God is in the Nuances

This journal has seen a number of thoughtful ruminations on what it is that attracts us to music or to a given audio component, and how we should describe that attraction. The "Letters" pages have been filled by readers who have taken us to task for not adhering to rigorous scientific methods in the evaluation of components, those rigorous scientific methods usually being equated with double-blind listening. Other readers have praised the magazine for its stance that an educated listener in a familiar, relaxed environment will be more accurate in his or her assessment than an average of trained and untrained listeners in unfamiliar, stressful circumstances. Overall, sonic descriptions from diverse reviewers in different publications show a remarkable consensus of observation (not opinion).

The value judgments, however, differ to a much greater degree. One reason will be the differing horizons of experience. I would have more confidence in a reviewer's ability to place digital components correctly in a sonic hierarchy if he had auditioned a good proportion of the available gear than if he hadn't. The other reason seems to be that when two people hear the same system under identical circumstances, their appreciation of the system's balance of strengths and weaknesses will still differ. Their emotional reactions may well be radically different.

The truly troubling aspect of this oft-repeated observation is not that people react differently to the same musical stimulus---that's only to be expected. But when several listeners each play music they like on the system, their reaction should be more uniform. But it isn't. What irks me is that, while we seem to be able to agree pretty well on how a system sounds, there seems to be no consistency of emotional reaction to this sound, even though reaction to the same music played live would probably be reasonably consistent. Putting it another way, there is no easily ascertainable relation between component sound and emotional response.

Let me illustrate what I mean from my own experience. Several years ago, I had a Naim Nait II integrated amplifier in my system that worked quite well with the speakers I owned at the time, the Epos ES 14s. The ES 14's electrical demands, especially regarding current, could not be met fully by the low-powered (20W or so) little Naim, resulting in restrictions in loudness and dynamics, and a bass that could have been tighter. Yet this was, emotionally, a quite satisfying combo. At the time, I tried (for several weeks each) two pre-/power-amp combinations: the German one cost about eight times as much as the diminutive Naim, the American one about 10 times as much. Both amp combinations had been very well reviewed in the international press. The power amps had far superior control over the speakers, the bass went deeper, the treble was cleaner and more extended, the system went louder, I was hearing details the Naim had hidden---in short, the sound, as defined by the usual list of categories, was better in almost every respect.

Yet both combos left me emotionally cold. The degree of analysis these amps allowed was far greater than the Naim's, but music just didn't reach out and touch me anymore. Objectively, both combos were "better"; in a review situation, the expensive amplification obviously was experienced as observationally better, too. But so what?

This experience, which came at a time when I was first starting out as a reviewer, precipitated a minor crisis. Could I hear as well as a reviewer had to? Did I lack adequate experience in setting up demanding systems, and thus couldn't get the expensive combos to perform as well as they could? Were the speakers incompatible with the amps, or did the expensive amplification just tell me what was wrong with my front-end? In retrospect, I'm sure that my setup was at least adequate. I have heard the same amps under different conditions, in other systems, and could recognize the sonics as coming as close as possible, given different room conditions and source components, to those I had achieved in my own system. But I'm also convinced that my emotional reaction was correct. Both combos just weren't as well adjusted to my preferences as the integrated amp. But how could that be? Shouldn't more money buy you more audio fun?

Subsequent experience of a greater number of other components has shown me that, no, there seems to be no reliably observable relationship between price and musical satisfaction. The reason seems to be that it is possible to take components in different directions, optimizing aspects of performance that do count for me, and others that don't.

In the July 1994 Stereophile (p.19), I "outed" myself as a triode-and-high-sensitivity-loudspeakers man. For the last five years or so I've been trying to understand what it is that attracts me to their sound, but have yet to come up with a coherent answer. Let's not beat around the bush: Triodes and their paraphernalia go against almost every convention the High End has acquired in the last two decades or so. They don't have many watts, let alone a decent power bandwidth; their measurements are often abysmal; their high output impedance wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting speaker's amplitude response; being transformer-coupled, their phase response is much less flat than that of most decent solid-state gear; and it is extremely difficult to design a stable triode amp that doesn't use capacitors or transformers to decouple the amplification stages inside the amplifier, which means they won't be as transparent as really good solid-state stuff.

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