The Acoustical Standard (with follow-up) Letters
Editor: J. Gordon Holt's editorial on the acoustic standard in October was one of the best in a long time. I also find real sound to be the only comparison to judge by, but I believe you must measure your equipment too, to prevent opinion, whim, or Mercury retrograde from affecting your decisions. Measurements are important in identifying the problems in equipment.
Stereophile, however, seems to emphasize the very subjective preference JGH condemned in his article, and it is subjective preference that has resulted in the current hysteria over cables. Most magazines now claim that this or that magic cable will solve all its user's stereo problems, when in fact most cables sound identical! The interaction of the amplifier and the cables is the cause of any difference in sound.
The fact that no-one can successfully identify their favorite cable should make one wary of this current deception! And that after passing through miles of "inferior professional cables," the golden-ear audiophile claims to hear—when he can also see—a huge change from ordinary 3' cables that cost $10 or less compared with very expensive Calvin Klein designer interconnects, should sound some warning that something is awry.
In the meantime, continue to compare sound to the real thing, not "pleasant" sound, and maybe list the reviewer's alcohol content! (Some may be 100% proof!)
But beware! As Oscar Wilde pointed out, "If you tell the truth, sooner or later you will be found out!"
—Donald Bisbee, Columbus, OH
Bravo to Gordon
Editor: Bravo to J. Gordon Holt for his "As We See It" in the October '88 issue. As a music educator, performer, and music administrator, I could not agree more with his words regarding the loss of direction in high-end audio (I am a professional oboist and teacher/administrator at the University of Delaware). His comments were brought to light for me at a recent "high-end" show held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
The presenters shall remain nameless, and the musical examples heard were some of the poorest demonstration examples I believe one would want to use when auditioning fine equipment.
As an orchestral and chamber-music musician, I am constantly having to concentrate on shifting dynamic balances, tonal properties, and pitch levels within the ensembles I perform and work with. The demonstration of these natural acoustical properties of acoustical instruments (that make up the predominance of the criteria for evaluation of fine musicianship, critical listening, and music-performance enjoyment) were sadly absent at this event.
The music played, especially at the demonstration of the most costly components, was virtually all studio-recorded material! And what was worse, most of the people present seemed satisfied to hear these as the musical examples by which to judge components. The few examples that I heard of non-electronic instrumentation sounded unnatural at best when presented on this "highest end" equipment.
I was ready to leave, giving up my hopes for a worthwhile experience, when I finally happened to walk into a room where the Dealer/Rep would play some real, naturally recorded music. He had come prepared to meet all types of listeners, having brought along some symphonic and chamber music. I might add that the recordings he had were not special—just good examples of well-recorded literature.
The system he demoed was fantastic, even in a motel room with little or no acoustical treatment. I was finally able to hear what I came for: detailed inner voices and transients, double-reeds that had the distinctive no-two-sounding-exactly-alike sound that comes from each player having to make his or her own reeds by hand, and string sounds that were not screechy or edgy (as I have found with most CD players). The three-dimensional aspect of the music was also wonderful.
I stayed in this particular room for three hours, talking to the dealer and finding out from him that my requests for musical examples were unusual (although the chamber and symphonic music he was playing was from his own collection). His system cost only a little over $6000 (VPI, Ortofon, Mod Squad, Aragon, and Vandersteen components), but nothing else I had heard (including the $40,000 system) even began to approach it if one took into account the musical examples played. He informed me that he assembled this system for the show just to prove that big bucks aren't needed to have accurate sound. And prove it he did. (The dealer, by the way, was from Chestnut Hill Audio in Philadelphia. I had not met him before, but I recommend him to anyone looking for a dealer who understands accurate musical reproduction and a musician's need for it.)
Out of at least 60 people who walked in and stayed during that period, I was one of only three who asked for the type of musical examples I have noted above. The dealer and I both agreed to something that I have come to face for some time: people don't ask for it because they haven't experienced the difference. I find the same thing with the majority of high-school students who wish to major in music. They do not have sufficient experience with acoustical music and literature to distinguish between what is "real" acoustically and what is "processed," let alone "who wrote what, when."
Please do not get me wrong. I have over 4000 recordings in my collection, from rock, blues, and pop, to jazz and classical. I treasure them all. But Gordon and I know that my Szell recording of Mahler's 4th, my Chicago Symphony recording of Nielsen's 4th, and my chamber-music recordings will tell me what I need to know about the components I choose to audition, not Dave Grusin's latest "composed for TV sound experience," or a hyped and goosed recording made for "demo" purposes.
Sorry to say, but without music education (at its broadest and best), Gordon and those who agree with him are in for some tough times at the audio booths. Like to borrow my earplugs?
—Lloyd Shorter, University of Delaware, Newark, DE