Brian Tracy Barry
a an AudiophileDate Reviewed:
September 15, 1998Bottom Line:
A Methodology For Audio System Tuning That Works
As an audiophile for thirty years, I have often wondered why certain products seem to get reviewed while other, seemingly credible and often superior, products never seem to see the light of day in the high profile audio magazines such as Stereophile , Fi or The Absolute Sound. Also, as many of you who are reading this have also been on a similar path, I've long been on the path to find "audio truth" in a sea of vastly divergent views, approaches and opinions amongst the professional reviewers and manufacturers. I am writing this, to share with any of you who have been on the same path, to let you know that the truth is closer than you think, for all of you with an open mind.
My comments are not restricted to only the above magazines, but these magazines do seem to exemplify, by a significant degree, the selective editorial policies of the high end community magazines. These magazines claim that their reviews are not tied to advertising, but one simply has to peruse the pages and see who advertises and who gets reviewed. After much reading between the lines of thousands of reviews over the years and picking up on obvious admissions/omissions (some overt and some covert) on the part of reviewers, there also appears to be a process of selective "exclusion" of manufacturers who do not cater to reviewers nor give products on a "loan" basis for unlimited periods of time or as outright "gifts" to reviewers.
As an example, being a current owner of the Tice Power Block Signature Series line conditioner, I've often wondered why this product has never shown up in an audio review when George Tice was the innovator of audiophile line conditioning just about a decade ago and all the High End magazines were reviewing his products on a regular basis. I'm not saying that this is what happened to George Tice nor do I have any information as to why his products are not highly reviewed, but I do wonder if Mr. Tice was not the object of "exclusion" for some reason unknown to us audiophiles, because his product is truly a superior one.
It is quite well known that within the audio community, "dealerships" for products are doled out like auto dealership franchises. Protected areas are carved out for selected dealers while precluding other equally competent, reputable dealers within a geographic area. Dealers who violate pricing "rules" can quickly find their "franchise" taken away. But, as regulatory as some manufacturers seem to get, it is not uncommon for these manufacturers to accept moneys to put aside their own rules of protected areas to give a franchise to a dealer who might be willing to give moneys, up front, to these manufacturers to, in effect, "buy" their franchise even in so-called protected areas.
If I were to tell you that a base price $400 CD player could be custom modified to sound better and outperform a $4000 plus CD front end (consisting of a DAC, DSP jitter filter and transport) which consisted of two out of three components which made the Stereophile Class A recommended components list, you would probably tell me that I was out of my mind. Well, I can tell you that there definitely is such a product that can do exactly what I have just described and is available from one of the clear visionaries of the audio industry and can be ordered today! I'm not saying that the price of the modified player is $400, but we're talking around $2000 maximum with the custom modifications. I owned the $4000 plus CD front end products; I now own this custom modfifed product and it will outperform products going for five digit dollar figures. The reason that my current CD player can perform at this level is that I own a completely variably tunable "system" which does not have a "sonic signature" of its own, as most reviewers like to assign to products.
Think about this - if a product has a sonic signature of its own, then by definition that product is flawed and does not deserve a "Class A" or any other high rating or endorsement. But, we see this all the time in product reviews. If we are taking an electronic signal produced by one component and reproducing that signal through other electronic components, how can we say what any given component sounds like? Even the reviewers agree that every electronic component (be it a capacitor, resistor, transformer, cable, etc.) has its own sonic signature. How can you separate a component out from its interaction with other components and say that it sounds like this or that? The only judgment one can make is how the whole system sounds - is it musical, does it sound like the original venue in which the music was created or is it a reasonable facsimile of real music?
In recent issues of Stereophile and several issues of The Absolute Sound, the "latest and greatest" among acoustical room correction products happens to be the new SigTech Acoustic Correction DSP. Two other DSP preamps have been reviewed by Stereophile to correct "system/in-room response" anomalies; one from NAD ($1699) and one from Z-Systems ($5000). Hi Fi '98 has introduced even more products in this DSP category. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these types of products, you should understand one thing. How is it possible to remove frequency anomolies from an audio signal, which has been recreated and reproduced by an electronic component, without taking out some of the original source electronic signal also? How is it possible to recreate a harmonic structure which was never in the original signal (the TDS enhancers claim to do this and the reviewers have raved about these products)? This is not to say that DSP's do not have a place in audio systems nor do I wish to cast aspersions on the SigTech or any other DSP product. But, if it takes an investment of $10,000 plus a laptop thrown in and a technician from the factory to deal with room/speaker interaction, it seems the industry has gone awry somewhere. What happens to a DSP product which is developed at one altitude and climate and then installed in another altitude and climate? Does the technician come out and totally recalibrate the DSP to the new altitude and climate conditions?
