Transparency vs Euphonic Enhancement

This article is Under Construction and will be added to in the near future

In thinking about our philosophy of audio, we have observed what we believe are the two primary schools of thought about audio reproduction. The first school is what we call "The School of Transparency" and the second is what we call "The School of Euphony." We could borrow from Nelson Pass, where he used the terms "Objectivists" and "Subjectivists" to describe these same schools of thought especially as they relate to the value of negative feedback in power amplifier design. He writes:

The former viewpoint usually belongs to so-called 'objectivists' who have a fine appreciation for electronic theory and measurements. Their opposites would be the 'subjectivists' who emphasize the listening experience and often own tube amplifiers. Accusations are occasionally made that objectivists can't hear, and conversely that subjectivists hear things that aren't there. This being the entertainment industry, I hope everyone is having a good time." (See an article titled "Audio, Distortion, and Feedback" by Nelson Pass @ passity.com)

The primary goal of most Audiohphiles (in our view) is musical enjoyment - intermixed with a propensity to tweak endlessly. Those of us who have worked in the production end of music also are part of the same schools of thought, although not always in the same way. In the following discussion we will attempt to describe these two schools of thought, and our philosophy in handing these interesting ideas.

The School of Transparency

Dictionary Definitions:

  • The quality of being clear and transparent
  • Capable of transmitting light so that objects or images can be seen as if there were no intervening material.
  • Having the property of transmitting light without appreciable scattering so that bodies lying beyond are seen clearly
  • Easily detected or seen through

As many use them to apply to Audio reproduction

Transparency:

  • The ability to hear into the sound
  • The ability to clearly discern individual sound sources or instruments
  • The accuracy of the sound as compared to the original source
  • The lack of distortion in the sound
  • Like there in nothing between me and the original source

The School of Euphony

Dictionary Definitions:

  • To sound good
  • Pleasing or sweet sounding
  • Any agreeable (pleasing and harmonious) sounds; "he fell asleep to the music of the wind chimes"
  • An agreeableness in sounds; a pleasantness to the ear; harmoniousness.

As many use them to apply to Audio reproduction

Euphony:

  • The sound is so warm and musical
  • It sounds better that the original
  • Tubes are better than transistors
  • I like this distortion better than that distortion

Transparency - An Optical Analogy

Observing transparency in audio, as we define it, is analogous to looking through pane of glass. Some glass is colored, scratched, pitted, (like my car windshield after years of Utah freeway driving) wavy, or in other ways distorted. I remember very well the first time I drove our new Toyota Previa. It has a big windshield with wipers large enough to have come off a 747! The glass was so clear and undistorted that it seemed at first as if it was not there. Of course over time that has changed. After another car's windshield replacement the new one was so wavy that after a few days of driving we returned to the repair shop and demanded a new one. The distortion in the windshield actually caused headaches and eyestrain while driving. We asked them to find a better brand or higher quality one that was much better, although none of our replacement windshields have ever been as clear and transparent as those that were original built into the car.

Of course it is possible to make much better glass than any car window. Most cars have some kind of tint in the windows, and the treatments used to control breakage in car windows add their own distortion. The very best optical glass in very transparent indeed and quite beautiful to look at.

There are some that actually prefer to have some kind of colored or distorted glass in front of their eyes. Think of the amber colored sunglasses that were very popular a few years ago. They were often sold with the idea that everything looked better when viewed through them. Then there are UV protecting glasses, or those that automatically darken when in sunlight. All of these provide some kind of change to the original image, but in some cases it is desirable.

These distortions produced by the glass due to unintentional or intentional properties color or distort the images passing through the glass. The same thing happens in audio. Each part of the signal chain adds its own color or distortion to the sound image. Every good recording engineer uses a selection of microphones, each with its own subtle sound qualities to paint an audio picture or image on a sound stage. Microphones, like speakers have very distinctive sound qualities, and in fact, many are designed specifically for a desired sound or quality. There are a few that are designed to be as accurate as possible as well. Speakers, more than any other part of the audio chain, affect the quality of playback audio. The distortions of speakers both linear and non-linear are usually orders of magnitude worse than anything in earlier parts of the audio chain (with the possible exception of some microphones).

It is interesting to us how much time is spent on tweaking the smallest imperfection in a preamp, power amp, CD player, or turntable, when the gross distortions of the drivers in the speakers are neglected. The best place to spend your money is in your transducers!

Does that mean that we do not believe that these other parts of the chain matter? Of course they matter, and they all produce audible distortion in the signal path. Just because a speaker may have some kinds of distortion that are orders of magnitude greater than those in upstream gear, does not mean that the speaker distortion masks everything that comes before it. One kind of distortion may not mask or cover another much smaller, but still audible distortion. There are many different mechanisms that each contribute their own sonic character and add to the total. Here at dlb Research, we have been working constantly for decades on circuit design and methods that minimize distortion and maximize transparency mostly in a pro audio setting. We also have extensive experience with digital audio routing and processing.

