Too Good to Be True
Certainly, the best of today's pickups, amplifiers and loudspeakers are objectively far superior to anything available ten, or even five years ago. Pickups trace more cleanly at lower forces, amplifiers have lower distortion and higher stability, and speakers have wider range, smoother response and lower distortion than ever before. Yet increasing numbers of long-time audiophiles are complaining that today's sound reproduction is not as natural as it used to be during the golden age of monophony.
Some have even suggested that maybe we need a bit of distortion and peakiness to make things sound right, but good sense would seem to suggest otherwise. After all, fidelity is accuracy, and distortion and peaks are inaccuracies. Yet by comparison with yesterday's systems, today's crop is often accused of sounding rather gray and flat and, somehow, not quite realistic.
Reader Burks claims electrostatics just don't sound natural, despite the fact that the best of them measure better than anything hitherto available. Reader Vanderbilt harks back to an old Brociner-Brook-Fairchild system that he recalls as having been more natural than anything he's heard since.
Of course, it's easy to dismiss all this as the embellishments of memory, which can turn a 15" snowfall during our childhood into the biggest blizzard in history. No doubt, this does account for some of it, but it isn't the whole answer. There are still a lot of excellent, old monophonic systems in use today, several of which we have heard recently. We must admit that some of them do have a certain quality of realism that is lacking in many of the "best" modern setupsa quality that not even stereo can provide. They may have rather muddy bass, and be a bit spitty at the top, but voices and musical instruments sound so natural and alive that you feel as if you could reach right out and touch them.
Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is the number of times we have observed this intangible quality of realism from crummy little table-model radios that could not qualify as high fidelity by any of the standards we normally apply.
Does this mean our standards for evaluating components are all fouled up? Not basically, because distortion is still distortion, whether it makes the sound worse or better. However, it is possible that we have been forgetting or ignoring some "minor" factors that are actually more important than we suspect.
Hearing is simply our reaction to a pattern of pressure waves in the air around us. If we can get exactly the same set of air vibrations to our ears in the living room as would have reached our ears in the concert hall, we will hear a perfect replica of the original sounds. Hence, the search for smoother response, lower distortion, wider range, better transient response, and all the rest of it. Many loudspeaker designers, for instance, have long claimed that their field was an art as much as a science, which is another way of saying that their speakers somehowseem to sound better when they're designed with a couple of response deviations in them than they do when they're made to be linear by measurement.
In other words, perhaps it is necessary to compensate for some peculiarities of room acoustics or of amplifier coloration in order to produce linear response at our ears.
We won't attempt to volunteer any provocative theories about this at this time, but we will bring up a couple of points that might bear looking into. High fidelity started in movie theaters, and horn speaker systems became the standard of quality because, when used with contemporary amplifiers, they provided just the right amount of brilliance and "presence." But when audiophiles brought these components into their living rooms, the sound was far too brilliant and shrill.
Some slightly insane audiophiles, including the partially deaf, liked that kind of sound, but musically oriented listeners soon concluded that, while homs were fine for auditoriums (and palatial living rooms), they had no place in the average home. Direct-radiator speakers became the accepted standard for in-the-home use, because of their "smoother, sweeter" sound.
"Presence" became a dirty word, and most of the improvements in components that were made in subsequent years were aimed at "smoothing out" and "sweetening" their sound. We may have overshot the mark though, hence the recent complaints about the "sogginess" and "muted" quality of modem systems, and the upsurge of interest in speakers with more "presence."
We can't advocate a return to the sound of yesteryear, but we would like to know what it had that most of today's equipment lacks. Does anyone have any ideas on the subject?J. Gordon Holt
The Letters that Triggered This Essay:
Sirs: I have been waiting for a publication such as The Stereophile to come out! There are and have been publications that have given unbiased ratings of audio components (Consumers Union and Audio League), but I always felt that their reports were for the mass market rather than for the audio perfectionist. Top-quality equipment was seldom tested, presumably because the average audiophile would not be interested. Those of us who were interested in the finest equipment had to be content with superlatives, and very little in the way of comparison or criticism of the equipment.
One of the things that sold me on your publication was the statement in your announcement, "...we began to realize that there was a real need for some source of forthright, down-to-earth information for the audio perfectionist who wasn't satisfied with being told that 'all amplifiers sound pretty much the same.'" I have heard this statement, and have even read it in a high-fidelity magazine recently.
I was beginning to think that I had the world's only 24-karat golden ear, because I can hear a difference between amplifiers, especially preamplifiers. I now own the supposed "best" in amplifiers, Marantz, but I and most of my friends agree that it doesn't sound as good as the mono Brook equipment I had previously. Nor is the Marantz Model 7 stereo preamp as transparent-sounding as the Marantz monophonic audio consolette. I understand that the real perfectionists are buying up the Marantz mono preamps and using them in pairs for stereo, with the Marantz stereo adapter.
My goal in stereo, ironic though it may be, is to have the quality of sound I had 10 years ago with a Brociner-Klipsch corner horn, the 30 watt Brook amp and preamp, and a Fairchild 220 cartridge. It had a realism which made you unaware that you were listening to a sound system. Even in mono, it had depth. Perhaps the new transistorized components are what I'm looking for. I hope I will be able to find some of the answers in The Stereophile.Richard Vanderbilt, Rumson, NJ
Sirs: Re Irving Fried's pronouncement of doom for the paper-cone loudspeaker ("The Forum," SepemberOctober 1962): I've spent hours listening to full-range electrostatics. Fine transient response and clarity, but the piano didn't sound like a piano, the clarinet didn't sound like a clarinet, the cello didn't sound like a cello. The characteristic timbres of the instruments were missing.
I've spent hours listening to expanded polystyrene foam speaker systems. They are extremely accurate reproducers but, unfortunately, unmusical reproducers.
Listening to paper cones and live music has ruined my ears. Pity, really.G. E. Burks, Denver, CO
If transient response, clarity, and accuracy are unmusical, then why fidelity? Back to the acoustical horn?J. Gordon Holt