The Lonely Cult of Audiophile
So, a couple weekends ago I set up my new Stax Earspeakers
started playing with them. Even the "simple" act of plugging in the amp took me an hour, and a bit of planning. I had to figure out which socket to use on my Monster Power HTS-5100 "Power Center" (basically, a power-strip on steroids). Both of the ones with the "Audio filter" were in use, and I had to decide which plug was getting relocated....
Theater Electronics as of February, 2018
Such fastidious vacillations make sense if you've "drunk the kool-aid" of high-end audio; they're a common enough "affliction" that there is even a name for the condition: Audiophile Nervosa
Some sources claim that the Stax take a few days to reach peak audio performance, so I spent a few days alternating between listening sessions and simply letting music play. I definitely did hear significant differences during the first few hours, so I believe there's something to those claims, but I couldn't say whether it's the earspeakers "building up a charge" or simply the amp warming up.
Regardless, I've had enough time now with the Stax to form some first impressions. And my feelings are ... mixed. But not mixed because of any kind of disappointment with the Stax. My feelings are mixed because of how difficult it is for me to relate my experience to anyone else.
I expect that if I asked people if they like music, probably every single person would say they do. Individual preferences will vary, of course, but I don't know that I've ever met anyone who doesn't enjoy listening to some
kind of music.
However, almost nobody I know really understands HiFi--at least not well enough for me to talk about what makes the Stax so special. I mean, I could use all kinds of metaphors and comparisons--and I will in this blog--but I only know like 3 people who can already relate well enough to critical listening on quality systems that we could carry on a meaningful conversation about the Stax. And none of them live close enough to come over and listen to them.
does. More than a few people have asked me if Autumn knows how much I spent on the Stax and what she thinks about them. Well, when she listened to them she cried, twice, and then told me she wants a set for Christmas (the amp will drive 2 pair).
Just in case you thought my speakers were pretty....
I had forgotten how wide the gulf is between the "normal" audio market and high-end gear until the Stax reminded me. Not only about the size of that gap, but how few people even know it exists or understand what that world is all about....
I got into HiFi at a time when there was still a tiny bridge between the markets for standard consumer gear and high-end equipment. And what I'm referring to as "standard" gear here is stuff you can pick up in big box stores, made by companies who are household names like Sony, and topping out with things like Denon receivers, Polk speakers, etc.
Above the big boxes were boutique audio shops with dedicated listening rooms and finely made gear by lesser-known brands that specialized in quality--at a cost. And above that is exotic stuff you'll probably only ever see featured in Stereophile
; just locating it in person can be a real chore.
The exotic high-end still exists, but that middle market mostly collapsed thanks to the growth of Internet commerce, the popularity of convenient music (MP3, streaming) over quality, and the "Great Recession
." Most of the old boutique shops shut down, leaving very few places to go see and hear anything better than the "standard" audio gear.
So, how does anyone discover HiFi anymore? There sure are a lot of obstacles to overcome....
Before I indoctrinated myself into the world of HiFi, I only (thought I) knew a few simple things: 1. CDs can store and perfectly reproduce frequencies covering the full range of human hearing; 2. digital is digital; 3. audiophiles all seem to be older eccentric folks who only like classic rock, jazz or classical music; 4. there sure are a lot of questionable products offered at exorbitant prices; 5. the first thing everyone wants to know is your budget.
If one didn't know any better, it would be easy to assume that this whole high-end audio business is all just a big scam to fleece gullible people out of their money. Sadly, people don't
know better and there is
a lot of snake oil to be found. But the truth is that HiFi has plenty to offer to people who love music and are willing to pay for quality.
I found my own answers through tons of research, experimentation, gobs of listening sessions, etc., all of which eventually allowed me to reconsider what I knew in new context. For example:
1. CDs encode music at 16-bit depth, 44.1kHz resolution; I have a few DVD-Audios with higher resolution (e.g., 24-bit, 96kHz) that sound better on my speaker setup than any CD source. There are a great many factors besides resolution that can affect judgment of sound quality, but comparative listening finally led me to the conclusion that higher resolution formats (combined with an accurate system and quality recordings) can
produce better playback than CDs.
