● Frequency Response 10 Hz - 38 kHz
Dynamic Range 120 dB
Hum and Noise (Unweighted 22 Hz
-22 kHz) -93 dBu
Crosstalk (10 Hz - 22 kHz) -79 dB
THD (10 Hz - 22 kHz at Max. Output)
IMD (10 Hz - 22 kHz at max. output)
● Power requirements 90-250 VAC 50
- 60 Hz 12W
Dimensions 19"W x 1.75"H x 8.25" D
1 Rack U
● Weight 6 Pounds (2.73 kg)
● MSRP: $399
I suppose that it's fair play. When I reviewed a
particular 5.1 system some time ago, I had discussed some of the
company's more prominent employees in a somewhat comic capacity,
specifically in the context of super heroes bent on revolutionizing the
audio playback industry from the direction of loudspeaker manufacturing
Though I did make pains to mention others, my main target of interest
was Captain Purple, (Barry Ober) “ . . . the weirdest super hero I've ever met.
“Grape costume aside, his exuberance for the seemingly mundane puts many
Dungeons & Dragons buffs to shame, consistently riding an edge between
irritated and overjoyed, radiating comedy, commentary, and sarcasm at a
clip to put a Geiger counter into heat.”
I didn't mean it as an insult. Truth be told, I really admire these
guys. But, we all know about paths of good intentions.
Barry's only reaction was gracious and good humored about that whole
mess outwardly, in his own way. However, I suspect that on some level my
remarks may have peeved a pickle or two.
Why? Well, I have no direct evidence, but I consider the circumstantial
Picking up on a qualification I made about accurate equipment not
helping bad recordings sound good, or even interesting, shortly after
that review Barry started yammering about this Aphex company and a gizmo
capable of breathing life back into recorded music, almost as if it
could put back what was lost in the recording process, and at a minimum
do a pretty good job at faking it. He offered to hook me up with
somebody in the company, set up a review sample, yadda, yadda . . . . Sure,
whatever, how could it hurt?
Vengeance is a Dish Best Served Cold
Although I had agreed to take a listen to this mystery machine during
several of our always interesting (for me) conversations spanning many
months, the arrival of such a device did not materialize, and I moved
on. Then our paths crossed once more regarding some other product. Barry
was setting me straight on a couple of aspects about the recording
industry, verbally throwing his hands in the air about recording
engineers who committed improper bass management and misguided use of
the ‘.1' LFE channel, Surround Processor/Preamplifiers whose design had
been corrupted by software engineers run amok to the extent that you
couldn't get an unadulterated, unprocessed signal to your speakers if
your life depended on it, DVD-Audio titles mastered with great
monitoring equipment in mediocre acoustic environments etc., all at the
expense of the people who really cared about high fidelity.
Up until then, the conversation was delightful. I really appreciate an
opportunity to talk to someone obsessed and knowledgeable about audio,
particularly when they're not above telling me that any one of my
listening habits might be idiotic. We had tipped over into the topic of
DSP enhancement modes for stereo two-channel sources, and in my mere
mentioning of DSP stadiums, churches, and rock halls, I felt the woods
drop a few degrees right before Barry let loose a few comments on that
subject and steamed it right back up.
After clearing myself of the dubious practice of arbitrarily adding
foreign reverb to electronically paste an unrelated environment on top
of my own, or for that matter whatever might be left in the recording,
the topic of the Aphex unit returned, and Barry mentioned that one was
coming. I didn't think anything about it, until Christmas when I get a
card warning of an impending ‘present.' Two weeks later, the magic box
arrived, a tangible, physical, entirely real entity!
Needless to say, my preparation was lacking. I was backlogged with
relatively paying jobs. (JJ pays for articles, but I'm too slow to make
a living at it.) In addition, when it comes to hooking up the
experiment, as the adjustable and variable nature of this unit requires
that the listener be nearby to make adjustments, and my source
components and processor/preamplifier sit in an adjacent room, I had to
make (pull) some Mogami multi-pair snake cable for the processing loop
under the house up and the walls. Eventually, I got to it.
And then came the waiter with the cold dish. I was on the plate, apple
in mouth. Go time!
What is the Aphex 204?
It is, under any ‘normal' circumstance, a piece of professional studio
gear, broadly speaking like a compressor, noise gate, EQ, etc. In other
words, an audio processor intended for the benefit of subjective effect.
In the words of Aphex's manual for the 204, it is, “An Audio Enhancement
System incorporating the patented ‘Aural Exciter' and ‘Big Bottom'
processes to make recorded voices and instruments sound fuller, richer,
and in the end, more realistic."
