BLOG #12. «So Many “Sweet Spots”, But So Little Sweet…» A PROLOGUE TO «MOSCOW HI-FI & HIGH END SHOW-2016»

Wikipedia generally defines “sweet spot” as “a place where a combination of factors results in a maximum response for a given amount of effort” (please, see the first picture).

At the same time, Wikipedia definition of “audiophile sweet spot” – “The sweet spot is a term used by audiophiles and recording engineers to describe the focal point between two speakers, where an individual is fully capable of hearing the stereo audio mix the ways it was intended to be heard by the mixer” - doesn’t mention nor “maximum response”, nor any effort involved.

Parochial audiophile definition of “sweet spot” doesn’t mention an effort and the response deliberately, because, as I see it, an effort involved in a proper stereo installation is pretty substantial, and, typically, with “a given amount” of effort the audiophile sonic response at the corresponding “sweet spot” is far from being “the way it was intended to be heard by the mixer”.
For instance, in another listening space, sitting between the same pair of speakers at “the sweet spot”, at the same distance from the speakers, and spending the same amount of effort for the stereo installation, can lead to some radically different sonic results.
So, if we’re not talking about trivial “you reap what you sow” here, then we need to define what “maximum response” in the broader original definition is.

I would define “the maximum response” here as “the best it can be” in terms of hearing the sound mixer’s (the best) intentions.
And following this definition, I’d like to discuss in this blog how sweet “the audiophile sweetest spot” can be in various settings, that is how the maximum sonic results can be obtained at the moment with “a given amount of an effort”.

As a rule, due to inferior room acoustics and inferior speaker room placements, even if you are sitting at a very close distance to your speakers at the exact center between them, and even if you fixed your head in a proverbial “head vase” position, still, this “sweet spot” experience very rarely sounds really “sweet”.
So, to “sweeten” the spot up a substantial effort is usually called for to “organize” a proper room acoustics and a proper loudspeaker placement (let alone other aspects of music reproduction at a room).

Now, I’ve got a question for you: have you seen a lot of home audio buffs or audio show exhibitors who’d had done this?

In my 25+ years spent professionally in High End Audio I can, probably, count all of them with the fingers on my one hand.
Even more so, I’ve visited several Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound editors/ equipment reviewers at their own listening rooms, and also some High End Audio manufacturers’ facilities who, in this respect, had also done nothing.
A typical audiophile would frantically compare different amplifiers’ distortion specs (in some tiny fractions of a percent) while taking for granted “the additional” acoustic input from his room, which can contribute certain distortions to the reproduced music signal with a magnitude of 50 percents or even substantially more.

So, if “the mixer’s best intentions” are recorded in one of the most advanced digital music format, when your room “screams” like crazy, what’s the point of listening to a hi-res recording with its signal-to-noise ratio in the amounts of 140 dBs?.. even if you listen to it in “the sweetest spots”?..
I agree, no point at all, and that’s why, for instance, a digital audio-specialized manufacturer MSB Technologies demonstrated the futility of such an effort, when after years of doing (still, pretty impressive) “hi-res” demos at various audio shows, eventually, threw in the towel fighting with this acoustic room noise issue and decided to adjust to it: at the last CES they were blissfully playing regular CDs with even more astonishing results.

I guess, one of the reason why vinyl is still popular is the “playback chain resolution matching” process in action: with widely reported 11-bit resolution depth of the media, it, probably, matches much better the resolution of the most common “audiophile” listening environment (than even good old 16-bit CD, let alone the “high-res” 24-bit digital recordings).
Digression on the vinyl junkies’ “common sense chain resolution matching” process hiccup I would leave for another story…

Preparing recently demo music material for the forthcoming Moscow “Hi-Fi & High End Show-2016” I’ve spent a few evenings going through some latest hi-res recordings and comparing them with their standard CD-quality versions.
All my listening was done via our StereoPravda SPearphone SB-7s and via HiFiMan HM-801.

