It seems that audio-related markets are formed in many different ways. Many trade based on words of mouth or unreliable user reviews, and in a way, this is unavoidable; audio is perceived, and some subjectivity cannot be eliminated altogether as not everyone can afford time for rigorous testing.
Perhaps for this reason, it’s common to see audiophiles making investments in areas that yield meager dividends in terms of audio quality without planning carefully. Unless you have a room somewhere full of gold bars, it is important to invest efficiently, especially to avoid having to pay an arm and a leg for a component that is overkill or useless in your chain.
To help the budget audiophile, we’ll be looking how to invest efficiently in this article.
The audio chain and distortion
Figure 1. The process of sound reproduction
There might be some individual difference, but Figure 1 is a generally accurate depiction of a typical audio chain.
Of these, the ‘source’ is the starting point, and a poor source will limit everything else that follows. As the maxim goes, it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out’ – even the best devices that money can buy will not be able to make a poorly mastered track sound better; in fact, they might even make it sound worse as they bring the imperfections to your attention.
Poor masters, though, are outside the scope of this article as consumers have no power over them; thus, we’ll be looking at the distortion introduced by the components inside the green box, from the source component to the listening environment.
Figure 2. The approximate range of distortion in sound reproduction in dB scale (FR only)
The above figure shows how much distortion is introduced to the frequency response in terms of dB at each point along the chain, based on the average of headphones(70~80 products), earphones(70~80 products), cables(5 products), source components(30 products), amplifiers and DACs(35 products), speakers(30 products), and room characteristics(10 locations) that I have worked with.
The frequency response was used for comparison since it is the immediately noticeable measure of perceived sound. The numbers for cables is not too accurate due to the small sample size, but this should not be too concerning as cable-to-cable difference is negligible even with stock cables.
I’ve tuned rooms in houses, medium to small sized theaters, and several live cafes. I have not been able to test in a studio environment with optimal tuning, so there is room for improvement in the lower bound for distortion due to room environment.
The most efficient investment
Figure 2 might be expressed in words variously – to put it bluntly, ‘investing in cables is a waste of your money’, or to put it more neutrally, ‘you should invest in speakers or room tuning more than the source component and amplifiers’ (please note that this in no way suggests that you should not invest in a source component or an amplifier – all that this means is that your audio chain is as strong as its weakest link, and you might as well reinforce it before you drop the cash on other things).
Generally, it would be the most efficient to place your investments correlated to the dB distortion values presented in Figure 2.
Looking at the market today and at where people spend there money, though, it is clear that people are investing hugely out of proportion on some components (cables in particular).
When you’re listening to music through speakers, even the highest-end setup (+-1dB) is overkill without a properly tuned room (+-5dB minimum for untreated environments), which makes room tuning indispensable, yet sadly, rooms are often neglected by audiophiles.
What we see here is that people unfortunately invest too much where the money is unneeded while ignoring the places that pay significant dividends.
My guess as to why audiophiles ignore the listening environment is that it’s expensive and confusing. To help with this, I will post a series of articles on simple yet effective room tuning strategies, but for today, a short introduction will do.
For a theoretical discussion on room tuning, take a look at: How the listening environment affects the sound
The basic idea underlying room tuning is that you have to diagnose the characteristics of your current listening environment and treat it as needed, much as a doctor might a patient.
For instance, a reverbing room might require some absorbing pads, whereas a room with resonance in the bass range might call for a bass trap or even a digital equalizer to tame the bass, while a resonance in the treble frequencies would require material that selectively absorbs treble sound along with an equalizer to weaken the treble.
Two simple steps, then:
1. Look at the characteristics of your current listening environment. (the diagnosis)
2. Fill in the valleys and level the mountains as needed. (the treatment)
Sounds almost too simple, right?
This article was a brief introduction, to establish why it is important to tune your listening room from the efficiency perspective and the general direction of how it should be done. When we dive into the specifics of how this can be done, both in terms of diagnosing your room and treating it as needed, it becomes a bit tricky.