SonicFlare's Sonic Circle

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by Josh Ray on October 25 '07

SonicFlare Get Hip Sonic Circle

Hi-fi is, if nothing else, huge.  The massive number of speaker and component manufacturers rivals the diversity of sports cars, fine wines, luxe watches and designer clothing.  Each product is a masterpiece with its specific qualities and unique audiences.  Alas, hi-fi magazines propagate the misconception that there is, in fact, one "best of the best" component and an “absolute sound” to be achieved.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

SonicFlare’s motto is “sports cars for your living room” and there’s a good reason why.  To illustrate, answer this question:  which is better, a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce or Aston Martin?  While you may have your personal favorite, the question is meaningless because there is no overall best of the best in automotive.

These same rules apply to hi-fi.  Unfortunately, the current audio culture revolves around a generic 0-60mph test.  A supercharged Honda hatchback will beat a Porsche in a drag race, but does that make the Honda a better car?  Not a chance.  And just because a component measures flat from 20Hz-20kHz doesn’t mean it’s a world-class performer.  We all know there are different sounds and different flavors.  The Sonic Circle was born out of this need for a better way to discuss hi-fi.
The Sonic Circle consists of the three major sonic groups with additional sub groups in between.  These main groups are Precise, Emotional and Refined.  The sub groups are Intense, Smooth and Vivid.  While it’s easiest to talk about equipment as belonging to these separate groups, you can also think of the circle like a clock with hours and minutes defining even more precise sonic attributes.  

PRECISE (12:00)
SonicFlare Get Hip Sonic Circle Precise equipment originates from the pro audio world.  With flatter-than-flat measurements and super-low levels of distortion, Precise equipment manufacturers strive to reveal every last bit of detail.  While all audio companies say their gear reproduces music accurately, Precise companies typically publish frequency and distortion charts to appeal to the recording engineers whose careers depend on measurable accuracy.  While there are probably more pro-specific speakers in the world than any other type, Precise gear for home listening is the smallest group of the main three groups.

People who love Precise equipment trumpet the super-accurate sound and the ability to hear “every last detail” on a CD or record.  Precise gear is not for easy listening – the sound is forward, in-your-face and Precise lovers wouldn’t have it any other way.  Bass is large but not bloated – it measures flat, flat, flat.
People who dislike Precise equipment feel it is too precise.  That is, Precise gear will reveal every nasty detail and make your badly recorded albums sound, well, bad.  Detractors also describe the highs as harsh and the overall sound as cool and flat, rather than warm and lively.
While there are numerous pro-only speaker brands, companies such as JBL (the high-end division), Pioneer/TAD, ATC, PMC, Adam, Lipinski and others repackage their pro speakers with fancy woodwork and paint finishes to fit in with your living room decor.  Electronic companies such as Bryston, Chord and GamuT have pro and home divisions.  There are a few companies like B&W and Wilson who are known for selling to famous recording studios, but these companies are home hi-fi brands first and foremost and, more importantly, have a distinctly different sound.

REFINED  (4:00)
SonicFlare Get Hip Sonic Circle The Refined sound is the territory of the modern audiophile.  Cultivated over many years by the American hi-fi press, these companies champion a very specific sound that appeals to the bulk of current generation audiophiles who subscribe to Stereophile, TAS, Hi-Fi + and others.
People who love the Refined sound cite the smooth and even presentation from top to bottom without the fatigue or harshness of the Precise group.  Additionally, they see Refined equipment as offering the best of all worlds with strong bass, smooth mids and mellow highs.  It's equipment for all seasons.

People who don’t like the Refined group point to the tuning of the sound to fit the audiophile sonic aesthetic.  While the equipment will have all the prerequisite bass and dynamics, the tuning of the speaker will have a detractor saying the sound is “weird” and doesn’t fit with their music choices.  It’s also worth noting that American audiophiles who love Refined gear tends to listen to -- and audition equipment with -- jazz and classical instead of pop, rock and hip-hop.

Legendary speaker manufacturers Wilson, B&W, Vandersteen, Thiel, Genesis and others are all part of this group.  Refined lectronics companies include McIntosh, Mark Levinson, Krell, Musical Fidelity, VTL, Halcro and Audio Research.

