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Acapella Publishing
The Complete Guide to High-End Audio / Edition 5

The Complete Guide to High-End Audio / Edition 5

by Robert Harley
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An updated edition of what many consider the “bible of high-end audio”
In this newly revised and updated fifth edition, Robert Harley, editor in chief of the Absolute Sound magazine, tells you everything you need to know about buying and enjoying high-quality hi-fi. With this book, discover how to get the best sound for your money, how to identify the weak links in your system and upgrade where it will do the most good, how to set up and tweak your system for maximum performance, and how to become a more perceptive and appreciative listener. Just a few of the secrets you will learn cover high-end sound on a budget, how to do it cheap and still do it right; five system set-up mistakes and how to avoid them; how to make your speakers sound up to 50% better, at no cost; how to choose and set up a computer-based music system; how to find the one speaker in 50 worth owning; and why all 100-watt amplifiers don't sound the same. Since the first edition's publication in 1994, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio has been considered the essential reference on high-quality music reproduction, with more than 150,000 copies sold in five languages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780978649364
Publisher: Acapella Publishing
Publication date: 03/01/2015
Edition description: Fifth Edition, Fifth edition
Pages: 578
Sales rank: 70,142
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Robert Harley is the editor in chief of the Absolute Sound and the editor of the large-format book series the Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio. Founded in 1973, the Absolute Sound is the world’s most respected magazine on high-performance audio. Harley has taught college degree programs in audio engineering in addition to having worked as a recording engineer, a CD mastering engineer, and an audio journalist. He has published more than 1,200 product reviews and articles on high-quality music reproduction, and he is the author of Home Theater for Everyone and Introductory Guide to High-Performance Audio Systems. His books have sold more than a quarter of a million copies in five languages. He lives in Carlsbad, California.

Read an Excerpt

The Complete Guide to High-End Audio

By Robert Harley

Acapella Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Robert Harley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9786493-7-1


What Is High-End Audio?

High-end audio is about passion — passion for music, and for how well it is reproduced. High-end audio is the quest to re-create in the listener's home the musical message of the composer or performer with the maximum realism, emotion, and intensity. Because music is important, re-creating it with the highest possible fidelity is important.

High-end audio products constitute a unique subset of music-reproduction components that bear little similarity to the "stereo systems" sold in department stores. A music-reproduction system isn't a home appliance like a washing machine or toaster; it is a vehicle for expressing the vast emotional and intellectual potential of the music encoded on our records and CDs. The higher the quality of reproduction, the deeper our connection with the music.

The high-end ethos — that music and the quality of its reproduction matter deeply — is manifested in high-end audio products. They are designed by dedicated enthusiasts who combine technical skill and musical sensitivity in their crafting of components that take us one step closer to the original musical event. High-end products are designed by ear, built by hand, and exist for one reason: to enhance the experience of music listening.

A common misperception among the hi-fi–consuming public is that high-end audio means high-priced audio. In the mass-market mind, high-end audio is nothing more than elaborate stereo equipment with fancy features and price tags aimed at millionaires. Sure, the performance may be a little better than the hi-fi you find at your local appliance store, but who can afford it? Moreover, high-end audio is seen as being only for trained, discriminating listeners, snobs, or gadget freaks — not for the average person on the street.

High-end audio is none of these things.

First, the term high-end refers to the products' performance, not their price. Many true high-end systems cost no more — and often less — than the all-in-one rack systems sold in department stores. I've heard many inexpensive systems that capture the essence of what high-quality music reproduction is all about — systems easily within the budgets of average consumers. Although many high-end components are high-priced, this doesn't mean that you have to take out a second mortgage to have high-quality music reproduction in your home. A great-sounding system can be less expensive than you might think.

Second, high-end audio is about communicating the musical experience, not adding elaborate, difficult-to-operate features. In fact, high-end systems are much easier to use than mass-market mid-fi systems. This is because the high-end ethic eliminates useless features, instead putting the money into sound quality. High-end audio is for music lovers, not electronics whizzes.

Third, anyone who likes music can immediately appreciate the value of high-quality sound reproduction. It doesn't take a "golden ear" to know what sounds good. The differences between good and mediocre music reproduction are instantly obvious. The reaction — usually pleasure and surprise — of someone hearing a true high-end audio system for the first time underscores that high-end audio can be appreciated by everyone. If you enjoy music, you'll enjoy it more through a high-end system. It's that simple.

Finally, the goal of high-end audio is to make the equipment "disappear"; when that happens, we know that we have reached the highest state of communication between musician and listener. High-end audio isn't about equipment; it's about music.

