A Tale of Two Systems

"When you read...that an electronic recording has 'excellent' sound it does not mean you can use that record as a system evaluation tool," wrote J. Gordon Holt in October's "As We See It." Yet, if you are a regular reader of Stereophile, you will be aware that the magazine's equipment reviewers do make use of a considerable number and variety of recordings, including many which would appear to be totally electronic, to reach value judgments about hi-fi components.

"The pursuit of realism," Gordon continued last month, "requires that the pursuer make certain value judgments about the rightness and wrongness of reproduced sounds...You can use a musically accurate system to evaluate the sound quality of an electronically produced recording, but you cannot use an electronically produced recording to evaluate a system unless you are already familiar enough with what the recording really sounds like to make such a judgment."

There is an apparent paradox here, in that while I would not disagree with any of Gordon's statements, it would seem that I, and other reviewers, routinely disregard their implications. Read, for example, my reviews of two CD players in this issue. Richard Lehnert and Larry Archibald—as well as Paul Tatman, the winner of the Stereophile survey drawing in the summer—took part in relatively formal listening tests where, in contrast to the point made by Gordon, the recording used, Steve Winwood's "Higher Love," was both totally artificial and unknown in absolute quality to any of the listeners. Yet not only did each listener find the differences between the four CD players being auditioned to be obvious, particularly that between the unmodified Magnavox CDB472 and the rest, they had no trouble in independently reaching a consensus value judgment concerning those differences. In addition, this artificial recording proved far more efficacious in this respect than did the new DG recording of Mahler's Symphony 5, a recording which supposedly would fit JGH's definition of suitable program material with which to judge hi-fi components.

But to quote Gordon again: "Harmonic correctness...is at the core of sonic fidelity...This is the only criterion by which the fidelity of sound reproduction can be assessed."

Hmm. Harmonic correctness, by which I assume Gordon means that instrumental timbre should be reproduced correctly, is undoubtedly a part of the concept of fidelity—but it can't, surely, be all of it? Plenty of hi-fi components do meet JGH's criterion of being able to reproduce the "sound" of live, unamplified classical music, but nevertheless fail miserably at conveying the musical content of that sound. Yes, if your system tells you that David Abel's violin on the Wilson Audio coupling of the Beethoven and Enescu violin sonatas is a Guarnerius, then you can say that that system sure is tonally accurate. But if you don't get to hear the sound of shufflin' feet with Little Feat's "Rock and Roll Doctor," it just doesn't cut it.

To repeat a point I made in my review of the Mark Levinson No.26 preamplifier in May, if "accuracy" is the only criterion of goodness and such accuracy means that you can no longer listen to records, then something else is wrong. Take CD players. (Please.) These cunning little machines have always superficially conformed to timbral accuracy, Gordon's criterion for goodness, to a greater extent than even excellent LP turntable/tonearm/cartridge combinations. Reading Hans Fantel in a recent New York Times article: "For the first time, the phonograph is able to embrace all the main physical attributes of music...puts more of the musical reality right before us." (footnote 1), you could be forgiven for thinking that perfection has been achieved by the little silver devils.

As noted by Richard Schneider, however, in his review of the new Bernstein Mahler 2 in this month's record reviews, "A considerable number of audiophiles believe that digital recording and CDs are antithetical to music or to sound which one can relate to as a musical experience..." I am sure that many readers will also agree with Martin Colloms (in his review of digital processors in this issue) that it takes a great CD player to equal mid-priced LP playback. To be timbrally correct is but a part of a much wider definition of "fidelity," which is that the sound of a recording when played back should be true to the music, a definition that I was first made aware of by Rega's Roy Gandy more years ago than I care to remember.

A hi-fi system's fundamental role is to enable its user to enjoy recorded music in the home. In this context, tonal accuracy may be desirable, but only if the system can convey the emotion within the music, "raise goosebumps," as Gordon has phrased it on many an occasion. And if that system can raise goosebumps, is tonal accuracy to an original event even always relevant? Shouldn't it be admitted that the record and live music have only a coincidental relationship?

The late Glenn Gould, for example, held that a good recording enables the listener and performer to have a closer relationship than is possible in the concert hall. The intimacy made possible by the microphone, stripped of the exaggerated performing necessities dictated by a concert-hall performance, allows a work to be laid bare. The microphone "dissects and analyzes" the music, which is why "the microphone has managed to rediscover an audience for Mahler," he said in a 1968 interview recorded with producer John McClure.

Gould held so strongly that concerts were a poor substitute for recordings that he abandoned the concert hall totally, and went on to echo Mahler's trust in later generations of conductors pragmatically modifying his work to suit altered performance circumstances: "Dial twiddling is in its limited way an interpretative act...Today the variety of controls made available...requires analytical judgment. And those controls are but primitive, regulatory devices, compared to those participational possibilities which the listener will enjoy once current laboratory techniques have been appropriated by home playback devices," he was quoted as saying in Geoffrey Payzant's thought-provoking Glenn Gould: Music & Mind (footnote 2).



Footnote 1: New York Times, October 2, 1988

Footnote 2: Van Rostrand Reinhold, 1978

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