SonicFlare Get Hip Sonic Circle The fastest growing (and oldest) segment in audio, the Emotional group is the funkiest of the bunch.  The bulk of speakers in this group run single full-range drivers with high sensitivity and low power handling.  Designers shun flat frequency response for a more warm and lively presentation.
Additionally, S.E.T. (Single End Triode) amps with their tiny power and coveted sound are the hallmark of the Emotional group.  Some companies will have dozens of models of amplifiers each with their own unusual tubes to appeal to the Emotional bottle-heads.

The Emotional fans love the speed, warmth and emotion of the full-range drivers and tube power.  A full-range driver like a Lowther or Fostex is extremely fast in that it has very short excursion and super low moving mass.  Additionally, Emotional speakers and amps strive for signal purity by removing some electronic components and forgoing crossovers.  This simplicity is what Emotional lovers crave.

Detractors cite the lack of bass and roller-coaster frequency response as the major drawbacks.  A speaker with a single driver can’t produce the same bass as a 5-way tower with double 10” woofers.  Additionally, tiny watt tube amps don’t have the muscle of a 200 watt solid state amp and produce a very distinct sound that, some feel, is just too inaccurate for their tastes.

While there are few major Emotional brands, there are probably more boutique Emotional manufacturers than any other category.  Cain & Cain, Omega, Rethm and Beauhorn are some of the “big” companies while there are literally dozens upon dozens of custom speaker manufacturers using Fostex, Lowther, Supravox, PHY-HP, AER, Hartley and other drivers.

Electronics companies making amps with 300B, 211, 2A3 and other tiny watt tubes are just as numerous.  Audio Note, Art Audio, Cary, Air Tight, Shindo and KR Audio are the major players while many, many smaller companies are hand-crafting S.E.T. amps.

VIVID  (10:00)
SonicFlare Get Hip Sonic Circle Combining the in-your-face power of the Precise group with the warmth of the Emotional group, the Vivid category is much-loved though not entirely accepted by the American audiophile press due to the active tweaking of the frequency response.  The sound is really wild and lively up top with a ton of warmth and body through the midrange and, typically, a huge bass sound that, while not flat, is fun.

Speakers and electronics in the Vivid group range from very Precise to very Emotional.   The new “green” amps (Bel Canto, other ICEpower amps, Hypex, Tripath and chip-amps) retain many of the Precise characteristics while offering up a greater deal of warmth and smoothness.  Legendary brands E.A.R. and Manley are tube amp companies that straddle both pro and home markets and the sound fits accordingly.

American companies Joseph Audio and Tetra as well as the British legends Linn, Harbeth, ProAc and Spendor all fall into the Vivid group with their signature sounds.  The Vivid speaker sound is instantly recognizable and its fans are fervent in defending the sonic tastes. 
SMOOTH (6:00)
SonicFlare Get Hip Sonic Circle Where the Vivid group greatly accentuates certain frequencies for dramatic effect, the Smooth group takes the Emotional warmth and refines it for a different goal entirely.

New American companies Zu and DeVore embrace the high efficiency of the Emotional group while championing unique cabinets and driver technologies to achieve their full range sound and big dynamics.  But where the treble and bass of the Vivid group is in-your-face, these companies tailor these qualities for a more Refined presentation.

Many push-pull tube amps fall into this category.  Cary, Shindo, Air Tight, Rogue, Zanden and others offer amps with tube warmth and body but forgo the Precise edginess for a smoother sound.  Some solid state companies like Accuphase create amps with Smooth characteristics.

INTENSE (2:00)
SonicFlare Get Hip Sonic Circle While the other groups encompass brands from across the globe, the Intense group finds the bulk of its brands in a single geographic area: Northern Europe.  Measurements are uniformly flat but the sound is tailored away from the warmth of the Emotional group to what is routinely described as cool.  The sonics are further tailored away from the sharpness of the Precise group towards a more Refined and smoother sound.

Brands such as Kharma, MBL, Dali, Marten and Canton join with the offspring of Per Skaaning, founder of driver manufacturers Dynaudio, Scan Speak and, most recently, Audio Technology.  These three driver manufacturers form the backbones of such brands as Dynaudio Speakers (naturally), Peak Consult, Audio Physics, GamuT and many, many others.  While each company has its own specific sound, th Intense group as a whole is becoming more and more popular in American circles.