During my auditioning, if the quality of an original master supported the digital format capability, then all of the “high-res” versions sounded obviously better than their CD-quality counterparts.
Considering the overall significant sonic difference between all the recordings I auditioned, I wouldn’t use the same word to describe the differences between “the standard” and “the hi-res” versions.
But, nevertheless, as a rule, when having a choice, and with no hesitation, I would, rather, listen to a “hi-res” version.
…And not only because I would really care about an artist’s latest dental job.

So, if the “hi-res” superiority on appropriate recordings is so obvious via our ear canal monitors, then why at all the last home audio shows do we always hear much more of the “11-bit” analogue playback than we would hear the 24-bit digital one?
Why are the visitors content with such an inferior information flow?

And, as a result of it, doesn’t the High End Audio’s technological platform future, which is supposed to dominate at “the sweet spots” of suchlike shows, seem to be in the past?..

Actually, the main reasons for this situation are obvious: first, the exhibitors need to deal with the sonic bottleneck - the listening room acoustics – by “matching the resolution” of all the playback chain components and the music source (as a rule, the lower, the better), and, second, they need to work with all the necessary compromises in loudspeaker designs, which cater to the lowest common denominator on the market.
These compromises are built into the speaker designs in attempts to cater to all the possible hypothetical variance in loudspeaker set ups vs all the possible hypothetical room acoustics’ properties.
And the latter attempts very rarely become successful, especially, when we evaluate a particular set up performance with an absolute - “the best it can be” - scale.

“The sweet spots” born with so much suffering always leave a bitter aftertaste, both for the shows exhibitors, and for the shows visitors.

A mismatch between a higher source resolution and the lower resolution of the system’s acoustic output in a room can sound really awful, and even worse than when a lower resolution source would be used for the demos.
And that’s why a lot of exhibitors, even having spent a substantial effort in futile attempts to tame the negative effects of the wrong room acoustics, strike a path of the least resistance.
And, as a lesser evil, resort to an outdated low resolution source like vinyl.

By the way, our company, StereoPravda, never used vinyl at the shows, and instead, although, during better times, we always tried to use active loudspeaker systems with either “room correctors”, or (and) room acoustic treatments.
And we always relied in our show demos on the highest resolution digital source material.

To use an analogy, a typical stereo system performance compromises in a typical audiophile home environment would be very much like what you’d get when watching a video movie in a room with the light still on (poor room acoustics), using a projector (an analogy for the loudspeakers) which was not properly set up geometrically (wrong speaker placement), not perfectly focused, and not tightly converged on all of its three R-, G-, and B- channels (overall coordination of phase sound radiation patterns from each of the three channels), and not gray scale IRE-calibrated (dynamic amplitude flat frequency response).
And the worst is that you don’t have any necessary adjustments and controls for the above at your disposal (including the room light switch).
The above video image description is a very good analogy to the typical sound we’d hear all the time at the audiophiles’ homes and at all the audio shows, and even if we would be sitting at the “sweetest of all spots”.
The hypothetical video image described above would be a decipherable, but not really “sweet” one, the same way, as the most of the audiophile demos I’ve heard in my life were decipherable, but they always left a heavily pronounced bitter aftertaste.

As the above “projector” example is all about energy transducer-projector vs room/screen interactions, that’s why it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that typical loudspeaker vs typical listening room performance attributes keep us all hostage in the current audio stalemate.

Nevertheless, lately, due to the leaps in sonic quality available in Portable High End Audio, instead of antagonism, I started to sympathize with traditional audiophiles’ reluctance to resort to serious investments in listening room acoustics.
Even if I still do believe that, in terms of “bang-for-the-buck”, the acoustic treatment devices and correct speaker placement are the best investments in the quality of an audiophile system.

The reason for that sympathy is my new perception of the latest developments in portable music playback technologies’ capabilities vs capabilities of my previous home audiophile past.
After I have done myself very expensive acoustic modifications in my own listening space, have spent quite a sum of money on a custom set of ASC TubeTraps et al, and used various active analogue and digital crossovers and tone controls, a few years ago I’ve arrived to a conclusion that a moment has come when all the expense and effort involved to do this are not worth it, and that, with all the latest technological breakthroughs, the best way to deal with the room’s acoustic properties, as the fundamental stumbling block in music playback chain for the further development of the audio art, is…
… to get rid of the room completely.

