Armchair Audiophile © 2001 Alan Kimmel

Alan Kimmel


From the orginal TubeLabs site

 Copyright © 2001 Alan Kimmel. All Rights Reserved


Armchair Audiophile 

You know what an Armchair General is. Sometimes many of us become an Armchair Audiophile. This is someone who confidently describes the performance and/or sound of an audio circuit that he's not familiar with and which he has never tested or auditioned.

It's good to have an imagination; it's good to theorize and speculate. There's nothing at all wrong with conjecture until we draw unwarranted conclusions about an audio circuit or idea we haven't tested or played music through. It's one thing to say "I believe circuit XYZ will do thus-and-so" and quite another to proclaim "circuit XYZ will do thus and so" if in fact you don't know how the circuit actually behaves.


 Sometimes the armchair audiophile may put a little too much faith in books, formulas, computers, etc. Don't misunderstand, I very much appreciate books, computers, etc. I enthusiastically use all of them, BUT such aids by themselves cannot provide enough information to allow us to draw a final conclusion about the way a circuit reproduces music.

Sometimes the armchair audiophile doesn't mind making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. He may think he knows exactly how a circuit will behave but more often than not it turns out that he doesn't know, even if he knows all the jargon. A case in point: there's probably no armchair audiophile who truly understands the Pentode cathode follower (CF) at first. He may think he understands it based on what he knows about pentode voltage amplifiers or pentodes in general. And he may speculate that its performance is complex but it is not. A pentode CF is probably unlike anything he's known before, it's a horse of a different color. A well designed pentode CF is a very good CF whose advantages justify the extra 2 or 3 parts it requires as compared to a triode CF.



Armchair audiophiles sometimes make negative assumptions. When Single Ended tube amps began re-emerging in recent times many armchair audiophiles condemned them because most SE amps measure poorly, especially zero NFB types (though I know of a noteworthy exception). Despite the generally poor specs of most SE amps they've gained in popularity anyway because people listened to SE amps and decided they sound good. Specifications are a major concern to many audiophiles but tubes are making a comeback because of how music sounds through tubes. I'm all for good specs but it's not specs that gain converts to tube audio.



Years ago I had a tendency to be an armchair audiophile on the subject of OTL (Output TransformerLess) tube amps. I almost dismissed OTLs with the assumption that they can't drive speakers very well or provide good bass (which is true of some OTLs). But my own OTL experiments have corrected my misgivings. OTLs can be designed and built to drive real world speakers well; OTLs can be designed and built which can measure well too, for those who care about that. Most importantly, OTLs can sound great.



I would interject that some people dismiss hybrid amplifiers out of hand. To be sure, some hybrid amps of the past earned a bland reputation but that wasn't the fault of the hybrid concept-- it was the EXECUTION of the hybrid concept that needed a big change. See my Hybrid Amplifiers Revisited page.



It's easy to fall into being an armchair audiophile which is okay if we don't carry it too far. The thing to guard against is jumping to conclusions, or as my friend Tom says, jumping to confusion". There are always new ideas and new circuits appearing in tube audio but let's keep an open mind with a wait-and-see attitude.



Computer simulations may sometimes lull us into being armchair audiophiles if we allow it. Computer simulations can be useful and valuable tools and I'm all for them. But if a simulation says that a tube circuit will provide lOOV output at only 0.00001% THD with zero NFB — or that it is flat from DC to light — check to see if the simulation is being a bit optimistic. Perhaps the model needs some fine tuning. Or the model may be good but it is possible that some audio circuits might do spectacularly well in one parameter but spectacularly bad in another. If a simulation says a circuit will provide much better (or much worse) performance than anything ever seen before it would be wise to build a test circuit and verify it. In fact, no matter what the simulation says, it would be prudent to build the audio circuit that's being simulated to verify what it really does. Regarding computer simulations, as President Reagan once said, "Trust, but verify."



It would be good to trust the following order:



1st - Your ears: trust them above all else.
2nd - Measurements: trust them more than computer simulations.
3rd - Computer simulations: Trust but verify.



I believe in all three of the above, but even if the measurements and the simulations appear to be marvelous we must sooner or later depend on the most important test: Our ears.

Just as an armchair general doesn't know how his battles would actually turn out in real life, likewise an armchair audiophile can draw only limited conclusions at best about new and unfamiliar circuits or ideas until he actually tests them and, most importantly, listens to music through them. And there are some audiophiles who have no music system or test bench and their interest in audio is largely academic, which is fine, but that's all the more reason to be slow to judge.



From time to time we may find ourselves in "the armchair of speculation" but let's stop and listen to the music before jumping to confusion.