A classic example of why auditioning hi-fi gear can’t tell you how it really sounds…
I had a customer drive in from out of state the other day to listen to our DM944 bookshelf speakers and the MG944 tower speakers. He arrived around 4:00 P.M. and after a brief chat I set up a pair of the MG944’s and explained how they were designed. I made a point of drawing his attention to the transmission lines characteristically tight and deep base response. I planned to use my DAC and the computer hard drive for the demo unless he wanted to hear his own CD’s. Since he wanted to hear his own CD’s I decided to use a CD player we were currently testing on the bench as a source.
He positioned himself on the couch and handed me the first CD, commenting that he knew it to have plenty of bass.
I put it in the player and we started the evaluation. The speakers were distorting badly, the bass just falling apart. After stopping the demo to figure out what was wrong I found someone put the wrong tube type in the CD player. I installed the correct tube and we started again. The results were much better, but he wasn’t kidding about the CD having lots of bass. While listenable now, there was clearly a struggle taking place behind the music that was really making this first impression less than ideal. After a few songs I decided I had to take action, and assuming the CD player under test was either faulty, or desperately needed some break-in, I decided to just put the CD in my computer so that we could use my DAC which I knew to sound good.
After pressing play and starting the disk over again, the results were much better. The prospective customer jumped out of the listening chair and came in to the adjoining room and said “that sounds great, what did you do?”. “Finally”, I thought, and then wondered what would have happened if that CD player was the only source I had… and how the customer would have heard these speakers sound like cheep knock-offs from China and no doubt conclude I was an idiot at the same time.
Naturally, my computer software that I have to feed the error free wave files from the hard drive to the DAC decided to quit working as soon as it saw the customer walk through the front door… so I had to use Windows media player to play the files… no where near the fidelity I was hoping for. The speakers still didn’t sound exactly like they could have, but they were close so I let it go.
After awhile, we listened to the smaller DM944’s with decent results and then curiosity about all the other speakers began to take precedence. I showed him the new ERR’s, an omni design that is popular and he was so taken by them that he purchased them on the spot. Then we started talking about the other speakers in the room, primarily all single driver, crossoverless designs. This lead to his wanting to hear the HDT’s. The HDT’s are a good example of a well executed full range single-driver design in a small tower cabinet and he planned on heading to St. Louis the following day to hear a large variety of just exactly that.
Now, as good as the HDT’s are, they don’t sound good until they’ve warmed up for 20 minutes while playing music so they did what they always do upon first listen, sounded a touch lean. Knowing I wasn’t going to go a full 20 minutes I paused the demo and got his first gut reaction… he didn’t care for them as much as the warmer smoother speakers he just heard. I spent some time explaining single drivers, and then offered to let him hear a pair in an ideal cabinet design where cost, practicality, and immovability were not considered part of the design.
I put my reference corner horns on and prepared to demonstrate their magic and decided to play the same cut we just tried to listen to on the HDT’s. I explained how this type of speaker is so honest in so many ways that it shows poor recordings no mercy. Garbage in, garbage out. I started the track and within a few seconds he asked me if something was wrong, because there was no real defined center image.
“That’s about right”, I thought to myself, now what’s wrong… I check everything out and sit down in the chair to hear for myself. The sound and imaging is just fine, however the recording sucks. By now, the CD’s and especially using Microsofts media player to play them just isn’t helping. I asked if I could try something with a few different recordings and he agreed. I put my DAC back on, and found my emergency player for when fobar crashes. I couldn’t find it earlier, you know, under pressure.
These speakers are so good, that you really have to have everything perfect. Now I knew the source was going to be just that (for digital anyway) and pressed random play on a folder of what I considered to be good recordings. His eyes got big and after a little bit I asked him if there was a center image now? He said, “ohhhh ya”… and somehow several hours passed with this 30 year audiophile veteran saying he’d never heard anything that good.
Again I kept thinking, if he would have walked into a salon that these speakers were in, and handed the salesman the same CD, it’s likely he would have listened for 1 or 2 minutes and moved on to something else. The better gear gets, the more likely it is to sound bad until everything is just right, then fasten you seat belt and hope you don’t have to work the next morning.
If you’re reading between the lines throughout this story, I see this happening everywhere, especially in peoples homes where they judge the audio gear by how it sounds, unaware of how drastically the sound of it can be changed for the better. During the demo I was able to quickly find the weakest link several times and turn the results from coal to diamonds. Many of my customers, in fact most audiophiles I would say, have serious issues with finding the weak links because they gauge the links strength by how much it cost. They only look at links that are suspect based on that hierarchy.