What’s a woofer?

#82 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

Occasionally, a question that comes into the customer communications department to Bang & Olufsen from a dealer or a customer eventually finds its way into my inbox.

This week, the question was about nomenclature. Why is it that, on some loudspeakers, for example, we say there is a tweeter, mid-range, and woofer, whereas on other loudspeakers we say that we’re using a “full range” driver instead? What’s the difference? (Folded into the same question was another about amplifier power, but I’ll take that one in another posting.)

So, what IS the difference? There are three different ways to answer this question.

Answer #1: It’s how you use it.

My Honda Civic, the motorcycle that passed me on the highway this morning, and an F1 car all have a gear in the gearbox that’s labelled “3”. However, the gear ratio of those three examples of “third gear” are all different. In other words, if you showed a mechanic the gear ratio of one of those gearbox settings without knowing anything else, they wouldn’t be able to tell you “ah! that’s third gear…”

So, in this example, “third gear” is called “third” only because it’s the one between “second” and “fourth”. There is nothing physical about it that makes it “third”. If that were the case then my car wouldn’t have a first gear, because some farm tractor out there in the world would have a gear with a lower ratio – and an F1 car would start at gear 100 or so… And that wouldn’t make sense.

Similarly, we use the words “tweeter”, “midrange”, “woofer”, “subwoofer”, and “full range” to indicate the frequency range that that particular driver is looking after in this particular device. My laptop has a 1″ “woofer” – which only means that it’s the driver that’s taking care of the low frequencies that come out of my laptop.

So, using this explanation, the Beolab 90 webpage says that it has midranges and tweeters and no “full range” drivers because the midrange drivers look after the midrange frequencies, and the tweeters look after the high frequencies. However, the Beolab 28’s webpage says that it has a tweeter and full range drivers, but no midranges. This is because the drivers that play the midrange frequencies in the Beolab 28 also play some of the high-frequency content as part of the Beam Width control. Since they’re doing “double duty”, they get a different name.

Answer #2: Excruciating minutiae

The description I gave above isn’t really an adequate answer. For example, I said that my laptop has a 1″ “woofer”. Beolab 90 has a 1″ “tweeter” – but these two drivers are not designed the same way. Beolab 90’s tweeter is specifically designed to be used to produce high frequencies. One consequence of this is that the total mass of the moving parts (the diaphragm and voice coil, amongst other things) is as low as possible, so that it’s easy to move. This means that it can produce high frequency signals without having to use a lot of electrical power to push it back and forth.

However, the 1″ “woofer” in my laptop is designed differently. It probably has a much higher total mass for the moving parts. This means that its resonant frequency (the frequency that it would “ring” at if you hit it like a drum head) is much lower. Therefore it “wants” to move easily at a lower frequency than a tweeter would.

For example, if you put a child on a swing and you give them a push, they’ll swing back and forth at some frequency. If the child wanted to swing SLOWER (at a lower frequency), you could

  • move to a swing with longer ropes so this happens naturally, or
  • you can hold on to the ropes and use your muscles to control the rate of swinging instead.

The smarter thing to do is the first choice, that way you can keep sipping your coffee instead of getting a workout.

So, a 1″ woofer and a 1″ tweeter are not really the same thing.

Answer #3: Compromise

We live in a world that has been convinced by advertisers that “compromise” is a bad thing – but it’s not. Someone who does never accepts to compromise is destined to live a very lonely life. When designing a loudspeaker, one of the things to consider is what, exactly, each component will be asked to do, and choose the appropriate components accordingly.

If we’re going to be really pedantic – there’s really no such thing as a tweeter, woofer, or anything else with those kinds of names. Any loudspeaker driver can produce sound at any frequency. The only difference between them is the relative ease with which the driver plays a signal at a given frequency. You can get 20 Hz to come out of a “tweeter” – it will just be naturally a LOT quieter than the signals at around 5 kHz. Similarly, a woofer can play signals at 20 kHz, but it will be a lot quieter and/or take a lot more power than signals at 50 Hz.

What this means is that, when you make an active loudspeaker, the response (the relative levels of signals at different frequencies) is really a result of the filters in the digital signal processing and the control from the amplifier (ignoring the realities of heat and time…). If we want more or less level at 2 kHz from a loudspeaker driver, we “just” change the filter in the signal processing and use the amplifier to do the work (the same as the example above where you were using your muscle power to control the frequency of the child on the swing).

However, there are examples where we know that a driver will be primarily used for one frequency band, but actually be extending into another. The side-facing drivers on Beolab 28 are a good example of this. They’re primarily being used to control the beam width in the midrange, but they’re also helping to control the beam width in the high frequencies. Since, they’re doing double-duty in two frequency ranges, they can’t really be called “midranges” or “tweeters” – they’d be more accurately called “midranges that also play as quiet tweeters”. (They don’t have to play high frequencies loudly, since this is “only” to control the beam width of the front tweeter.) However, “midranges that also play as quiet tweeters” is just too much information for a simple datasheet – so “full range” will do as a compromise.

P.S.

I’ve got some extra things to add here…

Firstly, it has become common over the past couple of years to call “woofers” “subwoofers” instead. I don’t know why this happened – but I suspect that it’s merely the result of people who write advertising copy using a word they’ve heard before without really knowing what it means. Personally, I think that it’s funny to see a laptop specified to have a “1” subwoofer”. Maybe we should make the word “subtweeter” popular instead.

Secondly, personally, I believe that a “subwoofer” is a thing that looks after the frequency range below a “woofer”. I remember a conversation I had at an AES convention once (I think it was with Günther Theile and Tomlinson Holman) where we all agreed that a “subwoofer” should look after the frequency range up to 40 Hz, which is where a decent woofer should take over.

Lastly, if you find an audio magazine from the 1970s, you’ll see that a three-way loudspeaker had a “tweeter”, “squawker”, and “woofer”. Sometime between then and now, “squawker” was replaced with “midrange” – but I wonder why the other two didn’t change to “highrange” and “lowrange” (although neither of these would be correct, since all three drivers in a three-way system have limited frequency ranges).

Turn it down half-way…

#81 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

This article is a discussion, both philosophical and technical about what a volume control is, and what can be expected of it. This seems like a rather banal topic, but I find it surprising how often I’m required to explain it.

Why am I writing this?

I often get questions from colleagues and customers that sound something like the following:

  • Why does my Beovision television’s volume control only go to 90%? Why can’t I go to 100%?
  • I set the volume on my TV to 40, so why is it so quiet (or loud)?

The first question comes from people who think that the number on the screen is in percent – but it’s not. The speedometer in your car displays your speed in kilometres per hour (km/h), the tachometer is in revolutions of the engine per minute (RPM) the temperature on your thermostat is in degrees Celsius (ºC), and the display on your Beovision television is on a scale based on decibels (dB). None of these things are in percent (imagine if the speed limit on the highway was 80% of your car’s maximum speed… we’d have more accidents…)

The short reason we use decibels instead of percent is that it means that we can use subtraction instead of division – which is harder to do. The shortcut rule-of-thumb to remember is that, every time you drop by 6 dB on the volume control, you drop by 50% of the output. So, for example, going from Volume step 90 to Volume step 84 is going from 100% to 50%. If I keep going down, then the table of equivalents looks like this:

I’ve used two colours there to illustrate two things:

  • Every time you drop by 6 volume steps, you cut the percentage in half. For example, 60 is five drops of 6 steps, which is 1/2 of 1/2 of 1/2 of 1/2 of 1/2 of 100%, or 3.2% (notice the five halves there…)
  • Every time you drop by 20, you cut the percentage to 1/10. So, Volume Step 50 is 1% of Volume Step 90 because it’s two drops of 20 on the volume control.

If I graph this, showing the percentage equivalent of all 91 volume steps (from 0 to 90) then it looks like this:

Of course, the problem this plot is that everything from about Volume Step 40 and lower looks like 0% because the plot doesn’t have enough detail. But I can fix that by changing the way the vertical axis is displayed, as shown below.

