The Lowdown on Downloads

Three years ago I posted the entry in this blog called Listening to Tomorrow.  I wrote about the wonders I experienced after loading my music library onto a computer hard drive and using the computer as a “music server.”  Since then, the idea of music existing as computer files—as opposed to physical discs one loads into a player—has expanded.

Today, there are a myriad of music server applications for the various computer operating systems.  For those who want to take the fidelity beyond the capabilities of their computer’s sound card, there are countless external digital-to-analog converters (DACs) to choose from.  There are also numerous online sources for downloading music.  Some still offer the data-reduced formats such as mp3.  Others now tout “full CD quality”—in some quarters, an oxymoron.  And some offer extended-resolution and high-resolution files.  (For more information on the different formats, see the blog entry cited above.)

My music server has become the way I listen, whether via Wi-Fi feeding smaller systems in the house, or via direct connection to the music library drive when listening on the main system.  Yet for several reasons, as a consumer I have been hesitant to purchase downloads.  Early experiences with more than one provider were disturbing in that what was often sold as “high resolution” turned out to be upsampled Redbook—in other words, plain old CD sound, in a high res “package”—sold at a high res price.  Whatever the reason (or reasons), this was so rampant I feared the fledgling market might never get off the ground.

I was also not enamored of the .flac format in which the vendors delivered their downloads.  While called a “lossless” way to reduce file size, making for convenient, faster download times, the results were not so lossless according to everyone participating in the comparison tests we ran in my studio.  (Based on what I see on the Internet and in many printed audio journals, it seems many listeners are not bothered by flac.  In our tests however, the results were unanimous—everyone heard a difference between the source .aif masters and the .flac files created from them.)

In time I was glad to see some vendors offer what appeared to be the raw PCM formats I prefer, such as .aif and .wav.  These are the formats used to make the recordings.  However, it turned out that at least with some of the vendors, what was being delivered to the customer was still a .flac file.  The “download manager” software the vendors provided for use on the customer’s computer expanded the file back to .aif or .wav.  For my own purchases, I avoided the downloads and stayed with CDs or with the high resolution files-on-DVD versions that some of the vendors sold.  When the discs arrived, I’d extract the files—this is called “ripping” a disc—and add them to the server myself.  For all the files on my server I chose the uncompressed .aif format—the same format I use to make and master recordings.

As the owner of the Soundkeeper Recordings label, I stayed away from offering downloads for several reasons, even though many folks have requested them over the years.  The prime reason is that I seek to deliver our recordings to our customers with nothing less than the very best sonics, and from my perspective the download schemes I’ve seen involve compromises.

A full album at high resolution (24-bit/192 kHz sampling rate) can be larger than four Gigabytes in size.  This would make for unacceptably long download times, even on today’s fastest networks.  Where others reduce file size—and by that means shorten download times—by utilizing so-called “lossless” compression formats (such as .flac or .alac), to my ears these result in subtle alterations of the sound, hence I don’t consider them lossless.  Trading fidelity for convenience is not what Soundkeeper wants to offer our customers.

Another common approach taken with downloads, is to break albums up into “singles”.  Our artists go to considerable efforts to create whole albums, so this is the only way we want to deliver their work to our customers.

It took a while for the answer to come but I believe there is another way.  Soundkeeper Recordings will soon offer downloads without any of the compromises cited above.  How to deliver full albums at up to 24/192 resolution?  Fans of the so-called “lossless” formats compare them to zipping a word processor file.  Yes, the zipped words come back intact, even though I can’t say I find the same to be true of flac’d music.

So what about zipped music?  We’ve used zipped music files before, such as those on the Format Comparison page of the Soundkeeper Recordings website.  And when unzipped, no one who participated in our tests could differentiate between the source file and the copy that had been zipped.

What about file size?  Converting an .aif or .wav file to a .zip file does not reduce the size to any significant degree.  It does make for simple downloads though, without exacting a sonic price.  A CD-resolution (16/44) download can fit comfortably into a reasonably sized downloadable file.  To keep file size manageable, we’ll separate extended-resolution (24/96) downloads into two or more .zip files (depending on album length), and we’ll separate high-resolution (24/192) downloads into four or more .zip files (depending on album length).

