Quarter Notes, Volume 1, Issue #4

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Dear Get Better Sound readers,

Welcome to the fourth issue of Quarter Notes!

Quarter Notes is a quarterly newsletter for Get Better Sound readers, expanding on the GBS manual, as well as introducing new and timely subjects. From time-to-time, we may have a guest writer on a special topic.

In the vein of entertaining but somewhat un-garden-variety topics, for this issue, we have a guest music review by Geoff Poor, Director of Sales at Balanced Audio Tecnology, & owner of Glenn Poor’s Audio-Video in Champaign, IL. As well, we have a feature on absolute polarity (reversed acoustic polarity effects), with a list of recordings and their relative polarities, according to research conducted by George Louis, the self-styled (and sometimes controversial) Perfect Polarity Pundit. You may know George from The Digital Solution™, from Ultra-bit Platinum™, and/or from his series of posts on Audio Asylum re absolute polarity.

In addition to the usual updates from me, we also feature suggestions and questions by GBS readers that are particularly appropriate. Don’t forget, you are invited to send me an e-mail and I may include your question or comments in an upcoming newsletter.

Best e-mail address

Since you’re reading this, the e-mail address that I used to notify you must have worked. However, the only e-mail address I have is the one associated with your initial Get Better Sound order.

If you have an e-mail address that you’d prefer to use to receive Quarter Notes notifications, send it to jim@getbettersound.com. Be sure to list the month of purchase (if possible), and definitely include the address I used originally along with the one that you want to use to replace it.

From recent experience

I recently spoke at an audio society/club event. The program was outlined that I wanted to go over, some of which was a demonstration of a few important points from Get Better Sound. According to the members, we had a very good turnout, with most every available seat taken.

Having met most of those attending. I’d say that the membership was comprised of unusually knowledgeable audiophiles, when compared to what I perceive the “average” audiophile knows.

We all had a pretty good time. But it didn’t turn out like I expected.

After only a few minutes into the presentation (during which I invited comments and questions), I began to notice that the questions that were being asked have been firmly entrenched into what is sometimes called “audiophile common knowledge.”

Some believed in the so-called “rule of thirds” for room set-up. Some believed in other techniques that are associated with various manufacturers. I should say that all of these folks were those who hadn’t read Get Better Sound. The GBS readers in the audience were relatively quiet, which alone was fascinating (and about which I’m still thinking)…

The majority thought the best rooms had non-parallel walls, one great sub was all you need, etc. The sort of stuff you know isn’t true from having read GBS.

So, much to my surprise, my presentation over the next hour-and-a-half became one of debunking one audiophile myth after another. To give them credit (heck, give me credit too!), we had a lively give-and-take that was fun but never crossed the line into some of the mean-spirited exchanges we see in some quarters these days.

Why tell you about this?

These great guys and gals had been around audio for a long time, and yet they still got some important concepts wrong. If you hear – or still harbor - some of these audiophile “common knowledge” chestnuts, and you haven’t seen them addressed in GBS, drop me a line. Don’t hesitate to ask. I get lots of e-mails, but I try to answer every one within 24 hours.

If it’s a myth, or even partly a myth, I’ll let you know. Plus, we might try to catalog the most pervasive and misleading ones and post them in a future Quarter Notes. :)

On-the-job observations

It’s no secret that I’m doing a lot of system/room voicing for clients theses days. The results have been well beyond each client’s expectations. But I have to say, they aren’t the only ones who are learning something.

The thing that I’ve learned is all about references. As part of the voicing process, I go into clients’ homes and listen to their systems. I might as well admit that I am almost always under-whelmed at the sound that I hear initially.

But I’ve come to realize that it’s not about the hearing ability of the owners. It’s usually not about their components. It even may not be about their set-up ability.

It’s simpler than any of those concepts. They have no reference for what their system should sound like. They don’t know what to do to improve it, because they have no idea – no reference – as to what a great system can sound like in their room.

The cool thing is that – at least so far – virtually every system that I’ve voiced has enjoyed a substantial leap in performance and overall involvement without even one new component being purchased. In fact, everyone still has the same components that they had when I arrived the first time!

But now, they have a reference – a standard – as to what to expect. When I’ve initially wondered how an audiophile could possibly accept the sound he/she has, too often I’ve blamed it on something else. I probably owe lots of folks an apology. The simple fact is, how can you possibly know if your sound is as good as it can or it should be, if you have no reference for what it ought to be?

