There are many questions about audio – here are a variety to get started. More will be added on an ongoing basis, so check back regularly.
If you have a specific question you’d like answered, e-mail me. I’ll do my best to answer you promptly – if the question is of general interest, it will likely be posted here!
Simple question, this, in some ways. However the answer is often overshadowed with complex tech talk about ideal specifications and assumed essential features. In basic terms a good audio system should take you into the performance to the greatest possible extent. Does that acoustic guitar sound real? Is that voice “there” - would you believe that the singer was present (or that you were present at the original venue)? Most people can easily tell when a real instrument is playing as opposed to a recording. Yet many feel that they haven’t got a good enough “ear” to tell the differences in audio systems. If you can tell the difference between someone making live music and a portable audio system playing some tunes, then you have a perfectly fine “ear” for a good audio system! Things get a little more intangible with electronically created or modified music and with movie soundtracks, since there is no absolute reality to recreate. However, there is still an identifiable artistic intent - a good system should convey that intent convincingly.
This one stirs up a lot of arguments. The simple answer is that balance is the most important consideration - the entire setup, including the listening room should be optimized within the available budget. However, there is general agreement among experienced audiophiles, and it has certainly been my experience, that you have to get the starting point right. This means that you need to pay attention to the source component (the CD player, the DVD/BluRay player, the turntable, the audio output of the computer). If you get the music accurately from the source, a little lost resolution down the chain to the amplifier and speakers is tolerable. On the other hand, if you connect high resolution amplifiers and speakers to a poor source, you’ll hear exactly what’s wrong with that source!
It depends.... let’s just say that a good vinyl pressing played on a well designed and set up turntable through a high quality phono amplifier does engaging things for music, things that digital systems have trouble with. I think that one of the reasons that vinyl is making a comeback today is the poor quality of the compressed digital audio which many people have become accustomed to as a reference (see the question on MP3) - even played on less than ideal phono setups, vinyl has warmth and resolution which is missing in action on aggressively compressed digital. Generally, vinyl has an “ease” of sound, a warmth and openness which is tough to achieve digitally.
The cables and connectors used in an audio system are important to the sound of that system. There is a fair bit of hype surrounding this topic, and it is important to keep things in perspective, but an otherwise good system with generic cabling will not be performing at its best. In percentage of cost terms, a reasonable investment in cabling will yield a very positive return.
While there is a lot of speculation as to how cables actually affect the sound, some basic considerations help make sense of this topic. Two key parameters of analog audio signals make their transmission challenging. The first is their dynamic range - the smallest signals we are interested are much, much smaller than the largest - the ratio is greater than 10,000 to 1.
The lowest frequencies we are interested in are below 20 Hz. (cycles per second), while the highest are in excess of 20,000 Hz. While 20,000 Hz. is not by any means a high frequency in a world of gigahertz communications and computing, once again the ratio of the highest to the lowest number (known in this case as the fractional bandwidth) is quite large - over 1000 to 1.
The large ratios involved in audio signals make designing cables (and audio components in general) which are equally transparent at all levels and frequencies quite challenging. The essence of music is contained in constantly varying levels and frequencies within these ranges - anything which even momentarily modifies these rapidly varying electrical signals can potentially introduce audible problems. We’ll leave the theories of how this works out to another discussion (and there have been many in the audio world over the years!) - suffice to say that audio signals are delicate and complex in nature and can be significantly affected by apparently minor factors.
Yes, amplifiers have different sound characteristics which affect the reproduction of music. There is an body of opinion that competently designed amplifiers of flat frequency response which are run within their power limits all sound essentially the same. Not only is this not borne out by listening experience, it doesn’t even make logical sense given the myriad variety of circuit details and components used in individual designs. This is a complex topic, but one interesting point is that an amplifier’s sound is largely determined by its characteristics at low power since it is operating most of the time in this range. This is significant since many of the design challenges involved affect the performance of amplifiers at very low signal levels.
