There are many obvious defining elements of a HiFi systems performance that we as audiophile can easily hear and associate to good audio quality. Clarity, focus, sound stage width-depth-height, bass power and control, scale, natural are all important factors we are improving as our audio systems get better.
If you had to select just one, the one key area of a systems performance that is more important than all the others what would you choose? Its very hard to select only one as they are all so important, well at least I thought so until recently
The Reviewers Learning Curve
As an Audio Reviewer the learning curve and appreciation factor is changing much faster than an average audiophile and its one of the best and worst bits about doing it. Being very general I would suggest the audiophile’s sound quality journey is heading in just one direction throughout their life and that is forwards. The desire for continuously better audio motivates the audiophile to improve and upgrade their system over time. The Audio Reviewer has the opposite situation, their system continuously changes level and quality forwards, sideways, backwards, then forwards again.
Going backwards is harder than forwards
If you want to know how good an audio product really is listen to it for a few weeks then take it out of the system and see how much you miss it. Fully breaking down an audio systems performance the same is true, does it tick all the boxes or is something missing. As an audio reviewer I am listening and looking for the appropriate boxes to be ticked for any given price point and its interesting that these boxes have changed in priority over the last 18 months as I have reviewed more and more varied equipment.
What has changed?
I have been very fortunate to review and spend time with some outstanding HiFi components, coupled with spending time listening to many uber high end systems at shows and at press events. This has continuously shifted and raised my expectation bar of what a HiFi System can do but I don’t point the finger here as the cause for my change in priorities.
Previously if you would have asked me for my top audio system performance priority I would have said I want a full sound with a strong presentation, with each element having presence and solidity in the sound stage. If you asked me the same question today my answer would be Leading Edge Clarity.
Love for Leading Edge Clarity - I blame Rob Watts
I have had a Chord Electronics DAC in my reference review system for many months and over this time they have opened my eyes to different things. As I reviewed the different Chord DAC's, starting with the 2QUTE and eventually moving up to the DAVE it was a very interesting experience and one every audiophile should go through for its learning curve, if nothing else. Its very obvious as you move up the Chord range that leading edge clarity gets significantly better. The Chord Qutest DAC has been in my system for the longest time as its mine and its a great DAC for its price tag, but after spending time with the DAVE I found it very hard going back. There was an obvious step down in leading edge clarity but what happens when you add Chord M Scaler technology to the Qutest - things go crazy in this regard.
What is Leading Edge Clarity
I describe the start and really the fundamental stop of each musical notes as being the definition of leading edge clarity. This is fundamentally the same as Transient Clarity but hopefully a little easier to understand from the name alone.
With a single musical element being played, a trumpet for example its easy to discern when the player starts and stops notes or is it? When music becomes more and more complex a better hifi system will allow you to hear into the music production and hear the individual elements of it more clearly. If you think about what is the defining factor that allows one system to present this complex music better than another, its the systems ability to present better transient or leading edge clarity.
Chord Qutest in BEAST MODE
I first added the Chord Hugo M Scaler to my review system among many new products such as the KEF R7, McIntosh MC275 and Chord Hugo TT 2 which were all being reviewed at the same time. The effect of the Hugo M Scaler was profound, a week later I had bought one and cant imagine listening without one, strong words but ones I say with conviction.
In the video above Rob Watts Chord Electronic Digital Designer talks about the effects of the M Scaler technology and why its so important to transient clarity, and why transient clarity is so important for music playback. Its very interesting to listen to Rob Watts explain his design and technology and then correlate this to my experiences with the Hugo M Scaler and the differing Chord DAC's for that matter. Its become very clear to me that Transient / Leading Edge Clarity is the one key factor all audiophiles should pay their upmost attention to.
How does Leading Edge Clarity affect everything else
The knock on effect of good or not so good leading edge clarity is profound and I think it has an influence on every area of an audio systems performance.
The systems overall clarity and definition are the obvious things you associate with leading edge clarity, but what about a 3-dimensional sound stage, bass definition and tone, vocal tone, micro dynamics, treble detail they are all the result of leading edge clarity.
Bass is a boom until there is sufficient transient clarity for it to be a note rather than a noise, treble is a splashy sound until there is sufficient transient clarity for it to be a brush on a cymbal. Vocals can have the wrong tone and instruments can have the wrong tone, the sound can be thick, or muddied until there is sufficient transient clarity for them to be presented clearly and naturally.
Sound stage quality is totally dependent on leading edge clarity, there needs to be a clear and defined start and stop to every element in the music so that the music layers can form next to, or in front, or behind each other with no overhang or spillage into each other which can turn a defined sound stage into a mush. Really good HiFi does this to a level where there is silence between musical elements and a truly 3-Dimensional "walk in" sound stage is formed, and its amazing to listen to.
What else effects Leading Edge Clarity
Adding the Chord Hugo M Scaler to my review system appeared the equivalent of getting every single "tweak" in the world perfectly implemented, this may seem like a strange analogy but let me explain it to you. Every time I have added a good "tweak" product to my review system its improved its leading edge clarity in one way or another and as I have explained this affects the systems performance as a whole.
Does that mean all you need is Chord's M Scaler technology and you can throw everything else away, no not at all, far from it actually. The Chord M Scaler technology give us a a much better digital starting point but I firmly believe every other link in the hifi chain has an impact on leading edge clarity as well.
Products that stand out to me are the Furutech NCF / NCF Boosters, Tellurium Q Silver Diamond Cables, Bowers and Wilkins Continuum Drivers, YG Acoustics speakers in general, JPLAY FEMTO, Audio Analogue Maestro Anniversary Amplifier, German Physiks Unlimited Ultimate Speakers the list could go on. These are all products that have impressed and mostly wow'd me and all have improved or exhibit fantastic Leading Edge or Transient Clarity.
The video below a recording of the ultra high end Nagra Audio, YG Acoustics system demonstrated many outstanding things but when you watch the video listen to the leading edge clarity, how clean and obvious notes start and stop for every song. Pay close attention to the church pipe organ song for an amazing example of leading edge clarity and its effect on bass tonality and authenticity
I wrote this article because I wanted to get this off my chest and I wanted to share my recent experiences and steep learning curve with the importance of leading edge clarity. Its now the first thing I listen for when I review a hifi component, its not the only thing, but it is the first thing.