Music? Or Sound?

The demo seemed simple enough. A distributor proposed a session for the Bay Area Audiophile Society (BAAS) that would pit his relatively low-cost speaker cable against an ultra-expensive competing model named for a Norse god. We would listen to the music first with the high-priced spread, then with his cable, then discuss the differences. As far as the distributor was concerned, everyone would hear that the Nordic Emperor had no clothes.

When the first of two groups of BAAS members arrived, I played three complex selections that challenge a system far more than does the standard choice of female singer with small combo: the beginning of the first movement of Mahler's Symphony 2, from Iván Fischer's recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra (SACD/CD, Channel Classics 23506; "R2D4," February 2007); mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's entire recording of Handel's "As with Rosy Steps the Morn Advancing," from her Handel Arias, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Harry Bicket (SACD/CD, Avie 30; "R2D4, February 2005; November 2004); and a few tracks from the Charles Lloyd Quartet's Mirror (CD, ECM 2176; December 2010). We listened to all three selections consecutively, then switched cables.

To my ears, the differences between how the cables interacted with the music and equipment were clear. Beyond the sound's being exceedingly airy and open with the expensive cable, with more refined highs, tighter bass, and exceptional transparency, it let me hear music more organically, in ways that touched me deeper. But when several BAAS members said they either couldn't hear a difference, or preferred the lower-priced cable, I realized that they were having a major problem in perceiving unfamiliar, complex music that contained multiple ideas, piquant harmonies, and emotional shifts.

So I prefaced the second listening session with some tips: "When I play orchestral music such as Mahler's, one thing I listen for is the balance between instruments. You may hear a lot of powerful low energy from timpani, bass drum, cellos, and basses, but is that energy in correct musical proportion to the midrange and treble instruments? Can you clearly discern the pitches of the lowest sounds? When you listen to Hunt Lieberson accompanied by period instruments, are the instruments in balance with each other, and are they in correct proportion to the sound of the singer's voice? Are the timbres of the instruments true? Are you hearing all the overtones and subtle dynamic shifts you might hope to hear?

"Beyond all those specifics, when you take a deep breath and let the music flow over you, does what you hear make musical sense or does it seem unbalanced? Does the music move you, conveying the emotion you sense the composer intended to communicate? How does it make you feel?"

Nice try. After we'd listened to the Handel and had been pummeled by out-of-control mush masquerading as two period-instrument cellos and a double bass—indistinct sounds that overwhelmed both the 11 violins behind Hunt Lieberson and the sound of her voice—two audiophiles claimed that the lower-priced cable transmitted more, hence "better," bass. After the Mahler, I was dismayed to find some people preferring the lower-priced cable's brasher, less-refined presentation of the horns and strings, and an overall more limited palette of colors for this music. While there's no reason some cable can't bring the Norse god to his silver-clad knees, this claimant of that throne was clearly a pretender.

I couldn't figure out why so many people were missing obvious giveaways of inferior sound. Certainly the expensive cable's I-could-buy-a-house-for-this cost has made it a sitting target and stirred up resentment. If I had $100 for every cable distributor who has claimed that their cable can trounce the false god and make the world a better place for audiophiles and their recalcitrant spouses, I'd be in Europe right now, listening to Handel in the halls for which his music was intended, and hopping from one jazz club to another. But was the resentment so great that it had led people to plug their ears?

No, something more than cable envy was going on. Instead of blaming the listeners, I began to wonder if we who review equipment have unintentionally helped create a community of audiophiles who lack the ability to listen deeply. Might it be the case that, because we often spend the bulk of a review discussing certain musical elements to the exclusion of others, we give short shrift to how the totality of the musical experience affects us, and have thus led our readers astray?

True, we reviewers sometimes speak of a bass line, a singer's voice, or the much-vaunted "presence region" as if they were somehow separate and distinct from the rest of the music we hear. Pointing out specific musical elements and how a component re-creates them can be quite useful. But if we fail to make the musical connections—to put the pieces together—are we misinforming listeners who are not always able to embrace the entire gestalt of the musical experience?

To test my theory, I began to scan reviews, both in print and online. While I was delighted to encounter reviews that spoke of music as an organic whole—check out Stephen Mejias's monthly column, "The Entry Level," for many examples—I also found numerous examples like the following, paraphrased from an actual review: "The music I picked included one piece to test the sound of acoustic and electric guitars, a very different one to test the ability to handle delicate sounds while still maintaining bass authority and slam . . . and three other selections to evaluate bass performance."