All reviewers agree that all components require burn-in and that their sound changes over this burn-in period. Does the technician also come back to recalibrate the product after burn-in or during burn-in or is the customer then left on his or her own? Suppose the customer isn't technically inclined to deal with computer programming or if there is no way to recalibrate the product after burn-in? Is the customer recharged for additional programming? Is this truly the way to go to deal with room/frequency anomaly problems?
If a DSP product (I don't believe any of the above do use a microphone, although I'm not sure about the SigTech) uses a microphone (undoubtedly manufactured by another manufacturer as an OEM product) that is calibrated at one altitude and climate, whose responsibility is it to come to the customer's home to recalibrate it at another altitude - the microphone manufacturer, the DSP manufacturer or is the customer on his or her own?
It appears that High End audio has failed and failed miserably in advancing the state of the art of two channel audio systems to the point that the public has lost almost all interest in "audio only" systems in favor of surround sound systems (if you can't beat them with quality, beat them with quantity). DSP acoustical/frequency/harmonics correction products show an overt admission by High End manufacturers and professional reviewers that they have, in effect, given up trying to create "true to life sounding music" because they don't know how to deal with room/speaker interaction problems and haven't the foggiest clue about tuning audio systems. Dealers definitely do not know how to assist customers in this area because their guidance must come from the professionals of which I just spoke (the manufacturers and reviewers).
Whatever happened to the concept of building components as if they were musical instruments or did this concept ever exist? If a musician must be able to variably tune his or her instrument to the hall in which he or she is playing, why is it not true then that audiophiles must variably tune their audio "system(s)" to the room in which they are to be played (including variably tuning the room). Why are not audio components viewed as musical instruments? Why is the room not viewed as a component? And, if they were viewed as such, why not tune them similar to the way a musician tunes his or her instrument - by varying pitch and harmonics of the instrument? The audio industry has even resorted to building speakers out of such exotic materials as Corian, concrete and polymers. How many of you have seen a violin, a cello, a classic piano, etc. built out of anything but wood to create correct harmonic structures of these wood instruments and, still, the instrument (and orchestra) must be variably tuned to the hall? How do you vary the pitch and harmonics of concrete or Corian? How can any audio component system (i.e., loudspeakers, electronic components and room) recreate the correct harmonic structure of a piano or horn or full orchestra without variable component, system and acoustical tuning? How can manufacturers not consider the room as a vital component of our audio systems which also must be variably tuned to recreate the original recorded environment? I don't see how DSP alone can solve this when you do not know the environment in which the DSP will be installed. What happens when the owner decides to repaint or redecorate the room (i.e., semi gloss paint will "liven" the room, wall paper will deaden the room, etc.)? Who will reprogram the DSP and will the customer have to incur reprogramming charges?
Even isolation devices have gone from the days of rubber type component feet to sorbothane to navcom to granite to isolation points, made of various metals or polymers, to air isolation devices to deal with unwanted resonances in electronic components. The question is not whether these devices work, but which device or approach works the best? When it comes to acoustical treatments, the answer has always been a "kill the room" approach using damping materials. How do you accurately recreate reflections in a concert hall by damping reflections in your listening room? Wouldn't the correct approach be to "CONTROL and variably tune" rather than "dampen or remove"?
Reviewers (and manufacturers) have catered to all of the above illogical and misguided methodologies to approach that ultimate goal of reproducing a recording as heard in its original venue. Are they not aware that a whole room can be built today which is totally tunable and controllable, the cost of the products used being the same, less or more than some of the DSP's reviewed, without removing the original harmonic structure of the recreated original signals? Are they not aware of non-passive acoustical control devices built like musical instruments to deal with the room/speaker interaction anomolies? As audiophiles, have you seen any of these reviews of variably tunable products? They have been on the market for over a year now. Could it be that such products are not welcome by certain "Powers That Be" within the audio community?
Whatever happened to the visionaries who revolutionized the audio world, only to disappear into oblivion, never to have their products reviewed again? If you are an audiophile or just a music lover, these are questions you should be asking yourself and demanding answers from high end reviewers and magazines. You should want to know who these visionaries are, why they have disappeared from the audio scene and why their products are not reviewed. These visionaries are still around, quietly developing new state-of-the-art products, but with little to no support from the reviewing community. But, if the reviewing community persists in its "exclusion" of certain products and manufacturers (and even the exclusion of credible reviewers), all of us will be losers in the end.