When building up your hi-fi rig, the easiest way to find compatible components is to pull from their respective groups – Emotional amps go with Emotional speakers, and so forth.  Now, you are probably wondering what happens if you combine, say, a Precise speaker with an Emotional amp.  More than likely, the results would be just what you imagine: a Vivid system.

But this is not always the case.  Some speakers and amps have such a defined sound that they swamp all other components in the food chain – your Refined speakers will make your system sound Refined no matter what other components you have.  On the flip side, certain speakers and amps are so transparent that different choices of preamp will make the sound go from Precise to Emotional to Refined.

This guide is the first step in advancing the next generation of hi-fi.  In the future, the Sonic Circle will be tweaked and refined to best help people understand the differences in hi-fi sounds and move away from "the best of the best."  Share your ideas and thoughts below.  And if you think one piece of equipment belongs in another group, shout it out.  The goal is to have a comprehensive list of equipment to help everyone find the gear that matches their tastes.


Interesting take. The idea flies in the face of a certain major former editor and publisher. However, its so much more inclusive and that's the point I believe. I hope I'm not crabbing about the demise of indy rock and systems that play it well when I am 80. The redesign looks good by the way. Regards.
Hi Jon, Yes, the Sonic Circle flies in the face of most every established hi-fi reviewing policy, but I believe it's the only way of accurately talking about the differences in audio. For their informed audiences, I believe the "establishment" does a fine job. But for everyone else, there must be a way of differentiating between a Japanese Fostex speaker and a six woofer Teutonic tower. And glad ya like the new design!
Excellent work fellows! I like it, I like it a lot. Your Sonic Circle can replace so much waffle and drivel and get to the heart of the matter immediately: it doesn't matter how "good" it is; rather, will it rock your boat? Nice!
Hey Deon, Glad you like the Sonic Circle! You're absolutely right: hi-fi is all about getting your boat rocked, nothing else :)
Hi Josh, I find the concept of the Sonic Circle interesting and possibly even useful, but there are some flaws. My assumption is either you haven't heard some of these brands, or you've heard them in situations where the sound was influenced by the associated gear, or, perhaps, you've recived some incorrect or biased info. First, Marten speakers are extremely neutral. The Miles 2 is one of the most succesful speaker designs I've ever enocuntered. If accuracy is what the first category is put them there. 2nd, Krell and ARC could never be spoken in the same breath! Indeed ARC is not as "tubey" as a 300B based amp, or a vintage Mac or Leak, but the 2 companies sound would never be put in the same categroy. The same for Theil and Vandersteen. Talk about opposites! When the time is right we can discuss prefernces, but in until then you need to fix this page. Take care, Robert
Hi Robert, Thanks for the thoughts! The Sonic Circle is brand new and, as it grows, it'll be tweaked to best reflect different brands and, more importantly, guide people towards the gear they like. You zeroed in on one of the trickiest part of the circle: Refined gear. The biggest challenge of the Refined group is how to discuss the qualities I believe they all have in common. For Krell, ARC, B&W, Thiel and Wilson all share something in common that separates them out from everything else. Vadnersteen may very well belong in a different group in that the equipment could really have colored the results, I'll have to listen more to find out. Brightness and neutrality aren't qualities that really come into play -- all groups can have gear that is bright. Additionally, all groups can have neutral speakers in that they take on the qualities of whatever is placed before it. As for Thiel, if one removes the brightness, sharpness, nails-on-chalkboard-ness, the sound of the speaker is distinctly Refined, fitting right next to Wilson and B&W. There's a certain quality in the voicing of the speaker that makes all Refined speakers unique. I don't know of a better way to explain this. And the same goes for Krell and Audio Research. Really, people who like Refined gear tend to stick with Refined gear, be it Krell or ARC or Levinson or whatever. There's something in the voicing that certain listeners react to. As for Marten, yes, they are incredibly neutral and put out a really great sound, but it is, I believe, distinctly Refined and not Precise. There's still a certain sound it shares with Kharma, Dynaudio, Dali and others. I've heard the Dukes, Miles III, Birds and Supremes (Dan Meinwald is a bud, if you were wondering) so I feel pretty confident about placing Marten in the Intense group. I've also heard the ATC 7, 10, 19, 20 and 50s. ATC arguably defines the hyper accurate Precise group and, really, Marten shares more with other Intense speakers than it does with ATC and the others. It's not about measured frequency, but voicing. Hope that makes sense and if you have any more thoughts, I'd love to hear them. Really, this whole Sonic Circle project is to get away from "the best of the best" and recognize that people simply have different tastes.
