[SoundStage!]Max dB with Doug Blackburn
Back Issue Article
September 1999

Chaos and Audio Systems

There are many ways to assemble an audio system, with many priorities, many tastes and many preferences to satisfy. Budget and the amount of time you have to commit to your pursuit indirectly influence the choices you can or should be making for your own audio system. Too often people read something somewhere that takes them off on an audio tangent that doesn’t really suit their own personal situations in terms of the level of experience or knowledge required to successfully participate in a particular branch of the audio hobby.

This month I want to touch on the subject of chaos in audio systems -- in two different contexts. First, a negative chaos, the chaos audio enthusiasts inject into their own systems as a result of the decision-making process; and second, chaos as a neutral element of system building. Used in the context of putting together an audio system, chaos is an all-inclusive term indicating all the changes that could possibly happen to the recorded audio signal during its travel to the drivers in the loudspeakers.

Chaos in system-building decision-making. What? You want music with that system?

When assembling an audio system, your first 10 or 15 years, perhaps even longer, can be an exercise in futility if you engage in chaotic decision-making. In this context, chaotic decisions are those we make based on the input of others when we are not knowledgeable enough about what we want or need in order to make the best decision on our own. These chaotic decisions are generally a result of knowing that our own experiences and knowledge of the subject are too limited to make a choice from what strikes us as a bewildering variety of choices. People in this position usually ask questions like "What’s the best loudspeaker for $800?" Or "Which preamp should I get if I can spend $3000?" Or "What are the best feet?" When more experienced audio people see these questions, they generally recognize that the real issue here is someone who lacks the background to know where to start. If you find yourself in the position of not knowing where to start, you are far better off asking questions like "I want to start exploring which feet will work well in my system. Where should I start?" This will get the kinds of information and feedback you can use to actually make the eventual decision on your own, which will be better for you and your system in the long run.

When you let others, including me, tell you what is "the best" and build your system from lists of best components or recommendations from people who may or may not be so-called experts, you turn yourself over to chaotic decision-making. The chances for success are poor when you abdicate your decision-making to friends, dealers, reviewers (even me), or anonymous Internet "experts." To avoid this trap, gather information and treat each expansion of the capabilities of your system as a learning experience.

Having money you can’t wait to spend is an accelerant to the chaotic decision-making process. Accumulate your audio spending money, but don’t be too quick to get it spent, or chaos will result instead of improvement. Take some time to gather information, experiment, and when you think you have a handle on what’s going on, only then should you entertain making a final decision and purchase.

Part of each decision-making process should be exploring several possible avenues. Buying a preamp? Don’t know whether to spend $1500 or $2500 or $3500? Try something in each price range to see what’s possible. Don’t know whether you should go tube or solid state? Try both. At home in your own system is the best place to try things, of course. But I was a budget audiophile myself, and I know how impossible it can be to get three $1500 preamps in your house to evaluate back to back. Your second choice is a cooperative dealer who’ll give you a couple of hours with your own music, so you can try tube vs. solid-state equipment at several price ranges. You’d be amazed at how much smarter you are after a couple hours of this compared to how smart you are if you listen to "experts," whose problem is that they are not you. None of them live in your house or like your music as you do or have the other components you already have. Experts can give you some ideas, but that information only gets you to the chaos stage in your decision-making process. The longer you explore and define what your ideal is, the more chaos you remove from the decision-making process.

Managing chaos in the audio system. What? You expected this to be easy?

In this context, please bear in mind that chaos is used as a descriptive word, neither positive nor negative. It is used to identify any alteration of the electrical music signal, whether for the better or not. An audio signal passing through an audio system with a minimum of alterations is traveling through a minimum-chaos system. Systems that intentionally introduce a specific type of sound virtually always have higher levels of chaos.

