God is in the Nuances Page 7

Sacred cows will get you nowhere
Let's try to shoot some holes in a few favorite topics of hi-fi reviewing. One of my pet hates is soundstaging. For some people, this seems to be very important. For me, it isn't. When asked if the hardware he sells images well, Colin Hammerton---an expatriate Brit working as British amp manufacturer Exposure's importer in Germany---says, "I don't want to hear where the musicians are on stage. I want to hear why they are on stage." I couldn't agree more. Please don't get the impression that I'm against soundstaging---it's nice to have. It just doesn't matter for my emotional reaction to music.

Out in the real world, however, soundstaging is very important. If a review would state that a component makes wonderful music but can't image, sales would be practically nil, at least among the very large part of the clientele whose buying decisions are influenced by what's said by magazines and dealers (who rely on magazines as the most important sales aid).

The expression "sonic fireworks" is a recurring theme in hi-fi journalism. It seems also to describe the listening expectations of a certain type of hi-fi customer. "Ooh, look there . . . and there, to the right, outside the right-side speaker . . . ooh, and there, six yards behind the speakers . . . and there, over the speakers---isn't that beautiful!"

This listening style could be called visual-oriented listening, because it tries to describe sound in terms of visual experience. Visual-oriented listening is attractive because it allows a quantitative analysis ("The soundstage reproduced by the device under test was this broad, this deep, and this high."), which must be a big help in developing, and describing the sonic performance of, audio components.

It is also a defensible listening experience: We all know that the so-called objectivists try to knock the so-called subjective listeners. The latter have responded by turning into observational listeners (another visual term), relating an experience that other listeners can duplicate if the test conditions are identical---a prerequisite for gaining recognition as a scientific, and thus reputable, branch of engineering. (It must be hard to live your working life without the recognition of your peers.) Everyone with intact hearing will agree to reasonably identical dimensions of the soundstage, and the location of instruments in that soundstage.

However, there is no way yet to objectify the musical pleasure a component gives. A different listener will approach the same sonic demonstration with a different mood, different reactions to a musical stimulus, and so on. The emotional experience is not as easily transferable as the observational one.

A bonus of visual-oriented listening is that it is economically attractive. It allows listening irrespective of psychological and physical condition, and thus opens up a much larger part of the day to the accomplishment of meaningful work than if you could listen only when you were really in the mood for some music. For people who make their living from sonic judgments---designers, dealers, and journalists alike---I can see that it may be imperative. Problem is, this is in direct opposition to the listening experience of the paying customer, who wants to unwind from a day's work with a little musical entertainment.

Since visual-oriented listening is something at which a reviewer tends to get very good, it usually makes up a large part of a review's content. Magazine-reading audiophiles will be influenced in their listening habits by those reviews (the "learning" part that Jürgen Ackermann was talking about). They choose their systems and set them up so that the visual-oriented listening experience is emphasized. Many such systems, to me, sound boring. There's no meat on the bone.

An experiment: Disconnect one speaker from your setup and listen to the sound of just the remaining speaker, preferably with a mono source. I'm sure that few so-called high-end speakers (and systems) will survive this test. Many will sound bland and anemic. Two such speakers sound just the same, but probably a little fuller, because with the usual practice of mixing bass sounds straight down the middle, doubling the radiating surface of the bass drivers and doubling the available amplifier power gives a perceived 3dB rise in relative bass level. But the speakers don't become more interesting.

Another experiment: Listen to recorded voice. My favorite material for this kind of test are comedy records (Eddie Murphy, Bette Midler, and Bill Cosby spring to mind). Good comedy works on much the same principles as music. Timing is crucial, as are small inflections of the voice, speed of delivery, and so on. You'll be surprised by how few systems preserve intelligibility, an essential prerequisite for this kind of stuff. Dynamics and low-level resolution are much more important than timbral fidelity here.

While I'm at it, I'd also like to diss timbral fidelity. Of course, timbral fidelity is the essential prerequisite for the accurate reproduction of music in the home. It is also nigh on impossible to achieve, for sound scientific reasons.

Modern multimiked recordings tend to employ a microphone for every instrument or, at most, small group of instruments. The sound put down on (digital) tape is that of instruments at close proximity.

In the concert hall, one tends to listen from a much greater distance. Even if one were to sit at the conductor's feet, only a few instruments would be this close, the rest farther away. Thus, what is recorded on tape can never be heard in a real-world situation.

There is also the question of radiation patterns. In the concert hall, the sound one hears from a solo violin is a mixture of sound waves radiated by the strings and the top and bottom plates of the violin body, the latter two usually much lower in frequency than the strings to which they resonate and thus radiate with a broader radiation pattern. The close-proximity mike picks up a greater proportion of the string sound than would be heard live. The sound the microphone "hears" is only a fraction of the instrument's total sound that would be perceived by the typical listener, who sits much farther away than the typical microphone. This fraction will be prejudiced toward the higher frequencies. If the microphone's output is faithfully reproduced by all subsequent elements in the chain, the resulting sound will be unnatural. (In contrast, rock, pop, and blues music is usually amplified even when performed live. The sound you get from a recording is, on a certain level, faithful to the original.)

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