How can a HiFi amplifier review relate in any way to the pursuit of creative photography? This post explores three parallels useful for many togs.
As recent high-end camera releases have failed to capture my heart and my dinero, realistic exploration of downsizing options has taken precedence. This may seem like a shame to the gear-oriented, but recent experiences in HiFi show that smaller can indeed be more beautiful, not just more affordable. Here’s the backstory.
A couple of years ago, searching through mainstream media, along with my long history of enjoying the British flavour of HiFi equipment, led me to the purchase of a Naim SN3 amplifier, with external power supply, power conditioner, high end Innuos streamer and Metrum DAC. All of this to feed my 75 ish sq meter main room.
At its best, the sound was lovely, with a soundstage depth that extended well into the garden and a refinement and fruitiness of the midrange that caused many visitors to stop and listen to a good recording of piano music, or female voices.
Most of the time, though, flaws in the room acoustics and technical incompatibilities between my hard to drive speakers and the frankly diva-like attitude of the Naim, meant that listening became an exercise in forced smiling and in ignoring the obvious dissatisfaction of yours truly. Until faking it became too much, and I flogged the lot, promising myself never to venture again into the perilous land of audiophilia.
For many months, Youtube thus provided content, and my Macbook Pro acted as conduit to cheap, old and battered Beyedynamic headphones. And thence, my love of music resurfaced, unhindered by the tyranny of sound “quality”.
By now, you should be finding analogies with the popular and traumatic debate of image quality vs photograph quality. Much as in the HiFi universe, photo manufacturers have herded us towards ever greater performance, resolution, ISO and … in my case … utter boredom, while a large part of the community simply aspires to make interesting photographs. It’s been years since anyone in the photographic world has offered anything fun, fresh, innovative, desirable. Judging by the massive exodus to both smartphones and film cameras, I’m not alone in feeling this way.
The most fun I’ve had with photo gear since buying my X1D has come from a cheap cheap cheap Canon printer with large tanks and a healthy disregard for clogging, misaligning or any other type of irksome gremlins of my previous “Pro” models.
Cheap, here, is indeed beautiful. Very beautiful.
And an equally unreasonable price/joy proposition has recently reignited my love of all things audio, obliterating my vows to never again think about HiFi, read about HiFi, let alone spend on HiFi. Enter CHoco Sound’s EMEI, the main protagonist in this post and sexy model for the illustrating photographs.
It’s tempting, but probably misguided to attempt to state parallels between audio equipment and photographic equipment. But, if pressed to, I would equate the speakers to the lens. Both give more flavour to the image/musical reproduction than any other element in the chain. But the amplifier isn’t far behind in that personality shaping role and is probably the element I find most pleasure in choosing.
Sitting in my room, along with an old Node 2i streamer of far lesser quality than my previous Innuos / Metrum duo, the EMEI just sounds wonderful. Bass is tighter, treble is airier, the sound exhibits a palpable quality that actually made my wife – who cares as little about my HiFi equipment as about my photographic gear – sit down and listen in awe. Music just feels real, right there. The level of detail is nowhere near what my previous system presented, the best amp in the world cannot invent information the source isn’t passing on to it. But the general experience is one of being right there with the musicians rather than staring at an 8k display of the band. I feel the same way about large format photography vs high-resolution digital.
No, I will not write that the 1600 euro EMEI is better than the SN3 + HiCap DR combo costing over thrice the outlay. Mainly because I believe I’ve never heard an SN3 as it should sound (even after demoing it at a big UK dealer). What I can write in all objectivity is that the SN3 was thrown off course by”difficult” speaker loads and needed hours to warm up, that I had to pray the Old Gods of electricity and the New that the day’s current wouldn’t spark off transformer humming, that its tolerance to speaker and interconnect cables was lower than mine to political discourse and that eliminating the last micro-vibrations was key to unleashing the best sound. While EMEI doesn’t give a rat’s arse about any of these. She just works, effortlessly, silently, and makes me smile, day-in, day-out.
