Lyrita Audio

Some Of The Collective Wisdom Of Lynn Olson

Lynn Olson, to me, is a "renaissance man" of audio. An accomplished designer, a free spirit, an innovative thinker; he portrays music as a meaningful experience in our everyday lives.


Here are some of his thoughts:



On Evaluating Audio Systems


"So - to get back to the point - I aim for vocal realism, first, last, and always. The other virtues of tonal vividness, true-to-life dynamics, spatial realism (as in realistically conveying the size of the recording venue) all come after that - they're important, true, but the voice comes first - and is easiest to evaluate, since we all know what voices sound like - and it ain't like a hifi, that's for sure.


The HF driver gives the sense of excitement, sparkle, and dynamism, but the truth of the midrange has to be there first. This is why table radios and really simple systems usually sound more "right" than complex multiway systems.


One test for overall system integration is simple - does it play quiet background music better than a table radio? Most high-end systems - especially in the more than $20,000 category - fail this test dismally. It's a simple test, too - carry on a conversation with a friend while music is quietly playing in the background.


If the hifi gets in the way and subtly annoys you, then it's not realistic at low levels - real background music, played by real musicians, has a harmonious quality that makes conversation more interesting and more entertaining. Much of Baroque music was composed for background music at parties, after all.


Much of high-end audio, to me, in a misguided attempt to be "exciting", is more annoying than anything, and has little of the ingratiating quality and emotionally affecting tonal beauty of live music. The replacement of LP's by CD's accelerated this trend - what's missing from the low-resolution Red Book 44.1/16 CD is then artificially added by doses of synthetic "accuracy" and "slam", taking 44.1/16 PCM even further from anything like the beauty of live music.


I suspect that few people even know what live music even sounds like anymore, a feeling that is reinforced when I read of somebody preferring the sound of a hifi system to a live concert - to me, that taste seems as depraved as preferring an inflatable plastic doll to a human being. Then again, watching the latest TV news stories of the low-life antics of US politicians, maybe I shouldn't be surprised after all.


It was a revelation when I first heard Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at the Seattle Symphony Hall - which I think probably has some of the best acoustics in the USA. I'd always thought it has a harsh-sounding piece whenever I heard it on record or CD, no matter how good the hifi. But hearing it live, in a wood-panelled and wood-floored symphony hall, I was stunned - literally at a loss for words - just how astonishingly beautiful the whole piece was. Hard to play, yes, and incredibly dense, with the music going in several directions all at once - but just beautiful throughout, in a way I had never, ever heard on any hifi system, at any performance level.


I've subsequently heard "modern" 20th-century classical music - a genre I've never particularly liked before - in live performances, and suddenly "got" what they were all about. In recordings, these pieces are harsh and brutal, downright repellent: performed live, they are complex, fascinating, and engaging, nothing like the recordings at all. It is an entire genre that simply doesn't come off well in recorded form - that's all there is to it.


This experience confirmed a feeling I've had for a long time that popular music is shaped by the recording technology, more specifically, by the limitations of the technology. When LP's, vacuum tubes, and simple loudspeakers were the standard during the early Fifties through the mid-Sixties, the most popular music on the radio dial and in the record stores was classical, popular singers like Sinatra, and for a few, jazz. Rock-n-roll was actually confined to a small audience and a limited portion of the AM dial.


When high-powered transistor amps replaced tubes, the sound became harsher, faster, and louder - partly because early quasi-complementary, high-crossover-distortion, low-slew-rate, high-feedback transistor amps didn't "do" beauty, lyricism, or carry off emotional shadings with any fidelity. So the music itself changed, to a harsher, cruder, and more in-your-face sound, ending up with the heavy-metal style of the early Seventies. Think about it: a Crown DC300 and Phase Linear 400 playing through a JBL L200 is going to be a lot better at Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath than Frank Sinatra or Doris Day (who was a very good singer).


This trend continued when low-resolution Red Book CD's replaced LP's (and Red Book was retrograde - the established standard of the Seventies was the Soundstream/Denon 50/16 system with military-grade ADC's). Now the obvious difference between EMT reverb plates and synthetic digital reverb was masked (which is easily heard on high-res PCM, DSD, and analog), and a new disembodied style of performers collected from around the world, playing to a click-track, and spliced together into single recording come into vogue.


When we lost the LP as a mass-market medium, I personally think that high-end audio lost its way, and we entered the benighted era of "boutique" audio and the wretched high-profile brands of the Eighties.


