How insensitive

AUDIOFILE - Val A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Last Tuesday, I had an interesting web chat with our online readers in New York, Jimmy Hunter and Harold Matthews. Thanks to the Internet, our humble piece is making inroads to the audiophile community across the globe. It’s typical for me to receive emails from international readers, but it was the first time I was requested to exchange views with some of them via the worldwide web.

Jimmy and Harold share the same concern that the phenomenal demand (mainly caused by the analog renaissance) for analog audio gears worldwide has spawned “too many” unscrupulous vendors who trick consumers into buying “something that they do not necessarily need.”

And because audiophiles — including us — are laymen, some of us, especially those who are just starting out with the hobby, are vulnerable to exploitation by imaginary and shameful claims made by some vendors.

To make matters worse, the spectacular economic growth in China has given its audiophiles the buying muscle that is oftentimes being used inappropriately. “These people do not even care about the price. They just gobble up everything,” Harold complained. True enough; prices of vinyl being sold on eBay have gone up significantly. Vinyl copies of Eiji Kitamura’s “Swing Sessions,” for instance, are being hoarded. The last copy that was sold fetched for $500 on Tom Port’s dccblowout.com.

Another worrisome development, according to Jimmy, is that in Asia the quest for sound quality is becoming remote or separate from the love of music. “These audiophiles are purely interested in the equipment, and music is just a means to test how their equipment works,” he said. The Chinese refer to this phenomenon as “fever outbreak.” I believe that Jimmy and Harold’s concerns are valid.  I certainly wouldn’t want to see an audiophile community with overpriced music systems and devoid of music appreciation. 

But what must an aspiring audiophile do to avoid getting into these pitfalls? To start with, where you are going to place your sound equipment dictates what type of gears you have to buy. Ordinarily stereo, TV or even home theater systems are placed in the living room.

There’s no problem with this if your living room is acoustically treated. Frustration arises when the system you bought does not perform as well in your home as when you first listened to it at the audio store. Chances are the showroom is treated well enough to produce the sound you want to listen to. This is why sound purists would rather build a separate music room designed to maximum specification.

In my earlier columns, I discussed how your music room accounts for 60 percent of the effort you put in building up your dream audio system. Once you’ve decided where to put your system, scout for audio gears that match the size of your room. Obviously you wouldn’t want to place humongous speakers in a small room, or vice versa.

Check out for the sensitivity of the loudspeakers being offered to you. Modern-day loudspeakers have sensitivities of only between 85 and 87 dB, and only a handful of amplifiers can make them work. This has resulted in a mournfully underpowered stereo system inept of producing the desired in-room results. An underpowered system clips (distorts) and reproduces sharp, edgy and confined sounds.

The lower the sensitivity the harder they are to drive. Thus, low sensitive speakers need higher amplifier wattage to drive them with ease, while highly sensitive speakers only need less power to reproduce sound. You can ask the dealer for the speakers’ sensitivity, or if you doubt them, go read the gear’s manual. Be warned though that loudspeaker sensitivity ratings are mostly overstated by two or three dB (manufacturers will surely deny this, but I’m willing to stick my neck out on this); always give that elbow room when scouting for the right speakers.

After determining the right speakers that match your music room, it is now time to match your speakers with your amplifier(s).

Musical Fidelity recently released on its website a guide, that you can use when shopping for the right match between amplifiers and speakers.

Note that it takes 130 watts per channel to drive the most sensitive loudspeakers today. This is where vintage (1960s) speakers such as those made by JBL and Altec Lansing excel. If you have the money and a large room to put them in, I would recommend that you grab them. Vintage speakers have more than 100 dB in sensitivity which can be driven easily by an amplifier with only 9 watts in power rating.

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For comments or questions, please email me at [email protected]


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