The Fifth Element #1 Page 2
As I Was Saying...
If you did a hasty cover check to see which magazine you were reading, here's a brief explanation.
I have been a music and audio journalist on and off for 18 years, ever since the first issue of Digital Audio magazine (footnote 1). Recently, after two years writing for The Abso!ute Sound, I was told that space limitations forced the cancellation of my regular column there. Wanting to continue as a columnist, fifth or otherwise, I approached John Atkinson about relocating. Having made a few contributions to Stereophile in the past 10 years, including Let's Face the Music and Dance a year ago, I'm delighted to be here now on a regular basis.
The contribution I want my writing to make is to relate the world of high-end equipment not only to the world of music, but also to the worlds of culture and ideas. My goals for this column are to celebrate excellence in various disciplines and the greatness of the human spirit by imparting useful information, and recommending recordings and equipment proven or likely to withstand the test of time.
I'm trying hard to avoid the near-unavoidable whiff of presumptuousness that comes with declaring certain recordings "basic" or "necessary" or "indispensable." That kind of language tends to cloak such judgments in an undeserved degree of objectivity. It is one (objectively rational and utilitarian) thing to say that every home should have a fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit. It is quite another (subjective, and possibly snobbish or pedantic) thing to say that every home should have Kind of Blue and Four Last Songs, but such injunctions do proliferate. So rest assured that I know that my recommendations of "elemental recordings" are, ultimately, subjective.
On the other hand, the recordings I recommend will not only pay great dividends over the course of repeated and searching listenings. They also have proven themselves to be uniquely useful in establishing the contribution a component makes to playback. In the next few columns I'll tell you about the first recordings I pull out when it's time to evaluate a new component.
The single recording that tells me the most of what I want to know about a system or component is Glenn Gould's 1982 digital remake of Bach's Goldberg Variations. As Gould plays the opening Aria that is the subject of the Variations, he hums, croons, and whispers along with the melody line. If you have never heard this recording and you first encounter it played back on a rather good system, the effect is instantaneous and rather unsettling. Much more the case than with a recording where the person who is singing is supposed to be singing, Gould's unguarded murmurings suggest a real presence.
The important caveat to employing this or any similar recording as a yardstick is that, in terms of speech intelligibility, not all frequencies are created equal. There is a rather critical intelligibility band, well-recognized in the professional literature of sound-reinforcement engineers. Diminishing the levels of the frequencies associated with vowel resonances while accentuating the frequencies associated with consonant transients helps when you need to hear, over a public address system, which flight is ready for boarding, but represents one giant step back for overall sonic accuracy in music playback.
It would be possible to put together a system that would bring Glenn Gould astoundingly to the front, but at the cost of bleaching out his piano's sound to that of crinkling rice paper. A natural-sounding balance between Gould and his piano is what's needed, and finding that balance is a process of trial and error. Even if you have absolutely no interest in classical music, playing the first three minutes of Gould's 1982 Goldbergs on a variety of audio systems will yield great dividends.
The other elemental recording I commend to you this month is Ella Fitzgerald's Cole Porter Songbook, in particular "Easy to Love." Although this is a mid-1950s mono recording, the combination of analog tape, what sounds like an RCA ribbon microphone, and the youthful resilience of Fitzgerald's voice makes for a hauntingly poignant listening experience.
My friend Bob Saglio regularly points out to me that it would be a decrepit system indeed through which Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter did not sound enchanting. There is a degree of truth to that, but there are also degrees of enchantment. There is so much magic stored within "Easy to Love" that it has even been known to make highly opinionated, overly verbal CES showgoers just shut up and listen. If there is a more richly nuanced test of midrange fidelity, I haven't heard it.
The miracle of stereo sound continues to fascinate nearly 70 years after Alan Dower Blumlein's epochal patent application. Blumlein established that the illusions of front-to-back depth and right-to-left breadth can be imparted by using only two playback channels, and that combining these two illusions yields a sense of three-dimensionality that is indeed miraculous. There will be new formats and rumors of new formats, but the Blumlein patent will always be the wellspring. (Blumlein himself never heard a commercial realization of his invention of stereo sound; he was killed while testing airborne radar during WWII.)
The single best introduction to the technical side of the miracle of stereo sound, as well as physical acoustics and psychoacoustics, is Ron Streicher and F. Alton Everest's The New Stereo Soundbook, Second Edition (available from amazon.com and elsewhere). The appendix reproducing Blumlein's patent application is nearly worth the price of admission.
A fascinating glimpse into how the other half lives—the other half being professional audio and video recording and broadcast engineers—comes by way of the Markertek catalog. Markertek—(800) 522-2025—is one of the leading professional audio and video supply houses; their very readable catalog bulges with cool and practical stuff, and their custom cable-fabrication services are very reasonably priced. Knowledgeable folks, great service.
Footnote 1: Trivial Pursuit Time: Digital Audio transmogrified into the now-defunct CD Review, whose final editor was Robert Baird, now the music editor of Stereophile.—John Atkinson