Buying an audio product is much like buying a car. There are two distinct types of audio products. Some audio products are designed to be transparent while others are designed to provide a euphonic experience. These types are as different as a Porsche and a Cadillac. There is not a right and wrong type of car. Likewise there is not a right and wrong type of audio product. The choice belongs to the user, but the user must be fully aware of the differences before they buy.
The Porsche and the Cadillac are both luxury cars, but they provide a completely different driving experience. They are designed to achieve entirely different goals. The Porsche is designed to connect the driver to the road and maximize performance. The Porsche driver will want to avoid bumpy roads and enjoy the exhilaration of high speed on smooth, dry pavement. The Cadillac is designed to isolate the driver from the road and maximize comfort. The Cadillac driver does not want to feel bumps; all roads should feel comfortable. Drivers must choose which experience they prefer.
Transparent audio products are like the Porsche. They are designed to connect the listener directly to the recording. The listener can expect a raw and detailed rendition of the recording. An excellent recording will be exhilarating, but the bumps and potholes in a poor recording will be fully exposed. In contrast, a euphonic system may be able to make most recordings relaxing and enjoyable. In such a system, the occasional bump and pothole may go unnoticed. The owner of a euphonic system may be able to enjoy recordings that are harsh or unpleasant on a transparent system. But the euphonic system may fail to deliver the full exhilaration of a spectacular recording. An audio enthusiast must choose which experience they prefer.
The Porsche driver expects to hear the engine, feel the road, shift the gears, and participate in every aspect of the driving experience. The Cadillac driver expects a quiet and relaxed driving experience where the car takes care of as many mundane tasks as possible. The cabin is quiet, gears are shifted imperceptibly and automatically, cruise control is engaged and steering is effortless. Lights, wipers, climate control, and parallel parking are all automated. The car should almost drive itself.
Some listeners may want to be able to hear the exact sonic signature of a musical instrument, and may want to hear the full impact of the percussion through a transparent system. In contrast, some listeners may want to hear a more relaxed presentation that helps them unwind from the stresses of the day.
The Porsche can be measured objectively in terms of horsepower, acceleration, top speed, cornering and stopping distance. In contrast, the Cadillac should be evaluated subjectively in terms of comfort and styling. The Cadillac will measure "poorly" in relation to the objective benchmarks that we set for sports cars, but this does not indicate that there is any deficiency in the Cadillac. The measurements only confirm our suspicion that the Cadillac is not a sports car. In most cases, it is impossible to compare a Porsche to a Cadillac on the basis of objective measurements. Nevertheless, we can compare the Porsche to other sports cars on the basis of measurements. Porsche publishes many objective measurements while Cadillac only publishes a few.
Transparent audio systems can be measured objectively in terms of frequency response, distortion, noise, and time-base errors. In contrast, a euphonic system must be evaluated subjectively in terms of its sonic character and musicality. By definition, the euphonic system will measure "poorly" in terms of the objective benchmarks that we set for transparent systems, but this does not indicate that there is any deficiency in the euphonic system. The measurements only confirm our suspicion that the euphonic system is not transparent. In most cases it is impossible to compare a transparent system to a euphonic system on the basis of objective measurements. Nevertheless, we can compare two transparent systems on the basis of measurements. Manufacturers of transparent audio systems tend to publish many specifications while manufacturers of euphonic systems publish very few.
Measurements are the benchmarks that quantify the transparency of an audio product. As our name implies, Benchmark Media Systems is dedicated to the design and manufacture of transparent audio products. We strive to achieve the highest benchmarks in the industry. When we introduce a new product, it is designed to measure better than any competing product. Benchmark does not build euphonic audio products and we will never build euphonic audio products under the Benchmark name. This does not mean that we look down our noses at euphonic products as they have a legitimate role in hi-fi systems.
Euphonic products are usually not appropriate for studio monitoring, but they do play an important role in the recording process. Many professional audio products are designed to create specific sonic effects, tonal changes, distortion, noise, and even time-base errors. Measurements will show that these special euphonic tools are not transparent (but we already knew that!). Measurements should only be used to evaluate products that are designed to be transparent.
What happens if I take the wheels off my Cadillac and put them on my Porsche? What happens if I put the Porsche exhaust system into my Cadillac? Chances are, the mixed-up cars will fail to meet my expectations. Nevertheless, there are cars that target a space between the Porsche and the Cadillac.
The BMW is marketed as a luxury sports car. It combines many of the performance characteristics of the Porsche with many of the comforts of the Cadillac. It may not be as fast as the Porsche or as comfortable as the Cadillac, but it provides a well-engineered middle ground. All of the parts on a BMW are designed to work in harmony. You cannot create a BMW by randomly mixing a Porsche with a Cadillac.
Likewise, a random mix of transparent and euphonic audio products may not deliver the desired result. Any mixing of product types needs to be well thought out. The safest approach is to purchase the entire system from one manufacturer. In most cases, the manufacturer has designed the components to play well together. If you choose to mix components from various manufacturers, here are some practical suggestions:
There are many paths to a euphonic system: If one euphonic component is inserted into an otherwise transparent audio chain, the system will take on the euphonic character of that one component in a predictable manner. If two or more euphonic components are placed in the chain, the results may be unpredictable. Unless these euphonic components are designed to work together, the sound may no longer be "euphonic", and it may become difficult to enjoy the system. It is always possible to get too much of a good thing, but it is also possible to produce something that sounds really bad. You may want to try before you buy if you intend to mix euphonic components. The decision must be subjective.
If you have one euphonic component that you really like, you may want to compliment it with transparent components. The transparent components will faithfully deliver the character of the euphonic component. Many Benchmark customers enjoy our products in combination with one euphonic component.
In the studio, engineers may use transparent microphone preamplifiers, A/D converters and D/A converters in order to capture the euphonic character of their favorite microphones. In other cases, it may be the microphone preamplifier that provides the character. In the studio, the engineer will often combine many euphonic components in creative ways in order to create a desired sound. The sounds created in the studio will be altered when played through a euphonic playback system, but many listeners enjoy this effect.
There is only one path to a transparent system: all components must be transparent. Transparency is lost if any component in the audio chain is not transparent. For example, the transparency of a Benchmark DAC2 cannot be appreciated if the power amplifier is not transparent. Many of our customers enjoy the experience of a highly transparent audio system. Many are enjoying the combination of a DAC2 directly connected to an AHB2. If the goal is to create a transparent system, all components should be selected based upon their measured performance. In many ways, this is the easiest type of system to configure. The decisions can be objective.
The transparent system will match the transparent studio monitoring systems that were used to mix and master your favorite recordings. Your listening experience will closely match what the engineers and musicians heard in the studio.
Drive a Porsche, ride in a Cadillac, and see which you like. Listen to a transparent system, and sample the many different flavors of euphonic systems. Learn what you like, and understand what you are buying.
Our staff is always willing to answer your questions in order to help you with this process. We can't help you with your next car purchase, but we can help you with your audio gear.
We don't believe your audio system needs to cost as much as your new car!
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