The Acoustical Standard (with follow-up) Letters

A letter in response appeared in March 1989, Vol.12 No.3

More of a frontal assault?
Editor: Mr. Atkinson's rebuff of Mr. Holt's argument ("As We See It," November and October '88, respectively) seemed more a frontal assault than a well-reasoned reply. But for whatever reason, the reply misses the point. Taken by itself, Mr. Atkinson's position is simple enough, and undoubtedly quite correct. People, singly as consumers and hobbyists, or collectively sitting on a "relatively formal listening" jury, can and will make value judgments about the quality and likeability of the reproduced sound they hear. I've done that every time I've purchased a new component. I assume everyone else has, too.

But the position of a reviewer is distinctly different from my own as consumer and hobbyist. The reviewer must provide his reader with an intelligibly stated standard by which he, the reviewer, will judge all components coming before him. Your magazine rejects number crunching as the objective standard. In its place, Mr. Holt suggests that the standard is unamplified acoustic music in its performance venue. Though not without some faults which Mr. Atkinson highlights, it is a standard with which I can live. Certainly it is far superior to a "standard" based solely on each reviewer's unique visceral response.

Even if the purely visceral reviewer is able to recreate his evaluation two months later and still arrive at the same conclusion (which is by no means a necessity), his reasons and results are useless to me, the reader. Whether his listening material is "totally artificial" rock or a solo violin, I shall be no better informed. In the end, all that reviewer can tell me is that he liked or disliked what he heard: that the sound of the electric guitar seemed to come from a proper position on the stage, that the effect was quite dramatic as the sound was made to cascade across the listening stage at some propitious musical moment, that the component under consideration reproduced these engineered effects well, or better than the Brand X component he reviewed or listened to the month before. At best, all I, the reader, can do with such a review is to reconstruct the reviewer's test and see if I agree. Unfortunately, I haven't the time, the facilities, or availability of components to do that. While I will surely listen to components I might buy, I use reviews to help narrow the field.

Mr. Holt, on the other hand, offers me observations about reproduced sound which can fit a reference I already have. He may tell me that the music is recessed, as if I were in Row R instead of Row D; that the timbre of the cellos is true, but that the sound of massed strings is a bit more brittle than what one would hear in live performance. I may not agree with his conclusions once I hear the component under consideration (any more than I might agree with the visceral reviewer). But—and it's a big "but"—over a short time I can learn what the more objective reviewer considers the standard, and thereafter more fairly judge his reviews and the components he considers. I may learn that what JGH says sound like real violas to me sound a bit flat, or that what JA (if I may make so bold) says sound like real violins to me sound a bit bright. But with that information I can evaluate their reviews and thereby more fairly judge the components they critique.

The main point of Mr. Holt's October article was that manufacturers have forsaken the standard of live music as the goal to be achieved by sound reproduction. I agree, the new sound of components and source material is too glitzy, too bright, too piercing to be pleasant.

Mr. Atkinson counters by asserting that recordings themselves are an art form, and perhaps he is right (though the quality of that art form may not be all he asserts it to be). Yet reference to a new art form creates more problems than it solves.

Consider the position of a reviewer of modern design art (which others may call graphic or commercial art). Modern design art has only itself as a reference. Each piece must stand or fall exclusively on how it makes the viewer feel. All a reviewer of any such piece can tell his audience is how the work affected him and why he believes he was thus affected. Even if he compares the subject work to another painting previously reviewed and seen by the reader, that reader is no better informed. Every work stands alone, every work is its own standard. Even if the reviewer and I agree that of all the myriad possibilities we only like modern design paintings which fall within the boundaries of possibilities A-G, I still can judge nothing by his review. He may think it fits within A-G and I may not. There is no outside standard by which to measure. So, as a reader looking for guidance, should I travel to a faraway city to see painting X or hear component Y, I am still left adrift.

There is a wonderful record of modern music by Kreiger (CRI SD 483) featuring electrically produced sounds miraculously propelled around the room. I have listened to this record on many systems and enjoyed it on each. But which system brings out the sound closest to the composer's intent, I have no way of knowing. There is a wonderful record by Arturo Delmoni called Songs My Mother Taught Me (Northstar DS0004), featuring a violin and piano. The latter is a record by which I can fairly judge a system or component because I know what it's supposed to sound like—and for me, sounding like live is what it's all about.

I intend no disrespect when I suggest that Mr. Atkinson abandon Magical Ring as a test record and use only records with a verifiable source sound. Even if no source material or reproduction equipment can ever fully realize the original, and even if the hall acoustics are as unknown as the brand of fiddle, at least I have a reference, one which has stood the test of time and is likely to survive into the future. For himself, I'm sure Mr. Atkinson will never buy a component or system which makes Magical Ring sound bad. But that, of course, is a decision he makes as hobbyist and consumer, not as a reviewer.
Hank R. Bernstein, Warwick, MD

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