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Music Hardware Technology

Why Your Dad's 30-Year-Old Stereo Sounds Better Than Yours 674

Posted by samzenpus
from the and-the-candy-tasted-better-too dept.
asto21 writes "Cnet's Steve Guttenberg sheds light on this interesting development that over the years, actual sound quality became a secondary selling point since most people started buying their equipment either online or from big box retailers. People started caring more about the number of connections and wireless interfaces and wattage of systems. As a result, there was less money in R&D budgets to spend on advancements in sound."
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Why Your Dad's 30-Year-Old Stereo Sounds Better Than Yours

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  • TFA (Score:4, Informative)

    by Translation Error (1176675) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:13PM (#36910342)
    Shouldn't the article say more than the summary?
  • by Kenja (541830) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:18PM (#36910402)
    Good sound quality is still out there and still being improved. Companies like NAD [nadelectronics.com] are still in business and still developing amazing gear.
  • by Hatta (162192) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:24PM (#36910494) Journal

    Solid state is much more linear and low noise than any tubes could hope to be. You might think they sound "better" because you like the characteristics of the distortion they produce. But that's unrelated to what we normally consider audio quality.

  • actual article(s) (Score:5, Informative)

    by demonbug (309515) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:39PM (#36910728) Journal

    Since apparently linking to the pages with the actual content in the summary is a no-no, here they are:

    First, the Cnet [cnet.com] article talking about the test that someone else did.

    Next, the actual source article [iavscanada.com].

  • by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:43PM (#36910764) Homepage Journal

    No, it's not mostly subjective. Good sound quality is science. Range, signal purity, response, these are all measurable things.

    Good marketing will over ride reason. People care less for quality then they do for price, and when you are looking at a 2000 dollars system next to a 500 dollar system people need to ask them selves if the value they get from the better quality is worth 1500 dollars.

    There is a reason the pick specific types of music to demo them with.

  • Re:TFA (Score:5, Informative)

    by oneiros27 (46144) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:50PM (#36910850) Homepage

    Well, the article does ... unfortunately, we have Slashdot linking to Gizmodo linking to CNet, where the actual article was:

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-13645_3-20082026-47/how-can-30-year-old-receivers-sound-better-than-new-ones/?tag=mncol;txt [cnet.com]

  • by AdamWill (604569) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:51PM (#36910874) Homepage

    it's not so much about more air, it's frequencies. The ability to reproduce low end frequencies is directly dependent on the actual size of the speaker, which is why subwoofers have to be so effing huge. But we didn't used to have subwoofers; we had tower speakers, which are big enough that they can incorporate a woofer capable of decent low frequencies. All things being equal, a single speaker producing a full range of frequencies will sound better than two separate speakers (bookshelf plus separate subwoofer). So a pair of floorstanders is going to sound better than two bookshelves and a smallish subwoofer.

    These days the real high end setups use a couple of floorstanders for everything down to about 50Hz, and a real bigass subwoofer for 10Hz through 50Hz, which is truly non-directional. But most people (including me) use a couple of bookshelves for 100Hz and up, and a 10-12" subwoofer which can probably do about 30-100Hz. (Or, they have bookshelves and a subwoofer and completely mess up the configuration of the cutoff point, which is probably more common and the reason lots of people's systems sound crappy). The bookshelves plus subwoofer setup can sound pretty good if you're careful about the cutoff point and the phase and everything, but never quite as nice as a good pair of floorstanders.

  • by Voyager529 (1363959) <voyager529@y a h o o . com> on Thursday July 28, 2011 @01:52PM (#36910910)

    The article's general argument (I know, I know) is that adding in all the whizbang features like Bluetooth connectivity and HD Radio, and the licensing fees involved has eaten up all the money to the point where there's little left for R&D for clearer audio. I think the problem is simpler than that, and twofold.

    First, people by and large no longer actively listen to music. We listen while doing something else. Whether that 'something else' is driving, jogging, cleaning, working, or whatever else...it's no longer a sit-down activity like it was in the past. I'd argue that the most common audio output device is the iPod earbuds. They sound pretty decent for bundled earbuds, but that's like congratulating Apple for making the prettiest Terminal window for OSX. Point is, even a $500 Sony receiver with its bundled speakers is going to sound better than /that/. It's actually going to sound a LOT better than that. The floor is much lower than it was 30 years ago, therefore, it doesn't take the same amount of audio quality to greatly surpass it.

