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
Ariel Bitran's picture

what you mean by "religion" of audio?

MVBC's picture

How about worship of the Lamm...wink

Ariel Bitran's picture

wink

ChrisS's picture

simplecl's picture

     It’s difficult to explain what I mean by “religion” because the word has so many personal interpretations.  Instead of an explanation, I’ll offer this short story as an example.
     I belong to an audio club and last year we were considering the purchase of a new CD player.  The members were given an opportunity to A/B test the new player so we could compare it to the old one.  Two CDs were queued and began playing simultaneously.  We listened while the source was switched from A to B via the preamp.  The music would play for about 20-30 seconds on each unit, and then the A/B switch would occur.
     At the end of the test, there was little debate that the new unit sounded better.  Terms such as “more air”, “better dynamics”, and “tighter bass” filled the room and almost everyone agreed.  A few of us were puzzled.
    After about 10 minutes of discussion, someone noticed that the preamp used for the A/B test was not connected into the playback circuit.  The entire test was conducted while listening to A.  We had a good laugh, and a few eyes rolled.
The system was corrected, the A/B test reran, and everyone could hear the difference during round two.  The new player did sound better than the much older player.
     Of course, the differences heard during round one can easily be explained.  Members believed the newer, more expensive player would sound better.  They were strongly influenced by their belief that it should.  They were also influenced by the belief of other members.  Hopefully readers understand the connection I’m trying to make between words such as “belief” and “religion”.  Admittedly, I may be using the terms loosely and don’t mean to offend anyone.

ChrisS's picture

A good, fun lesson!

Joe8423's picture

themselves but they don't.  I like being right so the thought that I might be imagining things and making a bunch of false claims based on my imaginings upsets me.  An awful lot of folks just don't mind being wrong.  It's creepy.

Ariel Bitran's picture

on what you meant by "religion" in hi-fi

in a way, it sticks it to both of the quarreling camp

i think blind faith in either direction (subjective/objective) is a bad call

ChrisS's picture

And the lesson here is they heard what they believed, but they weren't creeped out about it!

wrytoast's picture

I subscribe to the same philosophy when it comes to wine and stereo equipment. There's no such thing as good and bad-- there's what you like, and what you don't like. If you're lucky enough to like Yellow Tail or mp3s, you're very lucky, because they're both inexpensive and you can get them everywhere. 

Most people, when tested blind, can't even tell red wine from white wine. For those people to spend a ton of money on a bottle is ok-- because it's their money. If it gives them pleasure to consume something simply because it's expensive, well, then, good for them. 

Perhaps sadly, I am not one of those people.

ChrisS's picture

The fun is when those people taste a really nice Bordeaux or hear a well set-up vinyl system....and they don't have to be stratospherically expensive!

Joe8423's picture

if someone took some yellowtail, added some cheap ingredients to make it taste like expensive wine and then sold it to you for $50/bottle?  This is what bothers me.  In a world where there are so many people who don't mind being scammed there are going to be a lot of scammers.  If I'm going to spend a lot of money on something there had better be a reason for it other than that the seller likes money. 

I've never spent significant money on cables.  My speaker cables are only 3 feet long and I paid about $150 I think.  They're audioquest of some kind.  My interconnects are the real heresy, I bought some balanced microphone cables at Guitar Center.  They were among the more expensive ones, about $100 but not a lot by any stretch.  My system isn't cheap, list price is almost 30k and none of it is very old.  I fooled around with cables a little and the differences ranged from tiny to inaudible.  I've also got a ton of bass traps in a dedicated room.  Room treatments make a huge difference.  Speakers make a huge difference.  Amps make a significant difference but not near as big as speakers.  The source and preamp make a difference but in my experience not a huge one.  I haven't played a whole lot there so I may change my mind when I upgrade those.  Wires are just so far down the line of things that matter it's hard for me to understand why they're talked about so much. 

ChrisS's picture

Caveat emptor! Trust your gut... If you feel like you're being scammed, whether it's a used car, the latest health product or a stereo component that fell off a truck,  then back away as fast as possible.

If those cables don't make a signiifcant difference, don't buy. That doesn't mean other interconnects won't make a difference.

Even though I was told that Linn amps and other Linn components don't respond to changes in wiring, I found the mid-priced WireWorld Aurora power cords to make the biggest difference in the way my system played music, not the entry-level Stratus nor the higher-priced Electra.

If you already have good interconnects, fair enough. However, if you're able to try out different cables, whether by borrowing them or you're able to return them with a full refund, then see if there's anything within your means that makes a difference that you like. Trust your ears.

That's what the folks at Stereophile and other good audiophiles like them try to teach us.

 

P.S. You say your room has a ton of treatment- it's quite possible that you won't hear any or very little difference with changes in any kind of wiring because of the traps.

Joe8423's picture

why would room treatments make it hard to hear differences between wires?

ChrisS's picture

Probably absorbing the frequencies of the sounds that change the most when swapping wires.

If your traps are not permanently attached, take them out, then do your wire comparison.

Joe8423's picture

The more absorption you have the less you hear the room.  That makes it easier to hear differences in the sound coming directly from the speakers.  If I were only absorbing high frequencies and the lows were overpowering it could make sense but I don't have that situation.  I have a real time analyzer and measurement mic that I used to measure the response down here and I don't have a rising bass problem. 

bob.saccamanno's picture

This article typifies the problems with the "high-end" and why we are turning away so many folk. I've been in the industry for over 30 years, and I have never heard any well designed cable sound any different from one another.

Sorry, but this articale took the cake. I can perfectly understand why the vast majority are repulsed by the high-end, and why our industry is self imploding.

Wake up people.

teegood64's picture

When I first got my DAC/CD Player I only had a very rudimentary red/white twin RCA cable that was quite thin and was probably nickel plated. When I switched it out for a $20 gold plated Rocketfish / Best Buy cable a couple days later, I could hear a fair bit of difference in the quality of the music. 

My wife, who likes to listen to music too, never knew I made the cable change and as I was sitting next to her ruminating adjectives till I came up with, "lush". Yes, more, "lush sounding", I glanced at her and she said, "Could you turn it down!!?".

Listening is a complex human issue. TRUE OR FALSE??

 

Doctor Fine's picture

 A few years back I took my 40 years of recording room/high end sales experience over to the local Fort Lauderdale Folk Music Club.  They had a PA system which consisted of an ancient Peavey powered mixer and two Yamaha woofers in ported boxes. 

You couldn't heard a thing except "XmPtFFFSHtfMMMAMMM."  What do you EXPECT two WOOFERS would do to vocals and guitars???

So I volunteered to straighten the mess out and installed JBLs I had laying around, cleaned up the wiring and replaced the reberb in the old mixer with a better Lexicon unit.  Voila!  Clear sound that was sweet and musical!

A traveling headliner from New York City was the star of the show the first night I ran the new board.  He stopped in the middle of his performance. 

"Whoever fixed this room's sound system is a genius and it is MUCH appreciated," he commented.  "Last time I was here it was like singing through dirty socks--THIS sounds magical!!!"

The next week the Club fired me and made me replace all the old original setup with the two woofers and the distorted reverb.

"We AMATEURS suddenly sound like crap through your new setup," they complained.  "Before we could show up wearing hippie clothes and perform a set and everybody would clap like crazy.  Now we sound terrible and nobody claps anymore."

I left while mumbling to myself "MAYBE the reason you sound like crap is that you sound like crap!."

True story.

The moral of this is to not take too seriously ANYTHING which the so-called die hard amateurs think about our discipline.  Perhaps they LIKE sound that sounds like crap!

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