Here’s what we’re stuck with:

  • loudspeakers that are less "perfect" than most electronic components (more ways to alter the audio signal);
  • recordings that are never perfect re-creations of the live event due to limitations of recording technology;
  • electronic components that can be exceptionally accurate in how they re-create or amplify an audio signal on one end of the scale to components that alter the audio signal in significant ways on the other end of the scale;
  • interactions between audio components that change the relative merits of the components to such a degree that something great in one system can be unpleasant in the next.

What follows is intended to be used as a way of looking at audio systems and audio system building that puts a framework around the ultimate goal that anyone assembling a system wishes to achieve. Earlier I mentioned not listening to reviewers or "experts" when it comes to making purchase decisions -- and included myself in that group. If I make suggestions for you, they will probably be based on what I like and not on what you like. That may be peachy keen if we share the same idea of what sounds good, but how likely is that to happen? The description that follows is intended to be used as a tool to help you grab on to something during your decision-making and system building -- it certainly won't be for everyone but it might help some people. I have a preference for systems with "low chaos" -- but there are legitimate reasons for building a system that does not follow this model. The problem I attempt to illustrate below is that people step headlong into this continuum of possibilities without realizing that it even is a continuum. Too many people believe audio components are audio components are audio components. The reality is that there are things that work well together and things that do not work well together. There are systems that are low in chaos which still sound awful and there are systems much higher in chaos which make adult males weep with emotion. I may steer certain groups of people to beginning their journey with a low chaos system, not because I think that is necessarily what they will ultimately want, but because it puts less experienced audiophiles in a position to then inject controlled amounts of additional chaos in bits and pieces to observe what is involved with some accuracy. If a system is built first with medium to high levels of chaos, then you begin fiddling with it, the changes can be harder to identify and process of getting to where you want to end up will more than likely take years longer and cost thousands more. Of course I could just be another "expert" who hasn't got a clue what's right for you, so keep that in mind as you consider my proposal for how to look at building an audio system.  The approach I offer here is for your consideration only; it is not intended to describe "the only way" to build a system, but it may help some people.

One way to build an audio system is to decide that you will pursue components that introduce the least possible additional chaos. You can never have (at least not in 1999) a perfect audio system. Every system will add chaos. But it is possible to add less rather than more chaos if you decide that this is your goal. In making this decision, you should realize something: low-chaos systems won’t sound as romantic, lush, passionate, or "pretty" as systems with certain types of added chaos.

Let’s put this another way. Look at two audio systems. One is made of components with very low levels of added chaos. The other has components that add chaos. If the lowest possible chaos level you can achieve is "40" because of limitations in the performance of loudspeakers and other components, let’s say that our low-chaos system manages to rate a "50" while our other system which does not seek to minimize chaos ends up with a "70" chaos rating. Which of the two systems will get you closer to the sound of all original recordings? I believe it is pretty clear that the "50" system would. The "70" system may have one or more wonderful properties and sound incredible on one or two types of music. If your focus is on what the "70" system does best, the "70" system may be for you. But if you are a more mainstream listener who has a variety of favorite musical styles and flavors, you will very likely be happier over a longer period of time with the "50" system or a system even lower in chaos.

Sources of chaos in audio systems (examples, not all-inclusive)

  • Group delay errors (where "groups" of frequencies travel at speeds slightly different from "groups" of higher or lower frequencies, loudspeaker crossovers contribute to this as do some characteristics of certain other electronic components)
  • Phase errors (loudspeaker crossovers again are the largest sources with transformers and inductors in the signal path being secondary sources)
  • Polarity errors (loudspeakers again; most have every other driver connected with reversed electrical polarity; finding loudspeakers with all drivers with correct electrical polarity is harder than it may seem)
  • Harmonic distortion
  • Intermodulation distortion
  • Interactions between components
  • Integration errors in multi-driver loudspeakers (a crossover and drivers do not a well-integrated loudspeaker make; there is a heck of a lot more to it!)

