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Secrets contributor Sumit Chawla recently caught up with Benchmark’s VP and Chief Designer, John Siau to get a little more in-depth on several subjects.
Q: "Benchmark is one of the few companies that publishes an extensive set of measurements, but you also balance that with subjective testing. Can you talk about the equipment, the listening room, and the process for subjective testing?"
Q: "Was there ever a time where you learned something from a subjective test that was not captured by measurements?"
Q: "You conducted some listening tests to determine whether distortion in the “First Watt” was audible. What test material did you use for this, and what did you find?"
Q: "The AHB2 amplifier incorporates THX Audio Achromatic Amplifier technology. When and how did the partnership with THX come about?"
Q: "Linear power supplies have been and remain quite popular in high-end devices. You favor switch-mode power supplies. When and why did you make this switch?"
... and more!
At Benchmark, listening is the final exam that determines if a design passes from engineering to production. When all of the measurements show that a product is working flawlessly, we spend time listening for issues that may not have shown up on the test station. If we hear something, we go back and figure out how to measure what we heard. We then add this test to our arsenal of measurements.
Benchmark's listening room is equipped with a variety of signal sources, amplifiers and loudspeakers, including the selection of nearfield monitors shown in the photo. It is also equipped with ABX switch boxes that can be used to switch sources while the music is playing.
Benchmark's lab is equipped with Audio Precision test stations that include the top-of-the-line APx555 and the older AP2722 and AP2522. We don't just use these test stations for R&D - every product must pass a full set of tests on one of our Audio Precision test stations before it ships from our factory in Syracuse, NY.
Paul Seydor of The Absolute Sound interviews John Siau, VP and chief designer at Benchmark Media Systems. The interview accompanies Paul's review of the LA4 in the December, 2020 issue of TAS.
"At Benchmark, listening is the final exam that determines if a design passes from engineering to production. But since listening tests are never perfect, it’s essential we develop measurements for each artifact we identify in a listening test. An APx555 test set has far more resolution than human hearing, but it has no intelligence. We have to tell it exactly what to measure and how to measure it. When we hear something we cannot measure, we are not doing the right measurements. If we just listen, redesign, then repeat, we may arrive at a solution that just masks the artifact with another less-objectionable artifact. But if we focus on eliminating every artifact that we can measure, we can quickly converge on a solution that approaches sonic transparency. If we can measure an artifact, we don't try to determine if it’s low enough to be inaudible, we simply try to eliminate it."
- John Siau
Myth - "Damping Factor Isn't Much of a Factor"
Myth - "A Damping Factor of 10 is High Enough"
Myth - "All Amplifiers Have a High-Enough Damping Factor"
These myths seem to trace back to a well-know paper written by Dick Pierce. His analysis shows that a damping factor of 10 is virtually indistinguishable from a damping factor of 10,000 when it comes to damping the motion of a loudspeaker cone. This analysis has been examined and repeated in many more recent articles, such as a well-written post on Audiofrog.com by Andy Wehmeyer. Articles such as these are often cited as evidence that amplifier damping factor doesn't matter. The mathematical analyses are correct, but the conclusions are incomplete and misleading!
How fast things can change!
It is March 23, 2020 and we are currently battling the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
This application note will be a departure from normal. I will make a few observations about the current situation and then look at the nuts and bolts of how we reconstructed our operations in less than 48 hours. Benchmark is 100% operational, but nothing looks the same as it did last week.
- John Siau
As an engineer I like to use "rules of thumb" to make quick estimates that help to explain the physical world around me.
These rules of thumb are easy-to-remember approximations that eliminate the need for complicated and needlessly precise calculations.
If you feel discombobulated by the complexities of high school physics, there is hope! I encourage you to step back and take a fresh approach.
If you learn a few simple rules of thumb, you can unravel mysteries of the physical world, amaze your friends, and yourself.
In this paper I will present 15 simple rules that I find useful when working with music and audio.
