Alan Parsons on audiophiles

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In an interesting interview at CEPro, Alan Parsons, the man who engineered Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and yes, had his own Project, says that room acoustics are far more important than audiophile gear. In fact, the interview led one Slashdot commenter to post this fine quip: "Audiophiles don't use their equipment to listen to your music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment." From CEPro:

What is the biggest thing that both electronics dealers and enthusiast consumers should do when setting up home theater/sound systems?

(Parsons:) You get what you pay for. But having said that, there are some decent budget surround systems you can buy at Costco or Walmart that really aren’t bad. Everybody has their budget; the hi-fi world will tell you if money is no object you can get better results out of every component - even the surface the amplifier sits on. Pro sound people have different expectations; they are only concerned that a piece of gear works and allows them to do their job. Hi-fi people spend huge amounts of money for tiny improvements, and pro sound guys will say, “I can spend half as much and get the results I need.”

I’m simply not very familiar with the latest domestic hi-fi equipment. I don’t go to hi-fi trade shows and I don’t have sophisticated equipment in the family areas of my house for music, but there are things that make sense like good speakers and a decent amp. But I dare say there would only be a small improvement if I bought a $20,000 amp. I can live with what I have.

I do think in the domestic environment, the people that have sufficient equipment don’t pay enough attention to room acoustics. The pro audio guy will prioritize room acoustics and do the necessary treatments to make the room sound right. The hi-fi world attaches less importance to room acoustics, and prioritizes equipment; they are looking more at brand names and reputation.

"Beatles, Pink Floyd Engineer Alan Parsons Rips Audiophiles" (Thanks, Pat Kelly!)


  1. True.  But it’s not really a rip on audiophiles as much as a pro’s point of view that something essential – acoustics – is getting missed.  I’ve heard plenty of fantastic sound in home systems, on expensive or modest gear.  In every case setup and room treatment were carefully done.

  2. So he didn’t explicitly state that Monster cables are terrible value for money? That’s good enough for me (throws money at internet).

  3. But how does some random schmuck like me fix his room acoustics? I know nothing about that. It’s much easier to just throw money at overpriced electronics.

  4. I, too, would love an article on how to problem-solve room acoustics (in addition to budget equipment recommendations)!

  5. These kind of obsessions are always fascinating.   We all have them, but the electronics and audiophile guys are a funny lot.   Same on the guitar forums. Most recently, I had a guy tell me that “he’s done the research!” that this HDMI cable is better than this one..  Yea, I’m sure the ones and zeros care..

  6. I don’t understand audiophiles, I really don’t  It must be horrible, listening to music and only hearing the imperfections in your equipment. Perhaps I am too much of a musician to appreciate them.

    1. It’s worse than that. Anyone who “hears” the difference between audio cables, or “hears” frequency fidelity above twice what the human ear can hear, is “hearing” imagined imperfections.

      Think about the level of gullibility and suggestibility, the sheer susceptibility to marketing masquerading as discernment, that that takes. It makes wine snobs seem practically sane.

    2. I think this quote really is the key to understanding audiophiles.  “Audiophiles don’t use their equipment to listen to your music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment.” Audiophiles aren’t necessarily music fans, they are fans of sound reproduction.
      An audiophile friend of mine took me in to his fave high end audio shop to see a new system they had set up. After pointing out the $20k speakers, the $10k amp, blah blah blah, he sat me down in the “sweet spot” to listen to a demo. What masterpiece of audio/musicality did he have them put on? The first minute or three of Madonna’s “Vogue.” When he told me what I was about to listen to I almost got up right then, but he promised not to disappoint so I reluctantly sat back and braced myself for earhurt. Play was pushed, and I was actually surprised, it sounded crazy-good. Even though there were only two speakers, the sound was literally three dimensional, with the bass coming in strong everywhere but the finger snaps sounding like they were slightly behind and to the right of me. I had heard about “creating a soundstage” but I thought it was marketing bs, apparently it isn’t; depending on the quality of the recording and production techniques you can literally have it sound like the musicians are performing around you.

      Audiophiles not only seek the best equipment, but the best recordings. With that said, they seem indifferent to what is actually being played… they will listening to dogs farting if the ambiance is captured accurately, well, Dog farts or Fleetwood Mac, whichever is worse. For me, I was honestly impressed by the effect, but not enough to sign on to turning off my music taste and dive into audiophile nerdery.

