Get Good Amps and Speakers : Why Sound Quality is Important

Usually there are two types of people in this world, those who have good sound and those who do not, and those who listen to good music and those who listen to cleverly arranged sound bites. Sound is frequency and a speaker is a frequency generator but it is often not a simple as that. The main reason why we may have a set of speakers, be it headphones, tower speakers, hi-fi speakers, studio monitors or even PA systems are primarily to reproduce music of a particular quality. A good producer is one that has an acute sense of awareness of the different sounds within their immediate environment, this is reflected in the music they produce.

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This can be a bit confusing to understand because of the distortion that the monetisation of music and art has brought about. Simply put, once one produces music for money, then it ceases to be music, I would prefer to call it a compilation of commercial sound bites. Technology has brought about so much aid to the creative process of anything, it has added to it a quality of sharpness to perception and action, but instead of people becoming more creative with this great assistance, they have become all the more lazier because the general thought is that the technology will do half the work for  them -a grave misconception. This is one of the main reasons why music in the world today has become so terrible to listen to, and the mindset of man has changed as a result. True artists tend to use what is available to them for their creativity but when competition is introduced to the art, it brings about a system of scarcity an system borrowed from Freudian psychology, Marxist economics, so forth and so on; where artists are measured by the equipment they use and not the content produced. As a result, the only result that is sought for becomes only superficial, and focuses on loudness of the music, and the image of the artist which are both impediments to a positive creative direction.

stereo-vision-226169_1920What we are left with is a world that is technologically advanced, but the tools we use for our leisure do not reflect the state of this advancement. Lets take music systems for example, be it at home, in the club, a small intimate jazz club, or a large gathering or a festival, most often one will find that the sound system does not match the environment. It is either too loud, or too soft, too much bass or none at all. This often leads one to wonder what, with all that effort that went into organising and putting together the specific environment, why the sound is never really as well put together as all the other elements. The answer to this lies in an entirely different domain of understanding, and that is comfort. The Hi-Fi has become so good, that is has made us extremely comfortable to good quality sound reproduction that we do not even consider it when it comes to constructing our sound environments, there is always the thought that the sound will be good, but that is often not the case, despite the fact that some larger events hire out sound engineers to supposedly fine tune the sound; but if the components of your sound are less that adequate for the performance, then there is very little the sound engineer can do to make it sound better.

Why has the Hi-Fi killed music?

Given the evolution of music through the development of new types of musical instruments, as well as rise of electronic music production, the complexity of the sound of music as a result has advanced by a large margin over the past 50 years. This has had knock on effects on the speaker industry and has spurred on the development of better speakers so as to be able to fully reproduce a sound without losses in the original sound.

So far into this article, one may think and wonder to themselves : “does it mean that early music was of poor quality, because it was less complex?”

Well it is not as simple as that, but first let us discuss how music reproduction developed as we briefly look into the History of Hi-Fi. The history of music reproduction is also the history of electronics, because the music was evolving hand in hand with the evolution of electronics.

Electronics was a science that began to get taken seriously in the early 1900’s prior to the first world war. It began as electrical engineering as opposed to electronics engineering because humans had only the knowledge to deal with technical-647481_1920AC (alternating current) circuits. It was a time when the inductor, which existed in the form of vacuum tubes, was the main component of most electrical circuits, and thus could be used as amplifiers in telephone and radio transmissions; this was witnessed in the form of radio broadcasts which began in the 1920’s. The second world war was the dark ages for music and entertainment, and right up until the 1950’s, innovation was stifled and redirected towards more weaponised designs of electronics circuits and art was forgotten altogether because the human spirit was under assault. After the war, most of the world tried to regather its spirit and reform, which came in a manner that led to an explosion of fields of innovation and technology never before experienced in recorded human history.  Manufacturing became more advanced and amplifiers became more sensitive, and this meant that they could amplify a wider range of sounds and that allowed for the use of amplified audio to expand its use in more than just telephony. The movie industry was as a result experienced the greatest shift in creativity and the creative potential of many directors could be tapped into as a result of this rapidly expanding technology; this was because more sound such as voice, sound effect, sound tracks could be incorporated into pictures and this created a greater emotional connection to the film by the audience, and as such, the popularity of movies exploded and the Hollywood industry was born.

