The Audiophile’s Guide – The Loudspeaker

The great conundrum facing anybody setting up speakers (their own or somebody else’s) is what to set up for. Not only is there no real way of measuring progress – at least not in any meaningful way – but there is no single, agreed goal either. In theory, we are working towards an ideal for musical or sonic reproduction, but in practice, that ideal is as much guesswork as it is objective judgement. We listen to recordings – but we don’t actually know how those recordings should sound – only how they can. It’s bad enough if you are setting up for yourself, but just think about setting up for somebody else. Before you can make a serious stab at a working solution, you’ve got to figure out just what that other person is looking for from what is, after all, their system! One man’s relaxed warmth and dimensionality is another’s over blown, overweight and sluggish… But even so, despite the ability to lean a speaker’s sound one way or another, there are certain fundamentals that need to be right if the system is going to achieve anything like its potential.

“It is a truth universally accepted…”

However, having said that we don’t know just how a recording should sound, perhaps that isn’t true. At least, that ‘truth’ might just have shifted. In measurement-related research, incontrovertible evidence is referred to as “truth data”. Listening to recordings, we have no direct experience of the original event – unless we were there. A big part of what Paul McGowan is offering here is the ability to step a substantial pace closer to that impossible goal, through the simple expedient of taking tracks from PS Audio’s own Octave Records label and describing in detail what you should be hearing – something that he’s able to do because he WAS there. The hybrid SACD that accompanies the book contains 19 tracks that are carefully ordered to display specific aspects of system performance. To go with them, you get around 30 pages of detailed descriptive notes, so that you know what to listen for and how it should present. In a world of uncertainty, that delivers a measure of confidence that might just be ‘beyond price’ (or whose value might just be measured relative to the price of a substantial system).

The first three tracks are simple left, right and centre placement – essential to make sure you are starting from the right place. After that things get much more interesting. Track 4 is a simple recording of an upright bass playing extended runs, perfect for gauging the weight, linearity, pitch and timing of your speakers’ low frequency response in room – and long enough to allow on-the-fly adjustment. If the disc contained nothing else, it would be worth it for this track alone. But that’s only the start…

Tracks 5 through 9 feature in turn, trumpet, piano, bass (again), drums and finally, the complete jazz quartet playing together. In each case, location and character are described in detail, along with common flaws and correctives. Each instrument is used to investigate a particular aspect of system performance – focus and scale, image dimensionality/specificity, soundstage scope and overall width. I find this cumulative model as fascinating as it is useful. The listening notes are clear and concise and even if you are not sure about what you are hearing (and how it relates to the written description) a few adjustments will soon make everything obvious.