It’s the time of year for saving money!
One of the miraculous things about music is variety. With so many genres from which to choose, and so many artists constantly creating new music, it is no small wonder the songs we know and enjoy are almost endless.
Audio components have a lot of variety as well. Audiophiles may choose from analog, digital, tubes, solid state, and on, and on, and…
If I have learned anything from music reviews, and arguably my participation in doing so is both limited and minimal compared to other reviewers, there are far more musical groups I never knew existed compared to the ones to whom I listen on a regular basis. All of these groups, regardless of the genre, from rap to classical, all share one commonality – they want to make their music sound as pleasing and wonderful as they possibly can. They want the listener to have an experience. They are looking for that “oh wow” moment at the end of a listening session.
It should come, then, as little shock or surprise, equipment manufacturers are hoping for exactly the same thing. Only one problem, audio equipment is far more expensive than an LP, CD or subscription to a streaming service. While subscribing to one of the more popular services is no more thought provoking than where one might eat lunch, and may be accomplished for about the same cost, choosing an audio component is decidedly more difficult.
With the increasing lack of availability of dealers, testing or demoing a piece of kit has become more of a “thing.” It is much more a deliberate exercise now than even a decade ago. Gone are the days of quickly slipping into the corner dealer to hear the new speakers – if such a practice ever existed at all. These days, deciding on what audio equipment to buy is far more complicated.
Even when we pick out a couple or three very similarly priced, very similarly constructed components which all share more or less about the same features, one thing may serve to differentiate one from all the rest. That differentiation is voicing.
When piano tuners bring an old piano back to life, they “retune” it to correctness. Each key on that piano represents a specific frequency and skilled craftsman can adjust the felts and mechanisms inside the piano by ear. Audio components, in many cases, are treated no less differently.
It is a common practice for audio equipment builders to have either one person, or a group of people, whose job is to be sure the component about to be approved for production sounds a certain way. Very often, this is highly objective and even if one person is making the final decision, or a consortium, it may ultimately prove a winning decision, or also possible, a resounding failure.
I have always preferred to hear the recording presented with pinpoint accuracy, not some aural signature imparted by the equipment. It is a somewhat common practice, however, that many companies spend considerable effort to create an amalgam of what sounds sonically best. Whether individually or by consensus, many companies submit a product for sale with a customized interpretation of an acceptable listening experience.
In many instances the process is fairly common. Designers will design a product and build prototypes prior to releasing for production. Then one person or several will listen. Listen intently. If it is one person, they will decide yea or na on the sonic character. If the judging body is more than one, a majority consensus is typically reached. Any negatives regarding sonics means the designers are probably not yet finished.
What happens when the judging authority comes up with something I don’t especially like?
Okay, this is a pretty simple question to answer. DO A DEMO! Well, of course a demo is required. That said, doing a demo is not as simple as it once was and the availability of actual demo equipment an audiophile can take home, put in their system, and spend a few weeks with is breathtakingly small. Reviewers will routinely spend weeks and sometimes even months with a component for review. Why then, should consumers be reasonably expected to make a rational, informed decision on a component’s worth in an hour or two?
Some brands will seek to provide a neutral as possible sonic presentation. They seek to provide somewhere between little and no coloration to their portrayal of how music is presented. I look for a system to allow me to hear how the music was actually recorded – be it with resounding excellence or abjectly terrible. I want to hear the music, not an interpretation of how someone thinks it should sound. Not surprisingly, more neutral types of equipment are the ones I find most pleasing and the ones I prefer to own. Put differently, I feel a component should not get in the way of the music being played back.
Voicing can be a two-way street. Done correctly, it is a practice that can absolutely make the sonic worthiness of a component more highly appreciated. It may also provide what I sometimes call a canned, homogenized sonic presentation. For some, the latter is not a problem. Because after all, each of us has differing likes, dislikes, and opinions on what is sonically preferred. None of us are wrong when we declare a preference by saying “I like the way that system sounds!”
Voicing is not something typically called out in sales brochures. It is almost done more in secret than a marketed practice. Most consumers hardly give it a passing thought. Piano tuners are known for their remarkably ability to correctly and accurately hear pitch. I have no doubt anyone who is tasked with voicing an audio component is no less talented. It takes skill to create a sonic signature. So, don’t misunderstand me. I am not negating the skill of the people doing the voicing. I am simply saying the practice, in general, makes me wonder what sonics await.
This is such a wise, useful and honest article. I wish more audio writers would seriously consider these issues.
