HELIUS DESIGNS: in conversation with Howard Popeck – part one

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Geoffrey ….. why is there such diversity between audiophile values and the audio engineering establishment's values?

I’m not sure there is – indeed, I would argue that, more often than not, audio engineers are just audiophiles who have taken their interest to the next level and gone pro. Perhaps I should start by suggesting that audio engineering has little to do with music. We’re basically people who like solving design problems in the context of music reproduction.

Which in practice means what?

Well, when I concentrate on optimizing some part of a system performance, I focus on very specific aspects of a design. I look at spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes, meters etc. and rarely listen to music ( when designing ) At the true engineering level, it’s all pink noise, square waves and Fourier transforms.

Where does the music come in?

Only when I’m finished do I feed music into the system - and herein lies a problem that’s common to all audio enthusiasts; put simply,( and assuming the system sounds good ) the results of ones thought and effort are ultimately subjective and reflect personal preferences. You can often tell that the system sounds different after you’ve altered something, but it can be really difficult to decide if ‘different’ means ‘better’

Quite so. So what about recording quality?

Hmm. Recording quality can vary so much that one record might sound fabulous with your latest design modifications ….. but another won’t.

Okay, I get that. Thanks. Now then, in your opinion what are the primary differences between professional audio engineers and audiophiles?

As professional audio engineers, we spend our lives listening for cumulative and incremental effects of design change, whereas audiophiles are usually customers who listen to the complete package – the end result; in a commercial sense, they are both judge and jury of your tastes in sound reproduction.

But it’s not exclusively us caught in this trap, audiophiles often concentrate on specific areas of a system performance when evaluating a product – the classic example being the enthusiast who listens for ‘more detail’ or ‘tight, articulate bass’ in the music. From our perspective, it’s easy to accentuate the upper midrange and give the impression of greater detail - the question is; how legitimate is this as a commercial tactic?

And so …..?

I’m going to prefix this next statement by saying that Helius has always prided itself on aiming for absolute neutrality in its products – which means we’ll never be ‘flavour of the month’, but after nearly 40 years, our products rarely appear on the second hand market and we’re still going strong. Our customers remain very loyal. May I expand on this?

Certainly

Thanks. Well ….. reverting to the last point of questionable commercial tactics, let’s say you have a dynamically dull but otherwise wonderful recording, is it so wrong to try and restore something of the pizzazz lost in an ancient recording?

Whoever’s product you like, the name of the game here is enjoying the music.

Audiophiles are music lovers first and foremost and tend to pick hi-fi components that reflect their musical preferences; however, a system optimized for hip-hop might not be the best for listening to a Russian Orthodox liturgy. ( thumping percussion vs. ecclesiastical ambience )

When embarking on a new design project, audio engineers must first decide on two things– firstly what musical tastes they are catering for and secondly the expected retail price, and herein lies the next truism – money buys versatility.

Frankly – I hadn’t previously thought in those terms

The more expensive a system, the wider the range of music it can cater for. Once you get past spending £50k on your hi-fi, customers have every right to expect the system to cover the full spectrum of music – from modern, avant-garde French jazz through to Chinese hammered dulcimer – at these prices, your hi-fi should sound fan-bloody-tastic !

Point taken. But lower down the budget, then what?

Where budgets are more modest, it makes more sense to target your product – students are more likely to be into trance music than Frank Sinatra… So from the point of view of the audio engineer, the former is catering for entirely electronically generated sounds whereas Frank’s recordings were laid down decades ago on ever-degrading tapes and are more likely to be listened to by personages of pensionable age.

As for who serves whom in this game ( audiophile or engineer ) is a chicken and eggs question. Some of us create Lamborghinis in a world where Ferrari is the bigger name…I don’t think we’re ultimately so disconnected from the enthusiast – if we were, we’d soon go out of business.

Over time, our tastes in music change, and so dies our expectations from its reproduction.

I’ll finish this question with a quote from Shakespeare. ( Much Ado. Act 2. Sc 3)

“Doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.”

In other words, both engineers and enthusiasts evolve over time - the boom boxes we loved as teenagers don’t suit us when we discover Paganini played on a Stratocaster.....(maybe that should be a Stradivarius)....hell – who care as long as it sounds good.

My message is simply this – use the hi-fi to enjoy the music...but Helius is best !

Thank you Geoffrey. Can we do this, or something like this again?

Certainly

http://heliusdesigns.co.uk/

To be continued

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