(Reprinted from issue 58 of UHF Magazine. To purchase the issue, click here. Or click here to subscribe to UHF)

State of the Art

by Gerard Rejskind

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When we run our listening tests here at UHF, we use a reference system. Actually, two reference systems, whose components are often listed in our pages. Not all magazines do maintain such reference systems. Because they do so many tests, they are forced to use a number of reviewers, scattered around the country, or around the world. Each reviewer uses his or her own system.
     And of course there are magazines that don't do real tests at all, but I'll leave them for another time.
     What is every bit as worrisome is that some manufacturers don't maintain reference systems. You might well wonder how the designers know what they're doing, and how they determine that what they have done is right. Isn't that like driving with your windshield painted over? Yet a number of designers actually do not own reference-quality systems, or even particularly good systems. I often have the impression that the reason they become designers is that they can't afford to buy good equipment. Unfortunately, they are then missing one of the audio designer's most important tools.
     That's what a reference system is -- a tool. As essential as a ruler to a carpenter, as driving glasses to a Formula One driver, a reference system lets the audio designer check on his direction and his progress. Like any tool, it must be mastered.
     Far be it from me to claim that a reference system must cost, say $40,000, or $100,000. I know and you know that spending money guarantees you only a depleted bank account. Whatever its cost, a reference system must be able to fulfill a hi-fi system's purpose, reproduce music so that its musical values are intact (you can follow the melody, the rhythm line and the harmony), and so that the music itself brings an emotional response from the listener. Having achieved this, the designer can then proceed to make the system even more effective. Or not.
     What happens if he doesn't have a reference?
     In many cases he will proceed to "voice" his product to a particular system. For instance, a speaker designer with a shrill-sounding CD player (there are several to choose from!), may arrange his crossover network so it drops the offensive frequencies into a bottomless pit. An amplifier designer using speakers with a dull and restrained bottom end may choose to weaken the amplifier's control over the speaker, in order to give the sound a little of the "bloom" and resonance that seem to be missing. In both cases, the designer will have made a product that sounds superior in that particular system. When the product is placed in a different system -- perhaps a better one -- the performance will be totally different, and possibly much worse.
     Notice the problem? Because the designer's system reproduces sounds rather than music, the designer has concentrated on his product's tonality, the way that it produces sounds of different frequencies. This may be important, but it is not the same as reproducing musical values.
     Now, I can hear the objections already. A system is not a musical instrument, simply a reproducer. If it reproduces individual sounds accurately, then it will reproduce music accurately.
     Ideally that would be true, but any designer who thinks his product is reproducing all sounds accurately is dreaming. The product will have significant inaccuracies, though not necessarily those measured by the instruments he happens to own. Some of those inaccuracies may have devastating effects on the ability of reproduced music to involve the listener emotionally, but without a system that is itself musical, there is no way to detect this.
     A reference system may be expensive or (relatively) inexpensive, it may belong to the designer, or to someone accessible. This is mere detail, but the system must exist, and it must be able to thrill.
     I once spend a few minutes with some young speaker designers who had brought their new model to a show, and were demonstrating it with a cheap and horrible CD player. Predictably, the speakers were tough on the ears. I explained to them that they needed to own a good player, otherwise they couldn't know what their own speakers sounded like. They thanked me, but the next year they were back with the same player, and the same sound.
     At the third show? There was no third show. I never saw them again.

PARTIAL TEXT: The Microgroove Laundry, Antique Sound Lab AQ1003, Passion I-11, Rogue 88, Jadis Orchestra Reference, Linar 250, Four Headphone Amps, Filters and Cables
FULL TEXT: Watching DVD on a Computer, Passion Kit I-10 Amplifier, State of the Art