That plot shows exactly the same information. The only difference is that the vertical scale is no longer linearly counting from 0% to 100% in equal steps.

Why do we (and every other audio company) do it this way? The simple reason is that we want to make a volume slider (or knob) where an equal distance (or rotation) corresponds to an equal change in output level. We humans don’t perceive things like change in level in percent – so it doesn’t make sense to use a percent scale.

For the longer explanation, read on…

Basic concepts

We need to start at the very beginning, so here goes:

Volume control and gain

  1. An audio signal is (at least in a digital audio world) just a long list of numbers for each audio channel.
  2. The level of the audio signal can be changed by multiplying it by a number (called the gain).
    1. If you multiply by a value larger than 1, the audio signal gets louder.
    2. If you multiply by a number between 0 and 1, the audio signal gets quieter.
    3. If you multiply by zero, you mute the audio signal.
  3. Therefore, at its simplest core, a volume control implemented in a digital audio system is a multiplication by a gain. You turn up the volume, the gain value increases, and the audio is multiplied by a bigger number producing a bigger result.

That’s the first thing. Now we move on to how we perceive things…

Perception of Level

Speaking very generally, our senses (that we use to perceive the world around us) scale logarithmically instead of linearly. What does this mean? Let’s take an example:

Let’s say that you have $100 in your bank account. If I then told you that you’d won $100, you’d probably be pretty excited about it.

However, if you have $1,000,000 in your bank account, and I told you that you’re won $100, you probably wouldn’t even bother to collect your prize.

This can be seen as strange; the second $100 prize is not less money than the first $100 prize. However, it’s perceived to be very different.

If, instead of being $100, the cash prize were “equal to whatever you have in your bank account” – so the person with $100 gets $100 and the person with $1,000,000 gets $1,000,000, then they would both be equally excited.

The way we perceive audio signals is similar. Let’s say that you are listening to a song by Metallica at some level, and I ask you to turn it down, and you do. Then I ask you to turn it down by the same amount again, and you do. Then I ask you to turn it down by the same amount again, and you do… If I were to measure what just happened to the gain value, what would I find?

Well, let’s say that, the first time, you dropped the gain to 70% of the original level, so (for example) you went from multiplying the audio signal by 1 to multiplying the audio signal by 0.7 (a reduction of 0.3, if we were subtracting, which we’re not). The second time, you would drop by the same amount – which is 70% of that – so from 0.7 to 0.49 (notice that you did not subtract 0.3 to get to 0.4). The third time, you would drop from 0.49 to 0.343. (not subtracting 0.3 from 0.4 to get to 0.1).

In other words, each time you change the volume level by the “same amount”, you’re doing a multiplication in your head (although you don’t know it) – in this example, by 0.7. The important thing to note here is that you are NOT subtracting 0.3 from the gain in each of the above steps – you’re multiplying by 0.7 each time.

What happens if I were to express the above as percentages? Then our volume steps (and some additional ones) would look like this:

100%
70%
49%
34%
24%
17%
12%
8%

Notice that there is a different “distance” between each of those steps if we’re looking at it linearly (if we’re just subtracting adjacent values to find the difference between them). However, each of those steps is a reduction to 70% of the previous value.

This is a case where the numbers (as I’ve expressed them there) don’t match our experience. We hear each reduction in level as the same as the other steps, but they don’t look like they’re the same step size when we write them all down the way I’ve done above. (In other words, the numerical “distance” between 100 and 70 is not the same as the numerical “distance” between 49 and 34, but these steps would sound like the same difference in audio level.)

SIDEBAR: This is very similar / identical to the way we hear and express frequency changes. For example, the figure below shows a musical staff. The red brackets on the left show 3 spacings of one octave each; the distance between each of the marked frequencies sound the same to us. However, as you can see by the frequency indications, each of those octaves has a very different “width” in terms of frequency. Seen another way, the distance in Hertz in the octave from 440 Hz to 880 Hz is equal to the distance from 440 Hz all the way down to 0 Hz (both have a width of 440 Hz). However, to us, these sound like very different intervals.

SIDEBAR to the SIDEBAR: This also means that the distance in Hertz covered by the top octave on a piano is larger than the the distance covered by all of the other keys.

SIDEBAR to the SIDEBAR to the SIDEBAR: This also means that changing your sampling rate from 48 kHz to 96 kHz doubles your bandwidth, but only gives you an extra octave. However, this is not an argument against high-resolution audio, since the frequency range of the output is a small part of the list of pro’s and con’s.)

This is why people who deal with audio don’t use percent – ever. Instead, we use an extra bit of math that uses an evil concept called a logarithm to help to make things make more sense.

What is a logarithm?

If I say the following, you should not raise your eyebrows:

2*3 = 6, therefore 6/2 = 3 and 6/3 = 2

In other words, division is just multiplication done backwards. This can be generalised to the following:

if a*b=c, then c/a=b and c/b=a

Logarithms are similar; they’re just exponents done backwards. For example:

102 = 100, therefore Log10(100) = 2

and generally:

AB=C, therefore LogA(C) = B

Why use a logarithm?

The nice thing about logarithms is that they are a convenient way for a mathematician to do addition instead of multiplication.

For example, if I have the following sequence of numbers:

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, and so on…

It’s easy to see that I’m just multiplying by 2 to get the next number.

What if I were to express the number sequence above as a series of exponents? Then it would look like this:

21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26

Not useful yet…

What if I asked you to multiply two numbers in that sequence? Say, for example, 1024 * 8192. This would take some work (or at least some scrambling, looking for the calculator app on your phone…). However, it helps to know that this is the same as asking you to multiply 210 * 213 – to which the answer is 223. Notice that 23 is merely 10+13. So, I’ve used exponents to convert the problem from multiplication (1024*8192) to addition (210 * 213 = 2(10+13)).

How did I find out that 8192 = 213? By using a logarithm : Log2(8192) = 13.

In the old days, you would have been given a book of logarithmic tables in school, which was a way of looking up the logarithm of 8192. (Actually, those books were in base 10 and not base 2, so you would have found out that Log10(8192) = 3.9013, which would have made this discussion more confusing…) Nowadays, you can use an antique device called a “calculator” – a simulacrum of which is probably on a device you call a “phone” but is rarely used as such.

I will leave it to the reader to figure out why this quality of logarithms (that they convert multiplication into addition) is why slide rules work.

So what?

Let’s go back to the problem: We want to make a volume slider (or knob) where an equal distance (or rotation) corresponds to an equal change in level. Let’s do a simple one that has 10 steps. Coming down from “maximum” (which we’ll say is a gain of 1 or 100%), it could look like these:

The gain values for four different versions of a 10-step volume control.

The plot above shows four different options for our volume controller. Starting at the maximum (volume step 10) and working downwards to the left, each one drops by the same perceived amount per step. The Black plot shows a drop of 90% per step, the red plot shows a drop of 70% per step (which matches the list of values I put above), Blue is 50% per step, and green is 30% per step.

As you can see, these lines are curved. As you can also see, as you get lower and lower, they get to the point where it gets harder to see the value (for example, the green curve looks like it has the same gain value for Volume steps 1 through 4).

However, we can view this a different way. If we change the scale of our graph’s Y-Axis to a logarithmic one instead of a linear one, the exact same information will look like this:

The same data plotted using a different scale for the Y-Axis.

Notice now that the Y-axis has an equal distance upwards every time the gain multiplies by 10 (the same way the music staff had the same distance every time we multiplied the frequency by 2). By doing this, we now see our gain curves as straight lines instead of curved ones. This makes it easy to read the values both when they’re really small and when they’re (comparatively) big (those first 4 steps on the green curve don’t look the same on that plot).

So, one way to view the values for our Volume controller is to calculate the gains, and then plot them on a logarithmic graph. The other way is to build the logarithm into the gain itself, which is what we do. Instead of reading out gain values in percent, we use Bels (named after Alexander Graham Bell). However, since a Bel is a big step, we we use tenths of a Bel or “decibels” instead. (… In the same way that I tell people that my house is 4,000 km, and not 4,000,000 m from my Mom’s house because a metre is too small a division for a big distance. I also buy 0.5 mm pencil leads – not 0.0005 m pencil leads. There are many times when the basic unit of measurement is not the right scale for the thing you’re talking about.)

