Audio

Who’s Doing Livestreams Right?

Ben Folds takes requests—and gives piano lessons to kids—while stuck in Australia.

The audience for livestreams has exploded in recent weeks as people have exhausted their options for more traditional mainstream entertainment and musicians and other performers have embraced online performance as the best near-term solution for engaging their fans. I talked to acoustic designer Steve Haas about who’s doing a good job of broadcasting from the internet and what musicians can do to up the sonic quality of their streams.

—Michael Gaughn

Thanks to the boom in livestreams, a lot of people are being exposed for the first time to the idea of famous musicians doing intimate performances, but you’ve been aware of and helping to arrange home performances for a while now, right?

Yes. I’ve been very passionate about promoting house concerts, and have been creating private concert venues in people’s homes for a long time. Before the pandemic, hosts of house concerts were putting on monthly shows with some really great 

artists. It was just amazing, the quality and caliber of musicians you got to see several feet from you in someone’s living room. They would clear out the furniture, put 50 people in there on some loose chairs, and have a suggested donation of 15 to 20 dollars per person.

 

But of course now that can’t exist for a while in any environment, commercial or private—hopefully not as long as everybody’s predicting. Certainly when Mozart did his house concerts in the palace, he didn’t have to deal with a pandemic, and certainly didn’t have the internet to be able to convey his music to the masses. But people do now, and it’s amazing how many performers have jumped on this. They understand that the only way they can keep their music and their talents alive in the minds of their fans and the general public is through online presentations.

 

Whether it’s prerecorded videos or live streaming, some bands will go to great lengths to individually record their parts and overdub the video. And then somebody will put it together through video editing software and create a pretty amazing production.

 


In general, what is the level of quality you’ve been coming across over the past couple of months, from an acoustics perspective?

Most people are just finding a room in their home or their apartment—sometimes the bathroom, which everybody thinks has great acoustics. But that’s a little iffy—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. It can also be their kitchen, their living room, wherever they can set up an iPhone or a simple microphone. That’s the bare bones.

Performers are realizing they need to use this vehicle to get their music out there. And some are realizing they have to rise above the tide and separate themselves from the masses.

 

I get dozens of livestreams every day on my Facebook and other feeds, but I just don’t have time to listen to all of them. And that doesn’t even include the highly produced streams, like the Together at Home concert with Lady Gaga, Elton John, and others. So there has to be a way for artists—not just musicians, but actors and dancers, too—to convey their craft. But they have to step up the production. And the thing is, the ones I’ve seen do that haven’t had to spend thousands of dollars.

 

It’s really about thinking, “OK, what can I do to create an environment that will give me something better than what sounds like a typical living room? How can I get a little better balance? How can I get some good audio equipment? What do I need to do 

to make sure my video and audio are in sync?” I’ve seen some videos that were out of sync, which is very annoying.

 

They also need to think about lighting. How many people are doing livestreams with a window behind them? I’m not a lighting designer, but Lighting 101 tells us don’t have a window behind you.

 

 

I realize it’s difficult to advise people on acoustics from a distance, but is there any general advice you could give? For instance, they should probably take a moment to listen to the room they’re thinking of using and get a sense of its sonic characteristics.

Most normal rooms—living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms—don’t have a neutral sound, but tend to sound very colored. Bathrooms usually have an excessively bright sound because you’re dealing with porcelain and plaster and other hard surfaces with nothing to absorb it. Kitchens can sound like that too because they don’t have any soft furnishings, so they tend to emphasize the higher frequencies.

 

Living rooms, family rooms, and dens can have a very midrange boomy sound because you typically have all of the low-end sound sucked out—that is, absorbed—by the windows and the thin sheetrock and plaster. The high end can also be muffled by some of the furnishings, especially if you have carpet or area rugs.

 

And that’s really indicative of what I’m hearing on a lot on livestreams—that midrange honkiness that’s left once the highs and the lows are sucked out. It’s better to simply try to soak up or absorb some of that sound. I joke about it, but bringing every pillow and blanket in your house or apartment into the room while you’re recording will actually make a difference. But it depends. If you have a huge living room, just having three or four pillows is not going to do it.