- John Siau
The Benchmark AHB2 power amplifier and HPA4 headphone amplifier both feature feed-forward error correction. This correction system is an important subset of the patented THX-AAA™ (Achromatic Audio Amplifier) technology. It is one of the systems that keeps these Benchmark amplifiers virtually distortion free when driving heavy loads. It is also the reason that these amplifiers can support 500 kHz bandwidths without risk of instability when driving reactive loads.
This paper explains the differences between feedback and feed-forward systems. As you read this paper, you will discover that you already understand the benefits of feed-forward correction because you use it instinctively to improve a feedback system commonly found in your automobile. If feed-forward correction can improve your driving experience, it may also improve your listening experience!
- John Siau
If you look at the back of any Benchmark product, you will find balanced XLR analog-audio connectors. As a convenience, we also provide unbalanced RCA connectors on many of our products. In all cases, the balanced interfaces will provide better performance.
We build our unbalanced interfaces to the same high standards as our balanced interfaces, but the laws of physics dictate that the balanced interfaces will provide better noise performance.
This application note explains the advantages of balanced interfaces.
- John Siau
Benchmark has introduced a new analog-to-analog volume control circuit that features a 256-step relay-controlled attenuator and a 16-step relay-controlled boost amplifier. The volume control has a +15 dB to -122 dB range in 0.5 dB steps and is a key component in the HPA4 Headphone / Line Amplifier.
Our goal was to produce an analog-to-analog volume control with the highest achievable transparency. We wanted to be able to place this volume control in front of our AHB2 power amplifier or in front of our THX-888 headphone amplifier board without diminishing the performance of either device. Our volume control would need to have lower distortion and lower noise than either of these amplifiers. Given the extraordinary performance of these THX-AAA amplifiers, this would not be an easy task!
This application note discusses the engineering decisions that went into the development of this new analog volume control circuit. The end result is a fully buffered volume control with a signal-to-noise ratio that exceeds 135 dB. THD measures better than the -125 dB (0.00006%) limits of our test equipment.
- John Siau
SEAS, a well-known manufacturer of high-quality loudspeakers, selected the Benchmark AHB2 as a key component for use in testing loudspeakers. They created an innovative test system that measures loudspeaker motor strength and moving mass with higher accuracy than previous methods. This new measurement system was documented in the December 2017 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.
According to the AES paper, the SEAS team selected the Benchmark AHB2 for the following reasons:
"A Benchmark AHB2 amplifier is used, which has excellent signal-to-noise ratio and bandwidth, low output impedance, and is suitable for laboratory use (with advanced overload protection)."
The AHB2 was designed to outperform all competing power amplifiers in terms of noise and distortion. The result is an amplifier with unrivaled transparency.
Our goal was to create the ultimate amplifier for the enjoyment of music. It is nice to know that the AHB2 is also being used to test new and improved loudspeakers!
- John Siau
Distortion measurements (THD, THD+N and IMD) are traditionally expressed in terms of percent. But what do 1%, 0.1%, 0.01% or 0.001% mean in terms of loudness or audibility?
If you are like most people you just know that 0.001% is the best of the three numbers listed above. If you are a well-trained geek you will recognize that each added leading zero represents a 20 dB improvement. 0.01% is 20 dB lower than 0.1% and 40 dB lower than 1%. The well-trained geek will convert % to dB in order to give meaning to these numbers.
When THD is expressed in terms of dB, we can easily determine how loud the distortion will be in our playback system.
Will my audio electronics produce audible distortion?
Will the distortion produced by my audio electronics be inaudible?
- John Siau
In this application note we calculate the maximum output level and noise level produced by an amplifier/loudspeaker combination.
This application note can serve as an example for calculating the maximum sound pressure levels and noise output levels for any amplifier/speaker combination.
At the 143rd AES conference in NYC, we demonstrated two Benchmark AHB2 monoblock power amplifiers driving a pair of 4-Ohm PMC MB2S studio monitors.
We were extremely impressed by the unusually clean, distortion-free, output of these monitors. They fully compliment the distortion-free performance of the AHB2 to provide a system with outstanding clarity while delivering high sound pressure levels.