    Second, most people when stereo shopping are looking for something that sounds "very good". Being as the majority of said consumers are pretty easy to please in that regard according to point #1, now Sony has to distinguish itself between Yamaha and Denon and Onkyo when they're shown next to each other. How do you do that in a way that prints well on shelf tags? Answer: good luck. That's where the arms race of having 1,001 connectors, bluetooth, XM, Pandora, laser light shows on the front, spiffy animations, 1,000,001 EQ settings, pseudo-surround from the stereo speakers, etc. all comes in to play: Bluetooth vs. no Bluetooth is very easy to distinguish. Wattage numbers are very easy to compare. "Sounds better than..." is both subjective and difficult to determine, so fighting over it would ultimately put everyone on a similar playing field. While the Slashdot Cynicism would say that it's because no one wants to have next quarter's numbers suffer on account of "doing it right", to be fair to them, how many Best Buy employees - even the ones in the home theater department - would YOU trust to accurately showcase the difference between how the different receivers sound? Have you EVER been in one where the routing panel buttons actually routed the signal properly? I haven't.

    I'll use myself as a perfect example. I spend enough time in my car to replace the perfectly working stock stereo with an aftermarket one. When it came time to shop, I at least went to a store that specializes in auto and marine audio and skipped over Wal-Mart and Best Buy. I got Boston Acoustic speakers and a Kenwood deck. What attracted me to the deck was its price tag ($200 was about what I was looking to spend; the higher priced units were closer to $500-$600 and had the in-dash flat panels and navigation, etc), and its feature set. It was really nice to have a USB port and an aux in; I could charge my phone and recognize music stored on it, and I could play Pandora and make hands-free phone calls with the aux in jack. It was beautiful. A friend of mine who is one of those "Boom Car" owners - you know the type, the ones who you wouldn't exactly want leading the charge in a "surprise attack" that give you a back massage at a red light, even though you're in the opposite lane and three cars back. He had a Pioneer deck that he sold me for $60, and even did the installation for me (I installed the Kenwood, I just couldn't be bothered this time around lol). It doesn't have the USB port, the FM radio reception is mediocre on a good day (I swear that Kenwood could pick up a transmission from Mars), and I still haven't figured out how to set the preset stations for which it has no buttons (the presets are cycled through the general purpose knob, which can require a bit extra nudge at times). Every time I'm in my car I debate going back to the Kenwood deck because the Kenwood does basically everything I want it to do (except bluetooth, but neither does the Pioneer). I still haven't

  • Re:in other news (Score:2, Informative)

    by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Thursday July 28, 2011 @02:01PM (#36911048) Homepage Journal

    You can taste a difference. No, I'm not a wine snob; however I am in an interesting position where I end up tasting different wines with almost no knowledge of history or cost. Bad wine tastes like alcohol.

    I never understood the buying of wine to just get a buzz. A few shots of vodka in OJ will do the same thing, cheaper.

  • by Burning1 (204959) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @02:26PM (#36911496) Homepage

    Bigger speakers are generally going to have more presence because the speaker drivers themselves have better impedance with the air at low frequencies, and the heavier drivers tend to be more efficient at that frequency range. A good 10-12 inch driver should be able to get all the way down to 20hz, which is about the limit of human hearing; (though frequencies below that can still be felt.) With a modern speaker using a smaller 6 inch driver to produce low frequencies, the bottom end of the range will either be lost, or it will have to be normalized to the midrange; doing so tends to induce distortion.

    More or less the top-of-the-line in consumer grade speakers is the Klipschhorn, which horn loads the tweeter and midrange, and uses the interior of the cabinet and your wall to horn load the woofer. The horns again deliver better impedance with the air, making it one of the most efficient speakers on the market. It's capable of producing 105db of sound from one watt of input power.

    For what it's worth, I'm in my late 20s and grew up listening to a lot of the classics. I love Zep, and a number of others. There's good stuff coming out now too, but if all you do is listen to the radio, you're unlikely to hear it.

  • by Plekto (1018050) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @03:44PM (#36912634)

    Impedance is highly variable for most speakers and while the average impedance is listed at 4phms, it will often dip down to 2 or 3 ohms near the lower end.

    There is no substitute for mass. (this is a favorite saying of mine)

    Q: Why does your Dad's stereo sound better?
    A: Op-Aps and cost-cutting.

    You can't tow a boat with a Prius, and you can't expect a bunch of ICs and cheap 50 cent components to properly amplify anything for any reasonable amount of time or at a decent volume. If your amplifier doesn't weigh on the order of your dad's old one, you're not going to get the same sound out of it. Everything about amplification and electronic theory was known and done as of about thirty years ago. There is no magic. Only trickery and marketing.

    The biggest lie of them all is wattage. 95%+ of the time, they state wattage as maximum through one speaker. So that 200W 7 channel amplifier is actually only putting out about 29W to each speaker, maximum. But distortion and heat will limit you to about half of that continuously, or about 15W per channel. Given that typical speakers are about 87-89db efficient, that means that you net a pathetic 90db or so that's actually usable. While this is still quite loud, it's far below what you really need for good home theater. Most people try to compensate for this by turning up the volume, but all that really does is bombard them with more and more high frequency sound since the bass long ago disappeared. This, naturally, leads to listening fatigue and hearing damage. The older amplifiers were rated as typically 100W per channel or more, and could deliver about 80% of their maximum rated volume without any problems. They did not get weak under heavy loads or strong bass, either.