I have traveled a long path to find the audio truth. I have tried damping products, just about every isolation type device on the market, various acoustical approaches, cables, power cords and more tuning tweaks imaginable, in my thirty years as an audiophile and I believe that I have finally found the right path. My system is totally variably tunable, including my room. I have found and taken a "system" approach to recreating music in my listening room which will create the correct harmonic structure in a way that sounds natural and real to me. The beauty of this system is that in most cases, the least expensive components of quality are the components which lend themselves most to variable tuning. How do you know when you have a correctly tuned system? You'll know when your soundstage widens and deepens, when the correct harmonic structures of instruments are properly reproduced giving you goose bumps, when dynamics all of a sudden take a dramatic leap toward realism and all of a sudden you are listening to music and not just "clean sounding" components. This system is the Michael Green Designs system of variable tuning for components, speakers and the room. In my years as an audiophile, I have spoken and dealt with many dealers and manufacturers. I have met only one who has taken the time to sit down and speak to the people who know the most about what music should sound like and then build products to reproduce music based on these discussions. First you should know the obvious - that this group of people who know the most about what music should sound like are the professional musicians themselves. This knowledge, gained from these discussions, has been transformed into a methodology of building products for audiophiles as if these products were musical instruments and all of these products are variably tunable - equipment racks, loudspeakers and room acoustical treatments (including the ability to build an entire tunable room including tunable floors, walls and ceilings, for those who wish to and have resources to do so). In addition, my main components (CD player, solid state single ended mono block amps, preamp) have all been custom hand crafted from already outstanding performing products by Michael Green Designs' engineering staff with mechanical grounding of components inside the chassis, other proprietary technology, and all damping products have been removed from my system and components. All system components can and are variably tuned by me, including my line conditioner and digital tape recorder.
As I said, I have tried just about all other methodologies on the market including the "buy the expensive component and overpower the room" route, the damping route, the graphic and parametric equalization route (including digital equalization), the "air bladder" isolation device route, acoustical diffraction, diffusion and damping devices, most of the reasonably priced isolation platforms (under four figures), the mass loading of components route, etc. and I have finally found only one which is flexible enough to work with just about every electronic component available (i.e., some components just do not lend themselves well to variable tuning because of extreme chassis rigidity or their irregular shape).
If any of you have questions about this methodology, feel free to e-mail me at the e-mail address below. Hate mailers need not respond; life is too short. This offer is just for sharing and enjoying music as it should be enjoyed and not for debating. You may also obtain additional information on this "System Tuning" methodology and all products available by calling the Michael Green Designs Hotline at 1-888-766-6886 (international or callers from Canada who may have difficulty accessing toll free 800,888 or 877 numbers can reach Michael Green Designs at 1-330-308-5500), by fax at 1-330- 308-5600 or by visiting their web site at (best viewed with Netscape browser which includes the Beatnik Player plug-in). The web site does not include the custom hand crafted component products and services, however. Custom component and services information can only be obtained through the Hotline number.
I hope I have given some of you audiophiles, enthusiasts and music lovers something to think about and I hope you will start demanding better answers from High End audio, home theater magazines and their reviewers. This applies as well to the "Boys (and Ladies) Club" of manufacturers who perpetuate this system of selective exclusion only to further their profits and egos, and not to further the quality and enjoyment of music reproduction.
If any of you know of a better approach to reproducing music in one's home, please let me know and I'll quickly convert to your methodology because my purpose here was to share with you what I have experienced, over the past year and a half of thirty years of searching, with products and a system tuning methodology which works better than any I have experimented with in all my years as an audiophile. All that was needed was an open mind to a totally new approach to tuning one's system. Other methodologies I've tried have given different results with different components, but the approach I've outlined above has been the most consistent path to good sound with the widest range of products. Let's all hope for a better day for the consumer because High End audio, as we all have come to know it, has been killed by the pomposity, enormous egos and outright "cluelessness" of reviewers and manufacturers who have simply got themselves "stuck" in the "component of the month" mentality.
Again, feel free to e-mail me at the e-mail address below if you wish more information on my experiences with this system tuning methodology or call the Michael Green Designs Hotline mentioned above. I'm always glad to share experiences that will make my enjoyment of music all the more pleasurable.
Brian Tracy Barry
Duration Product Used: an Audiophile