      1. I sure hope you are talking about Fleetwood Mac, after they let the girls play. Before that, they were a killer blues band. I’m just saying.

        1. Yes, many people don’t realize this. Those were the years they did ‘Black Magic Woman,’ too, which Santana later popularized. While I’m not a fan of everything they’ve done, they’re not on a list of bands I’d lump with dog farts.

  7. There is a lot of snake oil in the audio industry, however having been to these trade shows and being an avid audiophile myself, there is a great deal of pleasure to be had trading equipment, listening to your favorite music, and picking out details or tonality that wasn’t there before. 

    I agree, there is an infinitesimal difference between a $15,000 amplifier and a $20,000 amplifier, but there is a marked difference between listening to horns, planar, tube amplifiers, vinyl, and yes even between different sets of cables. 

    There are obvious lunatics in the industry, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for people that devote their lives to elevating sound quality. 

    1. Sorry – can I ask you to be completely clear about this?  Are you really claiming that, given two identical audio setups (amp, input device (eg CD player, tape deck, LP), speakers), you would be able to perceive a ‘marked difference’ between the two if I swapped a set of cables in one of them?

      1. If you were swapping phono cables for optical, then yes you’ll probably hear a difference.  I’m not sure if his argument relates to the type of cable though.

        Also speaker cable makes an audible difference.  Good speakers on crappy hair-thin cable sound different.  But I’m talking extremes.

        But it doesn’t go much deeper than that tbh.

  8. Cheapskate audiophiles who want great speakers should Google Econowave.  It’s a waveguide (horn) and compression driver upgrade for vintage speakers.  The whole deal is out there on Make: Projects.  Or visit the original AudioKarma Econowave thread.  But be ready to read 14,063 posts at last count.  It’s good sound dirt cheap and it’s easy.
    I used to be an audiophile but now I’m more interested in circuit tinkering than fancy speaker ‘feet’.  I still get to listen to music but I no longer worry if I spent enough on my wall sockets.

  9. Parsons is spot on.  If you really want an ideal listening experience (as opposed to just a loud one), then the acoustics of the room are of paramount importance.

    I work in television, and we mix the sound for my current show in a mixing studio that is essentially a small movie theater.  The screen is around 30 feet wide, the mixing console is an AMS Neve DFC with a six-figure price tag, and the first thing you notice when you walk in the door is how absolutely silent it is in there (that is, when they’re not actually mixing something.  It can get ridiculously loud in there when they are.).  They replace and upgrade the equipment fairly often, but the acoustics on the mixing stage get a lot of attention, too.  All the sound facilities here, from ADR stages to scoring stages to foley stages to mixing stages, have top-end acoustical treatment, for the very good reason that they’re professional sound facilities utilized by some of the biggest-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters.

    All the high-end top-dollar gear in the world won’t sound any good in a plywood box with rattling windows overlooking a busy street next to a service elevator.  For home listening environments, there are some rooms that simply won’t work for audiophiles due to their shape, wall treatments, foot traffic patterns, or nearness to unavoidable sources of ambient noise.  I’m no audiophile myself (I just work with them), but I’m inclined to believe that you should look to the acoustics of the room before you spend dollar one on the high-end equipment.

  10. My ultra-budget system is a set of Klipsch  KG 5.5 speakers ($200 on craigslist) and a Topping TP30 amplifier ($110).  The amplifier has a quality DAC and connects to my computer via USB.  10 watts per channel is plenty with efficient speakers, and it sounds marvelous.

    1. 10 watts is plenty for a pair of Klipsch speakers.  On my desk I use KEF Cresta 2 seakers and the prototype of the Squelette chip amp from Make Magazine.  It’s like a ‘gainclone’.  Very enjoyable sound, and the whole deal cost less than a car payment.

      1.  Yeah, I’m a big fan of efficient speakers.  Next up is getting a better power supply for this amp.  I’m not sure if my ears are golden enough to tell the difference, but it won’t cost much.  How does a Gainclone compare to a T-amp?  That sounds like a cool project.

