Amplifiers as the pivotal item in a hi-fi system:

The secret of a good hi-fi is to spend more on everything than everything else ...

I can see that there is some credence to the idea that amps are central to a sound system.

E.g. person 'A' decides to build a system based on a really simple speaker - say a single high quality 100 mm full range driver in a small bass reflex box, and really well made. This person then discovers that to his/ her surprise many different amplifiers produce different sounds and some even sound better on some, but not all music. He (I'll drop the bipartisan pretense as most girls are too sensible to become impassioned with hi-fi as we know) then concludes that the amplifier must be the most important part of the system, and settles on the exquisite 20W/ channel British Thoroughbred Fotherington-Smythe class 'A' which he feels is the best sounding amp he's "ever clapped ears on". One day he goes over to his mate's house, person 'B', to show off his new kit on some huge horn loaded speakers his mate has made. He discovers to his slight horror that his mate's speakers sound awesome, and realizes that although his little speakers sound really good, they do so only in a certain context. But he also finds that his amplifier still sounds better that all the rest when they start comparing amps on the big speakers. More detail, welly, musicality, timbre and slam etc. etc. However as the day wears on they consume several ales and get out the Led Zeppelin vinyl and end up with the 500W/ channel power-amp that's been sitting in the corner for ages, as they find the exquisite 20W/ channel British Thoroughbred Fotherington-Smythe class 'A' won't cut through the alcoholic haze. The big power amp has so much muscle that it lopes along at any volume, and the clean, uncoloured, neutral sound is quite appealing after listening to what must surely have been introduced harmonic artifacts from the class-A. Person 'A' is now confused and eschews off his little class 'A' and get a 500W/ channel job for his 100mm one-ways, as he feels that this will offer no inhibition to their performance, the amp will act as a transparent conduit for the sound. Having achieved this goal he then leans toward the idea that perhaps big speakers do have something to offer and gets his hands on some like minded horn loaded monsters. Having achieved the ultimate he settles back to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Some time later he buys a beach shack and decides to utilize the little 100mm speakers and exquisite 20W/ channel British Thoroughbred Fotherington-Smythe class 'A' which have been languishing for a while. To his astonishment he finds that, in the new dwelling, the little system produces the most beguilingly beautiful and realistic sound he has ever heard. Everyone who hears it, be they buffs or common folk actually comment on the sound.

Person 'A' now contemplates Buddhism, and decides that the only answer is to open a hi-fi shop so he can:

1. Get so bored with it all that he has the option of taking up sailing like every second UK hi-fi guru.

2. Get to take home what ever he likes without having to commit.

Speakers nowadays:

Seriously, I think as far as speakers go, there have been definite gains in the materials development by some of the big companies such as B&W, Tannoy, Kef & Audax, such as woven Kevlar, glass fiber impregnations and various paper treatments. Apparently (of all people) Pioneer of Japan actually nurture specific trees to produce some of the 200 types of paper formulations they use in their speakers. The Japs still prefer paper cones. However many folk who build systems propound the view that paper cones had a life expectancy of about 10 years, and were substantially inferior to the new breed of plastic cones. Because the plastic formulations produce so much less distortion under test, they therefore sound superior in every way. As usual they miss the point. To my humble ears, most good quality paper cone systems are much more musical and accurate in the way they portray the sound of real instruments overall, despite their higher distortion levels. This makes sense given that most of the instruments we listen to are made of wood and metal, not plastic. If instruments were made of primarily of plastic, the opposite would stand true.

This may sound like a terribly puerile statement; but try this experiment. Get a plastic bowl or cup (or speaker with a polymer or plastic cone), give it a tap with your finger and listen to the sound it makes. Now try the same with a wooden bowl or cup. The wooden article will make the more agreeable sound, but will ring a lot longer. That's why they dope cones ... to shut them up a bit. The plastic article makes a dull lifeless thud with a distinctly unmusical sound. That's what I reckon plastic cones sound like when trying to reproduce the mids. I personally have never heard a trumpet or a human voice that barks or quacks - have you? Obviously I'm generalising but it's a good guide as what a speaker will sound like in a system. If it sounds unappealing sitting on a bench with a signal going straight to it, the chances are it's going to cause some listening fatique when used in a system, regardless of the crossover filter; and also note that in my experience complex crossovers are often the first sign of trouble in a speaker system. They take the life out of the sound such that the builder is left with a compromise between whether to make the speaker lively and fatiguing, or smooth and dull. Look at the original Tannoys GRFs, Yamaha NS1000s, and even the occasional Rola or Magnavox with the paper cones and treated paper surrounds still going strong. Like an old wooden house, they may change a bit with time but they keep going.

