ONLINE - ISSUE 28
Meanderings of an Audiophile
Akhilesh Bajaj joins the PFO
community of contributors with his experiences in SET, single-driver,
and vintage speakers of the recent (and perhaps not so recent) past. Akhilesh
will also pursue more current items for review. He is also
the moderator for the single driver forum at
How did we get started in this hobby? Each of us can probably relate to a distinctive event that led us into caring about, and in some cases obsessing about, how music is reproduced in our living space.
While most of us are music lovers, in many cases, musicians tend not to worry about sound reproduction as excessively as we do. Many musicians I know have shockingly bad systems. Why is that? My opinion is that people who are intimately familiar with live music find it easier to make that cognitive jump from a poor reproduction to the actual performance. So what drove each of us to care so much about musical reproduction?
In my case, I purchased a "consumer grade system" around 1992 for $1000. It was highly ranked by the consumer magazines, and I enjoyed it. Looking back, the bass was poorly reproduced, the midrange was mediocre, and the highs were lacking in detail. But, one could still appreciate music on it especially if one's listening experience was passive, in other words, music was in the background.
One day, around the year 2001, I heard a system driven by an old Yamaha Natural sound CD player, powered with Macintosh amplification, where B&W speakers were connected to Transparent cables. The system sounded significantly better, even to my untutored ears, in terms of bass and clarity. My interest was piqued. Since my undergraduate education was in engineering, I am reasonably familiar with basic electrical circuits, frequency, waves, and so on. I am also an enthusiast by nature and use my hobbies as a means to vent creativity. At the same time, the web was coming up in a big way, and I was already using it extensively to chat, research and buy and sell items.
All of these factors combined to push me into reading as much as I could about speakers, CD players, amplifiers, etc. It was there that I discovered that old-fashioned tube amplifiers were used in a big way for natural sounding reproduction. I also read a lot about single driver speakers, single ended triode (SET) amplification and so on.
For a couple of months after this, I meandered around a popular online auction site whose name rhymes with "hay". One of the well-known side effects of this site—experienced by some of us—is that communities and friendships tend to form around common interests. Looking at single driver systems and tube amplifiers, I saw that a seller lived in the local area and had an old amplifier for sale. I called him up, and Brian turned out to be a treasure trove of information. A man in his 60s, he had started building the first Dynaco kit amps in the 1960s, and had a large collection of old tube amps and vintage driver speakers. He had an extensive knowledge of the older high fidelity products, from the golden age. He talked about all the fancy, high dollar systems he had owned, and about how he was happy now with his older push pull amplifiers and vintage drivers.
I spent a few hours with Brian on the first day I met him, and went into information overload mode. Of course, the information was peppered with his prejudices, and I think he was somewhat hard of hearing, because he played his music really loud, and it always seemed on. But I gleaned several nuggets from this old timer: output iron needs time to break in, and the older amplifiers have good output iron; alnico magnets have the best tone; single drivers are the most coherent. And so on.
I bought a pair of speakers from him made by Audio Engineered Systems (AES), a company that had apparently existed some time in the distant past. The speakers consisted of a single driver 8 inch Jensen in each box, with a blue alnico magnet. Each box was about 2 cubic feet and sealed. I also invested in a simple SET amplifier built new by a cottage hi-fi manufacturer. It used el84 type amplification in SET mode: a very simple circuit. Finally, I bought a decent $500 mid-fi CD player that was raved about by several reviewers. Some base level Audioquest cables from Brian completed my purchase. At about this same time, I had started discovering artists like Diana Krall and Patricia Barber and bought a couple of their CDs. Next, I started some serious listening with what I had.
Though there was not much bass in this setup, the midrange tonality and coherence was astonishing; especially for vocals and small instrument ensembles. For the first time, listening to reproduced music became an experience that transported me out of myself, a method of meditation, as it were. Listening for an hour or so to well-recorded music, reproduced in this fashion, refreshed me more than a couple of hours of sleep. A saxophone sounded astonishingly rich and real. Diana Krall sounded …well… the way she is supposed to sound. Needless to say, my listening style changed from background listening, to active listening, where I would sit for an hour or so and just listen. Sound familiar?
I went back to Brian and told him how much I liked the setup. Brian, who was basically a midrange freak, swore to me that some of the best sounding drivers he had owned and heard were 8 inch full rangers called Trusonics, made in the 1950s and 60s by Stephens, a vintage speaker manufacturer. I bought a pair of these drivers from him, fitted in cheap, small boxes that were not really built for these drivers. Substituting them in my setup, I detected an immediate change in midrange tone and things seemed a tad clearer on the top end as well. Bass was a little worse, since the boxes were ill suited for the drivers. But I could hear the midrange magic!
