Essay - "Accuracy, Distortion, and the Audiophile -
A Muse in Himself With His Woofers." - November, 1996

By Colin Miller


Distortion is a dirty word. Call it euphonic. Call it pleasant. Call it pace, maple syrup, or blue berry cupcakes if you like, but put distortion in the same sentence with "music", and you've stigmatized the experience for the rest of its dysfunctional existence. Extra harmonics, tonal variations, microphonics, phase shifts, and light induced hysteria have entered an arena of debate complete with lions, tigers, bears, and a false dichotomy of audiophiles and engineers. Some rush to swing the stick flinging around the banner, "Distortion is irrelevant." Others, with religious zeal, whip out their spec sheets and reply, with a good old college cheer, "Numbers don't lie." The rest of us, presumably the most open-minded, watch perplexed as stones and derogatory missiles whiz past, making us take every necessary effort to keep our poor aching heads and ears safe from stinging projectiles. After all, if we can't listen, what's the point of a war?

This sandbox altercation does tap a fundamental question though, a question commonly debated by designers, consumers, and even marketing executives. In the audiophile world of high-end equipment, it's all really just about the music, isn't it? Yep. Sure it is. My pet boa constrictor speaks French too. Let's take a teeny look at what it really means to be an audiophile. For the moment, put aside the snobbery, competition, and strange fraternal instincts so common in our nature. Strictly defining our ilk, what are we at the sticky core, after the hard candy surface is stripped away? What's our chewy middle made of, that it drives us into gasping panic every time some ignorant peon suggests that sound quality isn't all that important?

First, is an audiophile necessarily a high-end audiophile? Of course not. I like my technology too, and there's a lot of satisfaction to glean from a well-designed, finely manufactured piece of equipment, but that's not what defines an audiophile or makes it eclectic. I consider myself an audiophile, and I've been listening attentively for as long as I can remember sentience. At three or so, in my mother's Volkswagen Rabbit, which incidentally shared the garage with big jars of moldy apple juice, I ran down the battery listening to AM radio in a monophonic point-source array. Fisher-Price made my first audiophile turntable, with the patented Chime Stylus for precision grooved polymer discs. Eventually I graduated to stereo, a Fisher boom box with tuner and cassette. And vinyl, did I get into it! On my oh so cheap record player, 6 watt plastic enclosure speakers included, I had albums from various hippie artist like those on "Free to Be You and Me", and numerous story records; Superman, Puff the Magic Dragon, Fox and the Hound, etc. It certainly didn't qualify as high-end, but that little turntable introduced me to Peter, Paul, and Mary.

My entry into components didn't begin until high school, as an affair with my first receiver, a Scott 25 watt/channel job, and from there it has only escalated. If you break down audiophile into its simplest form, it's in the etymology. An audiophile loves to listen. Some just have a more limited, or one might say selective, taste in subject matter. Until I'm senile, I'll keep my father's mildly resonant voice while he read Jack London's "White Fang" to my sister and me, tucked away for gray hot chocolate days. Haven't you ever gorged yourself on toe tapping raindrops assaulting the bedroom window, which then drip to the sill in maudlin fashion? I relish the sudden, yet graceful surrender of a motorcycle engine giving way to a clutch lever and wind jabbing under the helmet while crossing a reservoir dam to the applause of crickets. Audiophiles love sound. Whether they listen to birds, bees, or falling trees (for those still on that philosophy trip,) an audiophile is one weird bug.

So, if an audiophile just likes to listen, then where's this emphasis on music coming from? Most audiophiles happen to love music, but many musicians are not audiophiles. Like technology, the audiophile neither excludes or automatically incorporates the whole of related genres. Conveniently, music consists of sounds, morsels carefully patterned to stroke the intellect while squeezing the kidneys. Music is not simply an end, but also the means to much more. Some turn on their stereo to casually listen or fill the background, much like television. The audiophile turns down the background to crawl into the music, poke around, and swim. Just as a wrestler will appreciate changes in body position that most spectators find boring, an audiophile lolls in hall reverberations, overtones, or whatever he or she can pick out of that messy lump of sine waves. (If you would like to argue about sine waves, look up Fourier Analysis, and
click here to see generic stylized example of harmonic distortion.) In my own experience, every time I listened to a better recording, or better equipment, it left a taste in my mouth which crept up into and through my inner ear so to persuade my brain to chant three words: "Give me more." Soundstage, depth, body, precision . . . these are nuances to tempt a fool into a hunched slumber, much to a chiropractor's delight.

I stumbled onto the pinnacle of my own hypnosis at a young friend's recital. She plays viola, a student in the Northwestern School of Music. She plays very well. She has a very nice viola, costing as much as the two-channel portion of my home stereo. I heard her play in a small intimate hall, shaped like a Greek theater, except lined with hardwood instead of stone, and roofed instead of open. I sat in the back, on the top of the house, and what I heard was, well, miraculous. It wasn't 20 Hz. It wasn't 110 dB. It did something to me I didn't know you could do without changing underwear afterwards. This little girl, five feet, no more, with strings strapped on an ancient wooden box, exuded a lush, ripe, honest portrayal of longing, rage, forgiveness, time, and all her mottled faces cast off a swinging bough. I had my soundstage, my depth, my precision, and more. I had reality, more perfect than a purple velvet dress.

