Down the rabbit hole: the neverending quest for acoustic perfection
Most tech geniuses can get to grips with any new gadget or technology pretty quickly – except one. Meet your ultimate match, your love and your nemesis, audio tech.
Building a computer? Easy. Just pick the fastest components you can afford, according to your needs. Not a gamer? MacBook will cut it.
Choosing a TV? Easy. Buy OLED. If you need higher brightness, pick a mini-LED. Everything else is nuances that will take little time to figure out.
Smartphones, watches, or any other electronics? They’re all easy. Choose one of the three brands according to your liking and pocket. It’s not like an upgrade from a 300 to 1500-dollar phone would meaningfully improve the quality of your life.
Now, let’s turn to audio equipment, the largest hellhole in modern electronics. Nothing here is easy. Still relying on the oldest analog technology from the 19th century, there are thousands of components to choose from, seemingly without any meaningful connection between price and performance.
You could expend all kinds of time, effort, and money and still end up dissatisfied. Just listen to this guy’s story.
Like many millennials, Rocky was overly interested in new, advancing technologies.
Once he stopped playing Nintendo games in his teens, he fought nerd wars on the old PC vs. Mac debate, choosing the losing PC side. He was among the first to throw away a Symbian-based Nokia for a Sony Xperia Android phone. He picked Xbox over Playstation, but still, he was happy about his choice.
Rocky fancied himself as an audiovisual personality and was overly scrupulous in picking which devices to use for home video or audio experiences.
Well, the video part was easy for him. After digging for information online and checking out some TV models in stores, he quickly concluded that OLED was the way. They were expensive, but why would you feed your eyes with something of lesser quality, say, without HDR?
Up until this point, Rocky didn’t spend much time on the audio part. While he enjoyed music a lot, he wasn’t yet exposed to the corrupting Hi-Fi world. The cheap earphones that usually came with new phones, sub-par PC speakers, and built-in TV or laptop speakers always did the trick.
But once phone manufacturers stopped adding headphones, he had to do something.
So, he googled: “best headphones for 50 bucks.” A generous sum indeed to cover the most basic needs.
A pair of JVC HA-RX 700 was his first purchase. And those were ugly over-ear cans that could decorate the “Helicopter pilot fashion” magazine cover.
But even worse, the sound, praised by online reviewers, ignited Rocky’s frustration. On the one hand, JVCs sounded better than everything he had before, but something was also lacking. Given the headphones’ size, the bass wasn’t as deep and clear as he’d hoped.
“You get what you pay for,” he thought. “Probably should’ve spent at least $100.”
While the JVCs lasted for a short while, as a tech nerd, Rocky noticed emerging new technology – noise-canceling headphones. Bose and Sony promised unique listening experiences with a price tag of around $400.
For Rocky’s peers, this seemed like a waste of money. Better to buy a new GPU or something actually useful. Even a new monitor would be a more useful buy, improving on the “potato” that Rocky was using. But Rocky was sold on the idea of getting a personal sound booth snugly attached to his ears.
He bit the bullet and ordered Sony’s MDR-1000X, because Bose’s Quiet Comfort alternative was “too mainstream.” And boy, that was the best thing he had ever heard.
Headphones were the gateway drug
Sony’s cans revealed that old songs he had known since childhood had many additional sounds and nuances that he’d never heard before. A clean bass with crystal-clear vocals tickled his ears, and the dynamic range was unexpectedly wide, playing music from silent to loud sounds without additional noise. Until he tried this headset, he didn't even believe that playback and noise-canceling technology combination could be so effective – or that he needed such a thing.
He proudly demonstrated these new experiences to colleagues and relatives. It was a “dream come true” moment for all his audio needs.
But time passed, and after three years of daily use, his seductive possession suddenly died and refused to turn on anymore.
After some deliberation, going to the market for a new pair of cups, Rocky had no doubts. He wouldn’t go back to a lesser quality. He quickly found the newest model at the time, the Sony MDR WH-1000XM4.
These should be an improvement in every way, he thought: better noise canceling, better battery, better drivers, better LDAC connection. Newer is always better, right?
With high expectations, after patiently waiting for the courier to arrive, he tried the new cans.
Somehow, they seemed much worse. The vocals appeared to be less crisp, the tone of the voices seemed “synthetic,” the noise cancellation wasn't as effective as he’d hoped, and they weren't even as comfortable as his beloved old ones.
Rocky couldn't believe it. He tried one audio recording after another. Eventually, he put the cans aside and didn't use them for several days.
He decided that whatever it took, he would fix the old headphones. With basic electronics knowledge, he disassembled the headset to look for problems. Aha, the battery is dead; his multimeter showed 0 Volts. After an order on Amazon, a couple of weeks passed and the Chinese replica arrived, bringing the headphones back to life.
And… Now those sounded disappointing.
When Rocky compared the two pairs directly, it turned out that the new headset version was better in every regard. Louder, crispier, more dynamic. The old item faded with lesser output.
Rocky’s expectations and memories had been so distorted and twisted that they created an illusion, a perfect image of old headphones in his mind. An idea that crashed once it met reality.
While he found love with the new Sonys, the seed of doubt was also planted in his mind. What else is possible? Did he really experience the best of what’s possible?
From casual interest to full-blown audio enthusiast
Rocky decided to take matters into his own hands by learning from theory. He spent countless hours on physics, electronics, acoustics, and even human biology, of what is possible to hear.
He learned his limits of 18-20,000 Hertz listening range, studied what sampling rates and bit depths are required to record audio without adding distortions, could explain the differences between A, A/B, B, C, or D class amplifiers, and even started to experiment with transistors himself to figure out the limits of PWM (pulse with modulation).
At the same time, he started to look around at what was available on the market. Music is felt not only through the ears but also with air vibrations through the body. That understanding meant one thing – headphones alone won’t cut it.