For the extended-resolution and high-resolution downloads, each .zip file will be a Gigabyte or less in size and contain some of the tracks on the album.  One of the files will also contain a .pdf of the liner notes and a .jpg of the album cover.  When the files have been downloaded, the user unzips the files and simply drags them into the server application of their choice (iTunes, Amarra, etc.).

One of the reasons I prefer .aif format for my music files is that the files can contain metadata (artist, album title, track title, composer, album cover art, etc.).  This metadata becomes part of the file.  The .wav format does not support metadata, so when the user adds this information in their music application, it resides in the application and not in the file.  If the file is moved out of the application, the metadata is lost.  In contrast, move an .aif file and the metadata travels with it.  The .aif file downloads from Soundkeeper Recordings will have the full metadata in them when they arrive on the customer’s machine.

Within the next week, we’ll begin offering downloads in six formats: 16/44, 24/96, and 24/192, .aif or .wav.  For those who prefer disc formats, we plan to continue offering these.  The downloads are just a long overdue addition that will please a different set of Soundkeeper listeners.

Everything Still Matters

Soon after the previous entry in this blog—Everything Matters—was posted, I heard from a friend who recently purchased a 24-bit, 192 kHz, high-resolution download of a classic album.  Like many of us, he sought an even better “view” of the recording than is offered by the CD version he already owns.  To his surprise, he prefers listening to the CD version, and finds the high res download as sounding “a bit bright.”

The authors of some recent tech website articles denigrating high resolution might see my friend’s comments as vindication.  In my view, this says more about the authors than it does about the audible reality.  Why these websites didn’t choose authors more experienced with systems for music playback, and more interested in sound quality, remains a mystery.  (Vide John Atkinson’s very well considered Access Journalism vs Accountability Journalism.)

In order to determine whether high resolution is the source of the problem (any problem), it must be compared with its standard resolution equivalent.  This means for a valid comparison of delivery formats the only difference must be the delivery format.  Both versions must be created at the same mastering session, by the same engineer, using the same channel (signal path).  There, as the man once said, is the rub.  In most cases the two items being compared were created at different mastering sessions, often by different engineers, in completely different mastering studios.  Right away any sort of equivalence is out the window.

Different mastering engineers have different ears, different sensibilities, different approaches, different talents, and different weaknesses.  Even the same engineer might take a diverging tack when remastering something they’ve mastered in the past.  When the two versions are done by different engineers the likelihood of variance in their methods is pretty much a sure thing.  This is expectable since they don’t share a common set of ears, and no two engineers I know of will do things the same way.  With regard to new masterings, in Everything Matters I said, “Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.”

There is also a very good to excellent chance the signal path for the two versions differed.  Even in the same studio, things tend to change and evolve over time.  For an album like the one my friend purchased, which was originally recorded on analog tape, the A-D converter used in mastering can have a profound effect on the results.  This is particularly true at higher resolutions, where I have found many converters are stretched beyond their capabilities.  To wit, a lot of converters specified for 24/192 actually perform worse at this rate than they do at lower rates.  This I attribute to the significantly increased demands on clocking accuracy and on analog stage performance at the wider bandwidths.  It would seem to be easy to put 24/192 on a spec sheet but not so easy to design a device that can perform to the potential of the format.  And the converter is just one of several components comprising the signal path, each of which will have its own sonic consequences.

All of the above assumes the same source tape was used for the different versions.  This is a big assumption, even when “original” is claimed.  I’ve experienced a number of instances where, having handled the tapes myself, I knew the subsequent claims from some quarters of “original” were at best mistaken. Whether original or not, if different source tapes were used, the outcome could be acutely altered.

The bottom line here should not be surprising: A carefully made CD (or CD resolution file) will easily outperform a not-so-carefully made 24/192 file.  This has to do with how effectively the capabilities of each delivery format are realized—or not realized, as this case illustrates.