Think about it - what is the collectible value of a Krell, Wilson, or Audio Research model from the Eighties? Who wants a $7,000 late-Eighties CD player, or worse, set of boutique cables? This was probably the lowest point in the entire history of audio. It took the renaissance of tubes, triodes, and the DIY era in the early Nineties for things to find their way back to reality and the reason for quality artisan audio to exist in the first place.


At live concerts, of course, it's easy to sense a sort of invisible energy surging between the performer and the audience, when both start to get inspired (using the word in the archaic sense) and the performance spirals up and up and up, leaving everyone exhilarated at the end. Something unseen, great, and powerful is happening here, and it's a gift of being human - people have experienced this performer/audience transformation of consciousness since the dawn of time.


No matter what this phenomenon is, or what you call it, the job of a hifi system is to get out of the way, and not impede its passage. That's why there are intangible, impossible-to-describe aspects to music - because music invokes the deepest and most primal aspects of human consciousness - and consciousness is the great "Terra Incognita" of science and philosophy."



On Music Systems


"Ah! I think we come to the heart of the matter here.


By now it should be evident we hear - or at least, expect to hear - reproduced music in different ways. Speaking only for myself, I find all hifi systems not very close to the real thing - which for me, is live, un-amplified symphonic and choral music. When I go to a concert, it's at least a couple of days before I can stand to turn the hifi on again, it sounds so grossly artificial. Once I re-adapt, there is always at least some suspension of disbelief when listening to mechanical sound reproducers - and I use the word "mechanical" quite deliberately, since that's exactly what's wrong with hifi in general - a mechanical, "canned" quality that is always there.


This isn't to say all hifi sounds the same - hardly. Some, and a lot of the very expensive mainstream systems, are completely unacceptable and artificial sounding, with timbres and tone colors that don't sound like any acoustic instrument at all. I can tolerate these for no more than a few minutes, fighting an urgent desire to leave the exhibition room immediately, while right next to me, an audiophile (or magazine reviewer) is grinning from ear to ear.


What can I say? There's no accounting for taste. Since I find even the very finest systems removed from reality to a fairly obvious degree, I prefer systems that have colorations that land in the "musical" direction, as opposed to metallic, sizzly, grainy, flat-sounding, or other "electronic" or "mechanical" sounding colorations. In presence of obvious and hard-to-ignore colorations - which, again, I find in all systems compared to the real thing - the whole discussion of "transparency" doesn't seem as relevant.


Oddly enough, when it comes to amplifiers - where colorations aren't as gross and severe - then transparency as a desideratum becomes more relevant. In my limited experience, I find bigger transparency differences amongst amplifiers, which really can have a sort of remarkable MP3-like ability to erase fine detail and subtleties of musical expression.


In technical terms, though, not so surprising. Speaker drivers add distortion and resonances - lots of them - but don't have the ability to actually erase resolution. Electronics can perform this feat, thanks to Class AB-transition crossover distortion, nonmonotonicity in ADC and DAC conversion, digital jitter, and assorted low-level signal bending mechanisms that just don't exist in passive electroacoustic transducers.


Measurements confirm this - in most electronics with Class AB and/or quasi-complementary elements (this includes nearly all op-amps), distortion (not just noise!) starts to rise at low levels, while this is not seen in electracoustic transducers, where distortion falls monotonically with level (and of course there is no addition of noise, either).


I respect what you hear - our perceptions are our own, the deepest and most intimate part of personal reality. What you hear exists, and is real.


The whole symphony vs jazz discussion can get lost in the weeds of personal musical preferences, and is a diversion from a more important point that bears on what we've all been talking about. A jazz group has a much sparser spectra than a full-scale symphony orchestra, and the reverb time is much shorter as well.


This means the symphonic spectra superficially looks as dense as noise, but in reality is highly correlated with itself and the hall reflections. Any perturbation to the fine spectral and time structure does enormous violence to the performance, since so much is going on all at once - indeed, the sheer density, complexity, and fleeting spatial relationships are an integral part of the composer's and conductor's intentions.


Music with many fewer instruments has a much simpler and sparser spectrum, and is more about the vivid and pulsing tone colors of the individual instruments - the whole point of the trademark jazz solo. It's all about expression and tone colors.


The requirements of the two types of music for the hifi system are quite different. Even tiny amounts of IM distortion have a ruinous effect on a dense spectrum, creating all kinds of inharmonic sidebands that clash with the tone-colors of the ensemble. The effects of IM distortion (and driver resonances) are especially destructive to the subtle shimmering interplays of harmonic decay structures among different instruments.