In order to convert our gain value (say, of 0.7) to decibels, we do the following equation:

20 * Log10(gain) = Gain in dB

So, we would say

20 * Log10(0.7) = -3.01 dB

I won’t explain why we say 20 * the logarithm, since this is (only a little) complicated.

I will explain why it’s small-d and capital-B when you write “dB”. The small-d is the convention for “deci-“, so 1 decimetre is 1 dm. The capital-B is there because the Bel is named after Alexander Graham Bell. This is similar to the reason we capitalize Hz, V, A, and so on…

So, if you know the linear gain value, you can calculate the equivalent in decibels. If I do this for all of the values in the plots above, it will look like this:

Notice that, on first glance, this looks exactly like the plot in the previous figure (with the logarithmic Y-Axis), however, the Y-Axis on this plot is linear (counting from -100 to 0 in equal distances per step) because the logarithmic scaling is already “built into” the values that we’re plotting.

For example, if we re-do the list of gains above (with a little rounding), it becomes

100% = 0 dB
70% = -3 dB
49% = -6 dB
34% = -9 dB
24% = -12 dB
17% = -15 dB
12% = -18 dB
8% = -21 dB

Notice coming down that list that each time we multiplied the linear gain by 0.7, we just subtracted 3 from the decibel value, because, as we see in the equation above, these mean the same thing.

This means that we can make a volume control – whether it’s a slider or a rotating knob – where the amount that you move or turn it corresponds to the change in level. In other words, if you move the slider by 1 cm or rotate the knob by 10º – NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE WITHIN THE RANGE – the change is level will be the same as if you made the same movement somewhere else.

This is why Bang & Olufsen devices made since about 1990 (give or take) have a volume control in decibels. In older models, there were 79 steps (0 to 78) or 73 steps (0 to 72), which was expanded to 91 steps (0 to 90) around the year 2000, and expanded again recently to 101 steps (0 to 100). Each step on the volume control corresponds to a 1 dB change in the gain. So, if you change the volume from step 30 to step 40, the change in level will appear to be the same as changing from step 50 to step 60.

Volume Step ≠ Output Level

Up to now, all I’ve said can be condensed into two bullet points:

  • Volume control is a change in the gain value that is multiplied by the incoming signal
  • We express that gain value in decibels to better match the way we hear changes in level

Notice that I didn’t say anything in those two statements about how loud things actually are… This is because the volume setting has almost nothing to do with the level of the output, which, admittedly, is a very strange thing to say…

For example, get a DVD or Blu-ray player, connect it to a television, set the volume of the TV to something and don’t touch it for the rest of this experiment. Now, put in a DVD copy of any movie that has ONLY dialogue, and listen to how loud it sounds. Then, take out the DVD and put in a CD of Metallica’s Death Magnetic, press play. This will be much, much louder. In fact, if you own a B&O TV, the difference in level between those two things is the same as turning up the volume by 31 steps, which corresponds to 31 dB. Why?

When re-recording engineers mix a movie, they aim to make the dialogue sit around a level of 31 dB below maximum (better known as -31 dB FS or “31 decibels below Full Scale”). This gives them enough “headroom” to get much louder for explosions and gunshots to be exciting.

When a mixing engineer and a mastering engineer work on a pop or rock album, it’s not uncommon for them to make it as loud as possible, aiming for maximum (better known as 0 dB FS).

This means that a movie’s dialogue is much quieter than Metallica or Billie Eilish or whomever is popular when you’re reading this, because Metallica is as loud as the explosions in the movie.

The volume setting is just a value that changes that input level… So, If I listen to music at volume step 42 on a Beovision television, and you watch a movie at volume step 73 on the same Beovision television, it’s possible that we’re both hearing the same sound pressure level in our living rooms, because the music is 31 dB louder than the movie, which is the same amount that I’ve turned down my TV relative to yours (73-42 = 31).

In other words, the Volume Setting is not a predictor of how loud it is. A Volume Setting is a little like the accelerator pedal in your car. You can use the pedal to go faster or slower, but there’s no way of knowing how fast you’re driving if you only know how hard you’re pushing on the pedal.

What about other brands and devices?

This is where things get really random:

  • take any device (or computer or audio software)
  • play a sine wave (because thats easy to measure)
  • measure the change in output level as you change the volume setting
  • graph the result
  • Repeat everything above for different devices

You’ll see something like this:

The gain vs. Volume step behaviours of 8 different devices / software players

there are two important things to note in the above plot.

  1. These are the measurements of 8 different devices (or software players or “apps”) and you get 8 different results (although some of them overlap, but this is because those are just different version numbers of the same apps).
    • Notice as well that there’s a big difference here. At a volume setting of “50%” there’s a 20 dB difference between the blue dashed line and the black one with the asterisk markings. 20 dB is a LOT.
  2. None of them look like the straight lines seen in the previous plot, despite the fact that the Y-axis is in decibels. In ALL of these cases, the biggest jumps in level happen at the beginning of the volume control (some are worse than others). This is not only because they’re coming up from a MUTE state – but because they’re designed that way to fool you. How?

Think about using any of these controllers: you turn it 25% of the way up, and it’s already THIS loud! Cool! This speaker has LOTS of power! I’m only at 25%! I’ll definitely buy it! But the truth is, when the slider / knob is at 25% of the way up, you’re already pushing close to the maximum it can deliver.

These are all the equivalent of a car that has high acceleration when starting from 0 km/h, but if you’re doing 100 km/h on the highway, and you push on the accelerator, nothing happens.

First impressions are important…

On the other hand (in support of thee engineers who designed these curves), all of these devices are “one-offs” (meaning that they’re all stand-alone devices) made by companies who make (or expect to be connected to) small loudspeakers. This is part of the reason why the curves look the way they do.

If B&O used those style of gain curves for a Beovision television connected to a pair of Beolab 90s, you’d either

  • be listening at very loud levels, even at low volume settings;
  • or you wouldn’t be able to turn it up enough for music with high dynamic range.

Some quick conclusions

Hopefully, if you’ve read this far and you’re still awake:

  • you will never again use “percent” to describe your volume level
  • you will never again expect that the output level can be predicted by the volume setting
  • you will never expect two devices of two different brands to output the same level when set to the same volume setting
  • you understand why B&O devices have so many volume steps over such a large range.

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 9

Back to Part 8

Magnitude response

The magnitude response* of any audio device is a measure of how much its output level deviates from the expected level at different frequencies. In a turntable, this can be measured in different ways.

Usually, the magnitude response is measured from a standard test disc with a sine wave sweep ranging from at least 20 Hz to at least 20 kHz. The output level of this signal is recorded at the output of the device, and the level is analysed to determine how much it differs from the expected output. Consequently, the measurement includes all components in the audio path from the stylus tip, through the RIAA preamplifier (if one is built into the turntable), to the line-level outputs.

Because all of these components are in the signal path, there is no way of knowing immediately whether deviations from the expected response are caused by the stylus, the preamplifier, or something else in the chain.

It’s also worth noting that a typical standard test disc (JVC TRS-1007 is a good example) will not have a constant output level, which you might expect if you’re used to measuring other audio devices. Usually, the swept sine signal has a constant amplitude in the low frequency bands (typically, below 1 kHz) and a constant modulation velocity in the high frequencies. This is to avoid over-modulation in the low end, and burning out the cutter head during mastering in the high end.

* This is the correct term for what is typically called the “frequency response”. The difference is that a magnitude response only shows output level vs. frequency, whereas the frequency response would include both level and phase information.

Rumble

In theory, an audio playback device only outputs the audio signal that is on the recording without any extra contributions. In practice, however, every audio device adds signals to the output for various reasons. As was discussed above, in the specific case of a turntable, the audio signal is initially generated by very small movements of the stylus in the record groove. Therefore, in order for it to work at all, the system must be sensitive to very small movements in general. This means that any additional movement can (and probably will) be converted to an audio signal that is added to the recording.