I concluded Everything Matters by saying “Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.”  In my experience, when everything in the production of an album is the same except for the delivery format, a 24/192 file should reveal so much more of the source as to make the 16/44 (CD) version sound coarse, ill-defined, airless, and broken by comparison.  So either my friend’s 24/192 file was created from an inferior source, or the mastering was just not up to that achieved for the CD.

To my ears, properly done digital audio at 24/192 fulfills the promise digital made back in 1982 when the sonically hamstrung CD format made its first appearance.  I have said elsewhere that 24/192 is the first format I’ve ever heard where I have not yet been able to distinguish the output from the input—the first format I know of that is capable of giving us a virtually perfect rendition of the source.  In view of this, I must admit to being somewhat astonished at the negativity from some quarters of the tech web and tech press.  Nevertheless, if music lovers are to receive the benefits of this wonderful fruit of technological progress, the folks creating it must tend their crop more carefully.

Everything Matters

In my earliest days as an assistant in a recording studio, I learned the ropes as basic tracks were laid down on tape, overdubs and “punch-ins” were added, stereo mixes were created, and the final, edited mixes were mastered.  From those early days onward, I frequently heard what I came to refer to as The Three Most Heard Phrases in Record Making:

“We’ll fix it in the mix” (when something in the recording was not quite right)

“We’ll catch it in the mastering” (when the mix didn’t exactly fix it)

“They’ll never hear it at home” (when it still wasn’t nailed in the mastering)

Rumor has it that Frank Zappa once said “We’ll fix it in the shrink wrap.”

There has been some discussion on the Internet recently about which aspect of record making has the greatest influence on the sound of the finished product.  Some say the space in which the original recording is made makes the greatest difference.  Others say “it’s all in the mastering.”  Asking three people will elicit at least four different answers.

The space where the recorded performance occurs will impact the musicians, influencing the sound they hear from the instruments and from the environment, thus influencing how they play.  But with typical recordings, where the microphones are placed close to the instruments, the sound of the environment is often minimized.  Alternatively, some recordings are made using very few microphones, which are placed to deliberately pick up the environment as well as the players.  Here, the space becomes in integral part of the final sound, as it is when a listener attends a live performance.  Still, this does not suggest the space has the greatest influence on the sound.  One might be in a fabulous room but the wrong microphone selection or the wrong microphone technique can very easily override the sound of the space.

Typical major label recordings involve three main production phases: recording, mixing, and mastering.  There are those who feel the mix—where a multitrack original is turned into a stereo (or in some instances, surround) version—is the biggest factor in shaping the final sound.  Instrumental and vocal level balances are determined during the mix.  Tonality is often adjusted, placement of instruments and vocalists on the “stage” is determined, and special effects might be added.  There is no doubt about the magnitude of influence the mix has.  Yet the final result will always be influenced by the ingredients used to create it.

With the advent of the remastering phenomenon, labels have given new life to older releases.  Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.  Either way, through these re-releases, many music aficionados have discovered the influence mastering has on the sonics of a recording.  As the last stage of production and the first stage of manufacturing, mastering is the last opportunity to make small—or large—changes to the sound.  While the degree of influence on the final sound can sometimes be quite surprising, here too, the final outcome is always fundamentally impacted by the source material.  A pachyderm’s aural appurtenance does not a silken wallet make.

To my ears, an mp3 of a Keith Johnson recording, listened to in the car, on the highway (with the windows open!), can reveal more Life than many a typical studio master played on the finest, most carefully set up systems in the most optimally treated rooms.

In my experience, once the signals are leaving the microphones, 90-95% or more of the recording’s ultimate quality ceiling has already been determined.  Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.

House Picks (Part 2)

The last entry, House Picks (Part 1), began with my writing “I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding.  Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general.  There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I’m evaluating a new piece of hardware or software, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend.  Needless to say, I love the music on all of them.  This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional.  All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.”

In the first part, I wrote about recordings of classical music.  This is because some of my all-time engineering heroes have primarily recorded this genre and because recordings of this type of music tend to be documents of real performances as opposed to the studio creations that dominate in the more popular musical genres.

