WE, THE JURY. Civilised audio and hi-fi equipment opinions & debates #001 (COUNTRY CONFIRMATION-BIAS) updated 07/12/20

This is where WE ask the questions and you folks give your answers.

Jury members are by invitation only.

QUESTION:

Is it probable (rather than merely possible) that when makers fine-tune (or ‘voice’) their items, they do so with a confirmation bias towards the ‘sound’ of their country? For example, a US maker of amplifiers is highly likely to use US speakers in the development process, and vice-versa too. Similarly with UK maker, German and Japanese makers, etc.

Thus, for the buyer, it might make sense to at least start an upgrade process by first considering candidate items from countries that design other parts of their system? I am not suggesting any more than a first step of course.

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GRAHAM POUND (jury member) writes ...

Hifi markets and manufacturers alike have long been held to have a characteristic sound, with differences between British, German, Japanese or American – and between 'East Coast' and 'West Coast' American at that. Manufacturers were alleged to have a 'house sound', implying – I suspect more at the behest of marketers than anyone else – that if you owned one component from a manufacturer, you would be best off owning others from the same company too. I doubt though that design choices that altered a sound from the 'neutral ideal' were really last minute tweaks, but deliberate design choices incumbent in a design from the outset.

By and large however, I suspect that much of this is really myth, born perhaps in an era of bearded engineers in their potting sheds, but lovingly and perhaps cynically perpetuated by marketers and reviewers everywhere – all of whom had something to sell, of course! I think that for a long time now, in as far as a component or speaker is voiced at all, it would be first in reference to the manufacturer's own products (as well as their chosen range of references), and perhaps secondarily to the main market they hoped to sell in.

I think this is more true for speakers, and much less true for electronics if it’s done at all. I honestly think that modern design techniques and processes allow very accurate and precise designs to be realised that could not be done 'by ear' and that by and large voicing doesn't go beyond making the initial design choices. And I also suspect that most engineers involved in design are more concerned with performance than with 'voicing'. Indeed, some – famously like Harbeth's Alan Shaw – actually reject the idea of voicing or any audible differences in electronics altogether.

Rather, their engineering designs reflect intended use cases – speakers for the studio, home, theatre, stadium or car, to name just a few different uses. Given the prevalence and persistence of this idea of hifi components having a sound characteristic of their country of origin, and of their particular manufacturer, it's understandable that someone thinking of buying a new component to add to their system might feel they ought to at least 'stay at home' to ensure the best compatibility between their new purchase and their current system. However, in my opinion this notion is archaic and not truly grounded in fact.

Furthermore, manufacturing and marketing are highly international in scope these days, with companies selling to increasingly global markets. The processes, materials and techniques at their disposal also ensure that old limitations that might have affected sound in predictable ways in the past no longer exist. Indeed, I'd venture to suggest they haven't for several decades now.

Thus, in reply to the original question, I think it's highly improbable that a manufacturer would develop a product geared towards just one country or associated sound, and would not want to risk its reputation with a product 'voiced' by ear to a particular set of personal preferences. Hifi has to work everywhere, and yet its job remains the same as ever. I think we should disregard hyperbolic marketing about tuning or voicing, whether it’s about Japanese components that are 'UK tuned' or which are the product of some bearded boffin in his potting shed. Myths and stories feel great, but they tell us little about reality.

\That's the job of our hifi equipment, and we expect it to tell nothing but the truth. And happily, for a very long time now that's what it's been doing.

GARY MILLER (jury member) writes ...

Yes ... But they tend to use an average of lots of differing speaker designs 'impedances, Sensitivities etc. They have to so as to leave no blind spots... Some amplifier engineers like Naim for example ' build their amps to work optimally with their own speaker cables' din interconnects ' . Naim now do however supply RCA connectors in an ever expanding market place. I have owned a couple of Bryston amps and do feel that the US sound singnature is one of large soundstage over musicians being perfectly placed with every Rosin bow brush exposed... The only european amp that I can say sounds huge is the Hegel ' I currently have a H200 from europe that is a bit of both .... Good soundstage and focus.. Great qith vinyl and live music.. It's all down to taste at the end of the day..

