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What Makes the Biggest Audible Differences in Home Theater?

by November 06, 2015
Vintage Audiophile Amp

Vintage Audiophile Amp

An inconclusive look at the myriad of variables that have (or don’t have) an affect upon the sound you hear from your system, and which ones make the biggest difference…

I have very few definitive answers…I mostly have questions. It is not my intention to try and change anyone’s mind to a particular point of view, nor is it to belittle those who have strong opinions approaching dogma. Despite being involved in professional music and the audio industry for more than a half-century, my meager brain has resisted new and challenging knowledge and facts, as is the case with most other humans. We tend to believe what makes us comfortable, and whatever best aligns with our worldview and prejudices. In this article, I’ll try to reach beyond “the way things ought to be” and try to get you to consider, at the least, a pragmatic viewpoint of audio, and the changes in a system that make the biggest differences in sound.

Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I am still learning. Starting in the late ‘70s, as I retired from a full-time music career, I jumped into consumer audio. Soon after, manufacturers asked me to give their products a listen and write my thoughts. This has continued until today, and I’ve evaluated, benchmarked, or beta-tested components for Sony, Nakamichi, B&O, Audionics of Oregon, JBL, Harman, Fosgate-Audionics, Triad, and others. Basically, I would do subjective reviews of products in development or slated for release; reviews that no one but the manufacturer would ever see. Although I helped sort out user interface issues, most of my time spent with these pieces was dedicated to listening and evaluating the sound. As a hi-fi salesperson, I’ve done thousands of demos, and hundreds more at trade shows working for manufacturers. I also got to rub elbows with industry dignitaries with far more knowledge than I possess, but I won’t embarrass them by listing them here. They taught me how to really listen, and I started paying attention to what made a difference and what didn’t.

The quest for perfect sound has too many variables....there is no holy grail.

If I’ve discovered one thing in my quest for Perfect Sound, it’s that there are way too many variables; some we can control, and others we cannot. There is no Silver Bullet or Holy Grail. There is no single Magic Component Thing you can add to a system that will make it The Bestest in the World. All we can do is be honest with ourselves, be as well-informed and open-minded as possible, and be secure enough that we can admit when we’re wrong. Pardon the protracted preamble (and subsequent alliteration.)

The areas of audio that seem to affect sound quality…

The three largest contributors to faithful sound reproduction at the listening position, in my opinion, are the quality of the recording (source), the acoustics of the room, and the loudspeakers, and in no particular order. It’s a three-way tie. Other aspects of a system are important, but less so. I might argue that system calibration is way up there, too. If you have awful speakers in a perfect room, and you play an exquisite recording, don’t expect much. If you play a superb recording on awesome speakers in a bad room, you get the same result. If you play a really crappy recording on a very accurate speaker system in a perfect room, the system will faithfully reproduce the sound of the crappy recording. There’s no escaping it. The chain is <cliché alert> only as strong as its weakest link.

The three largest contributors of faithful sound reproduction are: the quality of the recording, the room acoustics and the speakers.

Electronics are next on my informal list of entities that make a difference. My old industry friend and subwoofer maven Tom Nousaine, sadly no longer with us, made a compelling argument decades ago that all amplifiers, if played back at the same level and not driven into clipping, sound alike. Notice I didn’t say “sound the same.” Tom and I disagreed to a degree on this point, although into a benign speaker load and driven below the clipping of peaks, most amplifiers (and even modest receivers) sound very similar. The differences that we hear may be frequency response differences; some amps may be a bit heavier in the bass, and tube amps tend to have a gently rolled-off treble. The most notable difference I hear among amps is the amount of harshness or glare. Just a small amount ruins everything, much like the proverbial turd in the punchbowl. (I promise you, that was my last barnyard euphemism.)

“Clipping” is the term used to describe what the waveform looks like on an oscilloscope when the top of it is clipped off. If a signal asks for more power than the amp can deliver at that frequency, the top of the waveform will be squashed or “clipped.” Some amplifiers sound very different when driven into clipping, Many amps (especially tube amps) will “soft-clip;” they’ll behave nicely, and the peaks are gently suppressed. Some solid state amplifiers get ugly when driven into clipping, the waveform gets jagged, and the sound gets harsh. Amps that behave badly during hard clipping have a tendency to eat tweeters as well as ears.