This unwanted extraneous movement, and therefore signal, is usually the result of very low-frequency vibrations that come from various sources. These can include things like mechanical vibrations of the entire turntable transmitted through the table from the floor, vibrations in the system caused by the motor or imbalances in the moving parts, warped discs which cause a vertical movement of the stylus, and so on. These low-frequency signals are grouped together under the heading of rumble.

A rumble measurement is performed by playing a disc that has no signal on it, and measuring the output signal’s level. However, that output signal is first filtered to ensure that the level detection is not influenced by higher-frequency problems that may exist.

The characteristics of the filters are defined in internal standards such as DIN 45 539 (or IEC98-1964), shown below. Note that I’ve only plotted the target response. The specifications allow for some deviation of ±1 dB (except at 315 Hz). Notice that the low-pass filter is the same for both the Weighted and the Unweighted filters. Only the high-pass filter specifications are different for the two cases.

The magnitude responses for the “Unweighted” (black) and “Weighted” filters for rumble measurements, specified in DIN 45 539

If the standard being used for the rumble measurement is the DIN 45 539 specification, then the resulting value is stated as the level difference between the measured filtered noise and a the standard output level, equivalent to the output when playing a 1 kHz tone with a lateral modulation velocity of 70.7 mm/sec. This detail is also worth noting, since it shows that the rumble value is a relative and not an absolute output level.

Rotational speed

Every recording / playback system, whether for audio or for video signals, is based on the fundamental principle that the recording and the playback happen at the same rate. For example, a film that was recorded at 24 frames (or photos) per second (FPS) must also be played at 24 FPS to avoid objects and persons moving too slowly or too quickly. It’s also necessary that neither the recording nor the playback speed changes over time.

A phonographic LP is mastered with the intention that it will be played back at a rotational speed of 33 1/3 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) or 45 RPM, depending on the disc. (These correspond to 1 revolution either every 1.8 seconds or every 1 1/3 seconds respectively.) We assume that the rotational speed of the lathe that was used to cut the master was both very accurate and very stable. Although it is the job of the turntable to duplicate this accuracy and stability as closely as possible, measurable errors occur for a number of reasons, both mechanical and electrical. When these errors are measured using especially-created audio signals like pure sine tones, the results are filtered and analyzed to give an impression of how audible they are when listening to music. However, a problem arises in that a simple specification (such as a single number for “Wow and Flutter”, for example) can only be correctly interpreted with the knowledge of how the value is produced.

Accuracy

The first issue is the simple one of accuracy: is the turntable rotating the disc at the correct average speed? Most turntables have some kind of user control of this (both for the 33 and 45 RPM settings), since it will likely be necessary to adjust these occasionally over time, as the adjustment will drift with influences such as temperature and age.

Stability

Like any audio system, regardless of whether it’s analogue or digital, the playback speed of the turntable will vary over time. As it increases and decreases, the pitch of the music at the output will increase and decrease proportionally. This is unavoidable. Therefore, there are two questions that result:

  • How much does the speed change?
  • What is the rate and pattern of the change?

In a turntable, the amount of the change in the rotational speed is directly proportional to the frequency shift in the audio output. Therefore for example, if the rotational speed decreases by 1% (for example, from 33 1/3 RPM to exactly 33 RPM), the audio output will drop in frequency by 1% (so a 440 Hz tone will be played as a 440 * 0.99 = 435.6 Hz tone). Whether this is audible is dependent on different factors including

  • the rate of change to the new speed
    (a 1% change 4 times a second is much easier to hear than a 1% change lasting 1 hour)
  • the listener’s abilities
    (for example, a person with “absolute pitch” may be able to recognise the change)
  • the audio signal
    (It is easier to detect a frequency shift of a single, long tone such as a note on a piano or pipe organ than it is of a short sound like a strike of claves or a sound with many enharmonic frequencies such as a snare drum.)

In an effort to simplify the specification of stability in analogue playback equipment such as turntables, four different classifications are used, each corresponding to different rates of change. These are drift, wow, flutter, and scrape, the two most popular of which are wow and flutter, and are typically grouped into one value to represent them.

Drift

Frequency drift is the tendency of a playback device’s speed to change over time very slowly. Any variation that happens slower than once every 2 seconds (in other words, with a modulation frequency of less than 0.5 Hz) is considered to be drift. This is typically caused by changes such as temperature (as the playback device heats up) or variations in the power supply (due to changes in the mains supply, which can vary with changing loads throughout the day).

Wow

Wow is a modulation in the speed ranging from once every 2 seconds to 6 times a second (0.5 Hz to 6 Hz). Note that, for a turntable, the rotational speed of the disc is within this range. (At 33 1/3 RPM: 1 revolution every 1.8 seconds is equal to approximately 0.556 Hz.)

Flutter

Flutter describes a modulation in the speed ranging from 6 to 100 times a second (6 Hz to 100 Hz).

Scrape

Scrape or scrape flutter describes changes in the speed that are higher than 100 Hz. This is typically only a problem with analogue tape decks (caused by the magnetic tape sticking and slipping on components in its path) and is not often used when classifying turntable performance.

Measurement and Weighting

The easiest accurate method to measure the stability of the turntable’s speed within the range of Wow and Flutter is to follow one of the standard methods, of which there are many, but they are all similar. Examples of these standards are AES6-2008, CCIR 409-3, DIN 45507, and IEC-386. A special measurement disc containing a sine tone, usually with a frequency of 3150 Hz is played to a measurement device which then does a frequency analysis of the signal. In a perfect system, the result would be a 3150 Hz sine tone. In practice, however, the frequency of the tone varies over time, and it is this variation that is measured and analysed.

There is general agreement that we are particularly sensitive to a modulation in frequency of about 4 Hz (4 cycles per second) applied to many audio signals. As the modulation gets slower or faster, we are less sensitive to it, as was illustrated in the example above: (a 1% change 4 times a second is much easier to hear than a 1% change lasting 1 hour).

So, for example, if the analysis of the 3150 Hz tone shows that it varies by ±1% at a frequency of 4 Hz, then this will have a bigger impact on the result than if it varies by ±1% at a frequency of 0.1 Hz or 40 Hz. The amount of impact the measurement at any given modulation frequency has on the total result is shown as a “weighting curve” in the figure below.

Weighting applied to the Wow and Flutter measurement in most standard methods. See the text for an explanation.

As can be seen in this curve, a modulation at 4 Hz has a much bigger weight (or impact) on the final result than a modulation at 0.315 Hz or at 140 Hz, where a 20 dB attenuation is applied to their contribution to the total result. Since attenuating a value by 20 dB is the same as dividing it by 10; a ±1% modulation of the 3150Hz tone at 4 Hz will produce the same result as a ±10% modulation of the 3150 Hz tone at 140 Hz, for example.

This shows just one example of why comparing one Wow and Flutter measurement value should be interpreted very cautiously.

Expressing the result

When looking at a Wow and Flutter specification, one will see something like <0.1%, <0.05% (DIN), or <0.1% (AES6). Like any audio specification, if the details of the measurement type are not included, then the value is useless. For example, “W&F: <0.1%” means nothing, since there is no way to know which method was used to arrive at this value.(Similarly, a specification like “Frequency Range: 20 Hz to 20 kHz” means nothing, since there is no information about the levels used to define the range.)

If the standard is included in the specification (DIN or AES6, for example), then it is still difficult to compare wow and flutter values. This is because, even when performing identical measurements and applying the same weighting curve shown in the figure above, there are different methods for arriving at the final value. The value that you see may be a peak value (the maximum deviation from the average speed), the peak-to-peak value (the difference between the minimum and the maximum speeds), the RMS (a version of the average deviation from the average speed), or something else.