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PAUL BELSHAW (jury member) writes ...

I would say that a maker may often tune (eg) a speaker for the kind of music he prefers. BUT I think this is more of an issue with high end manufacturers than mass market gear.

One example would be Living Voice (which raises another line of thought-designing a speaker to work best with valve components rather than solid state). It is common among audiophiles outside of the UK to regard UK products as having "a sound", especially older equipment (and older audiophiles). It used to be commonly accepted that UK speakers would be voiced differently than US speakers.

And that Japanese speakers would sound different again). The thinking was that the home environmemt/construction played a large role in this. American rooms being bigger, more often cement basement floors. English rooms being smaller, more often suspended, wooden flooring.Type a message...

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MATTHEW DAVID (jury member) writes ...

For me it depends, on how the overall sound experience is to my hearing capabilities. Furthermore mixing equipment us and Japan German ETC... sounds fine but, how the speakers are constructed or crossed over via electronic or passive, the amount of drivers and most importantly the efficiency of the overall speaker, and the amplifier, i mixed tubed HH scott with 70s Sony amplifiers and pioneer crossovers to close up, i think its perfectly normal/ and i incurage people to swap a thing or 2 . After all "Audio is a experiment that is never ending" nor perfect to everyone who preserves it.And what music is played through the system in particular!

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ALEX BAKER (jury member) writes ...

Hi Howard, What a very interesting question.

I think it’s certainly possible as you say, but perhaps not probable in my view – of course this is just my opinion. If we look at the likes of speaker designers such as Alan Shaw (Harbeth), he has no bias toward using British manufacturers of audio equipment to test and voice his products with. In fact, quite the opposite – he will use amplifiers from manufacturers like Hegel (Denmark) purely due to their power delivery characteristics.

I would (purely anecdotally) add to this with a thought that many Japanese manufacturers are likely to have voiced their amplifiers using British speakers over the years – even if we just look at the compact LS 3/5A from yesteryear, this was a “reference grade” compact speaker which was very popular in Japan due to living space constraints, so it makes sense to assume Japanese manufacturers may have voiced their components with similar-sized compact speakers with the BBC sound signature.

Rather than be concerned, as a consumer, about which country my HiFi came from, I would be more concerned and intrigued by the potential benefits from system integration; i.e. matching brands of my components for a consistent sound signature (all Naim, Marantz, Rega or Meridian, for instance).I hope this makes sense Howard. I suppose I'm saying that there is less correlation with country and sound signature, than with brand and sound signature.

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TIM BIRCH (jury member) writes ...

Hi Howard. Best sound I ever heard was from my mates mums partners music centre (Fischer? who knows doesn't matter) in 1980. On Tandy headphones bigger than Skylab. Dark side of the moon on cassette. This is my reference system.

I will never hear anything as good again. If I were to employ Dieter Rams and give him 1 million pounds to personally design me the very best in anything he wanted I would never get within a lightyear of that first experience.

So please don't think I am being rude - but whether or not a manufacturer creates within their paradigm? Yes of course! Do I think anyone should buy more stuff based on that fact? No sir and a 1000 times no! Where would be the experience in that?

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COLIN SHELBOURN (jury member) writes ...

Hello Howard I've heard about that sort of thing with regard to speakers, so it's definitely something to bear in mind.

In theory, if everyone is accurate, it shouldn't matter at all but we all know how that goes. I must admit I'm very suspicious of voicing amplifiers. I'd much rather they were the old Quad straight wire with gain (a few probably are) but I can see it happening with speakers.

We're about to launch a new loudspeaker and adding the much-vaunted baffle step circuit to it changed its character completely and, in this case, not for the better, so it is easily done. I think it's entirely logical to match items of equipment from the same country - even the same decade.

Interesting to see how it's received if you post this. Your groups have quite an international following. All the best and take care, Colin

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GARRY MILLER (jury member) writes ...

Yes ... But they tend to use an average of lots of differing speaker designs 'impedances, Sensitivities etc. They have to so as to leave no blind spots... Some amplifier engineers like Naim for example ' build their amps to work optimally with their own speaker cables' din interconnects ' .

