Why Don't We have Perfect Sound Yet?

Last week I completed my most recent column for Vintage Guitar Magazine. I have been writing about acoustic instruments for VG for over 25 years. The most recent one was a survey of five vintage Martin guitar experts about what made pre-war Martins so special. While their answers were not identical, they all had the same high opinions about the quality of the pre-war Martin sound and similar explanations for what was behind that sound quality. Try to get the same sort of commonality of response from audio experts about nearly anything...

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Why would this be?

A guitar, compared to a modern audio reproduction system, is a relatively simple affair. There are far fewer physical components, and the way they interact with one another is also been studied, documented, and explored extensively during the last several hundred years. Given this extensive study, you would think that it would be possible to reproduce the "magic" of a pre-war acoustic guitar, but in point of fact, very few luthiers, whether employed by Martin, Gibson, or any small one-man shops, have been able to consistently (if at all) produce an instrument that matches the overall sound quality of a pre-war Martin. And that is a supposedly "simple" system compared to modern-day electronics or transducers...

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Flash forward to an audio system and its easy to begin to see why it is still exceedingly difficult to suss out what will make a system sound great. Sure, we know a lot about rooms, electronics, and the human ear, but we still don't know what is the best and most cost-efficient way to combine all of what we know into consistently and repeatable great sound.

Don't misunderstand me, we do know how to measure many aspects of sound and components within the audio chain. We also know how to optimize many parts of the chain (such as a room acoustics), but we aren't even close to figuring out all the elements of a "secret sauce" to consistently produce great sounding audio systems in real-world rooms. Digital signal processing helps, but it is still in its infancy.

AR-perfect533a.jpgEven when an audio system's parts are broken down to basic elements, and every element is supposedly optimized, the final product is not guaranteed to sound great to everyone. There is a point where even the most thoroughly-tested component's performance must work with all the other parts of the system, and even if all those parts are also tested as fully as possible there is no guarantee that they will work optimally together, or the end result will be sublime. There is still a lot of guess work and supposition involved in creating high-performance audio products. Change one part and the entire sound can change...

AR-perfect6333.jpgOne example of very educated, but still guesswork, is the idea that to make a headphone sound right it needs to have some additional bass energy added to simulate what happens to bass in a room. Although extensive testing has been done to show that adding some bass is a good thing. I find it difficult to accept that one particular equalization setting will always be the right one. How much bass and what sort of a real-world room is being simulated? And just because it was preferred over no bass augmentation is the additional bass always going to be preferred with all types of music and recordings?

Some manufacturers have taken the tack that the only way to get more realistic (or immersive, which seems to be a major goal, nowadays) is to add more channels, and even more complexity to an audio system. Given how we have yet to optimize even one channel, the idea that more channels will solve the problem strikes me as a tough sell...

AR-perfect433a.jpgIf the goal of a musician is to play a piece as perfectly as possible while still allowing for some personal interpretation, the job of an instrument is to make that goal as easy to obtain as possible. But depending on what and how a musician wishes to play and sound, their choice of the "ideal" instrument will be different. The same goes for audiophiles. Even experts have different priorities in what they are looking for in a system. And while everyone professes to be after the same goals, the reality is that our own priorities (even those that have little to do directly with our audio systems) affect what we consider ideal. 

I've always been an optimist when it comes to audio. Over the course of my lifetime great sound has gotten better, cheaper, and we humans have developed more sophisticated ways of measuring performance, but we still have not figured out all the ins and outs of audio system's performance to the point where we can rely on specifications to tell us how a system will sound.

AR-perfect7333.jpgWhether we will ever get to the point where we have something that two or more experts will agree is "perfect sound" before we degenerate back into the stone-age is anyone's guess...but here's hoping...check back in 200 years...

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