2. Digital is digital, but it must become analog before it's converted to music. This is accomplished by a circuit called a DAC (digital-to-analog converter), and not all DACs are created equally. Other factors (e.g., clock skew, system noise) can also affect the analog output of the DAC. By the time speakers play back the music, the amplifier feeding them will magnify any problems in the DAC output, so it's important to keep that conversion as clean as possible.
3. All things being equal, it's probably more common for eccentric older folks to possess both the financial means and the inclination to purchase HiFi equipment. And hearing is about more than just sound--it also gives us spatial information (anyone who uses gaming headsets to track footsteps knows this). Classical, jazz and older rock albums all tended to be recorded live, in a recording hall or studio, rather than mixed by computer. And a good "live" recording replayed on an accurate system can reproduce spatial qualities of the recording, so that you can close your eyes and envision a 3D holographic "soundstage" with the instruments and performers all in their respective positions.
4. It's a lot easier to spot the snake oil when you learn how all this stuff works and do enough comparative critical listening to discover what makes a difference, what those differences are, and whether they're repeatable.
5. The well of quality really does go very deep, with ever-diminishing returns. But it does get better, the more money you're willing to throw at it. So, like all things in life, you do get what you pay for. Just make sure you know what you're getting for your money. :-)
If you listen carefully, you can hear the 80's
So, about those Stax....
With all that background out of the way, I do still want to put in a few words about the Stax experience before I wrap up this blog. The short version is that they are excellent and worth every penny to me for providing a new way to experience musical bliss. They're better than my speakers in some ways, and not as good in others. Which is kinda the best case scenario for me since each offers complementary experiences to the other.
The Stax are exceedingly good at producing sharp, accurate detail. I've always thought my speakers were great at that, but the Stax come across as cleaner, maybe a bit brighter, but without any kind of harshness. One of the tracks that made Autumn cry was "Stranger Things Have Happened" by Foo Fighters; everything in that track, from the metronome to the guitar to the vocals, is vividly detailed and real.
The Stax utterly blew me away with percussion and metallic sounds (like cymbals). Sharp impacts sound crisp and snappy in a way I've never heard from a recording before. And metal instruments have a metallic "ring" that jumped out at me as a whole new level of realism. A track that prominently features both of these elements is "Counting Bodies Like Sheep..." by A Perfect Circle. The first 15 seconds or so is just hard
percussion. From the Stax it sounds like someone 6 feet away is pounding concrete with a sledgehammer. The impact is unbelievable. Then about 20 seconds in what sounds something like a metal brush scraping a cymbal (or even more like a foley artist rendition of drawing a sharp sword) drops into the track. I'm not sure exactly what it is since it's a bit of an exotic sound instead of a typical instrument, but I am 1000% sure it's made of metal. ;-)
However, the big speakers are still the reigning champs of expansive sound, impact and (for some tracks) just plain overall presentation. One of my standard auditioning tracks is "Wings for Marie (Pt. 2)" by Tool from their 10,000 Days
album. That track slowly builds in intensity, backed by a brewing thunderstorm (an Arizona monsoon if I've ever heard one). The Stax may do a better job on the fine details in this track, but they can't match the grandeur or intensity of the storm recreated by the big speakers.
That's not to say the Stax can't do impact or bass. Frankly, I wasn't sure how the Stax would do with electronic music, but I spent most of "My Pet Coelacanth" (deadmau5) simply shaking my head in disbelief at how much power they convey.
"Stranger Things Have Happened" - Foo Fighters
"Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums" - A Perfect Circle
"Wings for Marie (Pt. 2)" - Tool
"My Pet Coelacanth" - deadmau5
Posted by SpeleoFool
on 22 February 18 at 01:53
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