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Uncomfortable Audio Experiences: Truths About Sound System & Loudspeaker Distortion

Crushing levels are absolutely not what the audio experience is about.

We “Men of Audio,” as my friend Clifford Henricksen put it in one of his frequent moments of levity, fight either the good fight for good sound or high fidelity.

But let’s just take a look at the words high fidelity, or hi-fi.

Taken literally hi-fi large quantities of faithfulness to the original sound; in other words we’re talking truth, or purity. Accordingly, the next concern is how shall you judge fidelity, and how do you maximize it?

Criteria for Fidelity
Even frequency response. The desirability of flat response is self-evident, but in practice this is not as important as believed. This is fortunate for loudspeaker manufacturers as very few products are in fact flat.

The sound system is able to run comfortably, delivering the required sound levels.

Conservative operation is common sense and good practice when operating any kind of machine. As far as audio goes, it maintains headroom by giving peak signals room to breathe.

Absence of clipping, harmonics, artifacts, and so on. Signal integrity is where things go horribly wrong and are often completely out of control.

As it is the most important aspect of fidelity, we find ourselves all too frequently involved in an uncomfortable audio experience.

One is able to ameliorate frequency response, and a flat out sound system can always be turned down. As this is very often psychologically difficult for some people, one can always get in more amplifiers and speakers.

However, it is very rare, if not impossible, to regenerate a degraded signal. The concept of fidelity is replaced by all manner of noxious waveforms, which is a matter of great concern to me.

Apart from being entirely offensive, it is actually very damaging to human hearing. In fact, distortion is more damaging to hearing than level.

This is because distortion is often a clipped signal or a smooth sinusoidal waveform with the top chopped off leaving very sharp corners that now approximates a square wave containing excessive amounts of unwanted harmonics, which is very unnatural.

Our ears and brain are not designed to deal with such waveforms for extended periods of time.

If responsibility and care is not brought to bear on the situation, the whole industry is going to be faced with draconian level legislation where in fact the real culprit is distortion.

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