Speaker design is, like most things very susceptible to fashion and fads. In the '80s it became the rage to spend as much on the speaker stands as the speakers themselves. The market for hugely expensive cables was also born. Then, in the early nineties, someone had the bright idea that for less than the cost of really expensive stands, the speaker enclosure could be extended down to the ground thus giving extended bass response from the same driver. We now see many speaker manufacturers (including Tannoy) producing a plethora of models often with the same drivers in three or four different size boxes. It almost appears as if there is a reluctance to commit to a true design philosophy, in case they will miss out on a share of the market - can't have that; lets fall over each other in pursuit!

Having said all this, I must say that having heard some of the new Tannoy speakers, the result proves that when something is done well, it works. They are very good indeed. Very low distortion; extended response; very spatial sound. Full marks to Tannoy. It's a pity that there are just so many models to choose from, making decisions daunting. In cases such as this ofcourse, the Hi Fi salesperson will probably push the customer in the direction of what stock is at hand.


It's a sad world ...

Will the reality people please stand up? Back in the early '90s In an issue of the then popular 'Hi-Fi Choice' magazine there was an article by the beloved Jimmie Hughes about the inclusion of a super tweeter in a preexisting system, albeit on the cheap, by putting none other than a couple of the cheap Motorola horns (the same as used in a system of mine) into a system. Firstly it must be pointed out that apart from being one of the foremost hi-fi journalists in the UK, this guy Jimmie has embraced some of the most bizarre movements in hi-fi, including the unbridled endorsement of an Australian called Peter Belt who made a range of products which he claimed would improve the sound of any hi-fi beyond measure. Peter's products included such things as a piece of wire with a half hitch or grannies knot in it; a bottle of "Electrosol Oil" which, if put into the bearing of a turntable would double the sound quality etc. etc. At one stage Jimmie claimed that the sound of any hi-fi would automatically improve if Peter Belt walked into the room. I think the editor of the mag may have quietly put the lid on it after a while ... Anyway young Jimmie experimented with various crossover configurations with the Motorola horns and ended up with a 0.01uF series cap and a 10 ohm resistor in parallel with the horn. A quick check on my calculator revealed a -3dB crossover point of about 1.6Mhz. I couldn't resist the urge to mail hi-fi choice and politely query this. I was amazed when I received several emails over the next few days from a few folk including the editor, expressing great interest in my critique. After a while I realized that they didn't understand what a -3dB point (at 6dB per octave) was, and they thought I meant that there would be a dip at 1.6Mhz. After several subtle and diplomatic exchanges I eventually spelled out that the horn would cross in at aproximately this point (1.6Mhz). Thus, even allowing for the huge efficiency of the horn, the chances of usuable output in the audio range were rather remote. A good example of psychology winning the day. That's fine in the privacy of ones lounge room - but this was a much revered Hi Fi periodical. The emails ceased abruptly a this point. I think I may have offended them ... Jimmie Hughes continued to enjoy great success as one of the most celebrated Hi Fi journalists in the UK, writing for several mags. I guess he's retired now.

The moral of this tail is that it offers further evidence that the world seems to be segmented into sections of people who know something about the nitty gritty, and those who's job it is to entertain others (often with lots of money) in prosaic manner who buy hi-fi magazines etc. In the old days a person writing in a hi-fi mag would have been a hobbyist with ample experience of the practicalities of hi-fi, as well as a creative bent. This is not to say that when they (the current bunch) review products that their opinion does not count, but it does say that the pictures are probably worth more. I reckon the world has so much good hi-fi in it already, and combining this with an ever diminishing market and interest in real hi-fi, that there is little room for realists. Looking at vintage speaker stuff on the net reminds me how boring modern hi-fi often is. All the really great ideas such as Tannoy Dual Concentrics, Lowther Horns, Clipsh Horns, Quad Electrostatics, ribbon speakers, Ionafane tweeters etc. were seeded about forty years ago.

Examples of the demise of the art can be found readily in reviews of almost any speaker in hi-fi Magazines these days, which are usually endless and safe variations of the same theme, their bits usually made by a handful of major manufactures. The modern emphasis is very much on the presentation, and in any given range of speakers it is often the cheaper model which sounds the best.

Kelvin Fleming.