THE LOWER MIDRANGE - In; Speaker-Systems, Passive & Active Pre-Amps:
This is a revised, and re-titled, version of the original article. The purpose of this piece is two-fold; (1) To direct readers to a very good web-mag, and (2) to highlight issues regarding the lower-midrange, relative to the status-quo. The Status-Quo, in this context is, of course; the existing state of affairs as dictated by conventional-'wisdom' as it influences the 'standards', and/or common practices, in high-end audio.
In this regard, the fore mentioned mag's recent experiences also serve as, arguably, the best possible examples in highlighting some of these issues, as this mag's former practices once exemplified certain tenets of the status-quo. Those tenets are highly misleading, in my view, if high-fidelity audio is the ultimate goal. That mag has now changed course, to a certain extent. So far as I understand it, both that mag and 'yours truly', NOW, agree on the facts of certain differences between certain systems, or methods of operation, after radical changes in that mag's apparent views (though we may differ on the degree of difference obtainable between both sets of those systems/operation-methods examined here).
It is important for the reader to understand that, despite the issues ruthlessly examined here today (and I do mean ruthless; as you'd expect; nothing is overlooked, glossed-over, or excused) the overall quality of that site is NOT in dispute - it remains recommended as, aside from the issues at hand, that mag is just too good to be ignored. And, after all, how much blame can there be ascribed to an individual who adheres to the standards of the widely-accepted authority (the status-quo)? We all are influenced by it, to some degree or other. And where the status-quo may be wrong, many of us were also led astray at some stage, including yours truly. Very many of us still are. So who are we to sit in judgement of any individual when the status-quo is the main culprit, and we also were/are victims ourselves? As to one's actions outside of that 'umbrella', so to speak - well, that would be another matter entirely.
It is very nearly impossible to over-stress the importance of that mag's recent discoveries, and their relevance to all audiophiles who're contemplating the route to the ultimate in audio reproduction, and even those that are not, as yet. (The majority, who have no intention of ever seeking the ultimate in fidelity, need not be overly concerned, though, since the components deemed to be deficient, here, are absolutely adequate, even outstanding, in the context of the casual user). And since these recent discoveries are consistent with the core of WAJ on AUDIO S-V's uncommon audio-philosophies, which have been consistently proclaimed since our beginning, it'd be tantamount to gross dereliction of duty for us not to address these issues relative to the lower-midrange, in the context of the Audio Critique's recent discoveries. Regardless of whether this mag may be a personal favorite, the related issues examined, here, had to be examined in the cold light of the facts that present themselves. As a result, aspects of this examination may be somewhat unflattering, and a possible consequence is the ire of said mag. That's a risk I'm regrettably, yet absolutely, bound to take. Certainly, anyone who has read WAJ on AUDIO S-V extensively will know that the issues presented by the Audio Critique's recent discoveries are uniquely, and particularly, central to our focus and, therefore, had to be tackled. This piece, as fate would have it, could not have been avoided.
However, before delving into the major issues, regarding the lower-midrange, let's take a look at the magazine, itself:
DIFFERENCES IN OPINION; Pre-Amps: However, I must point out that while we share most views, the Audio Critique's opinions differ from mine, here at WAJ on AUDIO S-V, on a few important issues:
For instance, I believe there's too much of an emphasis on analytical detail in reproduction, especially at higher-frequencies (as is the popular trend) at the expense of the neglected, and crucially important, lower-midrange. (Dynamism is also generally neglected; another facet of the popular trend, however that mag's author is one of dynamism's staunchest advocates - no issue there). Nevertheless, my experience illustrates that neglect of either of these elements (dynamism or lower-mids tone) is sure to result in the diminution of the REALISM of the overall reproduction. Indications are that, though dynamism is well catered to, at the AudioCritique, the lower-mids are not afforded similar levels of attention - to put it mildly.
One could argue that evidence of this is boldly apparent in that mag's formerly aggressive advocacy of 'pre-amp less' or passive pre-amplification, which I've long-ago found to be exactly that; detailed at higher frequencies, but severely lacking in the important lower-midrange and, therefore, lacking in overall REALISM - in ALL cases, and without exception - and this is only point # 1. (See WAJ on AUDIO S-V's comparison of the Audio-Research LS3 active/passive linestage pre-amp against passive/'pre-amp less' operation here - for expansion on that point, among others).