The catch was the price. Expensive audio equipment costs not hundreds, not thousands, but tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This far surpassed any high-end tech Rocky had ever bought. Only in his dreams could he afford to build a system that consisted of many components like DACs (digital to analog converters), pre-amps, amps, speakers, and sources, each of them costing the equivalent of a small car. The most expensive TV is nothing compared to the most expensive audio system.
But then, how could he measure the difference between the old Sonys and high-end audio systems? Would it sound hundreds or thousands of times better? Would it sound twice as good? Is it possible to even measure such a thing? And indeed, there’s the point of diminishing returns.
So, Rocky spent hundreds or maybe thousands of hours on review sites and Youtube looking for answers. Which speaker is better? KEFs, Q Acoustics, Klipschs, or Polks? Which model? How will you drive them? With separates, or stick to a single receiver? Countless articles about Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony, or Yamaha products. Well, Emotiva seems cheaper, should you go that route?
And here comes the new technologies like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X. If you want the best of the best, wouldn’t you prefer having some surround sound at your home? But for that, you need many channels for front, center, surround, and even height speakers. Seven or nine speakers at least, plus a subwoofer, and the sky is the limit.
Defeated, Rocky saw few paths he could follow. First, spend around $1500, grab “the best” soundbar system from Samsung or Sony, and call it a day. That should be entertaining for movies or games, maybe not the best for music, but otherwise “good value” for money. The second option was to forget Dolby Atmos and build some affordable stereo system for a similar price with twin speakers that would be best for music listening.
He chose a third option – to build his way up. Start small and grow his system until it satisfies his tyrannical ears.
Front tower speakers were the first obvious buy. They should be the basis for a future system and could be used for stereo listening immediately.
Speaker sensitivity is measured in decibels, power is measured in watts, driver size in inches is usually a good indicator of how deep speakers could go in the lower frequency range, and the port position matters too, as its resonance makes the speaker sound bigger than it is. However, there are no specs on how good the speaker sounds. Different materials are used for the case, electronics, tweeters, ranging from plastic to platinum, etc.
The quality of the speaker is measured by watching countless hours of reviews and trusting some YouTubers.
So Rocky finally bought two German towers – the HECO Aurora 700. And big they were indeed. But Rocky didn’t have anything to drive them, so to even have a chance of listening, he went to a used electronics shop and bought an ancient, very weak Yamaha receiver for 40 bucks. Rated for 6 Amps, the receiver could blow something up, as speakers needed more power, rated at 4 Amps. Rocky knew that, so he was careful not to crank up the volume.
Connected via Toslink (an old optical audio cable standard for digital audio) to the smart TV, HECOs played the sound, and they sounded just great, filling the whole room with music.
Rocky’s girlfriend had difficulty understanding the need for all this effort. It can be difficult to explain why someone might need a full array of expensive speakers, or even just two big ones. Yet, something inside kept Rocky going forward.
Later the matching HECO Aurora 30 center channel speaker arrived. It added clarity to dialogs watching movies, but it wasn’t all that useful when listening to stereo with an old receiver.
But Rocky continued. More hours on YouTube and reviews, comparing Elac B5.2 with KEF Q150 or Emotiva B1+ with Jamo S803. For satellite speakers, finally, he chose the Q Acoustic 3020i.
Those small speakers were another discovery. While being much cheaper, they sounded almost as good as the big HECOs, but somehow different. Could it be a receiver problem? Did Rocky overpay for tower speakers?
A total of five speakers could already output a basic 5.0 surround. Was Rocky happy? Yes, he was. Was he satisfied? Well, no.
Out with the old receiver and in with the new. Rocky decided not to go with the separate DACs or amplifiers but just to put a single receiver as a cost-effective solution. It also saved time, as he had to read reviews for only one unit.
These start from a few hundred dollars. But no, Rocky wanted the ability to expand his home audio system to a Dolby Atmos experience in the future. So, he chose the costlier Denon AVC-X3800h, which could output nine audio channels and process two more. Of course, instead of enjoying his life or work, countless reviews had to be read online, countless hours spent on Youtube.
Where does it all end?
And here, the story suddenly stops. Rocky is sitting on the box of his recently arrived receiver, he has to buy more copper cables to connect everything (that requires separate research and discussion). Then, he’ll run room correction software to balance the sound. But he’s afraid that the new receiver will also sound disappointing, failing to meet his bloated expectations.
Rocky probably won’t be satisfied, even with this purchase. But he already plans to add a subwoofer to his setup, and those are costly. But won’t it provide the ultimate experience? Probably. He needs to watch some YouTube reviews, and those SVS subwoofers seem promising. Also, Rocky has no height speakers. He has no idea which ones to buy yet, as he didn’t spend any time on research.
And then what? Rocky sees a future where he realizes that separate AMPs or DACs could sound better, or different speakers could liven the experience. Rocky noticed that each speaker had its own “personality.” He should probably try some others for comparison. How can he know what’s best for him if he hasn’t heard other options?
Rocky does not exist. It was me all along. Rocky, the iconic movie character, was briefly my childhood hero.
I wrote this article to make a point. Audio tech is a rabbit hole, and I both hate and love it.
If you start to delve into it, you can’t come back, nor can you find the end. You can’t figure it out, you can never find the best stuff, but you can easily disappoint yourself. After spending way too much time on this hobby, I couldn’t even give any advice on what other listeners should use.
And I can almost visualize the amused smirks of audiophiles as they catch wind of my limited experience in the world of sound.
Like in high fashion, audio tech involves high-quality materials, skilled experts, craftsmanship, and a touch of fairy dust.
You might find something that sounds good for one listener, yourself. But, eventually, you’ll find something that sounds even better.
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