The high-end credo holds that the less the musical signal is processed, the better. Any electronic circuit, wire, tone control, or switch degrades the signal — and thus the musical experience. This is why you won't find graphic equalizers, "spatial enhancers," "subharmonic synthesizers," or other such gimmicks in high-end equipment. These devices are not only departures from musical reality, they add unnecessary circuitry to the signal path. By minimizing the amount of electronics between you and the musicians, high-end audio products can maximize the directness of the musical experience. Less is more.

Imagine yourself standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, feeling overwhelmed by its grandeur. You experience not only the vastness of this massive sculpture carved deep into the earth, but all its smaller features jump out at you as well, vivid and alive. You can discern fine gradations of hue in the rock layers — distinctions between the many shades of red are readily apparent. Fine details of the huge formations are easily resolved simply by your looking at them, thus deepening your appreciation. The contrasts of light and shadow highlight the apparently infinite maze of cracks and crevasses. The longer and closer you look, the more you see. The wealth of sensory input keeps you standing silently at the edge, in awe of nature's unfathomable beauty.

Now imagine yourself looking at the Grand Canyon through a window made of many thicknesses of glass, each one less than perfectly transparent. One pane has a slight grayish opacity that dulls the vivid hues and obliterates the subtle distinctions between similar shades of color. The fine granular structure of the next pane diminishes your ability to resolve features in the rock. Another pane reduces the contrast between light and shadow, turning the Canyon's immense depth and breadth into a flat canvas. Finally, the windowframe itself constricts your view, destroying the Canyon's overall impact. Instead of the direct and immediate reality of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, what you see is gray, murky, lifeless, and synthetic. You may as well be watching it on television.

Hearing reproduced music through a mediocre playback system is like looking at the Grand Canyon through those panes of glass. Each component in the playback chain — CD player, turntable, preamplifier, power amplifier, loudspeakers, and the cables that connect them — in some way distorts the signal passing through it. One product may add a coarse, grainy character to instrumental textures. Another may reduce the dynamic contrasts between loud and soft, muting the composer's or performer's expression. Yet another may cast a thick, murky pall over the music, destroying its subtle tonal colors and overlaying all instruments with an undifferentiated timbre. Finally, the windowframe — that is, the electronic and mechanical playback system — diminishes the expanse that is the musicians' artistic intent.

High-end audio is about removing as many panes of glass as possible, and making those that remain as transparent as they can be. The fewer the panes, and the less effect each has on the information passing through it, the closer we get to the live experience and the deeper our connection with the musical message.

Why are high-end audio products more transparent windows on the musical event than mass-market "stereo systems"? High-end products are designed to sound good — that is, like the real thing. They're not necessarily designed to perform "well" according to some arbitrary technical specification. The true high-end designer listens to the product during its development, changing parts and trying different techniques to produce the most realistic sound possible. He combines technical skill with musical sensitivity to create a product that best conveys the musical experience. This dedication often becomes a zealous pursuit, involving many hundreds of listening hours and painstaking attention to every factor that influences the sound. Often, a more expensive part will be included to improve the product's sound, while the retail price remains the same. The higher cost of this musically superior part comes off the company's bottom line. Why? Because the high-end designer cares deeply about music and its reproduction.

Conversely, mass-market audio components are often designed to look good "on paper" — on the specification sheet — sometimes at the expense of actual sound quality. A good example of this is the "THD wars" of the 1970s and '80s. THD stands for Total Harmonic Distortion, a specification widely used by uneducated consumers as a measure of amplifier quality. (If you've done this, don't worry; before I learned more about audio, I, too, looked at THD figures.) The lower the THD, the better the amplifier was perceived to be. This led the electronics giants to produce products with vanishingly low THD numbers. It became a contest to see which brand had the most zeros after the decimal point in its THD specification (0.001%, for example). Many buyers bought receivers or amplifiers solely on the basis of this specification.

Although low THD is a worthy design goal, the problem arose in how those extremely low distortion figures were obtained. A technique to reduce distortion in amplifiers is called feedback — taking part of the output signal and feeding it back to the input. Large amounts of feedback reduce THD, but cause all kinds of other problems that degrade the amplifier's musical qualities. Did the electronics giants care that the large amounts of negative feedback induced to reduce their products' THD measurements actually made those products sound worse? Not a chance. The only thing that mattered was making a commodity that would sell in greater quantity. They traded musical performance for an insignificant technical specification that was sold to the public as being important. Those buyers choosing components on the basis of a specification sheet rather than listening ended up with poor-sounding systems. Ironically, the amplifiers that had the lowest THDs probably had the lowest quality of sound as well.

This example illustrates the vast difference between mass-market manufacturers' and high-end companies' conceptions of what an audio component should do. High-end manufacturers care more about how the product sounds than about how it performs on the test bench. They know that their audience of musically sensitive listeners will buy on the basis of sound quality, not specifications.