Here are a few paraphrased snippets of the author's sentiments on the issue of passive/pre-amp less vs active line-stage pre-amplification - lately altered since his recent introduction to a new active line-stage pre-amp:
(I) (His) FUNDAMENTAL PERSPECTIVE...
...is (was?) that any system that sounds better with the addition of an "Active" Linestage is an unequivocal
An error has been made in the choice and "the matching" of the components
(II) He also feels (felt?) that no properly designed and optimized system requires an active Linestage.
(III) CLASS 'A' (The AudioCritique's recommended-components list)
DIRECT CONNECTION (ie; 'pre-amp less')
He feels (felt?) that this pr-amp less technique will always be the most optimum and least compromised method of
transmitting the signal, both in theory and in practice, BUT he also expressed that it is very difficult to achieve.
The Audio Critique now uses an active line-stage pre-amp - in a properly designed and optimized system!
But even after switching to an active line-stage pre-amp, here's the part I don't quite understand:
He still believes that a direct connection (pre-amp less) between the source and the amplifier(s), when usable, is, and always will be, the ideal method to achieve the highest fidelity to that source. However, he stipulates, there is one serious and unavoidable "fly in the ointment" with this method, which must be addressed. Even if a direct connection is possible (without any sonic compromises), and extra gain is not a requirement: How does one then change (optimize) the volume level without also compromising the signal (sonics)? [Note: He also gave us the answer to that question; a transformer-based volume-control - problem solved. Yet, he still opts for the active line-stage, citing convenience and more realistic sound (see directly below, concerning the sound). Is this confusing? If there's one thing that can be said about the author of the Audio Critique, it's that he certainly has a lot of faith in THEORIES. By his own admission, the active line-stage is ACTUALLY better, but he still holds that the passive will always be 'ideal' - if only in theory - certainly profound.]
Despite the above, the author has, also, virtually admitted to being wrong about passive/pre-amp less operation after discovering, among other things, the lower-midrange attributes (and consequent realism) of the new Coincident Statement active line-stage pre-amp, compared to 'pre-amp less', similar to my own discoveries with the active ARC LS3, eight years ago. Refer to his comments on the Coincident active line-stage pre-amp at http://www.high-endaudio.com/RC-Linestages.html and note, particularly, allusions to 'slightly' more natural harmonics, and 'bodies' of instruments and singers being more realistic and solid, as compared to pre-amp less.
Here's a paraphrased sample of his comments:
He informs us thus; the CSLS/CEI (Coincident line-stage and cables) sounded superior to "The Standard" * (pre-amp less): 1. There' a bit more natural harmonics 2. The active pre is; a small bit purer (mainly at high volumes) 3. Perhaps most importantly, he illustrates; Bodies of instruments (and singers) slightly more realistic and solid, and less "fun house mirror" 4. Also, sound is somewhat more effortless, as if the amplifiers have more power
* This means, in his view, that "The Standard" (pre-amp less) was not capable of fully driving the connecting cable and the input stage of the amplifier, despite his incorrect assumption that it had this capability. However, he told us, he can and will defend himself....[Refer to the site for that defense, based on a few more theories, I believe.]
If, as the 'Critique and many others now indicate, the active line-stage reproduces the lower-midrange 'bodies' of instruments and singers in a more REALISTIC manner than pre-amp less, then it stands to reason that the passive/pre-amp less system-mode is DEFICIENT in the lower-midrange. It's as simple as that. It MUST, therefore, be disqualified in any quest for the ultimate in sound-reproduction. (And my own experience informs me that, with amps and speakers fully capable in the lower-midrange, the degree of difference is decidedly NOT 'slight').
One wonder's, however, whether speakers with drivers purpose-designed with more competence in the lower-mids, AND with adequate surface-area for realism in this region, would elicit an improvement in realism that is significantly more than 'slight' - a test with the best Tannoys could be enlightening, for instance.
