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The Perfectly Complete, Completely Perfect,
Thinking Person's Guide to Stereos
by James Boyk

New West, September 11, 1978
Copyright © 1978, 1998 James Boyk
Finalist in the National Magazine Awards.

 

[May 24, 1998: This article has obvious anachronisms, such as not mentioning Compact Disks, which did not exist when it was written. However, I am not posting it as a piece of nostalgia, but as a still-useful guide to listening and to learning about equipment by "adding up virtues"—my own technique for drawing valid conclusions when listening in uncontrolled circumstances—and also for the description of pitfalls in shopping.        Seven years after the article appeared, several dealers told me that buyers were still coming in asking to audition equipment in the way I recommended. I'm proud of this extended usefulness, and I hope that this posting renews that usefulness for a new generation of music lovers. And it is music lovers that it's aimed at, not audiophiles. The sidebars of the original article will be posted in the near future, as time permits.
       The article raised a ruckus when it appeared. Audio store owners, unlike say restaurateurs, are not used to being reviewed; and they thought there must be something illegal about it. To this day, I'm not aware of any other article that has ever done such reviews. To prepare them, I visited 33 stores all over California incognito, and did phone interviews with the store owners and at least three salesmen at each store, if there were that many. I gave the salesmen a technical quiz, too. (I included at each store the salesperson identified by the owner as most knowledgeable.) The published review included only 26 dealers, however, because some went out of business in the months I was working on the piece. At least one store was omitted because a true account would have told about their crooked practices, such as intentionally ruining the performance of speakers they wanted to carry for prestige, but did not want to sell because the profit margin was too low. I chickened out about inviting a libel suit. (It isn't libel if it's true; but that doesn't mean it wouldn't cost a lot of money to prove it.)
       The time I put into the article, including store visits, interviews, equipment evaluations and writing, was about 800 hours. That's why most journalism is so bad: because a good job takes that long, but no publisher will pay anything like minimum wage for the hours. If my memory is correct, I made about $1.25/hour for the job.
       The article named names; but as all references are long out of date, I've omitted here the name of any dealership referred to negatively; while individuals quoted in any way that might reflect badly on them have been reduced to initials.]

 
Whether you buy a new hi-fi system or simply "tune up" your current one, it is possible to choose your own equipment without being a technical expert and 'without spending a fortune. The main idea is simple: Use and trust your own ears.
       Salesmen's advice is usually worthless; for, despite their fluent jargon, most salesmen know nothing about audio. In addition, at most stores salesmen receive incentives called "spiffs" for selling you one-unit rather than another, even when the two units are the same price. These come in addition to the general incentive of bigger commissions on bigger sales. Some stores do not use either of these incentives, and of course some salesmen are knowledgeable. During six months of interviews and incognito visits. I gathered information to enable you to choose the best systems. The accompanying dealer chart gives the details. [Chart not uploaded yet.--JB]
       You don't need technical experts because the manufacturers' technical specifications are useless, too. "There are only two specs on standard spec sheets which allow you to compare two units directly." says Mike Friedman of Sound Center, Woodland Hills. "One is the dimensions and the other is the weight. The dimensions tell you if the unit will fit on your shelf, and the weight tells you if the shelf is strong enough."
       Focusing on the process rather than the equipment is the only approach that makes sense to me, since everyone's taste is different and the available equipment changes all the time. The process I describe is very different from the usual one, in which you enter the store of a mass merchandiser and are overwhelmed by the noise of several systems playing at once, and the sight of walls, floors and ceilings covered with equipment. Disoriented, you turn to the salesman, who rescues you by focusing your attention on one particular system or component. In gratitude you buy it. If a man and woman are shopping together, there is often an additional element in the transaction: The salesman feeds technical tidbits to the man to enable him to maintain his position as "knower of technical things" vis-a-vis the woman. In return, the man buys the equipment. These psychodynamics have nothing to do with getting the right system for you, and the salesman's favorite line for getting you to buy right now, "Whatever you like is right for you," is more misleading than anything else. Will you still like it three days from now, let alone three months or years? That's the question.
       To aid in your decision making, I include a list of equipment that I recommend in my own audio consulting. [Not uploaded yet.--JB] Whether you start with this list or a salesman's suggestions, you can successfully pick a system that will give you lasting pleasure. But if you choose it without making listening the central part of the process, save this article. You'll want it when you buy your next stereo system—in a few months!