The AES6-2008 standard, which is the currently accepted method of measuring and expressing the wow and flutter specification, uses a “2-sigma” method, which is a way of looking at the peak deviation to give a kind of “worst-case” scenario. In this method, the 3150 Hz tone is played from a disc and captured for as long a time as is possible or feasible. Firstly, the average value of the actual frequency of the output is found (in theory, it’s fixed at 3150 Hz, but this is never true). Next, the short-term variation of the actual frequency over time is compared to the average, and weighted using the filter shown above. The result shows the instantaneous frequency variations over the length of the captured signal, relative to the average frequency (however, the effect of very slow and very fast changes have been reduced by the filter). Finally, the standard deviation of the variation from the average is calculated, and multiplied by 2 (“2-Sigma”, or “two times the standard deviation”), resulting in the value that is shown as the specification. The reason two standard deviations is chosen is that (in the typical case where the deviation has a Gaussian distribution) the actual Wow & Flutter value should exceed this value no more than 5% of the time.

The reason this method is preferred today is that it uses a single number to express not only the wow and flutter, but the probability of the device reaching that value. For example, if a device is stated to have a “Wow and Flutter of <1% (AES6)”, then the actual deviation from the average speed will be less than 1% for 95% of the time you are listening to music. The principal reason this method was not used in the “old days” is that it requires statistical calculations applied to a signal that was captured from the output of the turntable, an option that was not available decades ago. The older DIN method that was used showed a long-term average level that was being measured in real-time using analogue equipment such as the device shown in below.

Bang & Olufsen WM1, analogue wow and flutter meter.

Unfortunately, however, it is still impossible to know whether a specification that reads “Wow and Flutter: 1% (AES6)” means 1% deviation with a modulation frequency of 4 Hz or 10% deviation with a modulation frequency of 140 Hz – or something else. It is also impossible to compare this value to a measurement done with one of the older standards such as the DIN method, for example.

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 8

Back to Part 7

As was discussed in Part 3, when a record master is cut on a lathe, the cutter head follows a straight-line path as it moves from the outer rim to the inside of the disk. This means that it is always modulating in a direction that is perpendicular to the groove’s relative direction of travel, regardless of its distance from the centre.

The direction of travel of the cutting head when the master disk is created on a lathe.

A turntable should be designed to ensure that the stylus tracks the groove made by the cutter head in all aspects. This means that this perpendicular angle should be maintained across the entire surface of the disk. However, in the case of a tonearm that pivots, this is not possible, since the stylus follows a circular path, resulting in an angular tracking error.

Any tonearm has some angular tracking error that varies with position on the disk.

The location of the pivot point, the tonearm’s shape, and the mounting of the cartridge can all contribute to reducing this error. Typically, tonearms are designed so that the cartridge is angled to not be in-line with the pivot point. This is done to ensure that there can be two locations on the record’s surface where the stylus is angled correctly relative to the groove.

A correctly-designed and aligned pivoting tonearm has a tracking error of 0º at only two locations on the disk.

However, the only real solution is to move the tonearm in a straight line across the disc, maintaining a position that is tangential to the groove, and therefore keeping the stylus located so that its movement is perpendicular to the groove’s relative direction of travel, just as it was with the cutter head on the lathe.

A tonearm that travels sideways, maintaining an angle that is tangent to the groove at the stylus.

In a perfect system, the movement of the tonearm would be completely synchronous with the sideways “movement” of the groove underneath it, however, this is almost impossible to achieve. In the Beogram 4000c, a detection system is built into the tonearm that responds to the angular deviation from the resting position. The result is that the tonearm “wiggles” across the disk: the groove pulls the stylus towards the centre of the disk for a small distance before the detector reacts and moves the back of the tonearm to correct the angle.

Typically, the distance moved by the stylus before the detector engages the tracking motor is approximately 0.1 mm, which corresponds to a tracking error of approximately 0.044º.

An exaggerated representation of the maximum tracking error of the tonearm before the detector engages and corrects.

One of the primary artefacts caused by an angular tracking error is distortion of the audio signal: mainly second-order harmonic distortion of sinusoidal tones, and intermodulation distortion on more complex signals. (see “Have Tone Arm Designers Forgotten Their High-School Geometry?” in The Audio Critic, 1:31, Jan./Feb., 1977.) It can be intuitively understood that the distortion is caused by the fact that the stylus is being moved at a different angle than that for which it was designed.

It is possible to calculate an approximate value for this distortion level using the following equation:

Hd \approx 100 * \frac{ \omega  A  \alpha }{\omega_r R }

Where Hd is the harmonic distortion in percent, \omega is the angular frequency of the modulation caused by the audio signal (calculated using \omega = 2 \pi F), A is the peak amplitude in mm, \alpha is the tracking error in degrees, \omega_r is the angular frequency of rotation (the speed of the record in radians per second. For example, at 33 1/3 RPM, \omega_r = 2 \pi 0.556 rev/sec = 3.49) and R is the radius (the distance of the groove from the centre of the disk). (see “Tracking Angle in Phonograph Pickups” by B.B. Bauer, Electronics (March 1945))

This equation can be re-written, separating the audio signal from the tonearm behaviour, as shown below.

Hd \approx 100 * \frac{ \omega A }{\omega_r} * \frac{\alpha}{R}

which shows that, for a given audio frequency and disk rotation speed, the audio signal distortion is proportional to the horizontal tracking error over the distance of the stylus to the centre of the disk. (This is the reason one philosophy in the alignment of a pivoting tonearm is to ensure that the tracking error is reduced when approaching the centre of the disk, since the smaller the radius, the greater the distortion.)

It may be confusing as to why the position of the groove on the disk (the radius) has an influence on this value. The reason is that the distortion is dependent on the wavelength of the signal encoded in the groove. The longer the wavelength, the lower the distortion. As was shown in Figure 1 in Part 6 of this series, the wavelength of a constant frequency is longer on the outer groove of the disk than on the inner groove.

Using the Beogram 4000c as an example at its worst-case tracking error of 0.044º: if we have a 1 kHz sine wave with a modulation velocity of 34.1 mm/sec on a 33 1/3 RPM LP on the inner-most groove then the resulting 2nd-harmonic distortion will be 0.7% or about -43 dB relative to the signal. At the outer-most groove (assuming all other variables remain constant), the value will be roughly half of that, at 0.3% or -50 dB.

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 7

Back to Part 6

Tracking force

In order to keep the stylus tip in the groove of the record, it must have some force pushing down on it. This force must be enough to keep the stylus in the groove. However, if it is too large, then both the vinyl and the stylus will wear more quickly. Thus a balance must be found between “too much” and “not enough”.

Figure 1: Typical tracking force over time. The red portion of the curve shows the recommendation for Beogram 4002 and Beogram 4000c.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the typical tracking force of phonograph players has changed considerably since the days of gramophones playing shellac discs, with values under 10 g being standard since the introduction of vinyl microgroove records in 1948. The original recommended tracking force of the Beogram 4002 was 1 g, however, this has been increased to 1.3 g for the Beogram 4000c in order to help track more recent recordings with higher modulation velocities and displacements.

Effective Tip Mass

The stylus’s job is to track all of the vibrations encoded in the groove. It stays in that groove as a result of the adjustable tracking force holding it down, so the moving parts should be as light as possible in order to ensure that they can move quickly. The total apparent mass of the parts that are being moved as a result of the groove modulation is called the effective tip mass. Intuitively, this can be thought of as giving an impression of the amount of inertia in the stylus.

It is important to not confuse the tracking force and the effective tip mass, since these are very different things. Imagine a heavy object like a 1500 kg car, for example, lifted off the ground using a crane, and then slowly lowered onto a scale until it reads 1 kg. The “weight” of the car resting on the scale is equivalent to 1 kg. However, if you try to push the car sideways, you will obviously find that it is more difficult to move than a 1 kg mass, since you are trying to overcome the inertia of all 1500 kg, not the 1 kg that the scale “sees”. In this analogy, the reading on the scale is equivalent to the Tracking Force, and the mass that you’re trying to move is the Effective Tip Mass. Of course, in the case of a phonograph stylus, the opposite relationship is desirable; you want a tracking force high enough to keep the stylus in the groove, and an effective tip mass as close to 0 as possible, so that it is easy for the groove to move it.