The sound of rooms

I recently had a client ask me to assist him in evaluating his set-up in one room and then to evaluate the performance potential of another room that he might consider using for his music room.

Actually, as complicated as I might like this to sound, this decision didn’t involve any rocket science. In fact, it’s so simple that we often take it for granted. And that would be a mistake.

I think he was expecting it to take a while as I listened to his system and then do some calculations in the prospective room. You know, golden-eared rocket scientist stuff… :)

But without hearing any music at all, after visiting a bit in each room, I pronounced one room as a much better choice. Both rooms were above average in size. Each offered some real advantages. But without some major acoustic work, only one was going to be the “ultimate solution” for his home.

In order to be absolutely certain, we did do some listening. The session essentially proved the pronouncement I’d already made.

So how did I KNOW which room would be best without hearing the first note?

It was evident with the sound of his voice (and mine) in simple conversation, as we moved from room to room. Our voices in one room sounded a bit hollow with a slightly pronounced upper mid/low treble region. In the other room our voices sounded more natural. Both rooms were furnished. When I pointed out the difference to my client, he was amazed. Although he had never noticed it before, he had lived there for 20 years!

As I said, this required no rocket science nor any golden ears. Anyone could hear and identify that difference, once they were directed to listen for it.

If you’re wrestling with a decision on which room to use, be sure to apply the human voice test. It may not be the final arbiter, but it should definitely be in your kit of sound evaluation tools.

FWIW – I’ve never been able to get convincing and compelling sound in a room where the real human voice sounded artificial.

I just love the questions & suggestions! -- Keep them coming...

Hard drive housekeeping

Here’s a worthwhile suggestion, passed along by reader Mike M.

“You might also want to add, for your readers, that while the efficacy of hard-drive based music really is affected by your drive (fanless, low heat, good latency) you also should stress the importance of hard drive housekeeping.

Most of the popular tech utilities will have defrag routines that you can run to put similar blocks of data contiguously. In practical terms, this just means your disc has to spin less far to get to information for a single track. It all depends on how often you add to and/or change what's in your directory, but a once-every-one-or-two weeks defrag routine will improve your hard drive performance noticeably in many cases.

Users with even a small modicum of skill can create task routines that will run in the middle of the night, while they sleep.”

Ear protectors, new basement, fluorescent lights

Reader Merrill B. has sent along some tips that are worth taking to heart:

“After being an audiophile here in the St. Louis area for over 50 years, I have three more items for you to consider.

1. Always use ear protectors when exposed to other sources of excessively loud noise. That would, sadly, include live amplified concerts, which are way louder than needed, even such performers as Simon and Garfunkel. I always wear them in the car if driving to a classical music concert or to an audiophile listening session at friend's homes. I use Moldex-Metric's #6800 "Pura-fit". They are in Culver City, CA.”

As a side note, I never travel to any event where I expect to need to hear at my best without wearing ear protection. Even so, I prefer to get to a client’s house the night before any serious voicing begins, to give my ears a chance to recover from the noise of travel.

When flying to a job or show, I always use a product called EarPlanes. You can get them at better pharmacies. If driving to a job or show for some distance, especially if I have to encounter elevation changes over 2000 feet, I use the EarPlanes in the car as well.

“2. If someone is building a new home, and can have a basement, make sure to request as deep/high a ceiling height as possible. Builders may charge just slightly more, but in the end, it is well worth it when turned into a dedicated music room. And if the concrete floor is treated as you describe, it is better than upper floors built on joists that act like trampolines. After listening to concrete floors with treatments, an audiophile friend decided he had to "treat" his main floor room by placing lots of 4x4 vertical beams, tightly wedged into the unfinished basement, especially under the speakers and the location of the turntable. Listening to good bass does not require a shaking floor at a single pitch.

3. Turn off or do not even install florescent lighting in the music listening area. Use only incandescent lighting. I've not done a scientific exploration as to whether it is the aesthetic effect or if it might be electronic hash on the power circuits or both, but music always sounds better with only subdued incandescent lights.”

AC polarity tip

Unfortunately, for this one, I cannot locate the appropriate correspondence so as to give credit to the sender. The gist of his message was that checking all components in a system for correct AC polarity can be a real pain.

I couldn’t agree more.

His point was that if you are assembling a new system, or if you are moving it to another location, check the components before you ever install them. Although I always do that to save time, I never mentioned it in GBS. Great suggestion!

