Surrealistic Sound

Toward the end of the 1992 Summer CES in Chicago, J. Gordon Holt ambled into Audio Influx's demonstration room. He was curious about which PDQ Bach CD we were playing, as a fitting end to the show. We chatted about PDQ Bach live concerts and the grand-spoof entrances made by Professor Peter Schickele. Suddenly he said, "You know, these speakers sound real," going on to mention that he hadn't heard many real-sounding systems. I told JGH that most of what I heard at shows and in dealer showrooms nowadays was surrealistic sound.

Gordon got me thinking about what's been bothering me about music-reproduction systems lately. More and more I find product combinations that just don't sound natural. Maybe I'm being contrary, aging badly, or just imagining things. On closer listening and rumination, however, it's apparent that stereo systems are drifting away from reality toward the surreal.

This isn't all that surprising. It's just a reflection of the direction of media and the mass embrace of its distortion of life, which then, in turn, emulates its artifice. The surrealistic Batman Returns made big bucks, while Howard's End struggled for monetary success. Music and playback systems suffer a similar fate. Many audio systems are now afterthoughts to giant TV/video systems.

Once in a while, though, something happens to offset the tendency toward the surreal. As if to recognize its over-the-top surreality, MTV starts a program called "Unplugged." (Well, sort of unplugged; there are still a lot of lights and wires.) A rock singer goes bluegrass or jazz. A country singer does torch songs. The PBS series on the Civil War becomes such a success that a soundtrack CD is released. An expansion of horizons and a triangulation on reality occur.

Surreal sound is everywhere. The marketing system fosters it. Trade and consumer shows abound with systems meant to impress people. Sometimes these show systems are the worst. The hardware combinations used are often assembled for the wrong reasons. Manufacturers offer to share space and, Presto!—a system is born. Exhibitors forget to bring the necessary hardware to make sound and go begging for any extra units another manufacturer might have brought. (Lately, this seems most common with CD players.) Manufacturers offer deals for other manufacturers to buy or borrow equipment, enticing them into combinations. Some manufacturers align themselves with each other in political back-scratching arrangements that include sharing exhibition space and making mutual customer recommendations. Few of these convenient arrangements produce balanced, natural sound.

There's more. Dealers play systems to wow customers for 60 seconds. Reviewers write about "killer" components that overwhelmed them, using overzealous hyperbole to describe what they heard. The catch? When installed at home, these systems often produce listener fatigue. Real, natural sound is so boringly neutral we don't notice it. It doesn't draw your attention, it avoids it, making it harder to identify. The very nature of comparing prevents real absorption. You must decide, A or B—now. Better to soak up the sound of A for a few days, then switch to B for a while. You can't do that in a quick showroom listen.

Components can sound completely palatable without sounding real. Quad ESLs, Rogers LS3/5As, Martin-Logan CLSes, and Magneplanars are all speakers that produce what I call a romanticized sound. It is a soft, pleasing, almost gossamer sound. The Magneplanar 1c speakers in my living room do their job perfectly. They are both visually and sonically unobtrusive. Guests often ask what they are, after hours of hearing them. "Speakers," I say. "Nah," they respond in disbelief. I often listen to and enjoy the Maggies for hours, as I did once with my Rogers LS3/5As. One is bigger than life, the other smaller; both are enjoyable, neither are real.

Add some equally romanticized tube electronics to the above examples and you take the sound into the surreal. Tubes, like Vaseline smeared on a lens, push the aural representation even further from reality. The sonic naturalist can usually still enjoy and tolerate this, but also recognizes its failings.

The more prevalent surrealistic sound is the "detailed sound"—the opposite of romanticized sound. Speakers from this category, often lauded by dealers and reviewers, slip too easily into the offensively surreal when coupled with the wrong, or equally "detailed"-sounding, electronics. When linked to smooth-sounding electronics, these products, like those mentioned before, are also enjoyable.

So what should a sonic naturalist expect? Don't expect to be blown away by every CD or LP played on a balanced system. Most of these aren't good enough in performance or recording. They can sound pleasant and listenable, though—not strident, as if the system is trying too hard. The equipment shouldn't make discs sound unnaturally impressive. Here, good sound is a bit like life. It moves along uneventfully, punctuated by infrequent moments of near-perfection and occasional near-disaster. When you stop noticing the equipment, or even listening for, or to it—oh no, that sounds dangerously Linnie—you've probably got it right.

The key, as we've often read and heard, is getting the right combination of components. Sure, you can use tube electronics to counteract an overly detailed speaker hooked up with bright-sounding speaker cable. But the balancing act is harder if you load the extremes against each other. It's easier to teeter out of balance and into the surreal zone.

Getting valid recommendations for balanced, natural sounds is hard for the consumer because many manufacturers and retailers don't listen to enough competitors' products. When they do, manufacturers have difficulty characterizing their own products, admitting their flaws and, finally, acknowledging the reality of good competition and identifying bad competition. Some retailers buy products based more on profit margins than on good sound. Others simply carry products based on reviews rather than their own careful listening and experiences. It's important to know that this is not always the case. Thorough listeners with consumers' best sonic interests in mind also exist. They're just harder to find.

There are almost endless combinations of well-built products that mate and balance naturally. The trick is to avoid ending up with horrendously surreal-sounding combinations that drift dangerously close and into the Twilight Zone. The solution is simply to test and listen more carefully. Less instant A/B-ing and more long-term listening would also help. A system's sound often needs to permeate one's consciousness over time rather than in instablips. Listen with people who can play an entire cut or side of a CD, without constantly leaping around like a Mexican jumping bean to adjust things. Leapers are often deep into surreality.

Manufacturers, reviewers, and retailers all need to be more specific in their recommendations. You can't just say, "Wow, the Zemboid 2 is a great-sounding amp!" With what speakers? Does it interface well with the Blahdos Superbosity preamp? What if I put it in a small listening room, with wood floors, and speakers close to room boundaries?

The more high-end stereo moves to the cutting edge, the harder it becomes to maintain a natural balance. Musicians encounter the same problem when recording. Emmylou Harris probably summed it up best in her spoken preamble to track 9 on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two (Universal UVLD-12500). But you should listen to it for yourself.—Michael Zeugin

Footnote: Michael F. Zeugin was President of Audio Influx Corporation in the early '90s, the US distributor of Arcam amplifiers and digital electronics, and Ruark loudspeakers. Audio Influx was also for many years the importer of Rogers loudspeakers. Please note that Mr. Zeugin's opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the magazine.—John Atkinson