 

If you want to take it to the next level, you can buy or make 

A BRIEF SAMPLING OF STREAMS
Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Brad Paisley and special guests perform
in real time on Facebook 

The Doobie Brothers perform a video
sync-up of “Black Water”

Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Singer Maysa Leak (of Incognito fame)

your own acoustical panels. It’s pretty easy, getting some insulation boards, which are typically about one or two inches thick, and wrapping fabric around them. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it certainly can be very effective.

 

As a practitioner and somebody who designs spaces to sound fantastic, I don’t typically advocate the DIY approach to acoustical treatment. But, my goodness, in this situation we’re in, why not get something that will improve your recordings, improve your livestreaming, and set yourself apart a bit for a modest cost?

 

 

I know there are a lot of variables, but in general, should they be using smaller spaces?

It really does depend on what a space is giving you sonically. It’s all about the balance. Does it sound neutral? You can get a large space that has enough furnishings and other things to create that neutral sound, and have the added benefit of giving 

you a really nice visual backdrop, too.

 

There’s this thing going around the internet, a father and daughter out of Utah—Shaw, I think is their last name. They’ve gotten millions of hits for the songs they sing together. They sound wonderful and they’re in a very nice, voluminous living room. And yet you don’t hear excessive reverberation or other imbalanced sound because they seem to have paid attention to their room’s acoustics.

One option is to create the performance in two parts. I’ve heard people say they’ve recorded their audio literally in a closet to get the best sound possible and then dubbed it on the video. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re trying to get high-quality sound and visuals. They may not always go hand in hand.

 

 

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds, but how much impact does microphone selection or placement have on all this?

If they’re recording the audio and video at the same time and their space isn’t perfect, it makes a huge difference. There are professional artists where you can see they’re using closely held wireless or wired mics. And if you don’t have a balanced room, that allows the sound to be picked up much better without getting too much of the room. You want to make sure you have the best-quality microphone you can find with what you have to work with. You also want to make sure the mic’s control pattern is fairly narrow so it’s not picking up too much of the area around you.

 

 

I realize no one can know the future for sure, but where would like to see all of this go from here?

It’s great that during these difficult times people are still keeping that sensation of live music. We’ve been witnessing what I call the one-to-many type of presentations, whether it’s a single artist or band delivering a song or a performance or the big 

production concerts such as Together at Home. The Metropolitan Opera just did one. And I heard of a hip-hop artist who actually did one on Fortnite, a gaming platform. So everybody’s finding unique ways to deliver that one-to-many experience.

 

I do think the next step, as this continues, is that homeowners who can afford it will say, “You 

know what? I want a private concert.” Even if they have to do it on the big screen in their home theater and have Elton John or another type of artist use two-way communication where the performer can hear them applaud and they can interact in conversation between songs, ask questions, or whatever. That way they can react to the performance in a one-to-one or one-to-a-family or small-group situation.

 

I look forward to that happening because it really is amazing when you can have that experience with an artist. If they can’t physically be in the same room with you, then get the next best thing and have them be on Zoom or another stable platform. Have that same type of experience and same type of two-way communications instead of one-way. Feel the intimacy of the performance.

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

When most people think about good acoustics, the first area of a home that comes to mind is an entertainment room. The audio in this space should be pristine—from clear, intelligible dialogue to realistic, three-dimensional special effects. You feel as if you’re in the middle of the movie action, and proper acoustical engineering and treatment of the space contribute just as much as the equipment to delivering this experience. If the acoustics of the space are off, the listening experience will suffer.

 

To prevent this from happening, it’s important that a home theater include properly engineered and installed acoustics customized for the unique sonic attributes of the space. The floor, ceiling, walls, furnishings, etc. often require some level of modification to ensure that the movie audio sounds its very best, without reverberation, echo, or disruption from other sources of sound.

 

But why stop at the home theater? The same acoustical principles of a home theater can be applied in bedrooms, home offices, living rooms . . . really any space that suffers from unwanted external noise or acoustical conditions that conflict with the intelligibility of conversations. Just as a noisy heating and cooling unit can distract you from the plot of a movie, it can be a

literal nightmare when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.