Some of these are still under discussion as to how audible they really are. Certainly some of these are not grossly obvious and not even audibly subtle. I think they are important, but on more of a long-term-exposure basis. It’s very difficult to identify some of these in brief listening sessions, especially when you are unfamiliar with the equipment and the room. Long-term listening can reveal some of the issues more clearly. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the opportunity to partake in long-term listening without first putting our money on the table.

So for most audiophiles, the best you can hope for is to make informed decisions and learn from them so you can minimize the turnover (and loss of cash in the process) of components in your system. I went through 15 years of building mis-matched systems before I heard something good in my room. Those early systems weren’t awful, but they never really satisfied on any consistent level. I don’t wish that experience on anyone, but I don’t know how to stop it completely. The level of chaos in those unsatisfying systems could/should have been a warning flag had I known what to look for, but I didn’t realize this until much later.

"Best all-around performance" may not be your personal goal though. As you develop your preferences for what you want your ideal system to achieve, you may find yourself drawn to components that add chaos but at the same time come closer to meeting your goals. This is fine when you understand what’s happening and don’t assume that the closer your ideal sound gets, the more "perfect" your system is in an absolute sense. Too many of us get so excited by the sound we are getting in our system that we are blinded to the level of chaos present in it and what this might mean to other listeners who have different expectations. Controlled chaos, chaos that is used to achieve certain sonic goals, can be considered a tool by an experienced audiophile on a quest for a certain sound. Less-experienced people are likely to get really annoyed at systems with excess chaos and probably not understand where they are going wrong.

Mechanical resonances are not quite the same thing as chaos. Every component that is in proper operating condition has a mechanical resonance signature that is akin to a fingerprint or spectrograph. This resonant signature consists of narrow bands of frequencies that are higher (peaks) or lower (valleys) than the average resonance in the component averaged across all audio frequencies. These peaks and valleys form the characteristic resonant signature of the component in question. This mechanical resonance fingerprint will always be there. The resonances can't be eliminated, but they can be manipulated to produce effects that are more to an individual's liking or to eliminate peaks and valleys to make the component sound more "neutral." The manipulation of resonances is accomplished with feet, isolation bases, damping platforms, mass loading, changing the shelf supporting the component, things you set on top of the component, etc. Chaos, as I'm using the term here, acts directly on the music signal, altering it in some predictable fashion. Mechanical resonances are less predictable and less well understood than the factors that add chaos to a music signal, yet they are something worth learning to work with to achieve your overall system sound goal.

If you aren’t happy with your system or the choices you are making about it so far, you may find that the minimum-chaos approach will finally get you on the track you have been trying to get on in the first place. Look at the list of chaos sources and select components that minimize chaos as best as you can figure out. It’s pretty easy to build a system with fairly high levels of chaos if you aren’t looking for the right things. Keep in mind that chaos is not necessarily bad thing. Chaos pleases the heck out of some people. But it would be a miracle if the pleasingly chaotic systems were selected using a chaotic decision-making approach! Generally you will find that audiophiles who successfully use chaos to build systems that ignite special connections with the music for them, they have become masters of chaos, not pawns. But this skill takes time and experience to master. Most people who are not that dedicated or who have more general interests in "good sound" may very well be served best by systems leaning towards the minimum-chaos model. The end result will be worth it for you if you haven’t been able to get your system where you want it to be using other criteria for component selection.

If you know that your final goal is not a low chaos system, but you are still having trouble getting to where you want to be sound-wise, you may still find that backtracking to a low chaos system first will give you the "stake in the ground" you need as a reference for getting a system assembled that does do what you want it to do. It's easier to evaluate changes when you have a low-chaos reference. Otherwise you end up comparing two different flavors to each other rather than no flavor to an alternative.

I told you before not to listen to "experts" too much or to pay too much attention to lists of "top equipment" and I've taken up a lot of space with some of my "expert" ideas, which may not be "expert" for everybody. I can only share them with you and let you do what you think is the right thing, which is as it should be.

...Doug Blackburn


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