Stereophile's Writers on an Audio Quest Page 8

Mitchell: Indeed.

Atkinson: But you can't then leap from there and say, well, all differences must be inconsequential. Compare a Mazda 323 with a Ford Escort: very similar cars, similar wheel base, similar price, similar everything—therefore all cars are the same? Of course not. You've just got two large companies addressing the same market and trying to keep prices down as much as possible. And that's what happened with mass-market amplifiers. But I still think it illogical to start as a basis of truth that there are no differences unless they're proved otherwise. Because measurements would suggest the basic truth to be that there must be an audible difference unless you can prove otherwise.

Mitchell: Again, I want to emphasize the important statement in terms of the engineering fraternity: it is not that there are no differences but that there are no mysterious differences worth caring about in the mass-market price range.

Low: For practical reasons, Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound don't worry about every 20W amplifier that comes out of Japan, but there have been other sweethearts before. What made NAD a little special and gave them an open door was that, as it didn't have a preconceived distribution system, high-end dealers were therefore willing to listen to it. I was the first NAD dealer in Los Angeles County at that time, when I had a little store. I wasn't listening to every Sansui and every Pioneer. But a few years earlier I had been paying attention to some of those things. And there was a little 20W Pioneer that was just as much of a sweetheart...

Mitchell: I have one in my bedroom even today.

Low: ...but it didn't get the same attention because of Pioneer's distribution pattern. Because of its distribution pattern, our whole segment of the industry didn't pay attention.

Sommerwerck: Bill, you talk about the responsibility of the magazine toward the consumer. What about the responsibility of the manufacturer? For example, Sal Demicco [of Discrete Technology] recently said to me, "Bill, I have a problem. Customers and dealers want more expensive cables but I can't think of any way to make them sound better and justify a higher cost." [laughter] He didn't say it in so many words, but the implication was that, to some extent, some companies were producing more expensive cables just to appeal to the consumer. Dealers have said to me, "People won't buy $300 cables, they're not expensive enough."

Greenhill: That problem has been solved.

Low: This problem exists in all areas of marketing, not just in cables. I was asked in Hong Kong earlier this year why I didn't make a more expensive cable than I make. My answer was that there wasn't anything that I could do that I thought was really worth the difference. The only thing left to do was to use pure silver. Well, in a sense partly because I know that I have a market for it outside the US, I am now making pure silver cables. I am very concerned about what it will do to AudioQuest's image and reputation because I'm not a purveyor of luxury goods. Value is more important to me. I supplied the magazine with 1000' of my 79 cents/ft cable—in a way that product is more important to me than my $75-$150/ft cables. On the other hand, I rationalize to myself that these are legitimate sonic improvements, and while I might choke on the cost relative to my lifestyle, other people would choke on what I spend on cars. This is subjective. Just because there's one company that makes a cable whose price and performance I think everyone in the room would agree is ludicrous, doesn't mean that the industry is composed of people who all think that way.

Sommerwerck: I didn't mean it quite that way...We know that there are foolish customers out there who want to spend a lot of money because they think it gets them a better cable. Would you actually come out and say that in so many words?

Low: In my case there is an improvement [in going to a very expensive silver conductor]. But in other cases people will spend more money because it satisfies their ego somehow to spend money. And luxury goods exist in the world separately from the phenomenon of getting your value for that luxury. It's unfortunate that this is true.

Sommerwerck: You're criticizing us because you say you feel we're not completely responsible to the people who are reading the magazine. I'm saying, doesn't that also apply to the manufacturer?

Low: The kind of manufacturer that we would all respect should. You can talk to Richard Vandersteen, and there are other people in the world like him. Yes, you can get the down-to-earth truth. But the reviewer's job as compared to the manufacturer's entails finding out that truth. The manufacturer's job does not include doing that. It includes trying to make money for his company.

Mitchell: And that very often just comes down to deliberately promoting misinformation. Creating misinformation.