At about this time, I moved from the East coast to the lower Midwest. I met up with some like-minded audio enthusiasts and we formed a little club that would meet once a month or so. I also started pondering on what I could do with the Trusonics. There is a lot of information on the web with respect to box design for speakers—specifically Thiele/Small parameters and how they can be used to predict response in different boxes. I measured my Stephens Trusonic drivers (a knowledge of basic electronics, and assistance from a speaker manufacturer friend helped!), and built a 3.5 cubic inch bass reflex box for them, with help from a local cabinet maker. The box was tuned to about 40Hz. The bass that emanated from this setup was humped at 40Hz slightly, but the subjective effect was not too bad. After listening to other higher end systems, I realized that the system was lacking enough in lows and highs that it bothered me. I added a tweeter, and tried for months to get the passive crossover right. To make a long story short, in its final iteration, the Trusonic drivers now make up a 3-way system, where a sub covers the range from 25-80Hz, with the Trusonics covering 80-3500Hz, and a set of dome tweeters covering the rest. The crossover is electronic, and a custom made 45-SET amp drives the Trusonics, with a Chinese SET amp driving the tweeters.
I can go on for hours, like most of us in this hobby, but will simply say that, as of 2006, I own more than 10 pairs of speakers: all the way from a pair of stock 1978 Klipschorns (alnico naturally!) with updated crossover capacitors, to an Altec Voice of Theater (VOTT) system that I have modified to fit in my living room, to several drivers, coaxial, triaxial or mono-axial, most of which have yet to be installed in their boxes, or open baffles, as the case may be. I also own several tube amplifiers, push pull and SET, as well as a couple of solid-state amplifiers. I own at least two "hi-fi" CD players, and my CD collection has grown tremendously. Finally, I have explored cassettes and own a couple of Nakamichi tape decks: never underestimate well-recorded analog! I have seriously heard a large number of systems, and am always interested in new designs and configurations. For example, I drove 200+ miles recently to hear a pair of Linkwitz Orions, and then heard and measured another pair that a local audiophile friend built. I have helped organize and covered two small high-fidelity shows with national exposure.
Based on my evolution, you can probably tell: I evaluate systems based not on how they measure but how they sound and make me feel. I have heard and measured plenty of systems that did not move me, and heard (and built) some that were flawed but still involved me with the music.
What can we get as a reader, when we read reviews? After all, most equipment that is competently designed should sound pretty good, right? It would behoove you, as a responsible reader, to think seriously about what moves you to focus on sound reproducing equipment? Is it the coolness factor, the tactile feedback from playing with a new toy, bragging rights with your buddies, the search for that experience that will transport you out of yourself when you hear a good recording? Or maybe a bit of all of it?
I do know after my six years of intense involvement that all equipment is flawed and compromised in some way. Anyone can criticize a piece of gear, or praise it to the skies. A solid-state amplifier can sound more involving than a tube amplifier, with the right setup. A new driver can have better tonality than an older driver, or vice versa.
Measurements do not tell much of the story, and equipment that measures the same can involve me quite differently. Maybe we need more detailed measurements. Maybe it's synergy with the other components. Maybe it's the time of day. I am not really interested in knocking down someone's creative efforts. The audiophile hobby/industry is faltering enough without people attacking each other. Rather, I would prefer to report on components that worked in my system(s) and give you a flavor for how they may work with your setup.
There are two ways of looking at a system: as a technical artifact or as a device to create a musical experience. I use the latter as my perspective when evaluating a component and hence evaluate the system in the context of the music. What music was played when the system was evaluated? Classical music may sound very good on a more dynamic system, whereas a chamber ensemble might be more involving with a simpler system. Female vocals sound great on most systems, but especially great on systems with a slightly pronounced midrange. If you primarily listen to female vocalists, then maybe this is kind of system that will appeal to you.
Another very important factor is the environment. How big is the room? What are the treatments, if any? Apart from bass peaks, are there any other issues with first order reflections? What other equipment was used in the system? Is it similar to the equipment you are likely to use? My Altec VOTTs really opened up after I used an EL84 based PP tube amp to drive the 15" driver, and an EL84 based SET amplifier to drive the horn.
Where do we go from here?
What is the future of audiophilia? In this age of commoditization, as more and more young people get used to compressed downloadable music, the question is: are the golden days of High fidelity over? Most audiophiles today are in their 40s and over, and can recall hearing the great big rigs of the 1960s and 1970s, which in many cases lit the audiophile fire in them. A hi-fi rig was considered "cool" by a large section of the populace, not just a narrow niche of audiophiles. One could make a decent living as a hi-fi salesman. The 21st century generation is more attuned to visual stimulation, and to compressed downloads in terms of audio. Fundamentally, is there an equivalent experience that will make the 2000 generation excited about listening to music actively, appreciating the sound of a cello or a piano? Will members of the 21st century generation still lose themselves into music, or will they have other outlets such as virtual reality to take them out of themselves? I hope they do give music a chance. I think if the therapeutic aspects of the audiophile experience are pushed, the 21st century generation will hopefully consider it. In this context, it is helpful to see how folks appreciated music in the days of, say, Beethoven. Music was seriously appreciated and considered an important part of a liberal education. I am sure the folks of that era, if exposed to rock and roll, and perhaps even jazz, would have decried the listening habits of the 1920+ generation. Would a hi-fi rig have compared to listening to a live performance? Of course not! So a similar discussion may have taken place, lamenting the loss of musical appreciation in the new generation, a hundred or so years ago. But music survives, and has the ability to make us lose ourselves, no matter what the era. As long as we have faith in the power of music to move the human soul, the attempt to reproduce music in the home will be a noble endeavor, and one that is likely to be appreciated even by future generations, no matter what the alternative technologies available to them.