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Great Sound, the Way It Used to Be

The difference between analog and digital audio reproduction is simple: Digital represents the sound waves with a high-speed series of zeros and ones, whereas analog draws a picture that is analogous to the sound wave. OK, maybe it’s not that simple to explain, but there are clearly advantages and benefits to both.

When the compact disc first came to America in 1982, true audiophiles found it a mixed blessing. The original CDs-although sexy and full-featured-sounded pretty awful (with some notable audiophile label exceptions, such as DMP). That may sound strange to those who are in the “CD is the cat’s pajamas and that’s that” camp. But the truth is that for the great unwashed music listener, a CD’s sound is adequate. But for those born with a golden ear, it is filled with harsh high frequency output and obscured detail during low-level passages.

What thrilled audiences initially about the CD was its tremendous convenience-you didn’t have to be so careful of scratches, you didn’t have to keep the surface completely dust-free, and you could skip tracks with the touch of the remote. And, of course, it is sexy, shiny and silver.

But what left many audiophiles feeling disappointed was the lack of information needed in order to deliver the lifelike result found in many audiophile LPs. That is because the CD was developed under the auspices of the International Red Book Standard. And the format dictated by the Red Book is a 44.1 kHz sampling rate with a 16-bit quantization. That means that the CD plays sound recorded at 16 discrete places along the sound wave at a rate of 44,100 times per second. That may sound like a lot of data (over 65,000 pieces of data per sample), and initially the proprietors of this standard thought that it would amply meet the highest sonic expectations. But the human ear was grossly underrated. And as it turned out, the Red Book CD doesn’t provide enough data in the softer musical passages to make them sound as good as a reputable turntable with a decent phono cartridge.

Audiophiles knew this immediately, and over the past two decades have come up with ways to tweak the Red Book standard to get an even better sound out of the format (High Definition CD is one example). But they have been ultimately limited to the 44.1 kHz/16-bit universe, and true audiophiles have had to devise machines that could interpolate data not found in the actual disc itself to extend the resolution in these low-level passages. Needless to say, these hybrid computer/CD players can be quite expensive and sell for $5,000 plus. In late 1999, Sony introduced the Super Audio CD, which uses Direct Stream Digital technology to deliver true audiophile resolution. And sometime this June, Panasonic is expected to come out with DVD Audio, that uses an extended version of the original CD technology, just super-charged: delivering a 196 kHz sampling rate and a 24-bit quantization. But there is precious little software available for either format and it will be interesting to see if both formats survive. Read more on these formats in JT’s upcoming June issue.

A true analog audiophile system is tantamount to a classic car or model train set. Its upkeep is practically a full time job, and the constant tinkering with the system is definitely part of the overall allure of having the system in the first place. But let’s not forget the incredible soundstage that a well-crafted analog system will provide. A soundstage is a three dimensional sonic illusion that is indigenous to high-quality stereophonic sound. The theory is that the speakers are not where the sound seems to come from, but rather where the microphones were placed during the original recording. For example, during a symphony recording, the listener will perceive the double basses and tympani to be much further back on the stage that is the actual locations of the loudspeakers. The same is true listening to a jazz quartet-the drummer will sound like he is sitting way back behind the speakers, next to the upright bass player. It is an incredible experience that is highly recommended for any live music lover.

The Demise of the Turntable Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Audiophiles are still having a love affair with their turntables. Perhaps that’s because no other audio component requires so much maintenance, and those folks do love to tinker. But they also claim that the sound of a high-quality, properly set-up turntable is unparalleled. It is funny to think that most kids today have never even seen a vinyl LP, let alone an actual turntable!

To get a great sound out of a turntable, one needs a few items. Firstly, the turntable itself has to have an accurate motor that will spin the LP at a perfect Swiss watchmaker’s interval. If there is a hint of speeding up or slowing down, the sound will be obscured by a truly annoying type of distortion called “wow & flutter.”

Next, a top-performing turntable needs a sound-dampening tonearm. This is the part that holds the phono cartridge to the record. But the electrical signals travelling from the stylus (needle) to the preamplifier are so delicate that the sound could be colored by external vibrations, and the configuration of the tonearm could make as much sonic difference as any other component in the system!

