Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

In 1996, physicist and mathematician Alan Sokal wrote what is perhaps my favorite scholarly article of the late 20th century. That paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was peer reviewed and published in the academic journal Social Text. I’d love to tell you about the contents of the paper, but it was, in fact, sheer postmodern nonsense. Sokal strung together a few appeals to authority with a laundry list of jargon nobody could really define. The editors bit hard, assuming he must know what he was talking about because they didn’t have a clue.

I think of that hoax every time I read through the pages of many higher-end audiophile publications, which are often packed with appeals to authority, post-fact gobble-gobble, and a bunch of vocabulary terms that strike me as thinly veiled attempts at making simple concepts sound arcane. And if you’ve followed my writing and podcasting for long, you know that one phrase sits higher on my bugbear vocabulary list than all the rest: “inner detail.”

I must admit, though, I often feel a tinge of guilt when I mock the term, because a lot of people I respect use it. Frankly, I’ve never really taken the time to ask them directly what they mean when they use it. Because, who knows? Maybe there’s something useful about the term that I need to incorporate into the way I discuss the performance of audio gear. Maybe I’m missing out on some distinction that’s important to my readers. Maybe this is an opportunity to learn.

What is inner detail?

But before I started interrogating my fellow audio writers, I decided I’d huddle up with my podcasting partner—former SoundStage! Solo senior editor Brent Butterworth—and make a good-faith effort at trying to come up with a working definition that might have some value. My proposed explanation—assuming, for the sake of argument, that I was tasked with cooking up marketing copy that included the phrase “inner detail” and had no choice in the matter—went a little something like this: “Subtleties in a recording that don’t in any meaningful way contribute to the enjoyment of the music, but that give it sonic character and make it an interesting audio experience.”

Brent pressed me for an example, and I brought up one of my all-time favorite songs, the Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky,” and some of the nuances in the recording that you might miss when listening casually, like the distinct saturation of Duane’s and Dickie’s guitar amps. That’s always the first thing to get lost in the mix if the background noise of a room is too high or a speaker has weird resonances or the reconstruction filter of a DAC is doing something stupid or if you’re trying to listen while driving.

“It’s an incidental element of the recording, an artifact of having humans in a room playing music with real instruments. It doesn’t contribute meaningfully to the music, but it does to the sound of the record,” I said.

I could hear Brent trying to be charitable in his assessment of my proposed definition. “It’s the first explanation that makes any kind of sense to me at all,” he said, “but you could just as easily describe that as extraneous detail. I honestly just don’t think this is a term we need. I think the audio press invented it to glamorize something that doesn’t need glamorizing. Detail is detail. Adding ‘inner’ to it is like a writer who uses the word ‘very’ a lot. You don’t need to do that. You can almost always delete the word ‘very’ and your writing will be clearer.”

Hard to argue with that, but I still felt I needed to understand why people who use the term find it so useful. So I turned my attentions to (the social media platform formerly known as relevant) and tried to find some . . . tweets? Do we still call them tweets? Let’s just say posts. I searched for posts that might shine some light on the term. And most of what I found was the same company’s ad spammed over and over again. So maybe there’s a concise definition of “inner detail” somewhere, but I couldn’t find it on the X.

Heard it on the X

With that, I started reaching out to peers in the field to get their take on all of this. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them wouldn’t speak to me about it, on or off the record. It appears I’ve developed something of a reputation for mocking the term, even if my intention was never to mock those who use it. I figured some of my SoundStage! Network colleagues would be keen to talk about it, though.

First, I reached out to our electronics measurements specialist, Diego Estan, who wrote in his excellent review of the Paradigm Premier 100B that “[Don] Henley’s voice had more air, more inner detail, and, most important, holographic transparency” through the speaker. I asked him what he meant by that, and his response shocked me with its honesty (although it shouldn’t have, coming from Diego):

I’ve always struggled to find new ways to describe music. If I had my druthers, I’d provide a numerical score in different sonic categories, and just give a track list in an appendix. I’m a tables-and-graphs guy. What did I mean, though? Honestly, I don’t remember, and I likely thought the term was B.S. when I wrote it. But I’ll try to come up with my best guess about WTF I was trying to say: what I think I meant was that it was easier to hear small changes in vocal inflexions or tone changes.

That certainly tracks with my “the first things to get lost in the room” hypothesis, or at least I think so. But it still wasn’t a firm definition. And I figured if anyone had one of those, it would be SoundStage! Xperience writer Joseph Taylor, whose habit of stopping to think before he speaks is always appreciated. After some deliberation, he decided to pull his copy of The Audio Glossary by J. Gordon Holt off the shelf and read the definition for me: “The sonic subtleties within a complex program signal, reproducible only by a system having high resolution.”