Hi Josh Good to see Sonic Flare back. I like the sonic circle idea but could I suggest you expand it to two dimentions by having a variable lenght arrow (three lengths should suffice). For instance a Precise' with the arrow at full lenghth would burn your ears off at 100 paces :-) The categories were well chosen and the circle works well when looking at products at a show. Do you plan a more detailed application for in-depth reviews or do you feel the reviewer's words should be read in full and that they will provide the extra detail? Here's wishing you every success Jeremy
Hey Jeremy, Glad you like the new site and the Sonic Circle! Yes, I thought about including various levels of flavor intensity before realizing madness wouldn't be too far off. I mean, it'd be fun to, say, place a dot on the circle where closer to the center is more neutral and closer to the edge is more intense. But just getting people to use the circle is enough of a challenge. I'd also love to offer New School Measurements that focus on bass output relative to room size and room placement optimization, but, ya know, there's a saying about "biting" and "chewing" and certain ratios... And, yes, our reviews will go into further depth regarding the sound. The SonicFlare Review section will be launching soon, and with it an entirely different and unique way to review equipment based around the Sonic Circle. Typical hi-fi reviews are pleasant reads about the tortured lives of audio reviewers, but it gets to a point where all I want to know is how it sounds, how it fits into my system, issues with certain types of gear and so-forth. Every piece of gear out there has an audience, and SonicFlare will attempt to zero in on that audience and let them know if the gear is right for them. Thanks for the thoughts and let me know if you have any more :)
Hi Josh, I know Dan very well. Perhaps the Martens you mentioned are indeed “intense”. The only models I know are the Miles 2s and the Coltranes and what I love about them is they make the records I worked on sound exactly the way I want them to sound. I call this accuracy and I can’t give any higher compliment than that. Re. Thiel, I’ve heard the same sound you’ve heard. Most of the time the sound is horrid, but it turns out it’s not the speaker's fault. Thiels are very fussy and they tend to belong to people who worship high end reviewers. They also generally have a hang-up over output current. Of course, you can partly blame people like John Atkinson for determining that Thiel speakers would be best not used with tube amps. Take note that he pretty much the same thing about the Coltranes! Audiophiles tend to follow the “gospel”, so most Thiel setups are tainted by the sound of the typical high-powered/high-end transistor amps they are mated with. One of my friends has the CS6s. Guess what, he drives them with a Classe 400 power amp! Indeed, they used to sound hard and glassy, but that was when he still had his Classe preamp. Now the 400 is driven by an Audible Illusions tube preamp. His speakers now sound very neutral. In fact, the sound is quite like what I’ve heard at Dan’s from the Miles 2s. What more can I say? Hey, are you coming to Vegas? I assume you’ll be hanging with Danny K? Make sure you come by and see is at The Show! Robert
An interesting idea has sparked an interesting debate. If only on that level, Josh has done his job (if you call a writer's job establishing relevant debate on worthy but untouched subjects). So I consider this a winning idea. As for points mentioned, I had no idea there was some sort of reviewer dictum for using solid state amps with Thiel speakers. Personally, I would never recommend such a pairing. But that's just me.
Hey Rod (That’s your name, right), I’m with you all the way! Many good speakers get bad raps because of associated equipment. With that said, I cannot actually say if any reviewer actually said that any Thiel speaker should be “best driven by a solid state amp”, but I do know that in almost every case, when a speaker has proven to be a somewhat “difficult” load, Mr. Atkinson has implied that a solid state amp would be a better choice. Thiel speakers are not particularly efficient, so high power is more easily attained (and advertised) with transistor amps. Of course, if my idea good recordings were bass-heavy Telarc CDs, Hanz Zimmer scores, bloated Mahler symphonies, and “female vocal” SACDs drenched in digital reverb, then a transistor amp would be my first choice too, with any speaker. Heck, there is such a thing as a good transistor amp! On the other hand, if Telarc and Zimmer were my among references, I’d also be an expert on subwoofers, music servers, single-malt scotch, and Mel Gibson films, and “slam factor” would be the first thing I’d listen for. Concepts like natural timbre and palpability wouldn’t be regular parts of my vocabulary either. I try to keep these things in mind in mind when I read reviews in most of the high end mags. I try to remember that this is the way most reviewers and the “normal” people who read them think. Robert