      There are many different ways to listen, and I have some specific suggestions for you. But the crucial thing is simply that you must actually listen, that is, pay attention to the sound in circumstances that allow you to do so—in a quiet, relaxed situation. You must do enough listening to allow time for your own taste to form. This may take five or six or ten or twenty hours, spread over several sessions. After a few sessions of listening for the sound qualities described below, you will notice a sharp focusing of your perceptions. The life-enhancing aspect about this approach is that it will affect your perceptions of all sound, live as well as reproduced.
       "One of the spectacular things about live sound," in the words of hi-fi importer and distributor Gerald Sindell, "is its tremendous variety of texture." It will become apparent to vou as your listening continues that most hi-fi systems homogenize this variety so that everything sounds alike. Often this comes from "colorations" in the sound, exaggerations of highs or lows or middles. The manufacturer may build these colorations into the sound of a component intentionally, for instance, in the case of a loudspeaker with a lot of "boom" or "false bass" at the expense of really extended low notes. Or, as we will see later, a dealer may use doctored tapes to "hype" the sound for demonstrations. In any event, you can and should avoid hyped sound. And you should seek the following:
       Uncolored sound: "We hear natural sounds every day of our lives. We know what voices sound like," says Norm Middleton of Middleton, White & Kemp, the Anaheim store that sounds like a law firm. Natural reproduction of voices is in fact one of the most difficult things for a hi-fi system. Listen to male and female voices speaking and singing. For help with this, see the list of recommended recordings below. Listen also to records of any instrument whose sound you know especially well.
       Honest bass and airy, nonfatiguing highs: Can you hear the pitch of bass notes? Can you tell a double bass from an electric bass from the low register of a piano? Or is there just a vague "boom"? Many speakers bought for their bass performance—especially ones billed as being "good rock speakers"—have little deep bass. They sacrifice it in order to exaggerate middle bass pitches. On these speakers, all bass notes will tend to sound like the same pitch. On the high end of the pitch range, listen for natural, unexaggerated sibilants ("sss" sounds) in voices. Notice how sibilants sound in live speech. They're present, but they don't draw attention to themselves. Cymbals and applause, too, should sound realistic but not tiring, even after several record sides.
       Dynamic range: One of the most exciting things about live sound is its dynamic range, that is, variation from soft to loud. When we experience the art of Joan Baez or Thelonious Monk or Beethoven, dynamic range plays an important part. As a performer, I feel that hi-fi systems lose out to live music more in this area than in any other. Dynamic range is lost on both ends, so to speak. Softness is limited by background noise, hum and so forth. You want a system with no audible hum or noise even when nothing is playing. Loudness is limited by various physical aspects of equipment design. When the music gets louder but the system can't, the result is "dynamic compression." This robs the music of climaxes, those final kicks that give emotional satisfaction. You want a system that sounds effortless in conveying the loudest dynamic peaks at your listening levels.
       Speed: This is the ability of a system to mobilize its dynamic capability fast. Piano notes, guitar strums and drum beats are all examples of sounds that need this. Even when a piano is played softly, the first instant of each note, when the hammer hits the string, is quite powerful. It's the same for the instant of plucking the guitar string, or the moment the drumstick hits the drumhead. These "transients" are so short that we don't hear them explicitly; but if they are not reproduced accurately, the instruments will sound unconvincing. Listen to these instruments reproduced at low volume. The sound should be realistic. If it's not, and you have to turn the system up to get the "punch" of the sound, then the system is too slow. (When you do turn the volume up, the transients should still sound good. The uncolored character of the sound should not change, either.)
       Imaging: No, this does not have to do with advertising or PR. Think for a moment of a stereopticon, that device that holds two photos before your eyes so that you see a 3-D image, in which objects are located both left-to-right and front-to-back. The two stereo speakers function in an analogous way to locate the "sound images" of the performers both laterally and in depth. Listen with your eyes closed to allow the image to establish itself without the interference of contrary visual cues. The images of the performers should have well-defined locations. They should be stable, even when pitch and dynamics change. That is, if a guitarist plays up and down a scale, or changes from loud to soft, his apparent location should not change. (The placement of the speakers is important to the imaging. See set-up instructions below.) True stereo—which most people have never heard—is something really thrilling. It allows you to relate to the performance's spatial aspects in the same way you do with a live performance, and to follow a particular instrument's music not only by the sound quality of the instrument but also by its location.
       Clarity of textures: There are systems that come out pretty well in the qualities above, and that sound fine with single voices or instruments, yet have a hard time reproducing complicated textures clearly. The test for this is to see if you can follow a single instrument in the orchestra or a single voice in a chorus even when the whole group is performing.