This doesn't sound like something that fits the bill as a ‘Secret of
High Fidelity,' does it? After all, by it's very self-description, it
intentionally avoids the ‘what goes in goes out' pursuit, what is
commonly referred to as the ‘straight wire with gain' ideal. Well,
truthfully speaking, there are a whole range of components available in
the consumer tweak market that serve the same general function, whether
they masquerade as ‘Buffer Amps' to upgrade the output stage of your CD
player, complimenting that union with a wee bit of gain, extra
distortion, compression, microphonics, etc., or a particularly ‘musical'
preamplifier, amplifier, or exotic cable combination that some reviewer
or another will tout as so magnificent that their system just doesn't
sound right without it. They might be right. They might be right.
(Intentional repetition for effect, now Pause . . . .) But then again .
. . .
Aside from the fact that tailoring a system to complement recordings by
using the colorations of components leads to perpetual ‘upgrades,' it is
important to concede that the very nature of the recording and mixing
process is a flawed, imperfect, and highly variable process where
‘correct' is highly debatable. When it comes to reproduction, the most
accurate playback systems still have enough wiggle room between them for
hours of yelling between proponents. However, it is not debatable that
with any system that can be considered in the accurate camp, the
listener will hear the recording more or less as it is, most often an
artificial reproduction, for better or worse, and in the overwhelming
proportion of musical content, it is far from realistic. In most cases,
we're lucky if it's even pleasant under the spectacles of a high
fidelity audio system. Remember, most people make decisions about what
new CD to purchase based on what they hear on the car radio to or from
work. Playback on a system with fairly flat, extended frequency
response, low distortion, and let alone any kind of soundstage, is
rarely the case.
Unlike most of the manufacturers of tweaks and upgrades available in the
high-end consumer market, be they components or accessories, Aphex is
entirely honest about the nature of what their product does. They do not
claim to reduce some mysterious form of distortion that objective
measurements cannot verify, nor do they claim that their product makes
the end result any more accurate. Aphex is very clear that the 204 is
used entirely and exclusively for subjective enhancement (it feels
You can also adjust that enhancement, or tailor the effect to complement
the particular recording. After all, anyone with a history of shopping
for audio components based on quick and impulsive listening experiences
can testify that swapping equipment for the best sound with a shifting
music library can easily turn into a never-ending process. Multiple
times we arrive upon a particular elixir, and the music sounds like music.
Then we eventually notice that some other weakness, prevalent
perhaps under different conditions, arises with never-ending despair and
in our weaker moments of fading enthusiasm, disgust. Being able to make
that change with a turn of a few knobs saves time, effort, money, and
some degree of sanity.
And, unlike most products that offer the benefit of subjective
experience through coloration, admittedly or not, the Aphex 204 has a
more practical advantage. When you actually want to hear the recording
for what it is, warts, pimples, road rash and all, you can turn it off
completely, either by disengaging the process button, or simply through
disabling a tape/record loop.
So what does the 204 actually do if it's not black magic? Well, the 204
has two basic functions. The first, named the "Aural Exciter", uses a
patented “Transient Discriminant Harmonics Generator” to add zest and
presence to the midrange and treble regions of vocals and instruments.
In a mo' less nuttier shell without the fluffy flattery, it creates
harmonic distortion selectively, targeting transients while leaving
continuous tones more alone. This plain English explanation doesn't
sound very beneficial to the audiophile who's subscribed to the notion
of purity in music.
However, distortion in certain situations can
actually make things sound clearer. Huh? Many pieces of electronic
equipment have been harmonically enhancing their way to ‘Class A'
ratings and sales in the high-end market for years, but doing it by
claiming some sort of monopoly on a more correct means of reproduction.
Who can blame them? What audiophile in his or her occasionally right
mind is going to consciously sign onto the philosophy that a little more
wrong might just be right?
Recording engineers have been sweetening the sound of vocals as a matter
of tradition, partly out of an inclination to romanticize the experience
toward the immediate, and partly because the nature of a microphone
seems to fall a bit short.
One of our staff dug up an article a few
months back touting the superiority of tubes over solid-state devices,
operational amplifiers in particular, demonstrating the less audible and
more pleasant even-ordered distortion spectra at a fixed THD level. It was a really
good article, if not a bit misplaced in consumer electronics, as it was
actually talking about how the distortion spectra behaved when the
distortion levels were relatively high as a result of clipping. If
you're getting distortion from clipping in a playback system, either
your power amplifier is not up to task, your gain settings are screwed
up somewhere in the chain, or a piece of gear is broken. Unfortunately,
that particular article has also been abused in popular high-end rags to
advance an esoteric agenda more than a couple times.