Compliance

Imagine an audio signal that is on the left channel only. In this case, the variation is only on one of the two groove walls, causing the stylus tip to ride up and down on those bumps. If the modulation velocity is high, and the effective tip mass is too large, then the stylus can lift off the wall of the groove just like a car leaving the surface of a road on the trailing side of a bump. In order to keep the car’s wheels on the road, springs are used to push them back down before the rest of the car starts to fall. The same is true for the stylus tip. It’s being pushed back down into the groove by the cantilever that provides the spring. The amount of “springiness” is called the compliance of the stylus suspension. (Compliance is the opposite of spring stiffness: the more compliant a spring is, the easier it is to compress, and the less it pushes back.)

Like many other stylus parameters, the compliance is balanced with other aspects of the system. In this case it is balanced with the effective mass of the tonearm (which includes the tracking force(1), resulting in a resonant frequency. If that frequency is too high, then it can be audible as a tone that is “singing along” with the music. If it’s too low, then in a worst-case situation, the stylus can jump out of the record groove.

If a turntable is very poorly adjusted, then a high tracking force and a high stylus compliance (therefore, a “soft” spring) results in the entire assembly sinking down onto the record surface. However, a high compliance is necessary for low-frequency reproduction, therefore the maximum tracking force is, in part, set by the compliance of the stylus.

If you are comparing the specifications of different cartridges, it may be of interest to note that compliance is often expressed in one of five different units, depending on the source of the information:

  • “Compliance Unit” or “cu”
  • mm/N
    millimetres of deflection per Newton of force
  • µm/mN
    micrometres of deflection per thousandth of a Newton of force
  • x 10^-6 cm/dyn
    hundredths of a micrometre of deflection per dyne of force
  • x 10^-6 cm / 10^-5 N
    hundredths of a micrometre of deflection per hundred-thousandth of a Newton of force

Since

mm/N = 1000 µm / 1000 mN

and

1 dyne = 0.00001 Newton

Then this means that all five of these expressions are identical, so, they can be interchanged freely. In other words:

20 CU

= 20 mm / N

= 20 µm / mN

= 20 x 10^-6 cm / dyn

= 20 x 10^-6 cm / 10^-5 N

Footnotes

  1. On the Mechanics of Tonearms, Dick Pierce

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 6

Back to Part 5

Tip shape

The earliest styli were the needles that were used on 78 RPM gramophone players. These were typically made from steel wire that was tapered to a conical shape, and then the tip was rounded to a radius of about 150 µm, by tumbling them in an abrasive powder.(1) This rounded curve at the tip of the needle had a hemispherical form, and so styli with this shape are known as either conical or spherical.

The first styli made for “microgroove” LP’s had the same basic shape as the steel predecessor, but were tipped with sapphire or diamond. The conical/spherical shape was a good choice due to the relative ease of manufacture, and a typical size of that spherical tip was about 36 µm in diameter. However, as recording techniques and equipment improved, it was realised that there are possible disadvantages to this design.

Remember that the side-to-side shape of the groove is a physical representation of the audio signal: the higher the frequency, the smaller the wave on the disc. However, since the disc has a constant speed of rotation, the speed of the stylus relative to the groove is dependent on how far away it is from the centre of the disc. The closer the stylus gets to the centre, the smaller the circumference, so the slower the groove speed.

If we look at a 12″ LP, the smallest allowable diameter for the modulated groove is about 120 mm, which gives us a circumference of about 377 mm (or 120 * π). The disc is rotating 33 1/3 times every minute which means that it is making 0.56 of a rotation per second. This, in turn, means that the stylus has a groove speed of 209 mm per second. If the audio signal is a 20,000 Hz tone at the end of the recording, then there must be 20,000 waves carved into every 209 mm on the disc, which means that each wave in the groove is about 0.011 mm or 11 µm long.

Figure 1: The relative speed of the stylus to the surface of the vinyl as it tracks from the outside to the inside radius of the record.
Figure 2: The wavelengths measured in the groove, as a function of the stylus’s distance to the centre of a disc. The shorter lines are for 45 RPM 7″discs, the longer lines are for 33 1/3 RPM 12″ LPs.

However, now we have a problem. If the “wiggles” in the groove have a total wavelength of 11 µm, but the tip of the stylus has a diameter of about 36 µm, then the stylus will not be able to track the groove because it’s simply too big (just like the tires of your car do not sink into every small crack in the road). Figure 3 shows to-scale representations of a conical stylus with a diameter of 36 µm in a 70 µm-wide groove on the inside radius of a 33 1/3 RPM LP (60 mm from the centre of the disc), viewed from above. The red lines show the bottom of the groove and the black lines show the edge where the groove meets the surface of the disc. The blue lines show the point where the stylus meets the groove walls. The top plot is a 1 kHz sine wave and the bottom plot is a 20 kHz sine wave, both with a lateral modulation velocity of 70 mm/sec. Notice that the stylus is simply too big to accurately track the 20 kHz tone.

Figure 3: Scale representations of a conical stylus with a diameter of 36 µm in a 70 µm-wide groove on the inside radius of a 33 1/3 RPM LP, looking directly downwards into the groove. See the text for more information.

One simple solution was to “sharpen” the stylus; to make the diameter of the spherical tip smaller. However, this can cause two possible side effects. The first is that the tip will sink deeper into the groove, making it more difficult for it to move independently on the two audio channels. The second is that the point of contact between the stylus and the vinyl becomes smaller, which can result in more wear on the groove itself because the “footprint” of the tip is smaller. However, since the problem is in tracking the small wavelength of high-frequency signals, it is only necessary to reduce the diameter of the stylus in one dimension, thus making the stylus tip elliptical instead of conical. In this design, the tip of the stylus is wide, to sit across the groove, but narrow along the groove’s length, making it small enough to accurately track high frequencies. An example showing a 0.2 mil x 0.7 mil (10 x 36 µm) stylus is shown in Figure 4. Notice that this shape can track the 20 kHz tone more easily, while sitting at the same height in the groove as the conical stylus in Figure 3.

Figure 4: Scale representations of an elliptical stylus with diameters of 10 x 36 µm in a 70 µm-wide groove on the inside radius of a 33 1/3 RPM LP, looking directly downwards into the groove. See the text for more information.

Both the conical and the elliptical stylus designs have a common drawback in that the point of contact between the tip and the groove wall is extremely small. This can be seen in Figure 5, which shows various stylus shapes from the front. Notice the length of the contact between the red and black lines (the stylus and the groove wall). As a result, both the groove of the record and the stylus tip will wear over time, generally resulting in an increasing loss of high frequency output. This was particularly a problem when the CD-4 Quadradisc format was introduced, since it relies on signals as high as 45 kHz being played from the disc.(2) In order to solve this problem, a new stylus shape was invented by Norio Shibata at JVC in 1973. The idea behind this new design is that the sides of the stylus are shaped to follow a much larger-radius circle than is possible to fit into the groove, however, the tip has a small radius like a conical stylus. An example showing this general concept can be seen on the right side of Figure 5.

Figure 5: Dimensions of example styli, drawn to scale. The figure on the left is typical for a 78 RPM steel needle. The four examples on the right show different examples of tip shapes. These are explained in more details in the text. (For comparison, a typical diameter of a human hair is about 0.06 mm.)

There have been a number of different designs following Shibata’s general concept, with names such as MicroRidge (which has an interesting, almost blade-like shape “across” the groove), Fritz-Geiger, Van-den-Hul, and Optimized Contour Contact Line. Generally, these designs have come to be known as line contact (or contact line) styli, because the area of contact between the stylus and the groove wall is a vertical line rather than a single point.

