Quarter Notes, Volume 1, Issue #1

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Dear Get Better Sound readers,

Welcome to the first issue of Quarter Notes! As I’ve written elsewhere, Quarter Notes is a quarterly newsletter for Get Better Sound readers, expanding on the manual, as well as introducing new and timely subjects. We may have a guest writer on a special topic. We may have a series of answers to the many questions I receive. In fact, 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.

Tesa tape

Guess I didn’t give enough info about the tesa tape that I mentioned. A few years ago, when I bought a supply of it, you could get it in a store like Lowe's or Home Depot. I wasn’t aware they’d since changed their distribution.

Since there is no model number on the roll, I recently contacted their US product manager and sent him a sample. He said that it appeared to be tesa #4651. To get it, you have to contact tesa and they’ll give you the local rep’s contact info.

Wow! Can they make it any harder to get? That’s a lot of trouble for some tape. Anyway, tesa US can be reached at 800-426-2181800-426-2181. The web site: http://www.tesatape.com

In other countries, tesa can be reached at http://www.tesa.com/company/worldwide

Master the mister

OK, I meant this one to be in the manual, but I just ran out of time. Actually, for many years, I didn’t think of it in the context of home systems.

I first noticed it when I was making broadcast recordings for the Public Radio affiliate locally. Sometimes, between the first night’s concert and the second night’s event, the weather would change dramatically.

Even though the concert hall was closed off and supposedly free of climate differences, the reality was that if one night the air was fairly dry and the next night it was more humid (perhaps a low-pressure weather front had moved in), there was a noticeable difference in recorded sound quality.

Now, it’s important to note that my condenser microphones were hung in the same place overnight, and had not been disturbed in any way. Recording levels were untouched for each piece. The exact same program and the exact same orchestra would be on stage in the exact same place.

When the air in the concert hall was relatively dry, the sound was always a bit on the dead side. When the hall was relatively more humid, the sound was more extended and lively.

The attenuation of sound in air is affected by the relative humidity (RH). Dry air absorbs far more acoustical energy than does moist air. This is because moist air is less dense than dry air (water vapor weighs less than air)!

The velocity of air is at a minimum at a relative humidity (RH) of about 14%; then it rises. Above about 30% RH, the velocity increases linearly with increasing moisture content.

Furthermore, it’s been documented that in concert halls, low RH results in reduced high frequency reverberation time.

So what does all that mean?

It means that you may get a more lively sound with RH at or above 25-30% in your home. Because I have very dry heat, I find that the liberal use of a mister in my listening room helps a great deal. Do I actually hear the difference? I think so, but it could be that the room is simply more comfortable. So I enjoy the system more.

Whatever the reason, I use a 24-ounce handheld mister bottle in the winter in the dry heat. I even use it in the summer occasionally. I mist the plants and some other objects in the room that will absorb the mist. I spray a fine mist into the air, being careful NOT to spray in the direction of my electronics and especially my power amplifiers.

By the way, I mentioned that I hadn’t thought of it for stereo playback. George Cardas first suggested the idea to me for playback systems at a show demo.

FWIW – I used it at two big shows – one was the Stereophile HE Show in San Francisco in the fall, and another was at CES in the dead of winter at Las Vegas. Both times we won Best Sound at Show comments by many, including in print by TAS Editor Robert Harley.

I misted the room between demos (every thirty minutes). Was the mister the secret ingredient? I don’t know. I do know we had lines of folks waiting to listen. And that we got applause at the end of the demos.

Why not try it and see for yourself?

Of course, I can’t guarantee how much applause you’ll get.

Why single-ended amplifiers can sound so good

It’s not because of magic dust. Or even tube sound. In fact, a single ended amplifier can be solid state.

It’s primarily due to the fact that a single ended amp doesn’t deconstruct the musical signal and then have to reconstruct it at the outputs. This “tearing apart” of the musical info into positive and negative waveforms is very tricky. Putting it all back together again is very tricky. So it’s exponentially tricky.

A single ended amplifier keeps the waveform intact, from input to output. As usual, simpler is often better, or at least, pretty interesting.