High-end products are not only designed by ear, but are often hand-built by skilled craftspeople who take pride in their work. The assemblers are often audiophiles themselves, building the products with as much care as if the products were to be installed in their own homes. This meticulous attention to detail results in a better quality of construction, or build quality. Better build quality can not only improve a product's sound, but increase its long-term reliability as well. Moreover, beautifully hand-crafted components can inspire a pride in ownership that the makers of mass-produced products can't hope to match.

High-end audio products are often backed by better customer service than mid-fi products. Because high-end manufacturers care more about their products and customers, they generally offer longer warranties, more liberal exchange policies, and better service. It is not uncommon for high-end manufacturers to repair products out of warranty at no charge. This isn't to say you should expect such treatment, only that it sometimes happens with high-end and is unthinkable with mass-market products. High-end companies care about their customers.

These attributes also apply to high-end specialty retailers. The high-end dealer shares a passion for quality music reproduction and commitment to customer service. If you're used to buying audio components at a mass-market dealer, you'll be pleasantly surprised by a visit to a high-end store. Rather than trying to get you to buy something that may not be right for you, the responsible high-end dealer will strive to assemble a system that will provide the greatest long-term musical pleasure. Such a dealer will put your musical satisfaction ahead of this month's bottom line.

Finally, most high-end products are designed and built in America by American companies. In fact, American-made audio components are highly regarded throughout the world. More than 40% of all American high-end audio production is exported to foreign countries, particularly the Far East. This is true even though high-end products cost about twice as much abroad as they do in the U.S., owing to shipping, import duties, and importer profit. The enthusiasm for American high-end products abroad is even more remarkable when one remembers the popular American misperception that the best audio equipment is made in Japan.

On a deeper level, high-end products are fundamentally different from mass-market products, in their conception, purpose, design, construction, and marketing. In all these differences, what distinguishes a high-end from a mass-market product is the designer's caring attitude toward music. He isn't creating boxes to be sold like any other commodity; he's making musical instruments whose performance will affect how his customers experience music. The high-end component is a physical manifestation of a deeply felt concern about how well music is reproduced, and, by extension, how much it is enjoyed by the listener.

The high-end designer builds products he would want to listen to himself. Because he cares about music, it matters to him how an unknown listener, perhaps thousands of miles away, experiences the joy of music. The greater the listener's involvement in the music, the better the designer has done his job.

A digital-processor designer I know epitomizes this dedication. He had specified a premium-quality resistor at a certain point in his new design. This resistor cost $1 rather than the pennies most resistors cost. Just as the design was about to go into production, he looked even harder for any changes that would improve the product's sound. For fun, he tried an exotic $10 resistor in the circuit in place of the $1 resistor. He was surprised at how much better the product sounded with this change, and couldn't bear to see the product shipped with the $1 resistors. The company made the product with the $10 resistors even though the retail price had already been established based on the parts cost using $1 resistors. High-end designers try to add quality to, rather than subtract cost from, their products.

To the high-end designer, electronic or mechanical design isn't merely a technical undertaking — it's an act of love and devotion. Each aspect of a product's design, technical as well as musical, is examined in a way that would surprise those unaccustomed to such commitment. The ethos of music reproduction goes to the very core of the high-end designer's being; it's not a job he merely shows up for every day. The result is a much more powerful and intimate involvement in the music for the listener than is possible with products designed without this dedication.

What is high-end audio? What is high-end sound? It is when the playback system is forgotten, seemingly replaced by the performers in your listening room. It is when you feel the composer or performer speaking across time and space to you. It is feeling a physical rush during a musical climax. It is the ineffable roller-coaster ride of emotion the composer somehow managed to encode in a combination of sounds. It is when the physical world disappears, leaving only your consciousness and the music.

That is high-end audio.


Excerpted from The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley. Copyright © 2015 Robert Harley. Excerpted by permission of Acapella Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