Low: It leaves open that opportunity and that's part of the reason that I'm hoping that this ideal consumer/reviewer/store buyer will see through that and not fall for it. But it doesn't mean that the manufacturer has the responsibility not to be bad. That's a much larger social question about how everybody should be responsible for his fellow man.

Atkinson: Do you think the reviewing community pays enough attention to the ability of components to reproduce musical values? When I came here from the UK, it struck me there were a lot of American components that were very expensive but were incapable of playing records or CDs with any degree of musical verisimilitude. Do you think reviewers, by concentrating on the particular aspects of reproduction, lose sight of the whole musical picture?

Low: It often happens...Music is an emotional experience and selling hi-fis should really be more like selling hot tubs—making sure that they come with a good temperature controller because if the temperature's not right, the hot-tub experience is not right. An audio system's like that: it doesn't matter what the THD is or if you have silver cables, if the net result is that the hot tub isn't the right temperature, you're not going to enjoy the experience. There're not enough positive experiences when people go out to buy hi-fi.

Then we have this goal of accuracy which is one of those conflicts that's hard to justify. If you want to appreciate a good Beethoven sonata, it can be played on 10 different kinds of pianos in 10 different kinds of rooms and still be authentic, enjoyable, moving, emotional music. So there isn't just one sound in that sense that music has to have. There's one absolute goal for the reproduction of something that's already been recorded. But music doesn't have just one absolute goal...

Sommerwerck: This is the fundamental dichotomy in the reviewing process. The consumer buys equipment to enjoy the music. But as reviewers, we're looking at two things: is the equipment literally accurate in reproducing what it's supposed to do? And connected with that is, what does it sound like? And this is not necessarily consistent with the end user enjoying the musical experience. I'm sure most of us would actually prefer to listen to systems that had colorations that were not literally accurate because we wouldn't enjoy the music more if they didn't.

Low: If dead accuracy were available I think we'd agree on it. It's because dead accuracy is not available...

Atkinson: A friend of mine had an expensive high-end system. Every component he had was being recommended by one of the magazines in its highest rating. He suddenly woke up and thought, "I hate the sound of my system." He sold it all, bought a Naim NAIT 2, a Rega turntable, and a pair of little ProAc speakers, and I believe is living happily ever after. Now, every one of his expensive components was more "accurate" than what he now has. But he couldn't enjoy his records. The magazines promote people into buying the "best" CD player, this hyper-accurate preamp, that super-accurate power amplifier, and these—well, I can't say flat, uncolored loudspeakers because they don't exist—but these class-A loudspeakers, and couple them with the "best" cable. I'm worried that a lot of people do that but end up with a sound which is pretty darn awful.

Low: The more they spend the more they expect.

Sommerwerck: Do you remember the New York Audio Labs Haiku system with the little electrostatic speakers and the vacuum-tube OTL amps? I would have killed for that. It wasn't an accurate system, it was sweet and liquid and rounded off, but boy, did it communicate the music.

Atkinson: In that case, it was accurate.

Sommerwerck: No, it wasn't accurate. It was not accurate in literally reproducing what was in the recording—it had obvious colorations—but boy, the music came across. People forget that music is an arbitrary thing. There are no violins in nature. There are no drums in nature. There are no concert halls in nature. Western Classical Music is a more or less arbitrary collection of precepts. There are other things which are aesthetically pleasing. And live sound is not always aesthetically pleasing because of, for example, bad acoustics. We're aiming for literal accuracy because we believe in the long run that that produces the best aesthetic experience. But there are enjoyable musical experiences which are not accurate reproductions of live sound.

Atkinson: But Bill, say you have a component which reproduces the tonal color of Lewis's bassoon absolutely perfectly but eviscerates it dynamically. Is that component accurate?

Sommerwerck: I'm not talking about it that way.

Atkinson: But it reproduces the "sound" of Lewis's instrument perfectly.

Lipnick: It's not accurate. [noisy argument all around]

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