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An Alternative Look at Sound and the Perception of Sound
by May Belt


I have always been struck by the different approaches that people have to the subject of 'tweaking' their audio system. Ever since Jean Hiraga, the editor of the French hi-fi magazine La Nouvelle Revue du Son reported in the mid 1970s that he could hear differences in the sound when trying different cables, the subject of 'changing the sound of hi-fi equipment' has been a controversial one. None more so than when, 25 years ago, Peter Belt began to demonstrate to quite a number of British audio journalists that, in so many of the reports of 'sound' changing, it might be the human being who was 'doing the changing'—and not, as was generally thought, the audio signal being changed as it traveled through the audio equipment and the acoustic air pressure waves being changed in the listening room.

However, in these last few months, there has been a glimpse of just a few people beginning to suggest that, maybe, changes within the human being might, possibly, be the reason for hearing 'improvements in the sound'.

I will make an attempt to launch a discussion but it is difficult because I first must ask people to remove any blinkers, to look all around them, forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down and to put preconceived ideas 'up on a shelf' for the moment. Yes, these ideas (on the shelf) can safely be taken down at any later stage, if and when they become relevant again.

I am going to use a particular technique which will include everyone, and does not require pre-existing technical acoustic or electronic knowledge. It is what I call 'exploring using stepping stones'—you can stop at any point and retrace your steps back to where you started. What W. Scott Murray used to say in Wireless World: Remember to put up a marker flag at the point where you start exploring so that you can return to the beginning.

The example of the engineer

I would like to use, as my first example, an engineer—someone interested in electronics and audio—who posts regularly on some of the different sections of the internet discussion group, Audio Asylum. I am choosing to use this engineer as an example because I think his approach and way of thinking are quite typical of a great many other engineers.

This engineer is interested in 'tweaking' his system and in obtaining good sound but seems seriously interested only if the 'tweaks' are associated with 'tweaking' components and circuitry, in other words, the 'tweaks' have to be applied where he is using his engineering skills. He has actually stated that he prefers to use his time and energy in concentrating on 'tweaking' his equipment rather than use the same time and energy 'tweaking' such as his room etc. even though others had reported, over and over again, how much improvement they have obtained from carrying out certain 'tweaks' which were not actually directly associated with the audio equipment. I can fully understand this engineer. I know how engineers work and think. They want to address intellectually and technically challenging problems, and attempt to solve those problems in intellectual and technical ways.

However, one day the engineer reported that he had what he called an 'audiophile moment', namely, that he moved a chair in his listening room and got an improvement in his sound. I have enough respect for his intelligence not to suggest to him "Are you sure you didn't imagine it?" Likewise I would hope should I say to him that I heard this and that, and that improved the sound, he would give me the same credit for having some intelligence and not say to me, "Are you sure you didn't just imagine it?"

Some basic building blocks

I think we have to start at the very beginning and establish some basic guidelines—some basic building blocks.

Technical things are still technical things—I am not challenging any of those. Capacitance, resistance, inductance, microphony, the dielectric effect, vibrations, static, EMI, RF interference and so on are all relevant but are primarily concerned with 'an effect on the audio signal traveling through the audio equipment'.

What I want to look at specifically is when the audio signal reaches the speaker drive unit and is converted by the speaker cone and presented into the room as acoustic information (air pressure waves).

Again, using this particular engineer and his 'audiophile moment' as an example—an example which has been mirrored by a considerable number of people over the past decades.

Let us say, hypothetically, that last Sunday he put on a disc, played it and heard enough information coming from the loudspeaker cones to identify the music as Dvorak's New World Symphony.

Now, we could ask him to write several paragraphs describing in detail, for evidence, what he heard, or we could, instead, cut to absolute basics and stipulate that he heard correct Dvorakian information coming from the loudspeakers.

So, instead of a lengthy and wordy description let us use a simpler method to denote information—let us use the letters of the alphabet, just as we do in algebra—to denote this information. So, let us call what he heard, coming from the loudspeaker cones on Sunday, as Information ABC + DEF.

Now, on Monday, he has this 'audiophile moment'—he moves the position of a chair and hears an improvement in the sound. If he hears an improvement, then that means that he is hearing additional information that is allowing him to create a better 'sound picture'.

Again, instead of asking him to write paragraphs describing how he is now hearing better height, better width, better depth, better separation of instruments, better resolution etc, let us again use the alphabet. Let us say that he is now hearing additional information GHI.

But, now, one must ask the question, "Where has the additional information GHI come from?" Moving the position of the chair cannot have had any effect on the actual audio signal traveling through the audio system, so how is he now hearing additional information GHI? Surely, logically, information GHI must have been in the room all the time? Which means (again logically) that information GHI must have also been in the room last Sunday (before he moved the chair)! So, if information GHI had been in the room last Sunday, why did he not hear it then? What this also means is, that if he had never moved the chair, then he would never have known that this additional information GHI was actually in the room at all!