But, the point is that tubes do indeed sound good in such a case where
the harmonic distortion is substantial enough to hear but not so high as
to be noticed as distortion. That's not all there is to the
seductiveness of tube sound, but it's a significant component. Because
of their gentle overload characteristics, tube microphone preamplifiers
are especially advantageous. Microphone output varies widely, as the
input level can change dramatically simply by a vocalist or an
instrument moving forward a few inches or getting particularly frisky
with a high note. Without the benefit of a known maximum level,
limiters, or compressors before the input of the microphone
preamplifier, overdriving a microphone preamplifier is fairly common,
and for those looking for a bit more tube warmth, just a little
desirable. The typical way to set the input sensitivity on a tube preamp
is to run it hot enough to clip obviously, and then back it off just
enough to keep distortion at the higher levels subtle. The objective
rationale for keeping it on the higher side is the Signal to Noise
ratio, but sonically, we've got a serious craving for the harmonic
content, yielding fuller, richer, more ‘naturally sweet' vocal
But the 204 doesn't just add harmonics at peaks. It supposedly targets
transients, low or high in amplitude. How it does this, I haven't a clue.
The Aphex also mentioned that the Aural Exciter adds selective phase
shift. I don't know if this is just a side effect of the harmonic
process, or a thug unto itself, but we do know that phase shifts can
enhance a sense of depth, what many refer to as palpability in space, a
‘you can almost reach out and touch it' kind of experience. Phase shifts
beyond simple linear delay require group delays. It's not quite like
reverb, though in a basic sense it can have a similar effect without
messing up the sense of specificity in the sonic image, if the delay is
equal in both channels. Products like Carver's ‘Sonic Holography'
created phase differences between channels (the argument was that the
result was inherently a correction to make sure the left speaker only
got to the left ear, and vice versa for the right, so as to create a
binaural experience, but we don't have time to get into why it didn't
work out that way). The result was that it widened the sound, made it
sound more dimensional. Unfortunately, it also made specific placement
of items within the soundstage so vague and overblown that when I found
what I could do with a good stereo array using the reverb actually in
the recording, I eventually chose to do without the holography.
Since the 204 is meant to do identical processing with stereo content,
the phase shifting would conceivably only affect the degree of depth,
and from what I can tell, it's a relatively subtle effect compared to
the more drastic implementations that use all out reverb, subtle or not.
How it Supposedly Works
The Aural Exciter works its magic through a
side chain. That is, the signal is split, and one half passes through to
the output unfettered, making the purists in us feel good, and the other
half goes to the processing leg, to be mixed back into the original
signal as desired. The Aural Exciter has a ‘Tune' knob. This serves as
the filter that determines what frequency range is going to undergo the
harmonic enhancement. That signal then goes onto the harmonic generator
that somehow or another targets transients. The character of the
harmonics added is adjustable, though the ‘Harmonics' knob. The
literature doesn't say, but I'd guess from use that higher settings give
you more of the more obvious, higher order harmonics, though it's just a
guess. Finally, you set how much of this enhanced portion you want
applied to the original signal via the ‘Mix' knob. The whole combination
lends itself to lots of fiddling for best subjective effect.
The "Big Bottom" circuit, unlike the Spinal Tap song, has very little to
do with women having ‘mud flaps.' Unlike the Aural Exciter, it has
nothing to do with harmonics. Instead, the Big Bottom circuit claims to
increase sustain of bass transients, or in their words, bass density,
explained as a lower peak-to-average ratio to enhance presence and
perceived ‘slam.' To say it without glamour, it postpones the settling
of transients, degrading the ‘speed' of the signal on the decay side,
and in doing so keeps the average level higher long enough for our ears
to pick it up more easily.
So, who the heck would want slower bass?
We don't really think of slower bass as having much ‘slam.' We'd expect
it to be fat and mushy. After all, if you dig up a favorite high-end
review where the reviewer went bananas about the bass quality, terms
describing speed and dynamic impact seem to go hand in hand.
Intuitively, that makes sense. Consider, though, that perhaps that
perceived speed wasn't really all that fast, objectively speaking. Sure,
if the transient response is really poor, it'll sound poor. However, from
a listening experience it may be of benefit that the bass be slow enough
to catch our attention. The first time I tried subwoofer design beyond
blinding stuffing some drivers into a box, I got it in my head to use 4 NHT 1259 12” woofers and throw them into a suitable box size. I got the
units from Just Speakers, now out of business, and asked how they'd do
in a box substantially larger than the 3 cubic feet enclosure volume
that the 1259 FAQ recommended, say 4-5 cubic feet, or rather two pair
lined up in isobaric fashion in a 2 ¼ cubic foot enclosure volume each,
citing my desire for the smooth, ‘fast' bass that a larger enclosure
allowed compared to higher Q alignments which were said to sound
‘warmer' but sacrificed transient performance.
