Written by 5:00 am Audiophile

Is There Room for Taste in Selecting Audio Gear?

Brent Butterworth ponders whether or not striving for perfection is the best goal in audio

Among audiophiles, all sorts of opinions exist about what your gear “should” do. While I was editing an excellent new column by Roger Skoff, I got to thinking about the idea of whether or not audio should be a pursuit of some standard of perfection or the search for a system that simply pleases you for whatever reason. An example of the latter from another field might be a dragster that sets a world record for the quarter-mile. An example of the latter might be a wine or cigar that suits your tastes.

glass.jpgI’ve seen audiophiles opine that audio reproduction can and should be held to specific standards, and that audio gear should be designed to meet those standards. Yet I’ve also heard a compelling counter-argument from my friend Steve Guttenberg at CNet, who’s told me several times (and I’m paraphrasing, not quoting): “I don’t care if it’s accurate, I only care if I like the sound.”

If you walked into my listening room, you’d probably assume I’m in the former camp. My main reference speakers are Revel Performa3 F206 towers, which measure pretty much perfectly and have only one tiny audible flaw I can identify (and it’s a rather nice-sounding flaw, at that). My main reference amplifier is a Krell S-300i integrated amp, which I chose not because it’s super-fancy-schmantzy but because it has extremely good measured performance, delivers plenty of power with no audible distortion, and to my ears has no noticeable colorations. All of this gear plays in a listening room with acoustic treatments I built myself based on the recommendations in Dr. Floyd Toole’s groundbreaking book Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers in Rooms. I’d say my system is as straightforward and technically perfect as it’s possible to put together for its price.

Yet if you look around my house a little more, you’ll also find some audio gear that’s NOT technically perfect. I’ve had a great time with the Music Angels Mengyue Mini, a cheap little Chinese tube integrated amp that puts out 3.2 watts at 1% THD into 8 ohms. When I connect it to the Kvart & Bolge Sound Sommeliers, a $279/pair of tower speaker that employs a single 3-inch full-range driver in a quarter-wavelength enclosure, I get a sound that’s a long ways from technically perfect. Still, though, the stereo imaging is fantastic and the speakers produce a captivating sense of ambience. It has a charm all its own, and through this system, I can thoroughly enjoy my 1960s and ’70s jazz LPs.

That’s not to say I can enjoy ANY audio system, though. Lots of headphones are unlistenable to me. Many speakers leave me unimpressed.

But I can enjoy a headphone like the Velodyne vPulse, which despite its exaggerated bass gets rave reviews from audiophiles like Guttenberg and scores well in the brutal head-to-head headphone comparison tests on The Wirecutter.

It all reminds me of an article I read in Cycle World about 13 years in which two editors compared a Suzuki sportbike to a similarly sized but higher-priced Ducati. Both concluded that the Suzuki performed better overall, but they split in their conclusion. One seemed to consider the motorocyles to be, in essence, appliances that should be chosen primarily based on the amount of performance they deliver for the price. The other felt that owning a motorcycle that’s close to perfect is boring; he found motorcycles that had a few idiosyncrasies to be more fun to ride.

They’re both 100% right. And you could say the same for audiophiles who seek technical perfection, AND for audiophiles who just want the sound or gear they like.

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