Separating the Source from the Medium

In our philosophy of audio reproduction (and recording for that matter), we often use one school of thought for the Source and another for the Medium. Our thinking is that when creating the music, the School of Euphony sits in the leading position and plays the major part. Once the music is created, captured and set, then we believe that the school of transparency takes the leading roll. However, the influence of both schools is present at all times.

To continue with the optical analogy, if you are looking at the Mona Lisa, or some other great image or work of art, do you wish to look at it through colored filters, or a distorted window, or do you prefer direct viewing? Unlike great works of art and sculpture where the original is what matters, in reproduced music we are all looking through a window, or better yet through a window into a soundstage, where things have been placed by our recording engineer.

To a violinist, or a pianist, the selection of the instrument they perform on is definitely from the School of Euphony. They want an instrument that allows them to sound their very best, that brings out the music, and allows them as a performer to express themselves in the maximum way possible. There is no such thing as a perfect piano or violin, no objective choice that everyone will agree on.

A recording engineer often selects his microphones and mic preamps in much the same way. However even here, there is room for both schools of thought. We typically prefer to select mics and preamps that sound as natural and un-colored (as transparent) as possible. This may be because of the kind of music we record, which tends to be classical, pops, or other live music. Here we are trying to capture a performance rather than creating a performance electronically in a studio. Others may select a mic or preamp specifically because of the coloration or distortion they produce. This is much more common in studio work.

For most of our work, we prefer the transparent school of thought as well, because we want to be as close to the source as possible in what we hear reproduced. We remember speaking to a local recording engineer who spent hours adjusting the recording bias of his analog tape machines to get just the right amount of grunge on his sound, as he drove the machine into tape saturation on purpose. We remember another conversion with a recording engineer who selected a particular brand of tube and transformer equipped mic preamp because of the specific type of sound it produced. As we discussed this choice, he said that he didn't like a particular brand of mic preamp widely accepted as one of the cleanest in the industry, because it was 'too clean' to use his words. This way of thinking is definitely from the School of Euphony. We would prefer the most transparent mic preamp possible to reproduce the sound as closely as possible, which is from the School of Transparency.

When we design electronics we especially fall into the School of Transparency. Our goal is to make the circuitry have no sonic voice or coloration of its own, but to pass on exactly what is presented to it. To us that is what sounds the best.

Revelations in Transparency

The following examples are taken from our audio career experience and were moments or events that remain vivid in memory and as new insight and setting of the audible bar were made.

Control Room Console Update

I recall one very clear memory of the day we first turned on a new Neotek Series III console that replaced an old first-generation op-amp mixer from Electrodyne. It took about two weeks to remove the old console and wiring and install the new Neotek Series III. I shall never forget the first time that we listened to the performers in the hall. Just to be clear, the mics were the same, the monitor speakers were the same, the amplifiers, everything in the signal chain was unchanged except for the mixer itself. My very first impression is that the glass in the front of the control room had been removed, We could all just hear so much farther into the room than before. It was a revelation!

Of course, it was not a perfectly transparent path, and it had its own colorations and distortions, but it was so much more transparent than its predecessor, that the difference was astonishing at first. The differences could be heard even on a small AM radio, not just on our studio monitors. It is true that everything in the signal chain matters!

Transformerless Mics/Mixers

After my first experience with an all transformerless mixing console, mic preamps and microphones, I became a believer. Before that I was told and taught that transformers were desirable and necessary. I learned differently while participating in the recording of "Digital Fireworks" with the Utah Symphony in 1980. This was also my first experience with the SoundStream Digital audio recording system. Both the live sound from the mics and the digital playback from the Soundstream machines was a revelation is what was possible.

(To Be Continued and added to...)

Copyright © 2010 David L. Bytheway

References:

  • Evaluation Myths Busted by John Krutke. This article is of course John's opinion and he makes many valuable points. He does not like the word 'transparency' but we have chosen it as a useful and valuable term and defined it as such. John prefers "Objectivity" and "Subjectivity." In our experience, in the creating and enjoyment of great music both matter. In design, however, we agree with John that measurements and science are behind all great designs and they are indispensable tools in creating great audio.

  • "Audio, Distortion, and Feedback" by Nelson Pass @ passity.com. This article is mostly about negative feedback in power amplifier design, but Nelson's definitions of "Objectivists" and "Subjectivists" is interesting.

  • Do Measurements Matter? Here is an interesting article with comments by various high-end audio designers about how measurements are used an whether they matter or not.