this ambience - not gimmickry) is the obvious answer.] But I digress.

Live vs Recorded - A History of Excellence: Returning to the point illustrating how close we were, historically, to accurately replicating the sound of live instruments (i.e. before the world was over-run by less-competent small-coned speakers) consider the following:

Throughout our audio-history, individuals have staged public 'live vs recorded' demonstrations where-in most listeners could not differentiate between the live sound and that of the reproducing speakers and systems, as I was recently reminded. Some of the more famous of these demos were staged by; Thomas Edison, Harry Olson of RCA, and Gilbert Briggs and Peter Walker, of Wharfedale and Quad, respectively. 

Edgar Villchur, of Acoustic-Research, was perhaps the most famous of all. And the overwhelming success of his demos, with his speakers being virtually indistinguishable from the live instruments they copied, was the main reason for the subsequent success of the brand. Brian Cheney, the owner of VMPS, also staged successful  demos in recent times. (Here's a discussion on  these LvR-demos, in general. And here's a latter-day Wharfedale continuing the tradition).

Skeptics will suggest that these demos were rigged. And, to some extent, I'd agree that they may be right, to some degree. For instance, I can scarcely imagine Thomas Edison's contraption fooling even the seriously hearing-impaired among the audience. So the singer (as it was, in that particular case) must have tried really hard to sound like the recording, instead of the other way around. Therefore we may rule that one out. Oh, and Wharfedales and, especially, A-Rs are not renowned for their dynamism, so I'd imagine that musicians (as it was in these cases) were encouraged to exercise 'restraint', with regard to dynamics for the A-Rs, especially. Perhaps this wasn't the case with the Wharfedales since I seem to recall reading that this was the one area where listeners were able to detect a difference, as the Wharfedales distorted in their attempts to replicate the dynamism of drum-strikes, for instance.

But even this is outstanding. Obviously, both the Wharfedales, in the 50s - 60s, and the 'Boston-Bland' A-Rs, in the 60s to 70s, were sufficiently accurate in frequency-response and tone (if not in dynamism) to be virtually indistinguishable from the sound of live instruments - as the records show.

Yet, modern small-coned speakers are incapable of achieving even that - as the records also show.

In this regard, we've obviously taken several steps backward, generally speaking. [Note that while some VMPS speakers cited above do utilize small drivers and/or ribbon-panels for the mids, their lower-mids, below 320hz, are reproduced by more capable large-coned drivers, as in all of the very best modern conventional designs from the likes of B&W, Duntech/Dunlavy, ATC, and relatively few others. Models like VMPS' older II/R and IIa/R, for instance, utilized two 12s for the lower-mids. Their later model RM-V60 utilized three small low-mids/mid-bass drivers (still more than most, today) for the same purpose but, due to their positions in the enclosures, also benefited from massive levels of boundary-assistance.]

I also speak from personal experience with (KLH) speakers similar in tone to the A-Rs (both of which were tonally influenced by the same designer, even after his departure - Henry Kloss - reputedly obsessed with realistic tone). I speak, also, from the position of being intimately experienced, for many years, with one of the 'greatest' modern small-coned speakers, ever - the Spendor BC-1 - arguably the 'father' of the modern speaker (the LS3/5a notwithstanding) and still 'better', in many ways, than most. And having regularly A/B-compared both (BC-1 and, later, KLH) to the live sound, in real-time, I can confidently testify to the tonal-accuracy of the Kloss-inspired 'Boston-Bland' designs of A-R, KLH, and Advent (all of which I'm also familiar with). Especially when double-stacked, their resemblance to the tones of real instruments is uncanny (though, admitedly, mods do help, in other aspects). And I can similarly attest to the dismal lack of tonal-weight displayed by the BC-1, and other similar modern small-coned types, when compared to the live sound. The difference is blatantly extreme, and so fundamental as to render their other great attributes irrelevant, in my opinion.

But don't just take my word for it; links have already been provided to those attesting to the tonal-accuracy of the 'Kloss-inspired' A-Rs (and the similarly large-coned Wharfedales too). Conversely ample evidence abounds with regard to the ineptitude of modern speakers at replicating the live sound. Many audiophiles lament modern speakers' 'light & brite' tonal disposition - this is common-knowledge. (Refer also to The Absolute Sound's article pondering modern speakers' lack of Sonic-Realism, for instance - issue#162. In that article, incidentally, they also cite Kloss' double-stacked Advents as one of the most realistic speaker-systems, ever). Others stupidly criticize the live sound as they express a preference for the more (falsely) 'detailed', sweetened, and less 'warm' (not to mention; less dynamic) sound of modern speakers. In doing so, they also illustrate how different from the live sound modern speakers really are.