There's nothing wrong with the latter approach. Most reviewers have, or ought to have, favorite recordings that they use to evaluate such attributes. But when all we talk about is the sound of specific sonic elements, rather than how the entire musical experience makes us feel, I fear that we ultimately lead readers astray. We contribute to the schooling, not the education, of a generation of audiophiles who focus on individual fragments of the sonic experience instead of receiving music as an organic whole. Or, as the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once described his countrymen, "The English may not like music—but they absolutely love the noise it makes."

The wonder of the audiophile experience is the ability of a sound system to communicate the entire musical gestalt: the sum total of a work's ideas, emotions, and spiritual truths as expressed by and embodied in tone, rhythm, pitch, and artistic inspiration. As reviewers, that's what we must strive to convey each time we critique a cable, a black box, a loudspeaker, or the like. Unless we discuss how what we hear moves us in ways that transcend the sum total of its parts, we do our readers a disservice, and fail to give the music we love its full due.

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COMMENTS
ChrisS's picture

My Pathfinder drove magically through two feet of snow! I did, however, encounter areas where there was only 1 foot or thereabouts. Was there a difference? Only slightly....

Bubbamike's picture

What this comes down to is that peasents had the nerve to disagree with Mr. Serinus's opinon. How dare they not hear what he thinks they should hear. After all he is a practiced listener and he has golden ears and these riff raff disagree and when he explains what they should hear they still don't hear it. My goodness, perhaps Jason should send them to block for their stupidity.

John Atkinson's picture

Bubbamike wrote:
What this comes down to is that peasents had the nerve to disagree with Mr. Serinus's opinon. How dare they not hear what he thinks they should hear.

Everyone appears to be forgetting about the role of mentoring in critical listening to audio. Jon Iverson wrote about this in June 2002 - see www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/588/index.html - and it is the case that until someone shows you what to listen for, you can be unaware of it. I wrote about this aspect of hearing and perception in my 2011 Richard Heyser Memorial Lecture that I presented to the Audio Engineering Society:

"I was auditioning an early orchestral CD with the late Raymond Cooke, founder of KEF. I remarked that the CD sounded pretty good to me—no surface noise or tracing distortion, the speed stability, the clarity of the low frequencies—when Raymond metaphorically shook me by the shoulders: "Can't you hear that quality of high frequencies? It sounds like grains of rice being dropped onto a taut paper sheet." And up to that point, no, I had not noticed anything amiss with the high frequencies."

So was I a "peasant" until the moment of shared listening with Raymond? Or was it simply that it took a more experienced listener to open my ears?

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

thecanman's picture

John,

You're missing the point here.  Two points, actually. (1) Many readers, including myself, found the original post to be extremely insulting. He basically said anyone who doesn't hear what he hears when it comes to cables is an unsophisticated, musically illiterate Neanderthal. (2) Despite your claims to the contrary, the Stereophile staff has not even come close to proving that they can hear the difference between cables in a properly constructed test. As I said in my earlier post, if cables make such a huge difference, you should be able to pick one system out of 20 or 30 where the only difference is a single cable--and do it immediately and consistently. Until you rise to that challenge, I stand by my opinion: hugely expensive cables are a scam.

John Atkinson's picture

thecanman wrote:
You're missing the point here.

I don't think so. It is inarguable that even though we all start out with the same hearing apparatus, people differ in their listening skills, as they do in every other skill. It is also inarguable that those skills can be improved by learning and mentoring. The anecdote I quoted was to illustrate that with the help of others, I am a better skilled, more perceptive listener than my younger self. And there is the fact that practicing something over a long period of time increases your skill at it - the "10,000 hours" theory.

Quote:
(1) Many readers, including myself, found the original post to be extremely insulting. He basically said anyone who doesn't hear what he hears when it comes to cables is an unsophisticated, musically illiterate Neanderthal.

He didn't say that, nor would he. And no insult was intended.

Quote:
(2) Despite your claims to the contrary, the Stereophile staff has not even come close to proving that they can hear the difference between cables in a properly constructed test.

In another comment today, I mentioned that Michael Fremer and I did just that. You are welcome to disagree with the results of that test, of course, but you can't pretend it didn't occur.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

eugovector's picture

A link to said test conditions and results?