For further reading on why and how amplifiers can sound different, we recommend:

Sound of an Amplifier

Why Audio Amplifiers Can Sound Different

McIntosh MC240 Tube AmpI spent a week playing with three of my amps; a mint McIntosh MC240, a current Lyngdorf SDA-2175 stereo amp, and a mid-‘90s Citation 5.1 four-channel amplifier. The McIntosh is a 1962 tube unit, the Citation is a big, heavy Class AB monster, and the Lyngdorf is a smallish, ultra-modern semi-digital design. They’re all quite different. Although I could enjoy music on all of them, the MC240 sounded like it had “subtractive” distortions, gently obscuring any annoying sounds, the Citation 5.1 was highly etched-sounding with a slight glare that became annoying over time, and the Lyngdorf amplifier was neutral, relaxed, dynamic, fast, and analytical. These amplifiers did not sound the same, and they could easily be identified strictly by their sonic signature. I’ve found that preamplifiers vary about as much or more in sound as power amplifiers, and the ones with the best components in the signal path (and the fewest components) generally sound more natural. Jim Fosgate got his preamps and processors to sound so good because he usually used a simple, single gain stage. My conclusion is that good electronics make a difference, especially when matched with the right speakers. My opinion of receivers is you should only use one until you pay off your student loan. I have heard few that rival even modest separates. Because of this comment, I expect to be rudely pummeled in this thread in the Audioholics forum. There are exceptions, though, most notably the behemoth flagship receivers from Denon and Yamaha. Gene DellaSala reminds me of the beastly nature of the Denon AVR-5805 from a few years ago. It was the equal at least of most separate components in terms of power and processing capabilities were light years ahead of most separates solutions of the time.

There are some incompatibility issues between some preamps and some power amps, so you need to check the specs/requirements to ensure you have a good match. The output level of the preamp has to be in sync with the power amplifier. I’ve seen preamps that don’t have enough output to drive some amps anywhere near full power. And a preamp having an output impedance that doesn’t mate well with an amplifier won’t sound right, either. The rule of thumb is the preamplifier should have an impedance that’s approximately 10% of the input impedance of the amplifier, plus or minus “a lot.”

Hideously compressed audio files. The work of the devil??

vinyl vs MP3The conventional wisdom is that MP3s sound awful. Most who think this have not actually done a comparison between lossless audio and a 128 kbps music file. And they may have listened to an MP3 through a wretched little set of cheap earbuds, thus their conclusion. During my tenure at Triad Speakers, I got to experience a controlled demo, done by industry technology giant Rich Green, comparing level-matched (to within ¼ dB) 128 kbps files made from red book CDs to the actual CDs, and you may be surprised at the results.

If you ask people what they hate about MP3s, they’ll invariable state that they sound harsh, distorted, and with weak bass. Nope, you’re thinking of those cheap earbuds, Sparky. Those of us in the demo at Triad Speakers in Portland that day could identify the MP3s most of the time, but they didn’t always sound worse than the CD; just subtly different. I would describe the sound of the MP3 as somewhat flat, with a loss of ambient information and a shallower soundstage. Harmonics weren’t as rich and ambience seemed to die quickly. This makes sense, because an MP3 won’t resolve extremely low-level detail, much as tube gear doesn’t always resolve low level detail. On some recordings, the MP3 had a softer character to the sound, like some tube electronics. The MP3s generally weren’t quite as good sounding, but through a pair of $3,600 Triad Gold Monitors (I have three in my home theater), they still sounded pretty good, and the difference was subtle. Bass was the same, spectral balance was the same, imaging was identical, and the MP3s were no more harsh or bright. Any distortions were of the subtractive variety; not additive. The effect of an MP3 upon the sound would be far, far less destructive than poor speakers, messy acoustics, harsh electronics, or an ugly recording. Don’t assume from this that I love MP3s; I do not. But they’re like .JPGs in that they use tons of compression to get a file down to a much smaller size without dramatically changing the character of the file. Ten years ago, that might have been important.

optical vs coax digital audio

Optical (aka. Toslink) left image; Coaxial (RCA connector) right image

Oh, no, you still use Toslink??

