Stereophile's Writers on an Audio Quest Page 9

Atkinson: Isn't the problem we have with a lot of these so-called "accurate" components that they're only accurate by one narrow definition?

Deutsch: Suppose you had a picture that was exactly the same size as the person's head, but was very unclear and unsharp and was not in color. Now you might say that according to one certain criterion it's very accurate—it's exactly the right size. Then you examine a very small picture which is sharp and perhaps in color. You'd have to say this picture is not accurate—look, the head is this small, the real head is that big. This is not accurate. But in fact it may communicate more to you what that person is like.

Sommerwerck: You can have a painting of somebody that is not literally an accurate, photographic representation of them but conveys something about their personality.

Atkinson: In that case it's more accurate than a photo.

Sommerwerck: It's accurate in another way. But there're all kinds of aesthetic experiences. All I'm saying is that live sound isn't always the most pleasing. Remember the SP3 preamp: everybody loved that. Do you know what that did to voices? That altered the timbre of human voices...

Atkinson: But my question is, do reviewers take too narrow a view of accuracy? If a component has no frequency-response aberrations, do they therefore assume that it's accurate and therefore "better" than another component which does have a frequency-response aberration? Even though everybody in the world likes the second component and hates the first? Do reviewers contribute to a situation by recommending "accurate components" whereby audiophiles put together systems that are totally unmusical because their definition of "accuracy" is too limited?

Olsher: That that happens is absolutely true. I'm sure you've seen audiophiles who scraped and scratched together a system that probably didn't cost more than a couple of thousand dollars. If you were to examine each component on its own, you'd shake your head and say, "Why on Earth did you buy that?" yet the total effect of the system is wonderfully musical. You sit back, you enjoy it. You could spend a whole evening listening to that system. On the other hand you've got the multi-megabuck systems that're really excruciating because you just sit there and are uncomfortable. The bass is powerful and the treble is extended but the sound doesn't gel.

When you listen to a product, you first have to ask yourself: "Do I like the sound?" And "Why do I like it?" All right, so its highs are rolled off and the bass isn't extended, but the mids are wonderful. Okay, I'm willing to live with that. I've got to look at the frequency response, the dynamic range, lack of distortion, look at the way the speaker interfaces with the room. All these things come into play. When you get analytical about why you like something, you have to try to explain how these different parameters measure—is it a 10 in terms of dynamics? Is it a 10 in terms of frequency response? But the first reaction has to be a gut-level one: "Am I enjoying the music?"

Too often reviewers fail to do that. And we say, "The darn thing is so flat, it's got to be a good loudspeaker. How can I possibly say some bad things about it?"

Sommerwerck: There's a danger here, though. If two people're sitting next to each other in a concert hall and listening to a performance, do they hear the same thing? The answer is, no, they're two different people with two different lifestyles, two backgrounds, two different moods at that moment. One of the dangers of leaning too heavily on the completely subjective as opposed to analytical reaction is that we are experiencing ourselves, we're hearing the music as we feel at that moment. My point is that there are all kinds of aesthetic audio experiences which can be musically communicative but which are not necessarily acoustically accurate. The reviewer has to keep this in mind. There is no law of nature that requires human beings to like and to prefer the sound of acoustic instruments heard in a concert hall.

Mitchell: We should be able to agree that the most realistic systems are able to reproduce that illusion most correctly.

Lipnick: The thing is, when you are used to listening to live music, when you review a product you have to say from what perspective. For instance, I play in an orchestra. I'm in the middle of the orchestra. That perspective is very exciting, believe me. It ain't the way it's supposed to sound out in the hall. And if I were to review products the way it sounds in the orchestra, I would review them with me sitting on top of subwoofers! But that's not valid...

