Chasing the ultimate sound system

John O. is the winner of the "You can be the Audiophiliac for a day" contest, and his essay will surely strike a chord with a lot of audiophiles.

An ultimate hi-fi at the Earsnova showroom in New York Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Last month I asked readers to submit essays for my " You can be the Audiophiliac for a day " contest. I received a lot of thought-provoking pieces, and I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to write. You guys are a smart bunch, but there can be only one winner, and I selected John O.'s "Chasing the Ultimate Sound System." His perceptive examination of the audiophile quest for great sound will reverberate with a lot of folks. The only thing I'd like to add is that the only person you need to please is yourself; we each have to find a sound that clicks for us. Getting there is the hard part, and John's journey makes for interesting reading.

- Steve Guttenberg

Chasing the Ultimate Sound System

By John O

I am a retired aerospace engineering manager. As a radar engineer my success was measured by successful hits. Success was easy to measure: did my radar see, resolve, track, and hit the target? My attempts to find the most accurate speaker are a more challenging journey. It has been fun, but after 30 years of searching I still have no idea if I have an accurate sound system, even with my technical background and extensive experience in listening to live music of all genres. I'm still not sure I'm hitting the target.

The first problem I face is philosophical, not technical; how will I know when I hear accurate sound? Can I recognize it just by listening, can I verify it by a series of measurements, or do I need the services of a "Golden Ear."

If I can find a store that carries a reasonable line of equipment, can I rely on my judgment and hope the gear will sound the same in my home, or do I rely on the advice of a salesman? I still won't know if it's accurate sound, just that I like it. Maybe that's all that counts. At what price point do cost increases justify the sound improvement, or do they become marginal? Or is it like so many things in life, as you acquire experience your standards change. What you can't appreciate at first later becomes essential.

What is fascinating to me is that some reviewers seem to have heard what I thought I heard when they try to describe things in the slippery and imprecise language of sound. It is a strange, but still useful way for me to calibrate my perceptions with a language that I can somewhat decipher.

What they're writing about is not a measure of "accuracy," but more of a relative "flavor category." They separate the obvious Cabernets from the Pinot Noirs. I was originally searching for accurate sound, now I seem to be chasing sound perceptions I can't even describe and just hope that someone else is also hearing the same thing! Just think of all the ways the engineers can "season the sound." On the recording side there are the acoustic characteristics of room the sound was recorded in, the type of microphones used, the sound mix, analog or digital recording equipment, the monitor speakers, and the recording team's preferences. Then there are the countless combinations of the speakers and electronics we consumers use to listen to the music, and the acoustic environment of the speakers. Everything makes a difference. There are too many variables, too many unknowns.

So the big question, "I hear a difference, but is one speaker more realistic-sounding than the other?" remains. So where does that leave me? Chasing rainbows, but enjoying the ride.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments