"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Crossover: Escalation

Toby Roworth

Mar 11, 2013

Whist watching one of the many brilliant crossover episodes of Voyager, and pondering what I could blog about, I struck an idea — crossover blog posts. The idea is simple; a topic is suggested which myself and a fellow resident of the blogosphere both blog about, the posts get sent to the other, reviewed and then published.
This time myself and Tom Sherrington of "The Musing Mill" fame have both used the title "Escalation":
Escalation is the tendency for competing parties to use increasingly more force to beat one another, in a leapfrog style — if a competitor buys bigger guns, you buy even bigger guns — or better armour. Before you know it both sides have nuclear warheads and everyone's radioactive dust.
There are numerous examples if escalation in history. But that's not what this post's interested in. Much more interesting in audio escalation, which precludes the eventual war between sound and sound engineers (I'm not looking forward to their 8Hz weapons of mass defecation).
This can start early for many people, when a child inevitably receives a "My First Annoying Musical Device" from a vindictive grandparent. A child hears ridiculously low bitrate music through a speaker better suited to burning. Yet they love it — they don't know better, and can explore the wonderful world of cause and effect.
The child then grows up, usually, and eventually hits that stage of life where girls listen to really really really awful music and boys listen to anything where their parents don't notice the swearing. When I was young that meant getting a cassette player with a set of uncomfortably-on-ear headphones, but these days tends to be a cheap MP3 player with earbuds the project outwards (thank you Mr Ives). It sounds much better than their annoying musical device, which has probably run out of batteries by now (why do parents never replace them?), and plays music made by other people, some of whom even have more musical ability.
Then teens hit, and music becomes the outlet for all the emotional strife that comes with growing up. How it sounds starts to become serious, and along comes Dr Dre with uncomfortable headphones that are "the perfect mix of sound and style". The adolescent is happy, as they sound better than their £5 earbuds from Tesco.
Eventually a young adult gets a job, and can finally afford a home cinema system, or a hifi, that comes in separate parts. And so begins the slow upgrade path, driven by technological and financial advances.

Here's a nice graph showing sound qualities during this time:

Except for two types of people people, who this post is really about.

The Post Begins


Audiophiles and audio professionals are both very similar and significantly different. They both share an interest in good sound, and are willing to spend money to get it. Here is the first difference — the professionals usually spend someone else's money.

Scale is different too — the 'philes have a living room, the pros have a studio or, preferably, a several thousand seater venue. As such, the 'philes expect good sound to come from little speakers, and the pros enjoy how much good sound can come from a bunch of massive speakers.
They also have different ideas of perfect sound. A professional is all about linear — flat from 20-20k is the best thing in the world. A 'phile is far more likely to go for a "musical" or "coloured" sound, hence why they like valve amps.
The final difference rests in perceived knowledge — pros tend to give a much better impression that they know what they're talking about. Whether this is true is debatable...
Either way, we both suffer from escalation.

The Post Actually Begins (for real this time)


I have a SqueezeBox boom. This sounded nice for a couple of years, as many efforts were put in to make it sound nice, including custom DSP.

Then I got given my EMIs from the past. Once amped and flown, their larger size blew the SqueezeBox out of the water, as they could actually shift air around. Suddenly, when I moved from the EMI room to the SqueezeBox room I got disappointed. What had once sounded good didn't.
But then, this year, I put them on top of one another, as a two-way system. The SqueezeBox now adds its nicer top end to the EMIs nice-and-full low end. But now it's even worse when I turn either of them off — I've allowed myself to get used to better quality sound, so what used to be the best I knew is now sad to listen to.
And then I got some nice IEMs, and now I miss all the detail when I turn up the bedroom speakers.

Here's a nice graph showing sound quality changing with systems over time:



I'm very concerned what'll happen if I ever buy a pair of SE535s…
So it seems that as sound quality and my ability to recognise it race to the top, the winner is whoever makes the equipment.
To summarise, audio escalation is the tendency for a better sound to make a previously acceptable sound sound not so good.
This is a serious problem, as we're bombarded by enough awful sound every day as it is (station announcements, phone speakers, small childs). By increasing the quality of sound in some part of your life you're probably lowering the perceived quality of sound everywhere else.
This effect is also noticeable in audio encodings, the type of compression I don't normally talk about. Play Average Joe a low-bitrate MP3 (or any YouTube video), and he probably won't notice how bad it sounds. But do a blind comparison using someone who's ripped everything as FLAC and you'll probably see a wrinkled nose — they've heard better, and they know it.
Combine nice encodings and nice noise-makers and you're in trouble.

Another Subtitle, followed by another apology


The problem with writing posts on the train, over several days, is that they represent how scattergun my thought processes are.
So, as a thank you for getting this far, my final point(s):
And yet, unlike most examples of escalation, there is decentalation too. This is sound engineers' most treasured secret, so it only seems fair that I reveal it — if you've read this far then you deserve it, but by reading the next section you agree to never use it against us.
People get used to the sound they're listening to. You've probably noticed this if you've ever gone from a loud to quiet place, or vice-versa, and nothing sound the volume you'd expect. This is really useful most of the time, as it means that really loud gig doesn't seem do bad after a couple of minutes, and that when in a quiet place whispering sweet nothings you can hear everything.
This, unfortunately works for sound quality to. Put in your worst pair if headphones, chuck YouTube's finest audio into them and after a couple of minutes you won't even notice how dreadful it sounds unless you explicitly think about it - here's another graph:

It would seem this is something we've picked up so we can listen to what we want to, not the surrounding badness. If you're watching a film on your laptop you're probably watching it to enjoy the plot/action/many faces of Nicholas Cage, not to test your speakers. As such, you'll pay attention to the film, and when that explosion comes and the tinny speakers don't do it justice you'll probably think "wow — look at all the fire, I want a batmobile" or "oh no how will [character] get out of this [probably contrived situation]".
So, much as we like to have nice speakers that sound amazing, at the end of the day it has to be really bad for you to notice more than a few minutes in, so maybe the constant upgrades might be a little superfluous.
I've known Tom since I started primary school, and can claim at least some credit for the brilliant name of his blog. He tends to write short essays pondering everything from football to the value of comedy, in between reading "Master of History" (or similar, less emphatic, course name) at Southampton University. Tom's post on Escalation can be found here; ensure you follow the idiomatic link back here at the end!
If you want to give crossover blogging a try, give me a shout and a title and I'll try and fit you in the schedule.