Why Everything Matters in High End Audio

Every audiophile is aware that their hobby is looked at with raised eyebrows by people who don’t understand it or share their passion.  Even many who do count themselves among the fold are skeptical that anything as incidental as an electrical outlet or a connector could affect the sound.  My own journey through the stages of maturity began many decades ago, more than I care to mention, when I didn’t think cables of any kind could possibly matter.  But, over the years of playing with all of this stuff and, earnestly trying to climb the ladder to acoustic nirvana, I have come to the same saying that pervades the highest circles of those in the know:  Everything matters!  If you have reached this conclusion along your journey, you may be convinced of its truth but still curious as to why it is so.

The dynamic range of human hearing – the ratio of the loudest sound tolerable to the softest sound discernable – is about 120 dB.  To put this into perspective, the sound pressure ratio of 120 dB is about 100,000.  We could say that the loudest sound pressure one can tolerate is about 100,000 times greater than the softest sound pressure a person can discern.  If we looked at this in terms of acoustical power (think watts now), we are talking about a power ratio of 10 billion, incredibly.  If the peak power into one’s speakers is 100 watts, for example, and this produces a peak sound pressure level of 120 dB, the listener could discern content that is producing only 10 nanowatts! 

A live, unamplified musical performance, or even a well recorded studio performance, is rich in low-level audio information that is exceedingly small in amplitude, yet vitally important to everything audiophiles cherish: sound stage size and resolution, timbre, decay, texture, etc.  Because this information is so incredibly small, it is easily lost or masked by a myriad of infractions of the playback system, things your friends laugh at you for trying to correct.  You know that your efforts are not in vain, but they cannot be convinced.

To be honest, the importance of subtle changes in a system depends greatly on how good the overall system is.  A highly restrictive system has done such a complete job of squashing the micro-details that nothing subtle to help it can be of any avail.  Sadly, such systems are often used as evidence that the high-end audiophile is nuts, that nothing really matters much at all, but this is as absurd as placing an aphid on a meat scale and concluding that it has no weight at all.  The gross errors must first be corrected before the small things will seem to matter.  But rest assured, a truly great sounding system can be ruined by introducing a very “subtle” error.

And so, to those whose passion is attaining to a truly believable musical presentation within their listening rooms, never stop experimenting, regardless the rational arguments that stand to oppose.  If anyone is laughing, be assured that he is laughing at his own hearing, as well as yours.  For 120 dB of dynamic range doesn’t ask, “How can something that subtle make an audible difference?”  Instead, it asks, “How can anything, based on conjecture alone, be said not to make a difference?”

Mike Vice


Bella Sound

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On a lifelong pursuit of audio excellence.

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Mike Vice