The next important item in the chain is the phono cartridge. This is the very small case that holds the stylus and is where the acoustical energy from the stylus wiggling in the grooves of the record is converted to electrical energy that will be eventually amplified to power your speakers (where it will be converted back into acoustical energy again!). There is an argument that says that the only two components that matter the most are the ones you listen to: the phono cartridge and the speakers, everything else is ancillary. There are two basic types of cartridge formats: the moving magnet (MM) and the moving coil (MC). All acoustical energy is transformed to electrical energy (and back again) by moving a magnet next to a coil or vice versa. MM cartridges yield a higher electrical output, which is more practical and requires less booster amplification from the phono pre-amp. But many folks consider an MC cartridge to deliver a finer, more detailed sound.

This gets us to the next requirement in the turntable sequence: the phono preamplifier. Both MM and the MC type of cartridge deliver a much lower-level signal than do other components, such as a CD player or tape deck. Therefore, you must have a pre-amp or receiver with an input clearly labeled “phono” or you won’t be able to hear much of anything. Most audiophiles consider the phono pre-amp to be one of the most critical stages in the system since it has the awesome responsibility of taking the delicate, ultra-low-level phonograph output and amplifying it to a useable level. So, well crafted outboard phono pre-amps-ones that are not built into the pre-amp itself-are quite popular.

The final two components in the turntable chain are not always thought of as essential, but truly are. They are the connecting cables from the turntable to the pre-amp, and a high-end record cleaner! High-quality cables from Monster Cable, MIT or Audioquest are a must to link any component in the system; but due to the delicacy of the phono signal, they are absolutely essential for this purpose. An automated record cleaner like the Mini Pro from the Nitty Gritty company is also absolutely mandatory for any high-end listening experience (and costs over $800). Remember that LPs have a ton of distracting surface noise that you’ll never find on a CD. And it is imperative that you keep your records and stylus clean. The classic record cleaning kit, is of course the Dishwasher D4 system (costs around $20) with a record cleaning solution and big brush for the vinyl, and a stylus cleaning solution and small brush for the needle. The method more accepted by the audiophile community is to use a sophisticated vacuum system-like the Nitty Gritty-that leaves no residue.

The Preamplifier: The Unsung Hero of the Audiophile System

Many who are unfamiliar with the ways of the stereo nut don’t even know what the preamplifier does. But the hard core audiophile knows that the quality of the pre-amp makes a substantial difference in the system’s overall performance. Simply put, a pre-amp is a junction box that allows the user to choose from a multitude of source components. It also allows the user to modify the sound through volume and tone controls (a true audiophile pre-amp has only a volume control because adjusting tone controls is like adding salt and pepper to your foie gras at Le Cirque). And if there’s a phonograph involved, then the preamplifier has the additional responsibility of boosting the ultra-low-level signal coming from the phono cartridge to the same voltage as the rest of the components so that the amplifier will be able to drive the speakers effectively.

The challenge is to handle all of these functions without polluting the signal, because the most important thing to an audiophile is signal integrity, and any kind of interference with the purity of the signal through the component chain is sudden death. Keep in mind that the electronic signals-whether from a low-level or high-level component-are still very delicate when they move through the pre-amp, and therefore the wiring paths must be unbridled and internal component quality must be stellar in order to achieve this goal. Therefore point-to-point wiring is essential for a good pre-amp, as are the highest-quality capacitors and transistors-though the latter portion of this statement is not entirely true. That is because many people prefer the sound of vacuum tubes to transistors because tubes are purported to sound warmer than transistors, although not always as clean. Tube preamplifiers and power amplifiers are therefore pretty common among high-end stereo offerings.

The Power Amplifier Is the Workhorse of the System

After the delicate signals from the source components pass through the preamplifier, they have to be amplified hundreds of times in order to have enough current to afford the speakers the ability to produce lifelike sound.