Very likely less than you think, especially if you’ve been reading the electronics store flyers recently! In actual fact, for most listening, most of the time, your amplifier or receiver is probably running at less than one watt of output. The problem is that human hearing doesn’t sense twice as much power as being twice as loud - it’s more like ten times the power seems twice as loud. It is not unusual for peak levels in music or special effects in movies to be much louder than the average level, so realistically much more than one watt is needed at times. Of course, there are also significant differences in the size and furnishings of listening spaces and in the amount of power different speakers need to produce the same output level. Practically speaking, for most people, a good, clean 40 or 50 watt amplifier is plenty. If you really need more than that, you need much more than that (perhaps 100 or 200 watts).
Not easily - there are a number of factors which need to be considered which are not obvious in a typical advertisement. At one time, regulations were in place in an attempt to make power ratings equivalent, but even so there were factors requiring knowledgeable interpretation. With many surround sound and computer audio products all bets are off - in many cases the power ratings have very little correlation with any measurable specification.
Because it sells. Consumers have adopted the power rating as a tangible indicator of product value. In some cases, this has resulted in complete fantasy in arriving at these numbers. In others it has resulted in undue design emphasis on getting power ratings up at the expense of considerations which are more important to sound quality.
CD PLAYERS AND OTHER DIGITAL SOURCES
In a word, no. Leaving aside the issue of lossy compression schemes which are designed to reduce file sizes, the digital code recovered from a disc or hard drive should indeed be identical to the original. However, there is a major caveat in this - each sample value is only valid as a representation of the original analog signal level at a precise moment in time. Anything which disturbs the exact timing of the stream of samples will give the correct values at the wrong time. In simple terms, it distorts the original analog audio signal so that the replay is no longer identical to the original. In technical terms this timing error is known as jitter, and it must be reduced to miniscule levels to ensure that the theoretical resolution of a digital system is realized. Once that is done, it is necessary to consider the process of converting the digital samples back to the analog signals which will be amplified and sent to the speakers for listening. This process is also prone to a range of problems which limit the real world performance of many digital audio components. Finally, once the signal is back in the analog domain, it is handled by circuits which are subject to the same issues affecting amplifiers in general. So, unsurprisingly, CD players and other other digital audio devices do differ significantly in sound quality.
MP3 and other lossy digital audio compression schemes are very effective at making large digital files much smaller, which is quite useful for transmission over the Internet or storage on devices with limited memory capacity. They only sound the same as CD’s if your CD replay system is of low resolution (or the CD’s themselves are also of low resolution!) . On a good system, the difference is not particularly subtle - music is robbed of tonal character, dynamics and spacial openness. CD’s are generally considered to be at the low margin of acceptable resolution for high fidelity reproduction - over the years enormous design effort has gone into squeezing every bit of information into and out of the CD’s 16 bit, 44.1 kHz constraints. The better lossy compression codecs throw away about 80% of that data, while the more aggressive compression rates throw away in excess of 95%! (Many people are surprised to find out that CD’s have a data rate of 1,440 kbps, more than ten times the typical 128 kbps used in lossy compression.) If the industry really believed there was no difference, we wouldn’t have BluRay discs with many times the data rate of CD’s, but that’s for another question
There are no specifications which will really tell you how a speaker will sound.
Comprehensive technical measurements of speakers are extraordinarily complex and difficult to correlate to sound. They are certainly of use to expert speaker designers, but of little practical use to the consumer. Even power ratings, as commonly provided, tell you nothing since there is no standard for how they are to be determined and no real correlation with maximum sound output in any case. Speakers vary much more in obvious sound character than other components. They interface with the listening room in ways which make some preferable to others in a given setup for reasons which are not related to quality as such. It is important to audition speakers carefully with a range of music which is important to you.
There is no fixed relationship between size and sound quality per se.
As a general rule a large speaker with multiple drivers should be able to produce higher sound output, especially in the bass frequencies. However, keep in mind the need for ten times the power output for an apparent doubling of volume and you’ll quickly see that we need much bigger capacity to make a dramatic difference. There are so many other factors affecting even the true power output of a given driver, that it is impossible to predict even this from size alone.
There are some correlations between size and functioning of a speaker. Although it’s counterintuitive, a small speaker with extended bass response will generally need more power than a larger one. The small speaker will also normally have lower maximum bass output level than a large one.