      Comparisons focus your listening. If you already have a system at home, no matter how inexpensive, compare the sound before and after following these suggestions:

  • For good imaging, the speakers should be facing the same way, or angled slightly toward each other. You should be at least as far from the speakers as they are from each other. Move toward and away from the speakers while music is playing. When you are too close to them, the stereo image pulls apart like taffy, leaving a hole in the middle. At one point as you move back, the image will come together in a well-defined way (assuming you're playing a good recording). From that distance on back, you have stereo. How far the area of good stereo extends to the sides depends on your speakers and room. Place the speakers so that the stereo area is where you want it.
  • Get the speakers away from the walls and floor (there are stands you can buy for this purpose). Though speakers seem self-contained in their boxes, their position matters very much. The phrase "bookshelf speaker" is unfortunate, because there are hardly any speakers that sound their best on a bookshelf or anywhere near a wall. Move them out and up, and the stereo image will probably gain in depth and the coloration of the sound will decrease. (There are a few speakers specifically designed for placement near a wall; of course, they will function best in that setting. But unless the manufacturer's literature calls for a particular placement, assume that the speaker will do best away from walls and floor.)
  • Be sure that the turntable is on something solid, and not on top of a speaker or on a shelf that also carries the speakers. If the turntable support can move at all, the sound from the speakers will move it and muddy the sound. While you're at it, level the turntable (using a small level). And if it does not have a mat that supports the record firmly over its whole area, get one.
  • Carefully unplug and replug all connectors on the back of the receiver or amplifier and elsewhere in the system to clean them. (Do this with the system off!)
  • Make sure that you are using large wire to connect the speakers to the amplifier or receiver. It should be at least 16-gauge, one size heavier than ordinary lamp cord; and preferably 14- or even 12-gauge. (The smaller the gauge number, the larger the wire.)
  • Get out the manufacturer's booklet for your turntable and double-check the mounting of the cartridge (the small mechanism of which the needle, or stylus, is part). Misalignment of the cartridge in the arm is one of the most common causes of bad sound. It is also one of the most easily fixed.

Listening to the effects of these changes on the sound of your system is a good way to start your hi-fi auditioning before even entering a store. You may find that you aren't getting that stereo image I've been raving about. Perhaps the sound is colored or dynamically constricted, too. It could well be that the deficiencies are in the records. To be sure you are evaluating the equipment and not the records, use the best discs you can find. Unfortunately, records from the major American manufacturers are pretty awful. [Still true.—JB] If your system is halfway decent, the best investment you can make in better sound is probably just to buy good recordings. [The list that appeared here is out of date, but here's a list of my CD's and Lp's as performer, producer and/or engineer; they're recognized by reviewers internationally as exceptionally fine in both interpretations and sound quality. For other fine albums, see the record review magazines, especially The Gramophone. —JB]
       You have begun your listening at home or at a friend's home by comparing the sound of your system before and after the changes suggested above, and by listening to the difference good records make. You may find that the better discs and set-up give you all you need. If so, enjoy!
       If the sound is still not all you want, start listening in stores the same way you've done at home. You need a store with an acoustically good room, good equipment set-up, a low background-noise level, an attitude conducive to extended listening—and the equipment you want to hear. Such a place will probably not be a discounter. People make much of shopping for price, perhaps because control over their checkbooks is the only control they feel they have. I would have you make much of listening where you can do it seriously, and then do your buying there, too. No store carries all lines of equipment, but it's a mistake to think that you can necessarily find the best system at a store that handles a million different brands. A lot of the good smaller manufacturers do not franchise the mass merchandisers because they "don't want to be in the zoo," as one distributor refers to the high-pressure and noisy atmosphere in such stores. Remember that all stores are in business to make money; the discounters just make their profits in a slightly different way.
       One area where a lot of profit is made is cartridges. The cartridge is fully as important to the sound as the loudspeaker, but because the cartridge is so small, people tend to ignore it. This leads to what a salesman at one discounter calls "the cartridge scam." He explains, "You sell a turntable at 6 percent over cost, so you have to sell a guy a cartridge at 100 percent over cost and the guy ends up with a cartridge that's not as good as he needs." The amusing—or dismaying—thing is that the example he gave of selling at 100 percent over cost was, "You buy it for $8 and sell it for $80!"
       Another big source of profit is house brands. S.F., a salesman at [a West Los Angeles store], says, "Usually the retailer's major profit comes on cartridges or private-label speakers.... That's the whole purpose of private labels, to provide profit." And one manufacturer's sales rep estimates that at [one large discount chain], private-label equipment is "probably over 60 percent of the business."