Audiophile amps are typically enormous-the size of a small household appliance-and oftentimes weigh over 500 pounds! They typically sit on the floor somewhere between the speakers and the wall. The reason is that high-quality, high-output power amps run really hot and they need a great deal of ventilation not always found in a stereo rack (which would generally crumble underneath their massive girth anyhow).

Like a pre-amp, a power amp can be of the transistor or of the tube variety. Many folks opt to mix and match a tube pre-amp with a solid state power amp and vice versa. If the amp is solid state, then it will surely contain fast-operating transistors such as MOSFETS (Metal Oxide, Field Effect Transistors) or the like. It also will have a very highly regulated power supply. In essence, an amp will follow the sound wave and draw more current from its power supply during loud notes, and less for softer ones. Amps can be of the Class A or Class A/B variety. This has to do with the switching of the transistors during the positive and the negative cycles of the sound wave. Without going into too much boring minutia, suffice it to say that Class A amps generally sound better but deliver less current due to a higher possibility of overheating. And that Class A/B amps provide much higher current capacity. Some amps will use both techniques: they will use Class A circuitry for low level listening, and switch over to A/B status when volumes exceed a certain level.

Loudspeakers Are the Soul of the System

All of the signal integrity achieved thus far in the system would all be for naught without a terrific pair of speakers, for they are the most crucial component in the system and the one that will make the most dramatic sonic difference. Perhaps that is why there are more than 10 times as many speaker manufacturers as there are manufacturers of other components.

There are many different speaker formats-none is better than the other-it is all a matter of personal preference. Most speakers are made up of a cabinet or enclosure, a crossover and drivers that produce the sound. The type of enclosure can make a big difference in the quality of the sound, especially the bass response. Some speakers are acoustic suspension, which means that the drivers are mounted simply in the box. Other enclosures are ported so that the bass frequencies are more pronounced. And those are just two of the plethora of speaker enclosure designs.

The crossover is the junction box that sends the right frequency to the appropriate driver. The high frequencies go to the tweeter, the middle to the midrange, and the lows to the woofers. Some speakers don’t utilize conventional drivers, but instead use electrostatic technology to produce sound. This technique uses a thin layer of Mylar (or another thin, conductive material) tightly stretched across a magnetic plane. The Mylar reacts to the positive and negative charges to produce a sound. The good news is that Mylar is very fast and can achieve extremely detailed high frequency sounds. The problem is that this design generally delivers a poor bass response, and the speakers are inefficient, requiring a lot of power to work well.

Other trends in loudspeakers include powered towers and three-piece subwoofer/satellite systems. Both of these deigns were created to give the listener better bass response. The issue is that it takes a different setup to deliver tight, exciting bass, as it does to deliver smooth, accurate highs. Some speakers have built-in amplifiers and powered subwoofers that handle the bass output, leaving the tweeters and midrange drivers to handle the rest of the music. Other speakers have separate, smaller drivers to handle the highs and mids, and have a discrete amplified subwoofer unit to deliver the bass. Because the ear cannot localize low bass, all the sounds seem to come from the same place even though the subwoofer module is located away from the satellites.

Some brands and models of speakers sound flat and accurate, just as the record producer intended. Other speakers sound dynamic and exciting, and give the sound a whole other dimension of power. Some speakers accentuate the high frequencies, others extend the lows. And most importantly, some speakers sound great to one listener and abysmal to another, so the most important thing to remember is to listen a lot and trust your own tastes and judgement.

The general advice is that you start listening to speakers first, and when you decide on the pair that sounds best to you, then you can fill in the other components accordingly, so that they allow the speakers to sound and perform their best.

Recommended Systems

We have put together two systems-one for around $15,000 and one for a heck of a lot more. The systems use one source component only: a turntable. They also are two-channel stereo systems. Dolby Digital surround sound is extra, as is a CD player and step-up cables.

Audiophile System #1: Under $15,000

Loudspeakers: Martin-Logan SL3, list price: $3,400-$3,700 per pair, depending upon finish. Martin-Logan is one of the most popular mid-priced brands of speakers on the market today (mid-priced means under $15,000 per pair!). They look unique because they utilize a hybrid electrostatic panel with a traditional woofer system to reproduce the lower frequencies. Each SL3 speaker sports a 48-inch electrostatic panel, and a 10-inch woofer. They have a lower sensitivity rating so they require a powerful amplifier to make them work their best.