This, I submit, is why symphonic and jazz fans tend to prefer different kinds of hifi systems. The spectral and dynamic requirements are dissimilar, with low dynamic IM distortion being especially important to classical music. Solid-state electronics typically have very low steady-state distortion, but can degrade by many orders of magnitude under fast transient conditions (memory effects in transistors causing on-chip thermal lags and transient mis-biasing). Similarly, the whole concept of dithering relies on a large number of samples to obtain the required distortion improvement in the LSB region - with fewer samples (shorter intervals), the benefits of dithering are greatly reduced.


I like the wide-open spatial presentation very much, but my enthusiasm stops about there. Very low efficiency and requires 1 kW amplifiers which pretty much rules out delicacy and beauty. It sounds like the low-efficiency speaker it is - stressed and working very hard at most dynamic levels, with a pretty noticeable look-at-me "hifi" quality to the presentation.


That also describes the overall sound of nearly all low-efficiency audiophile speakers. Take away the spacious MBL imaging, replace it with paper-thin cookie-cutter image quality, and you've got your famous-name Brand W with their prismatic-shaped "giant robot" cabinets right there. Fake images, fake dynamics, plenty of cone coloration, and big big prices. Good reviews, though.


The true charm of high-efficiency - if it isn't grossly colored like a vintage PA system - is the relaxed and effortless dynamic quality. This is such a wonderful change from 84~87 dB/metre systems, which sound much more stressed at all levels, and definitely unhappy at transient-peak levels more than 95 dB."



On Modern Speaker Systems


"I feel modern designs have gone astray in focussing on dispersion vs frequency compared to the basic sound of the drivers themselves. Considering how grossly colored I find contemporary "audiophile" drivers - I keep being surprised how people are able to ignore such basic colorations while looking at all those pretty-looking polar graphs. I have to be direct here, folks - I really dislike the sound and philosophy of modern high-end audio, sorry. Please look elsewhere if you find the sound of modern high-end even a little bit palatable.


I should warn readers, like I did for the Ariels, that my designs do not follow contemporary trends in speaker design. I optimize for natural sound on solo voice and choirs, followed by naturalistic qualities on other instruments (symphonic), followed by natural spatial qualities (not imaging per se) and realistic dynamics - in about that order. I make no claims for the "best" or "ultimate", but choose to address problems I see ignored in other approaches.


Um, I listened the Triangle speakers, and they didn't leave a strong impression. But they're hardly alone - the current fad for audiophile qualities like "fast" and "slam" has led not to lower distortion and more efficiency (which sure would have been nice), but drivers with poorer self-damping, only slightly more efficiency, and ever-more-harsh sound with very rough response at the upper edge of the band.


It seems that modern designers are reacting to these problematic drivers in two ways: the "minimalists" are going for lots of excitement and thrills, using the rock-bottom simplest crossovers possible (but with very expensive parts), and letting the peaks sail right through. Unsophisticated listeners - and worse, reviewers - interpret the peaks and harshness as "speed" and "accuracy".


There's a lower-profile school that believes in extensive computer simulation and using crossovers of almost unlimited complexity. This "objective" school of designers tend to discount esoterica like audibility of capacitor coloration - or even believe it doesn't exist - so has no problem with complex op-amp circuits, multiple transistor amps, or high-parts-count crossovers with extensive notch filters and shaping networks.


I'm not in either school. I don't want to use drivers with problematic responses - too much work for too little return. I still remember the bad old days of KEF and Audax Bextrene drivers, with their characteristic qualities of lumpy midrange, and dreadfully low efficiencies (85 dB/metre typical). Now, audiophile efficiencies have crept up to 90~93 dB/metre (with a tailwind), but the drivers have gotten really peaky, and in ways that are very hard to correct - the worst peaks are typically directional, making a crossover correction useless.


I think one difference between us is that I'm no longer interested in SEAS, Vifa Peerless, ScanSpeak, etc. They've had 15 years to respond to the vacuum-tube subculture and the constantly-expressed demand for substantially higher efficiency, and have done their best to ignore it and hope it would go away. Well, it hasn't, there's only been a trivial 1~2 dB change in efficiency in more than a decade, and to me, the mainstream audiophile drivers sound worse than what they were making 15 years ago. That's why I'm looking at different vendors than the usual mainstream candidates.