The guy selling the
drivers said that there wasn't anything technically wrong with the idea,
but that I might not like the results, as it might sound a bit thin by
comparison to the more common, higher Q alignments. I, of course,
assumed myself simply more discriminating than their average clients,
and opted to ignore him, only to realize later that he was right. I had
the sickeningly deep and smooth extension I wanted. Doors rattled,
windows creaked and groaned in panic, but the bass just didn't seem
quite all there. It was missing punch. More accurate? Certainly, but it
seemed like most recordings translated better with that higher Q,
punchier bass. I later rebuilt a pair of standard boxes (one driver, one
cabinet) with 3.3 cubic ft of volume, and got a good compromise, ending
up with a Qtc of somewhere about 0.8 or so. Tight, smooth, and with a
bit of kick, and in most cases, sounding more natural.
And so a question remains, why would slower bass sound more natural?
Like many things, I've got a theory for that. Recording engineers make a
lot of decisions on how they process tracks based on mere convention.
If you've ever heard a live kick drum, you've probably noticed that most
recorded kick drums don't sound anything like the real thing. Part of
this is simple compression, in that a kick drum at real levels would
destroy most loudspeaker setups, and even fairly good ones, if it were
presented in its full dynamic range. For this, they heavily compress it. The part relevant to our conversion is that kick
drums, while they've got one heck of an attack, also have a substantial
boom that follows unless they're really damped with a blanket or
something. In order to keep the mix ‘tight', engineers will typically
apply a ‘Gate' device to the drum, or other instruments. The gate
functions such that when signal levels falls below a certain point for any
amount of time, fractions of a second, the gate will mute the signal
entirely. This does two things. First, it minimizes noticeable
background noise. When a signal goes through, so does the noise, but the
signal, being much higher in level that the noise, masks it from our
hearing. Secondly, it silences the decay of the initial transient once
it falls below a set threshold, therefore making it sound tighter, more
A kick drum is an easy example, but the general habitual overuse of
noise gates and compressors is a problem, particularly to us audiophiles
who don't really care about 30 watt amplifiers and speakers
to match. (As a point of interest, for truly uncompressed recordings,
you can eat up headroom at moderately high listening levels right quick,
even without lots of bass content, in which case 30 watts/channel with
moderately efficient passive loudspeakers isn't even suitable for a
near-field application.) I was once fiddling around with a Mackie mixing
console trying to monitor uncompressed Hungarian folk music, and with a
30 watt amp, I couldn't get much more than moderate audio levels with the
speakers just 4' away. So, I agree that there should be some compression
on the final mix as a matter of practical reality, but in most
recordings, tracks are compressed, recompressed, and then compressed
again, including the mastering stage. The result is loud,
but mush and lifeless.
But, back on track, How it works . . . .
Like the Aural Exciter, the Big Bottom also processes through a
side-chain, so that the original signal passes on through, and you add
the processed effect to taste at the end of the chain. The Big Bottom
circuit functions much like a reverse noise gate, up to a point. It
doesn't restrict the speed or dynamic range at all during the leading
edge of the attack, and so we get our fast hit, theoretically, but it
does keep that following decay around just a little longer, and how it
does this is really interesting indeed. Unlike a resonant device that
keeps the signal around by stretching it out in time, the Big Bottom
keeps it around by simply pushing any remaining decay, before the noise
gate nipped it, up in level.
Let's go back to the side chain. The
‘Drive' knob sets the length of sustain, and the interesting part is
that it's essentially adjusting the threshold of a compression circuit.
The result is that it generates a signal where, for a short time, the
attack and the immediate decay stay at relatively the same level. If
this were a straight compressor, that'd be really annoying, as it'd
crush whatever dynamic range we had to begin with. However, remember
that this is only the added effect. The leading edge and dynamic peaks
of the original signal remain intact on the ‘pure' side. The ‘Tune' knob
adjusts what frequency range we wish to apply the effect, and the
following ‘Mix' knob then sets the level of that effect. The result? We
maintain the leading edge speed and dynamics of the initial attack,
force the decay, and the average bass level up so that our ears have more
time to notice the hit, but don't lengthen the duration of the signal
beyond what's actually on the recording. We apply a kind of counter gate
so long as there's content, when the decay drops farther the sustain
shuts off. As a result, we have our quick finish, and subjectively tight
Compared to Other ‘Corrective' Options
● EQ Equalization
(EQ) can be a useful tool at any frequency, but it's more
often abused than used. The most common anecdote is the top and bottom
of the spectrum cranked, in a smile type curve, but I've seen graphic
equalizers get set to all kinds of interesting patterns. It can be very
useful to do slight tonal alterations on your recordings, or do room
‘correction' by notching the signal to counter a problematic room
resonance (in which case you'll need the fully adjustable parametric
variety), but in terms of dynamic range, EQ is an expensive enhancement
device. Boosting output at, say, 40 Hz, by 6 dB will have a noticeable
effect, but it may or may not be enough, and the cost is substantial. A
6 dB boost means that any peaks centered at the boost frequency will be
four times higher in peak output. While it doesn't affect the average
power output level, or the perceived output level anywhere as much as
raising the volume 6 dB, it sucks up power on those peaks, and in the
case of low frequencies, driver excursion. When you consider that a 10
dB boost in a high energy band will likely cause peaks 10 times as high,
you run out of options fast. Don't get me wrong. I'm a full-fledged
proponent of the careful use of EQ, but it has limitations.