J. Gordon Holt

That only left me more confused, though. So I asked Joe what it meant to him. “It’s anyone’s guess,” he said. “Thinking about it . . . Kevin Gray remastered some later R.E.M. records, and I’m reviewing them now. He backed off on the compression and I can hear more harmonic structure in chords, etc. Maybe that’s what it means?”

After a bit of back-and-forth on the subject, Joe said, “I think I’ve conned myself in the past into thinking I knew what a reviewer was talking about when he used that term; I’ve even used it myself. But I dunno. Sounds bogus, the more I think about it. It’s a term I write around these days.”

And Joe wasn’t the only person to admit that he’s stopped using the phrase “inner detail.” In fact, I spoke with someone who claims to have stopped using it after hearing me and Brent rant about the term on the first season of the SoundStage! Audiophile Podcast. Mark Block is a freelance video editor who runs The Audiophile Society, a New York-area audio club. He’s also a fun dude to chat with. So although it’s a word he’s struck from his vocabulary, I asked him what he used to mean by it.

“You know, audio can be hard to describe,” he said. And that does seem to be a recurring theme here. “When you’re talking about what you’re hearing, often it’s easier to rely on visual analogies,” he said. “In photography or video, there’s a difference between subtle detail and sharpness. A photo can be sharp without having detail. It can have well-defined edges and no motion blur, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has detail. So maybe there’s a similar distinction to be made.

“You can have a mike with a presence-region bump, or your mixing engineer applies some EQ, or your speakers aren’t flat, and that can give you a sense of detail. But we’ve all heard speakers that we wouldn’t describe as bright or super-detailed and yet we think we hear lots of details in the music. And it’s not the sort of in-your-face detail you get with bumped-up treble or other manipulations of that sort.”

Mark Block

I asked Mark if there was anything more concrete that might help us determine which gear might have better inner detail—at least in the sense in which he used to use the term. He didn’t have to think long: “I feel like speakers that deliver a great soundstage in terms of width, depth, and height make it easier to pick out subtler details in the recording. They don’t have to be bright, but if they have a great soundstage—a speaker that comes to mind is the KEF LS50 Meta—you can really pick out details of a recording despite the fact that they’re not boosted in the high frequencies.”

Putting it all together, it sounded to me as if he was describing some emergent property—a combination of channel matching and dispersion and low noise and low distortion and lack of baffle diffraction that, in keeping with my proposed definition above, is really more about removing distractions from the listening experience. So I ran my Allman Brothers example by him to see what he thought.

“Yeah, I think that’s a great example,” he said. “And the funny thing is, the classical snobs would say, ‘It’s distorted anyway, so why would a low-distortion / high-end system make it sound better?’ But this is a perfect example of why that’s not a good argument. When the distortion sounds real, that’s what you’re looking for in a good system. Playback distortion can change and obscure the intentional distortion in the music. When you hear into the distortion and it sounds like the real thing, that’s good hi-fi. And I guess that’s what I used to call ‘inner detail.’”

Mark also suggested that I take this question to our mutual friend, Steve Guttenberg—aka The Audiophiliac—who runs @SteveGuttenbergAudiophilia, one of the most successful hi-fi-related channels on YouTube. His working definition of inner detail was as concise as you’d expect: “More detail in the quiet parts of a recording. Sadly, most compressed, EQ’d, and processed recordings lack inner detail. That’s 99 percent of what most people listen to.” Steve also pointed toward the idea of the elements of the music that are the first to be obscured: “The ability of the playback system to retrieve inner detail is another matter. Room acoustics can take their toll,” he said.

Carlos Montoya

Since inner detail seemed, in Steve’s use of the phrase, to be a characteristic of the recording first and foremost, I asked for an example of a good representative recording. He pointed me toward Carlos Montoya: Flamenco Direct Volume I, an old direct-to-disc LP that is shockingly not part of my permanent music collection. I did find a few different compilations on Qobuz that include songs from this recording, though, and although I can’t be sure they’re from the same master, the common thread between all of them is that they’re incredibly dynamic, with entire passages that would disappear altogether if I tried to listen to them in the ’Vette (which, by the way, has the best noise isolation of any car I’ve ever driven and a pretty decent sound system to boot. It’s the only car I’ve ever been able to enjoy The Dark Side of the Moon in).

But even the quietest passages of the Montoya recordings have punch and attack when I’m listening through my stereo system or my Audeze cans. Is that what people refer to as “microdynamics”? Are the two synonymous? I guess that’s another question for another day.

One other friend whom I’ve seen use the phrase inner detail from time to time—indeed, the first person I can ever remember using it in an article I actually read—was Steven Stone, whom I worked with on occasion when he was editing Audiophile Review and I was editing sister-site Home Theater Review. (You likely also know Steven from his work for The Absolute Sound and Vintage Guitar Magazine.)