I have the tape cassette of that afternoon, still unopened, on my desk. After almost a year, I haven't listened to it. Even if I owned a tape deck, it will never come close to the memory I covet. It cannot be as good. I haven't listened, but I know. I saw the microphones, hanging like some fraudulent teenagers gawking over a nude model. If I had been seated next to those microphones, the experience would fall short miserably. A viola at four feet, perpendicular to the sounding board, simply doesn't sound the same as in the audience. Music halls have a functional purpose. They break up and diffuse the sound, designed with a designated listening area. Besides the limitation of a recording being a reproduction, for whatever reason, recording engineers, usually not audiophiles, often go for the "bigger than real" approach and absolutely botch it. "Shove that mike down her throat. The Ss and Ts don't hurt enough yet." More experienced recording engineers tend to touch as few controls as possible, but the less experienced, and the majority, see a knob and use it. EQ, compression, you name it. Engineers like buttons. Like most of us, they like control, and it's hard, as human beings, to discipline ourselves.

The issue becomes then, as a consumer of recordings we cannot change or influence, how close can we get to the personal luscious flavors we crave? If I had my way at that recital, I would have kept all bodies attending present for absorption, sans consciousness and coughs, thanks to hypothetical pharmaceuticals purloined from the student health center, and put directional microphones on both sides of my head, and maybe two more on the ceiling for latter mix in of ambient reverb, run straight to hard disc, perhaps through tube circuits before mixdown and mastering. Unfortunately, the painful reality is that I can't do that.

Still, though, there's always going to be something missing, in any recording. Some recordings are better than bad, and some actually impressive in contrast, but every canvas, besides missing a dimension, has holes between threads. Aside from visiting the real thing, an audiophile has two choices: fill it in, or leave it out. This is where faces turn red, veins throb, and Dr. Bob (a namesake who used to be my neighbor) gets out his notepad and starts typing a rebuttal. Is distortion of the recording, i.e., any change of the signal from the original, inherently evil? It is, without any question, inaccurate. Perhaps a better question, is it desirable? It may seem like restoration, if it works well, but any change of the signal alters the output from what originally went into the recording. If what went into the recording was perfect, then absolute accuracy would no doubt be everyone's goal. Thing is, a near perfect recording is rare, if not impossible, and everyone's version of perfection differs due to troublesome individual tastes. So now we have the answer: "It depends."

What would the world of audio be without disagreement? A lot quieter. And we know audiophiles love to listen, especially to themselves. A camp commonly labeled, "subjectivist" claims, based on their own preferences and personal observations, that distortion measurements don't tell the whole story. The "objectivist" camp, on the other hand, argues that nothing cannot be measured. Who's right? They both are. Measurements will not decide an individuals preference. Similarly, given enough testing, and the cooperation of the subject, preferential aspects can usually be measured to some degree, assuming the inclination and capacity of both parties.

For an unfortunate length of time, some audiophiles have pitted themselves, needlessly, against mechanical and electrical engineers, while some engineers dismiss unfounded observations due to lack of control criteria, often because they simply disagreed. Ironically, more often they argued because they were too busy listening to themselves to hear each other. What we audiophiles tend to conveniently forget, under our electro-magnetic stones and acoustically absorbent blocks, is that these engineers make the reproduction of what we love in our home possible. Without engineers, audiophiles would have to content themselves with circling wet digits on the rim of a crystal champagne glass and oozing about truth of timbre. Not to imply that champagne glasses lack timbre, but if somebody suddenly uninvented the inductor, I'd be very upset to discover my voice coils missing.

I think that this aversion to demystified science stems from a need to feel that we are right in our preferences, to believe that we love the truth. Naturalness, neutrality, transparency, etc. Someone once told me that passive preamps lacked neutrality compared to their active cousins (wouldn't it be the other way around, if anything?) Ha! Okay, throw in a couple extra buffer stages and a gain stage, then attenuate it to compensate for the gain stage, and BAM- more transparency. Yeah, right. The fact is that he preferred the sound of his preamp, rather than the sound of the music. Accuracy is truth, but accuracy sometimes, perhaps most of the time, isn't all that the advertisements build it up to be. For example, despite the inherent glamour, besides building up the worlds supply of butts (a renewable resource), smoking kills a lot of people, some of them pretty nice. Many of the movie stars that look adorable on the screen aren't so pretty up close, even if you're trashed on wine affectionately nicknamed "Mad Dog." And, what you'll eventually have to tell your children, should you have any, is that recordings aren't perfect; in fact many of them are atrocious, and they (your kids) may not even like all of them (recordings) in purity's unforgiving stance. Do not despair. There is hope. I've got lipstick for your kisses in dozens of seedy shades. It's called "distortion."

Like fire, distortion can light up your house or burn it down, depending on how you use it, and how well done you like your meat, assuming you eat meat. I know it sounds nasty, opposite of the ideals with the appliances, but most of us must live with issues of practicality. If you're careful to apply it wisely, it might just release that essence to massage your beleaguered lids, melt into a point between them, and pick your butt out of the recliner, anchored only by the bouncing grip of your feet on carpet. (You must have carpet.) If an equalizer, a tube saturator, or even, God forbid, a single-ended triode allows you, in all profanity, to curl up what's left of your soul into a fraying ball of twine, toss it into what smacks of heaven, and get it back mostly untangled, who's to tell you it's wrong? Is it inaccurate? Yes. So what? Don't justify it. Don't argue. Explain, if you must, that it's just what you like, and leave it alone. Daisies don't need help standing up. As unpopular as it seems to have become in modern culture, I like poems, good poems. How many good poets have you met who could write down in rhythm, a tale without its own personality? Kind of defeats the purpose of a poem, doesn't it? Life isn't a book report. Don't read it like one.

Colin Miller

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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