Why single-ended amplifiers can sound so bad

Most single-ended amplifiers end up having a fairly high output impedance (especially vacuum-tube SE amps). I’m not going into the technical aspects of it here. What counts is the audible result.

Loudspeakers generally have a widely varying impedance at various frequencies. An amp with a higher output impedance will deliver varying amounts of power at varying frequencies as the impedance of the speaker at those frequencies changes. Simply said, the loudspeaker you selected for its smooth frequency response no longer is so smooth.

And if you auditioned that loudspeaker with a single-ended amp, it may still be subject to significant frequency response fluctuations if the amp is different in design than the one you heard on your speakers. The same can be said if the demo used a tube amp with one set of output taps (say, 4 ohms) and you use another, (say, 16 ohms). The overall tonal balance of the system will be shifted at various frequencies in ways that almost seem to be unpredictable.

The higher output impedance of a SE tube amplifier means that its damping factor will be lower than that of other push/pull tube amps, and considerably lower than transistor amps. Lower damping factor can generally be attributed to less bass control.

However, you may find that the directness and the intimacy of a single-ended amp outweighs the colorations of its uneven frequency response and less bass control.

I confess to having been beguiled by that sound from time-to-time when the SE amplifier was paired with an appropriate loudspeaker.

Bi-wiring

I’ve received a surprising number of questions about why I ignored bi-wiring in Get Better Sound. Guess I didn’t think of it so much as ignoring it as being focused on addressing issues that were a bit more predictable.

Personally, I’ve found bi-wiring to give noticeable improvements with some loudspeakers, and not so noticeable results with others. And many don’t offer the option.

I may expand on the variability a bit more in future Quarter Notes. But it’s not always a worthwhile change if you have expensive cables and you have to spend twice the money for what may be a questionable improvement (depending on how your loudspeakers react to bi-wiring).

Room temp/humidity/Rives

After getting his copy of Get Better Sound, Richard Rives Bird (of Rives Audio fame) dropped me a brief note re: my views on the changing sound in my room according to seasons, some of which is reproduced below:

“…One thing I wanted to offer was another opinion on the changing sound from seasons. I have experienced the same issue. It was fairly prominent when I lived in Maryland. It's hardly existent here in Iowa.

I do not think it's caused by temperature (temperature swings in Iowa are very dramatic) and the contraction and expansion of the walls, but rather by air density. In your climate particularly this will change dramatically from summer to winter with large changes in relative humidity. In the summer the high humidity, denser air, will mean more molecules that will be more efficient particularly for the bass (which moves the most air).

The high frequency is not affected, but the perception is that it's rolling off, but that's just our ear/brain telling us that there's not enough high frequency for the amount of bass and lower midrange energy. Things are 'out of whack.'…”

Thanks, Richard. An interesting theory and one that’s at least as valid as mine. At any rate, it’s good to have an expert validate my experience so that I can relax in the knowledge that I’m not going crazy…

The Concert Experience

There are references to this line of thought in the Get Better Sound manual. Having once presented this idea to a group, I had written it down. This is the core of the idea I ultimately came to call The Concert Experience:

Our roots

Music, in all of its forms, may be the ultimate expression of mankind’s creativity. Music is man’s most reliable arts vehicle for conveying his feelings and emotions, from the glorious heights of joy to the deepest pools of peace and serenity.

Live music speaks into our inner being. It’s a feeling hard to describe, wonderful to experience. Certainly one result is often an elevated spirit, a sense of well-being.

When we concentrate on the music and its message, great music has the habit of growing on us with each subsequent exposure, rather than become boring (“been there, done that”). Few other entertainment/arts mediums can consistently make this claim.

Music has served as the primary support system for most of man’s history, including worship, romance, significant events, celebrations, parades, as well as dining, reading, conversation, recreation, travel, etc. What other art medium has occupied such a prominent place in the history of mankind?

A lost art?

Sometime in the last forty-to-fifty years – and because it’s happened gradually we haven’t noticed – we’ve almost lost the key to unlock music’s magic. Perhaps it’s due to the population crush in the larger metropolitan centers, but live music has become increasingly inaccessible to the “masses”. And let’s face it, it’s so much easier to watch TV, or see a film at the local theater.