       Hi-fi is big business: $2 billion annually nationwide, and $356 million in California. [As one Los Angeles salesman] points out, "All of this business runs on credit. If you have $10,000 worth of Marantz in your back room and the bill is fixing to hit next month, all of a sudden Marantz is state-of-the-art." In this scheme of things, the salesman's function is described by one who says, "We're here to sell, try and understand that. We're here to move equipment out the door."
       Well, it's pretty obvious that some stores "really move the tonnage," as they say. And most salesmen work on commission. But you also need to know about spiffs, which are kickbacks to the salesman from either the manufacturer or the store owner, who may want to move some overstock. Spiffs take several forms, including "points" toward the salesman's ownership of the manufacturer's equipment, points toward other goods from a redemption center, or just plain cash. In general, they run from a buck or so up to $10, $15 or $20. But despite the small dollar amount, salesmen can make a lot of money by "going for the spiff" regularly. One salesman at [a Los Angeles dealership] sold enough Bang & Olufsen equipment in a 120-day period to earn a refrigerator/freezer with an icemaker on spiff points. And salesman K. Z. of [a discount electronics chain], when asked his opinion of spiffing replied, "You've just asked Spiff King.... Probably in the area of 50 to 60 percent of my wages are from that."
       There are big spiffs, too. The highest I found was $353 to a salesman for selling an $800 receiver. The second largest in percentage were spiffs of $150 on a $750 receiver and $80 on a $400 pair of speakers. And there were a number of $50 and $100 spiffs on a variety of expensive items. The money may be even better than it looks because, as one owner-salesman points out, "Nobody has to report that money [to the IRS]."
       Salesmen's attitudes toward spiffing vary. Most like it for the obvious reason. "I think it's great. I mean, it's a way for me to make money," says salesman R. F. of [a chain store}. On the other hand, "It gives the salesman extra incentive to sell a product, and it's an incentive he shouldn't have," according to S.S. of [a Beverly Hills store]. He goes on, "If you get paid well enough to do your job, you don't need spiffs." ... "I feel in my bones that it's fundamentally unethical," says salesman B. O. of [a Los Angeles dealer].... As one store owner says of spiffing, "How it affects the industry is very simple: Buyer beware." What does this mean to you? That when there are two units at the same price, and the salesman recommends one over the other, you can not assume that he really thinks it's better. Yes, the sales commission will be the same; but the spiffs may not.
       The chart of dealers [Not included yet.—JB] presents estimates of the role that spiffing plays in salemen's incomes at each store, based on interviews with salesmen, management and manufacturers' representatives, among others. It is difficult to be precise about it. Probably the most useful thing for you to know is that as a group the "high end" dealers, who sell more expensive equipment, clearly have much less spiffing than the mass merchandisers, because the makers of the equipment offer spiffs infrequently and because the owners themselves use it less within the stores. Some of them have no spiffs at all. But at stores such as [two chains which no longer exist], spiffing plays a significant role in the incomes of many salesmen.
       When in doubt, assume that the salesmen's advice is being affected by this kind of economic interest. Even if it's not, the advice will not be very useful. For as a group, salesmen are very ignorant of audio. I gave each one interviewed a short technical quiz with questions designed to deal with issues that come up all the time in people's buying decisions. For instance, receivers and amplifiers are sold on the basis of their power ratings, yet these ratings are virtually meaningless. (I'll explain why in a moment.) So one of the three questions probed the salesman's understanding of the ratings. Another dealt with tone-arm and cartridge interaction, and related topics. The third dealt with the comparison of specifications arrived at by differing measurement methods. The point of the quiz was to tell who had basic technical knowledge. Not that technical knowledge is important to you; it's not, and you don't need to worry about it. But these people snow you with their supposed expertise, and if they really knew about technical things, a perfect score, 8 out of 8, would have been routine. In fact, the average score was 3.8. (The range was from 0 to 8.) Even within any given store, the range was considerable. Moreover, the salesman identified by management as being the most knowledgeable technically—I always interviewed this one among others—was by no means always the highest scorer. So you cannot go to the owner and say, "Tell me which salesman knows the most," because the owner doesn't know.
       On the one hand, then, retail audio has the same economic pressures as any other retail business. On the other hand, in most other businesses it's easier to tell whether a product is good or not. Clothing, for example, fits well or not; it lasts or it doesn't. In audio, knowledge is of two kinds, either technical or ear knowledge. Few people have any of the former. And though anyone can acquire the latter, conditions in most stores' listening rooms do not favor the salesmen's acquiring it. Not only is the background-noise level in most stores too high for serious listening, but the tapes that some stores use for demonstrations have "hyped" sound. When I visited the Federated Group store in West Los Angeles, for example, the salesman would not allow me to listen to a tape of my own. "Our tapes are set up to make our equipment sound good," he explained. Federated's verbal policy that a customer may listen to his own record or tape didn't work out in this case. Therefore, you are actually in a much better position to learn how to hear than most salesmen are.