 

And that’s just brushing the surface of the annoying sounds that can plague a household. Homes of all sizes and designs can be affected by excessive noise, lack of sound privacy, and an abundance of sound propagation.

 

Think about the things you hear at home on a daily basis: A delivery truck backing out of a neighbor’s driveway, the lawn maintenance crew working at the park across the street, barking dogs, the thump of the home gym treadmill at 5 a.m., and the incessant beat of your son’s garage band are just some of the many examples. They all add up to a lot of racket—most of which you’d probably rather not hear or at least muffle a bit. An acoustical engineer can minimize these audible distractions from any area of the house—not just the home theater.

 

Years ago, all of this commotion may have fallen on deaf ears. Most people worked in an office outside of the home, went to the neighborhood cinema to catch a show, and worked out at the gym. Today, though, we are home a lot, 

using it for a myriad of activities besides just eating and sleeping. We work in home offices, exercise in home gyms, entertain in home theaters, dine in gourmet kitchens, and shop online—subject to all of the audible chaos in and around the home. We cringe when the kids arrive home during a conference call, cover our ears during our son’s gaming marathon, and wait until the baby wakes up from a nap to throw in a load of laundry. Noise can disrupt our lives in so many ways. Thankfully, proper acoustical treatments applied by a professional can help.

 

Often, the remedy necessitates a structural modification of the ceiling or walls. Most homes are built in a way that allows sound to easily transfer from one room to another. Sheetrock is attached directly to studs and joists, which allows sound to move from one material to the next, one room to another. Separating these surfaces through the addition of isolation clips and hangers mitigates the sound propagation. It’s an expense, certainly, and more easily implemented during the construction of a home, but there’s no better way to preserve your sleep and sanity.

 

Other, less extreme remedies to tame the propagation of sound throughout a home involve adding aesthetically pleasing sound absorption materials to a room, such as acoustical plaster on the ceiling surface, fabric on the walls, specialty ceiling tiles, and even furnishings. If it’s sound from outside that’s bothering you, thicker, double-pane windows and heavy draperies can help.

 

Sound quality has an impact on more than just our ability to become fully immersed in a movie. It’s part of our everyday life, in good ways and bad ways. We might like how our audio system sounds in our home theater, but we’d rather not hear it in the bedroom upstairs. The same goes for other noises. They’re a part of the house and our lifestyle, but left untreated, they can interfere with work, play, and even our health. A professionally trained and experienced acoustical engineer can make these issues disappear, creating a more peaceful and healthy home environment.

Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

How to Become an Expert Listener

How to Become an Expert Listener

Recently, I helped my friend Ed set up two audio systems. During the process of dialing them in, I had to walk him through what to listen for in order to hear the improvements because he didn’t know what to focus on in evaluating the sound. It occurred to me that most people don’t.

 

A luxury stereo system or home theater should deliver exceptional sound, of course. But what exactly should you listen for in evaluating, choosing, setting up, and enjoying a high-performance system?

 

(Note: I’m not going to dig deeply here into how to set up various aspects of a system to achieve peak performance, but rather what to listen for.)

 

First of all: A system will only sound as good as its source material. It’s essential to use good demo tracks. Don’t go with a low-bit-rate MP3 file for music listening, for example. Use an audiophile CD or LP, or a high-res download or streaming service.

 

For stereo music evaluation, you can’t go wrong with that stone classic, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s one of the best recordings ever made, thanks to the brilliant talent of Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons. Listing the strengths of this album is like outlining a mini-course in what to listen for:

 

—Deep, articulate bass, a rich midrange, and extended highs

—Accurate timbre of vocals and instruments (except when deliberately processed)

—An expansive sound field

—Wide dynamics, from almost subliminally soft to powerfully loud

—A remarkably clean sonic character.

 

(I’ll expand on each of these various areas below.)