In 1973, Bang and Olufsen started working its own turntable that could play the new CD-4 Quadradisc format. This not only meant developing a new decoder with a 4-channel output, but also a stylus with a bandwidth reliably extending to approximately 45 kHz. This task was given to Villy Hansen, who was project manager for pickup development, despite being still relatively new to the company. Hansen proposed an improvement upon the Shibata grind (which was already commercially available by then) by making 4 facets instead of 2, resulting in a better shape for tracking the very high-frequency modulation. Although developed by Hansen, the new stylus became known as the “Pramanik diamond”, named after Subir K. Pramanik, who had started working as an engineer in Struer in 1971, but who had temporarily returned to India. The end result was a new pickup family that was initially launched with the top model, the MMC 6000.

Figure 6: An example of an elliptical stylus on the left vs. a line contact Pramanik grind on the right. Notice the difference in the area of contact between the styli and the groove walls.

Bonded vs. Nude

There is one small, but important point regarding a stylus’s construction. Although the tip of the stylus is almost always made of diamond today, in lower-cost units, that diamond tip is mounted or bonded to a titanium or steel pin which is, in turn, connected to the cantilever (the long “arm” that connects back to the cartridge housing). This bonded design is cheaper to manufacture, but it results in a high mass at the stylus tip, which means that it will not move easily at high frequencies.

Figure 7: Scale models (on two different scales) of different styli. The example on the left is bonded, the other four are nude.

In order to reduce mass, the steel pin is eliminated, and the entire stylus is made of diamond instead. This makes things more costly, but reduces the mass dramatically, so it is preferred if the goal is higher sound performance. This design is known as a nude stylus.

Footnotes

  1. See “The High-fidelity Phonograph Transducer” B.B. Bauer, JAES 1977 Vol 25, Number 10/11, Oct/Nov 1977
  2. The CD4 format used a 30 kHz carrier tone that was frequency-modulated ±15 kHz. This means that the highest frequency that should be tracked by the stylus is 30 kHz + 15 kHz = 45 kHz.

On to Part 7

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 4

Back to Part 3

MMC: Micro Moving Cross

As mentioned above, when a wire is moved through a magnetic field, a current is generated in a wire that is proportional to the velocity of the movement. In order to increase the output, the wire can be wrapped into a coil, effectively lengthening the piece of wire moving through the field. Most phono cartridges make use of this behaviour by using the movement of the stylus to either:

  1. move tiny magnets that are placed near coils of wire (a Moving Magnet or MM design
    or
  2. move tiny coils of wire that are placed near very strong magnets (a Moving Coil or MC design)

In either system, there is a relative physical movement that is used to generate the electrical signal from the cartridge. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these systems, however, they’re well-discussed in other places, so I won’t talk about them here.

There is a third, less common design called a Moving Iron (or variable-reluctance(1)) system, which can be thought of as a variant of the Moving Magnet principle. In this design, the magnet and the coils remain stationary, and the stylus moves a small piece of iron instead. That iron is placed between the north and south poles of the magnet so that, when it moves, it modulates (or varies) the magnetic field. As the magnetic field modulates, it moves relative to the coils, and an electrical signal is generated. One of the first examples of this kind of pickup was the Western Electric 4A reproducer made in 1925.

Figure 1: Figures from Rørbaek Madsen’s 1963 patent for a Stereophonic Transducer Cartridge.

In 1963, Erik Rørbaek Madsen of Bang & Olufsen filed a patent for a cartridge based on the Moving Iron principle. In it, a cross made of Mu-metal is mounted on the stylus. Each arm of the cross is aligned with the end of a small rod called a “pole piece” (because it was attached to the pole of a magnet on the opposite end). The cross is mounted diagonally, so the individual movements of the left and right channels on the groove cause the arms of the cross to move accordingly. For a left-channel signal, the bottom left and top right cross arms move in opposite directions – one forwards and one backwards. For a right-channel signal, the bottom right and top left arms move instead. The two coils that generate the current for each audio channel are wired in a push-pull relationship.

Figure 2: Erik Rørbaek Madsen explaining the MMC concept.

There are a number of advantages to this system over the MM and MC designs. Many of these are described in the original 1963 patent, as follows:

  1. “The channel separation is very good and induction of cross talk from one channel to the other is minimized because cross talk components are in phase in opposing coils.”
  2. “The moving mass which only comprises the armature and the stylus arm can be made very low which results in good frequency response.”
  3. “Hum pick-up is very low due to the balanced coil construction”
  4. “… the shielding effect of the magnetic housing … provides a completely closed magnetic circuit which in addition to shielding the coil from external fields prevents attraction to steel turntables.”
  5. Finally, (although this is not mentioned in the patent) the push-pull wiring of the coils “reduces harmonic distortion induced by the non-linearity of the magnetic field.”(2)
Figure 3: The magnetic circuit representation of the MMC cartridge, showing the diagonal pair of pole pieces for one of the two audio channels.
Figure 4: The Micro Moving Cross MMC 4000 cartridge design. 1. Nude Pramanik diamond, 2. Low mass beryllium cantilever, 3. Moving micro cross, 4. Block suspension, 5. Pole pieces, 6. Induction coils, 7. Mu-metal screen, 8. Hycomax magnet
Figure 5: Large-scale models of the MMC cartridges used for past demonstrations.

Footnotes

  1. reluctance is the magnetic equivalent of electrical resistance
  2. “Sound Recording Handbook”, ed. Glen Ballou

Turntables and Vinyl: Part 1

Lately, a large part of my day job has been involved with the Beogram 4000c project at Bang & Olufsen. This turned out to be pretty fun, because, as I’ve been telling people, I’m old enough that many of my textbooks have chapters about vinyl and phonographs, but I’m young enough that I didn’t have to read them, since vinyl was a dying technology in the 1990’s.

So, one I the things I’ve had to do lately is to go back and learn all the stuff I didn’t have to do 25 years ago. In the process, I’ve wound up gathering lots of information that might be of interest to someone else, so I figured I’d collect it here in a multi-part series on phonographs.

A warning: this will not be a tome on why vinyl is better than digital or why digital is better than vinyl. I’m not here to start any arguments or rail against anyone’s religious beliefs. If you don’t like some of the stuff I say here, put your complaints in your own website.

Also, if you’ve downloaded the Technical Sound Guide for the Beogram 4000c, then you’ll recognise a large portions of these postings as auto-plagiarism. Consider the TGS as a condensed version of this series.

A very short history

In 1856, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented a device based on the basic anatomy of the human ear. It consisted of a wooden funnel ending at a flexible membrane to emulate the ear canal and eardrum. Connected to the membrane was a pig bristle that moved with it, scratching a thin line into soot on a piece of paper wrapped around a rotating cylinder. He called this new invention a “phonautograph” or “self-writer of sound”.

The phonoautograph (from www.firstsounds.org)

This device was conceived to record sounds in the air without any intention of playing them back, so it can be considered to be the precursor to the modern oscilloscope. (It should be said that some “recordings” made on a phonoautograph were finally played in 2008. See www.firstsounds.org for more information.) However, in the late 1870’s, Charles Cros realised that if the lines drawn by the phonoautograph were photo-engraved onto the surface of a metal cylinder, then it could be used to vibrate a needle placed in the resulting groove. Unfortunately, rather than actually build such a device, he only wrote about the idea in a document that was filed at the Académie des Sciences and sealed. Within 6 months of this, in 1877, Thomas Edison asked his assistant, John Kruesi, to build a device that could not only record sound (as an indentation in tin foil on a cylinder) but reproduce it, if only a few times before the groove became smoothed. (see “Reproduction of Sound in High-fidelity and Stereo Phonographs” (1962) by Edgar Villchur)

It was ten years later, in 1887, that the German-American inventor Emil Berliner was awarded a patent for a sound recording and reproducing system that was based on a groove in a rotating disc (rather than Edison’s cylinder); the original version of the system that we know of today as the “Long Playing” or “LP” Record.

An Edison “Blue Amberol” record with a Danish 78 RPM “His Master’s Voice” disc recording X8071 of Den Blaa Anemone.

Early phonographs or “gramophones” were purely mechanical devices. The disc (or cylinder) was rotated by a spring-driven clockwork mechanism and the needle or stylus rested in the passing groove. The vibrations of the needle were transmitted to a flexible membrane that was situated at the narrow end of a horn that amplified the resulting sound to audible levels.

