"The Fallacy of Accuracy
I was in a strange mood last January when I posted this on Facebook: "Do speaker designers strive for accuracy, or for a 'sound' they think potential buyers want?" I doubted that any designer with two working ears would even attempt to design speakers that merely measured well—there must be at least some subjectivity in their process. I also assumed that few designers would go on record about where they stand on the accuracy question, so I was thrilled when Elac Americas' speaker designer, Andrew Jones, responded:
Accuracy in terms of closest approach to the original performance is not practical nor even possible. There is no way to capture an original performance for replay over two channels that can represent the "truth" of that performance. All we can get is a facsimile that is the producer's attempt to capture what he wants to convey to you. As for a studio recording, it is a total construct and has no "original." Therefore, as a speaker designer, my goal is to try and keep the speaker neutral so it is agnostic to the type of music and, to a degree, the replay level. The difficulty is knowing from a design point of view what a neutral speaker is. From a technical-measurement point of view, we mostly think we want a flat on-axis response measured anechoically, with smooth off-axis response, although even this concept has been contested. But how do we know this is the desired technical performance? By listening, and tying listening tests to measured performance.
But listening to what? Facsimiles of a recorded musical performance? This is somewhat of a circular argument, compounded of course by the sound of the equipment we have hooked up to listen with. So in reality, I design to my idea of what neutrality sounds like, on equipment I find also represents my idea of the sound of neutrality, with music that I enjoy and want to hear in the way I imagine it should. The exception is that I also use music recorded by engineers whom I know who can give me some kind of comments on their impression of what I have designed.
Holy crap. That was a blast of fresh air. But I soon discovered that Jones is not alone. In an e-mail, PSB Speakers' Paul Barton contributed this:
When I design a new product I apply the experience I've had measuring and then interpreting the measurements in terms of natural reproduction. Once the new design meets or exceeds the performance expectations by measurements, then the "listening step" fine-tunes the final speaker sound. There is no substitute for the "listening step"—maybe someday a computer can do the listening, but I'm not counting on this in my lifetime. Besides, I love to listen to music; it's a huge perk of my job.
The response from Jeff Joseph, of Joseph Audio, was short and sweet: "I design for magic."
Exactly. It's all about the sound of music. Getting there is a journey, and while measurements can be essential tools, the best designers let their ears be the final judges—as do the people who buy their speakers. Apparently, for a lot of speaker designers, subjectivity trumps objectivity.
I put the query to Zu Audio's Sean Casey. "There is no perfection and there is no accuracy in loudspeaker design; it's all relative," he said. "Listeners hear things differently, there are always physiological differences, there are always biases based on individual experiences. Simply put, there is no absolute sound."
Nelson Pass, one of my all-time favorite amplifier designers, has also designed speakers, and he was no less forthcoming: "Most of the good designers who have control over the product work toward the sound that they personally want and, if the curve is reasonably flat, call that neutral." He continued: "As fragmented as the market is, there will always be a segment of the customer base that agrees with that assessment, and if the segment is sizable and the marketing department does its job, then the speaker will probably be successful. One percent market share will do it."
I didn't poll every designer, but if the majority of high-end designers all strove for accuracy, their speakers would sound more and more alike, and the most accurate would all eventually sound exactly the same. With the speakers I've heard that are listed under "Class A (Full Range)" of Stereophile's "Recommended Components," that doesn't seem to be happening: each sounds different from the others. To believe that every Aerial, Bowers & Wilkins, Dynaudio, Focal, Harbeth, KEF, Magico, MBL, MartinLogan, Revel, TAD, Vandersteen, Wilson, and YG Acoustics speaker on that list is accurate—or even in the neighborhood of accuracy—is to believe that accuracy can take many forms.
My take: Park your faith in accuracy and measurements on the back burner, and go for speakers that make a big chunk of your collection of recordings—the good, the bad, and the ugly sounding—shine. Last summer, when I visited a top New York City recording studio and listened to analog master tapes of classic rock albums, the sound wasn't a lot of fun—the studio's carefully dialed-in, super-calibrated monitor speakers revealed every last bit of distortion on the tapes. Sure, if all you ever listen to are exemplary recordings, a pair of studio monitors might be the way to go. But otherwise, accuracy in the design of audiophile speakers is a very rare commodity, probably because most of us don't want it.
Where you land on the accuracy spectrum will, over the years, likely be tempered by the evolution of your listening room, system, and tastes in music. Some audiophiles want to believe that accuracy is an absolute—but it might be only what sounds good to you at a the moment.—Steve Guttenberg"