This is in stark contrast to those before (e.g. RCA in the '40s-'50s, Wharfedale in the 50s-60s, and A-R in the 60s-70s) which were virtually indistinguishable from the live sound, to an impressive degree.

Modern speakers may be better in some ways but, with regard to the most important and fundamental task of replicating real instruments, most modern small-coned speakers are nowhere near as good as those large-coned speakers before.   

This is why audiophiles are being lied to, by industry-players, including the press, with the suggestion that hifi can never be really any closer to the live sound than that displayed by the typical incompetent modern speaker - I repeat; it's a lie (we've been there before). Others, as illustrated above, are happy with the completely alien sound modern speakers produce, as they express the opinion that this alien sound is 'superior' to the live sound - that alone manifests the magnitude of the difference between the two. (Something obviously went wrong between the previous era and now).

And I've previously presented evidence (in other articles) to suggest that 'what went wrong' is the advent of the small-coned mid-woofer, the vast majority of which are required to operate thru the lower-mids to 160hz, or below. Just as they are with bass, such small cones are physically inept at the lower-mids. Though freuency-response measurements suggest all's well, theoretically, modern speakers' small mid-woofers simply cannot move the amounts of air required to replicate the 'weight' of certain individual instruments, let alone multiples of of such musical instruments. Because of this, they are demonstrably incompetent at realistically reproducing lower-midrange frequencies - in the 'real world'.

The Importance of Sound Design; Building Upon Solid Foundations: So then, A-Rs and Wharfedales, from a previous era (with large-coned mid-woofers of 12", or above, incidentally) were good enough to render realistic performance, at least in tone, and in frequency-response too. Nevertheless, I'd suggest that these were nowhere near the best of that era. The best of that era, and previous to it, were not only good at frequency-response and tone, but were also outstanding in dynamism. Here (again) are a few examples, which also DECIMATE the very best of modern conventional speakers TODAY. Modern speakers have been repeatedly annihilated at disparate high-end audio expos by ancient relics from Altec & W-E,  Vitavox,  Klangfilm, Western-Electric,  and too many others from a bygone era, earning 'Best Sound at Show' endorsements, TODAY 

In fact, the only modern speakers which can approach their realism are those which are based on the principles of these ancient designs - the Klipschorn-based Martion and the similarly competent Tannoy Westminster Royal, for examples. (AvantGarde, Magico-Ultimate and Acapella, are among others which spring to mind).

In the article, D.I.Y. Speakers; Their Relevance, and An Example', I asserted that many of the very best of the world's speaker-systems were not built by any recognized manufacturer, or bought from any store. They are DIY projects, based on the time-tested speaker-building principles and designs established at the dawn of high-fidelity. The continued success of these designs, as manifested in their demonstrated superiority over the very best of modern examples, which deviate from these principles, illustrate the importance of recognizing and respecting the laws of physics, in speaker-design. Modern speakers' focus on seeking to 'bend' these laws for the purposes of aesthetics, convenience, and profit has, as would be expected, consigned them to a level of performance far below that of those, old and new, which conform to the dictates of said laws. It's that simple!

It's important that audiophiles realize that, while perfection is not attainable, it's closely-approachable. Don't be fooled. The majority of the loudspeaker industry has long opted for a course which caters to convenience, and to their own profit-margins. But this is a course which takes them further away from the high levels of realism which were already established since the late '30s thru to the early '70s. Of course advancements have been made, since then. But these are mainly in areas peripheral to that of the realism already established.

Therefore, what these manufacturers have done is; compromise the levels of realism previously achieved (lowered the bar) with cheaper inefficient small-coned speakers, while they apply their 'technological advancements' to this compromised base. In this process, they over-emphasize the only areas such small-coned speakers are good at - detail-resolution (in limited regions) and soundstaging. Both of which really take us further away from the live experience since such levels of detail and soundstaging are never ever apparent from normal seats at a concert, for instance. (It does give them something to boast about, though).

In doing so, they've created false values for audiophiles to aspire to. Then they criticize/d the better speakers for not 'excelling' at these false values. The better speakers' realistic attributes were/are also depicted as 'faults', or 'colorations' - as in; midrange 'warmth', for instance (since small-coned speakers were inept, here). I repeat; this is the same lower-midrange heft, warmth, or tonal weight (that of real instruments) which most modern speakers are blatantly incompetent at replicating. (Compare any one of these - which utilize small mid-woofers operating to below 160hz - to the live sound, regardless of how expensive, and you'll see how much less realistic they are than those speakers long before). Combine this lack of realistic tonal weight with their typical, inefficiency-induced, lack of realistic dynamism (both of which the best of their predecessors excel at) and you'll see why potential-consumers are so consistently lied to. You'll also see why false values have been meticulously created, and energetically advocated

False values, indeed: Fueled by convenience and greed, genuine high-fidelity is no longer the focus - not today, not in hifi's current modus. Detail-resolution is now King. And its prime-minister is; soundstaging. High-fidelity is now but a fleeting memory, consigned to the dungeons of ignominy. If truth be told; hifi's minor constituents have now assumed precedence - certainly more prominence than the whole.

