personalized expeditions in music from a musician who doesn't matter

The loudness wars and the damage done

Posted by r on January 10, 2012

(edit cleanup 3.19.13: Lots of people like to bitch loudly about the so-called Loudness Wars of post-1999 or so, and apparently I am one of them. In this post, I talk a lot about a specific set of vintage loudspeakers that were once a mid-century reference standard in studio monitoring and now, when presented with a Loudness War-era recording/victim, reveal quite clearly that 95% of everything new sounds like shit. What’s below the cut, however, is probably of little interest if you don’t want to hear a lot about a particular obsolete model of speakers that 99% of us will never be able to afford nor find room for in our living rooms, myself included.)

Down at the shop, this is our current “best in the house” system. It’s the system we go to in the afternoons when we want to hear music sound incredibly good at rather high volumes with no fuss.

There’s a lot of stuff in this picture, some of it operational, some of it once operational but currently relegated to furniture-only status. I’d draw your attention in particular to the stuff on the left and right periphery of this picture– the two cherrywood “columns” and the two huge boxes hidden immediately behind those columns against the walls. These are the devices being used as speakers in this configuration, and like most speakers, they have the largest effect by far on the overall sound of this system.

The rest of the stuff feeding the speakers, maybe $3-5k worth of moderately esoteric equipment (most of the value of which is in the handmade, huge, totally unnecessary 100-watt “OTL” tube amp on the right side), is merely “interesting but not really” from a sonic perspective. The speakers, particularly the ones in the columns, are a different story.

The columns contain clones of a classic Altec Lansing driver, the 604, one per side. These clones are made by Great Plains Audio, which is a company based in OKC, doing a lot of Altec repro stuff borrowed from the 50s-70s glory days of that company. They are doing great business, especially with European and Asian audio enthusiasts. The clone 604s and cabinets are on loan to the shop right now. Here’s a closer look at one of them (and I’m very sorry about the cheetah-print curtain… but experiments have shown that there is no more hi-fi-worthy curtain print!).

Behind the columns are two enormous old speaker cabinets which my shopmate has loaded up with one 15″ subwoofer each. Nothing special– just two way-too-enormous subwoofers.  You can see one poking out behind the 604 column in the picture above.

I’ve heard a lot of speakers in my life, and an especially huge number in the last year in particular. In my life, mostly, I’ve been pretty biased toward the type of speaker that was the de facto design of the 80s (when I first got interested in this stuff)– a simple 2- or 3-way design based on a conventional woofer and preferably a dome tweeter, in a noticeable but practical wood box that was relatively easy to schlep from apartment to apartment or from wall to other wall.

Altec and classic Klipsch designs are mostly from a full generation before, and are a whole other beast. Based on the concept of “horn loading,” these companies specialized in speakers that were highly efficient, absurdly large, and loud as all hell. Horn designs still prevail in PA applications even now, decades after the horn has become an aging niche-nerd pursuit from a hi-fi angle. Their living-room proponents call them “incredibly dynamic and lifelike.”

Most of the horn designs I’ve heard, even the “classics” that are almost sacrilegious to publicly disparage (like the Klipschhorn, a pair of which I spent many hours listening to this summer), sound like utter shit to my somewhat younger ears. They are “dynamic,” sure, and they are also screamy and harsh and uneven / ragged in frequency response. Worst of all for a polyglot like me, they are brutally “choosy”, sounding semi-OK with one type of program material and totally unlistenable with another, and with generally no rhyme / reason for the distinction.

Even before I started hanging out at the shop and started seeing the aging repeat buyers who would instantly pull out their wallets and plunk down low four figures for any and all enormous Altec and Klipsch contraptions that turned up, I knew there were older guys out there who loved the Klipsch and Altec stuff, these refrigerator-sized contraptions that really seemed better suited to me for PA applications than the living room. Klipsch and Altec seem to have had their glory days in the 60s and 70s, hi-fi-wise, before a more “refined” / wife-friendly set of designs took over the home-audio market. Like so many other things and era-associated products, though, there are many people who haven’t gotten over those glory days.

So, in a nutshell, I have been able to hear and play with scads of old Altecs and Klipsches in the last year. Mostly, they really haven’t changed my mind too much on the usefulness or desirability of horns in the living room. These 604 clones, though, are a totally different story.

When these came in from Great Plains, I sat down to listen with a strong bias already formed against them, being truly ancient Altec designs for fogeys and whatever. But in the end, they surprised me, especially with the subwoofers in place (they are 16″ drivers, but they’re also a 70-year-old design, so they really don’t produce much in the way of low end on their own). They were definitely “dynamic”, but not (usually) screamy or harsh to listen to at high volumes, nor did they have any of the unpleasant, immediately-noticeable peaks and troughs in the frequency response that larger horns always seemed to have.

Months and many, many hours of listening later, I have to admit: the sheer level of detail presented by these drivers is in the top 5% of any speaker I’ve had privilege to hear. Vocals, electric guitars and snare drums sound larger than life. With the right recording it feels like you can hear absolutely everything going on, with levels of perceptual separation / “instrumental de-lamination” normally only possible with… well, a decent quantity of good drugs.

