The Pioneer Paradox and Euphonic Distortion

I read Stereophile Magazineóbut itís fair to say Iím not a high-end audiophile. I read the magazine for its excellent reporting on new recording technologies (and related media). When it comes to many of the equipment reviews and columns, however, I read Stereophile as a joke book, and as a running mostly-unconscious commentary on foolishness and gullibility.

One issue in the spring of 1999 particularly struck me for two or three reviews of very expensive audio components. All of the components were praised to the skies, with no doubts as to their musicality and true high-end performance. And in each case there was a set of graphs showing actual measured performance, with the measurements typically done by someone other than the reviewer.

What struck me was how badly each of the components measured. Not one of these components offered high fidelity if that phrase means accuracy: not one would consistently pass signals without distorting them.

I have no doubt that each of these components makes pretty music: in every case, the distortions would tend to soften the edges of recordings, making them less crisp but, well, prettier. To my mind, these components are like the Vaseline smeared on camera lenses when used with certain aging stars: they cover up some of the flaws and make it all more attractive.

Did any of the reviewers say that? Of course not. Years ago, one of Stereophileís editors commented that a whole class of expensive low-power tube amplifiers was really not amplifiers so much as non-adjustable tone controls. Many years before that, Stereophileís founder (the redoubtable J. Gordon Holt) used the term "euphonic distortion" to describe changes in a recorded signal that may make it more attractiveóbut that nonetheless distort the original.

Iím not an expert audio reviewer, I havenít heard any of these devices, and Iím not ready to say that reviewers donít hear what they say they hear. But I do wonder.

Knowing the Source

I wonder, in particular, because Stereophile and its competitors in the True High End absolutely despise double-blind reviewing and assert that you canít possibly hear a component properly under blind conditions. Many of the reviews include loving descriptions of the build quality of a particular device, conversations with the designers, musings on the other fine products of the company, and other aspects that couldnít be part of a blind review.

When I read the two or three reviews that eventually generated this essay, I thought: "How would these items have been judged if they had had Pioneer or Sony or Yamaha nameplates on them?" (Not Pioneer Elite or Sonyís audiophile line, but ordinary Pioneer or Sony equipmentóthe kind despised as "mid-fi" by all True High End people.) I believe there are three answers to that question:

  • "Who has time to bother with that unmusical crap?" No high-end journal would review mainstream audio equipment: itís beneath them.
  • If (by some mischance) such equipment was reviewed, it would be savagedónot only for the ordinary build quality but for the obvious ways that it distorted the signal, even if that distortion was superficially pleasant.
  • Except at the very lowest price levels, I doubt that Sony, Yamaha or Pioneer makes audio components that measure as badly as these high-end devices.

If Iím right about the second point, then consider what would happen if Stereophile Magazine did all of its sound reviewing with components in black boxes: holes for the control knobs and a third-party universal remote control, but otherwise an unidentifiable box? I realize the reviewers would never stand for itóbut, logically, they should welcome the idea. After all, the only thing that should matter for a review of the sound quality of equipment is the sound quality.

This isnít a call for double-blind reviewing. The reviewer should be able to spend as many months as he (or, rarely, she) sees fit, discovering every nuance of the sound of a component. But that sound quality should be judged independent of the maker of the equipment or its price tag, and I will assert that it almost never is. A $10,000 CD player that applies its own special "time-balanced" equalization curve to compact discs is a triumph of engineering and musicality when it comes from the right company; a $100 CD player thatís down one-half deciBel at 20KHz is a piece of garbage if it comes from a mainstream audio company.

Multiphase Reviewing

An objective equipment review would have three separate phases, with evaluations written at each phase. The first and longest-lasting phase would be the "Pioneer phase," in which the equipmentís price, maker, cabinetry, internal design and all that was entirely concealed from the reviewer. The reviewer would be expected to judge the device strictly on the basis of how well it performedóand would not be allowed to rewrite that judgment based on later phases. Iím asking here for "objective subjectivity"óan evaluation based on how the component sounds, but without any external issues to warp that evaluation.

The second phase would be the measurement phase. Ideally, that would also be done without knowing the maker, price, or internal design. I donít claim that any set of available measurements will accurately portray the sound quality of a piece of equipmentóalthough I will claim that, when measurably defective equipment is highly rated, there are inherent questions that arenít being answered.

Finally, youíd have the unveiling: a description of the actual item, which could include comments on fit and finish, design characteristics, and all that. There could even be a third commentary based on the revealed aspects of the componentóbut only after the objective judgments had been offered.

I believe that a series of such three-phase evaluations would be quite revealing, but I donít believe it will ever happen. I do believe that the reputation of a componentís maker, the nature of the componentís design, and a componentís price tag all do influence the sound as it is understood by the reviewer.

(Iím aware that this evaluation process wouldnít work for the extreme edge of the True High End, the little wooden blocks, stones, and other devices that seem to belong in the psychoceramic area of audiophilia.)

Euphonic Distortion

I wonít get into the LP-vs.-CD issue here. I suspect that Liíl Mikey Fremer knows what heís up to: in the June 1999 issue, applauding a case in which a symphony orchestra was recorded using analog tube-based equipment, he notes that "most classical producers probably prefer, or think they prefer, the dead-quiet noise floor of digital."

Aha. I see the hint of an admission there: that analog is "better than digital" not because itís somehow uncovering more musicóbut because itís adding to the signal, specifically the background noise thatís inherent in all analog tape recording and all LP recordings. That noise is "part of the music" to many people, even though itís an artifact of the recording process.

That, in a nutshell, is euphonic distortion: in other words, pleasant lies.

Am I opposed to euphonic distortion? Not particularly. When I listen to music on my PC, I usually turn on the Dolby Surround feature, even though thatís actually distorting any music that wasnít recorded with Dolby Surround. I know itís distortion; I also find it pleasant under those circumstances.

I am opposed to claims that euphonic distortion represents higher accuracy or that itís somehow "better than accuracy." If a classical producer wants to have appropriate background ambiance for a recording, that ambiance can and should come from the recording venue itself; thereís no good reason for the recording chain to add its own ambiance.

Violins should be musical. Clarinets should be musical. Steel drums should be musical. Auditoria should be musical. CD players, amplifiers, and speakers should be accurate in reproducing that musicalityówith preamps and control centers to let listeners add their own "musicality" to taste.

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Added August 8, 1999