[My Gosh! The preceding sounds poetic. Or, perhaps, it's pure empty rhetoric! .....Hog-wash.] 

As I've asserted before, elements of the hifi industry (including the mainstream audio-press) have actually created a virtual-reality - a parallel-universe, so to speak - as a substitute for the realism their speakers are intrinsically inept at replicating. Yet, in the process, they've always been careful to disparage those that are vastly more competent at the real goal of high-fidelity. But even more sinister is that they attack the very concept of high-fidelity itself, with similar arguments to the-above - the idea of fidelity is literally held up to ridicule. They tell us to disregard foolish thoughts of high-fidelity since EXACT realism can NEVER be achieved. (I'm sure you've heard similar). We should, instead, accept the much-lowered standard of reproduction from the small-coned speaker, and focus our attention and appreciation on ever-increasing levels of excessive detail and soundstaging ('realism') alien to that which obtains in the real-world - a virtual-reality.

But, for those of us who're really seeking a close approach to realism (i.e. high-fidelity) the typical modern conventional small-coned speaker-system isn't even worth the cost of consideration. I'm really not saying this to be dramatic in any way. I'm simply illustrating a cold, hard FACT, based on my experience, and based on the overwhelming weight of the preceding evidence.

And, for those who doubt what I've said - I'm sure there are many - consider the following.

Unacceptable Standards in Automobillia & Other Spheres; Perfectly Acceptable in Audiophillia: Today's automobiles are better in virtually every way than those of seventy years ago. They're faster, more comfortable, more efficient, more reliable, you name it. The same applies to many other things such as boats and ships, televisions, bicycles, air-conditioning units, etc, etc. Now, ask yourself why it is that today’s conventional speaker is the only modern commodity bested by its predecessors.

In the vast majority of other cases, developers have incorporated technological advancements to improve upon previously-established accomplishments and, there-by, making all these items unquestionably better than their predecessors. In virtually all such cases the modern example is unquestionably and demonstrably superior to its ancient predecessor, and to such a high level as to render comparison a ridiculous prospect. (Arguably, build-quality is the only area in which the relics can compete - hence the saying; 'they don't build them like they used to').

A seventy year-old Bentley, for instance, would be totally out-performed in every area, by its modern counterpart, to an utterly ridiculous degree. The same goes for the vast majority of other examples. And that's to be expected, given the application of modern advancements to the sound principles, previously established (i.e. not cast aside in favor of inferior practices).

Therefore, for a 70-year-old speaker-system to prove itself more realistic, better, than the very best of modern conventional speaker-systems is a damned disgrace. (Refer to those links above; W-E, Klangfilm, etc). It's living proof of the fact that something's wrong with modern speakers, that the sound pre-existing principles have been discarded, that these sound principles were not built upon. It's as obvious as that. And there can be absolutely no other explanation.

The modern conventional speaker is the only commodity where-in those responsible for it's design/development have purposely opted for components, practices, and principles, known to be signifiicantly inferior to those that existed before. This is why it's also the only commodity so inferior that 70 year-old relics outperform the very best of modern examples. The modern speaker-system is the only modern commodity BETTERED by its 70-odd year-old predecessor. Investigate this point for yourself. (The very best of old amps, for instance, may only aspire to equalling the best today, modified old turntables too, perhaps. But the speaker-system is the only component where the very best of modern conventional designs are comprehensively outperformed by the ancient relics).

Now, really, how can these ancient, antiquated pieces of... history... be garnering accolades and declarations, from expert and vastly-experienced reviewers, to the effect that these ancient relics (pitted against the best today, at various high-end audio-expos) produce 'THE BEST SOUND AT SHOW'?

In truth, and if the sound principles had been built upon, then the relics could never compete with modern counterparts, let alone outperform them. No manufacturer - Lamm or Silbatone, for instance - would harbor the audacity to even consider demonstrating the quality of their amps, etc, with these ancient relics, as they have actually done, repeatedly (again; refer to those links). They'd have been laughed out of the show-rooms. Their credibility would have been irreparably shattered. For them to do this and be even competitive, let alone superior, to the very best of modern conventional designs provides us with the yardstick against which to measure the disingenuousness of those modern loudspeaker manufacturers who've led us down this path, and to measure the disingenuousness of those elements of the mainstream audio-press who have assisted, and continue to assist, in this nefarious process.