This isn’t to say that these drivers are perfect. They aren’t nearly as picky about source material as many of their Altec / Klipsch brethren, but they don’t sound good with everything. First, in using a playlist-based torture test involving tracks by Drumcorps and Dethklok that I often use to see how good a speaker is at working out very busy, congested, detail-heavy material, I discovered that the 604s were utterly terrible at modern metal. They became unlistenably “shriek-y” very early on on the volume knob with this sort of material. And while they did a good job of figuring out the pitch of ultra-distorted guitar lines, they were also very ready to literally hurt you doing so.

Later, I found that they maybe weren’t so hot at certain recent R&B and hip-hop tracks either, and I wasn’t too happy with them listening to some recent so-called-indie rock releases I had around. Truly lo-fi recordings weren’t any fun any more as they were on the car stereo or smaller speakers; they just sounded lousy and uninvolving. More recent home digital recordings suffered from the “shriekiness” problem that had adversely affected the newer-metal listening experience.

The other day, as my shop partner was having one of his ADHD “oh, let’s play this / this / this / this / this” moments, using this system and an open Grooveshark window, it finally hit me: These speakers sound better than just about anything out there as long as the program material was recorded before 2000.

They are especially adept at pre-1990 recordings. Honestly, you have never heard 80s synth-pop cheese sound as big and profound as this system can make it sound. One of the most jaw-dropping, dynamically-crushing recordings we’ve heard yet on the 604 / sub combo was a 12″ single of Kraftwerk’s otherwise-unremarkable 1986 single, “The Telephone Call.” I would have to say this was one of the only cases I’ve ever encountered of vinyl truly sounding head-and-shoulders better than CD.

Past 1990, the more recently-recorded the material becomes, the lousier the 604s sound. And this has everything to do with the so-called loudness wars– which really started properly with Nirvana, but not in full bloom until the rise of the digital brickwall limiter of the mid-90s– and also, distinct changes in studio monitoring techniques and equipment over this time period.

It turns out the 604s were the de facto studio monitor speaker of the late 1940s through mid-1970s. No wonder stuff from those eras sounds so fantastic on them– the mixes were probably made on these speakers. By the mid-1970s, studios had started to go to slightly smaller, more practical, but– most importantly for the moustached era– louder JBL monitors.  The sonic characteristics of these two speaker types aren’t totally incompatible.

The trend by the mid-1990s, though, was toward small, lame-sounding nearfield monitors like the Yamaha NS-10M. You could still have those big monitors, sure… but you’d be a fool to only listen to your mixes on a set of those monsters. The 90s consumer had moved on from the big ol’ stereo, baby. The name of the game now was the boombox, the “executive minisystem,” the stock car stereo, the shitty came-in-the-Walkman-box headphones. And you’d better listen on something that gave you a clear picture of what your shit sounded like on… shit.

This trend toward ensmallification of reproduction product continues even now, of course (never mind Behringer’s clever 700-pound attempt at getting attention for their new consumer-audio product line; Behringer is fully aware that no one will ever buy a $30,000 iPod dock). The basic technology of speakers hasn’t changed much if at all in the 70-ought years since the Altec 604 was first introduced. What this means: It’s still not possible to push around a relatively large quantity of air without a relatively large driver in a relatively large box.

I’m increasingly convinced, after hearing these 604s at length, that bigger drivers can mean better control of musical details and a more realistic presentation. These crazy huge old-school drivers just sound so much more like real musicians in the room than any more modern and “modestly sized” speaker I’ve ever owned. But either way, either design type beats the ever-living crap out of a boombox-type “speaker” setup.

Most consumers are very ready to accept the compromise, or they don’t know what compromise they are actually making when they plunk down money for an iPod dock or what-have-you. My wife tells me all the time how she had “no idea what [she] was missing” in stereo gear before living with me and hearing her music on even a moderately-sized set of speakers.

The Loudness Wars are definitely tied up in all of this– knowing the consumer has shittier playback hardware by the year, and trying to find ways to trick the ear into thinking the gear (and production) sounds larger than it is. The only problem is that the tricks required to make shitty gear sound not-so-shitty are unfair and adverse to those of us who still listen on semi-respectable stereo setups.

And it seems that the better your equipment’s ability to resolve the detail in a recording– especially dynamic details– the more horrible a brickwalled modern master is going to sound. A Top 40 record of recent years nearly always sounds ridiculous on a pair of good 80s or 90s speakers like I grew up on. It often sounds totally unlistenable on those 604s. Then slap some old Steely Dan on those same speakers; it sounds great on the 80s / 90s model, with the old 604 you’re instantly in sonic heaven with Michael McDonald’s beard poking you in the face from nine different directions… and it sounds like utter crap on a set of iPhone earbuds.

I don’t know what the solution is to this problem– something involving a revolution in driver / air-moving technology, something that allows a device the size and cost of an iPod dock or so to confidently, carefully sculpt moving air just like a set of enormous 604s? I don’t think the consumer is ever going back to large speakers, unless The Enlightened can somehow get a hold of them en masse (as I did with my now-saved wife!).

Until the technology of speakers makes a quantum leap forward in terms of size/fidelity ratio, I’m beginning to worry that recorded music is thoroughly screwed, with no possible escape toward the bluer skies of actual musical dynamics. I guess if I can ever afford a set of the $2,000-a-pair Great Plains 604s (mind, $2k is nothing in the scheme of audio, but it’s still a helluva lot of money!), I will just have to make sure to keep crappier sets of speakers around, hidden in the corner, waiting for Ke$ha emergencies.

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