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June 2012 editorial: should we keep things simple?

[My System]

Audio is getting increasingly complicated - Does it improve audio quality?

Reviewer: Mike Cox - TNT UK
Reviewed: May, 2012

I have been interested in audio replay for many years starting out with a simple Teleton receiver, Goldring turntable and nameless speakers. At the time this system sounded so good to me yet by modern standards it was very simple and basic engineering.

The question that I have is, is the modern taste for increasing complexity really delivering improved quality? I suspect the increasing complexity is moving the game on in small steps but it is costing us a lot. Some of the complexity is adding nothing to the sound, just the look and feel, an example being the trend to machine the casework from solid billets of aluminium.

In a recent edition of one of the regular HiFi magazines they reviewed a power amp costing 18,000 UKP and very nice it looks. The actual content I would estimate at no more than 1000 UKP so where does the extra value come from? The casework looks like it is machined from the solid, nice but very expensive and not very environmentally friendly. The amp is a class D with linear power supply, I assembled one of those recently using boards supplied from China and the whole thing cost me lest than 200 UKP including linear power supply and case.

Do we need the complexity of class D amplification? The marketing hype tells us how efficient class D amps are and they are good but a well designed class A/B amplifier can be very good, they only loose out when they are heavily biased into class A mode. I am currently listening to a pair of monoblock amps from Nene Valley Audio (NVA), their mk2 A40 design, using a simple class A/B design, that draws less than 4W at idle for the pair, my class D amps draw similar idle power. I realise the theoretical efficiency of class D amps is better the class A/B but in practice how much difference does it make? [Editor's note: difference in stand-by can be negligible, but at full power it becomes relevant: 50% vs 85-90%!]

If we look at turntables, the extremes of of engineering is just amazing as is the cost. If we were to audition a simple, low cost design like the Rega RP3 against one of the exotic models using the same cartridge is the difference really justified for the x300 increase in price? Sure, if you can afford it why not but is it a justified use of the earths resources? Along with the NVA amps I am listening to records using a very basic tonearm made from wood, it is not as glamorous as my regular Rega RB1000 arm but is does the job and the music is just as enjoyable (review to follow).

Digital sources suffer from increasing complexity as well, do we need high speed digital signal processing with complex up sampling and filtering? My regular DAC has no digital and little analogue filtering yet to me sounds wondeful, does a DAC costing 20 times as much with fancy up sampling and digital filtering sound better? I suggest it sounds different but not necessarily more correct.

To finish up I would like to challenge the audio manufacturers to look at their efforts and ask can it be simpler, cost less, use less of the earth resources while still achieving the same results? I will be watching our forums as I hope my challenge will cause some discussion.

© Copyright 2012 Mike Cox - mike@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com

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