Audio: The View From Outside Page 3

It should be obvious that if a loudspeaker or other component cannot reproduce these rather substantial differences in attack and tonal weight, the end result is nothing more than a homogenized, bland, and gutless representation of the original. Those who subscribe to this school of living-room sound need not concern themselves with this particular problem, since their musical tastes usually lean toward the repertoire most often heard in elevators.

Musical accuracy of program material:
A can of worms unto itself, and the pet peeve of musicians. Unless the listeners have firsthand experience of the performers' individualities and the specific hall acoustics, they are at the mercy of the producer's and engineer's musical integrity. Luckily, there are a few companies, such as Telarc, Hyperion, and Harmonia Mundi, who offer consistent high-quality performances and sonics. Concerning the digital and analog controversy, regardless of what the bleeding ear audio gurus proclaim, I, along with many of my colleagues, maintain that in many cases compact discs are musically superior to their vinyl counterparts. I've heard all the arguments against the compact disc, and suggest that the critics might be looking in the wrong direction. Rather than the record store, perhaps a trip to the local concert hall would be of value.

Ability to involve the listener musically:
Theoretically, this should be the end result if all other aspects of high-fidelity reproduction are successfully addressed. Although involvement can mean many things to many people, my point of view suggests a climate in which the listener can be allowed to become absorbed in the musical performance, without the distractions of sonic intrusions. If the ultimate goal is to reproduce an artistic event with honesty and emotional impact, we must be able to see through the machinery, using it only as a vehicle by which the listener can be transported into the environment of the recording.

It never ceases to amaze me how golden-eared, pontificating audiophiles can rant and rave about the spectacularly accurate virtues of an abysmally performed, forgettable piece of musical tripe, without any allusion to the possibility that the quality of program material might be of some importance. But I shouldn't be surprised; most of these self-appointed experts wouldn't recognize an accurate representation of live music if it bit them on the nose.

Together with several of my colleagues from the National Symphony Orchestra, I have formed a unique social organization---a musician's listening group dedicated to the critical evaluation of high-fidelity equipment and recordings. Along with symphony members, the group contains a recording engineer, a conductor, representatives of various non-musical performing arts, as well as an occasional music critic. Although logic dictates that such an unlikely group should amount to no more than a high-class beer club, we actually accomplish a great deal. Various components are meticulously evaluated for musical accuracy and sonic qualities, and program material is criticized for recording quality and musical merit (there are too many good-sounding recordings of horrible performances).

My personal system, which also serves as our reference, consists primarily of Conrad-Johnson Premier Three and Fives, along with the most recent vintage of the Martin-Logan Monoliths. We occasionally substitute one of our member's Krell KMA-100s for the Premier Fives, in order to compare the colorations of tubes with those of solid-state. Various cartridges, tonearms, turntables, and compact disc players have come and gone, but the digital and analog master tapes provided by our resident recording engineer really give us the material with which we can make honest judgments. The resolution of the reference system is so fine that, with these tapes, we have been able to identify many individual musicians and ensembles without prior knowledge.

In the final analysis, the only valid critical viewpoint is that of the individual listener. The purpose of this essay has not been to demean or negate other valid opinions, but to suggest that in order to make informed, logical decisions in a highly subjective discipline, some knowledge of the absolute is not only helpful, but necessary.

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