 

A system should have a coherent tonal balance from top to bottom, without any particular frequency range sticking out. You don’t want it to sound too bright in the midrange (roughly the area between 200Hz and 5kHz, where most of the frequencies 

of the human voice reside) or have weak, recessed bass. With a solo piano recording like Robert Silverman’s superb Chopin’s Last Waltz, listen for the transitions between the low, middle, and high notes, which should be smooth and seamless.

 

Listen for a clear, “transparent” sound with a lot of fine musical detail. The sound should be pure, without any “grain,” hardness, or roughness in texture. (For example, a flute should sound clean and natural, not buzzy or strident or distorted.) Bass should be articulate, not indistinct. The midrange should have plenty of presence, since that’s where most of the music “lives.” Highs should be airy and extended.

 

Subtleties like the “ting” of the triangle in the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording of Scheherazade (an example of the upper range) or the reverb on Shelby Lynne’s voice on Just A Little Lovin’ (an example of the midrange) should be clearly audible. Although it’s not all that realistic in terms of spatial positioning of the instruments, Miles Davis’ jazz classic Kind of Blue is excellent for evaluating timbre, resolution, and overall naturalness of sound.

 

For stereo setups, listen for a coherent sound field without a “hole in the middle” (from your speakers being too far apart or not angled in properly) or a lack of imaging and spaciousness (speakers too close together). Depending on the recording, vocals and instruments can be precisely defined in space, left to right and front to back, and the sound field can seem to extend beyond the 

speakers and maybe even the room. (For some tips on speaker placement, check out these articles from Lifewire and Dynaudio.)

 

However, be aware that on some recordings, especially those from the late 1950s through early 1970s, vocals and instruments can be placed too far off to the left or right. Also, you won’t hear laser-focused pinpoint imaging on a properly-miked orchestral recording—because that’s not what things sound like in real life. And keep in mind that changing your

listening position will have a significant impact on the sound.

 

I once visited the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, where they used Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to help determine the differences between speakers. That’s because it’s one of the easiest cuts for people to use in picking out sonic differences.

 

When listening to multichannel movies or music, the sound literally expands, thanks to the addition of center and surround speakers, one or more subwoofers, and, in some installations, height speakers (for example, in a Dolby Atmos system). In fact, Cineluxe has some excellent recommendations for home theater demo material.

 

Listen for a good balance between all the speakers. The surround speakers and subwoofers shouldn’t overly call attention to themselves except when the audio mix warrants it. You should hear a seamless, immersive 360-degree bubble of sound.

 

Dialogue clarity is critical for movies and TV! As such, the performance of the center-channel speaker in a multichannel setup is crucial. (Center-channel volume can be set independently—a very important aspect of home theater system tuning.)

How to Listen—The App

 

I have a confession to make.

 

Instead of writing this post,  I could have been lazy and just told you to check out the Harman: How to Listen app. It’s a training course that teaches you how to become a better listener by pointing out various sonic aspects to focus on, such as specific frequency ranges, spatial balances, and other attributes. Check out this post by Harman’s Dr. Sean Olive for more details.

–F.D.

On another note, it’s a good idea to use material you’re familiar with when evaluating a system, even if it’s not “demo quality,” so you can instantly hear the improvements a luxury system can make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat someone in front of my high-end setup, asked them to pick a favorite piece of music, and then heard them say things like, “I can’t believe the difference! I never knew it could sound like that! It sounds like a different recording!”

 

The best advice I can give is to constantly school yourself to become a better listener.

 

Go out and listen to live unamplified music, whether at Carnegie Hall or a friend strumming an acoustic guitar. Get familiar with the sonic nuances of various instruments. Listen to as many audio and home theater systems as possible, at stores, friends’ houses, and audio shows. Listen to the sounds around you—birds, wind, city streets.

 

Good listeners are made, not born.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

Steinway Lyngdorf’s P200 surround processor

In my previous post, I talked about the intriguing video trends I came across at the recent custom integrators CEDIA Expo in Denver. While there weren’t as many new developments on the audio side, I did notice a few continuing and developing trends throughout the show that will have an impact on the luxury home cinema market. And, unlike some of the premium video solutions on the horizon, these are all things that can be implemented in a home theater immediately!

