There is no such thing as an “accurate chardonnay” so what about loudspeakers?


In one of my recent posts about headphone accuracy, I mentioned how I was a fan of Dr. Sean Olive, Director of Acoustic Research at Harman and have a deep respect for the work he’s done.  From time to time, I follow his blog.  Tonight, I happened to come across a phrase that Dr. Olive used in responding to someone who posted a comment to his blog post, “What Loudspeaker Specifications are relevant to Quality.
Can we compare
Chardonnay to speakers?

Dr. Olive used a phrase that made me bust out laughing.  He wrote:

…audio is a science –not to be compared with wine. There is no such thing as an “accurate chardonnay” whereas loudspeakers can and should be as accurate as possible in order to faithfully reproduce the recorded music (ie the art). I think of loudspeakers as being the wine glass, which wine experts say should be clear and transparent so that it doesn’t misrepresent the true color flavor of the wine, which is the art.

I have indeed heard audio equipment and loudspeakers especially compared to wine.  Now, I’ll never get the “There is no such thing as an ‘accurate chardonnay'” out of my head.

One interesting thing in the blog post that I did want to draw attention to pertained to the consensus from a panel that Dr. Olive served on where the panelists talked about the topic of “What loudspeaker specifications are relevant to perception?”  Dr. Olive noted that he and his panelist colleagues reached a quick consensus on the following points:

  1. The perception of loudspeaker sound quality is dominated by linear distortions, which can be accurately quantified and predicted using a set of comprehensive anechoic frequency response measurements (see my previous posting here
  2. Both trained and untrained listeners tend to prefer the most accurate loudspeakers when measured under controlled double-blind listening conditions (see this article here).
  3. The relationship between perception and measurement of nonlinear distortions is less well understood and needs further research. Popular specifications like Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) and Intermodulation Distortion (IM) do not accurately reflect the distortion’s audibility and effect on the perceived sound quality of the loudspeaker.
  4. Current industry loudspeaker specifications are woefully inadequate in characterizing the sound quality of the loudspeaker. The commonly quoted “20 Hz – 20 kHz , +- 3 dB” single-curve specification is a good example. Floyd Toole made the observation that there is more useful performance information on the side of a tire (see tire below) compared to what’s currently found on most loudspeaker spec sheets (see Floyd’s new book “Sound Reproduction”).

I completely agree with Dr. Olive’s conclusions about the audio industry. Dr. Olive stated:

This doesn’t prove consumers care less about loudspeaker sound quality, only that there is less available money to purchase it. Marketing research studies indicate that sound quality remains an important factor in consumers’ audio purchase decisions. Given the opportunity to hear different loudspeakers under controlled unbiased listening conditions, consumers will tend to prefer the most accurate ones. Unfortunately, with the demise of the speciality audio dealer and the growth of internet-based sales, consumers rarely have the opportunity to audition different loudspeakers – even under the most biased and uncontrolled listening conditions.

I too made a somewhat similar conjecture when I asked the question, “Is the audiophile hobby dead?”. I firmly believe that audio quality is important and people will prefer it. But, with the decline of the hifi store, the shift to mobile listening and the price of good high end gear, it’s become more and more difficult for people to hear truly good sound. I hope products like Pioneer’s acclaimed bookshelf speakers, designed by Andrew Jones help in this area. We need quality audiophile products at “poor audiophile” prices.

Remember, you can still get a good bottle of chardonnay for a song.  If we’re going to insist on comparing loudspeakers to wine, then let’s at least make sure we have some spectacular loudspeaker vintages that the everyday person can enjoy.