Long apparent, at the 'Critique, is a preference for a popular speaker-type which is, in many ways, excellent (in keeping with a long established trend, beginning in the late 80's/early '90's with Wilson WATT mini-monitors, with their limited surface-area, among other things). But, arguably, this type is, perhaps, not ideally conducive to unleashing the full potential (and consequent overall realism) of realistic lower-midrange performance, despite cutting-edge excellence in several other aspects of performance. One also wonders whether such speakers would have limited one's ability to discern the lower-midrange attributes of a good active pre-amp, in the first place, and caused one to have endorsed a passive pre-amp system which is, just now, being discovered by the Audio Critique to be deficient in this very area - and always was, obviously.
Arguably, further evidence of this may be gleaned from the account of his epiphany, regarding the realism afforded by better performance in the lower-mids, after the double-stacking (and, therefore, increasing the surface-area) of two pairs of his mini-monitors, which he'd previously felt where virtually lacking in no aspect of their performance, as a single pair. (It's perhaps worthy of note that the active line-stage and the double-stacked mini-monitors seem to have been tested around the same time - and together. Chances are the differences, discovered with this combo, would not have been as apparent with the original single mini-monitor pair, if at all). Refer to his review of the Coincident Pure-Reference 'Double' Extreme speaker-system at http://www.high-endaudio.com/RC-Pure%20Reference.html with particular reference to comments about "more natural substance" (or lower midrange BODY) contributing more realism to the sound. Irrefutable evidence of the double-stacked mini-monitors' superiority over the single pair. And (since they're identical) irrefutable evidence as to the reason why - increased surface-area.
[For my own comments on the importance of the lower-mids, among other elements, as they regard sonic-realism, and the order of priority of these elements, in addition to other related issues, please see the article; 'FROM HIFI TO HIGH-END....']
DIFFERENCES IN OPINION; Speakers: Perhaps another example of a likely erroneous 'absolute', lately revised, is; the 'Critique's previously staunch advocacy of a single small mid-woofer - specifically, a single mini-monitor pair (with sub-woofers) for reason of cohesiveness - to the exclusion of all 'multi-drivered' systems as, the author felt, they all compromised this cohesiveness).
Here's a near identical paraphrasing of his sentiments on the subject - again; lately altered since his recent introduction to a double-stacked version of the mini-monitor/subs he was already using:
He tells us; .....In practice then, his reference speakers were all, at least in design theory, relatively "full-range"
and "cohesive" (and all single-paired mini-monitors - Ed).
When using more common terms, the goals of his two design priorities were very simple:
1. He wanted to hear all of the music, and
2. He wanted to hear this music from (ideally) only one "source"* (i.e. one mid-woofer per channel - Ed)
*His analogy used to emphasize the superiority of the single mid/woofer is that; Even the most highly skilled "duo" cannot exactly imitate a "soloist".
He further states that;Accordingly, it is now easy to understand why he has avoided, and even ignored, so many different
speakers, from so many different companies (including earlier Coincident models), no matter how
excited other audiophiles felt about them. From his perspective, if the speakers didn't conform to his
two basic design requirements, they were effectively irrelevant, because he knew, from decades of
direct experience, that they could never satisfy him, no matter what their other sonic strengths were.
Several additional reasons were cited to illustrate the single small mid/woofer's superiority, and why it's been stuck with in that audio-system for so many years, thru several iterations. [But, if I may reiterate; logic has always suggested, to me at least, that a single small mid/woofer is inherently incapable of replicating the robustness of instruments operating at the lower-midrange, among other things - it's a physical impossibility, especially at realistic levels. And now, The 'Critique seems to be coming around to agreeing with this point too - if not in so many words].
In now double-stacking two pairs of mini-monitors, this mag now endorses multiple (TWO) mid-woofers AND two tweeters, per channel (which now display no less of that cohesiveness) as the author now discovers the increased realism, the lower-midrange 'substance', these multiple mid-woofers' increased surface-area now brings to the fore.