Today, we have a significant segment of the population who rarely – if ever – experiences the emotional impact of live music. And, although they don’t know it, they are impoverished…

Because they no longer remember what it feels like, they accept music solely as a background medium, elevator music for their lives. However, the people who write and perform music are driven to do so from a performance standpoint.

With some “commercial” exceptions, most performers – in their mind’s eye – don’t see themselves writing & performing for an audience that’s concentrating almost totally on some other aspect of life! They don’t write and perform their music to be an accompaniment to life’s duties.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s J.S. Bach or Chuck Berry. Can you imagine either of them performing their music to an audience that was largely distracted by other events occurring around it? And can you imagine the audience continuing to be inattentive in the presence of either?

Now, I’m not against music as a backdrop for life (although, doesn’t it bother you when “background music” emerges from the background to become objectionably distracting?). My point is simply that music is an awesome gift to mankind, and it wasn’t meant to be just elevator music…

There is some good news. The same technology that corrupted music’s message is capable of reversing the damage.

Rekindling the fire

Today, we are able to reproduce music “on demand.” Traditionally, this luxury was reserved only for the wealthiest individuals, who could afford to have paid musicians on hand.

We get the benefits of having our own musicians on call, except that we can enjoy all forms of music and the necessary musicians and instruments to play them. As such, today there is no limit to repertoire.

If we choose to do so, we can allow reproduced music to speak to us the way the composer and performer(s) intended, regardless of the type of music. Here is the standard:

Music is written and performed with a message in mind. Does your music system consistently convey the message such that you can feel it? While listening to music, are your emotions touched in a way comparable to attending a live musical event?

Recreating a musical event – the Concert Experience

When listening to music, we have to “suspend our disbelief” in order to become fully immersed in what’s happening. With no visual cues, perhaps it’s actually easier, since we aren’t distracted with having to watch as well as listen. Recreating a musical event and its effects on our emotions should be our ultimate goal. At the end of a musical selection, you should experience the same feelings you get at the end of a selection performed live – in concert. Now maybe this won’t happen all of the time, but it should happen often. Don’t settle for less.

Twenty minutes vs. two hours to nirvana?

The home theater experience can be a one-and-one-half-to-two-hour time commitment, or more.

A music listening session can last from three or four minutes up to several hours, more commonly from about twenty to fifty minutes.

How much time do you have for your therapeutic treatment? I confess to heading for the music 95% of the time. But then, I’m not a film buff, nor do I have two+ hours available every time I need an “attitude adjustment.”

Small, medium and large listening rooms

Never really quantified them. Guess I need to since I’ve been asked what do I mean by small, medium, or large rooms.

In my context, small is anything up to about 16’ x 13’.

Medium is probably from around 17’ x 14’ up to about 26’ x 15’.

Large is probably above 27’ x 16’, usually with higher ceilings than the standard 8’.

CES 2009 quick note

Interestingly (at least to me), this year there was a higher percentage of rooms that had decent ‘show’ sound. Unfortunately, there were very few dealers and distributors to actually hear those demos.

Everyone has their own method of gauging the size of the crowds, and I have mine. Except that there were no crowds at either the high-end demos at the Venetian or at the Alexis Park.

From a US dealer perspective, it was essentially a West Coast show. Of course there were exceptions, but many dealers who usually go to every CES opted out this year.

Many of the overseas distributors made the trip, but even that group had its share of no-shows or brief visits.

I said all that to make this point - if you have a good dealer that has treated you well, now is the time to support him/her if you can afford it.

Laser distance measurers and levels

Lots of comments and questions on this one. Since I actually dropped and broke my original Leica Disto, I was interested in what’s out there now.

Luckily, prices have come down and accuracy has gone up.

I just bought a Bosch DLR165K at Lowe’s. Much lower price than the Leica. Its resolution is higher than my Disto. The only caveat - it’s not as substantial feeling as the Leica (although that didn’t help when I dropped it).

Reader Bob Wilcox reports that he got his for less than US $125 including shipping, at http://www.coastaltool.com/bosch/dlr165k.htm.