Magnets and Coils

In 1820, more than 30 years before de Martinville’s invention, the Danish physicist and chemist, Hans Christian Ørsted announced the first link made between electricity and magnetism: he had discovered that a compass needle would change direction when placed near a wire that was carrying an electrical current. Nowadays, it is well-known that this link is bi-directional. When current is sent through a wire, a magnetic field is generated around it. However, it is also true that moving a wire through a magnetic field will generate current that is proportional to its velocity.

Forward to Part 2: Physics

Beolab + 3rd party source with a high-level output

#80 in a series of articles about the technology behind Bang & Olufsen loudspeakers

This week, I was asked a very specific question about connecting an older pair of Beolab loudspeakers to a stereo preamp from another company. Specifically, the owner was wondering why the pairing wasn’t working out too well – and he had already had a theory that the problem had something to do with the sensitivity of his Beolab 9’s.

To be honest, I don’t really know what the problem is with this specific customer’s system – but I made a guess and I figured that the answer might be useful to someone else…

For starters, let’s do some sensitivity training. More accurately, let’s talk about loudspeaker sensitivity. This is a measure of how loud the acoustical output of a loudspeaker is for a given electrical input. Since Beolab loudspeakers are active (meaning, in part, that the amplifiers are built-in) this means that we are talking about an output level in dB SPL for a given input in volts.

For most Beolab loudspeakers, you will get an output of 88 dB SPL for an input of 125 mV RMS if you measure the loudspeaker on-axis in a free field. There are some exceptions to this, most notably Beolab 1, 9, and 5, which will produce 91 dB SPL instead.

So, this tells us how loud the loudspeaker will be for a given input. But my guess is that this had nothing to do with the customer’s problem.

Most customers connect their Beolab loudspeakers to a Bang & Olufsen source using something called a “Power Link” connection. This is a little bundle of wires that contains two audio channels (probably left and right) as well as a data channel (telling the loudspeaker things like the volume setting, for example) and a 5 V DC on/off signal.

Power Link is specified to have a maximum level of 6.5 V RMS, assuming that the signal is a sine wave. This means that a device with a Power Link output can produce no more than 9.2 V Peak. It also means that a device with a Power Link input (like a Beolab loudspeaker) will clip (and therefore distort) at its input if you feed it with more than 9.2 V Peak.

(If you do some math, you can calculate that 20*log10(6.5 V RMS / 125 mV RMS) = 34.3 dB. Therefore, if a Beolab 9 loudspeaker will produce 91 dB SPL with a 125 mV RMS input, then it should produce 91+34.3 dB = 125.3 dB SPL for a maximum accepted input of 6.5 V RMS. Of course, this is not possible – but it’s because the loudspeaker is limited by its drivers, amplifiers, and power supply – not the input maximum input level.)

Back to the question: The customer in question mentioned his stereo preamp’s brand and model number. A little Duck-Duck-Go-ing helped me to find the manual for that particular device, and in the back of that document, I found out that the maximum output level of the preamp was 29 V RMS – which is a lot…

So, the problem is very likely that his preamp is overloading the input stages of the Beolab 9. So, if he turns the volume knob on the preamp up to maximum, and he’s playing a tune that is mastered to be loud on the playback media, then the Beolab 9’s input will be clipped. Changing the sensitivity of the loudspeaker could make it quieter – but it will still be clipped… So the distortion won’t get better – everything will just get quieter.

There are some different solutions to this problem. The easiest one is to not turn up the volume on the preamp – but this is not the best solution, because it means that he’s not using the full dynamic range of the preamp (probably), and therefore that the noise from the preamp is higher in level than it needs to be at the input of the Beolab 9.

There is, however, a very cheap and simple solution, and that is to attenuate the output of the preamp so that when it is set to its maximum output level, it is just hitting the maximum input level of the loudspeaker’s input.

How do we do this? the first question is to find out what the attenuation should be.

Maximum output level = 29.0 V RMS

Maximum input level = 6.5 V RMS

20*log10 (6.5 / 29.0) = -12.99 dB

This is the same as a linear gain of 0.2241.

Now we’re going to build a voltage divider. This is device made of two resistors, placed in series (end-to-end) and connected to the output of the source. The point where the two resistors connect together is used as the output to the loudspeaker, resulting in a schematic as shown below.

As you can probably see in the schematic, the grounds of the two devices (which are connected to the exterior casings of the RCA Phono plugs) are connected together. As the voltage on the pin of the source goes up and down, the voltage on the pin of the loudspeaker also goes up and down – but by less. How much less is determined by the values of the resistors.

For example, if the resistors are equal (R1 = R2) then the output will be half of the input. If R2 is one tenth of the total of R1+R2, then the output will be one tenth of the input. You can calculate this gain yourself with a simple equation:

Linear Gain = R2 / (R1 + R2)

and

Gain in dB = 20 * log10 (Linear Gain)

So, for example, if R1 = 8,000 Ω and R2 = 2,000 Ω, then the gain will be

2000 / (8000 + 2000) = 0.2

which is equal to 20*log10 (0.2) -13.98 dB.

Unfortunately, if you want to do this with only two resistors, you can’t be too choosy about their resistances. There are standard resistor values, and you’ll have to pick from that list.

Also, it’s a good “rule of thumb” to try and keep the resistance “seen” by the source around 10,000 Ω (or 10 kΩ) – just to keep it happy. If you make the value too low, then you will be asking for it to deliver too much current (and its maximum output level will drop). If you make it too high, you might create and antenna and result in some extra noise…

So, I want to make R1 +R2 about 10,000 Ω, and I want R2 / (R1+R2) to be about 0.2241 (because I’m trying to convert 29 V RMS to 6.5 V RMS). So, I go to a list of standard resistor values like this one and I start trying to simultaneously fulfill those two requirements.

After some trial and error, I find out that if I make R1 = 8.2 kΩ and R2 = 2.4 kΩ, I can come pretty close.

2400 / (8200 + 2400) = 0.2264 = -12.902

close enough. Now I just need to get a soldering iron and a bit of wire, and put it all together…

The details…

However, if you clicked on that list of standard resistor values, you might notice that it says ±5% at the top of the table. This is normal. If you go to your local resistor store and you buy a 1 kΩ resistor – it probably won’t be exactly 1,000.000000000 Ω. But it will be close. If you buy from the ±5% stack, then any resistor in that bunch will be within 5% of the stated value. So, for a 1 kΩ resistor ±5%, it will be somewhere between 950 Ω and 1050 Ω.

So, then the question is, for the resistors that I just picked, how bad can it get, and is that good enough?

Well… this can be calculated. I just put in the worst-case values for my two resistors into the math, and do it over and over until I get all the possible answers. This would look like this:

If we look at this in terms of how far away we are from the target – the gain error, then it looks like this:

So, if we randomly choose resistors out of the bag, the worst that can happen is that we will be 0.6 dB below the target or 0.8 dB above the target.

This means that, if we’re not careful, and we’re unlucky, then we can get a mismatch between the two channels of 1.4 dB (assuming that one channel was a worst-case low and the other is a worst-case high). This is enough to be audible as about a 15% shift towards the louder loudspeaker, which is probably not acceptable.

So, the moral of the story is that you should measure your resistors before soldering them into the circuit.

Note, however, that it’s not necessary to make the gains perfect to improve the imaging. You just need to make them equal in the two channels for that…

Speaking Passively

The circuit I show above is called a “passive” circuit. This means that it doesn’t require any external power source (like a battery or a power supply) to work. However, it also means that it can’t make things louder – no matter what resistor values you choose, the output will always be less than the input.

There are lots of reasons why this is a useful little circuit. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make, it’s small (you could hide it inside one of the RCA connectors), and it will prevent you from overloading the input of the downstream device (in this case, a loudspeaker). Not only that, but it will also attenuate the noise generated by the source – so not only will the customer’s system no longer clip, it will also (probably) have a lower noise floor.