“I want to hear the music, not an interpretation of how someone thinks it should sound.” This is a key statement. I can get into the idea of buying into someone else’s vision — if that person is, say, a Mark Levinson, who’s an accomplished musician, a very experienced recording engineer, and, frankly, a mesmerizing personality. And it’s not like Mark is some flawless person who can’t make a mistake, but the idea that I’m listening to something he created makes that something so much more special. (Also, I’ve found his creations to be generally very well engineered.)
But if the person is just some guy who’s been messing around with audio gear for a while, then I think having that person “voice” a component is a recipe for disaster. Often those people are unfamiliar with the research that’s been done on the component category, and sometimes even unfamiliar with good basic engineering practice. If they do have a solid scientific and technical understanding of their category, they’ll probably do fine. But it they don’t, and they’re relying on their “vision” or personal taste — well, at least I’ll be entertained by seeing truly wacky curves popping up on my audio analyzer.
Your comment is too kind. I certainly appreciate the praise, and also for your views on the subject. In fact, I agree with you!
An interesting essay, for sure. With speakers (especially passive speakers), compromises typically are needed, so “voicing” seems inevitable. For electronics, the practice can lead to neutrality (Lynx or Benchmark DACs, e.g.) or it can lead to something else (some tube amps). But by the time the unit is put into a system, its voicing will be influenced by external factors, most notably the listening room, but also other components. Like many others, I prefer that each unit be voiced as neutrally as possible, so that if anyone gives the final setup some color, it’s me.
Along those lines, any DSP-based preamp gives the user a lot of flexibility in that regard. You can set up several profiles with different voicings, and switch among them as needed. After I run ARC on my Anthem STR preamp, I spend weeks iterating its parameters to get as natural a sound as possible. I never gave this interesting but tedious exercise a name, but it turns out I’m voicing my system.
While the internet screams “Snake Oil” and other lies..Paul’s article point out what real audiophiles think about and have for years. Good voicing is part of the design process of a good piece of equipment.
Unless one is referring to effects processing of some sort or transducers, voicing is not desirable in high fidelity audio electronics. That is, I want my DAC and amps to be as transparent as possible to the source material.
Boutique manufacturers typically use it as an excuse for poor distortion characteristics – Ex. Paul of PS Audio talks that crap all the time, and the distortion products of one of their $6K DACs were found to be quite high when independently analyzed. He can get away with it because most people don’t understand science well enough to know that he’s running a confidence game.
Voicing was always accomplished by demoing equipment (ideally in home) before purchasing. It was important to invest sufficient time to get voicing right because the alternative was doubt, leading to endless component upgrades. The upgrade bug kept many people away from Hi-Fi because they rightly saw it as the road to financial ruin. As long as the system sounds good with all types of music and the components review well technically, I see nothing wrong with this approach. My only tweak was maintenance, cleaning the signal connector surfaces with cotton buds and alcohol every couple of years and using a CD lens cleaner every six months or so, just in case. My systems have typically given 10+ years of pleasure before the CD player showed signs of age (skipping on lightly scratched discs) leading to an opportunity to upgrade and re-assess my choices.
Having been (many, many years ago at this point) a musician – whose instruments were ALL analog – I have always tried to listen for what I remember as the sound I heard when I was involved. Unfortunately, in today’s musical performances everything is ‘miked’ and then output over speakers for the audience. Right away, we’re subject to someone’s opinion of what should be heard. That same thing is what happens when you purchase a piece of audio equipment. Someone has had their opinion layered on the product of that equipment. I’m always looking for equipment that sounds like what I remember (fuzzy as that is any more), but realize I’m still at the mercy of someone’s opinion. So, in the long run, how does my memory match their opinion?
Thank you for this discussion and especially Michael Richardson for his statement. It is truly about how the sound matches the memory and how the listener believes that it should sound.
However, your memory tricks you, you remember details and aspects, not the whole.
Second, your system is stereo only with many limitations in microphones and loudspeaker design, it isn’t played at the recording location, your room – or even worse earphones – won’t give you the same spatial distribution.
Besides this, other sensoric information (vision, smell, atmosphere) isn’t available.
So like with Kodak and Fuji analog film or spicing of food in order to elevate the taste, music reproduction is about evoking emotion and memory.
Mixing engineers and loudspeaker designers are trying to capture and play back that moment. So there always will be voicing involved. And this isn’t a bad thing, it gives us options.
Yet, for the intermediate steps of electronics, which can be made nearly perfect and uncoloured, my preference is maximum neutrality.