Amplifier: The Parasound HCA-3500, list price $2,195. Parasound is one of the most respected mid-priced component manufacturers over the past decade and this amp delivers enough oomph to drive the Martin-Logans and then some. It is rated at 350 watts per channel into 8 ohms with ample frequency response and low distortion specifications. It is a solid state design with pure Class A output up to 15 watts and then switching to Class A/B after that. It is of a dual-mono design with separate power supply for each channel. The input stages feature J-FET transistors and the output devices are MOSFETS.

Preamplifier: Ayre K-3, list price $4,500 with optional remote control and phono stage. This is a solid state pre-amp that has been highly rated by a number of audiophile critics. Especially good is the phono stage that is an additional board that fits inside the chassis rather than being a completely stand-alone module.

Turntable: Linn Sondek LP12 Valhalla, list prices $2,150-$2,225 depending upon finish. This classic turntable has been the standard by which other turntables have been measured for almost two decades. The latest version has a laminated arm-board and Cirkus bearing/sub-chassis for nearly a pure analog reproduction. A moderately priced tone-arm option for this turntable is the Rega RB600 that lists for $695.

Phono Cartridge: Grado Reference, list price $1,200. Another critically acclaimed mid-priced cartridge, the Grado is of the Moving Magnet variety so that additional amplification above the recommended phono amp is not required. It is considered to have truly exceptional bass response for the price.

Total system #1 price: $14,140-$14,515, depending upon finish.

Audiophile System #2: Over $80,000

Loudspeakers: Thiel CS7.2, list price $13,500 per pair. Handcrafted in Lexington, Ky., Thiel is considered by the majority of audiophiles to be at the pinnacle of loudspeaker performance. These five-foot-tall works of art are the updated versions of the classic CS7s, considered to be among the top-performing speakers ever created. They are a four-way design, with a reflex-loaded cabinet. All drivers are made from anodized aluminum and include a tweeter, upper midrange, lower mid-range and woofer. There are only 70 Thiel dealers in the U.S., so don’t assume your local hi-fi emporium will carry them.

Amplifier: Accuphase M-2000 monoblock power amplifiers, list price $27,000 per pair. These are the mack-daddy of amps and certainly fall into the “money is no object” category. They are built in Japan, which is unusual for audiophile components, which are almost exclusively manufactured in the U.S. or in Europe. They are of a solid state design and come in pairs: one amp for the left channel and one for the right. There is an analog output level meter on the front of each. They deliver 250 watts continuously into an 8-ohm load, but can punch out 2,000 watts in 1-ohm loads. They are of a strict Class A/B design, and are meant to run with the companion J-1200 Clean Power Supply that lists for another $8,200!

Preamplifier: Mark Levinson No.32 Reference Preamplifier, list price $17,450 with optional phono modules. Another prize possession, the No. 32 is truly special, with balanced XLR inputs and outputs, as well as some of the most innovative circuitry ever. The unit consists of two separate chassis: the so-called “dirty box” that accommodates the noisiest components, the power supply, the control circuitry and the display; and the “clean box,” which holds the sensitive low-level audio circuitry.

Turntable: Basis Debut Mark V, list price $10,600 with vacuum hold-down platter. This New Hampshire-based manufacturer is quickly becoming the leader in this ever-more specialized business. This revolutionary design features a one-inch-thick cast acrylic base incorporating four suspension towers holding the two-inch-thick cast acrylic main chassis. The platter itself weighs nineteen pounds and the arm-board weighs nine pounds! The vacuum technology in the platter holds the LP perfectly for optimum performance.

Cartridge: Van Den Hul Grasshopper IV, list price $5,000. This moving coil cartridge is the stalwart choice of many audiophile critics and enthusiasts. It is said to deliver an incredibly wide soundstage.

Total system #2 price: $81,750 (cheap).

Originally Published