John Atkinson's picture

eugovector wrote:
A link to said test conditions and results?

The test was designed and run by Lee Gomes in 2008, then of the Wall Street Journal, now of Forbes magazine. Lee doesn't give any detail of the test but he described the results at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120044692027492991.html?mod=hpp_us_inside_to:

"Using two identical CD players, I tested a $2,000, eight-foot pair of Sigma Retro Gold cables from Monster Cable, which are as thick as your thumb, against 14-gauge, hardware-store speaker cable. Many audiophiles say they are equally good. I couldn't hear a difference and was a wee bit suspicious that anyone else could. But of the 39 people who took this test, 61% said they preferred the expensive cable.

"That may not be much of a margin for two products with such drastically different prices, but I was struck by how the best-informed people at the show -- like John Atkinson and Michael Fremer of Stereophile Magazine -- easily picked the expensive cable."

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Scorpio69er's picture

 

This piece is interesting, although the tests, like the one you cite, are not as rigorous as would be needed to be scientifically conclusive:

 

http://www.nousaine.com/pdfs/Wired%20Wisdom.pdf

ChrisS's picture

Again, there's no science here.

John Atkinson's picture

Scorpio69er wrote:
This piece is interesting, although the tests, like the one you cite, are not as rigorous as would be needed to be scientifically conclusive:

http://www.nousaine.com/pdfs/Wired%20Wisdom.pdf

I am familiar with this decades-old article. "Not as rigorous" is the least of it. And Tom Nousaine and you both appear to have forgotten that in formal statistical analysis, null results as in these Canadian Sound & Vision tests cannot be taken as indicating that there was not a physicsl difference between the objects being tested. The correct formal conclusion was that if there were a real difference, it could not be detected under the specific conditions of the test. By contrast, a single verifiable positive result of a test does indeed suggest that a real difference exists.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Scorpio69er's picture

I do not claim to be an expert at these sorts of tests, so I cannot comment upon your remarks. Perhaps I can hunt up my old statistics professor and ask him. In the mean time, why not have an outside entity that is an expert set one up and subject you and the rest of the gang to it? Merely leveling criticism at one that I readily acknowledged was not rigorous proves nothing.

Or, better yet, make such tests an integral part of every single review published in Stereophile from now on. If the vast sonic differences you proclaim with any given piece of gear actually exist -- be it cables, DACs, amps, whatever -- it should be a piece of cake for you guys to prove it scientifically. Every time. 

Please understand, sir, that I like your publication, although I think you guys take yourselves way too seriously. But please also understand that when you're talking about spending hundreds of dollars on any piece of audio gear, for 99% of us hicks out here in Hooterville this gets serious, because we're going to have to scrimp and save to make the purchase. We need to be damn sure our audio $ are spent wisely, maximizing bang for the buck. I would wager that for the vast majority of us, finding a better pair of loudspeakers would make a bigger difference than spending the same $ on some piece of wire that one has to be "mentored" in order to discern any difference with Monoprice cables -- even assuming this is possible.

ChrisS's picture

You took Statistics, yet show no understanding of statistical significance in a testing situation...?

ChrisS's picture

If you test the reviewers, then who will test the tester? Consumer Reports?

Scorpio69er's picture

Your inane comments were initially amusing. Now, they're just boring.

ChrisS's picture

I often find the logic in the comments made by those who go on and on about how Stereophile should do blind testing to be rather interesting. The factual content of those comments is also quite scanty.... As are yours.

I take that back...There is no logic to your posts.

MVBC's picture

"and it is the case that until someone shows you what to listen for, you can be unaware of it."

Again, all this must have one reference, and that reference is the live performance. There is no such thing as "exceedingly airy", exceeding what? Airy? It is either airy or it is not. Gear can introduce pleasant, remarkable, mind boggling but ultimately false hyperdetails that would go well beyond what the real performance would sound like.

Thus in order to claim one cable is "truer" to the real world, the real world has to be heard first before making comparisons.

Finally an anecdote about who hears what: a certain Chinese pianist released a Rachmaninov recording with an Italian renowned maestro on the most prestigious label of classical music a couple years ago. It was trumpeted as a "live" recording. Many audiophile reviewers touted the great sound engineer's prowess... Except that my critical listening revealed interesting sound variations during the 2 pieces supposedly recorded during one single live concert: one mat sound versus one warmer, more haloed sound. And since applauses at the end of one piece had the latest sound character, one truly wondered how the same concert could sound differently...

