Do all audio enthusiasts have the same ability to judge high quality sound reproduction equally? An even better question might be: “how important is the term “accurate” when describing and evaluating audio components today? What, if anything, does accurate sound reproduction mean for the average audio enthusiast, or better yet, does it mean anything at all?
The enjoyment and goal of accurate music reproduction is inextricably linked with the audiophile components that we use and evaluate to achieve great sound in our homes. Of course, each individual has or acquires different needs and subjective abilities while trying to achieve this ultimate sound quality . In the case of high definition audio reproduction, we should remember that the strive for “neutrality” in high end audio has a chain of command that THEORETICALLY ends with the individual listener; assuming of course that this is his ultimate target! Without getting to deeply philosophical, one could argue that judging high definition sound reproduction is quite subjective in theory; while on the other hand, true “accuracy”could well be a different story altogether !
Looking back to the advent of high definition sound reproduction which had a huge surge in popularity in the late 1960’s, it really came to fruition in the 70’s with the help of a few particular audiophile magazines; namely Harry Pearson’s “The Absolute Sound” and particularly, J. Gordon Holt’s “Stereophile”. These journals were revelatory in the fact that its founders, were music lovers who were trying to describe the sound of hi-fi components as closely relevant to what they perceived and heard in many live musical events both had attended throughout their lives. While I personally did not agree with all of these authors opinions, they both had the intuitiveness of realizing that the “proclaimed” accuracy or neutrality of audio components and high quality sound reproduction should be recognized more for their intrinsic and individual tonal qualities as compared to live, unamplified sound per say, versus how the components measure up in a laboratory. This, we all know by now is a far cry from throwing out all objective technical measurements by any means! Technical measurements are quite useful in what they fundamentally tell us about the basic design principles of a component and the probability of them reproducing audio in a faithful and hopefully, accurate way in our home environment. Ultimately, the best designers will let their ears be that final judge.
More importantly, both of these individuals were firm believers that high quality audio components, particularly loudspeakers, should try to bring us (if the source material permits) as close to what we remember hearing (live instruments) in a particular venue in a natural acoustic where the performance may have originated as well as trying and keep the loudspeaker neutral so it is agnostic to the type of music being reproduced. Some reviewers today still understand this whereas others seem to have pushed all of this under the bus. Still others are not even sure if it means anything to them personally, if at all! However, a truthful soul will readily admit that much pop, rock and electronically manipulated program material has no relevance to live instruments in a real space and venue. A good recording of live, acoustical instruments and voice made in a studio or setting with relatively few microphones (preferably a cross paired figure eight; (see Blumlein https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blumlein_Pair) and high quality recording equipment will reveal more about a components depth, sound stage, stereo imaging and indeed, its sound quality than music that is intentionally and commercially manipulated for a specific effect. The sound of the “real thing” means different things to different people but is not the aforementioned music the only true standard for judging the ultimate performance of a high quality audio system? Us sound devotees are always eager to proclaim which reviewers or journals opinions he or she favors as to who’s ears own the “gospel”truths with regards to component reviews. However, generally speaking, a high definition audio system that can convey the above type of source material convincingly will NEVER fail to please the prospective listener. http://www.stereophile.com/content/acoustical-standard-follow-letters
I will be the first one to admit that all of us high fidelity enthusiasts and music lovers, rightfully, have priorities and “tastes” in music which are critical when choosing hi-fi components. Having said that, this is totally different than proclaiming that an individual’s “tastes” in recorded music reproduction are all that really matter when auditioning the sound quality of high end audio equipment. Quite the contrary. While audio engineers, some of whom may be musicians, try to perfectly recreate a particular musical event, in fact, an audio engineers ideas on how a recording should ultimately be fabricated in a studio could well be far removed from what he might have actually heard at a particular “live” event. Let’s be blunt: an electronically manipulated and amplified source is NOT RECREATING A REPLICA OF LIVE SOUND REPRODUCTION! (Hate to say that folks, but its true!) Our hearing is interpreted by our brain. If you’re a musician, your brain may rewire itself differently and you may have some inherent musical abilities the average individual may not. These human differences undoubtedly has quite a bit to do with how individuals perceive and process sound, independent of the audio components used to evaluate the finished product. So then, would I be justified in proclaiming that if your tastes run awry from acoustical instruments, live music and their recording venues, it may certainly be even more challenging for you, the music lover, to evaluate a particular components true qualities and/or faults that you may come to acknowledge in your home listening environment??
SOME THINGS TO PONDER?