In the world of popular music, it is more challenging to find recordings with great sonics.  There are several reasons for this.  Most typical studio productions are made using a large numbers of closely placed microphones.  The recordings are subjected to varying amounts of dynamic compression, sometimes used as a special effect but more often simply for the sake of loudness.  And lastly, what is commonly referred to as “stereo” is actually derived electronically during the “mix” where the individual monaural tracks are combined into two channels and each sound is sent to either the left channel, the right channel or some combination to give the appearance of the sound being somewhere in between.  Any sense of depth and space also tends to be created electronically rather than captured acoustically.  Even so, there are examples that, in spite of all the processing, still effectively convey musical meaning within the context of the sounds they provide.

To my ears, some of the best among these are the solo albums by Mark Knopfler.  The first one I heard, Sailing to Philadelphia (Warner Brothers 47753) was a great help when I was evaluating various means of isolating gear from external vibrations.  As the gear got better isolated, it was easier to hear the distinctive way Mark picks the strings of his guitars.  (Not that one had to listen for this; it just became more obvious.)

More recently, having purchased the rest of his catalog, I’ve often played tracks from The Ragpicker’s Dream (Warner Brothers 48318), Shangri-La (Warner Brothers 48858), Kill to Get Crimson (Warner Brothers 281660), Get Lucky (Reprise 520206), and all the others.

Another artist in the pop realm whose recordings I find sonically superior is Rickie Lee Jones.  Just yesterday, the track “Tigers” from Traffic from Paradise (Geffen 24602) provided some insight into the new degree of low level information being revealed by the most recent change to the system.  It is always amazing to me how, after knowing an album inside-out for many years, there may still be new sounds to hear in it.

Other Rickie Lee Jones albums that I find sonically special are The Evening of My Best Day (V2 Records 22171), The Sermon on Exposition Blvd (New West NW6112), and Balm in Gilead (Fantasy 31760).

Of the albums I’ve had the pleasure of mastering, my favorites are Enya’s Watermark (Geffen 24233) and the entire Bob Marley & the Wailers catalog in the series I did for the Tuff Gong label in 1990.  Of the Marleys, I’ll often pick Survival (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) or Exodus (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) when I want to test the system.  Another one of my prime choices from the albums I’ve mastered is Work of Art’s Waves (Sword In The Stone SSR56).

Finally, nothing tells me more about how a system (or device within it) is performing than recordings I’ve made myself for my own Soundkeeper Recordings label.  Having stood at the position of the microphone array at the recording sessions, and having compared the signals from the mics with what I was hearing in the air, provides a unique perspective into each of these projects.  Even more than when mastering an album, where one learns every little sound during multiple listens over the course of the mastering process, having made the original recording and been in the space with the players during the event itself, affords an unequaled vantage point on the reproduction of same.  With this in mind, I’ll always bring out the recordings I know best of all.  These include Work of Art’s Lift (SRx001), Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn’s Equinox (SRx002), Jason Vitelli’s Confluence (SRx003), Paul Beaudry & Pathways’ Americas (SRx004), and Work of Art’s Winds of Change (SRx005).

The postman just delivered a package with some new albums I ordered.  I hope its contents are the makings of a future “House Picks” entry in this blog.  I’m off to the studio/listening room.

House Picks (Part 1)

I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding.  Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general.  There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend.  Needless to say, I love the music on all of them.  This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional.  All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.

In general terms, there are certain engineers and certain artists from whom I’ve found consistent results that I deem outstanding in one or more ways.  I note that every engineer whose work I have admired has their own approach, different from others and also different from my own approach.  Nonetheless, I find much to enjoy in their work.

Among the first recordings I’ll play when I want to hear what something can do are some recorded by Keith Johnson for the Reference Recordings label.  The recording of John Rutter’s Requiem (RR-57) is one of my all-time favorites.  The 300 voices of the Turtle Creek Chorale and the Women’s Chorus of Dallas combine with the fabulous acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and the Fisk organ therein, along with woodwinds and percussion to create musical and sonic magic.  I first heard this recording long before I saw a photo of the room in which it was made.  From the sound alone, it was clear this room has a very high ceiling.  After enjoying this record for years, I finally saw a photo of the space in which it was done, and learned the ceiling is some 80 feet above the floor.  For spatial reproduction, ability to separate complex musical passages, and the deep bass of that organ (you can feel the air pressure changes in the room!), this recording is a wonder.

An earlier Keith Johnson recording of the Turtle Creek Choir is another favorite.  Testament (RR-49) features Randall Thompson’s music set to text by Thomas Jefferson.  The album also includes other compositions by Ron Nelson, Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. I’ve often said this record is so clear, you can almost tell what color sweater certain vocalists were wearing.

I have several recorded versions of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and The Firebird but Eije Oue’s traversals with the Minnesota Orchestra (RR-70) are easily among my favorites.  Like all of Keith’s work, space and dynamics are astounding.  This is a stunning recording of some of my favorite music.

For me, the pioneers, the trailblazers of great recording were the team of Wilma Cozart and engineer C. Robert Fine.  While their recordings for the Mercury Living Presence label might have just a bit of microphone-engendered brightness, they remain for me among the earliest examples of performances I enjoy which are superbly recorded.  When listening to these, I am constantly amazed to realize they were recorded more than half a century ago.

Some of my most treasured albums done by Fine and Cozart are their recordings of Antal Dorati and the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra performing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (434 331-2) and The Firebird (432 012).  I’m also partial to the team’s recordings of Janos Starker including Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello and Sonatas in G & D Major for Cello and Piano (432 756) and Italian Cello Sonatas (434 344).  Bob Fine’s recordings are magical windows to the performances.

Jack Renner’s recording for the Telarc label of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris (80058) played by the Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a house favorite.

Next time, some samples from the world of popular music.

The People’s System

A year ago, the entry in this blog called Can you hear what you’re doing? was the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups that avoid superimposing their own sonic thumbprint on the signals they reproduce.  I hope these entries will also be of interest to any music and sound enthusiast who seeks a system capable of what I call “getting out of the way” in order to provide more direct access to the recordings in their music collection.

Previous entries have talked about monitoring system setup and room acoustics.  In the entry preceding this one, Magnificent Maggies, I spoke of a particular favorite speaker design, Jim Winey’s Magneplanars, and how I’ve found them to be exemplary in terms of stepping aside and allowing the listener to truly hear the input signal.

To be clear, not everyone really wants to hear the input signal unaltered.  Some folks like their systems to offer certain colors that please their ears.  While I would never argue with whatever brings anyone their listening pleasure, this entry is directed toward folks who want the colors to come from the music and not from the gear used to listen to it.

A system that gets out of the way is pivotal for those making records.  Unless they can be confident they are assessing the sound of the recording itself, they risk altering the sound to make inaccurate monitoring sound “right.”   If that happens, when they listen elsewhere they find that the recording itself doesn’t sound the way they intended it to sound.  Such a system is important to music lovers too because it reveals all the nuances contained in their music libraries.

I have often been asked to recommend a system for musician friends, clients, and other friends. In the majority of instances the recommendations have been very similar.  What I’m going to describe here is the least expensive system I would trust for monitoring recordings.  (I’ve heard systems costing considerably more that do not elicit the same confidence on my part.)  It is equally suitable for any music lover, whether as a starter system in a college dorm or as an ultimate system for folks who don’t seek anything more.  One can certainly spend less and have a very enjoyable system, but I would not recommend such for anyone who makes records or anyone who wants to hear the most from their music.

It is important to remember that the ideal recommended system will vary depending on the source of the recommendation.  I often say that if you ask three folks an audio question, you will receive at least four different answers.  I will report on a system I have experienced in many rooms and which has brought smiles to many musicians, recordists, and other music lovers I know.

For the purpose of this entry, I’m going to divide the music system into two parts: the front end and the back end.  The front end might be as simple as a CD or turntable, or it might be as elaborate as a computer feeding an external digital-to-analog converter (also known as a DAC).  The front end is the source from which recordings are played.  The back end is the monitoring which includes the loudspeakers and the electronics that drive the speakers.  The system I’m recommending here is built around the monitoring.

In the previous entry, I said that I often refer to Magnepan’s MMG model ($599/pair) as “The People’s Speaker.”  To quote from that entry, “I’ve heard some $10,000 and $15,000 speakers that have so much ‘personality’ they end up exhausting the listener and engendering headaches.  MMGs, within their capabilities, just sound like what they are fed.  Properly set up, they are a joy that any music lover will intuitively recognize.”  The MMGs are the core of what I’ll call “The People’s System.”

What is needed now are associated components that will allow the MMGs to reveal their magic.  The speakers must be paired with an amplifier to drive them.  The most economical good match for the MMGs I’ve found so far is the RR-2150 stereo receiver ($699) from Outlaw Audio.  With sufficient power to drive the MMGs, the RR-2150 also serves as the control center for the system, where the input source can be selected and the playback volume adjusted, using either the front panel or the included remote.

While they are often overlooked when folks assemble audio systems, I’ve found the cables that connect all the individual pieces of gear to be critical in getting the best out of the whole.  In the entry called The High End Arrives, I recounted my earliest exposure to good cables.  It started with the loudspeaker cables.  From that entry: “…I already had ‘heavy gauge’ wires feeding the speakers.  Once the cable was sufficient to pass the requisite power to the loudspeakers, I wondered ‘how could cable make a difference?’  Once again I listened and once again I learned.  Where did all that musical information come from?  What was formerly just a guitar chord was now a set of individual strings sounding together to make that chord.  The room in which the musicians were playing was suddenly also much more clearly evident – both in recordings made in real rooms and those where a ‘room’ sound was added artificially via electronic reverberation.  Where cables had previously been not much more than an afterthought, required to get sound from one component in the chain to the next, I came to realize they are components in themselves and as with any chain, the weak link will determine the overall strength.”  I wrote more about the subject in the New Connections entry last year.

In my experience, the MMGs will easily reveal differences in cables and so I recommend using wires that are commensurate with the rest of the monitoring system we’re assembling here.  For this system, I recommend White Lightning speaker cables ($429/3-meter pair) from Nordost.  In order to connect a front end source component to one of the inputs on the Outlaw RR 2150, I recommend Nordost’s White Lightning interconnect cables ($189/1-meter pair).

Each of the cables is available with different types of connectors at each end.  I would choose Nordost’s “z-plug” banana connectors on their speaker cables, as these make for easy attachment at the amplifier and speaker ends.  Standard RCA connectors on the interconnect cables will work with the Outlaw RR-2150 and most source components.

Depending on the setup, shorter or longer speaker cables or interconnects may be desired.  In this example, I’ve chosen a 3-meter pair for the speaker cables and a 1-meter for the interconnects as good average lengths that work in most installations (and to “ballpark” the price).

So, excluding the front end source component(s), the system consists of:

Magnepan MMG loudspeakers  $599
Outlaw Audio RR-2150 receiver  $699
Nordost White Lightning speaker cables  $429
Nordost White Lightning interconnects  $189

The total cost for this part of the system is $1916.  All that is needed now is the front end source or sources.  I’ve heard this system make mellifluous musical magic with inputs as simple as a $35 Sony DVD/CD player spinning a CD, or as complex as a computer-centered digital audio workstation in a studio feeding the system via an external DAC.

One thing that might surprise folks who are new to components like these is that wonderful as they sound fresh out of the box, all of them will improve considerably once they have played music for a while.  The cables and electronics get better over the first 100 hours of use, while the speakers can take as much as 400 hours of playing music to get to their best performance.  Extension in the bass as well as the treble, smoothness in the upper frequencies, “airiness”, and dynamic range all exhibit improvements.  The dimensions of the stereo soundstage expand and overall focus attains greater detail.  The system will sound fantastic immediately but will ultimately get even better.