        1. Chip amps are the bomb.  Very cheap and quite decent performance.  The chips are Class AB bipolar fixed architecture.  All you can change are a few external components.  T-amps OTOH are pulse width modulated RF with lowpass output filtering.  A completely different tech that’s semi-related to switchmode power supplies.  I’d seriously doubt that a power supply change would make a difference, but I’ve heard people say that running them off of batteries sounds better.  Might make for an interesting experiment but I personally wouldn’t invest a ton of time or $$ in it.  YMMV.

  11. Well as for my equipment, I have an old Kenwood AV amp I found in a skip, some Gale Minimonitor speakers hooked up with 10A DC power cable from the huge roll in the back of my van, and it’s driven off my PS3 when I’m not listening to vinyl on my Dual 505 that I got from someone on the glasgow-freeshare mailing list.

    But, as I said, I’m a musician, and I listen to the music not the equipment.  Through in the studio is where I listen to (and spend money on) the equipment…

  12. I heard “Eye in the Sky” on the radio two days ago for the first time in almost 25 years.    I grooved on that drive home while thinking that my uncle’s living room has the best acoustics for classical guitar performance than anywhere else that I have ever played.  And here Alan is on boing boing telling me I had it right all along.

  13. I consider myself an audiophile of the non-extremist variety: I appreciate sound that is as good and clean as can reasonably be had. My current living room setup is highly unconventional, but the results both surprise and please me every time I turn it on. That’s what matters.

    My current signal chain: Pandora -> iPad 2 -> AppleTV 2.0 -> Yamaha DDP-1 -> Garrard GEQ-300 -> Technics SA-GX790 -> KLH Model Twenty Four II and a small amount of center fill from a very old Hi-Fi with left and right swapped to account for the sub-optimal shape of my living room and therefore the typical listening positions. Total cost: about $200, not counting the iPad.

    Those old KLHs are just plain magical. You know what they sound like? Whatever comes down the wire. Apparently that Yamaha processor has some epic DACs, but I can’t do an A/B comparison because it’s the only way I can get SPDIF into my receiver. If I ever get around to replacing one of the output transistors maybe I’ll swap it out in favor of my old Fisher 404 Quadraphonic amp. Obviously I could get better overall sound with a higher quality source, too. But it already sounds better than it has any right to, so I’m satisfied.

  14. We’ve all heard of the scams like water encased cables or the special marker used to prevent light from escaping the edge of the CD but…

    There’s more subtle scams. An audiophile friend of mind had a $2000 CD player digitally connected to this expensive digital amp. It’d DIGITAL FOLKS! That means a $20 portable CD player, if it happens to have digital out, will produce EXACTLY THE QUAlITY. It doesn’t matter if CDs go fast or slow or wobble. The CD player reads bits (ones and zeros) faster than they are needed, stores them in a buffer and sends them digitally directly to a digital amp.

    I once went on a blind date with someone who turned out to be an audio scientist for one of the major consumer and professional audio equipment companies. I asked her about this as in “I just want to check but knowing how digital equipment works, if you plug a cheap CD player vs an expensive one into a digital amp and the connection between the player and the amp is digital there will be no difference in quality right?”

    Her answer: “If I answer that question I’ll have to kill you”

      1. Lol, I guess that’s why every time you copy a CD each copy is worse than the previous. You know cause those bits degrade each time you copy them. :rolleyes:

        1. “digital output” such as S/PDIF is not the same thing as block reading the CDDA data.  Of course the latter is perfect, though it is not the way audio CD players send their data to amplifiers.  The former is not, as the oscilloscope readings illustrate.  So you can stop rolling your eyes. 

          1. Then you’re not understanding what DIGITAL means. If it’s digital the quality of the signal doesn’t matter. One side sends 0s and 1s, the other set receives 0s and 1s. That’s the whole point of DIGITAL. Anything else is NOT digital.

    1. How fortunate for you that you have binary ears and can listen to straight digital data streams of perfect 1’s and 0’s.  The rest of us have analog hearing and have to listen to waves.  It’s been well known for, oh, 30 years that most audible degradation in digital audio media occurs in the conversion of analog to digital or digital to analog.

      1. Digital to Digital is before it gets converted to analog. Up until the point it gets converted to analog it doesn’t matter, it’s lossless digital. So a crappy $20 digital CD player sends the same perfect digital bits to a digital amp as an expensive digital CD player. The amp then turns that exact same data into analog. The process the amp uses to convert from digital to analog matters. The process that gets the digital bits to the amp does not. 