The discovery of semi-conductors led to the explosion of a new industry of electronics, which meant that humans could now tinker with DC (Direct Current) circuits, which have a rather unique quality in that they were more sensitive to lower voltage changes and could therefore deal with more frequencies, subtle to the perception of the human ear. This brought about tremendous improvements to audio circuits and audio amplifiers and by the 50’s semi-conductor technology took a leap which transformed the world of electronics forever, and this was the discovery and development of a switch, which required no effort from the external controller, this was the transistor.

transistor-903642_1280The transistor is to the electronics industry what a wheel is to the automotive industry. It has tremendous applications, and it adds a level of complexity to circuits, which is unimaginable by today’s feeble consumer based mind which only seeks the comfort of pleasure. So in this regard, we shall look into discussing the pleasure of complex transistor audio systems, and leave the engineering to the engineers.

So what do transistors have to do with speakers? Simply put, we have to look at the electronics industry today. The simple fact is that circuits are extremely advanced and complex and the challenges which were often faced in the past are completely alien and unimaginable to us in 2017. Signal processing and bandwidth are so high and wide that we do not even consider the hardware we use to reproduce a piece of music.

Prior to the era of highly personalised music, which came in the form of portable earphones and headsets; music was actually played in an open space. The speakers were much larger and often came in sets with multiple drivers and component speakers each set to deliver a specific frequency bandwidth. This was created to replicate the stage of a performance theatre with a live band which consisted of multiple instruments. projector-422145_1920The development of high-fidelity audio circuits, the development of low noise music storage media, and the development of specialised speaker systems meant that all the components could come together in a culmination of artistic and technical  genius to produce what came to be known as the hi-fi stero system.  The early hi-fi systems were not as good as the ones today due to the limitations in manufacturing technology but they came pretty darn close to reproducing a concert hall experience, without the acoustical framework through which the music could be propagated. This meant that the concert could be live in the living room but without the feeling and experience, and as a result the only solution had been to keep improving the hi-fi system so as to replicate this feeling. This camunsters-400991_1280me in the form of development of each component of a hi-fi from the storage medium to the amplifiers, to the signal processors to the speakers, and the advances took place so rapidly that recorded music could achieve sound qualities which were similar to a very well acoustically tuned concert hall. This has given rise to the development home theatre system comprised of highly specialised component speakers capable of reproducing a crisp, low distortion sound, a storage medium such as digital video disks (DVD) capable of storing hours and hours of high signal quality music an video, and a large screen for reproducing multi-coloured and complex visuals.  As life and existence became more complex, people started to take concerts for granted, and thus there was no need to attend concerts to deeply enjoy the music, but rather to enjoy the performance and so the performance became the main objective of the artist at the compromise of producing quality music for a good quality experience.

Cheap Music, Cheap Sound

As an attempt to win over the popularity of the crowd, artists have become entertainers, and consequently concerts have sought to replicate the living rooms of individuals to create an entertainment experience by replicating the visuals of a television set, with the sound of a hi-fi. As business models and the economics of entertainment would have it, concerts mean a lot of people, simply because more people implies more money, which is seen as something good for the “brand” and consequently the entertainer.

Concerts and entertainers have consequently become so good at entertainment marketing that, there is usually very little need for one to put out good quality music to accumulate lots of profit, and the concert has lost touch with music and acoustics, which is why they often take place in open fields, because speaker technology has advanced so much that each sound can be reproduced so loudly that it gives the impression of a Hi-Fi tailor made for the concert experience. This has created what is often called the loudness war and it comes at the expense of the quality of the music which, while it cannot be measured, it can be determined using variables such as the dynamic range of the music.