In this application note we will calculate the peak SPL produced by this system. We will also calculate the acoustic noise at a distance of 1 meter from each monitor. We will also discuss some of the unique design features of the MB2S monitors that contribute to their impressive performance.
- John Siau
The following photos and system descriptions were provided to us by one of our customers, Ellery Coffman. He has put together an amazing system and has carefully treated his room with acoustic absorbers. Nicely done!
Thanks again for your help. For two speakers, it is truly unbelievable how real this tri-amp system sounds; it is nothing short of jaw dropping! It truly sounds better than the $200k+ setups I've heard in some of the high-end audio shops I've been to.
Post updated 10/8/2020
Speaker sensitivity is a measure of how loud a speaker will play at a given input power or at a given input voltage. Sensitivity is normally measured with a 1 watt power input or a 2.83 Vrms voltage input.
There have been many different speaker designs over the years and there are vast differences in speaker sensitivity. The speakers below have sensitivities ranging from about 85 dB to 109 dB.
- John Siau
Monty Montgomery takes us into the lab and uses a series of simple demonstrations to bust some very common myths about digital audio. Test your knowledge of digital audio. This video is fun to watch and easy to understand! Monty takes some difficult concepts and demonstrates them in a clear and simple manner.
Have doubts about Nyquist? Have a fear of stairsteps? Are you worried about ringing? Ever wonder what digital audio does to the timing of transients? This video is for you!
Myth- "Digital audio has stairsteps."
Myth- "Increased bit depths reduce the stairsteps."
Myth- "Analog tape has more resolution than digital audio."
Myth- "Dither masks quantization noise."
Myth- "Signals lower than one LSB cannot be reproduced."
Myth- "Digital filters make square waves and impulses ring."
Myth- "Digital systems cannot resolve timing between samples."
We have frequently used Steely Dan's Gaslighting Abbie from Two Against Nature in our listening tests. This is a spectacular CD recording with lots of dynamics and a low noise floor. Nevertheless, in a little over 5 minutes, this track has 559 intersample overs on the left track and 570 on the right track for a total of 1129. This means that there are about 3.7 intersample overs per second. The highest intersample over measures +0.8 dBFS. The track itself is not clipped, the 44.1 kHz sampling has simply captured peaks that exceed 0 dBFS. The following image shows the track with the intersample overs highlighted in red:
This track can be played cleanly by the Benchmark DAC2 and DAC3 converters. These converters accurately render the intersample peaks that were captured in the recording process. In contrast, conventional converters will clip each of the peaks highlighted in red. In this track the peaks coincide with hits to the snare drum. Converters that clip these peaks add a false brightness to the snare drum and alter its sound.
- John Siau
This application note examines the differences between the ES9018 and the new ES9028PRO. It also compares the Benchmark DAC2 and DAC3 to demonstrate the performance improvements that can be achieved in a commercial product. It has been a little over 7 years since ESS Technology introduced the revolutionary ES9018 audio D/A converter chip. This converter delivered a major improvement in audio conversion and, for 7 years, it has held its position as the highest performing audio D/A converter chip. But a new D/A chip has now claimed this top position. Curiously the successor did not come from a competing company; it came from ESS. On October 19, 2016, ESS Technology announced the all-new ES9028PRO 32-bit audio D/A converter. In our opinion, ESS is now two steps ahead of the competition!
- John Siau
In this application note we calculate the maximum output level and noise level produced by an amplifier/loudspeaker combination. Use this example for calculating the performance of your system.
At the 141st AES conference we demonstrated two Benchmark AHB2 monoblock power amplifiers driving a pair of 4-Ohm PMC IB2S studio monitors. These monitor are also available the PMC IB2SE hi-fi version.
In bridged mono, the AHB2 can deliver over 518 watts into each of these 4-Ohm speakers. This is a perfect match to PMC's 500 watt recommendation. The AHB2 easily provides the power, the output current, and the damping required by these low-impedance speakers.
"I am very impressed with the clarity and accuracy of these outstanding professional monitors. The Benchmark AHB2 and PMC IB2S are an absolutely killer combination!"
- John Siau, VP, Benchmark Media Systems, Inc.