        1. greggman, you might want to do some homework on digital audio technology.  The bits do not transfer themselves from place to place by telepathy, and the communication between a CD player and an amp or receiver is not generally “lossless digital” even over a nominally digital interface like S/PDIF, TosLink, or AES/EBU. You are confusing this with transmittal from a CD in a computer through block reads over IDE.  It has been widely verified with instrumentation that signals from different CD players, taken at their digital outputs, can produce very different output when processed by the same D/A converter.

          1. Right.  Three of the sources of error in D/A conversion: datastream jitter, clock jitter and reference voltage noise.  All affect the timing of D/A ‘word’ output and therefore the resulting analog signal.  Greggman is obscuring the real problems with digital by concentrating on an area, storage, recovery and transmission, that is pretty robust.  The original spec (Red Book) for CD audio includes excellent error correction features to make sure that stored and transmitted data are not lost.  Some features of the technology such as channel relative phase actually exacerbate signal timing problems.

    1. It could be likened to the placebo-like effect of pain killers that are packaged differently being more effective.

      People perceive a difference, even thought it’s not there, but it’s that perceived difference that really does make a difference.

      So to an audiophile he’s getting value for money, as they can hear an improvement, even though it’s not there.  As long as they can hear it that’s all that matters to me; they’re not spending my money.

  15. I think a line should be drawn between objective and subjective audiophiles.  The differences in capability between amps and speakers, and  the distortion levels of sources: all these things are measurable.  You pay a certain amount beyond commodity audio and you get the numbers right. Beyond that, however, is the world of snake oil.

    That said, to achieve in home cinema what is heard in the studio requires quite a quite a bit more bass extension than for music. Some movies have sub-10Hz content which is not audible to most people (I can hear it, though) but is absolutely a sensory experience and a pretty thrilling one.  To get this kind of extension you need to spend a bit of money or build something yourself that’s pretty monstrous.  Worth it, though.

  16. Today in a closet I found three Optimus CD-3400 portable CD players.  These were a huge audiophile thing in 1994.  Some pundits claimed they sounded better than any high end player.  They’re a very good portable player and beat anything I’ve found since.  And they do have a SPDIF digital out, which was unique at the time.  I’m gonna hook one up and see how it sounds compared to this high end DPA CD transport.

    1. Actually, now that I’ve read that I don’t feel like listening to the sound of different CD players.  Off to eBay they go.

  17. This all makes perfect sense. In my small, square, low ceiling boyhood bedroom with long sound deadening curtains and tapestries on the wall, my budget stereo sounded f#%king amazing. And in my current vaulted ceiling, hardwood floored, non-curtained living room, my high-end audio equipment sound mediocre.

  18. Back in the 80s Stereo Review magazine did an article on a double-blind listening test of various speaker cables. As ringers, they threw in 16 ga. zip cord and 24 ga. “speaker wire.” Although the “golden ears” could tell the 24 ga. wire from the others, none could distinguish the 16 ga. lamp cord from the other high-end samples.  

    The response from the audiophile community was highly entertaining.

  19. I went through this in the 90’s, but found guidance through an audiophile store that I frequented in Beaumont, Texas. They suggested that I should buy the best equipment that I could afford, for my home theater system, and stop there. Then they explained that the room was more important than the equipment. They showed me how to use baffles to control the sound, they showed me how to correctly position and aim my surround speakers, and they suggested using 12ga. speaker wire. I had already researched speakers (just above mid price range), so that was done. They showed me how to use a sound pressure meter (very important) to balance the speakers (Radio Shack model no. 33-2050). That system (with upgrades to amp, TV and BluRay player), is still in use today, and it is still a killer sound system. I have never had a problem with the sound, although I have upgraded from 5.1 to 7.1, every component THX certified, including my old Laserdisc player (although it is hardly used these days). Starting small and improving later has been the best course of action for my system, and I will compare it, soundwise, to anyone with a system cheaper than $20,000. I have spent about $5,000 on it presently, including the video playback equipment, and will upgrade it only if there is some great leap in sound quality technology.
    Back in those days, Carver had an amp system called “Silver Seven”, with independent 7 tube amps for the left and right, the price was $22,500 per channel, I took a pass on that one, although it was like listening to a band or symphony orchestra from the front row, maybe better.

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