I hate Kennedy Center Concert Hall! When I go out and listen to the orchestra when I'm not playing, I think to myself, "Boy, this is such a lousy hall that if I ever heard of a system that sounded this bad, I would shove it off a cliff." It really squawks and honks, it's totally unmusical. It's a really bad hall. Particularly when it's empty...Say you made a recording in this hall from this perspective; should it sound exactly that way? I guess you'd say maybe it should. Now I have heard magnificent recordings made in there, like the Delos River Run recording. You can say, "Well, maybe that's not accurate because the microphones are placed not where you've been sitting," but it's still a great sound. The engineer is like a cinematographer, he creates an ambience which I don't hear as a listener in that hall.

Now, when you listen to that recording through a system, you really don't know what is accurate. You can say, "Well, I know it's accurate because I know who's playing first oboe and I know who's doing this and I know who's doing that," but even that is clouding the issue. So then you have to say, "Well, is it pleasing?" And then you come down to what is accurate? What is musical? Musical means several things. We go on the road, we play in 10 different halls, we sound like 10 different orchestras. Record the orchestra in one hall, play it back on 10 different systems, and it would sound like 10 different halls. Maybe that's as accurate as us playing in 10 different halls.

The whole thing comes down to, what is the musical impact you're looking for? What is the core of it? What is the emotional impact? Some people aren't looking for emotional impact. Some people are looking for clarity. Some people are looking more for a gut-wrenching experience and to hell with the clarity. It's a matter of personal taste.

Atkinson: Accuracy is subjective?

Lipnick: Accuracy is subjective because acoustic music is at the mercy of the space in which it's produced.

Balgalvis: When we listen, there are certain things that we pick up first, either consciously or unconsciously. Whether it's space, staging, spectral balance, frequency extension, and so on. We then form opinions based on what we need. Maybe later on, we start to analyze: "Does it really go low?" "Does it go high?" "Is it balanced?" "Is there depth?" "Is there width?" But within that analysis, we have our own preferences.

Atkinson: You didn't mention in that analysis, "Am I enjoying it or not?" Surely that's all that's really important?

Sommerwerck: What about a 60-year-old recording of a classic performance? The sound is not very good, yet we hear the music. We hear what the composer means. We hear what the conductor was trying to perform. The musical communication occurs despite the fact that the fidelity of the system isn't very good. There is no necessary correlation between musical enjoyment and the accuracy of the playback. Or musical communication. The two don't necessarily have anything to do with each other.

Low: That's very true. You can use a telephone to get across whether someone is a great conductor...Depending on your priority system, [musical communication] doesn't require fidelity in almost any sense at all. But there is this tendency in the audio community to say, "Well, I can hear that there are seven people instead of six people singing to me, therefore it's a better piece of equipment," when you didn't know how many people were singing to begin with. There's no reason you'd be happier now knowing that there are seven instead of six. But that particular type of value system, because it is somehow more concrete, more like counting the lines in a video picture, tends to be the one that cumulatively rises to the top in the evaluation process. Until you get a system that costs a tremendous amount of money and is over-representative in that particular value system.

Expectations rise with the investment. You can have two people listening to two preamps that sound the same but they've different faceplates. One is $3000 and one is $6000. To one person, the $3000 preamp sounds so much better because it sounds the same and it costs less, but to the other person the $6000 preamp sounds so much better because it costs $6000. The listener is so much a part of the experience whether it's because he's hungry or because he's tired or because of his prejudices and expectations about the equipment itself.

Lipnick: Do you see magazines as a tool that helps sell product? Or do you see us more as an unbiased critical organization?

Low: I can only speak for me personally; every manufacturer has his own opinion. We can't help that as manufacturers we look at you as part of the distribution process. But that doesn't mean that we don't have other opinions. When I visited Stereophile last November and raked John mercilessly over the coals for two days, I was not selling AudioQuest products. I think the reason John invited me here today is not so that I can give you a lecture on how I think cable should be designed. It's because I care intensely about the community, the world that I live and play in, and how I'd like that audio world to be a better place!

Greenhill: You're on a quest.

Sommerwerck: An audio quest! [laughter]

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