The Concept: What is an Audiophile loudspeaker?
The factors that make a speaker qualify as audiophile quality are not in specifications or a particular design or material. They are only defined by how it performs. There are several properties that I and most audiophiles want in a speaker. Here is a list some of the factors I listen for, and some of the recordings I use to fine tune them.
The property that defines an audiophile quality speaker more than any other. The more three dimensional and coherent the images, the more palpable the experience. A truly fine speaker can, on the finest recordings, make the performance reappear right in front of you. Even the size and shape of the original hall can reappear.
Listen to Cantate Domino (Proprius PROP7762), for example, and you should not only feel the individual voices position and the bodies of the singers, but also the high curved back wall and ceiling of the church in Sweden where it was recorded. It is most evident on the vinyl.
This is defined as the feeling that the sound is coming directly to your ears from its original source unimpeded. The more open a system is the more veils are removed, the more immediate the sound.
Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius 7778-10) is an exceptionally open recording. Recorded very simply in a pawnshop that converted into a jazz club at night, the instruments are right in front of you, the waitresses are tinkling glasses on trays as they walk past you, and the sound is so open it can knock you over. The original vinyl pressing is the best, but all versions are very open.
‘The Great Jazz Trio Direct From LA’ is a direct to disc (East Wind FW10005 Direct vinyl master) that gives an incredible sense of openness and immediacy.
Musical sounds are complex, they have overtones and subharmonics. These must align properly to sound like they are all coming from the same source. They should meld together into an image of the instrument or singer with no frequency range standing out.
Round Midnight on the JVC (XRCD JVX-XR-0001-2) demo disc in both the vocal version with Carmen Lundy, and the flute version by Nakagowa truly tests a system’s coherence. Thanks to the close miking of her voice, you can hear right down her throat. Also, in the solo flute version, the flute’s size is evident as it moves from side to side.
Air is the ambiance of the performance. It is the feeling that brings reality to the imaging by giving a sense of space, such as the space between the instruments or performers.
In ‘The Wall’, by Pink Floyd (Columbia36183), just before ‘The Happiest Days of Our Lives’ you can hear children playing in a distant playground. The air and space in the recording give the feeling that the sound is coming through a window.
Like a fine painting where you marvel at the brushstrokes, an audiophile speaker does not only have the resolution to let you hear the fine movements of hands, instruments and voices, it can image the body of the source of the sound.
For example, in ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ conducted by Lorin Maazel (Telarc 10042), you should hear the bassoonist breathing in air in the pauses as he plays. In the JVC XRCD, on ‘The Peacocks’ by the Bill Holman Band, you should hear the tappets on the bass clarinet moving as they open and close. They should lightly tap down, not clack closed, and you should hear the motion of the clarinet itself as the player moves from side to side.
The timbre, balance and overtones are what defines an instrument. An audiophile speaker will clearly let you know not only if that is a Yamaha or a Steinway piano, or a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster guitar, or a Stradivarius or an Amati violin, but allow a musician to recognize a particular instrument.
The tonal quality of a speaker depends not only on how high or low the frequencies it can play are, but also in how smooth its response is and how even the dynamics are across the bandwidth. I am not a musician, so I cannot pick up the differences between instruments easily, although the difference between a Steinway and a Yamaha is an easy one.
The fullness of the bass clarinet on Peacocks on the JVC disc should resonate with an open dynamic sound, while it clearly imaging its size and the space around it, for example.
The fundamental notes and subharmonics that make up the low frequency hearing and infrasonic spectrum are essential to the feeling of reality in music. If they are slurred by a slow start or stop, or a resonance, the bass makes you notice it by its difference and separation from the music. Fast clean deep bass lets you feel the fundamentals of every instrument while blending like a sonic chameleon into the image of the instrument.
The bass on ‘Yim Hok-Man Master of Percussion’, Track 1 ‘Poem of Chinese Drums’ (Bestell-Nr:8.225942) should fill the room without booming and cleanly match the dynamics of the drums, on ‘Romeo is Bleeding’, (Original Motion Picture Sound Track Music by Mark Isham Verve 314-521-231-2) the first passage, Romeo is Bleeding has infrasonic bass that makes you feel the room moving and comes up through your feet, as do several passages.
The dynamics are important in fully defining the sound of an instrument. It should be smooth clean and detailed from the softest passage to the loudest and everywhere in between. A speaker should be equally dynamically open in all frequencies.
Poem of Chinese Drums tests the dynamics throughout the frequency range. In ‘Romeo Is Bleeding’ in the second passage Abby Lincoln sings ‘Bird Alone’ the dynamics should jump at you without getting hard or screaming.
These are the properties I expect in an audiophile speaker. To achieve them I need a basic concept that defines the form the speaker will take.
Listening to the finest recordings through the years, I came to the conclusion that the best window into the original performance was created using a minimum of microphones. It seems that when there are too many microphones the multiple perspectives confuse the ear. Two or three microphones properly placed can reveal the dimensionality of the original venue, create a feeling of stage presence, and define the shape and position of the back wall. Individual instruments appear correctly placed and sized. This format most closely matches the original concept of how stereo works to recreate a three dimensional image.
To recreate the original space, the loudspeaker should reverse the microphones by outputting coherent full frequency information from a point source. This is the theoretical ideal and, of course, is impossible to achieve in the real world, but with a good understanding of sound, we can make a loudspeaker that works like a point source to the ear and make the speaker cabinet disappear acoustically.
Next: Designing an Audiophile Loudspeaker Part III: From Concept to Design