Bob also got a good deal on levels. He says, “…The levels I bought are the RYOBI Air Grip model. These have a suction cup and air suction pump so that they will stick to the mounting surface while operating. Twenty bucks each at Home Depot. Many laser levels cost more than 2 of these...

RTAs

When I wrote about these, I listed them in the Semi-Pro set-up tools section. I knew that some installers needed this info. But a number of you have asked about getting one for yourself.

Of course, I cannot recommend RTAs that I’ve never actually used. My only experience is with the professional Bruel&Kjaer, the Ivie, and the top Gold Line units. None of these are less than US $1,500.00.

I’ve never tried the newer inexpensive systems. They may be awesome. If anyone wants to send me a unit that I can compare, let me know.

But for now, I can only recommend what I know.

House calls

Having received a large number of inquiries about in-home system voicing, I thought this description of a typical job would be useful. But I wouldn't exactly call this a program. Because I never know what I may encounter. However, there are some generalities that are illustrative:

I've been doing these installations/voicings for years. In general, I like to arrive the evening before the day of the job - especially if I flew in, to give my hearing a break overnight. Depending on the time, it’s useful to check out the site and meet with the client that evening.

The next day is open, meaning that it may take as few as 8-10 hours or it may take 12 or more. For what it's worth, in the past 30 years, I've never been able to complete a complete new system voicing in less than about 10 hours. I don't stop working until I know the system would satisfy me (which will be after you are already pleased). I do this within the context of using what you have on hand.

Also, we'll create what I call a 'roadmap' in the manual. So you'll have an idea of what you may want to do later, as well as what you shouldn't...

I book a flight out the next morning.

Often I will drive, if it’s a drive of perhaps six hours or less.

So it's essentially a three-day commitment. I charge $890/day for the actual voicing and half of that for travel. In other words, about what you'd pay for a good plumber! So it would be $890 + $445 + $445 plus expenses. I'll try to keep it at that price, so long as I can limit the number of trips to a reasonable number.

Although it's not always that high, I tell people to figure from about $2000-2500, all inclusive. Of course that includes follow-up calls and e-mails as needed.

Local voicing (within a reasonable distance from my home in the North Atlanta area), would most likely incur much less travel time expense.

Voicing a turntable adds $295. Once the mechanical aspects (location, overhang, azimuth, suspension, leveling, cable dress, etc.) are out of the way, this is primarily voicing with tracking force, anti-skate - and if your system provides these options - VTA, tone-arm damping, as well as cartridge loading.

My position has always been that, even if you end up spending US $2500 or so, you’ll get a tremendous improvement to your system when compared to anything you'd get by spending huge amounts of money on new electronics, cables, etc. After all, as good as they may be, those new components cannot repeal the laws of physics…

I require my clients to commit the entire time to be with me when voicing a system. So if I came on a Wednesday, you'd have to be there all day.

Often a weekend is best for my clients, and I'm willing to do that at the same price.

If I fly, I ship in a kit of instruments/tools/recordings via FedEx Express or Ground that I'll use, and I ask you to ship it back. The shipping is not expensive, but you would have to cover transportation both ways. Having insured this kit for voicing trips, I know that it's worth (insured for) over $3,000. For you, it's like getting the use of it without paying to rent or buy it.

Rarely, but once in a while, an unusually difficult situation might call for another day. Of course, I will share with you what I think needs doing if you don't want to incur more expense at that time. If you opt to have me stay over, most of the time, it's just a portion of the next day, and if I can still make my return trip later that same day, then the price for the that second day is adjusted down accordingly.

But first and most important, we would need to have a phone conversation. From there, I can generally decide if I think it would be worth your time and expense. Occasionally, I have to tell folks that it might not be worth it based on certain restrictions they have.

I also recommend that folks get the Get Better Sound manual and go through it, both to get a feel for what I think is important, and - honestly speaking - for the feeling you get from reading how I write. If you are uncomfortable with what I say or how I say it, that should be a warning sign!

Sign off

That’s about all I can fit in 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,

Go to Get Better Sound

 
     
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