I saw that as an unavoidable move, even if together with the obvious negative room interference effects on music listening, alas, I had to get rid of the positive ones (like on that first picture).

Twenty+ years of full blown experience with my own High End Audio systems, and, after that, another several years spent in my portable endeavor, brought me to my personal audio evolution point where I would feel that, compared to any one of my reference home audio systems, I am loosing nothing in satisfaction I get from music heard using an appropriate quality contemporary portable “rig” (one of my benchmarks is my own Apogee Grand/ARC/MSB system displayed on the second picture, it’s taken in my listening room with the former Apogee Acoustics French distributor Philippe Demaret in 2008, at the very beginning of my StereoPravda SPearphone in-the-ear-monitor project).
By the way, when I’ve been selling that Apogee system the hardest, the longest and the cheapest sell was to get rid of the most important system component in obtaining its good sound – an extensive 67-pieces set of ASC products, custom ordered for the acoustic treatment of my own listening room (I think, that I struck a huge luck being able to sale this stuff, by when it happened, I was almost ready to throw all of it in the trash).
Long term inability to sale ASC pieces became a moment of complete clarity to me – the home High End Audio, as we knew it in its hey-days of the 1990-ies, is doomed, and nothing, beyond a pure miracle, can save it from a complete and fast extinction.

Having got rid of the audio component called “the listening room”, creates a set of new conditions, some of which, compared to the old, audiophile home ones, can remove that bitter aftertaste, and, instead, add a lot of sweetness to the newly formed “sweet spots”.
First of all, by just putting headphones on your head, or, especially, by just inserting earphones in your ear canals, automatically positions you in “a sweet spot” in the traditional audiophile sense of the word (i.e. automatically positions you equidistant from the speakers).
And, second, compared to a room environment, especially, when we are talking about in-the-ear-monitors, both the geometrical configuration and the “wall” material of listening space is much, much more predictable.
And, again, in the latter case especially, there are all the reasons to believe that the closer we’re getting to the ear drum, the closer we’re getting to “the sweetest spot “ of all, in which we’ll be able to maximize our “…full capability of hearing the stereo audio mix the ways it was intended to be heard by the mixer”.

I am far from suggesting that high performance home audio should be completely replaced with its portable version.

Casual home audio listening is still the most viable option for the vast majority of the music lovers.
That’s because it can benefit a lot from auxiliary use of some conventional ways to sweeten its “sweet spot” (like the one on the first picture).

But, compared to casual music listening, audiophile passion is far from being conventional and the social discussion of its various aspects should be no more than only a byproduct of realization of High End Audio’s main reason d’être: to create technical conditions for constant personal inner growth using music as an inspiration.

Therefore, as an experience per se, truly audiophile experience is always an all-absorbing individual one: either while sitting alone in a “sweet spot” in front of your stereo system, or listening to music via headphones or earphones on a portable system.
In that “hermit” aspect of them, the two varieties of the audiophile hobby – the home one and the portable one – are completely identical.
This “hermit” energy, when solitary audiophile hermits from both of these camps oppose the negative force of mass market entropy, creates an ongoing force that constantly pushes further not only individual performance envelopes, but also the envelopes of currently existing technologies, while an inertia driven social response to such individual experiences can only impede them.

Briefly speaking, the current portable high performance audio incarnation has got all the necessary capabilities to carry the torch of “good ol’” home High End Audio.

That’s why if we all, as seasoned audiophiles, really want to get rid of the bitter aftertaste accumulated through the years in home version of High End Audio’s “sweet spots”, that is, if we really want to “sweeten them up”, we have got no reasons to continue to insist on the necessity of “the room” as a mandatory component for every decent audio system.

In other words, if we really want, using the general definition of a “sweet spot” at the beginning of this story, “to get (constantly increasing) maximum response for a given amount of effort”, then the audiophiles currently have got no choice but to move the “sweet spots” out of the rooms and to put them inside of their heads at the new “sweet spot, where the old stereotypes about it rested before being discarded as useless.

06.04.2016 // Author:  (Bigmisha) // Number of views:  652

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