Naim now do however supply RCA connectors in an ever expanding market place.

I have owned a couple of Bryston amps and do feel that the US sound singnature is one of large soundstage over musicians being perfectly placed with every Rosin bow brush exposed... The only european amp that I can say sounds huge is the Hegel ' I currently have a H200 from europe that is a bit of both .... Good soundstage and focus.. Great qith vinyl and live music.. It's all down to taste at the end of the day.

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PAUL BELSHAW (jury member) writes ...

I would say that a maker may often tune (eg) a speaker for the kind of music he prefers. BUT I think this is more of an issue with high end manufacturers than mass market gear. One example would be Living Voice (which raises another line of thought-designing a speaker to work best with valve components rather than solid state). It is common among audiophiles outside of the UK to regard UK products as having "a sound", especially older equipment (and older audiophiles). It used to be commonly accepted that UK speakers would be voiced differently than US speakers. And that Japanese speakers would sound different again). The thinking was that the home environmemt/construction played a large role in this. American rooms being bigger, more often cement basement floors. English rooms being smaller, more often suspended, wooden flooring.

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KENNETH MITCHELL (jury member) writes ...

Interesting topic and no easy answer to put into words. It depends on who is running the show at any one company and the size of that company. The product designer, the sales and marketing team, accountants or independent advisors, internal or external to the company can all have an input. It also depends on who has the strongest voice in the organisation or even who offers up partnering equipment in the development cycle of a business as to what an individual company will do.

As a global product manager I represented the voice of customer feedback and directed that towards product development. We also looked at competent competitor products, regardless of country of origin. How inward or how outward the decision makers in a company are will determine how “me too” or how “me different” their products development process is.

The clearer the decision process is in an organisation will also determine the final product or voicing. Sometimes, the best of intentions for improvement (or in this case product voicing) can end up in the most terrible of products. Sales success is also not a measure of product purity or “fitness for purpose”. Sometimes single vision (lfd?) manufacturer’s could have the best product for amplification or Alan Shaw for Harbeth speakers are good examples but defining what people perceive as best is “subjective” because everyone hears slightly differently.

Do they restrict partnering products to English manufacturers? In the case of Alan Shaw, he has used different amplifier countries of origin over time. In a global world, it would be short sighted to work only with one partnering product. Is this not why benchmark or reference products exist at different price points (not that they are perfect products). So depending on how ambitious or far reaching your sales network is, this could determine how your final product sounds. I would not restrict myself to partnering “like” country of origin products.

A country like the USA can be inward thinking and match to their own country’s products but such a generalisation cannot be applied to all company’s development or final voicing because of what I said earlier. Rogue Audio sounds great with Harbeth, better than some similar priced English amplifiers of a few well known companies.

Likewise, Macintosh or Yamaha amplifiers. In time, some products find their perfect partner through customer/dealer/reviewer mixing and matching. Some might say each country could have a certain voicing. How do you translate that into what an individual wants or is seeking from their hifi in their given listening space? England (UK) grew up with a BBC sound. Has that determined the voicing of English manufacturers? Regards, K.

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CARL COLLINS (jury member) writes ...

Hi Howard, This is an interesting thought, and one I have come across in the past, especially on my last upgrade paths.

I found for instance my cyrus 2 and psx worked particularly well with monitor audio, but not with klipsch. There could be other factors too, but I also tried with dali, but nothing sounded as good. Possibly my ears too?

Saying that, the same pair of speakers were used on a Yamaha av amp, that had a plaque on the front of it saying "uk tuned" and it did sound much better than the next generation non uk tuned yamaha amp I replaced it with - all in the same position and room. Going further thru my upgrade timeline I found arcam liked q accoustics speakers (A29 and 3080s) after I tried some Danish and american brands of the same value Up to the present it's Naim, and I know it's a common thought that Naim gear works best with british speakers, and I think this is true.

I run proacs myself. Funnily enough I have found the best centre speaker to be dali, that's for my surround system. Hope you can make something of my gibberish Let me know if it helps and your thoughts on mine if you have time

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