What happened?

This engineer believed, last Sunday, that what he was hearing then (i.e ABC + DEF) was all that there was, available, in the room! So, we now have to ask the question, "If information GHI was there, all the time, in the room, what happened to it that he could not hear it last Sunday?"

We can advance a silly explanation:

1) When information GHI was emerging from the loudspeaker cone last Sunday it decided to be willfully stubborn and said to itself something like, "I am not going to move more than one inch from the speaker cone until people are nice to me."

Or, if you don't like a silly explanation, then let us try a sensible explanation—an acoustic explanation:

2) The information ABC + DEF got through all right to his eardrum but information GHI was somehow deflected by the chair and never reached his eardrum, or was 'messed up' by the chair and was unrecognizable by the time it did reach his eardrum.

But, on Monday, when he moved the chair, the information GHI was successful in reaching his eardrum intact!

So, now we have a reasonably sensible explanation for his being able to hear information GHI on Monday, but there is still the FACT for him to come to terms with—that the information GHI had been in the room, all the time on Sunday, only he had not been resolving it correctly.

Before people get fixated on the concept of a 'block' of information (i.e. GHI) not reaching his eardrum—one can reformulate the letters and still make the same point.

Perhaps ABC+ DEF + GHI was presented into the room by the loudspeaker cones on Sunday but, somehow or other, only BC + DE + GI reached his eardrum—Information 'A' was there, in the room, but wasn't resolved correctly, Information 'F' was there, but wasn't resolved correctly and Information 'H' was there too—but BC + DE + GI gave enough information for him to identify the sound as Dvorak's New World. Then, when he moved the chair on Monday, he was better able to resolve information A + F + H which then allowed him to create a fuller 'sound picture'.

What many other people who have done room treatments already know, but the engineer does not, is that there is a wealth of additional information—quite possibly JKL through to XYZ—already in the room, already having been handled perfectly well by the audio system and already presented into the room by the loudspeakers!

Another example, and the rope tightens

So, I would now like to continue with exactly the same basic theme but this time look at the published articles describing various journalists' experience with such as the Acoustic Revive RR-77 device and the Franck resonators. I have concentrated the first part on the traditional 'acoustic' explanations for changes which can take place with the sound but when other 'tweaks' which are not changing the room acoustics but are described in identical ways, then we have to consider what else might be 'going on'.

The basic theme will also be centered around—'there are different groups of people in different states of realization.'

1) The first group I would call the Sunday Group—the group who believe that what they are hearing from their hi-fi equipment is the only thing that is in the room. That if they want to hear more information then they must consider 'tweaking' the actual hi-fi equipment (components and circuitry) or purchase the latest Joe Bloggs $10,000 CD player, and/or Jack Smith's latest $ 10,000 amplifier, and/or Bill Brown's latest $20,000 speaker system.

2) The second group I would call the Monday Group—the group who have just done 'some tweak or other', in their room, and heard an improvement in sound. But have not quite come to grips with the fact that the additional information they had just heard had been in the room all the time, they just had not been resolving it correctly prior to that Monday.

3) The third group I would call the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday Group—the group who, by the different 'tweaks' they have done in their room each day that week, have heard improvements in their sound each time—such as hearing additional information JKL + MNO + PQR and who have now realized that this additional information had been there, in the room, all the time, handled perfectly adequately by their existing equipment—and that there could still be much more information in the room—all the way to XYZ—still to be discovered!

Now, before I get an avalanche of mail telling me I am wrong—that I am underestimating many people—that most people realize that there might be additional information in the room which could be discovered by 'tweaking'—it is just that these people cannot believe that some of the weird 'tweaks' described by others could possibly have any effect. That the only explanation for certain 'tweaks' appearing to work must be 'suggestion', 'the placebo effect', 'imagination', 'effective marketing', 'audio faith healing' or even just the high price they paid for them.

In my defense I would cite facts and reality. If people have realized that there could be far more information already available, in a room, which is not being resolved correctly, then how do we have one journalist after another being taken by surprise when trying some 'tweak' or other, at just how much their sound has improved, at just how much additional information they have just heard? If audio equipment manufacturers and audio equipment distributors have realized that there could be more information already available, in the room, which is not being resolved, then how do we have one manufacturer after another, one distributor after another, producing poor sound at hi-fi shows or, knowing that the sound is poor, resorting to switching off the equipment and talking about the equipment instead?

That is Reality!

(To be continued)

Part 2, Part 3