Sunday, June 28, 2009

Do Musicians Make Better Audio Gear?

Given that they are familiar with music on a regular basis, do musicians – with the requisite electronic engineering skills - make better sounding audio / hi-fi gear than their non-musician counterparts?

By: Ringo Bones

Academic researchers have shown that the great mathematicians – or mathematically literate scientists and engineers - of the past are also accomplished musicians, or at least playing a musical instrument on a recreational basis. A good example would be Albert Einstein relaxing while playing the fiddle. But given that designing really great audio gear requires electronic engineering skills that are derived from mathematics, would “musically literate” audio engineers have an edge over their non-musical counterparts when it comes to designing great-sounding audio gear?

Before he became famous as a recording engineer and creator of probably the best-sounding solid state amplifiers in the world, Mark Levinson once played upright acoustic bass with Paul Bley back in the mid-1960s. Mark Levinson amplifiers are not only praised for their excellent bass performance, but also for their excellent portrayal of the soundstage of the recorded music being played back. Every Mark Levinson audio gear was often cited to be able to create surround-sound playback from just two speakers. Really someone whose audio engineering skills deserve a Nobel Prize if there was a category for one.

Musical Fidelity’s managing director Antony Michaelson not only designs great sounding audio equipment that is sold across the hi-fi price range, from the US$500 Musical Fidelity X-A1 amplifier to the US$6,500 Musical Fidelity kW DM25 two-box CD player (though I don’t think this is Musical Fidelity’s priciest product). But he also plays clarinet. He’s even on the Mozart Clarinet Concerto K622 in A Major CD as the clarinet soloist. Even though Antony Michaelson is a Classical Music-based musician, his audio gear is “eclectic” enough to handle every genre of music known to mankind, from Central Asian acoustic folk music to extremely high-decibel stadium Heavy Metal.

Interestingly, manufacturers of electric guitar amplifiers have entered into the hi-fi business too. Randall Smith of Mesa Engineering - more famous for their vacuum tube-based electric guitar amplifiers with vacuum tube-based rectifying diodes in the power supply – has introduced the Mesa Engineering Baron and the Tigris as “domestic” hi-fi amps. His designs may not make “decent” engineering sense in the 21st Century when high speed solid-state devices that can be used to construct a RADAR system that can “see” stealth aircraft is now commonly available (and surprisingly cheap), but for us music-loving audiophiles, there’s just no substitute. If Randall Smith can design audio gear of such beauty sound quality wise while probably wailing away with his preferred electric guitar and amp combo, then maybe the executives at Sony or any major / mainstream consumer electronic manufacturers should start giving their audio engineering staff music lessons.

If you’re into music that’s been recorded during the Golden Age of Stereo – i.e. late 1950s to early 1960s – there’s just no substitute for tube amps with tube rectifiers. Like the recordings of such soulful artists like Nina Simone. Whose voice can range from crystal clarity to a throaty roar even in the same phrase; In order to appreciate this kind of music you need an audio amplifier that “sweats with the music”. Check out “Break Down and Let it All Out” or Nina Simone’s Francophone opus “Ne Me Quitte Pas” being played on a tube amp with a tube rectifier section, and you’ll swear that she’s alive and in your listening room.

As with all math-driven endeavors, engineering audio equipment – like engineering a weapons system that can throw a 4-gram projectile 938 meters per second with a guaranteed head shot accuracy at 800 meters – is still for all intents and purposes more of an art than a science. Given that we listen with our own ears – as opposed to a US$9,000 audio analyzer – how a piece of audio gear sounds is more important than how it measures on the lab bench. Maybe audio designers who think that it’s all about engineering should try working as an apprentice at Alexander Arms or Knight's Armory.