Loudness comes at the sacrifice of quality.

While there are many arguments for determining music quality, the basic and most easy to understand is the quality by means of dynamic range of the music. The basic definition of the term states to describe it as the difference between the loudest stage-1712494_1920and softest sound produced in any piece of music. Competition in popular music has resulted in the normalised (0dB) loudness for music to be increasing since the introduction of High-Fidelity (Hi-Fi) sound systems. This is an insult to the development of high fidelity if one is read up on the complete history of speaker development, and consequently high fidelity systems.

 

What makes a good loud speaker?

So far this article has taken a lot of time to discuss the intricacies of what makes good sound, but we have not spoken about good speakers and what makes  good speaker design. The qualities of a good speaker are affected by many factors a lot of which are solved at the level of the speaker environment and not necessarily the speaker itself. In electronics design a speaker is often referred to as a reactive component. This means that its performance is determined by qualities outside of the circuit itself, and these include the speaker materials, the speaker box condition and the signal processing unit of where the sound signal is coming from. This has already been discussed in the larger part of this article. From the image below, a speaker is composed of the cone, which is the unit that causes the sound vibration to be produced, the diaphragm which holds the cone to flex most efficiently at a specific wavelength. So in this respect, the most important aspect of a speaker is, accuracy. How accurately can we reproduce the sound that we are feeding the speaker. This can be achieved through designing specialised tasks for each driver. What this is, mainly represents a design for speaker that is intended to achieve a specialised task, such as a woofer,  a  sub woofer, mid bass, and tweeters, these are meant to address the challenges which are faced by using a single unit speaker to have a high dynamic range speaker system.

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Typical Layout of a speaker box illustrating different components each with its own specialised task

The advantages of using a component speaker system is that one gains sensitivity and speed when it comes to delivering good quality sound and that is important when one comes to consider another important aspect of speaker systems, and that is how well the different components work together and that is called staging. To be able to understand this, one needs to intimately know the characteristics of each speaker and how each component will react to every other component and as well as relatively to each amplifier. Simply put, staging is a measure of the quality of each speaker, and how well it reproduces a specific sound at the exact millisecond that it is needed, when each speaker reacts in a timely manner, what occurs is that the sound at the point where the sound is staged will create a synergistic effect, a whole performance, where different sounds interact with each other to produce a total harmonic, which we interpret as the feel of the music.  To have a well staged setup, one needs to make sure that there is minimal interference which could alter the way the sounds come together. This would imply that the environment in which the sound is propagated is not extremely loud, chaotic, and there are no other reactive components which may be close-by to interfere with getting the true  sound of the music as the artist intended. A well staged sound setup helps to create an environment which the artist  can accurately convey their sound creation and hence their artistry in a manner that will help convey the message.

So what is the sacrifice of a loud concert?

Loudness implies a chaotic scenario for any casual observer and this may hold true for certain specific levels of observation. What is lost in a loud scenario is attention to detail, the same detail is lost in translation from a large array of speakers to a 20, 000 strong crowd. To truly experience what the artist wants to communicate  to the crowd, what must be considered should be environment for clear communication, the casual attender must be also able to read into what the effect they want from attending a live performance, this comes inherent within the nature of the event itself. In other words, it is simply that one cannot expect for jazz music to be played in an  environment where drum and bass will be played.

Loudness comes at the sacrifice of quality.

While there are many arguments for determining music quality, the basic and most easy to understand is the quality by means of dynamic range of the music. The basic definition of the term states to describe it as the difference between the loudest and softest sound produced in any piece of music. Competition in popular music has resulted in the normalised (0dB) loudness for music to be increasing since the introduction of High-Fidelity (Hi-Fi) sound systems. This is an insult to the development of high fidelity if one is read up on the complete history of speaker development, and consequently high fidelity systems.

 

 

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