I think one of the keys to enjoying any hobby is to train your instincts, and follow them. I bought the SN3 intellectually, based on the huge number of awards it won and undoubtedly deserves. It’s an excellent amplifier, but not one that appeals to me. Deep down, I always knew, but didn’t trust my gut.
I first read about EMEI and CHoco Sound during a regular check of the 6moons website, a blog made for people who prefer to read rather than watch videos. CHoco Sound is a sub-brand of house Kinki, which hails from CHina and has received many accolades for overachieving performance and quality at a given price point. Lower costs in CHina, cheap distribution channels, no advertising, no unneeded features, all add up to welcome savings or, at a given outlay, to a greater level of quality.
The feel is superb, the sound is superb, the build quality is superb, the ordering process is easy, the team is super friendly and sent me multiple personalised (non-automated) messages, packaging makes an Apple MBP feel like a pack of nachos. I didn’t know that before purchasing, but Srajan, over at 6moons described EMEI as a more tube-like, more feminine version of past Kinki powerhouses, and that was enough for me. At that instant, I knew, deep down, this would correspond to my tastes. And this time, I acted on this gut feeling and am loving the result.
So, what are the bridges between audio and photography that can bring insights from one to the other?
One topic that is largely ignored (and often lied about) in photography, and seems alien to amateur audio circles, is MTF. Modulation transfer function describes the contrast with which details of various sizes are transmitted to the sensor (in a lens) or the ear (in an audio system).
In both arenas, we tend to think of detail in a dualistic way: it’s there or it isn’t. That’s not how the biological world works. Finer detail tends to be reproduced with lower contrast. At a certain point, very fine detail is transcribed with such low contrast that it gets lost in noise (digital, electronic, room, ear …) Some lenses – typically the best and most expensive lenses in the world – are designed NOT to systematically have the highest possible MTF (greatest contrast) but to degrade gracefully and consistently. This is particularly essential for cinema lenses where any unnatural characteristic of lens or sensor will instantly kill the vital suspension of disbelief. Whereas some consumer lenses will push visible detail as far as possible and look unnatural in doing so. Ever seen the term mini Otus about a lens costing 80% less and nowhere near as nice looking? Yup …
Well, the same goes with audio. Some brands go all out for detail. It’s impressive in a demo, and after 20 minutes of listening, I’m looking for a bridge to jump off. Others prefer the low-contrast, heavy, low MTF sound of some tube contraptions. Some attempt to create timing and a detail decay structure that feels natural and lifelike, like cine lenses. If you listen carefully, you can hear lots of detail but, mostly, the detail is not there to reveal the bassoon player in the 17th row cracked a finger, but to reproduce lifelike ambiance, weight, timbre, echo, …
To my ears, this is what EMEI does. There’s a level of realism to the listening experience that can only come from a decent level of detail, but there’s no detail explicitly assaulting your senses. Everything is clean, accurate and ever so slightly warm. Kinki chose MTFs that favour that lifelike decay. And I love that.
You already know what you like, in audio and in photography. Detail freak? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Lens baby low res addict? No prob. Zeiss, in their Loxia, Milvus and some of its ZM range come closest to what I’m hearing here. There’s detail everywhere, but it’s integrated and discreet and lifelike, never in your face. Know what you like, and study MTFs to understand the underlying principle.
Secondly. Building a system in either hobby can also benefit from some cross pollination. And here, I believe the audio community can probably learn more from photographers than vice versa.
We tend to build our systems with additive principles in mind. Get this streamer and this DAC, then add this DDC, then this cable to get a better sound. Or get this lens and add this filter for a better image, add pixels, add stabilisation …
In reality, photography is a subtractive process. By framing, we eliminate 90% of a scene. Through exposure settings, we choose to favour highlights (or shadows) at the peril of the other end of the spectrum. By walking, we get that fence out of the way. By using a filter, we get rid of reflections or of whole swathes of the visible spectrum. By processing in monochrome, we get rid of the distraction of colour. We eliminate, eliminate, and eliminate some more until the photograph becomes what we want it to be. At least, outside of a studio.
