Truth vs Beauty: A Tale of Two Transports Letters

Letters in response appeared in May 2006 (Vol.29 No.5):

Truth, beauty, extremism

Editor: I really enjoyed Laurence A. Borden's article, "Truth vs Beauty" (March 2006, p.57), in which the author compares "beauty seekers" (equipment designers and audiophiles who favor a romantic and pleasant sound over ultimate detail and measured accuracy) to "truth seekers" (those who place greater emphasis on absolute purity of sound and equipment specs). Within this hobby there are extremists on either side of this debate. And, like all extremists—political, religious, or otherwise—these individuals are usually myopic, narrow-minded, self-serving, and irrational. I suppose (and would hope) that a greater number of audio enthusiasts, myself included, occupy more of a middle ground in which truth and beauty are equally valued and the "correctness" of any playback system rests solely on the enjoyment it brings to the listener. I think Mr. Borden sums things up best by reminding us that "we should all respect others' opinions and approaches."— Patrick Schubert, Santa Ana, CA, pschubert@elvis.com

Good luck, and God bless

Editor: Larry Borden missed the point ("Truth vs Beauty," March, p.57). He claims all playback systems are flawed and that accuracy is unobtainable. He is wrong on both counts.

What is clear is that our hobby is becoming increasingly dominated by adherents who have no discipline for the effort it takes to generate correct, coherent in-room response. Simply owning a bunch of good, accurate components is a start, but there is a great deal of owner sweat equity and hard-earned knowledge involved in getting the most out of a particular set of choices made for a particular room. Any rich guy can own a Ferrari. But drive it? Also overrepresented are those to whom oddball, inaccurate, distorted, and, dare I say, weird-sounding equipment is so cool. I suppose everyone should own a Moog synthesizer for its own sake, as a novelty. Just don't try to convince me that owning one somehow lets you hear a coherent facsimile of an actual recording session.

I contend that you should make your finished playback system sound as accurate as a flawless diamond conveys light. Then you should tweak it to respond in the most consistently musical and realistic way possible, using the range of sources available today. Borden contends this is the path that "beauty seekers" follow. They fudge everything to make pretty overtones and "lush" sounds out of everything, whether or not the recording is accurately represented or not.

I say there is a difference between presenting an overripe sound in the name of beauty and merely trying to tune for a consistent realism, using the variety that exists in recorded sound as a challenge to your talent as a playback designer. If you can get a big-band horn section recorded in the 1930s on Western Electric amplification to sound wonderfully alive and realistic for its era, and Diana Krall comes across as "reach out and touch her" in your listening room using a CD through an outboard DAC, you are really getting somewhere. Listen for the overtones that make real trumpets, string bass, drums, and, most important, human voices. Oh, and don't forget orchestras and solo concert pianos. And Sgt. Pepper's. Go ahead and tune deliberately so that the greatest number of recordings come across full of life and with maximum realism. But make it always sound like natural instruments, not processed distortion.

I detest "tube sound." I also do not want cheesy, cheap, transistor "dead on arrival" transients. Or obvious digital artifacts, which, by the way, are included in all of the home theater brigade's digital receivers, God Forbid! Or s-s-s-sibilant hash overlaid on all my recordings by anything tube, transistor, digital, or dust.

Long ago, in a different time and space, I sold the world's most expensive recording equipment in New York City. All the most desirable line-level recording equipment sounded remarkably similar. Whether tube or transistor, the mostly expensive good stuff sounded honest, clean, clear, and transparent to the source. The stuff that sounded fuzzy, processed, hard, or dull was for losers. Pros wouldn't touch it.

I suggest your readers get an audio analyzer and some sort of sophisticated line-level equalization control. In-room response is mostly about tuning. Tune the room's modes and nodes and early reflections. Think about carpets and wall tapestries. Likewise, tune your electronics while paying attention to self-induced phase anomalies. Translation: A little EQ goes a long way—except below 600Hz, where most rooms are seriously strange sounding and need a lot of EQ.

Good luck, and God bless.— Rick Lee,
Newark, NJ, rickresort@optonline.net

Thank you for reading my article, Mr. Lee, and for taking the time to comment. You begin by stating that I am wrong in contending that all playback systems are flawed and that accuracy is unobtainable. However, I see no actual support for your position. If you in fact feel that accuracy—absolute accuracy—is obtainable, please share with us those components you feel are perfect. In particular, I am curious as to which speakers you feel are completely free of distortion. If it is your belief that the use of EQ (as mentioned at the end of your letter) can lead to perfect accuracy, I must respectfully disagree. While EQ can have certain positive effects, I don't believe it to be a panacea.

I will add that, even it were the case that perfect gear existed (a premise I do not accept), the most one could hope for is perfect accuracy to the source. This, of course, leaves us with the inaccuracies inherent in the recording process. Moreover, we should not ignore the fact that most audiophiles have modest-sized rooms and speakers, both of which present further obstacles to the accurate reproduction of recordings.

A main point of your letter seems to be your belief that audiophiles are not prepared to put the necessary work into maximizing their systems. While I don't know the percentage of audiophiles to whom this applies, I certainly agree as to the importance of things such as proper component matching, and the use of room treatments, power conditioners, resonance control, and other "tweaks." However, I feel that these are as important to those seeking a beautiful sound as to those seeking absolute accuracy to the source.

I find of particular interest your comment that one "should make your finished playback system sound as accurate as a flawless diamond conveys light. Then you should tweak it to respond in the most consistently musical and realistic way possible, using the range of sources available today." Logically, if the system begins as accurately as possible, then subsequent tweaking can only diminish the accuracy. Moreover, I suspect that when you speak of getting the system to be "consistently musical" you are, in essence, referring to the same phenomenon I referred to as "beauty"; the only difference may be one of degree. Indeed, you state that "there is a difference between presenting an overripe sound in the name of beauty and merely trying to tune for a consistent realism, using the variety that exists in recorded sound as a challenge to your talent as a playback designer." You may have noted that I mention in my article that it is not the case that "beauty seekers" are uninterested in accuracy. Thus, whereas I spoke of there being two categories—"truth seekers" and "beauty seekers"—in reality there exists a continuum, with most audiophiles residing somewhere between the two extremes.

From the remainder of your letter it seems apparent that you are one who favors accuracy, with a smattering of beauty (ie, "musicality") thrown in. There are, however, those who fall more toward the beauty side of the spectrum, as revealed in a recent online discussion. As I described at the end of my article, my philosophy is that there are many paths to happiness; that someone's path may differ from my own is quite irrelevant. If you do not share this belief, then we will simply have to agree to disagree. Larry Borden

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