So, to pose a trick question, which method of hooking up a CD player sounds better?? I’ve experimented with various hookups of my two-channel system, which features a Lyngdorf SDAI-2170 integrated amp, a Lyngdorf CD-2 red book CD player, and Triad Gold MiniMonitors. In this small, nearfield venue, I can really detect differences. I have the CD hooked up by coax and Toslink, and both sound exactly the same. I sense some of you going into apoplectic full-body shudder, but it’s true. And even though the coax uses an additional digital conversion, both hookups have the same sound, at least to my ear. Bet you didn’t see THAT coming… <insert smiley-face> While I recommend using the fastest, simplest connection, the differences, if at all, are usually minuscule, at least with audio.  

The primitive dynamics of transducers…

Grado phono cartridgeTransducers are electromechanical devices, and they’re the most imperfect and lovable components in a system. They’re crude devices compared to exacting electronics. Speakers and phono cartridges don’t have flat frequency response; at least not to the tight standards of a CD player, preamp, or power amp. Phono cartridges, especially, tend to have a rising response in the treble. While this adds “air,” and “detail,” and “openness,” it’s basically like using an equalizer and boosting a peak between 10 kHz to 20 kHz by 2 to 5 dB, or, in the case of some moving coil cartridges of the ‘80s, as much as a 10 dB rise; but I won’t mention the Decca Ribbon cartridge by name. Improper cartridge loading can exacerbate this. And while you may like the result better with boosted treble, it’s not as accurate. But I’m not going to tell you what you should or should not like. You might like okra or even Clamato juice, for all I know. It’s a free country.

Achieving a flat in-room frequency response at all stages of an audio system can enhance realism and accuracy a great deal. After decades of trying to match components arbitrarily to achieve a flat frequency response, I finally figured out that the best thing to do was to pick all components that inherently have flat frequency response so I wasn’t chasing my tail. And if you have to touch up the system with equalization to glean a flat in-room response, there’s no shame in that. Now that most EQ is done in the digital domain, it’s really clean. I sparingly use Audyssey in my home theater, and the more sophisticated Lyngdorf RoomPerfect in my two-channel room, and both systems benefit. I consider EQ as an essential part of system calibration. A modern digital equalization system serves as both room correction and loudspeaker correction. Hey, you, the guy who just yelled “Equalizers SUCK!” I heard that…

Do Audio Formats Really Produce Audible Differences?

You can't declare format superiority when the mastering is often the biggest variable that determines sound quality.

Admittedly, I am torn over the inherent superiority of one audio format over another. My theory is there are so many variables involved that a comparison can’t really be made. If you compare vinyl to a CD, you are hearing different mastering, and in many cases, you’re hearing a different mix with different EQ. The format is not the biggest variable in many cases. I pointed out in an article from earlier this year that Windham Hill recordings on vinyl sound very close to the CDs, with the biggest variable most likely being the phono cartridge’s frequency response and loading. Even the levels are almost the same. On the other hand, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” on CD is about 6 dB hotter than the record, and there’s an excruciatingly metallic quality to the sound that makes the CD unlistenable, while the vinyl record is superb. I blame the CD mastering, but there’s no way to be sure. It’d be great to compare the record and the CD to the raw stereo mixdown from the 3M 24-track tape machine in the studio, but there I go, dreaming again. Some recordings just sound better than others, whether they’re HDCD, Blu-ray audio, vine-yule, SACD, DSD, etc. For those of you who want to get your nerd on, read this paper from the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, September, 2007.

The article destroys the argument that SACD inherently sounds better than CD, all other things being equal. Some have made the point that if an engineer goes to the trouble of making an SACD, he may be more meticulous in the mastering process, but, again, this has nothing to do with the superiority of the format.

Vinyl vs CD

Vinyl vs CD: Which do you prefer?
Check out our CD vs Vinyl vs FLAC Listening Comparison

Can you detect the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit?

