What Audiophiles Listen For: An Informal Guide
A few words about our title: ideally, an audiophile
is a music lover / discophile who expends a great
deal of care and attention in assembling a sound
system that elevates good recordings to vibrant life.
As to standards and requirements, we hope this
brief guide helps you understand what high-end
audio is about. We believe that our products offer
nonpareil performance at better than competitive
prices. Even so, this tutorial applies to what you
should listen for with respect to all high-end audio
systems and their component parts.

Resolution and Transparency. These closely
related qualities serve as the keystone to top-flight
sound. On hearing an orchestral recording in a
listening room, a newcomer to high-end audio
actually declared, “I can almost hear them
breathing!” Were it not for the system’s resolution
and transparency, he’d not have been quite so
astonished. “Hi-rez” components put the listener in
touch with the music and its performers. The
hardware would seem to have disappeared.

Given a good, well produced recording, the rather
uncanny sense of reality a high-end audio system
creates is, of course, an illusion. A professional
illusionist will never reveal his secrets. To the
contrary, the designer-manufacturer of superior
audio gear is eager to explain what he does to
create great sound. He will tell you, for example,
that resolution and transparency are functions of
an audio system’s low noise floor and low
distortion. Indeed, were low noise and low
distortion commonplace qualities, high-end audio
would have no reason to exist. Even the crudest
automotive audio system can produce ear-splitting
sounds. That’s what they’re best at. At the other
end of the spectrum, high-end audio recreates
those subtleties and cues that tell us we’re there,
where the music’s taking place.  In random order
–– they’re all important aspects of good sound ––
these are among the qualities the audiophile
listens for.

Frequency balance and distribution. The listener’s
sense of the musical presentation’s coherence from
topmost treble to deepest bass is an aspect of
linearity and phase. One’s perception of a
soundstage’s width, depth and height, are, again,
aspects of phase at various frequencies. Many tube-
amp designs produce a wide soundstage at depth’s
expense. Conversely, many solid-state designs
produce a deep soundstage, albeit oddly
proportioned.
Soundstage irregularities frequently relate to an
audio system’s non-linear characteristics. An
accurate system produces a soundstage peculiar to
a given recording, no more, no less.

Layering. This term describes the listener’s
perception of localization within the soundstage.
Layering is more readily
detected in recordings of musicians performing
simultaneously in a common space –– often
referred to as the venue or site –– as compared, for
example, with studio-type recordings in which
tracks are “laid down,” i.e., where performers play
or sing in isolation one from the other or, indeed, at
different times. When this style of recording is less
than well done, a revealing audio system permits
you to remark the vocalist’s occupation of a space
seemingly unrelated to where the backup players
perform. To be fair, a well produced studio
recording is certainly capable of
creating an impression of distance and dimension
by time-tested, albeit artificial, means.

Texture. Does the listener have the sense of the
vocalist’s presence in the room, or is it more a
matter of business as
usual emitting from your speakers? The perception
of texture, like all else we mention here, is a
function of resolution and transparency. An audio
system in full command of texture conveys every
shade and nuance of a vocalist’s presentation, or
that of a piano, or of anything else you enjoy
listening to.

Note: However good the audio system, it cannot
produce silk purses on a diet of sows’ ears. That old
computer refrain, “garbage in, garbage out,”
applies. The audiophile music lover values his or
her collection of well engineered recordings,
whatever the medium. Often as a pleasant surprise,
a good high-end audio system extracts every drop
of juice from a recording the listener may have
judged merely mediocre when played on lesser
gear. In short, for better or worse, a top-quality
audio system reveals everything the software has
to say for itself.

Color is an aspect of texture (timbre is the
musician’s term)
. Color addresses a good audio
system’s ability to convey sonic complexities as
clearly drawn shades of difference. All else being
equal, components that provide exceptionally even
frequency and power responses will reproduce all
the color (texture, timbre) a good recording has to
offer.

Confusion and controversy arises when we speak
of a sound system’s colorations
. Designers of audio
components with a pronounced sonic signature, i.e.,
coloration, are at pains to apply a euphonious
veneer to whatever’s being played. Certain cult
amplifiers with high levels of even-order harmonic
distortion have been specifically designed to
impose their sonic signature. Enthusiasts for this
kind of inaccuracy will speak approvingly of
“exceptional midrange liquidity,” etc. Conversely, a
good, clean, uncolored audio system conveys an
accurate picture of a recording’s sonic character.
Systems with pronounced colorations will tend to
homogenize these otherwise obvious differences.

Density. The term is synonymous with harmonic
complexity. With less than excellent playback
equipment, the listener finds it difficult to
distinguish between a well-recorded Amati, Strad,
or pawn-shop fiddle. A great violin produces a
harmonically dense, peculiarly complex sound. For
the audiophile, the pleasure resides in its palpable
presence in the listening room. Components with
exceptionally low distortion convey these
differences.

Weight. The term refers to an audio system’s low
end. Clean, well defined bass is among high-end
audio’s visceral pleasures. Undistorted weight
stands worlds apart from wildly flapping woofer
cones and their hugely distorted, ill-defined
assaults on the ear.

Dynamics and microdynamics. Dynamics is
another often misunderstood term. The Listener
sometimes applies it to an audio system’s ability to
rattle the listener’s molars. It’s true that there’s
little in music as gratifying as a huge forte in all its
glory. We all admire the audio system that conveys
fff tuttis without compressing the sound, i.e.,
squeezing its dynamic range. However, dynamics
more correctly describes a system’s ability to
reproduce sounds from audibility’s threshold to
thunderous roars. Microdynamics addresses subtle
dynamic gradations at any level of volume. Triple
fortes are wonderful, but so is an audio system’s
projection of ppp differences.

Vividness. Among other qualities, the term
addresses accurate transients, i.e., brisk, clearly
delineated attacks, as well as long decays. A crisp
attack is of course a delight, and decays provide
their own satisfactions. A first-rate system permits
the listener to enjoy a sound –– that of a pipe organ,
say, recorded in a large cathedral –– as it fades into
its venue’s deepest recesses. Speed is often used to
describe an audio system’s superior abilities at
conveying attacks. The same system’s low
distortion and transparency are likewise
responsible for the listener’s perception of a
lengthy decay’s barely audible tail.

Imaging. The soundstage is sometimes referred to
as the stereo image. They’re one and the same.

Air. The audiophile will often speak glowingly of a
perception of air, which is to say, a sense of the
music’s occupation of a nicely defined, unfettered
space. However, as an aspect of coloration,
excessive air often has to do with exaggerated
highs and –– surprisingly –– distortion. An accurate
audio system portrays ambiance as a property of
the recording rather than of itself, dealing
forthrightly with what the software sends its way.
The Audiophile Guide