The sonic circle certainly is a great idea,as a audiophile wannabe ive read some reviews on speakers and amps,of course im confused as i ever want to be,ive learned nothing except the reviewers discriptive opinion based on the difference of some other equipments sound qualities that ive never heard! albeit speakers or preamps or gas cooled class A mono block amps advertized i guess for lottery winners! HOWEVER I NO THAT FATIGUING HIGHS BELONG IN THE INTENCE AREA! now we may be getting somewhere,thank you now im finnally getting an idea understand and make someone else understand you have to have a frame of reference,that is what the sonic circle can do! a great reviewer tool and right on time too! I want one more added too the sonic circle,this category should be called (wonderful) I think i have a lot of followers who would like this! perhaps a small area next to smooth! well maybe a very small area huh?
My compliments to anyone who organizes a TAXONOMY OF THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE that includes varieties of audio technology. I'm sure that as time passes the approach will be refined. One aspect perhaps missing: A listener's choice of music. Classical and jazz buffs, for the most part (in my experience), have different systems from those interested in, well, wallbanging. As it ought to be! But shouldn't that aspect be included, perhaps in a orbital circle? clark
An interesting and provocative break-down of what we audiophiles listen for. I have only one point of disagreement; Neither Stereophile nor TAS claims that there is a single "best" component in any category. Granted, there may be a "flavor of the month", but both stress variety and choice at the top. Also, both magazines are well aware that reproduction by our electronic equipment is far short of "the absolute sound", which is live music played by acoustic instruments in a real space.
Jeez, I just go for whatever sounds good.
Precise, Emotional and Refined as seperate entities? Not for me- I believe with enough dedication you can have it all. For example my Lipinski's are studio monitors and very accurate and precise.( although not uncomfortable with hi-fi - Stereophile rated them Class A , for what it's worth.) I first heard them in a friends mastering studio driven by Benchmark DAC and Byrston power amps. Fantastic , neutral room and the sound blew me away - the ultimate in precision for sure, so good I imported a pair but they are in your face with big powerful SS amps for continual long term "pleasure' listening. Tube preamp helped - kept the precision, still very accurate, but still a bit tiring. So then tried big powerful tube amps- this swung the balance too far - to somewhere between refined and emotional , sounded nice but what's the point of making a Lipinski sound "nice"? What I needed was a tube amp that had the control and speed of the SS amps but didn't have the poor frequency response control of typical low damping factor tube amps. This led to the development (or re-discovery for me) of low output Z/high damping factor tube 100 watt amps. These amps with the Lips are still precise, but have a realness and hologophicness (?) that keeps precise but gives it life and vitality. Just to be sure I hadn't lost the point I got my mastering engineer mate to listen, and he confirmed he'd be happy to use that sound for mastering purposes - and these guys are extremely pedantic about accuracy and precision. Lately I went to a 20 watt high DF SE amp just on the tweeter- it kept the accuracy but made it just a bit more holographic. Oh and it has a 24dB tube active crossover at 70 Hz for the 15" subs. The crossover has 12ohm output Z's for (again) very accurate response. Precise, refined and emotional ? IMO -yes. 2nd example - my hybrid horn system , which today consists of a 15" driver, a set of Martin Seddons 550Hz cut off radial horns with JBL compression driver , and a very high quality compression tweeter. The only driver with amp issues is the 15" so it is driven with a high DF tube amp while the mid and tweeter are driven with reasonably conventional SE tube amps in a fully active system. Sonic Circle would rate this set up as "emotional" and untweaked it certainly fits this description- overbearing horn dominance , un-integrated crossover due to dissimilarity of drivers and different phase responses. Very dynamic though and quite enjoyable to start off with, but it's not true and you soon start suspecting that what you are hearing is a con