    This also applies to the most critical aspect of the system, the speakers. You simply cannot convey a full sound through miserable little 5 or 6 inch speakers. And a single subwoofer is a poor way to fill in for a weak mid-range and missing low-end. You don't play your guitar or bass through a 6 inch cabinet, but somehow people forgot to use common sense. So often you have a decent amplifier hooked up to junk speakers. You "father's system", I bet, has 8 or even 12 inch woofers in the main speakers, as this was common back in the 70s and 80s. In order to produce a convincing sound, you need to move air and create enough sound pressure. Or else it sounds like your neighbor's stereo does from down the street - tinny and distant.

    But all of this is truly ancient news. People were discussing this twenty years ago or more online.

  • by jenningsthecat (1525947) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @05:25PM (#36913962)

    There is no substitute for mass.

    This is generally true, however with switching supplies and Class-D amplifiers, really good sound is available from feather-weight amps. A LOT of attention needs to be paid to filtering, switching frequencies, fast diodes, shielding, load compatibility, etc, but assuming these issues are competently addressed, a light-weight amp can sound good and have plenty of grunt.

    Q: Why does your Dad's stereo sound better?
    A: Op-Aps and cost-cutting.

    Cost cutting yes, op amps not necessarily. With a correctly chosen op amp in a correctly designed circuit, sound as good as or better than discrete designs is possible. Unfortunately, too many designers assume that a TL071 or an NE5534 in a garden variety topology is sufficient. It isn't.

    The biggest lie of them all is wattage.

    I'd say that the biggest lie is THD. Not that the spec'd THD figure is incorrect, (that's another issue), but that THD is a poor predictor of sound quality. Distortion figures of 0.1% or more are appalling to the average audio engineer; however if the harmonic content is mostly low-order and mostly even-order, an amp with this much distortion, or even more, can sound wonderful. On the other hand, an amplifier can have a 0.001% distortion spec and sound truly awful. This happens when a circuit that is inherently highly non-linear is given a low THD spec by using copious amounts of negative feedback. This causes lots of high-order odd harmonics, which are subjectively much, much more objectionable; the THD spec is good, but the amp sounds harsh and sterile. Even in the 1940's this problem was recognized, and highly respected audio engineers suggested that THD be calculated by weighting harmonics according to the square, or even the cube, of their order. These engineers were ignored by an industry that was increasingly driven by specsmanship and cost-cutting rather than by sound quality.

    You simply cannot convey a full sound through miserable little 5 or 6 inch speakers.

    If you're talking about overall speaker size then you are correct, however if you're talking about just the driver size then there's an experience you've missed. A good full-range driver in the 4-to-6 inch range, (an expensive Lowther driver, or even a fairly cheap Fostex), in a nice big cabinet that horn-loads the back of the speaker, can produce surprising amounts of bass and an overall magical sound.

  • by Plekto (1018050) on Thursday July 28, 2011 @05:28PM (#36913998)

    It really doesn't matter. I used to discuss this over a decade ago on Usenet and nothing has changed aside from the smoke an mirrors getting a bit more pretty looking. But I am glad to impart some basic information if it will help someone decide upon a good home audio system.

    In case anyone else is reading this, basic guidelines for an amplifier today are:
    1 - at least 20lbs weight.
    2 - Able to drive 6 ohm speakers. The speakers optimally will be front-ported or sealed. (bouncing the bass off of the corner behind the speaker and back at you is very inefficient). The speakers should have no smaller than 6 inch woofers( 5 if it's a very good or special design). 8 for the mains is nice as it makes a sub somewhat optional. This is exactly like car audio in that 4 inchers generally sound like crap.
    3 - your speakers for your surround system should cost the same as the rest of the system, at a minimum. This does not include the subwoofer. Typical pricing for good speakers is about $100-$300 per speaker. Cheaper than that and quality suffers greatly. You don't need to spend more than that, though, to get good sound. Stay away from Best Buy and big box type retailers unless you know what you are doing. B&W, Tannoy, and Paradigm are good examples of moderately priced speakers that perform very well. Even their lowest-cost lines will more than suffice for most people's needs and completely crush any "home theater" set for sale at a major retailer/outlet.
    4 - the sub should be a proper dual-coil design and be at least 10 inches in diameter. It should, of course, have its own amplifier so as to not overwork the main unit. Be sure to plug it into the same circuit as the amp or use an isolator to keep ground-loop hum out of the equation. I personally like Sunfire, though YMMV.

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