The Sound of the Human Heart
I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings.Walt Whitman, "That Music Always Round Me," from Leaves of Grass
These two statements, to me, express the core perspective shared by Stereophile's contributors. When I encountered both of them within a span of 30 days, they spoke so strongly that I felt impelled to hook up the biggest, baddest loudspeakers I could find and broadcast them to the world, without distortion. Failing in that quest, and having not yet attained the status of the Edward R. Murrows and Walter Cronkites of eras past, I share them here.
The quote from Cameron, a professor of sociology and author of multiple books, is part of a longer statement: "It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
Cameron's assertion applies equally to audio measurements. A decade ago, when I interviewed Luke Manley and his wife, Bea Lam, of VTL Amplifiers for my first feature story to appear in this magazine, they explained how they had confirmed for themselves that measurements can address only so much.
[Luke says,] "Sometimes we've developed a design that would measure fantastic, with wide bandwidth and incredible linearity. Bea would listen to it and say, 'Yes, everything is there. It's got the top, it's got the bottom, and it measures perfectly. But boy, is it boring to listen to.' Then we go back to the drawing board many times."
"Boring refers to the color and timbre of the music," Bea explains. "A good piano has a lot of overtones. It's the overtones that make up the sound, rather than the single frequency of a given note. Other instruments are similar. What we're looking for, besides the dynamics and power of the full orchestra, is the ability to correctly convey the sound of instruments. Whether it's a single violin or piano, our equipment absolutely has to get it right. If you're designing reference products and you can't get the color, you cannot capture the essence of the music."
Two years later, circuit designer John Curl, whose Vendetta phono preamplifier and circuit designs for Mark Levinson and Parasound have made him a legend among audiophiles, described virtually the same situation to me. Soon after beginning his odyssey into audio-circuit design, Curl learned the difference between a superior design that tested well on paper, and components that reproduced recordings as their engineers wished them to be heard. On discovering that every resistor, capacitor, and so on sounds different, he concluded that the sonic synergy of component partssomething that can't be determined by measurements alonewas as central as design excellence to a truthful reproduction of a recording of a musical performance.
Which is not to say that measurements are of secondary importance. On the contrary, Stereophile recognizes their centrality by including editor-in-chief John Atkinson's labor-intensive measurements of almost every component reviewed in the magazine. When JA finds a discrepancy between a measurement and what the reviewer has heard, he attempts to explain the divergence. When he can't, he sometimes calls for a second reviewer's opinion. These actions are based on something he has said many times: "Measurements do not lie, but neither do they tell the whole truth."
It is that whole truth that Walt Whitman addresses. The second half of his short poem about the celestial chorus that he has come to hear reads:
I hear not the volumes of sound merely, I am moved by the exquisite meanings,
I listen to the different voices winding in and out, striving, contending with fiery vehemence to excel each other in emotion;
I do not think the performers know themselvesbut now I think I begin to know them.
Stereophile's writers recognize that musical performances are, like the eyes, the windows of the soul. Every soul has its voice, and great artists perfect the means to share their inner truth through music. The voices of some great artists are so individual, so deeply personal, that we can know what beats in their hearts by the sounds they make. It is this soul connection that addresses the deepest mysteries of life and death that I long to experience when I listen to great music, expertly recorded, through the sound systems I encounter along the path.
The depth of spiritual connection between souls that an audio component can deliver is, I believe, how most of us at Stereophile determine the worth of the equipment we review. Adding up the wholesale cost of a component's individual parts, including custom casework, and multiplying that by four or five can reveal one sort of value. But ultimate value can be determined only by the beating of the human heart. Every time I read a review that includes careful descriptions of how the music a component produces makes the listener feel, I feel I have found my way home.Jason Victor Serinus