I have a confession to make: I play contrabassoon . . . for a living. Now to many this may not seem like such a sin, but within the musical community my instrument is viewed with about as much regard as the common garden slug. This perception is not completely unjustified; often being relegated to roles depicting monsters and evil, along with the occasional digestive grunt, helps perpetuate the general disdain for the contra. However, playing the lowest (non-keyboard) instrument in the symphony orchestra gives me a somewhat different perspective on things, not unlike that of a dwarf in a crowded elevator: a view from the bottom up. It's amazing just how much pitch and harmonic coloration there is down in the subbasement. And shoring up the foundation of the wind section, as well as being the true bottom of the orchestral sonority, can be very satisfying. Although playing an instrument with a limited repertoire can sometimes be disconcerting, it also has its advantages. During rehearsals, if I'm not required for a certain work, I can go out into the house for my own private concert, or stay put in the orchestra and get a sonic thrill that makes the IRS and WAMM systems sound like tin cans.
We all know it's impossible to reproduce live music. An obvious statement, no doubt, and one that holds every audiophile hostage to the never-ending search. As a musician, I find the situation especially frustrating. The constant reminder of live vs reproduced makes living with an audio system a serious compromise, regardless of price or quality. About three and a half years ago, however, I reviewed a product which I felt, and still feel, offers the first real glimpse of that impossible dream: the B&W 801 Matrix Monitor (footnote 1). Although it wasn't perfect, I found this speaker provided more musical honesty than anything I had heard before. In this respect, it established a new standard by which others would be judged.
Since the introduction of the original B&W 801 monitor loudspeaker in 1980, it has been adopted as a reference by several recording studios around the world, Over the past five years, I have seen 801s present in just about every recording session with which I have been artistically involved. While the original 801 monitor had its strong points, I was never satisfied with the detached and muddy-sounding bass, discontinuous driver balance, and low sensitivity. Unless this speaker was driven by an enormous solid-state power amplifier, with an elevated high-frequency response, the tubby and slow bass response often obliterated any detail in the two bottom octaves of musical material.
Founded in 1984 by Mark Levinson, the man responsible for the original Mark Levinson products (footnote 1), Cello has slowly become more visible within the high-end audio consumer market, as well as establishing a presence in the recording industry with very high quality microphone preamps, tape electronics, power amplifiers, and equalizers. Taking a holistic approach, Levinson offers Cello systems complete from preamplification and equalization stages through amplification to loudspeakers. He can also set up a complete recording studio for you, including the microphones, microphone preamplifiers, and tape decks. Cello manufactures their own interconnect and speaker cables, cutely called "Cello Strings." Besides marketing his products through high-end dealers, Levinson has established two showrooms, in New York and Los Angeles, dedicated to sales of Cello systems and components (as well as a few selected source components from other manufacturers).
When I decided to write a piece on the subject of concert-hall acoustics, I realized that almost all discussion concerning this topic is based on the viewpoint of the listener in the audience. While this is important (since the primary purpose of any hall is to bring audience and performance together), the criteria that musicians employ in concert-hall evaluation address sonic parameters that are probably not obvious to the casual listener, and may often be at odds with conclusions reached from the other side of the footlights. Some readers might feel that any discussion of concert halls has no place in a publication such as Stereophile; they may have a point, especially if their sole aim through audio is to produce sonic spectacle, rather than to recreate an artistic event. I believe, however, that there are some readers who would like to gain some insights into the specific problems and acoustical considerations presented to performing musicians, and possibly come away with some fresh ideas to incorporate in their listening criteria.
About three weeks ago, while perusing the gear in a local audio retail establishment, I overheard a salesman, who could well have been selling used cars, giving a classic spiel to an obviously confused customer. "You see, sir, all preamplifiers basically sound alike, especially with line-level inputs. The only differences are in the number of features." He went on to tell his prey that spending big bucks for high-end products such as Krell or Mark Levinson (neither of which he sold) would be a big mistake. I choked back my automatic response of a certain bovine term, but thought it better to continue my fly-on-the-wall masquerade.
I still have fond memories of my first Krell amplifier, a KSA-50. Back in those days (date purposely omitted), my principal source of audio equipment reviews, aside from Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, was Hi-Fi News & Record Review, which I read voraciously from cover to cover every month. One fateful day while sitting by our community swimming pool, I happened upon an enlightening review of the KSA-50 written by none other than our own John Atkinson, editor of HFN/RRat the time. His words describing "the steamroller-like inevitability of the bass with this amplifier" haunted me for weeks, until I got up the nerve to audition, and ultimately purchase, my first Krell product.
Ask most professional symphony musicians for their views concerning recording sessions, and you might be greeted with seemingly nonchalant and cavalier responses. You will probably be told that although recording can be quite lucrative, it is almost always an exercise in futility. If you press further, and inquire as to why these "artists" display such negative attitudes, they would treat you to both a lecture concerning the shortcomings and gross musical distortions usually involved in the recording process, and to a tirade on the incompetence and arrogance of many recording engineers and producers. And once you have opened this can of worms, you will undoubtedly be told about the frustrations of having to deal with inaccurate and distorted representations of their art at the hands of the musically inept.