About the Authorxx
1What is High-End Audio?1
2Choosing a High-End Audio System7
Setting Your Budget9
The Complete vs. the Incremental Purchase10
Choosing the System Best Suited to Your Needs12
Allocating Your Budget to Specific Components14
Upgrading a Single Component18
How to Read Magazine Reviews19
System Matching23
Do's and Don'ts of Selecting Components24
Your Relationship with the Retailer26
Used Equipment29
Product Upgrades30
Setting Up Your System for the Best Sound30
Component Selection Summary32
3Becoming a Better Listener33
Audiophile Values36
Pitfalls of Becoming a Critical Listener39
Sonic Descriptions and their Meanings40
Critical Listening Setup Procedures63
Recommended Recordings66
Single-Presentation Listening--What It's All About69
Critical Listening Summary70
Level Matching71
4How to Get the Best Sound from Your Room73
Loudspeaker Placement74
Common Room Problems and How to Treat Them92
Acoustical Do's and Don'ts104
A Short Course in Acoustical Theory105
Building a Listening Room from Scratch118
DSP Room Correction123
A Survey of Acoustical Treatments127
How to Choose a Preamplifier133
What to Listen For136
Tubes vs. Transistors139
The Line-Stage Preamplifier142
The Phono-Stage Preamplifier143
The Digital Preamplifier147
Audio/Video Controllers and Multichannel Preamplifier148
Passive Level Controls: Are They Right for Your System?149
How a Preamplifier Works150
6Power and Integrated Amplifiers155
How to Choose a Power Amplifier156
Other Power-Amplifier Considerations167
What to Listen For171
A Survey of Amplifier Types174
How a Power Amplifier Works181
How to Choose a Loudspeaker194
What to Listen For199
Loudspeaker Types and How They Work201
The Dipolar Radiation Patterns of Ribbons and Electrostatics215
Loudspeaker Enclosures216
Powered and Servo-Driven Woofers226
Enclosure Resonances228
Digital Loudspeakers236
Loudspeaker Stands243
8Digital Source Components245
How to Choose a Digital Source247
What to Listen For248
State-of-the-Art CD Playback: Dedicated CD Players and Separate Transports and Processors252
Why 44.1kHz Sampling and 16-bit Quantization Aren't Enough255
High-Resolution Digital Audio: SACD and DVD-Audio258
Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD)261
Universal Players271
Digital-Audio Servers274
The Digital Transport277
The Digital Processor280
Balanced Outputs: Why They're Not All Created Equal282
The S/PDIF Digital Interface285
High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD)293
Digital Recording Formats: CD Recordable, MiniDisc, and MP3296
How a Digital Processor Works299
How a CD Transport Works307
How the S/PDIF Interface Works311
9Turntables, Tonearms, and Cartridges: The LP Playback System313
System Hierarchy: Why the LP Front End Is So Important314
How to Choose an LP Playback System315
What to Listen For317
Technical Aspects of Choosing an LP Front End320
The Turntable322
The Tonearm331
The Phono Cartridge334
LP Playback System Setup339
10FM Tuners and Digital Audio Radio343
How to Choose a Tuner344
What to Listen For347
Tuner Specifications and Measurements348
Digital Audio Radio Service: XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio350
Radio Data System (RDS)352
11Cables and Interconnects353
How to Choose Cables and Interconnects355
How Much Should You Spend on Cables and Interconnects?357
What to Listen For358
Binding Posts and Cable Terminations360
Bi-Wired Loudspeaker Cables361
Balanced and Unbalanced Lines363
Digital Interconnects367
Cable and Interconnect Construction367
Terminated Cables and Interconnects371
Battery Bias in Cables and Interconnects372
Cable and Interconnect Specifications373
Cables in the Power Amplifier/Loudspeaker Interface374
Getting the Best Sound from Cables and Interconnects375
12High-End Audio Accessories377
How to Choose Accessories377
Stands and Racks378
Accessories to Isolate and Control Vibration: Spikes, Feet, and Cones380
AC Power Conditioners382
CD Treatments386
Portable Audio387
Binaural Recordings389
Cassette Decks390
Other Accessories393
Voodoo Accessories and the Lunatic Fringe398
13Audio for Home Theater399
Overview of Home-Theater Systems401
Home-Theater Controllers404
Multichannel Power Amplifiers413
Loudspeakers for Home Theater415
Setting up a Home Theater421
Adding Home Theater without Compromising Music Performance428
14Multichannel Audio431
A Short History of Multichannel Audio431
Do We Want Multichannel Music Playback?434
How to Get Multichannel Audio in Your Home440
Multichannel Playback from 2-Channel Sources445
15Specifications and Measurements451
Preamplifier Specifications and Measurements451
Power Amplifier Specifications and Measurements456
Loudspeaker Specifications and Measurements460
Digital Specifications and Measurements468
Appendix ASound and Hearing479
Introduction: What is Sound?479
The Decibel (dB)489
Frequency, Loudness, and Equal Loudness Contours492
The Dynamic Nature of Music494
Other Psychoacoustic Phenomena496
Appendix BAudio and Electronics Basics499
Voltage, Current, Resistance, and Power499
Alternating Current (AC)505
Electromagnetic Induction, Inductance, and Capacitance506
Anatomy of an Audio Product515
Digital Electronics527
Appendix CDigital Audio Basics529
Binary Number System530
Sampling and Quantization532
Digital Audio Storage540
Digital-to-Analog Conversion543
Jitter Explained543
Digital Signal Processing (DSP)547
Perceptual Coding548
Appendix DThe Role of Critical Listening in Evaluating Audio Equipment Quality551

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