The Acoustical Standard (with follow-up) Letters
Editor: I'd like to have a say concerning the disagreement between JGH and JA on choice of sources for equipment evaluation. My musical taste is eclectic, but I do critical listening to equipment using familiar folk and classical pieces. I find records of acoustic music easier to compare to their live counterparts than is the grungy (you don't need a "d"!) rock'n'roll that I actually listen to more often. I know that if a component contributes minimally to the sounds of acoustical instruments, then it will sound fine playing the raunch I listen to for fun. (Who does listen critically to rock? And what's "real" about its sound to be critical about?) Give a 9.9 to JGH on this one!
—Doug Stevens, Minneapolis, MN
Editor: Concurring with both John Atkinson and J. Gordon Holt in the October '88 editorial, "The Acoustical Standard," I would attempt to further delineate the issue thusly: The design brief for the "perfect" music reproduction system is simple: that which would reproduce exactly any sound, music being a subcategory of all sound. This approach may have amounted to engineering overkill before the advent of electronic music, but synthesizers make increasingly possible the invention of any sound imaginable. So it really comes back to that hoary old chestnut, "the perfectly transparent medium," where any system wholly capable of reproducing any possible sound would of course also be capable of manipulation for the production of any imaginable sound, pleasing or not. In such a perfect scenario, questions of aesthetics and taste would be left to artist and appreciator, without the opacities of inadequate media clouding issues.
As regards an absolute standard for the judgment of music-reproduction systems, I am reminded that Edgar Villchur suggested what seems the singly valid method when he worked out his "live vs recorded" comparisons. The recording must be made anechoically, then a coincident comparison of actual vs reproduced sound can be made in either anechoic or reflective environments, audible discrepancies in sound being exactly proportionate to the amount of distortion caused by whatever method of reproduction used.
—Dave King, New York, NY
Gordon is absolutely right
Editor: Gordon is absolutely right when he stated, in his article, "The Acoustical Standard," in the October 1988 issue, that acoustical—specifically classical—music is the only music by which a system's accuracy can be judged. To quote your rather hyperbolic and often incoherent competitor, TAS, in a response to a letter by Brian Stoll in their Early Winter 1987 issue, "The absolute sound is the sound of unamplified instruments playing in real space. Get it right and all other musical sounds will be right." I think that about sums it up.
High fidelity has been, for me, a journey—of the mind, the heart, and the spirit—both musically and technologically, away from that which is limited toward that which is unlimited. Robert Hesson, in his excellent article, "A Matter of Taste," in the June 1988 issue, states quite eloquently, "Now I listen almost exclusively to 'classical' music. Anything else is frivolous by comparison. There are times for frivolity, sure, but in a single lifetime one can listen to only a finite number of compositions. I want the ones that speak with mind and heart." This, it seems, is the essence of what the process called "growth" should be all about.
To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, when I was a child, I listened as a child—both to the music of children and equipment suited for children—but when I became an adult I put away childish things, and my tastes, as well as my equipment, changed—in other words, grew. I sold, gave away, or discarded my rock and pop records, saved my pennies for some high-end gear, and began to learn what the Art of Music was all about. Therefore, I now regard paragraphs in equipment reviews which refer to how a system sounds with pop or rock material as totally irrelevant, and I pass them over immediately.
I have heard many systems which could credibly reproduce such music, but which would fail miserably if they even attempted to reproduce, say, the fine details of a female choir, the transparency of massed violins, the subtle nuances of a string quartet, or the full power of a symphony orchestra. I had a designer in a small audio company tell me recently that his equipment was capable of doing all sorts of wonderful things, but when I asked him what kind of music he used to evaluate his product, he told me "New Age." Obviously, with that type of music there was no real way of telling how the equipment would perform when the rather formidable qualitative and quantitative demands of classical music, in all its range and variety, were imposed upon it.
Yet my system, which has been specifically chosen for its musicality and suitability for the reproduction of classical music of great subtlety and extremely wide dynamics, does extraordinarily well—within its volume capability—with the occasional rock recording I play on it. Thus, Chuck Coronato, in his unintentionally hilarious letter in the June 1988 issue, managed to get it totally backward. I submit that his "perfect" test CD, Hot Love by Twisted Sister, would tell me, or indeed any lover of real acoustic music, absolutely nothing about the way a high-end system would perform on said music.
However, if the test were performed in reverse—if I took a well-recorded CD (or, better still, LP) of, say, Stravinsky's Le Sacre, to an audio store, and auditioned various high-end components with it—I could, with reasonable certainty, tell how that equipment would perform on rock material, even though only a fraction of said equipment's finer capabilities would be used reproducing that music. Using Apogee Calipers and a C-J preamp to listen to rock, as Mr. Coronato is doing, is tantamount to hauling lumber in a BMW: it could be done, but it would be much easier, cheaper, and less damaging to the BMW to do it in a pick-up truck.
The job of a magazine such as Stereophile is dual: It must address music from both the spiritual and technological points of view. And when evaluating equipment, it must take into account the most demanding type of music possible, which just happens to be classical. If all a person listens to is New Age, or jazz, or rock, fine—he may be quite content with equipment of very limited ability. But for the prospective buyer who may want to listen to something far more demanding, it is the responsibility of any reputable audio journal to test that equipment using the most stringent criteria possible. And, as TAS said, if it gets that right, it should get the other stuff right too.
Thank you for your attention. I enjoy your magazine very much, and believe that, despite an occasional flaw, it is the finest, sanest, and most readable audio magazine around.
—Peter Reichelt, Flushing, NY