HIGHER CHANNEL COUNT

While immersive surround systems such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro3D are pretty much de facto in newly installed luxury home cinemas, we need to remember that these formats have been available in the home market for only about five years, and until fairly recently the channel count for most of these systems maxed out at 12 in a 7.1.4 configuration (seven ear-level speakers, a subwoofer, and four overhead speakers).

 

But there has been an explosion of systems that support up to 16 channels in a 9.1.6 array, which adds front width speakers at ear level and an additional pair of overhead speakers. While having 15 (or more) speakers in a room might seem excessive, creating a seamless and truly immersive experience in large rooms that have multiple rows of seating requires additional channels to create cohesion between speakers as objects travel around the surround mix.

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

Companies offering new 16-channel AV receivers and preamp/processorss include JBL Synthesis, Arcam, Acurus, Bryston, Emotiva, and Monoprice. Some companies are even pushing the boundaries beyond 16, including StormAudio, Steinway Lyngdorf, Trinnov, JBL Synthesis, and Datasat.

 

 

BETTER BASS IN EVERY SEAT

Three home theater masters—Theo Kalomirakis, Joel Silver, and Anthony Grimani—presented a full-day training course titled “Home Cinema Design Masterclass,” where they discussed best practices in home theater design. Grimani, president of Grimani Systems and someone who has worked on more than 1,000 rooms over his 34-year career, stated that 30% of what people like about an audio system happens between 20 and 100Hz—the bass region. In short, if a system’s bass response and performance aren’t good, the whole system suffers.

 

But low frequencies are difficult to pull off correctly, especially across multiple seating positions, which is the ultimate goal in a luxury cinema. Good bass is possible for multiple listeners, but multiple subwoofers are always needed. Two subs are better 

than one, three subs are better than two, and four subs are better than three. (But Grimani stated that adding more than four subs actually has diminishing results.)

 

All the best home cinemas feature multiple subwoofers, not for louder bass, as one might think, but for more even bass at every seat. The best theaters deliver slam and impact at the low-end, but are also quick and free of bloat, which is what multiple good subs can deliver.

 

 

ROOM CALIBRATION

In  that same master class, Tony Grimani also claimed that achieving good bass performance almost always requires the correct use of equalization. Virtually every home theater receiver or processor sold today incorporates some form of room-correction softwareeither proprietary like Yamaha’s YPAO or Anthem’s ARC, or a third-party solution like Audyssey. At its simplest, these software systems employ a microphone to measure tones emitted by the speakers, which are used to calculate the distance from the speaker to the listener as well as to set channel levels. The more advanced systems employ equalization and other types of filters in an attempt to optimize how the room interacts with the signal. 

 

Three of the most revered and powerful room-correction systems all hail from Europe: Trinnov Audio (France), Dirac (Sweden), and Steinway Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect (Scandinavia). These systems offer more adjustments, filters, and flexibility that less expensive, more mass-market offerings in order to make any room sound its absolute 

best. (For more on the importance of room correction, read this post by Dennis Burger.)

 

One of the big developments in room correction featured at the CEDIA Expo was Dirac’s new Live Bass Management module. An add-on to the existing Dirac Live correction system, it will aggregate measurement and location data from multiple subwoofers in a system to determine how best to distribute bass evenly across a room. It will also correct low-frequency sound waves produced by the main speaker pair so they’re in sync with the rest of the system.

 

But just having access to the best room-correction devices isn’t enough, as the best luxury rooms are calibrated by professionals who have been trained in acoustics to the Nth degree. This small group of top-tier calibrators travels the world with kits costing tens of thousands of dollars in order to measure, sample, adjust, and tweak the parameter of every speaker and subwoofer in your theater to wring out the very last drop of performance.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Need for High-End Audio

The Need for High-End Audio

For me, high-end audio is all about the emotion.

 

Hold that thought for a moment.

 

In a recent column, my friend and colleague Adrienne Maxwell asked, “Do we really need high-end audio?” She outlined many valid reasons as to why the answer may not be “yes.” Certainly, high-end audio would not be at the bedrock of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And the path to high-end nirvana can have many challenges.