Questions from Italy

Reader Piero C. writes from Italy -

“If possible, I would like to ask you two questions. One is related to the presence of other speakers in the room that are not in use. I can confirm that, having removed the central speaker of the home theater system, the image of my stereo system has improved as well as the detail of the reproduction. But, how to eliminate this problem without removing the speakers from the room?”

I’ve been getting this question a lot more often than expected. Short of physically removing the speaker from the room (always the best choice sonically), there are at least three options:

(1) Leave its amp powered on with no signal applied. What we want to do is to center the voice coil. If you leave the amp hooked up that is driving this speaker, be sure that it has no incoming signal and if it has a volume control, be sure it is turned down. By doing so, we’ve effectively removed much of the unwanted “flex” of the drivers. Remember we do not want the unused speaker’s drivers to zig when our stereo speakers zag.

(2) Use shorting plugs. The goal is similar to #1. Inserting a shorting plug or jumper across the + and – connectors on the loudspeaker also helps to keep the driver centered. But this can be a little dangerous. If you forget the shorting system is there and you turn on the amplifier for that speaker, if the speaker wire is still connected, you’ll short your amplifier and most likely damage it. I always disconnect any speaker wire when using shorting plugs.

(3) Baffle. You can make – or have made – a baffle that fits over the front drivers and any ports (which may not be on the front). I generally use a surface such as DynoMat on the baffle side that is facing the front of the loudspeaker. I attach the baffle to the front of the speaker by various means, the simplest being a couple of bungee cords that wrap around the speaker and keep the baffle tightly sealed against the front of the speaker. It should go without saying, but if the driver surround or driver dome extends past the plane of the speaker’s front surface, you’ll need to accommodate that in the baffle design.

(4) Face down. If all else fails, can you place the speaker face down on the carpet or on a blanket/towel, etc.?

“The second question is related to the placement of my electronics in the room. Right now they are placed some 1 to 2 ft behind the speakers, right in between. I have a Jeff Rowland Synergy pre and two Nu-Force Ref.9 SE power amps that allow a balanced connection so I am planning to place the power amps next to the speakers and to use a long xlr cable.

The problem is that it must be really long (let's say that one could be 10ft while the other must be minimum 20ft if not 25). These lengths aren't available commercially and the only solution I have found is to use pro microphone cables which can be long as I need and even more. Having worked in the pro field what do you think about this solution?”

I’ve said that long ordinary cables from an equipment rack placed along the side wall will give dramatically better sound than the most exotic shorter cables from a rack which is between the speakers.

Re pro sound, lots of pros think that with a balanced connection, differences in cables disappear or are greatly minimized. Guess I’m not in that group. However, great mic cables can do pretty well in an audiophile system. And vice-versa.

It was in the late 80s, and I was doing a lot of free-lance location recordings, for a NPR affiliate and others. Transparent Audio agreed to make me some balanced mic cables (xlr terminations). Although I was using the “industry standard” pro cables, the insertion of the “consumer audiophile” Transparent Cables was revelatory. The down-side was that they weren’t made to withstand lots of handling (as might be expected when going from one location recording to another).

The other good thing about using good pro mic cables is that they cost a fraction of the price of audiophile balanced cables. Why not get a set and listen?

Regarding unequal lengths, I’d get a set of pro mic cables that were equal in length (which would mean that one channel’s cable is significantly longer than you need), plus one that was the shorter length that you could actually use.

Simply listen to see if you can hear the difference with uneven lengths of cables. And don’t be surprised if unequal length cables sound the same as a matched pair...

Music review?

In 1977, I met Geoffrey Poor. He was working in his family’s shop in Champaign, IL.

As the National Sales Manager for Magnepan, I had no plans to add a small dealer in little Champaign, IL. In fact, I was concentrating on cutting the dealer network back and here was this young guy who wanted to sell the Magnepan line in his family’s TV/audio store.

I still don’t know exactly why I decided to appoint Glenn Poor’s Audio-Video as a Magnepan dealer. Guess it was something I saw in Geoff’s eyes. If you’ve ever met someone that you had a sixth sense about, then you understand.

Glenn Poor’s is not only still in business after all of these years, but they continue to set the pace as a high quality shop. While assisting in the shop, Geoff was instrumental in getting John Dunlavy's speaker line established in the USA. From there, he went on to become a principal owner of Balanced Audio Technology and BAT ’s Director of Sales. BAT has been a phenomenon in the high-end audio industry – a company that came from nowhere in the 90s to reach a top level of acclaim today.

