Riding the gain - the most important thing in high-end audio!?


One of the most important things in high-end audio being too often overlooked is the proper gain setting and match. Its actually a small miracle to find a proper gain synergy between not only preamplifier and power amplifier, but also starting at the beginning of the chain with the front end.

One way to go is the patch of embracing the electronics from same brand. This way ensure a great chance of proper matching. Yet… We’re high-enders, audiophiles and gear fanatics right!? Its not exactly end of the road as proven too many times. 

By exploration and years of swapping gears many of us learned how trying to keep everything under the same roof doesn’t necessarily provide the perfect sonic outcome. 

There are different mind sets and skills being at play within high-end audio electronic designers circles. One can be an expert for designing preamplifiers, but might lack in certain aspect of the power amplifier conceptualization and vice versa.  Be sure, that this statement will tickle egos of many high-end audio wizards. Still, that’s reality. Rarely you’ll find a king of all thrones. 

Being on the other side of fence (industry) pushes a demanding listening soul on the exploring of unknown. This path opens up the endless quests for perfect synergy and for many if not most  evolves into the continuing Sisyphus like endeavor. 

On the other side, when such exemplary pairing is put into practice a new challenge arise. Setting the right gain/volume and as the article’s title suggest, riding the gain comes to life. 

Not only, that each album is mastered differently. Sadly, sometimes even different songs across the record are set to different volume. This “phenomena introduces new set of complexity and ignites passive/active role of the listener. 

What I’ve learned over the years is something that closely correlate to the old ways and tricks from the last century, when music was recorded differently. Especially with classical music, producer and mix meister knew exactly the score of the music being recorded in front of them. This means, that in absence of limiter, they were actually riding the gain with the volume faders and trying to find the right momentum when crescendos would hit in. Are we set for a simliar challenge?

Not exactly, but it gets even more interesting. In each system, each song has its own let us say leitmotif gain, that lets it materialize and come to the life intended. This is closely connected with the balance and fine tuning of complete system and one needs to find it by himself or ask for assistance.

After all the years in the game of listening most of audiophiles should have know this by now. In real world, it is not really thing of fruition. Why? To often I’ve seen and experienced the reserved mood of many owners, of even most expensive and possible-maybe potent systems. In order to achieve that perfect gain level there is often healthy need to crank up the volume knob. Problem? Oh yeah. Getting music a bit louder scares a lot of people. As far out as it might sound that comes as a fact. Its not a problem of playing music too loud. Its a matter of preference. Reasons underlines very different attributes pointing towards the chosen goals and importance of cherishing music for what it is and what it can give.

For many even extreme/ultra high-end audio sadly operates in the realms of background music. Reserved volume levels (and I’m not talking about crazy loudness) actually have to do more with the being aloof from the emotional bond where music’s intrinsic interaction ability usually takes place. 

No matter how far out this might sound, there is a close, intimate connection with the proper gain match as well as right gain and the way that music being reproduced affects us. This is the real high-end. All the rest falls into the some sort of labeling and explorations of dissection of the music. Consequently, here is the answer to the utterly brite and unnaturally openly sounding speakers. It reflects the state of the world and the “scary” role of active, emotionally charged listening. You have to put yourself into it and step out of daydreaming, zombi like daily contemplation. 

In nature and over at science of materials and forms each singularity has its own resonate frequency. Similarly, each song operates at its best at a certain coherent gain setting. This is where so called, ever seeking magic of high-end audio could happen and the real emotional bound should occur. 

Finding this perfect balance is like finding the right balance with most things in life. It might takes numerous trial and error process, but with mileage and focusing to this outcome is more then worthy. Its transcend the usual agendas related with materialist of the craft, industry, hobby and passion. 

You’ve probably experience such moment at presentations, at the high-end audio shows or in distributor/dealer demo rooms with the right person manifesting this with a guided, perfect and balanced act. Its something to appreciate and cherish and should not become the forgotten art. 

I’ve been asked repeatedly regarding the most important things connected to the high-end audio system setup. So, here you go… This is among utmost important ones.

High-end audio is much more then sum of its parts. Expensive or affordable it doesn’t matter. Its about know how, balance and setting priorities straight. 

High end should comes as an art, that can evoke the most precious treasures given by us by our fellow earthlings in the form of energy that encapsulates certain musical form. In the era where everything should supposingly be connected with the transparency of information delivery, we seems to have forgotten and fail in establishing even the most basic communication channeling of musical message transfer. The ways of establishing sensual, spiritual and intimate connection should come as sacred. At lest for anyone kittening himself with high-end audio designation of some sort. Let us not underestimate the power of and importance musical message. 

Text: Matej Isak -