Might there be other variables in the recordings? Was one mastered at a higher level? (In blind listening tests, I’ve found that a subject will pick the recording that’s a mere 1 dB louder almost all the time.) The reasons music sounds better to you in one format as opposed to the other may, in fact, have nothing to do with the format. We are predisposed to like a newer, hipper format with higher theoretical resolution, regardless of if it sounds the same as a more conventional format. Often we convince ourselves that something is better, whether or not it is, because we truly want to like it better---we’ve made the emotional commitment. The differences among formats are way down the list of contributors to good sound, and far behind the low hanging fruit of room acoustics, recording and mastering quality, speaker accuracy, and proper calibration. I’ve heard terrible-sounding vinyl, spectacular-sounding vinyl, CDs that sounded better than SACD or Blu-ray audio, CDs that were unmitigated horror shows, and, well, you get the picture. The quality of the recording itself contributes far more to the sound than the format.

Cable Elevators

Cable Elevator Snake Oil

Some audiophiles actually believe that raising their cables off the floor will stop them from misfiring their electrical signal by reducing static electricity!

Peripheral considerations…

Our psychology is always in flux. Can that be a big factor in how we perceive the quality of sound?

And then there are contributors that have little or nothing to do with the gear itself. How fresh are your ears? Have you flown on an airplane or attended a concert recently? Been swimming? Trap shooting? How tired are you? What is your mood? And what about that ringing in your ears from two or three ibuprofen? I can listen to the same program material on my two-channel system several times during the course of a day, and it will not sound exactly the same to me. Our physiology is always in flux. There are so many variables. And what about the effect of room temperature and humidity upon the viscosity and/or compliance of a cartridge cantilever damping block or speaker suspension parts? Although this is nitpicking at the audiophile extreme, the change in compliance with temperature change of these moving parts can be measured. And can we detect sonic differences that cannot be measured? Are you certain?? You’ll notice from all the question marks in this paragraph that I am asking if these variables are at all significant, and do they contribute to sonic differences. I don’t have definitive answers, and I hope some of you have opinions. Yes, there will be a thread to post to, and we want to hear from you. I own a flame suit, so…

Uh-oh, now he’s going to talk about WIRE…

exotic power cordI’ve left speaker cables and interconnects for last, because this may be the greatest area of controversy. And by controversy, I mean rage. I will state that cables can sound slightly different from one another, but I take issue with the dogma that some wire makes a “night and day difference.” I have read that phrase in at least a dozen wire reviews over the years (and coincidentally, I read it again just an hour ago), and it makes me cringe and want to bite my pillow. If there is a clean break in one wire, that would make a night-and-day difference. If a wire is not damaged; if it does not utilize a resistor/capacitor network to re-equalize or filter; if it is of sufficient gauge for the application; I don’t hear anything but insignificant differences, and most of the time, I don’t even hear that. I refer you to some excellent and entertaining videos on the Audioholics site, done by Gene and Hugo, two merry pranksters who delve into the subject with far more depth. Again, my point is not if you can or cannot hear a difference among cables, it’s more of where wire ranks in the pecking order. And it is my contention, based on my own experience and many double-blind tests, that wire is farther down the list than speakers, acoustics, etc. I recall doing a comparison for fellow audio salespersons many years ago where I had two identical sets of speaker wire, only one set was white and one set was red. Nearly every person in the demo picked the red wires as being more dynamic, warmer, having better bass; and they all picked the white wire as sounding colder and more analytical. The only difference was the color of the insulator. They sounded exactly alike. These were friends of mine, and I punked them, because that’s how I roll.

Recommended Reading:

Audio Interconnect and Speaker Cable Myths vs Facts Revealed

Dave Cutler Listening Room

Dave Cutler Listening Room - Acoustically treated for one perfect seat?!?


I still maintain that the big difference makers in sonic performance are room acoustics, loudspeakers, and the quality of the recording and mastering. Accurate system calibration is a given, and then, farther down the list, I would add sonic differences among electronics, software format, interconnects and speaker wire, sundry tweaks, and probably a good night’s sleep followed by a big strong cup of coffee. There are diminishing returns at some point in the chain that is an audio system, and it’s my belief that the biggest contributors to good sound have to be addressed first. After that, feel free to tweak away at the less significant stuff, have fun, don’t outsmart yourself, and continue to fine tune your system.