1. How does the listener (reviewer) evaluate the quality of the sound he is hearing in his home system in say, a relatively “normal” everyday listening room? What source material does he use and does this qualify him for making an objective opinion about the true “accuracy” of a high definition audio component. (Fair question, I think?) Given the above, do all individuals hear reproduced sound in an equal manner and if generally speaking the answer may be no, to what extent might this correlate as to how we individually relate to other opinions as to an audio components overall sound virtues using simply but hopefully well recorded program material recorded in a particular venue and space?
2. Does the designer of high quality components, particularly loudspeakers, try to keep his design “neutral”, so it is not biased to the type of music he prefers? To quote Floyd Toole, “A speaker designer’s biggest concerns should strive to combine a flat on-axis response measured anechoically with an absence of resonant colorations; have a well-controlled, smooth high-frequency dispersion, excellent imaging precision, an optimally tuned bass, and the ability to play loud enough and clean without obtrusive compression”. Of course, it goes without saying that the other part of the auditory measurement process is constructed from the interaction of the loudspeaker with the room that it is playing in. This is a huge factor that should be discussed in a separate essay.
If we explore this last point we may see an underlying KEY that hopefully should result in a full system that gives us an accurate and enjoyable replica of live musical instruments as presumably (?), this is the criteria that most audiophiles and music lovers are always seeking to find. Or is it? See: http://www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/111/index.html#zD8ozDp4CdpZ62pp.97). However, the problem here might be construed to be a bit of a politically incorrect subject while at the same time being a relatively subjective one. Subjective truth is a popular view that is held by many people; particularly audiophiles. Two adamant audiophiles may secretly or overtly say to themselves after auditioning a component: “Is this guy nuts, what is the hell is he hearing”? We may then c ask ourselves, “What does the average speaker designer knowingly hear when he is making his final design adjustments while proceeding to “voice” his loudspeaker”? Does he hear the violins on stage as resonant, with some bite of the bows but ultimately, smooth and extended in the instruments very highest frequencies? How does he hear the ambient sound and harmonic texture, timbre and overtones of the oboes, bassoons, and tympani and horns as it may be reproduced in a particular concert hall stage? Is the midrange perspective (which can of course be a function of the recording) not to forward but not to laid back as to its overall balance and presentation? And what about his discretion as to live singing voices and speech which can bring a loudspeaker to heavenly proportions or drag it into the deepest and darkest pits of hell? Should all these factors be based solely on individual personal subjective truths or are there some objective truths in high definition sound reproduction standards that can be held independently of an individual’s personal hearing abilities. Let us proceed on this, shall we?
A SMALL PERSONAL DIGRESSION
As an avid music lover and audiophile in my teens, my upbringing was in the classics. I eventually realized that I had perfect pitch which eventually turned out to be more of a nightmare than a gift! Many years back, a friend and I went to audition some relatively obscure components which were being sold, ironically, in a particular individual’s home and professionally treated music room. While initially being a bit overwhelmed upon the sights of Ls3/5a’s, Celestion, Audio Research, Linn Sondek, Grace tonearms, Radford, and some other obscure, esoteric components he had on hand, it was when the proprietor put on a Decca recording of “The Pines of Rome” when my ideas on high end sound reproduction changed forever. As I listened first to the startling Quad ESL 57’s, he promptly switched speakers. I then said, quite naturally, “What speakers are these?” With a twinkle in his eyes he proclaimed, “The Spendor BC1”. With excitement inside me I gave him my LP of Janet Baker sings Handel. I then heard Dame Janet’s voice “sing” with a magical liquidity, openness and accuracy that till this day, remains in my mind.
What was it about this particular speaker (which many critics still recognize, even today, as having one of, if not the most accurate mid range response of its time), its designer and the way in which he designed this model that makes one realize how important these factors are when we audiophiles evaluate the accuracy of, in this case, a given loudspeaker? The BIGGEST question I’ve always had was what personifies an accurate replica of a well recorded work? In practice, a loudspeaker designer builds his product within the context of his individual personal ideas (truths) of what neutrality sounds like using associated equipment that he finds represents his idea of neutrality, with music he loves to hear and in the way he imagines it should sound. Maybe he uses music recorded by engineers whose works he likes and is familiar with which can also enhance his abilities and opinions on how well he has succeeded. This obviously will take into account his own listening abilities and hopefully, he has a good understanding and memory of live sounding musical instruments. A good starting point would you say?
SUBJECTIVITY; BUT TO WHAT POINT?