 

As a consumer, there’s the expense (though one can assemble a wonderfully musical system without spending outrageous sums of money, as Adrienne pointed out), the concerns of system and room matching, the need for proper setup, and the possibility that after investing all that time and money your particular combination of room and gear just might not work well together. (The advice of an expert can be invaluable in avoiding this pitfall.)

As a salesperson or dealer, you have a responsibility to provide your customer with what they want. It goes without saying that this requires skill and insight, not just a desire to earn a big spiff.

 

As a high-end manufacturer, you have to balance the sometimes opposing factors of price, performance, aesthetics, manufacturability, business costs, and market demand. If you’re going all-out on a product that strives for ultimate quality, it will almost certainly carry a high price tag, and the law of diminishing returns will be staring you in the face.

 

And, yes, sometimes a large speaker might cost $30,000 or $100,000 or more. But consider their multiple top-quality drivers, complex-geometry cabinets with expensive woods and finishes, elaborate crossovers, premium parts, and so on. These don’t come cheap, and manufacturers and dealers have to make a profit. And such speakers can outperform other designs, sometimes dramatically so, especially in presence, scale, dynamics and bass extension.

 

As a reviewer, I can attest that properly reviewing high-end audio gear is demanding. Let’s say you’re doing a speaker review. You need to listen using different amps, cables, source components, and even rooms in order to try to factor out what the speaker is doing from what the other equipment is doing.

 

Then there’s the psychological pressure. You have a responsibility to get it right because the stakes with a high-end review are high. Because this gear can be so expensive to produce, a negative review can financially harm a manufacturer, especially a smaller one.

 

So why get involved in high-end audio at all? And, as Adrienne pointed out, what the heck is it even, anyway?

 

There have been many definitions of “high-end audio” over the decades, most defining it as the ability for components or systems to more accurately or convincingly reproduce the sound of music than typical products. Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, characterized high-end as the ability to reproduce the sound of real music—the absolute sound—in real space. Certainly, when most think of high-end they think of expensive prices.

 

But, like I said, for me—and for so many others—it’s all about the emotion.

 

A high-end system is one that crosses the line from a mere (even if high-quality) reproducer of sound to one that conveys the emotional impact of music.

 

It’s a system that draws you in and engages you. It makes you forget that you’re listening to reproduced sound and makes a direct connection to your feelings on a primal, soul-deep level.

 

This is an elusive quality. Just ask an audiophile dedicated to the pursuit, or anyone who’s spent hours or days setting up a system at an audio show or a dealer or a customer’s home. A system might sound good, or it might even sound bad, and after painstakingly adjusting speaker placement, cartridge alignment, vibration-isolating feet, room treatment, or what-have-you, there’s ideally a moment when everything comes together and the sound becomes right, locked-in, and, at the best of times, magical.

 

I fervently believe that high-end audio is worth defending, preserving, and encouraging. (Disclaimer: I’m in the high-end audio industry. And let’s set aside considerations of possible overpricing, marketing hype, accusations of “snake oil,” and other frown-inducing aspects for the moment.) High-end audio reflects not only a constant striving for excellence but a noble (if also commercial) effort to bring listeners ever-closer to the music.

 

And when you get that closeness, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

In the roughly 17 years that I’ve been an AV reviewer, I’ve covered pretty much every product category. I’ve reviewed video displays, speakers, remote controls, disc players, AV receivers—you name it. And while the products I reviewed covered a wide price range, there was always one category I tried to avoid: High-end audio. Now, I can’t give you an exact price or spec that represented the cutoff where I would pass an audio review opportunity on to someone else. The best way I can quantify “high-end audio” is to say that you know it when you see it. And perhaps that’s part of my concern with it.

 

Eventually my focus moved into the realm of display reviews, and one reason I’m quite comfortable there is because, generally speaking, there are clear, quantifiable steps that distinguish one performance class from another. You can measure black level and contrast, color accuracy, and now HDR peak brightness and accuracy. You can say to someone, “If you really

value [this], then you should buy [that].” “If you mostly use your TV to do [this], then you should save your money and get [that].” Of course you’ll run into products that straddle the fence between budget and mid-level, or between mid-level and high-end, which may make it harder to render a final verdict, but those are more the exception than the rule.

