Is it valid that audio equipment from the 1970s sound better than modern equipment?

I’ve written about this before.

That depends on which piece of audio equipment from the 1970s, is being compared with which piece of equipment from today.

If the equipment consists of a top-quality turntable from the late 1970s, compared to the most basic MP3-player from today, and if we assume for the moment that the type of sound file which is being played on the Portable Audio Player, is in fact an MP3 File recorded at a bit-rate of 128kbps, then the answer would be Yes. Top-quality turntables from the late 1970s were able to outperform that.

OTOH, If the audio equipment from today is a Digital Audio Player, that boasts 24-bit sound, that only happens to be able to play MP3 Files, but that is in fact playing a FLAC File, then it becomes very difficult for even the better audio equipment from the 1970s to match that.

Top-Quality Audio Equipment from the late 1970s, would have cost over $1000 for one component, without taking into account, how many dollars that would have been equivalent to today. The type of Digital Audio Player I described cost me C$ 140.- plus shipping, plus handling, in 2018.

Also, there is a major distinction, between any sort of equipment which is only meant to reproduce an Electronic signal, and equipment which is Electromechanical in nature, including speakers, headphones, phonographs… ‘The old Electromechanical technology’ was very good, except for the basic limitation, that they could not design good bass-reflex speakers, which require computers to design well. With no bass-reflex speakers, the older generations tended to listen to stereo on bigger, expensive speakers. But their sound was good, with even bass.

Personally, I always found that sound reproduction was better, using over-the-ear headphones, and this is also where sound playback has mainly gone today. Any speaker arrangement is inherently flawed, because of such things as room acoustics.

But one observation which has disappointed me recently has been, that the headphones that are meant to carry presumably better Electronic audio from the playback device to our ears, are no longer as good as headphones which existed in the 1980s – I’m not so sure of the 1970s. It’s possible that headphones in the 1970s were inherently poor, and that the 1980s just briefly saw some good headphone design. But the most-recent – i.e., 2019 – trend has been, to put equalizer chips into mid-priced headphones, where the chips are supposed to compensate for spectral problems with the actual speakers. The problem is the fact that even properly designed equalizer-chips only have so many frequency-bands, while spectral defects in Electromechanical devices may have hundreds of frequency peaks and troughs. (:2) And when Humans’ ears receive sound with such hyperfine spectral oddities, we don’t hear exactly what’s wrong with the sound. We just hear that something is wrong with it.

I’m hoping that starting from the year 2020, the industry will start selling some good headphones again. (:1)


 

A basic assumption that I tend to make is, that I have an Electronic device that plays back high-quality signals, but that the quality of my listening experience is capped by the quality of whichever headphones I’ve plugged in to it, with the headphones thus being lower in quality.

The way it is today, the headphones could be significantly more expensive than the electronic device, unless the Electronic device is actually a smart-phone, but still deliver the weaker sound at the Electromechanical end. Well back in the 1970s, the Electronic device would definitely have been more expensive, and bulkier, and not deliver ‘Electronic transparency’.

However, in today’s markets, for whatever reason, consumers will sometimes buy the cheapest Electronic device, only not to receive their money’s worth, just because at the lowest end of the price-range, they get almost nothing. The older generation of consumers either tended to be slave-drivers, who would always want the cheapest devices, not knowing what goes into the technology, or be audiophiles, who would do the opposite, and always buy the most expensive devices. And those old-generation spending habits just don’t work in today’s markets.

 

1:)

Presently, my best headphones are a set of Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise-Cancelling Headphones. And I’ve been listening to music with them as I’ve been editing this posting, together with my Samsung Galaxy S9 Phone. This phone’s sound chip is much better than the one in the S6 was.

But the QC 25 Phones have as drawback, that as soon as the battery gets partially depleted, their internal equalizer chips stop working… Within the past hour, I put a fresh battery into them, and now they are good enough again, that I could use them to evaluate the different compression-methods I used on the songs, I have stored on the S9.


 

2:)

In theory, it would be possible today, to design an equalizer chip that goes far beyond what the 8-band or even the 20-band equalizers of past decades could do.

It would be possible to measure a frequency-response curve that has more than 100 data-points, to compute their inverses, and then to compute the Type 1 Discrete Cosine Transform of the resulting equalization curve.

The output values of this DCT could next be programmed in to a chip that uses a ‘Charge-Coupled Delay Line’ – a ‘CCD’ – in order to forward analog audio along a series of potentiometer, IC equivalents. The positions of these miniaturized potentiometer equivalents could be programmed by a laser, after the actual manufacture, when the chip is adapted to one model of head-phones.

But if an equalizer chip with more than 100 settings was in fact incorporated into a flawed set of headphones, then my next question would be, ‘How constant are those 100 spectral data-points, that were initially measured? Something like small changes in the geometry of the listener’s head, could change the frequency response.’ Having an equalizer chip with over 100 settings, but with numerous settings inaccurate, would do no good. (:3)


 

I should add that, even though the first ICs ever, were designed in the late 1970s, the kind of ICs needed in my headphones would have been completely impossible. The first ICs did not use MOSFETs, as many modern ones do. And, even given MOSFET-based ICs, it’s a tremendous challenge, which has only been solved in recent years, to operate such chips at supply voltages below 3V.

My present headphones operate off a single, AAA 1.5V (alkaline) battery! This type of device will often fail to work off a 1.2V, rechargeable NI-MH battery, just due to the slightly lower battery-voltage, and will stop working properly when the correct battery starts to get weak, for the same reason.

I would not be able to perpetuate the economy of frequently putting ‘fresh’ batteries into these headphones, if I did not possess a supply of rechargeable alkaline batteries.


 

3:)

When I just do a little thought experiment on this last subject (of a DCT-based equalizer chip), I need to acknowledge that some specific method would need to be used to avoid sound aliasing, when an analog audio signal is fed down a CCD delay line. And because no need exists to record the sound at 44.1kHz or at 48kHz, therefore, no need for a ‘brick-wall filter’, the simplest way to do that might just be to sample it at 96kHz, on the assumption that Humans do not hear ultrasound.

If the EQ chip had 192 data-points, this would mean that the smallest difference in frequencies which it could separate, form a linear scale, and would equal (96kHz / 384 = 250Hz / equalization-value).

What this also means is that, if some sort of sub-bass boost was wanted, it would need to be achieved by additional circuitry, presumably on the same chip.

Dirk

 

 

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