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What is it about the sound of equipment that specifications don't tell you?

Avid's new audio interface has "more clarity and a better-defined soundstage" than its predecessor. Its preamps are "clearer - neutral and transparent" too. Apparently.


When there are questions, traditionally the human race has responded by seeking answers. That's how we got to live in the comfort and sophistication that we have today.

So the new car that you buy tomorrow afternoon will be faster, more comfortable, more fuel-efficient and safer than the ten-year old model it replaces. That's progress, won by clear-thinking science and technology.

But that's not the way it works in audio. Apparently.

In audio we simply accept that the new version of an audio interface can be better than the old one. "More clarity and a better-defined soundstage", Its preamps are also "clearer - neutral and transparent" too, says one reviewer.

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This is great. We are all for improvements. But how are these improvements measured?

Well we could consider the three traditional ways of specifying audio equipment - frequency response, distortion and noise.

The trouble with this is that just about any piece of audio equipment that you can buy, or could have bought in the last fifteen to twenty years, has a frequency response that is ruler-flat, distortion so low that it is completely inaudible, and a noise performance that is close to limits set by the laws of physics.

Granted there are a few rogue items that don't match up, and not all mic preamps (for instance) are absolutely as quiet as they could be.

But these specifications are straightforward to measure. They can be written down in a way that is easy to understand. Yet somehow, they don't seem to capture the full 'goodness value' of audio equipment.

So Avid's new interface seemingly has more clarity, neutrality and transparency, in ways that seem impossible to specify. The soundstage is better-defined, although we have no precise way to measure the qualities a soundstage ought to possess.

Of course the reviewer might just be making it all up, or describing his subjective impressions, which can be affected by all kinds of things including which side of the bed he got up that morning.

But if the item really is more clear, more neutral and more transparent in ways that cannot be explained in terms of frequency response, distortion and noise, then that is another thing altogether.

And if we are meekly accepting that we can't measure these parameters in objective ways, then we should consider that we don't measure progress by science; we measure it by some kind of voodoo that is beyond explanation.

That would make me worry. Worry hard.

So, my question is this... What parameters ought we to be measuring to assess in objective terms how clear, neutral and transparent a piece of equipment is? Or do we have enough information already?

By David Mellor Thursday March 24, 2011