Do you hear what I hear?
AUDIOPHILE - Val A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2018 - 12:00am

An explosion of online audio groups and sites, especially on Facebook, has created intense interest in the audiophile hobby. The downside is, those who have just only discovered this wonderful diversion now get confusing information on what to really focus on to enjoy music at its finest.

Time and again, I have taken the view that music appreciation is subjective. What you perceive as good music may not be palatable to others. The problem begins when you compare the sound quality of your system with those of fellow music lovers.

What really makes music “good,” then? Is there a specific set of standards one should follow to be able to build a decent stereo system?

The operative word here is “synergy.” This means that all your components must work seamlessly. You must realize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not your amplifiers, your speaker system, your CD player, or even your turntable that will define how your system sounds. It’s how you harness the finest quality of each component to create harmonious music.

In other words, this hobby requires focus and attention. Ultimately, you are the one solely responsible for making it happen. True, sound appreciation is subjective. There is, however, a fundamental technical aspect you must master to blend all your components in producing best-quality sound.

In my experience, first preference must be given to headroom. Think of your children jumping up and down on a bed. If their respective heads bump or almost hit the ceiling, their room doesn’t have sufficient clearance for them to jump as high as they want to. It’s very similar to how our audio system must work. It should not distort when we crank it up. It should always have that breathing space to sing melodious music, even at the faintest or highest volumes.

How do you achieve this? There are three ways I can recommend.

One, your amplifier must have sufficient power to drive your speakers, while your pre-amplifiers must be more than capable of decoding and converting the miniscule sound signal from your music sources (such as your CD player, turntable, music streamers, among others) into an audible musical piece. Check you speakers’ sensitivity rating. Low-sensitive speakers — 85dB or lower — need powerful amplification (60 watts up), while highly sensitive speakers — 95dB or higher — need only flea-power amplifiers that are 50 watts or lower. Likewise, check the frequency response of your preamps. It should match those of your amplifiers and speaker systems.

Two, consider your room acoustics and speaker placement. Your room accounts for 60 percent of how your system sounds. Are there reflective surfaces, such as glass or concrete walls? Is your room asymmetrically designed? Serious audiophiles go to great lengths to have their respective rooms professionally treated. But for mere mortals like us, having heavy drapes (as absorbers) to cover glass windows, and inexpensive acoustic reflectors (to deflect wayward sound) can do the trick. Make sure, too, that your listening position is in the middle of an imaginary perfect triangle, with the width space of your speakers equal to your “sweet spot” in the triangle.

Three — and this is the most crucial, especially for analogue lovers — make sure the cartridge of your turntable is perfectly aligned.

Now, what about brands? Let me just say that the technology used to manufacture audio gear has been perfected since the 1960s. Most of the branded gadgets you see on the market today are made from the same topology and basic design. Any new updates, such as remote control or other come-ons, are intended merely for convenience. This is why some DIY gear — the open-source designs of which you can find online — made by skilled hobbyists often give branded systems a run for their money. To their advantage, DIYers can choose the best parts to build better-sounding gear.

Any claim made that a certain brand is better than the other may just be a matter of psychoacoustics or the scientific study of the psychological and physiological responses people may associate with sound (including noise, speech and music). Your mind may have been conditioned to perceive sound coming from an expensive brand as better than sound coming from a DIY gear.

Don’t get me wrong! Some of the branded gear has the legacy and pedigree to claim supremacy. But if you follow the simple guidelines I outlined here, your system will give you a decent, probably more enjoyable listening experience. Just try making those branded systems “sing” in a cave, and you’ll get my drift.

Let me end this piece by saying that an obsession with technical minutiae can blind one to an appreciation of the whole. So, listen with your ears, and feel the music with your heart.

* * *

My apologies to my readers! Work pressure in the fast few months has given me little time to indulge in my hobby and share my thoughts about audio with you. Rest assured that this column will come out on the last weekend of each month from hereon.

For comments and suggestion email me at audioglow@yahoo.com.

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