● Dynamic Expanders DBX used to offer a dynamic expanders. It functions
in a manner opposite that of a compressor. A compressor has a threshold,
or a level that if the signal exceeds, it will compress that signal by a
ratio, say 10:1, or wherever you set the compression ratio. As an
opposite function, an expander will increase the level of a signal when
the input rises above a threshold by a particular ratio. Expanders can
make the sound more ‘Live', but obviously, by achieving their goal of
increasing dynamic range of a recording, they increase the required dynamic
range of the system at any playback level.
While the dynamic range cost
is steep, and in a sense the whole point, the initial experience can be
exhilarating. I was once bamboozled out of a pair of loudspeakers in
trade for another pair when I auditioned the speakers for trade with just
such a device. To be fair, the lawyer didn't lie, and showed me exactly
what equipment he was using. He just didn't point out what that DBX unit
was doing. I say initial experience because dynamic expanders have an
inherent problem. Even if you've got more power handling and power than
you know what to do with, dynamic expanders cannot undo previous
compression accurately. Compression is a variable function of amplitude
that applies variable thresholds and compression ratios, and if the
threshold and ratios are not lined up between the compressor and
expander, what comes out of the combination is not a neutral in-between.
Considering that thresholds and ratios are twiddled all over the place,
and recordings are compressed many times over in many different ways (may
compress a track, then compress the whole mix all over again, then
compress it more on mastering), it's pretty much a guarantee that you
won't be able to get anything natural-sounding out of a dynamic
expander, regardless of the extra excitement. Add that to the fact that
most systems suffer from very limited dynamic range, and it really makes
the practical, long-term, non-fatiguing use of a dynamic expander
● Subharmonic Synthesizers Audio Control called theirs a Phase Coupled
Activator. DBX supposedly made one for Disco use, before my time. (The
only polyester pants I ever owned were made by Ben Davis.) Instead of
extending frequency response by boosting the lowest frequencies, they
essentially look at your lowest frequencies and generate frequencies at
half of that. For instance, if you've got a note with a 30 Hz
fundamental, it'll create a 15 Hz tone, in which case you've technically
dropped the note an octave (it leaves the 30 Hz signal there as well). What it imparts is extra thump and weight.
They're really great for getting extra low-frequency energy into a
system capable of dealing with it, and superb for doing crunch tests and
trying to instill a sense of awe in your friends. While it is good for
showing what really low frequency content feels like, it wasn't my
personal cup of tea for listening pleasure. The marketing language
argues that it only puts back what was originally there in the first
place, though I don't buy that. If the low frequency information was
filtered out, it would still be there, just attenuated, in which case
you could ‘restore' it by boosting, not generation.
By the mere fact
that information must be synthesized, i.e., made out of nothing,
confirms my listening experiences which find the effect, though
impressive, unnatural and eventually irritating. To be fair, the Audio
Control implementation was adjustable, so you could dial in as much or
little as you wanted, and some bass freaks (ahem . . . low frequency
connoisseurs) love theirs so much you'd sooner get one of their children
than their subharmonic bass synthesizer. I'm not one to get judgmental
about what other people like, so long as they keep their personal
preferences as such and don't pretend to use it as proof of what others
should be doing.
I won't say there's anything necessarily wrong with
this family of enhancers. But, there is a practical hurdle associated
with them. While it is a good way to work out your
subwoofer, it can REALLY work out your subwoofer, eating up amplifier
power, and more significantly, cone excursion, limiting your total
playback dynamic range, potentially increasing distortion, and possibly
endangering the subwoofer driver itself. Even moderately large
subwoofers may have problems with gobs and gobs of infrasonic content.
Should you have the benefit of four 18” monsters accompanies by a
kilowatt each, well…good for you.
● Harmonic Saturators
Harmonic Saturators are the most like the Aural
exciter in basic concept, though they work more like the aforementioned
tube microphone preamp in practice, adding harmonics in proportion to
signal amplitude as opposed to transients. A company once sold a very
popular CD player analog output stage “upgrade” unit which served as a
buffer between the CD player's own analog output and the preamplifier's
input. Some reviewers gave it some wide praise, and truth be told, I
have no doubt of the subjective benefits. It supposedly provided 1 dB
gain, which is the easiest way to make people hear ‘veils lifted' and
‘inner detail', but it was also a tube stage that possibly imprinted
its own harmonic signature.
I don't mean to sound down on these things.