       The one kind of knowledge the salesman is sure to have is of prices and features of the equipment he carries, which is why I am not taking space for those things here.
       If the advice of most retail people is useless, what about manufacturers' specifications? Take, for example, the power output of a receiver or amplifier. (The idea of this spec is that if you took a 100-watt light bulb, say, and hooked it up to the loudspeaker terminals of a "100-watt" receiver, it would light to full brightness. Don't try it, however.) Receiver manufacturers are currently in a power race like automobile horsepower races. Now, the trouble with horsepower ratings of cars is that the power is measured under conditions that allow the engine to deliver all its power readily. On actual roads, a car's ability to use that power is limited by its handling and suspension. Receivers' power output, too, is measured in a way that allows them to deliver all of their power with ease. But delivering that power to a loudspeaker is a very different matter. The result is that rated power does not correlate with the actual volume the unit can produce.
       Another specification which does not correlate with what you hear is distortion. Some amplifiers with one percent distortion score better in listening tests than others with one tenth of a percent!
       Specs don't correlate with listening for the same reason that EPA mileage figures don't correlate with the mileage you actually get on your car: They measure not reality but what's easy to measure. The reality is that our perception of sound is very complex and not understood well by anyone. Moreover, different people listen to different aspects of sound. Professional recording engineers often listen more for dynamics and speed than for imaging, depth and uncolored sound. Professional musicians tend not to care about imaging but to be sensitive to dynamic range and irritating additions to the sound. And different equipment is good at reproducing different aspects of the sound. This is why quick switching between components is not very useful: You're comparing apples and oranges, in a sense. Better to listen to one system long enough to hear whether it is good at the aspects of sound you are most sensitive to.
       The moral of all this discussion of who and what not to trust is simple: Trust your own ears.
       You may want to read a magazine for advice. [In the original article, I recommended three magazines; but I can't recommend any now. See my TNT interview for my comments on audio magazines.] A good book can be very useful for your orientation; one such is Reproduction of Sound by Edgar Villchur (Dover, $1.35), the founder of speaker maker Acoustic Research (AR).
       You are now prepared to go to the store, knowing what to listen for and whom not to listen to. Choose a store that's as interested in listening as you are. But even if you go to a store that doesn't normally work this way, you can often arrange to do some serious listening. Call the manager beforehand. He may make an after-hours appointment or just tell you the least busy time of day.
       Wherever you go, take your own recordings. If you drive 30 minutes to get there, allow a few minutes for your hearing to recover before you start listening. Listen in a relaxed but attentive manner for an hour or so, first to one system for a half or complete record side, then to another system with the same record. (Quick switching back and forth, or "A-B'ing," is just a good way to get confused.) Remember that no matter what component you are trying to choose, no matter which item your attention is directed toward, you are always and only listening to a complete system. This includes the recording; the turntable or CD player; the amplifier; the speakers; the room; and your ears and state of mind.
       Listen to each system long enough to let it establish its sound in your ears. After the focusing that I described happens, you will begin to have a good idea of the range of quality among various systems. If a system has good imaging, clarity of textures, dynamic range, speed, honest bass or nonfatiguing highs, then the entire system must be capable of it, or it would disappear. This leads to a way to evaluate a particular component: Listen to it in as many systems as possible and add up positive qualities as you go. For example, suppose you hear a particular cartridge in one system, and the system as a whole shows good imaging but not good dynamic range. One thing you know is that the cartridge must have good imaging. You also know that some component in the system does not have good dynamic range; but whether or not it's the cartridge, you can't tell. Now you listen to the same cartridge in a different system, and this new system shows excellent dynamic range but poor imaging. You now know that the cartridge has excellent dynamic range to add to its excellent imaging. You also know that some other component of this system is killing the imaging. It's not the cartridge, of course, since the first system established that the cartridge has good imaging. In this way, you can partially cancel out the random effects of the other components in the system.
       You may want to try a component with others not carried by the store. Most stores allow you to bring equipment from home or from another store and connect it to the pieces you're interested in. When you have found some components you like, listen to them together for at least a couple of hours, preferably in two sessions. Have them connected directly to each other rather than through an "A-B" box when you do this. Ideally, arrange to listen to the system at home for a week at least before your final decision. When you have found a system that you enjoy after this extended listening, buy it and congratulations!

 
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