And I believe we should think in the same way about system building. Not through addition of components but the elimination of unwanted nasties. For you, that could be weight, or lens swapping in the field. For me, it’s burnt highlights, baked-in looks of RAW files, ergonomics “designed” by nutheads who’ve never been in the field …
Which leads to the third insight that too often goes neglected: the room is the light. If we admit that the recorded music is akin to the photographic subject, we can agree that we’re trying to render both in a way that pleases us, and possibly others.
Unless you are listening through headphones or a nearfield loudspeaker configuration, chances are you are hearing reverberation from your room more than sound from your speakers. Don’t quote me on this, as I’m no expert, but some suggest that 80% of the sound you’re hearing when seated 3m away from speakers is from the room, not directly from the speakers. 80%. You spend so much time, money and effort building a system and it only contributes 20% to the vibes reaching your mimis.
You can’t escape good light or bad light, outside a studio. But you can build yourself a listening studio to escape the nasties of bad rooms.
Cinema movies have been made using cheap cameras, cheap lenses (such as Interstellar using a 300$ film lens for many outdoors scenes), but rarely cheap lighting. There’s a reason for it. Lighting sets the mood. So does your room.
The saying goes that a 1 grand system in a good room will sound much better than the 10 grand system in a bad one. I’m guessing room treatment specialists are spreading this type of message 😉 But I also believe them. So step one for me, in a subtractive HiFi build, is making the room sound nice. The good news today is that we can now also make it look nice in the process.
What’s step 1 in a photo system build ? I don’t know. That probably depends on your style and priorities: light for some of us, who wake up at sparrow to capture blue and golden hours. But possibly also the choice between film / digital / smartphone / sensor format, as those condition what we can do, and can’t with the system.
In audio, subsequent steps would be speakers, amp, and finally DAC & streamer or turntable or CD player. In all of those cases, learning to understand the link between design choices, measured performance and real-life performance is key to building intuition about what you want. This done, find a couple of reviewers who speak your language, and trust your gut. Unless you can arrange complete home demos of all the possible gear you want to try out, that is 🙂 But do think about removing nastis rather than adding performance. Also note that some nasties may be desirable to you. The last pic on this page is made with an Otus 85 using an extension ring on an overlarge sensor, so well out of its comfort zone. I just love the degradation here. Much like monotriodes bring their load of distortions that many find delightful. Understand the nasties, and choose which ones to remove from your system.
In photography, I’d choose lenses first, then sensor size. Both push me towards medium or large format film, but I’m too much of a wuss to embrace my desires. Baring those, convenience would be my next highest priority: handling, ergonomics, simplicity, integration with the rest of my life. Here, the phone has no peer.
Home audio is about consuming and collecting music. Photography is about creating and collecting images. That create/consume distinction explains why light cannot be #1 priority for everyone even though it has the greatest impact on the appearance of our shots. For some photographers, journalists in particular, subject is far more important than how subject is lighted. In all cases, it’s important to find the #1 topic that can eliminate issues from your craft. Issues such as lack of clarity, boring images, practical difficulties in shot execution (don’t bring a view camera to a phone fight), bad exposure (yes, training should be a real part of your spend) , and so on.
In audio, the spectrum between those focusing on the content exclusively (musicians, typically) and those focusing on the sound (audiophiles) is huge. Many pretend to focus on both equally, more power to their elbow, though I find that hard to believe. But, if some modicum of fidelity is to be achieved, I still believe the room plays an important role at either end of that spectrum.
Step 1 done, focus on what brings you joy. I do not know what EMEI means in CHinese, but my personal translation of EMEI is JOY. EMEI has eliminated worries about current quality, component compatibility and buyer’s remorse. That blend of elegant simplicity, bullet proof appearance, refined, natural, flowing sound, and fuss-free experience at a price that doesn’t get you onto the first step of many brands, that’s a tough promise to keep. EMEI sure has 🙂
PS: All pics of the amp (except for the 1rst) were made with my XCD 120 Macro, as a final hurrah. I am now selling it for £2500. If anyone is interested, just drop me a line or leave a comment 🙂 The last two are made with my XCD 21, which is also being sold.
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