They all sound the same don't they?

In a nutshell, that is the 'objectivist' stance. Of course, the ideas are more sophisticated than that. Basically: 

  • All CD players sound the same, therefore, buy one that has the best facilities -- wow! a 150 disc changer! 
  • All amplifiers that have similar measurements sound the same 
  • Only speakers sound different, but one cannot say whether speaker A is better than speaker B as it depends on room acoustics 
  • Needless to say, things like cables, tweaks etc are rubbish 

Of course this is not true, but objectivists get away with it because:

  • People don't bother to listen carefully. Actually, when I tell people that I sit down and do nothing but listen to hi-fi, they think I'm strange. 
  • People don't have space to properly setup their hi-fi, and the distortions and colourations from improper setup make everything sound the same (the lowest common denominator effect?) Simple example is speaker set-up, lets just chuck 1 speaker on this bookcase and the other on that shelf... [Note: in land-scarce Singapore thats understandable. My first system was placed on a cupboard top.]
What is also amazing is how vehemently some objectivists put forward their beliefs, either my writing letters to Stereophile that miss the point or by posting some garbage on, which is probably one of the most hostile places that an audio enthusiast can visit. In so many newsgroups like rec.national-parks, where I ask for advice on national parks, I get loads of helpful and friendly e-mail. I quit posting or reading (ok, i just drop in once a fortnight when I'm bored) since 1995 :)

What is the point then? The point is - whether or not you can consistently hear a difference. If you can, fine. Is the difference an improvement? Thats up to you and your system, eg: more bass may be good in some circumstances but not others. I've not seen any objectivist issue 

CD Players (Listening Tests) [Nov '98]
I've done a lot of listening tests with CD players, but mainly on higher-resolution systems where the some differences are easily discernible while some are incredibly subtle. I've never had a chance (or inclination) to do a test on an entry level system to see whether CD players matter... until now.

Recently, someone bought the What Hi-Fi 5 star Sony XE-500 CD player for $250 (yeah, I bugged him to buy Sony instead of a much cheaper NAD) and a NAD 312.

Lugging it to my office where my office system is and connecting the Sony XE-500, NAD 312 and the Tannoy M2's together, you get a system that probably has been recommended by some magazine somewhere.

Doing an informal A/B of the Sony XE-500 vs. my circa-1991 Sony X229ES (about $510) revealed the following:

  • X229ES had better timing. You have to hear 'timing' to understand it. It refers on one hand to a sense of continuity in the music as opposed to an impression that the music is a 'torn and jangled mess' (thats a Julia Fordham song btw). On the other hand, it also refers to how transients are handled.It was also a tad livelier and in guitar pieces, there was more 'snap'.
  • X229ES was sweeter and less harsh (tone control, some might say)

Of course, this always suprises people any non audio-enthusiast who happens to be listening in on the non A/B demonstration. (don't we all get satisfaction from this? Shows that we're not hallucinating when we hear differences in CD players, as a particular magazine would have us believe).


Auditioning Hi-Fi

OK, I've told you that equipment sounds different. But what sort of differences are there?

    1. Tonal/Timbral differences 
    2. Quantity of Detail 
    3. Rhythm & Pace 
    4. Soundstaging 
Well, lets start with the toughie, CD players. Of all products, the cry that 'all CD players sound the same', 'its all zeroes and ones' rings the loudest. Yet, there are definite differences. The way to spotting the difference is to audition at least 2 different CD players in the same place. In a shop (Klas), I listened to the Marantz 63-KI-S, and the Arcam 7 which are both '5-star' CD players, through AEnergy AE100s powered by an Arcam 9. The differences were so amazingly obvious. The KI-S had superb rhythm and pace; the word I would use is 'driven'. I preferred the KI-S, and from the my contacts list, I see a lot preferring Marantz's over the Arcams. 

With speakers, you can get away without A/B listening, but for amps and CD players, I feel that it is important to listen A/B. You don't have to A/B with products you intend to buy, for example, if you want to buy a $2,000 component in a shop, you can always ask them to demo their better $5k one so at that at least you can get an idea of its relative performance.