Charting the switches revealed numerous changes, back and forth. In many classical violin recordings, it is customary to record the candenzas without orchestra musicians so no parasite noise, cracking chair etc... could interrupt the flow of the single sounding instrument. Usually the sound acoustical decay and reverb difference between a single occupant in the hall and a filled up place betrays the trick if one pays attention. Coming back to our pianist and maestro, the videos on the label website showed the usual rehearsals taking place before the concert. It is easy to figure that the mat sound was therefore linked to the more controlled environment of rehearsals. In consequence, the chart showed this "live" recording ended up being a 50/50 mix...

I have yet to read a recanted review by the audiophile crowd... try it yourself it's a fun game between friends, and you can hear the difference even with a 12 gauge copper!

Scorpio69er's picture

re: "all this must have one reference, and that reference is the live performance"

This brings up another interesting aspect in all of this. Most recordings we listen to are not live, and even if they are, they have been heavily tweaked as the recording is finalized, as you point out. There are really very few "pure" live recordings out there. I certainly don't listen to many of them. It gets even stickier when we try to figure out what is "accurate" when it comes to a studio recording. The only thing that could even begin to be construed as "accurate" in most recordings we listen to would be what the engineer heard on his studio monitors when the recording was finalized. 

There is also the problem that, if components can only be judged as "accurate" in terms of how well they reproduce a pure live recording (still a very subjective judgement), they may sound less than stellar with the other 99.9% of music we actually listen to. 

Maybe it's just me, but somehow in all of the obsessing about minute sonic differences between mega-expensive cables and multi-thousand dollar amps, it seems that we've lost sight of what this hobby is really all about -- enjoying the music. I think I had more fun back in the day with my ESS Heil AMT-1A speakers and NAD receiver than anything I've heard since. It was gear a working man could afford and actually enjoy, without worrying about whether his cables gave him as much "air" as the Ruy Lopez Golden Twists™ that cost $500/ft.

 

 

MVBC's picture

Many jazz studio recordings bring for instance a closely miked piano over a voice. There is no way in real life anyone will hear the voice from his seat and put his head inside the piano. Thus the ability to hear or not the piano microdetails is a false problem. In fact there is little need for imaging etc... to reproduce those made up recordings!

As far as live recordings are concerned, to me the Mercury Living Presence approach was the closest to feeling like one person in the best seat of the concert hall. Multimiking may be pleasant, technically advanced etc... but ultimately is also a made up product. A previous commenter pointed out how some orchestral instruments are often artificially enhanced by mixing engineers.

I'd argue that "high fidelity" means firstly fidelity to reality. A system able to reproduce the reality of a properly positioned group, dynamic, tonal color etc... will likely come out a winner when playing a Bjork purely created sound landscape.

In any case, I always smile when these people advise spending $1000s in speaker cables to simply feed the same ordinary Vifa, ScanSpeak 8" drivers just because some manufacturer packaged them in gorgeous veneered boxes, especially when they'll claim amazing basses... Notwithstanding the fact that if the internal cabling of the speaker is not made up of the Asian Forest TM $50,000/m cable, the final result will always depend on the lesser component...

In fact the dichotomy between professional sound and the high end is troubling, as if the self anointed appear uninterested in the upstream aspect of the product that will feed their niche industry and their endless esoteric pursuit. Between a $12k DeVore soap box and a retooled pair of Hosoken JBL 4343, the choice is in fact very simple for anyone who experienced pro sound.  

Scorpio69er's picture

re: "if the internal cabling of the speaker is not made up of the Asian Forest TM $50,000/m cable, the final result will always depend on the lesser component"

I was thinking the same thing! All of this esoteric cable is, first of all, terminated using the same spade lugs or bananna plugs as my Monoprice cables. So whatever "magic" they possess is ultimately routed not only through these everyday connectors, which should utterly negate their magical properties, but there is the additional issue of, as you point out, the speaker's internal cabling. I have a pair of nice Dynaudio speakers that sound great, but I'm sure if I were to crack them open the connection from the speaker connector terminal to the drivers is basic copper wire sheathed in plastic.