Consider that what Lamm, Silbatone, and others, have done (in utilizing these ancient relics of speaker-systems from the likes of Klangfilm, Western-Electric, and Vitavox, at the premier show-places for the cutting-edge products of audiophillia) is tantamount to the likes of Goodyear and/or Mobil Oil demonstrating the superior quality of their products by combining their very best products with a 1940s Bentley. Let's say this relic, equipped to showcase their best  products, is then entered in modern Formula 1 Grand-Prix races, against the cutting-edge of the very best modern automotive-technology has to offer - Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, RedBull, Williams - the state of the art in modern high-performance automobillia. Now let's imagine that this ancient Bentley is not only competitive, which is unthinkable, but actually WINNING, by seriously DOMINATING.

This is the ridiculous magnitude of what currently obtains in the very highest reaches of hi-fi.

Think on these things - really!

This is the undeniable reality!

Introducing One of the World's Great Audio-Systems; The 'Double-Autograph' Tannoy-Rig: Based on the foregoing, it's reasonable to suggest that; for the very best in audio-systems' performance, an outstanding speaker-system is required. And, for the very best in loudspeaker-performance, a system based on one of the best old designs is pretty-near IMPERATIVE. (It's not the only route, but it's the safest route to excellence). Only then may improvements be effected - based on the solid principles of a sound design.(If this is not readily available from the usual sources, then you may have to do it yourself, buy it used or, at least, have it custom-built).

I've also asserted, in other articles, that a truly realistic speaker-system will be large. Consider an Altec Model 19, or JBL S3100, as the minimum in size required. But  a system which excels at the lowest reaches of bass, with the necessary dynamism at such frequencies, will be monumentally massive. (An Altec-driven 'full-range' Jensen Imperial is one example, and among my theoretical favorites. An efficient, subwoofed, double-stacked, and extensively-mod'ed 'Boston-Bland' derivative is also viable. Mod'ed Altec A-5s with tapped-horn subs, is another. And Westminsters are also decent. All, of this calibre, are large). Those who're averse to such monstrosities may as well continue to enjoy the smaller compromised systems which were originally developed with exactly such an audiophile in mind - small cones, and all. For those others seeking the ultimate in realism, and with special regard to the ultimate in bass-reproduction, consider that the minimum sized and highly efficient 'full-range' speakers (i.e. similar in size to the 19 or S3100 cited above) would also need to be combined with large efficient/dynamic sub-woofers. In that regard, the following may be interesting:

Recently, I was contacted by a reader from South Africa. Here's how he first introduced his truly outstanding system;

"50 plus years of hi-fi. Biased towards horns and valves (tubes) but use mainly a Tact semi-digital amp at the moment. I agree totally with your comments about realism in reproducing music and how to achieve it.

I also am a fervent DIY'er and a great deal of my equipment has been self made. The picture of part of my speaker system is an adaptation of the Tannoy Autograph but with 2 X 15" dual concentrics and much heavier cabinet walls coupled with additional ribbon drivers to add to the mids and treble plus a super tweeter. Sub woofer is just as extreme."

Apparently this system epitomizes the very doctrines I've been preaching - one of which is; improve upon the sound principles already established. (In other words, accept the wheel as given; improve it, but don't seek to re-invent it - that's an exercise in futility, and always will be. Not that alternatives to the wheel aren't viable but, then, that's a different issue - the wheel itself doesn't warrant re-inventing. Neither do the proven principles in audio).

I've never heard the gentleman's system myself but, based on an acquaintance with similar gear and similar types of gear, I'm willing to bet my own credibility that this system (properly implemented) IS one of the great audio-systems of this world. It's one of very many (but relatively few) systems which truly represent the true state of the flippin' art. Audio-systems don't get much better than this. Trust me on that!

I've managed to convince the gentleman (though not much effort was required, for this justifiably-proud owner) to share with us a review of his outstanding system. He agreed and, as a consequence, I'm proud to introduce to you the gentleman's review of what I consider to be one of the world's great audio-systems. It incorporates all the principles and values WAJ on AUDIO has been preaching since this site's inception. Other systems described at this site, including my own and one I recently designed for another reader, also epitomize the principles espoused here. But, while those represent perhaps 85 to 90% of the whole (with most of the popular conventional types being around 60%, or less) this one represents the near-pinnacle of what's achievable - perhaps as much as 97%, in my 'guesstimation' - mainly due to its 'full-service' accommodation of ALL audible bass frequencies, a feat rarely even attempted, let alone achieved. I do believe this system is capable of epic performance, and with decidedly seismic potential.

Just imagine having such a system, in such a room, at your disposal. Without further ado, here are the links to;

The Review (Double-Autograph Tannoy Audio-System)

And...

The Thread (of our correspondence)

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