Here's a snippet regarding his discovery of the lower-midrange superiority and increased realism of the double-stacked version (Pure Reference 'Double' Extreme) as compared to the previous single pair of the same speakers. He describes the increase in lower-midrange 'body' afforded in this configuration as....:
...More Natural "Substance"- He purposely did not use the normal word "body", because this would obviously infer that the Pure Reference Extreme (the original single pair) is "lean", which it definitely is not. In this instance, the existing "body" feels like it has more solidity and weight*, though without any sense of "heaviness". He's seen the word "density" used by others, but he prefers the word "substance" to describe what he is hearing. This is because he also feels there is actually more harmonic and low-level information being reproduced as well. [Note; WAJ on AUDIO S-V's allusions, elsewhere and later in this article, to these phenomena (ie; the completion of notes, resonances, the fade of notes, and the reproduction of the minute details. Be advised, also, that these phenomena are largely inaccessible with a passive/pre-amp less system - the active line-stage pre-amp is what provides the lower-mids body and detail the passive never could - a point the 'Critique must have also discovered, but omitted to sufficiently highlight, in my opinion]. He went on to say: Even further, the individual images are also somewhat larger. So, he feels he has to use a new word (for him) to describe this combination of improvements.
He also would like to stress that this added "substance" is completely natural, meaning it is reflective of live music and sound, and is in no manner "euphonic" (which he considers a distortion, however pleasing it is to some). [Note; even this level of 'substance' (or lower-midrange body) is also inaccessible with pre-amp less systems - WAJ].
*From a different perspective, he tells us, it is easier to physically "feel" the musicians' presence, just as you would feel something actually in your room.
I can, certainly, relate to that. However, similar to my first example with pre-amp less; If the double-stacked mini-monitors reproduce the lower-midrange body (or 'substance') in a more REALISTIC manner than the single pair (augmented by sub-woofers, as the vast majority are) then it stands to reason that the single mini-monitor/(sub) woofer concept (the overwhelming 'standard' of the status-quo) is DEFICIENT in the lower-midrange. It's, again, as simple as that!
Regardless of whatever amount of semantics one may wish to apply in this scenario - or in that of active versus passive pre-amps, for that matter - the 'bottom-line' is what really counts: If the one is better, and more realistic, than the other, in a certain region, then 'the other' MUST definitely be DEFICIENT, in the specified region. [Whether merely double-stacking is enough to completely obliterate this deficiency; that's the mystery readers will have to ponder in contemplating speaker-systems for their own use].
There are one or two other points of difference in our opinions (on the most realistic types of phono-cartridges, for instance) but I'd prefer to confine my arguments to these more fundamental areas where The Audio Critique has now come around to our way of thinking, at least, to some degree.
We'll delve deeper into these issues in a moment.
A CRITIQUE of THE 'CRITIQUE - Re; The ACTIVE vs The PASSIVE Pre..: Obviously, with the acquisition of Coincident's active line-stage pre-amp, and the double-stacking (increased surface-area) of the Pure-Reference Double-Extreme speakers, The Audio Critique has now come to more appreciate the increased realism afforded by better a performance in the lower-mids.
But as alluded to earlier, one can't help but to wonder whether a penchant for a particular type of speaker-system, though superlative in several aspects, may have limited the ability to appreciate the real benefits of a good active pre-amp, in the first place. Could this have influenced the enthusiastic advocacy of a (pre-amp less/passive pre-amp) system which has been proven (by myself and a few others and, now, The Audio Critique) to be peerless at higher frequencies, but very significantly compromised in the important lower-mids?
One would also wonder whether such a speaker-system (even when double-stacked) would still be so limited in lower-midrange performance as to cause the perceived increase in realism at the lower-mids to be so 'slight' that only audiophiles could discern it, as was reported, by the 'Critique.
Contrastingly, Stereo-Mojo's reviewer reported, in his review of the same pre-amp, that his wife (perhaps the epitome of a non-audiophile) commented on the 'fuller' tones reproduced by this pre-amp, compared to 'pre-amp less'. In their opinion, the difference between the pre-amp less mode's performance and that of the active pre-amp in that system, while not being 'night and day', was certainly as much as 'pre-dusk and pre-dawn' (or similar to that effect) - if you catch the drift. Not the greatest of analogies, perhaps but, by the context, we can safely assume the difference is significant, as the following would further indicate: They both consistently heard and felt the increased timbre and texture of instruments and voices, particularly piano, oboe, bassoon, saxophone, tympani, close-mic'd strings, and both male and female voices. He and his non-audiophile wife both also heard more bite and also more roundness to the sound.