I owned a very effective tube saturator that sounded absolutely
splendid with many recordings, adding warmth and texture to pretty much
anything I threw at it. I miss that single-ended, Class A tube preamp,
and if I could pull a redo, I wouldn't have traded it as part of a
system in exchange for a motorcycle. Come to think of it, I think I got
the worst of that deal as well. I should have kept it around to keep in
a tape loop as an analog two-channel enhancement mode, available on my
touch panel right next to Anthem Music Logic.
So, where are we?
The Test Drive!
Disclaimer. In most of my tests, the Aural Exciter combined with the Big
Bottom improved my subjective listening experience, and I think the two
processes are typically complementary. As the 204 is fully adjustable,
to the point where you can make it do nothing at all, if you adjust to
fit the recording optimally, the worst scenario is that it doesn't sound
worse, and as I mentioned before, a tape loop or such makes it possible
to actually have no extra path at all with the touch of a remote button.
But, like any tool with substantial capabilities, the Big Bottom and
especially the Aural Exciter can do way too much. One size, color, or
shape in no way fits all. This isn't Spandex. This is the very reason
the unit is adjustable. More is not always better, and if you misuse it,
what you get will sound really BAD. Too much harmonic enhancement, and
it gets brittle, harsh, and pasty. Too much bottom biggering (a la Dr.
Seuss's Onceler) and the bass gets thick like molasses and difficult to
That said, LET'S DRIVE!
We bounced over the technical aspects of the controls, but we should run
over the practical use of the knobs.
The Aural Exciter has three controls:
• "Tune" determines the range of harmonic enhancement. Turn it up and
you'll be getting more ‘air' and whispy fluff. Turn it down, and you'll
get more midrange body.
• "Harmonics" determines the spectrum of added harmonics. The manual
suggests higher harmonics for instruments and lower harmonics for
vocals. I suspect they say this because we're more familiar with human
voice, and therefore we are less tolerant to coloration, however enticing it
may sound. I didn't really like the higher harmonics settings for much
of anything. I found that I preferred it set at or just below half way.
• "Mix" adjusts how much of this effect you put back into the original
signal. I found this adjustment to require the most variation for my
taste. Too little mix and it's relatively harmless, but it limits what
you'll get out of the process. Too much mix, on the other hand, is
REALLY annoying. Cranking the mix level up is handy to hear the nature
of the effect when you're trying to contour the character, after which
time you can turn it down for the best proportion. I found that I
typically wound up turning the mix level down just a bit after having
set it by first impressions, very much like setting a subwoofer level by
ear. At first you look to hear the effect, and then you want something
The Big Bottom also has three:
• "Drive", as mentioned before, adjusts the length of sustain.
Subjectively, it was kind of like adjusting the thickness of the soup
base. I don't know if the audio output of my CD player was just higher
than usual, but I tended to keep the drive control on the low side,
meaning shorter than recommended sustain, or quicker punch vs. a longer
kind of throb. Maybe I'm just a speed junkie.
• "Tune", like the same function in the exciter, adjusts the frequency of
the effect. Deep bass aficionados will probably want to keep this on the
low side, though turning it higher adds a little smack to the mid-bass.
• "Mix", like the same function in the exciter,
adjusts the proportion of the effect, so that it sets the level at which
the added sustain takes place. Generally speaking, I preferred to have
the mix level higher than the suggested range. Perhaps it's related to
my preference for the low drive, compensating the shortness of extra
sustain by higher amplitude, or maybe I just like the Big Bottom effect
more than most people. Don't really know. If any of you have the
opportunity to try this out for yourself, maybe we can do a chat session
on the topic.
In the ‘Real' World
Keep in mind that whenever I make a % reference on the controls, I mean the position of
the knob, not the absolute proportion, though it would be interesting to
know what those objective enhancement levels were.
From a bibliographical standpoint, I'm an absolutely horrid reviewer.
Until I get all of my CDs on hard disc, I've got them loaded in a
changer. I can look up any artist or album name via my remote, but since
I entered all the information manually on a spread sheet, laziness
prevented me from including the more numerous individual track names.