But I kid you not, auditioning CD players is a toughie, and often we have to at least partially rely on magazine reviews. When I auditioned the Sony XA7ES, I could hear the typical smoothness and sweetness that Sony players are know for, and I was comforted by the numerous positive posts in (I wasn't aware of the Stereophile review at that time). So basically, I heard nothing wrong with the XA7ES, and it sounded better than the XA5ES, and therefore, I bought the XA7ES. But if you ask me, is the Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 better than the XA7ES; I can't give you an answer, I can tell you both sound good though. Actually, none of the reviews tell you whether the XA7ES is better than the SFCD-1; there are rarely 'shoot-outs' of hi-end equipment ala Hi-Fi Choice/What Hi-Fi? (i.e., the test 10 components and select the 'best buy')

Tips for listening (June 98)

The abovementioned comments are necessarily vague, such is the nature of Hi-Fi. Here, I'll give some concrete tips. But please remember these are only generalisations!!!

A further thing to note is that these tips assume that you aren't able to A/B the components as they're in different stores etc. With A/B, things are generally easier and generally, you should take note of these

  • Timing and musical coherence - the one that sounds more coherent is definitely the better component (see an earlier paragraph on what I'm talking about)
  • Warmth vs Clarity. You must take into account all the components of your system before deciding. The classic budget speaker trade-off is between the Tannoy M2 (mellow) and the Mordaunt Short Ms10i (bright). The M2 favours more expensive equipment where the detail is presently in an even-handed manner. The MS is a safer budget bet as it emphasises what little detail the budget components have (though to me, it sound etchy and hollow).

CD Players
1 way of differentiating 1 player from another is to listen to complex high frequency transients; hi-hats, crashing cymbals and other sorts of percussion. Lousy CD players present these transients in a 'chopped-up' manner. Further, there isn't the sort of air and space, gentle shimmering decays etc present. Look more for quality. Quantity of transient is sometimes influenced by the quality of the tweeter.

This is especially for integrated amps, whose pre-amp stages are less than ideal, being of the 'budget' kind and right next to the power amp section. There is a kind of digital grunge/haze/layering over the music. This is the sort of 'signature' that is usually attributable to the pre-amps. This is course is based on reviewers comparing their Krell/Mark Levinson/Wadia CD players driving an amp direct and via a pre-amp. At the upper-end, the signature is minimal and offset by (apparent?) gains in pace/soundstage.

Funny bass? Always blame the speakers and then the room. I'm assuming that the dealer has tried his best to position the speakers, but if the bass still sounds funny, imagine the problems you'll have at home :) Of course, some dealers don't have good listening rooms... I listening to the B&W CDM1 recently and what caught my attention was its rather strange bass :) 

Everything is Compromised?

If you read What Hi-Fi? You'd think that anything with 5 stars is wonderful as that magazine only points out the good points of '5-star' equipment. The truth, of course, is that the 'beginner' systems covered by What Hi-Fi? and Hi-Fi Choice are compromised. The genius is of course, making the right compromises, and in some cases, adding colourations that mask these compromises :) 

But 1 thing that budget hi-fi cannot get away with is the 'transistorised' sound of solid state.The Audiolabs, Quad 77s, Arcams etc have a solid state transistorised sound that is annoying to someone who has heard the higher end solid state or tube equipment. This in part could account for Stereophile's Sam Tellig preferring the warm and woolly Musical Fidelity (class 'B' duh) to the dry and clinical Audiolab (class 'C').

New! A listing of demo discs I've moved my demo disc listing here:

Brightness Reef

A common way to classify the sound of a component is 'forward' or 'laid-back'. Personally, I prefer a more upbeat sound that boogies. And here are some rationalisations of my choice: 

  • Every tweak known to man smoothens treble. So you can always tweak a bright sound. And most demo rooms in Singapore don't have full room treatment, which will really smoothen the sound.
  • Time will smoothen the sound and the shop demo unit may be reasonably new.
  • From the newer 'mainstream' recordings I hear, the trend is to a smoother, sometimes duller sound as opposed to the harsh digital sound of the past.
However, the caveat is that if it boogies too much, it might be excessively coloured and there is a danger that the compromise is no real soundstage. Don't ask me why, but good rhythm and pace seems to mean poorer soundstage. Maybe its because the bass comes all the way to the front? But thats not exactly right. I suggest listening to the Epos ES22, one of the boogie-kings :) and form your opinions on the rhythm-soundstage tradeoff.

Under Construction...