I'm surprised that you haven't seen drivers depart from minimum phase. This is one of the most direct indicators of cone breakup, and it's gotten much worse with the popularity of very rigid Kevlar, carbon-fiber, composite, ceramic, and metal cones. When a cone no longer moves as unit and enters the breakup region, there are multiple, asynchronous centers of radiation all over the cone. This is a clear indication of a "no-go" zone, and indirectly shows a requirement for an aggressive high-slope crossover to avoid gross coloration.


The drivers that are most interesting - to me - are the ones that don't require aggressive equalization to avoid harsh sound, and are characterized by smooth, well-controlled rolloff regions that retain their minimum-phase character to very high frequencies. Since the prosound manufacturers can't be bothered to supply either impulse or complete FR/phase data information, I'll be finding this out the hard ($$$) way - I'm not expecting any free loans from 18Sound, JBL, or Fertin.


A subtle downside to high-headroom truly efficient drivers is they reveal the truth about high-power transistor amplifiers - they don't sound all that good in the milliwatt region. In the pro world, it doesn't matter that much, since we're talking about kilowatts anyway, and in the audiophile world, the "exotic" speakers are such power sponges the amp never gets into the low-power region for long. The dramatically lower distortion of high-efficiency speakers reveals a lot more about amplifier sonics.


Back in my Audionics days, I designed speakers around drivers that I had mixed feelings about. Although I was reasonably successful removing the colorations I didn't like, it greatly extended the design cycle, and I usually didn't really like the finished product all that much. That's why I avoid carbon-fiber, Kevlar, or metal-cone midbass drivers, or JBL compression drivers, for example - it's just not a sound that I like, and going to enormous lengths to remove that sonic "character" results in a wishy-washy end result that is neither fish nor fowl, something nobody likes.


Rather than trying to remove coloration entirely, which I don't think is possible at the present state of the art, I'd rather get coloration down to low-to-moderate levels, and aim for a musically consonant and pleasing character for what's left. This is a different goal than other designers, and I'm OK with that."



On Music Perception


"I may have heard the same phonograph some time in the early Seventies, when I was visiting my retired parents in Berkeley. I was idly strolling along Telegraph Avenue, and heard a really good opera singer inside a small arcade. Drawn off the busy street by the sound, I walked inside, turned a corner and was astonished to find a big Edison acoustic phonograph playing a thick, blue-colored (must have vertical-cut) 12" disk. I stood and listened to the whole length of the record - it really was a good approximation of a somebody stranding right there and singing, and singing damn good classical opera.


Was it hifi? No. But it did some things hifi systems don't - in important ways, it sounded real. No "electronic" colorations at all, and the mechanical colorations had somehow been ingeniously concealed for the human voice. The orchestral backing was pretty funky-sounding, but there wasn't much of it, which was just as well.


This was a truly educational experience - I was already indoctrinated into high-end audio, having subscribed to J. Gordon Holt's early Stereophile for several years at that time, owned exotica like a Thorens TD-125, Rabco SL-8E, and a Stanton 681A cartridge, and persuaded my sister to buy Fulton FMI-80 speakers (which I think she still owns - good speakers).


But that top-of-the-line Edison gramophone made me think about a lot of unquestioned assumptions I'd made about audio. It wasn't all about frequency response, impulse response, and freedom from resonance. There's a very direct and immediate perception of realness - so strong it brought me off the never-ending circus of Telegraph Avenue on a summer's day - into a secluded courtyard, and to a revelatory experience I never would have expected.


This openness to the unexpected has a been a gift, one of the deepest and most essential parts of the human spiritual endowment, and I am absolutely sure we are all born with it. I am afraid, though, that culture, and worse, education, beats it out of many of us, leaving room for only small deviations from the "known" and "true". I am also afraid that perception itself is strongly affected by prior experience, shutting off entire worlds of perception if we "already know" that certain things are impossible.


The problem of "realism" in audio goes much deeper than the simpler and better-understood mechanisms of color balance in vision. When it's right, we feel "yeah, that's good", and feel a mood elevation if we like the music. When it's close-but-no-cigar, the feelings are more complex, but musical satisfaction (an emotion) is decreased or entirely removed. When the error is gross, we're actively repelled, and want to leave. This is primarily an emotional percept with an after-the-fact attempted interpretation and rationalization of the sonic quality.


This isn't as simple as turning the gamma or H&D curve knobs for RGB, YUV, or CMYK colorspaces - we aren't even sure which knobs to turn, or worse, maybe they don't exist yet!"