Perhaps an excerpt from WAJ on AUDIO S-V's previously mentioned review of the active ARC LS3 would also be enlightening in this regard; The LS3 releases all that lower-mid information to amps and speakers capable of operating in this area. The result is enhanced realism; musical notes become whole, and complete, the resonance of certain instruments is liberated allowing the instrument(s) to sound truly like the real thing and as big as life, notes in this region are more full, they expand, they linger for longer, then they slowly fade into oblivion regardless of the cacophony around them. I was lucky to have an amp and speakers that were capable of showcasing the considerable advantage the LS3 holds over 'pre-amp-less' (and other pre-amps) in the lower-mids - otherwise, I might never have bought it. If, however, ones amps or speakers also limit the lower-mids, as the vast majority do, then one will never notice that much of a difference in this area.
If I recall correctly, I did flippantly cite a 'night and day' difference between pre-amp less and the active LS3, in that review. But how does one quantify a 'night and day' difference, really? Let's just say the difference was/is significant, really significant, no, really, really significant. Much, much, much more than barely discernible - by audiophiles, at that. Perhaps I should simply refer you (again) to the review itself - please click the link many paragraphs above. But I will say this; the rest of the system, the amps and, especially, the speakers play a critical role as to whether the difference is nil, barely discernible, or near 'night and day'. I repeat; speakers which are lacking at the lower-mids (as most are) will not reveal much of a difference, if any.
Indeed, I'd ridden the pre-amp less band-wagon for several years, though I was always dis-satisfied with the lack of realism of my system at low-mids. This inspired experimentation with several amps and many drivers in a D.I.Y. quest to eliminate the deficiency. I only accidentally discovered that 'pre-amp less' was the sole culprit (in my unique case, at the time) when I inserted an active pre-amp, the LS3, over 7- 8 years ago. Recent tests have only re-affirmed my convictions: Pre-amp less is the epitome of a three-legged thorough-bred - a race-horse that's beautiful in limited aspects, but hopelessly handicapped in its main, overall, purpose! Why?
Here's what I've discovered, and re-discovered: Passive/'preamp less' gives with one hand (high-mid/treble) and takes away, manifold, with the other (lower-midrange).
Now there's an absolute term that has been proven to be true - by former 'believers', no less!
Speaking of which; there seems to be a tendency, at The Audio Critique, to assert ones preferences in absolute terms, as a matter of course - to the exclusion of all other possibilities, in some, arguably, unwarranted or questionable instances. (Refer to a couple of the previous paraphrased examples). This tendency could perhaps be tempered, somewhat. Aside from the 'pied-piper effect' (in leading some astray) and the consequences to those affected, it also presents a difficulty in rationalizing those preferences when those preferences turn out to be wrong:
For instance; the previous advocacy of pre-amp less/passive operation above all else: Categorized as Class 'A' - "no line-stage pre-amp". And Class 'B' - one passive/active line-stage pre-amp, only (with the emphasis on the passive mode) respectively, in that mag's recommended-components list. No purely active line-stage pre-amp apparently warranted inclusion at the top echelons of the AudioCritique's short list. (Class 'C' has also long been empty, up to the time of writing). And, now, to switch allegiance after (lately) discovering the lower-midrange merits of a good active line-stage pre-amp when, only now, combined with the lower-midrange capabilities of double-stacked speakers - lower-midrange speaker capabilities which never existed, to this level, when other active line-stage pre-amps were written-off, over the years (judging by the outlined history). This could cause one's credibility to be called into question, if nothing else. [Note; The 'Critique makes a distinction between units with phono-stages (which he calls 'pre-amps') and units which have none (which he, rightly, calls 'line-stages', or line-stage pre-amps). Phono-stage equipped 'pre-amps' are/were not at issue (because of the necessity, and quality, of some of their phono-stages, I believe). Line-stage pre-amps are (were?) the units the 'Critique took issue with.].