Can You Hear What I Hear?


  • Is Chateau Margaux better than a 95 point California wine?
  • Is Prosciutto di Parma better than the ordinary ham I get at the deli?
  • Is a Stradivarius really worth it compared to a reasonably priced violin?
  • Is an audiophile amplifier different than an ordinary audio amplifier?

This type of question circulates endlessly in both audiophile and non-audiophile circles.  Many folks contend that there is no difference between competently designed audio products, especially adherents to the all-powerful ABX test.  Here’s what I think it comes down to:

  • There are folks that can’t really hear a difference and don’t care
  • There are folks that can’t really hear a difference, but like new toys
  • There are folks that can’t really hear a difference and say you can’t either
  • There are folks that can really hear a difference, whether you like it or not

It’s the last category that annoys people the most.  Nobody likes to think that they have inferior perception compared to another.  “I can’t perceive a difference, therefore no difference exists.”  “He says it sounds better, therefore he’s full of it.”  Yes, there are plenty of times that somebody says something sounds better, but are just fooling themselves.  However, there are also times when it’s true.

A physics professor once told me that most of the significant discoveries in physics have already been made.  I replied that I thought we were standing on the verge of a precipice with an unbelievable new world of science before us.  Which one of us do you think history will show as right?  Along these lines, I came across something a highly regarded amplifier designer wrote:

  • “The time of making great strides in amplifier sound is over.”

If you are an audiophile/audio designer like me, then you probably find this statement a little disturbing, especially coming from an authority on the subject.  However, worry is unnecessary because such claims are made all the time – some examples:

  • “With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself.” – Business Week, August 2, 1968
  • “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Charles H. Duell, US Patent Office 1899.
  • “It will be dead by June.” – Variety Magazine regarding the ‘Rock and Roll’ fad in 1955.

What are some ways future amplifiers may be significantly better?  As Yogi Berra said, “Prediction is very hard, especially about the future.”, but for a bit of fun speculation, here are a couple of ideas I have: Adaptive Operation and True Accuracy.

  • Adaptive Operation: The amplifier changes its mode of operation to make errors that are less offensive to a given listener.  All audio products have errors and always will, but to a given individual some errors are more tolerable than others.  Do you prefer good imaging?  High resolution?  Warmth?  Musicality?  The amplifier can operate according to YOU.  Is it a quiet evening, or a high-energy party?  The amplifier can adapt its operation accordingly.
  • True Accuracy: For audio products “accuracy” does not mean what the Audio Precision measures, it means what YOUR hearing measures.  Accuracy means presenting the original material as the artist intended it to be perceived by the audience.  With recorded material YOU are the audience.  Recorded audio breaks down spatial and temporal barriers to connect you with the artist.  This has absolutely nothing to do with metrics such as THD+N.

As a parting thought, I like what Alan Kay said regarding the future: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  I’m not interested in debating if there can be better sound or not.  I’m interested in ensuring that there will be better sound.

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