It is more difficult to prevent the enclosure of a large speaker from vibrating and interfering with the sound from the drivers - a small speaker, properly built, has an advantage here which translates into an ability to create a startlingly clear musical stage which appears to be independent of the actual speakers themselves
No. A key benefit of modern digital surround formats is that they are capable of placing completely independent sounds in each of the system’s speakers. If the sound designer for a movie doesn’t want sound to be coming from a particular direction, the speaker in that position won’t generally be producing clearly audible sound at the normal listening position. In many cases, ambient sounds such as rainfall or audience noise will be encoded in the surround channels. These are not intended to be heard as coming from a particular speaker - rather they add atmosphere and a sense of envelopment in the program. Many receivers do have a mode called “ALL CHANNEL“, “PARTY” or something similar - this will produce sound from all speakers (sometimes in mono!) for background music or partying, but this is not true surround sound in the usual sense.
The most common layout for surround sound is 5.1 - five main speakers and a subwoofer for bass effects. The usual arrangement for this places the center channel in line with the vertical centerline of the screen, with the left and right front speakers offset from this by about 30 degrees as seen from the main listening position. The surround speakers are placed to the sides (frequently wall mounted) somewhat behind and above the listening position. In many rooms it won’t be possible to achieve exactly this layout, but try to get reasonably close, especially for the three front speakers. Some larger rooms can accommodate 7.1 surround, which places two additional surround speakers behind the listener to the left and right rear.
For the surround effect to work as the sound designer intended the speakers must be balanced in level and the sound from each should arrive at the main listening position simultaneously. Ideally, levels are set using a sound pressure level meter and appropriate test signals. Time delays are required to compensate for speaker positions which are not at equal distances from the listener. Generally these are set by measuring the distances to each speaker and entering that information into the setup menu for your receiver, although the delays can be measured using appropriate equipment. Subwoofer adjustments are trickier than the level and delay settings. The subwoofer should integrate smoothly in level, frequency and phase (timing) with the other speakers and adjustments should ideally take room acoustics into consideration. Proper analysis of this requires a knowledge of acoustics and sophisticated test equipment, and may not be cost effective for some systems, but is a very worthwhile investment for higher performance systems. Many receivers now offer automatic set up - this is a good first step, but generally more accurate results can be achieved by a knowledgeable installer using test equipment, with a final check by an experienced ear.
TURNTABLES AND VINYL
If you can connect any external source (such as a tape deck or an iPod) to your system you can connect a turntable. However, if your system doesn’t have a special input for phono, you will need to add a phono preamplifier, since the output level from a phono cartridge (the device which actually “plays” the record) is much lower in level and has a special frequency balance which must be compensated on playback. Some inexpensive turntables sold now come with a rudimentary preamplifier built in so they can be connected directly to any spare amplifier input. There are also a few higher performance turntables packages with a much better implementation of this feature available, but this is not the usual approach.
LP replay works by converting very small vibrations of a stylus (needle) tracking the rotating record into electrical signals which are an exact analog of those vibrations. Since the dimensions involved are incredibly small, care must be taken that the stylus and record are clean. The stylus must stably contact the record groove at all times with the correct alignment - it should not be worn or damaged, and it should be set up with the correct geometry. All sources of unwanted vibration must be minimized - this includes motor and bearing noise, vibration transmitted from the speakers and from footfalls or other structural noise. Parts of the turntable system should not vibrate (resonate) themselves. The turntable platter should rotate at an accurate and stable speed. Finally, since the electrical signal from the cartridge is very low in level, care must be taken to minimize noise pickup and the phono preamplifier must be capable of boosting the signal without adding noise of its own.
For well maintained records, I recommend using a carbon fiber brush with many tiny bristles which can reach into the grooves to loosen dust particles and which also reduces static buildup (which will attract dust to the record). I would generally avoid fluid based cleaners which can leave residue on the record - any cleaning fluid applied to the record should be completely removed.
The stylus should also be cleaned regularly with a properly designed cleaner - there are some good fluid based cleaners available which can remove residue accumulated during record play.