While I could happily live with this system as described (and truly believe it tells a lot more sonic truth than I’ve heard in most studios), one of its beauties is that each of the various components will stand up to having any of the others upgraded within each respective brand.  For example, go up a model in the Magnepan line, and the RR-2150 and White Lightning will still deliver.  Go up to separate electronics, like Outlaw’s 2200 amplifiers, and the MMGs will respond to the increased power while the White Lightning will still faithfully render the signal from link to link in the component chain.  Go up to one of Nordost’s more elaborate cable designs, and the MMGs will reveal the increased performance.  These are all components that work superbly together, yet can also allow for growth.  And most importantly, the combination is true to the input signal.  Of course, models further up the Magnepan and Nordost lines will take the revelation level up accordingly.  (There are also some outstanding alternatives for more expensive electronics.)  But this system as it is, fits the goal mentioned at the start of this entry: It is capable of getting out of the way and providing more direct access to the music.  It gets my vote for The People’s System.

Magnificent Maggies

A recent conversation on one of the Internet audio forums revolved around a user’s question about whether his system should provide a “front row” or “center orchestra” perspective on the recordings he played through it.  Not surprisingly, the responses were wide-ranging and fully supported my frequent observation that what is “good”, “better” or “best” depends entirely upon precisely what one seeks.  Some folks want their system to provide a certain perspective.  My own contention is that if the system provides a certain perspective, whatever that perspective might be, it is in fact getting in the way of the perspective provided by the recording.  I would rather have a system that just gets out of the way and lets me hear past it, all the way to the recording.

About this time last year, I wrote an entry in this blog called Can you hear what you’re doing? and said it would be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups that avoid superimposing their own sonic thumbprint on the signals they reproduce.  It is my hope that these will be of equal interest to any music and sound enthusiast who wants maximum access to the recordings in their music collection.  In that entry, I talked in general terms about monitoring system setup and went on in the subsequent entry to discuss room acoustics.  Here, we’ll get into the loudspeakers themselves and one design in particular, Jim Winey’s Magneplanars.

I have always felt the most important component in any studio or listening room is the monitoring (i.e., the loudspeakers and their setup).  Before I had my own studio, I would select places to work based solely on the monitoring, my feeling being if you can’t hear what you’re doing, nothing else really matters.  Every decision in record making, from microphone selection on, is based on what the monitors reveal (or don’t).  Similarly, when building any listening system, it is the monitoring that will determine what we hear from the rest of the playback chain and the recordings we listen to.

Some speakers can sound “very good”, presenting certain aspects of the sound in very pleasing ways.  They might be sweet in the treble or very powerful in the bass or they might exhibit great dynamic “slam” when the music suddenly goes from quiet to loud.  Some will favor the human voice.  Some will be especially good at reproducing a sense of spaciousness.  Personally, I wouldn’t want any of these.  I consider a loudspeaker (or any other component) that sounds “very good” to be a source of distortion.  I don’t want the speakers to favor any particular aspect of the sound and thus draw my attention to it.  I don’t want the speakers to “sound” at all.  I want the opposite: I want them to get out of the way and let me hear the recording.

When many folks see Magnepans for the first time, they tend to say things like “That’s a speaker?!”  These are not your usual cones-in-a-box like most other speakers.  Maggies—as they are affectionately known to their fans—are flat panels that radiate sound from both the front and the back.  Instead of using cones (or domes) as the driver elements, they utilize Magnepan’s proprietary flat drivers.  Lightweight and fast-responding, these drivers excel at following the music signal with an agility those more massive cones (and domes) can’t achieve.  The first models I experienced, back in the early 1970s, looked like Shoji screens.  While those early models did not have the bass or treble extension of the modern Maggies, they nonetheless provided a shockingly realistic portrayal of the music and showed just how much more music was available from records than what is commonly revealed by typical box speakers.  Over the years, the designs have been improved greatly, extending their reach into the bass and up into the treble, and expanding their responsiveness to changes in musical dynamics.  The larger models incorporate a true ribbon tweeter, extending the range into the stratosphere and providing a purity in the treble which, to my ears, remains unmatched to this day.

