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Audiophile Column No 6. Sound Quality Parameters
Sooner or later any music fan has to tell people around what s/he thinks about different components of an audio system and what is even more important understand what others mean when they describe the sound of some system.
It can apply to the system in general, an interconnecting cable, stand or seemingly unimportant component as a CD player mat (placed on top of a CD during playback). I have to answer straight away that I have never used this accessory and do not understand how it works, but if there is supply it must be triggered by demand. At least it can work as a placebo.
What if you purchased this mat by chance, but the difference in sound with or without this piece of plastic for $120 is obvious.
Then you can say the "system does not perform without the mat", which is dubious and not very informative for others. In the description of this object here, you can read the following: "It improves dynamic qualities, decreases the noise and makes the reproduction of high frequencies softer". If you discard hypothetical explanations of these changes what do you get in real life for your money.
What are dynamic qualities? Usually two terms are used for more specific description of these qualities – macrodynamics and microdynamics. Microdynamic qualities are the reproduction of soft sounds, while macrodynamic characteristics refer to the reproduction of both soft and heavy sounds of the recording.
Taken together these two characteristics describe the sound of the system well enough. Let's look at them in more detail.
Macrodynamics can be described with at least two notions – dynamic range and attack. The dynamic range is the difference between the softest and heaviest sounds, which can be reproduced by a system. Bear in mind that in the majority of contemporary recordings this range is artificially narrowed down and even the most high quality systems have certain limitations here. According to my experience the best way to review the dynamic range is to listen to a piece of classical music. If you can clearly hear the volume difference between the instruments the dynamic range must be fine. If all instruments have the same volume during the entire music piece – you have to change the test recording or audio components.
Then comes attack or a capability to convey sound nuances during the initial sound reproduction. It can be a music instrument or a vocal part. In fact, it describes the speed of sound range increase to its maximum level. If the audio system has serious problems with the attack there may be problems with the sound reproduction. For example, fast cymbal or drum beats are likely to merge into one blurred sound.
Speaking about microdynamics we have to mention the notion of resolution (detail), which explains the sound reproduction of the smallest nuances in a music piece. The higher the resolution the more information you will get from the recording.
Remember, the mat for more than $100 supposedly offers soft high frequencies. Before analyzing this phrase let's mention the tonal balance. It explains how smooth the amplitude frequency response is. In other words it shows whether one frequency range dominates over others or not.
Now I would like to say a couple of words about frequency ranges. Low frequencies (from 20 to 200 Hz) constitute an integral part of any audio track for many and I am not an exception. Some ask for the amount of bass only, but I am interested in the quality. The amount of bass is merely a bonus albeit a nice one at times, but if you have nothing but the bass then think twice before choosing such components. If musical instruments represented in low frequencies are easily discernable without any humming then this bass is informative. Recordings of the organ are a good sample to test low frequencies, because the lowest level for this instrument is around 20 Hz.
Mid frequencies (from 200 Hz to 5 kHz) carry the main share of music information. The majority of musical instruments and the human voice are represented in this spectrum. Use your experience to decide if the sound is natural. If you do not often listen to musical instruments live pay attention to vocal parts. In quality pieces you can always hear if the sound is natural or there are no side tones and sibilants.
High frequencies (from 5 kHz and up) also provide much information. Harmonics and overtones of mid frequency instruments are in this range. Many instruments, for example, cymbals have their spectrums in this range as well.
Many problems are caused by the emphasis of a particular range. Highlight the bass and you will lose much information in this range. Even mid and high frequencies can be impacted. The vocal parts may feature buzzing and mumbling. Emphasize or add several peaks at mid frequencies and vocal parts will sound nasty. High frequencies are also difficult to deal with. They can be boosted until some reasonable level, but the sound will be too sharp due to resonance on high frequencies.
Finally, we will mention the stereo pan or scene. I can differentiate three main characteristics – width, depth and localization. If the first two are more or less straightforward I would like to comment on the localization expressly. Some audio components try to broaden the scene at all costs at the expense of localization. In this case instruments are blurred and single point sound sources become sound blots. In acoustic systems the distance between a "point" and a "blot" is different from headphones. I think that this artificial broadening of the stereo pan is not correct. Musical instruments situated at a bigger distance from each other produce a better impression.
Returning to my preferences I have been recently asked what is "quality" sound for me? The author of the question sees quality in the absence of groaning sounds at high volume. I believe that the absence of groaning, alien side tones and other negative elements only allows starting the discussion about the sound quality. When you train your ears regularly these defects are easier to recognize, but my main advice is the following – no matter what the recording is a good acoustic system should not produce unpleasant sounds at the comfortable volume level. Look at other systems instead. This advice sounds obvious, but it still deserves repeating.
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Published - 01 September 2010
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