In a 2014 article titled “What’s Good Enough?”—in which Steven took people like me to task for defending the validity of the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem and blaming almost all problems with the sound of CDs on bad masters or dodgy reconstruction filters—he wrote, “The most important aspect of higher definition music (above 44.1/16) is its increased inner detail and low-level definition compared to the same material at 44.1/16. As far as I know, there’s still no way to measure, quantify, and calculate an improvement in detail or definition, so ‘good enoughers’ have no way to even begin to understand what a qualitative difference increased inner detail and low-level resolution make on the listening experience. And listening for themselves seems to be out of the question . . .”

Guilty as charged, I reckon. But since I couldn’t understand it on my own and I didn’t even know what to listen for, I asked Steven if he’d hop on a call to discuss, and being the good sport that he is, of course he was eager to do so. So I started by simply asking him what he meant by “inner detail” in that article.

“For me, inner detail is the ability to listen into the recording,” he said, “to hear the finer details. So, for example, in a live recording, being able to hear the reverberance coming off the back walls and side walls, and hearing the reverb tail off in a natural way. Another example would be, say, on a pop recording I’m familiar with, being able to hear all the parts—even something like a third guitar track that’s buried behind the rhythm guitar track. That’s how I use the term. The ability to listen into the recording. There’s some gear that lets you listen into the recording so far and then you hit a brick wall, at least in my experience.”

I asked him whether inner detail was a characteristic of amps, speakers, DACs, or preamps. “I’d say it’s a characteristic primarily of systems. To try and isolate it to one piece of gear in a system . . . I mean, sometimes you can. Sometimes you put in a new piece of gear and you listen, and there’s no denying you’ve lost something. But generally, you only get that sort of drastic change with headphones or speakers. You don’t really get it with electronics.”

I asked Steven why he didn’t simply use the term “detail,” and what made inner detail different. “Detail, for a lot of subjective descriptions, seems to indicate brightness or enhanced energy in the 3kHz region. And when you look at the measurements for speakers that are typically described as ‘detailed,’ they have that peak in that range between 2kHz and 4kHz. People are going to perceive elements of the mix that they call detail. And it is detail, but it’s not what I refer to as inner detail. Detail is, to me, more of a [tonal] phenomenon, whereas inner detail is more spatial and cognitive.”

That struck me as really intriguing—the fact that Steven gave an objective definition of regular ol’ detail and explained why inner detail means something different to him in more subjective terms. Could he give me something he would look for in measurements that might correlate with inner detail?

Listening through the noise

“As soon as I hear noise, it breaks the illusion for me. It also acts as a sort of brick wall for listening into the mix. So if signal-to-noise is particularly bad—if it’s below 70dB . . .”

“Like vinyl?” I interjected.

“Well, the thing about vinyl and tape is, humans have an ability to listen into that analog noise,” he rebutted. “So as we measure the point of noise, it may not match our perception of the signal, because all signals have noise; it’s just a matter of how much noise they have. And with a lot of analog sources, although the noise level is higher, we can hear into that noise. For me, electronic noise manifests as losing inner detail, losing the ability to listen into the mix, because the noise intrudes into what’s supposed to be zeroes. But that’s not the case with vinyl.”

Frankly, I didn’t understand that either, but Steven was so gracious with his time and I needed a bath, so I didn’t press further. The thing is, though, I’d kinda heard enough. Not enough to dismiss what Steven or Steve or Mark or Joe or Diego or anyone else was saying. In fact, I’d heard enough to appreciate the fact that when these guys used this term, there was some valid attempt to convey the subtleties of what they were hearing.

The problem was, they mostly used it to mean something different. Or, at least their descriptions didn’t sound wholly compatible or consistent to my ears. And I’m sure if you got them all into a room together to hash it out, maybe they could come up with a working definition they would all agree on. Maybe it would have something to do with soundstaging or dynamics. Maybe it would be a function of one sort of noise or another. Or perhaps distortion.

Or maybe, as I suspect, the resulting definition would reflect some emergent property of a listening experience that comes from all of these stars aligning. I certainly think Mark and Steven could find some common ground on the fact that the term “detail” has been so co-opted and misused that we need another term to describe the subtler nuances in a mix.

Or maybe some sort of internecine conflict would bring the moot to a screeching halt, and everyone would go back to using his own meaning for the term, and there would be no comprehensible consistency to the outside observer. I don’t know. Don’t really care. (Let there be songs to fill the air?)

I went into this exercise open to the idea that “inner detail” was a term I needed to understand so I could better convey my listening impressions to my readers. I came out the other side almost more confused than I was going in. There’s no doubt that it means something to a lot of people. And I imagine I’ll get lots of emails from readers who have incredibly specific definitions for the term. But until those people can agree on what it means, it just isn’t very useful to me. I’ll just stick with more direct descriptions of what I’m hearing when I plug in a new piece of gear.

. . . Dennis Burger