job. But we are using a digital crossover, so we can time align , we can use assymetrical crossovers , we can do speaker EQ and we can do speaker/room EQ. Now we have a completely different system- it's still as dynamic as hell, but it has near flat response , real like imaging and focus. Precise ,refined and emotional? IMO- yes. 3rd System- 3 way, 2 element electrostatic with 15" bass driver (note the 15" connection, imo real bass comes from real bass drivers- no 8" posers here) Also all active, driven by 3 big SS amps , tube preamp and digital crossover. This system started out as "refined" , but is it precise, refined and emotional now ? I think it most certainly is, just like the others. Although they all have a different balance of the three sounds and one is a moving coil, one a horn and the other stats they sound surprisingly similiar. I certainly enjoy them all and wouldn't like to call one "best" . It would be interesting though to get an experienced audiophile to listen to them blind and see if he/she could pick the type of drivers used. So I have found that you can have precise, refined and emotional- for sure it takes expense and a lot of work . Good hi-fi has evolved a long way in the last decade, and believing that a system can only sound "one-way" is fundamentalist to my way of seeing it. I'm surprised the Sonic Circle group has not even considered that all the elements can be combined, and of course when that happens you get the closest reproduction to the real thing, within the limits of the technology. I sure am looking forward to what comes along in the next 10 years.
Hi Mick, Great points and you're absolutely right -- different technology, when manipulated in interesting ways, can sound similar. Crossovers, especially the active variety, can swing a system's sound in any which way around the circle. That said, you are not just an experienced audiophile, but clearly a guy who lives and breathes this stuff. Like you, I have played with systems and sounds that defy hi-fi convention and categorization. Of course, the speakers you describe sound like they fit my taste on the Sonic Circle perfectly -- how's the weather down your way? I may just have to make a trip :) Really, the Sonic Circle is for the people who aren't hard core audiophiles and are simply trying to find their way through this madness. The Sonic Circle gives them a starting point to find equipment that appeals to their ears. So when they read a review, they don't end up thinking a Precise component fits their Emotional taste and end up putting said gear on the 'gon a couple weeks after purchasing. The Circle is also not unlike wine -- with the Sonic Circle, we now have different tastes like cabs and zins and pinos. Before, everything was just ranked on one sort of generic "good, better, best" box wine ladder. Not terribly helpful, or fair. Also, you bring up "closest reproduction to the real thing." As we know, every manufacturer claims to offer the closest reproduction to the real thing as possible. But, of course, their gear sounds wildly different -- Krell sounds different than VTL, Linn and tube amps from Australia. Alas, the way amps are reviewed in some mags leaves one thinking the gear is only a few degrees apart when, in fact, the sound couldn't be more different. The Sonic Circle simply came out of asking manufacturers and audiophiles what they like and then discovering they fit into roughly six different categories. Sure, there's some overlap and funkiness, but overall the Sonic Circle has proven to be a pretty useful tool in helping people find the gear that fits their tastes. After all, getting gear into the hands of music lovers as quickly and easily as possible is what this hobby is all about :)
I find the Sonic Circle interesting, but it might be more useful if it helped with system matching - a black art in audio circles. Do you feel its better to match a Precise speaker with a Precise amplifier, or is it better to balance an Emotional amplifier with a Refined speaker to get a more precise sound? I don't think there is a simple answer to this but it would be great if a tool were available to help.
Wow! This "circle" is very accurate... my system is listed as "precise". I love the "precise" sound style and would not settle for less (or more). Cheers! Dewald Visser (the Gliding Dutchman) Dewaudio Lydenburg South Africa System compliment: Variety of tweaked MC cartridges SME 3012 mkII & Rega RB300 (modded) arms Dewaudio Credence turntable (with Syth-Stone Platter) Pro-Ject Phonobox II (tweaked) Valve Audio Exclame 100 hybrid amp B&W Preference 6 monitors Nordost Blue Heaven ICs Anti-cable speaker cable
I read this article when it was written and was not convinced but having listened to a lot of speakers since then you have got me. B&W leaves me cold - even a high end system based on the Natilus didn't do it for me. Harbeth I heard for the first time and loved. I went back to your article and they are on opposite sides of your circle - well done!