Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven power amplifier
Now, I'm not proposing that we embrace coloration, nor am I suggesting that if something sounds "good," then to hell with accuracy. But the removal of all pleasure-producing tonalities doesn't necessarily make for increased realism. Music survives because it's moving, or beautiful, or fun. When we distrust these emotional responses simply because they are emotions, then we deny one of the most profound musical truths: that there is a higher level of consciousness than mere reason. Something has gone very wrong in Audioland if we've started to question the visceral appeal that is the heart of music itself. For the last 400 years, makers of musical instruments have tried to make their instruments sound richer and warmer; now, in the name of accuracy, we feel that these qualities are artifacts that require removal. How insulting to Nicola Amati.
These ruminations were inspired by my acquaintance with Conrad-Johnson's admirable Premier Eleven. This amplifier is accurate—it creates no additional colorations; neither does it sacrifice music's own soul in order to sound accurate. The Premier Eleven is one of the most exciting audio components I have heard, and it shares with several other components that I've recently been exposed to significant advances on the state of the art; viz, true accuracy. These components, which include Linn's Karik/Numerik CD player and Transparent Audio's Music Wave Reference cables and interconnects, all share a new level of realism in dealing with the domain of time.
The time is right
A lot has been written on the subject of time as it relates to audio reproduction, mostly dealing with the resolution of timing relationships between instruments, or with overhang blurring nuance in performance. I hold that these are elements of a more overarching timing issue—one that has been ignored, primarily because so few products have dealt with it successfully. For lack of a better term, I've come to think of this as global timing, because it encompasses every aspect of a musical performance.
How important is this issue? Look up the definition of "music" in any dictionary, and you'll find some variation on "an arrangement of sounds in time" as the key principle. No mention of imaging, soundstage, depth, or any of our major audiophile shibboleths. Time is as basic to music as pitch, harmony, or rhythm—maybe even more so, because tones are created by vibration, which itself is described as motion in time.
"Music is not just in time, it does something with time...It is as if the even flow of time were cut up by the regularly recurrent sounds into short stretches of equal duration: the tones mark time."—Victor Zuckerkandl, The Sense of Music.
Have you ever used a split-ring focusing screen in taking a picture? Those of you who use SLR cameras certainly have. In the center of the view screen is a circle, divided into two halves which remain unaligned until the optical focus is aligned just so. When that happens, the image snaps into clarity.
That's the feeling I had the first time I heard the Premier Eleven. My thought, although I lack the measurements to back it up, was that the fundamental and the harmonic structure had finally been properly aligned. This is so basic to every facet of music reproduction that it is, indeed, global. If the pitch isn't in sync with itself, then no aspect of timing can be correct—certainly not rhythm, or harmony. Even the melodic structure must suffer.
An audiophile whom I recently met recoiled in horror when I suggested this to him. "I don't believe in that," he gasped. "It's microdynamics...or something. Timing relationships can't be affected past the source." I swear that he almost held a cross between us as he looked for a way to escape my heresy. I don't totally disagree with him. I think that the resolution of extremely low-level detail such as microdynamics—at least as I understand this grossly overused audio catch-phrase—most certainly does play a major role in the realignment of the musical structure. But I've heard electronics before that have low-level detail out the wazoo, and they don't sound like this. The C-J sounds right. It sounds relaxed.
Relaxed? Well, sure. I'd have to rate that as one of its top characteristics. It has a rightness, a naturalness, that's very easy to fall into. It's exactly like walking into a cool room on a hot day. You just stop, smile, and say, "Yeah, this is it!" Kinda reminds you of the way you react to music, huh?
One of the biggest differences between listening to live music and listening to recorded music is that, in listening to live music, you don't work as hard. The music just is. In listening to music played on a stereo, your brain is constantly struggling to fill-in missing information and to make sense of the incomplete information you're receiving. This is, as we all know, the cause of listener fatigue. The less you work, the more relaxed you are. One of the highest compliments that I could pay the Premier Eleven is to say that it will put you right to sleep—just like a concert.
Footnote 1: By the way, those of you who use this word admiringly might do well to remember that, to most of us, the word "clinical" conjures up visions of sterility and procedures like proctoscopy. Is this really the image you want to project?—Wes Phillips