But how does all this relate to live, naturally recorded music, the quality of the program material and the average music lovers’ ways of evaluating how close, in this case, the designer’s loudspeaker has come to obtaining his “ideally neutral sound? Although in today’s hi-fi world we may be getting further and further from this theoretical ideal, there is no doubt that the true art of “high definition” audio reproduction should be constantly advancing towards the attributes I have described above. (Or should it? see: http://audiophilereview.com/audiophile/reasons-why-accurate-sound-isnt-always-good-sound.html As a good starting point, we might want to acknowledge that acoustic instrumental recordings and singing voices are the best test material to evaluate accuracy in high end audio because most people are familiar with the sound of real instruments and voices. A speaker’s mid-treble balance will be the ultimate test of how well a female singers voice will be reproduced; preferably without shrillness, or harshness as well as fine spatial depth, ambience, liquidity and a balanced tonal texture inherent in that voice. These facts will ultimately determine how well a high-quality loudspeaker will portray the natural and hopefully, live character of the performer on a well-engineered recording.
Let us now go back to our loudspeaker designer’s inherent musical attributes (or lack thereof) and one might just be able to ask, with great trepidation, “do some people (engineers, designers or the average audiophile) hear the sound of live music and musical instruments in a given venue more “truthfully” than others?” As this may well be a touchy subject to talk about, I will venture to say, quite cautiously I might add, that the answer might very well be yes. It is quite interesting to note that this exact phenomenon extends to many other realms of human endeavor. A classic example might involve wine tasting and how we judge a wines overall quality. Our palates and individual tasting experiences may be more relative to an audiophile in more ways than you may think. As with nuanced differences in a wines overall taste, I can have a much more interesting debate with a person who may acknowledge or perceive a components truthfulness and neutrality but may believe that one particular aspect of the components sonic abilities does not conform with his individual needs. This enthusiast will admit, “I just need a bit more bass… but in effect, this component is an extremely accurate loudspeaker within its design parameters!” On the other hand, can we totally dismiss his opinion about the speaker’s bass response? Is this loudspeaker truly deficient in its bass response or has this listener not experienced enough live sound and as such, we might as well just discard his opinions? As hi-fi enthusiasts rarely agree about sound quality, we are once again involved here in subjective relativity or “truths” that in fact, are a person’s distinct, individual and inherently sincere observations.
Putting the above aside, the ultimate quest of great hi-fi is the enjoyment one receives from his preferred audio system. As to the question of that systems accuracy, many audiophiles today regard this as a moot point. It’s quite obvious that if you can sit down in your favorite listening seat and just listen to your choice of music without thinking about analyzing its sound quality every five minutes, you know you are in a great position and this is a good indicator of the quality of your particular system. Those are the systemic, (if sometimes fleeting) moments when audiophiles know that all of our fussing and discreet analysis of our equipment in every way may all be worth the effort. But while listening and enjoying this good sound constitutes our own personal assessments, this may not necessarily be delivering an accurate representation of the source material in question. In fact, it could be a totally different beast altogether!
This essay has probably raised more questions than answers and within the context of this hobby, is probably good food for thought! An audiophile’s abilities to pursue high quality sound reproduction and the enjoyment of good music is, without doubt, the ultimate quest for each of us. In pursuing this goal, our enjoyment comes from recognizing which qualities in the plethora of fine audio components we audition meet our own personal requirements. Enthusiasts seem to be quite forthcoming with their likes and dislikes when it comes to sound reproduction along with the fundamental ingredients and ideals we hope to pursue while searching for that ultimate, personal ideal . Unfortunately, for many, the term “accuracy” itself may be the biggest and most fundamental question we might have to face.
The question being, as audiophiles and music lovers: should we continually ask ourselves how close to live, unamplified sound does a component come to achieving this mark? (presuming, hopefully, we have had some learned experience or dare I say native ability at being able to ascertain this…uh oh!). One might very well ask, “Do all audiophiles really strive for a neutral sounding component? Do they attend live musical events but more so, can they remember the sound of a full orchestra or voice in a good, acoustic surrounding? How well does the average audio/ music lover hear and more importantly, remember the sound of instruments in a live, neutral environment? Or ultimately, is the above all purely subjective to each of us and therefore a totally irrelevant pursuit?” How close one gets to that objective of what we call sound accuracy may ultimately depend on the person’s particular needs, nurturing, musical and/or hearing abilities and intimate pursuits. Indeed, this can be a most controversial and debatable subject. As individual listeners, we all have our personal “truths” as to what constitutes musicality or accurate sound reproduction and will obviously find preference to a discreet range of particular hi-fi components. This keeps the high-end business alive and thriving as well as constantly wetting the audio enthusiasts appetite! Having said that, I conclude by admitting that many times I have often wondered: “Do some hi-fi enthusiasts perceive the sound and reproduction of live music a bit better than others?”
“Lately, though, there has been a growing reaction against fidelity in sound reproduction. The idea that the reproduction should sound like something has devolved into the idea that it should sound good, regardless of whether or not it sounds right.”
1. Gordon Holt, “The Acoustical Standard” Stereophile 1988