Most folks don’t know that Geoff could’ve had a career as a vocalist. Nor do many know of his production of the acclaimed George Faber CDs.

Anyway, all that is an introduction to something different. Geoff and I were discussing an idea or two that he had for Quarter Notes. Somehow, it came up that he’d written a music review, just for himself. Since I knew his music background, I was immediately interested.

Here’s his note to me and then his review follows:

“Jim,

Here’s the review I mentioned. I wrote it a few months ago (after the Grammy Awards) when I was inspired by the fact that a decent record finally won something. I didn’t ever edit it. So this is a “first take” - like my favorite recordings tend to be. If you like it, you can use it.

“Raising Sand” (Robert Plant/Allison Krauss)

The Grammy Awards have found a new level of credibility – for me anyway. An unconventional, albeit highly deserving, Americana record has won five Grammies, including the two most prestigious awards - “Album of the Year” and “Record of the Year.” Imagine a well-recorded collection of thirteen great songs that have actual melodies from a diverse cast of songwriters (dating back to the early fifties), sung by two great singers and accompanied by extraordinary instrumentalists. That’s a simple description of “Raising Sand.”

Over a year ago when I first noticed the CD display featuring “Raising Sand,” I was in a Starbucks in Chicago. My first thought was “how odd that Robert Plant would team with Champaign, IL native Alison Krauss to make music.” I’ve been a fan of both singers for a long time, but I hadn’t considered their styles all that compatible. Always glad to support Starbucks efforts to promote music, however, I happily paid to hear what this unconventional pairing could do with a great producer like T Bone Burnett. I’m glad I did.

This is simply a great record, and one that I immediately declared “my new favorite” while preparing to play it for Glenn Poor’s sales associate (and resident musical genius) Justin Walden. I had an idea that Justin would be favorably inclined to give the record an open-minded listen because he’s always been a T Bone Burnett fan. It took Justin one listen to also declare “Raising Sand” his new, “favorite record!”

Justin thought so much of the effort that he immediately phoned his dad, Dana (a very successful song-writer/producer) in LA to tell him to go out immediately, and buy it. Such is the passion that accompanies the discovery of a rare gem like “Raising Sand” – especially amongst music lovers who are always on the hunt for good records.

I’ve known for a long time that Robert Plant is a far better singer than the screaming squealer who’d become the prototype “metal” front man, while defining the genre, as Led Zeppelin’s lead singer. In fact, I’ll always remember my favorable impression of his 1979 version of “Little Sister,” popularized by the great Elvis Presley in 1961. Recorded as one of his early solo efforts, he impressed me with his reading of this simple song. It was a transparent example of the rich tone that Plant could convey when not trying to “reach” beyond the natural range of his high tenor.

There was obviously more to Plant than I’d previously thought, and his solo records have established that fact. The man can sing!

Alison Krauss has been a personal favorite of mine who, more than anyone else in her age category, has made the “blue grass” genre a deservingly popular art form. A multi-Grammy winner already, Alison is also a local Champaign, IL girl who has truly “made it.” She’s a remarkable talent as an instrumentalist (fiddle/violin), as well as a singer. Krauss is also a very adept record producer who brought out the best in Nickel Creek’s 2003 album, “Nickel Creek.”

Her pure soprano is a thing of lilting beauty. Equally at home as a lead or harmony voice, Alison’s artistry serves the song, not her ego, making all her efforts beautifully refreshing. This is more than obvious on “Raising Sand,” and her purity of expression obviously influenced and inspired Plant’s efforts. I also believe that the artistic experience of working on “Raising Sand,” as well the unexpected commercial success of this collaboration, has had an unintended (in my opinion) consequence on Plant’s professional direction.

There have been credible rumors for several years that Plant would reunite with his remaining Led Zeppelin mates (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) to record a new album, followed by a world tour to be kicked off at Madison Square Garden in New York. Of course, the rumors gained credibility after Zeppelin (with John Bonham’s son, Jason, on drums) had an extraordinary reunion concert stand in December, 2007 at Albert Hall in London – receiving critical praise for the performance and over-the-top fan response. Disappointingly, for the legions of Zeppelin fans (including me), Plant quashed expectations when he said he’d rather tour with and make more music with Alison!