I have set up systems for many clients, friends and relatives built around Magnepan’s MMG model.  While it does not have the bass or treble extension or the overall resolution of models higher up in the line, this least expensive model in the Magnepan line ($599/pair) delivers a good measure of the Maggie Magic.  I know of one studio that replaced a pair of box type monitors with MMGs and the changes that resulted were profound.  (The owner never went back to boxes and has since purchased larger Magnepans to use as the studio monitors.)  While they may not plumb the deepest notes in the bass, their definition in this range sounds to me a lot more like bass in real life than that delivered by other designs.  Assuming the recording contains it, there is real pitch definition and speed on the bottom, something I’ve only heard approached by speakers costing much more.

I’ve heard some $10,000 and $15,000 speakers that have so much “personality” they end up exhausting the listener and engendering headaches.  MMGs, within their capabilities, just sound like what they are fed.  Properly set up, they are a joy that any music lover will intuitively recognize.  For this reason, I’ve come to refer to them as “The People’s Speaker”.  While enjoyable music systems can be built around less expensive loudspeakers, I wouldn’t want to use such for evaluating recordings or other gear.  For a system that I can trust when making records, a system that can truly get out of the way, I consider the MMGs the starting point.  (More on this in a future entry.)

Earlier this decade, Magnepan introduced its model 1.7, successor to the 1.6, itself the successor to the 1.5, which was the first Maggie I owned.  Unlike many other companies, Magnepan does not introduce new models very often.  Like other companies I admire, rather than arbitrarily replace products with others that incorporate superficial changes, they wait for really significant design improvements before offering a new model.  My old 1.5s used the planar magnetic driver for the woofer and incorporated Magnepan’s quasi-ribbon driver for the midrange/tweeter section of the speaker.  The 1.6s used a similar driver complement but over the years Magnepan enlarged the quasi-ribbon and redesigned the crossover as well as some aspects of the mechanical design of the speaker.  This increased its already fine coherence and its dynamic capability.  With the .7 series, Magnepan extended the use of its quasi-ribbon drivers to the bass and again improved the crossover, resulting in a substantial upgrade to an already fine design.

My 1.5s were not only used for leisure listening, they became indispensable as the monitors in my studio, making mastering decisions faster and easier.  This is a critical point and why I insist on monitoring that is absolutely trustworthy.  I spoke about this a bit in the blog entry cited earlier.  In most studios, one has to take the result outside to another system in order to “see how it sounds”.  The sound has effectively been adjusted to make the studio monitoring sound “right”, with the inevitable outcome that the sound isn’t so right when played elsewhere.  With Maggies serving as monitors, I feel confident I’m hearing—and working on—the recording itself, not the monitoring.  Their honesty makes the results stand up when played elsewhere on other systems.

In the intervening years, I’ve gone from using 1.5s in the studio, to using Magnepan’s 3.6s, and more recently, to 3.7s.  I consider the .7 to be a landmark in the progress of Magnepan’s designs with a new level of coherence, which I attribute to the crossover changes.  The word that keeps coming to mind as I listen to them is “solidity” as the images presented by the speakers now seem to have a palpability, a sense of real presence that can sometimes be scarily real sounding—if the recording allows it.

There are other Magnepan models, both smaller and larger than those I’ve mentioned so far. I believe each of them is a best buy in its price class.  The only caveats I would offer the reader are the following:

  1. These speakers are so transparent, some folks will blame them for issues the speakers are simply revealing about the recording, the rest of the system, or the setup.
  2. Maggies like a lot of current and should be used with amplifiers capable of delivering what the speakers want.  To my ears, low-powered amplifiers will not elicit their magic.
  3. While all speakers require proper placement to do their job, a speaker as revealing as a Maggie really needs air all around it to show its potential.  For background listening, they can be moved closer to the wall behind them but to really have them “disappear”, they should be well out into the room.  This is true for almost all speakers and in my experience, is certainly a prerequisite if the speaker is to truly get out of the way.

I’ve had the good fortune to hear other great speakers but so far, all of them cost an order of magnitude more than any Magnepan.  Yes, for $50,000, $100,000 and more, there are some really fantastic loudspeakers out there.  To this day however, there are still some things I think Maggies do better, even at a small fraction of the price.  And for overall performance, few in my experience are so chameleon-like as far as the signal they are fed, so elegant visually, and so inviting to the listener:  my favorite product in all of audio.