For records which are badly contaminated but otherwise in decent shape (including many used LPs) the most effective cleaning method is a specialized wet vacuum cleaning system. While purchasing a system like this is for serious collectors, some record and audio dealers offer disc cleaning on a per LP basis - this is very useful for that handful of prized recordings you’ve collected that are worth the deluxe treatment!
Paul Frecker Audio delivers service to customers on an individual basis through personal appointments for auditions in my demo room or the customer’s home.
Extensive support before, during and after a purchase is also provided through e-mail and telephone contact. My goal is to provide optimum solutions for a client’s specific requirements, not to simply sell product.
I deal with all customers on personal basis before, during and after a sale to ensure long term satisfaction. A substantial part of that process involves comparative demonstrations and discussions of alternatives. This can be done best by a good local dealer, and I would encourage you to find one in your area - if you are having trouble locating a local dealer for the products I carry, I may be able to point you in the right direction (please e-mail me). Within Newfoundland & Labrador, I will do my best to meet the needs of customers outside the St. John’s area, since there are generally no dealers for my product lines available elsewhere.
Over more than three decades in the specialty audio business I have at different times owned and operated a regular retail store, a by-appointment showroom in a retail venue, and provided service to customers directly in their own homes. I have found that providing personal service focused on individual customer needs without the walk-in retail environment is by far the best way to provide clients with optimal solutions.
Absolutely. I can provide personal, in depth auditions of a large range of specialty audio products in a carefully designed, acoustically optimized listening room. Once we narrow the choices to a few items of particular interest, a relaxed evaluation can be arranged in your own home for a few days.
Yes. I have long standing business relationships with a number of Canada’s leading specialty AV distributors. I am an authorized dealer (frequently on an exclusive basis for this territory) for all products I sell. All products are covered by full Canadian warranties.
The basic principle is quite simple - I choose products I would purchase myself at a given price point. When this idea is combined with over 30 years experience, strong technical background and a long term interest in collecting and listening to music, it results in a great product range. Additionally, the brands I offer must have a stable track record of quality and customer service.
The specialty audio industry is made up of manufacturers who are very dedicated to providing the best possible performance at a given price level. Many of these are smaller companies guided by the vision and hands-on talents of their owners. Typically, each product receives a level of design craftsmanship which is simply not feasible within the corporate structure of the large multi-national electronics firms.
The people who make up the specialty audio industry are justifiably proud of their products and concerned for the long term satisfaction of their customers. They build reliable products which will satisfy for many years, and generally back these products with more generous warranties than the norm in the electronics industry. While individual warranty terms differ depending on the manufacturer and the item, terms of two, three and five years for both parts and labor are common. Of course, the best warranty is the one you won’t need to use - these products are designed to give years of trouble free satisfaction when used appropriately.
Yes. It is not feasible for small specialty companies to manufacture some products (for instance, fully featured surround sound receivers) at entry level and intermediate prices. I carry selected receivers and other items from familiar high quality manufacturers to complete the range of solutions I offer.
Manufacturers’ warranties on products purchased from authorized Canadian dealers are valid anywhere in Canada. The terms usually call for the customer to return the item to the distributor’s service center, where it will be repaired and returned freight prepaid to the customer’s address. I enhance this process by providing St. John’s based support (sometimes including local repairs) on items purchased from Paul Frecker Audio. This support includes verification of the problem, dealing with the appropriate distributor, and handling the return of the in-warranty item to the distributor when necessary.
Yes - service is available well beyond the warranty period for the majority of products, as long as parts remain available. An estimate can be provided.
Yes - a good selection of products are available for immediate purchase. Others are readily available with reasonable delivery times.
Absolutely. There are a great many products available - I endeavor to meets the needs of individual customers as precisely as possible. Frequently there are alternate finishes available on speakers, and different color choices for other components. Sometimes a customer has a specific product in mind which I can access, even though I’m not carrying it in inventory.
For brands which I carry on a regular basis, assuming an item is not backordered because of high demand, delivery time is typically a week to ten days. For special order items from other manufacturers the times would vary depending on negotiations with the individual suppliers.