So, if I get the song name wrong on a particular album and you catch it,
chances are you probably know the right name, so give me a break and
worry about something important. When I get my remote to control Windows
Media Player on a machine with a reasonable sound card, I'll get you're
the right track names. Until then, accept my apologies and put up with
Jewel, "Spirit", that ‘I've been down so long' song - I noticed that if I
set the Tune control too low, the effect made vocals nasally. If I
turned it up too high, it seemed to miss the vocals altogether, leaving
them relatively flat-sounding. Harmonics was the most subtle adjustment,
though the differences were still obvious listening real-time and
fiddling with the knob. Lower Harmonics settings sounded flat and
relatively dull compared to the optimal position, and if turned it too
high, the sound became unnaturally sparkly, like a particular
solid-state amplifier that was attempting to sound like a Conrad Johnson
tube amplifier I had listened to some time back- still interesting, but
distracting. The Mix level determined whether our effect came out as a
dash, sprinkle, spoonful, or downpour. All the way down obviously
defeats the purpose. Turning the level up just enough lifted the
immediacy and presence of the performance forward, toward the listener,
almost like the vocalist was sitting up, opening her shirt, and making
an effort to enunciate between flirtations. Going much beyond that level
became absurd, accentuated, and finally shrill, edgy, and thin. The
obvious conclusion was that Jewel has a crush on me, and she's got it
Sarah McLachlan, Surfacing, "Witness" - Although there's a fair degree of
variation on vocal recording through this album, it's all quite close
(in terms of proximity to the microphone,) be it buried in reverb or
right up on you. When dialed in the a lower Tune value, the lower side
of Harmonics, and a moderate Mix level, the Aural Exciter brought vocals
out of the background with an increased perception of clarity. It wasn't
etched like an EQ set for a narrow boost or a peaky midrange driver, but
just with depth and dare I indulge in the guilty use of the term
‘tangible palpability.' JJ and Brian are going to give me grief for that
kind of potty mouth. When defeating the process for comparison, the
results were monotonous and less interesting.
Ben Harper, Burn to Shine, "Suzie Blue" - The beginning of this song is
intentionally altered to sound ultra vintage, i.e., old. Ben Harper
sounds like he's not only using old equipment, but that they recorded
him inside a little box. During this period of the song, the Aural
Exciter brought the voice just a little more out of the box and
emphasized the distortion. It still sounded old, it just sounded more
freshly pulled from the archive, with more vibrant dust. When the
recording went regular, and Ben came out of the box, there were still
audible benefits. I set the Harmonics to about 40% on the dial, and the
Mix level to about 45%. The vocals increased in clarity, and the
clarinet lit up its own life. During the next track, "Steal My Kisses",
the opening spit box performance had more spit through the Aural
Exciter, and the Big Bottom put more kick in the kick drum. Without a
doubt, with the 204 disengaged, the performance was a less engaging
Chris Isaak, Heart Shaped World, "Wicked Game" - This was quite
interesting, as it was one of the CDs that I would have thought needed
something like the 204 the least. I had no problems with the CD as is,
and yet I liked it a little better through the 204. Dialed in, cymbals
were more vibrant, vocals more embodied with a better feel for detail on
sibilants, and the whole ensemble felt more ‘harmonious.' During "Blue
Spanish Sky", the 204 brought out the outlines of the horns, and pulled
the vocals out of the sea of reverb, yet still wet.
Beck, Sea Change, "Paper Tiger" - When previously set for Sarah McLachlan's ‘Surfacing' Album, the resulting effect was entirely
inappropriate. Strings were too plinky, voices overly sibilant. I turned
the Mix control down to about 20%, and everything got good. I pushed the
Harmonics on the Aural Exciter up to about 30% on the dial, and then
right back down. However, the kick drum seemed to benefit from more of
the Big Bottom, helping to fill out the bass, make transients richer. It
felt less ‘lean and mean', so to speak, but still not mud.
Crash Test Dummies, God Shuffled His Feet - It was now 2:00 a.m., and
I'm listening to this whole album. This is a great piece of work,
in my opinion, and the 204 made it just that much better. In particular,
I noticed that on the "Coffee Spoons" song that the bass was punchier,
more tactile, with greater weight. The vocals almost shined with
highlights and better intelligibility. String transients improved in
attack definition. This was just plain lovely.
Overall, the 204 is addictive. In a way it's reminiscent of an EQ set to
a Fletcher Munson kind of smile curve, except that it didn't get
fatiguing or take away from midrange detail or sink the sound stage
back. Used properly, it's no mere boom boom, tizz tizz widget. The Big
Bottom and Aural Exciter effects, in fact, seem to complement each other
quite well. While some CDs didn't seem to need as much enhancement as
others, the vast majority could be made slightly more attractive with a
little polish from the 204.
Captain Purple's Revenge
Well aside from the obvious aforementioned, potentially greater
enjoyment of recorded music, I'll tell you about the revenge laid upon
me. Consider . . .
• I've just stated, admitted really, that I prefer the sound of a
product that not only imparts a substantial sonic coloration, but that I
prefer to listen to sound that is intentionally distorted (any change
from the original signal is defined as distortion). I'm not even
saying that it sounds good despite a lack of neutrality. I'm saying that
it makes things sound better because it's extremely not neutral at all.
My future carousing with the ‘purists' tweaks at the Alexis Park and
that sideshow offshoot, ‘The Show' has officially been cancelled due to
a blown cover. In addition, anyone can reference this article and
use it to refute any of my opinions by showing where I admitted that I
preferred the path of the infidel. That might be a distortion of
context, but it's never stopped members of the press before,
particularly members of right wing extremist groups. I could possibly
then defend myself and counter by pointing out that others have
preferred the same, but without the honesty, but what's the point?