Joe8423's picture

It could provide some credibility and perspective.  I know that most reviewers don't believe that db tests can uncover all differences but they would certainly help readers understand how big differences really are.  If reviewers love a component but can't tell it from another component in a blind test the differences must be subtle.  Nobody has to admit that there is no difference, just that it isn't obvious enough to be heard in a dbt.  There certainly ought to be differences that can be discerned by a dbt.  A class A speaker should sound enough different from a class C speaker that the differences can be consistently heard in a dbt.  If tests were done a couple of times a year on various components, over time the data could help people make good decisions about what types of components make the biggest differences and therefore deserve the most attention.

MVBC's picture

Right on!enlightened

Scorpio69er's picture

Re: Double blind testing

I doubt Stereophile would ever do this, since they rely on advertising revenue. If such tests revealed little or no difference bewteen mega $ cables or amps and actual affordable gear, there goes the whole shebang. What would the maker of that fabulous $1000/ft Capablanca Emerald™ speaker cable do when it was revealed that no one could actually discern its wonderfulness compared to this week's special at Radio Shack? Oh, the humanity!

John Atkinson's picture

Scorpio69er wrote:

I doubt Stereophile would ever do [double blind testing], since they rely on advertising revenue. If such tests revealed little or no difference between mega $ cables or amps and actual affordable gear, there goes the whole shebang.

And now we get the inevitable insult to our integrity when someone's statements are not accepted as fact. No, advertising does not rule what we do and write at this magazine. And, of course, your implication that double-blind tests inherently prove a negative suggests that for you, that there be no differences "between mega $ cables or amps and actual affordable gear" is a matter of faith, not fact.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

Scorpio69er's picture

Get over yourself, dude. Seriously. No one is attacking your integrity. But we are not sheep that are willing to be herded into spending hundreds or thousands of $ based solely upon your utterances from on high. If we ask for scientific verification of, particularly, your claims regarding pieces of wire that can run into the thousands of dollars when you're talking the 10, 20 or more feet needed for most home systems, you should rise to the challenge instead of ranting. If you do not wish to conduct such tests, it is simple enough to say so and be done with it. The rest of us will make our own judgements, thank you very much. 

ChrisS's picture

Scorpio69er,

Did you just tell John "You're not the boss of me!" ?

John Atkinson's picture

Scorpio69er wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
Scorpio69er wrote:
I doubt Stereophile would ever do [double blind testing], since they rely on advertising revenue. If such tests revealed little or no difference between mega $ cables or amps and actual affordable gear, there goes the whole shebang.

And now we get the inevitable insult to our integrity when someone's statements are not accepted as fact. No, advertising does not rule what we do and write at this magazine.

Get over yourself, dude. Seriously. No one is attacking your integrity.

Forgive me for taking what you wrote (requoted above) literally. If you don't believe that advertising influences what Stereophile does, then why did you write the words above?

Quote:
If you do not wish to conduct such tests, it is simple enough to say so and be done with it.

I have repeatedly written, both in the magazine and on this website, why I believe quick-switched double-blind testing as typically practiced is very poor at identifying small but real differences. This is not, as you state above, due to my yielding to pressure from advertisers but to my experience at having been involved in a large number of such tests over the past 35 years, as listener, organizer, or as proctor.

Quote:
The rest of us will make our own judgements, thank you very much.

That has always been what we recommend. The staff at this magazine may be experienced and careful listeners but we have always emphasized that our readers test our opinions by listening for themselves. However, this is with the proviso, given Jason's thesis in this essay, that people acknowledge that what will be true for their tastes and expectations might not be true for others. Robert Deutsch wrote about this dichotomy in “Sharpeners and Levelers,” his May 2011 “As We See It.”

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

arve's picture

I have repeatedly written, both in the magazine and on this website, why I believe quick-switched double-blind testing as typically practiced is very poor at identifying small but real differences. 

Could you point us to those writings.  I have done a great number of quick-switch ABX tests to tell the difference between:

  • Sample rates
  • Sample rate converters
  • Bit depth
  • Audio encodings - both in different codecs head to head, and between bitrates of the same lossy material

And come up with positive results in those double-blind tests, even when being told that there should be no audible difference at all, so I find it curious that you find it to be bad.

ChrisS's picture

What did your findings mean? Do you understand "false positives"?

Did you happen to do these ABX tests from the internet listerning through your computer speakers?

arve's picture

Even for a troll, you are useless.   Goodbye.

ChrisS's picture

Because I asked you about false positives?

Tell me, Arve, do you have roguish eyes?

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