His decision to concentrate on this new direction has now paid off with the upset wins at this year’s (2009) Grammy’s. Think of the irony for me. I revel in the fact that “Raising Sand” won top honors over the typical drivel that has dominated the Grammies for years, but I hate to think that we may never have the opportunity to see Led Zeppelin live at the Garden!

It’s rare when one can honestly declare that an album simply has no “filler,” that each song has something for which to recommend it. This is the case with “Raising Sand” as almost each tune is addictive, virtually begging you to “listen again and again.” This being said, I have to admit an unusual attraction for four songs in particular. I actually don’t like admitting that I favor any of these great tunes over any others, as that can tend to diminish the near perfection of the album as a whole.

Oh well, I have to single out the following: “Polly Come Home,” “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On),” “Through The Morning, Through The Night” and “Please Read The Letter” (Grammy “Record of the Year”). The late Gene Clark penned both “Polly” and “Through The Morning,” and I have to admit that maybe that fact alone peaked my interest on first listening. Clark, the original lead vocalist of The Byrds (arguably America’s first great “rock” group) had a beautiful voice and an ear for haunting melodies. These two Clark songs are odes to lost loves, and the beauty of the vocals only makes more plain the wanting and pain of the narration.

Brothers Don and Phil Everly wrote “Gone, Gone, Gone,” and the rock-a-billy interpretation, arranged by Burnett, is effective and faithful to the original feel of the Everly Brothers’ own styling with Plant and Krauss in close harmony – although Plant reverts to his former wailing self a bit at the end. He was probably enjoying himself so much he just couldn’t help it. Whatever, it worked.

“Please Read The Letter” was written post-Zeppelin by Plant and Jimmy Page, although they have shared writing credit with Charlie Jones and Michael Lee. There is no better example of the simple beauty of Plant’s voice than on this song, and Krauss lends a simple, tasty harmony track. She has a great ear for blend, and her support of Plant throughout “Raising Sand” is another example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. It’s obvious that her vocal artistry, plainly exhibited while singing lead on “Trampled Rose,” raises the bar for everyone on this project. It’s a temptation to offer lengthy interpretations of every song on this wonderful album, but, really, all you need to do is listen for yourself.

“Raising Sand” is a great collection of real Americana songs, sung and played by talented, passionate musicians. There is no question this record was a labor of love, and one can’t give enough credit to T Bone Burnett for his vision and musicianship throughout the effort.

As a rare bonus, the sound quality is faithful to the music. I don’t know the type of mics, mixing board(s), and type of recording machine(s) used to capture and mix the sounds of the project, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that some vintage, tube-type products were a part of the recording chain. There is a warm, palpable sound that makes me also believe that there may be an analog link to the recording as well. Whatever they used, it worked.

“Raising Sand” is a great record.

Regards,

Geoff”

Absolute Polarity -- Controversial, but worth checking out

Although I covered this aspect of sound in GBS, I’ve received a surprising number of questions about it and suggestions to explore it further. So I decided to go to the person who has been responsible for keeping it in the forefront of audiophile topics.

George Louis is a GBS reader. As I mentioned in the opening of this newsletter, George is the self-styled (and sometimes controversial) “Perfect Polarity Pundit”. You may know George from The Digital Solution™, from Ultra-bit Platinum™, and/or from his series of posts on Audio Asylum re absolute polarity.

The reason George is sometimes controversial, is – in my opinion – twofold:

(1) Not everyone can hear the effects of inverted absolute polarity – at least without some doubt about what differences they hear. So they dismiss its importance. It’s not necessarily a hearing or perception weakness on the part of listeners. It’s usually because their speakers have driver-phasing vagaries. George discusses it on his website. I’ll supply two links shortly.

(2) George has been, shall we say, umm, insistent with his postings on the topic on Audio Asylum.com. George has a passion about this topic. Many AA readers do not share his passion.

If I didn’t think this topic was worth exploring, I wouldn’t have written the tip and I certainly wouldn’t waste time and space here.

Two links:

George’s description – http://www.ultrabitplatinum.com/?page_id=88

George’s list of recording labels - http://www.ultrabitplatinum.com/?page_id=198

US Thanksgiving 2009

To all of you USA readers, I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving Holiday. We truly have much to be thankful for in this country!

That’s it for this Quarter Notes. Hope you found it helpful, or at least interesting.

Please write with any questions, comments, or suggestions. See you next time!

Best regards,

Jim Smith

Go to Get Better Sound

 
     
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