• While the effects of the Aphex 204 properly adjusted for a particular
recording can be exceptional, the fact is that every recording requires
a different combination of control settings for optimal effect. In fact,
if we could apply a 204 channel to every track in the mix independently,
I think we could make some very average mixes sound great, but we can't.
I do like the fully adjustable nature of the unit, particularly since I
consider it necessary, but I resent that I must touch the thing.
There's no remote, no RS-232 communication, no presets to access, no
automation at all. And to throw insult on top of injury with a little
bit of salt and lime, since stereo operation requires identical settings
of both channels, I have to do twice as much knob turning, AND I have to
take pains to make sure the settings are identical. Uneven adjustments
throw everything out of whack. If you're going to use one of these,
you're going to have to keep it nearby the listening spot, preferably
with the ability to swing it out on your lap, and it doesn't give a
hoot if your equipment rack is on the other side of the room, or
in a closet in another room. You'll need cables to and from the 204, and
they better be the good stuff. If somebody could do this with decent DSP
processing within an SSP, that would be ideal, but I'm not holding my
• This is a piece of studio gear. It's nice to have access to it, but we
shouldn't need it! It'd be much better for consumers if we could have
this kind of processing tastefully applied on the mixing/mastering side
of things, where it belongs. It's likely that some recording studios do
use the 204, but from what I've heard, not enough, and those that do,
don't do it well. If they don't want to use something like the 204 out
of purist notions of fidelity, they should start to get the rest of the
process right. I submit that if a recording engineer has any Yamaha
NS-10s, the old standby nearfield monitors for engineers stuck in
misplaced convention, subsequent mastering with an Aphex 204, as well as
generous but tactful EQ is mandatory, and for the sweet mercy of
everything in heaven, at least do the mastering with a decent monitor.
• The mere fact that this product makes recordings sound so much more
convincing shows that there are serious, fundamental problems with our
recording process in general. Poor microphones, habitual, routine and
thoughtless processing, or simply lousy DSP implemented without
compensation for sampling delay between processors, and it's a wonder we
get as many listenable recordings as we do. Make no mistake. The Aphex
204 is a band-aid. It's a delightful band-aid, but it's still a crutch,
and the fact that I've been shown, yet again, how broken our legs are is
very much irritating. Where is our power as consumers? Why can't Ralph
Nader take on the less conscientious recording engineers and champion
the few good ones who not only know what they're doing, but really do
care? Why can't we demand good recordings? Why? Because most people
don't have a freaking clue, let alone give a darn. After all, don't most
of us query about loudspeaker quality by asking, “How many watts are they?”
Never mind what that says about the state of physics in high school.
It'll bum you out for a week.
Despite having worked myself into a rather upset state with the
precariousness of a product that has the potential to render a listener
dependent on a constant fix of one more box, in my incredulousness at
standards of the music recoding industry in general, I can only
demonstrate my opinion that the processes offered by the Aphex 204 are of
undeniable benefit to the recreational listener. I must admit that I'm
grateful for the introduction. It's opening up my eyes, figuratively,
and my ears somewhat literally, to more of what recorded audio has to,
and should, offer.
As a side benefit, it's also validated my philosophy regarding playback
equipment. As I've auditioned many piece of gear in an obsessive quest
for audio inner peace, I have gravitated toward what I felt were more
neutral, more reliable components, but the side effect is that because
most recordings lack anything of drama, the presentation follows. I had
heard more magical, more sensual sounding equipment, but in the end
avoided it, as long-term listening left me feeling as if I weren't being
dealt with honestly, as that magic remained constant, and such seemed to
be characteristic of the gear, not the music. The fact that the Aphex
204 can inject so much of that magic at will, tailored to taste, seems
to prove my point. The fact that this magic comes with knobs implies the
pointlessness of buying alternative fixed colorations that you can't
adjust, let alone turn off.
I think it would be false to claim that the 204 does everything you'd
ever want in terms of sprucing up all but your 10 best
recordings. What I'd really want is the ability to have somebody go back
and do the whole process from the beginning. But, of the single
components I've seen that exist for the purpose of enhancing the
listening experience, this is one of the most useful I've met. It
provides much of the unbelievable illusionary capacity that
the monopoly of high-end ‘tweak' components have, without the requirement of
swapping cables, spiking isolation platforms, or changing out capacitors
or tubes to tailor the sound. You can still do that, if you want, but I
think turning a knob or two, though still inferior to a full RS-232
interface and command set, is an easier option. What's more, the box
performed better in the enhancement realm than any single tweak boutique
gear ever did, giving me a flood of sensuality, presence, tickling
detail, warmth, slam, kick, splash, and sizzle upon request, no
questions asked. Have your cake, eat it, and have it again, all without eating disorder side effects!
- Colin Miller -