 

That wasn’t always the case, though. I first started reviewing displays in the early days of high-definition. There were virtually no budget HDTVs, but there was certainly a high-end realm, inhabited by brands like Mitsubishi, JVC, and Pioneer Elite. Sitting at the very top of the food chain was Runco, maker of the ultimate high-end TVs and 

projectors. It wasn’t necessarily that Runco displays performed significantly better than other lower-priced options, but they were sold exclusively through dealers that were trained to provide a level of service and support to justify the products’ high-end prices. And that model worked for them. It’s fair to say that Runco owned the luxury market.

 

But then a funny thing happened. Samsung and Vizio came along and proved that you could sell TVs that performed really well for a lot less money. JVC and Epson did the same thing with front projectors. High-definition displays became less of a luxury and more of a commodity, and the brands that couldn’t adapt to this new reality died. One by one the high-end display products just sort of fell away. Even Runco was ultimately purchased by commercial-display company Planar, which tried for a while to keep a presence in the luxury home market but eventually gave up.

 

Sure, names like SIM2 and B&O still exist, but they cater to a very niche market of loyalists. For the most part, the era of the truly exorbitantly priced home video product is dead.

 

That’s not the case in the audio market, at least not to the same extent. This market has faced similar challenges over the past 10 years, as companies like GoldenEar, SVS, and ELAC on the speaker side and Emotiva on the electronics side have proven that you can deliver high-performance audio products for a lot less money.

 

It has certainly been disruptive, forcing some brands out of business and others into the hands of private-equity companies. But big-name audiophile brands like Paradigm, Focal, MartinLogan, Revel, NAD, Anthem, and Marantz are still alive and kicking—and producing great gear at lower price points than ever before.

 

But it poses the question, as the mid-level offerings from these companies get better and better, how can they continue to justify the existence of higher-end lines, especially in the speaker market? How do you quantify the improvement? That has always been my struggle.

 

Sure, you can measure a speaker’s frequency response and sensitivity. You can measure an amp’s power and distortion. There are some performance benchmarks by which to judge a product. But measurements don’t tell the whole story in audio.

 

Personal preference is certainly a valid benchmark. Some people prefer a little fuller bass, a little more prominent midrange, or a more emphasized treble. That’s true of any audio product, no matter the price. (Hey, it’s true in video, too. Some people prefer a less accurate, more exaggerated picture. But unlike with a TV, you can’t offer multiple performance modes in 

a pair of speakers that will significantly alter the sound profile to appeal to different tastes.)

 

As you move into the truly high-end audio realm, the performance conversation moves away from those basic sonic characteristics that are easily defined and more toward elusive qualities like space, texture, and liquidity—words that often make the more technically minded audio fan bristle. What exactly are we describing there? I’m not even sure what liquidity sounds like.

 

Certainly, build quality and design help to distinguish many high-end products. The use of higher-quality parts. A product that has been hand-assembled, or at least individually inspected and approved. Real-wood cabinets. Automotive-grade custom paint finishes. 

 

But even here you reach a point of diminishing returns on your investment. Some of the most eye-catching speakers I’ve seen at recent trade shows include the Focal Kanta No. 2 ($10,000/pair), the Paradigm Persona 5F ($17,000/pair), and the Revel Performa F228Be ($10,000/pair). For me, 

these seem like the pinnacle of performance and luxury, so when I see the existence of $65,000/pair or $100,000/pair speakers, my response is: Why? I’ve yet to hear a satisfying answer to this question, which is why high-end audio is still a category I shy away from as a reviewer. I just don’t get it.

 

I also wonder how much longer it can last. The high-end audio market has proven itself more resilient (or maybe just more stubborn) than the high-end video market, but is the end nigh? One audio reviewer I know has mentioned that the trend at many audiophile shows these days is to create products where exoticism, rather than sound quality, is the apparent goal. He sometimes derides these products as “wacky.” Like, if you can’t convince people to buy something expensive, convince them to buy something “unique” instead. This trend might be even worse, but that’s a topic for another day.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.