The Love of Reproduced Sound
by Fred Stanke
When I was growing up, we had my mother’s generic Victrola (electrified!) and her collection of 78’s, including Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Dennis Day, and Mario Lanza. Mario became one of my favorite performers and maybe primed my later love of opera. In 7th and 8th grades, I attended a Lutheran school. In 7th grade, I tried out for the school choir and was rejected. Not to be discouraged, I practiced singing at home with my accordion (which I never mastered) and made it into the choir in 8th grade! Through choir and hearing our organist’s preludes and postludes, I came to love classical music, like that of the great Lutheran composer Johann Sebastian Bach. In 9th grade, I went back to public school, but continued to sing in the church’s youth choir and joined public school choirs. I told my (completely tone-deaf) dad I wanted to hear more classical music at home. Bless him; he jumped in with both feet. He bought the top-of-the-line Heathkit separates (tuner and amplifier) for me to assemble and some (in retrospect) atrocious, huge Aztec “Monet” loudspeakers and a Miracord record changer.
I was sooo happy and loquacious (even back then) at school, telling everyone about my new rig. Fortunately, someone liked it as much or even more than me and relieved us of the Heathkit and Miracord components, but unfortunately not the Aztec behemoths. Fortunately, I say because our insurance covered the stolen Miracord and Shure M55 (?) and gave us not the purchase price of the Heathkits but rather the price of the assembled components. i. e., they essentially paid me for my labor in assembling the kits. So, we had the budget to move up to Macintosh components and a Thorens turntable with an SME tonearm and Shure V15 II moving-magnet cartridge. Unfortunately, we chose the solid-state C-24 and M-2100 amplifiers and the new TD-125 instead of the older Macintosh tubed components and legendary, TD-124 which were all still on the market. I was definitely gaining knowledge and experience. Over the years, I continued to learn to not just accept conventional wisdom, and to make choices based on the sound quality I could hear.
Actually, it did not take too long to realize what a mistake the Aztecs were. My grandfather was a German cabinet maker. Dad inherited some of that and had a decent woodworking shop. I followed this family tradition by making my first loudspeaker system, a bass-reflex system with Electro-Voice's woofer and horn tweeter, to replace the Aztecs.
My audiophilia led me to enroll in Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan. As you might have surmised from the first paragraph, along with my B.S.E.E I got a B.A. in classical Greek for the “fun” of it. The speaker building continued in college, even making, and selling a pair transmission-line systems (inspired by IMF) to a classmate to replace his Ohm F’s! I spent a lot of time playing with different drivers, tweaking crossovers component by component, building boxes, repositioning systems, etc., to the point where I have become very good at hearing the sounds endemic to cones, domes, crossovers, boxes, and rooms that go with standard hifi systems. So much so that today I only do “serious” listening (sitting and doing nothing else) with STAX full-range electrostatic “ear-speakers”.
Just when I was getting into hifi in 9th grade I met Steve, who routinely found people’s systems in the trash, took them home, fixed them and kept the best of what he could come up with. He was later my roommate at Michigan. We assigned each other years in Purgatory for wandering into homes of perfectly happy, proud audiophiles and then leaving them in despair after helpfully pointing out how their systems could be so much better. We probably caused a number family disputes by demonstrating that speakers sounded much better if moved out into the middle of the living room and tilted back on tennis balls to get the drivers time-aligned at the listening locations. (I would not use this method today.)
I never “found the door” into the audio industry. I did my Ph.D. E.E. at Stanford, not in audio or electronics per se, but in ultrasound at the Applied Physics Laboratory there. So, these days, having retired from working on ultrasonic and optical metrology for the oil and semiconductor industries, I hope to share my applied physics knowledge and understanding, my listening experience, and common sense with others through this blog.
There will be a few “philosophies” that will appear herein:
- If you *ass*u*me* something is true, you better make sure it pretty much is. For example, it is a standard assumption that when I put a component on a shelf, it “sits” there. In their defense, the audio community has come to recognize that that assumption is not strictly true: there is motion, e.g., that generated by loudspeakers, that bares being dealt with, e.g., by sturdy stands and footers of some sort, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
- Aesthetics and convenience are the enemies of high-fidelity reproduction. E.g., as mentioned above, loudspeakers conveniently and tastefully flat up against the walls do not sound as good as they could. Again, as I pointed out at the May 2022 SFAF Phono Stage ShootOut In-Person Event, loudspeakers sound better and reveal more *without* their aesthetic grill covers. It might be convenient to “throw” a brand-new LP onto the turntable to take a listen, but the sound is much better if you put effort into cleaning it first.
- If a little is good, a lot is likely better. To head off some obvious objections, this is not always true. It is not true for bass, even though that is much sought after by audiophiles. For bass, enough is enough. However, the sky is the limit, if you find ways to reduce any of the noises that plague audio systems, particularly noises correlated to the music.
The picture below of my “Kevin Gilmore DIY T2” (STAX knock-off) headphone amplifier in my system as I routinely listen to it illustrates the applications of some of these philosophies. Clearly, I have no concern for aesthetics. For keeping components stationary, any sturdy stand is not sturdier than the floor upon which it rests, so there is no stand like no stand. Compared to the Sonos stand I have, the floor sounds better, aesthetics and convenience be damned. In that vein, I checked the assumption that components placed on a sturdy floor are stationary by placing (air-tight) 25lb bags of poisonous lead on them. Newton’s law is that force equals mass times acceleration: f = m a. So, if m goes to infinity, then a=0 (i. e. motionless), and lead is as close as I was willing to get to infinite mass! I could hear the difference that the lead made, and ignoring aesthetics, I used as much lead as was practicable, always verifying that the final addition did make an audible improvement. (Lead is poisonous to humans. Mine is in air-tight polymer bags, and I routinely ask the doctor to check my lead levels when he does blood work.) I discovered that the T2 sounded better with its top plate removed, exposing the main circuit board, aesthetic or not. In the last month, I have found that tennis-ball cans with sand and pebbles in them placed on that circuit improved the sound to a degree that I could not live without. Another assumption that we commonly make is that our components “see” 60 Hz sine waves on their supposedly common-mode power cords, where the currents on the hot and ground wires are equal and opposite. If that were true, I would not be able to hear whether or not there were ferrite clamps on the power cords, but I clearly can, and more is better, aesthetics and convenience be damned.