Directional Questions

As I write this, I am recuperating from four days of frenzy at the 1986 Winter CES in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am also pondering why I was so unexcited by most of what I saw and heard of the high-end exhibits; high-end audio may have reached a developmental plateau of sorts.

In my CES report elsewhere in this issue, I comment at length on what appears to be a lack of direction in audio—a lack of consensus about where we're going and how best to get there. While we all seem to strive for the same thing—the recreation of live music in the home—we view that ultimate goal from many different, often conflicting, aspects. The result is not unlike the efforts of six horses pulling in different directions: A great deal of time and energy is expended in the pursuit of stasis.

The reason for this, as I see it, is that we have never really come to grips with, let alone resolved, some of the most fundamental issues of music reproduction. Accuracy versus musicality, soundstaging versus tonal accuracy versus bass and treble extension, analog versus digital versus live music as a reference standard are endlessly discussed but never resolved. Some can never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. The person who craves fat, bloated bass will never recognize that the ability to distinguish a trumpet from a trombone is important. But these questions must be answered—even arbitrarily—before audio can advance much beyond today's "state of the art" (footnote 1).

In this and future editorials, I will examine in detail some of high-end audio's unanswered questions, with the hope that logical answers will suggest themselves once the questions have been asked in the proper way. If they don't, I may be so bold as to propose some answers myself, on the possibly naive assumption that any answer is better than none at all.

Since this whole business affects us all, I invite the participation of all our readers in these discussions, not just the designers of the components discussed. We cannot reply individually to your letters, but all will be read, and given due consideration; those of general interest will be printed in our "Letters" department.

First, let's examine the basic precept of high-end audio: realism. The underlying aim of everything we do in audio is to recreate, as convincingly as possible, the illusion of listening to real, live instruments or voices in their natural habitats. Trying different platter mats and affixing metal spikes to the bottoms of our loudspeakers may seem, when viewed dispassionately, far removed from wallowing in the sound of a Mahler symphony in Philharmonic Hall. We all know, however, that in a field where everything seems to make a difference, no activity is too abstruse or peripheral to ignore.

But once we start prying into this realism business a bit, things start getting sticky. To begin with, "realism" as an evaluative criterion is vague to the point of uselessness. Stripped of its audiophile mystique, "realism" means nothing more than "it reminds me of live music." That it may not remind you of live music simply means you that listen for different things in reproduced sound. In other words, I may recognize familiar things in the reproduction, while you do not.

Recognition—of a face, city street, or reproduced sound—occurs when a certain combination of cues combine to form a pattern that matches a pattern we have, some time in the past, stored in our memory banks. A nose alone won't induce recognition, unless it is a truly memorable nose! Neither will a mouth, a pair of eyebrows, or a dimpled chin. An isolated feature may remind us of somebody's face, but recognition of that face occurs only when we see a matched set of those reminders all at once. Such simultaneous presentation of cues elicits what psychologists call a gestalt (German for "structure" or "configuration") reaction.

People use different indentification cues in assembling their individual recognition files, and weight them differently. Thus, I may store your face as eyes first, mouth second, nose third. Your mouth on someone else will remind me of you, but all three at once will tell me that it is indeed you. The fewer cues I store, the more likely I am to mistake someone else for you.

Similarly, we all store different aspects of real-music sound in our memories, and whenever an audio system reproduces those aspects well, the gestalt alarm goes off—voila the music sounds "realistic." It is precisely this reason that personal assessment of an audio system's "realism" is likely to be nothing more than that: personal.

What distinguishes truly superb sound reproduction from the merely splendid is that the former, in doing more things correctly, sets off the gestalt alarm in far more people than does the latter. A perfect system might be defined as one which sounds realistic to all who have ever heard live sound.

Just a few years ago, the sources of weakness in the best systems were generally acknowledged, and targeted for improvement: Speakers needed to be wider-range, and able to reproduce higher SPLs without falling apart. Amplifiers needed to combine high power capability with low distortion at low levels, as well as deliver high current into low load impedances. Cartridges needed better tracking ability at lower forces, smoother HF response, and were required to do so at output levels that were at least practical. Preamps needed lower noise, more accurate RIAA equalization, and better power-supply regulation. Today, all of these things have happened in some products, if not in all. Where do we go from here?

There seems to be less awareness, among the designers who make things happen in audio today, as to precisely what the major weaknesses of modern components are. No one is declaring declaring that nirvana is here—that the Holy Grail is on hand for the quaffing—but look at this year's crop of new products, as evidenced at Winter CES!

There were a number of new amps and preamps whose sole apparent justification was to narrow the gap between the manufacturer's last model and the competition's best. There were a few new loudspeakers, most differing from previous models only in their manufacturer's touting depth and soundstaging rather than range and noise-making ability. There were more "audiophile" CD players consisting of eviscerated Philips decks with redesigned electronics. What else is new? A few new turntables illustrated the prevailing view that "improvement" meant further implementation of last year's improvements—heavier platforms, longer string drives, and a new example of what seems to me to be schizoid audiophilia at its best: a springy suspension to isolate the turntable, and bottom spikes to better couple the base to the surface the suspension is supposed to isolate it from! (footnote 2)

And let's not overlook cartridges, of which there were about a dozen more in the endless procession of "new" Japanese models, each with its patently fraudulent frequency-response "printout," each apparently differing from the others only in model number and price.

The only truly interesting products were acoustical-absorption cylinders that purport to improve the acoustics of the listening room and the imaging of the loudspeakers, and "black boxes" which invoke unknown forces of the universe to improve everything from bass and treble range to air, focus, and realism. "Realism?" Is it so strange that I was underwhelmed by this CES?

I have a recurring image of the current audio scene: a serene mystic, his consciousness turned inward, at peace with the outside world, endlessly contemplates his navel. The word "complacent" comes to mind...

Have we really come so far in our quest for perfection that the only ways we can improve things are to damp our listening rooms (footnote 3) or seek answers in pseudo-scientific mysticism? I think not. Certainly, not at a time when so-called high-end audio is so far out of the musical mainstream that professional musicians cannot recognize anything familiar in the reproductions of their own instruments.

It is not because they are deaf to reproduced sound that musicians who listen to records are increasingly (according to our mail) choosing Klipschorns over the products of "high end" speaker manufacturers. It is because their priorities in sound reproduction aren't as fouled-up as ours. They are not "into" ambience. They are not into any single aspect of sound reproduction; they want something to trigger their musical gestalt, and, in their priority of cues, ambience is far down on the list.

Musicians consider ambience an intrinsic trapping of musical sound, not its core and soul. They want a system that can, first and foremost, reproduce the tonalities of musical instruments, and if they can find one that also has good frequency extension, low distortion, and the ability to fill a room with a crescendo, they don't mind if they hear a little bit of the performing hall as well. The frequent concertgoer would echo those sentiments: He goes to hear the music, not the hall. In our present fixation with such minutia of sound reproduction as ambience, we have lost sight of the music itself.

Eastern philosophy advises: "As you walk the path of life, remember to stop and smell the flowers." Wise words. But it's time now that we got back to the path, stop concerning ourselves with the smallest nuances, and continue the journey.

Question to ponder: How much depth is too much depth?

Footnote 1: I could hardly disagree more strongly. The "state of the art" seems in the past to have genuinely advanced through the brilliance and insight of individuals. An arbitrary decision as to what's important in audio is one of the worst things that could happen; except for the deep irreverance that would be accorded such a decision, I think it could kill the business.—Larry Archibald

Footnote 2: I think JGH errs in criticizing rigid attachment of turntable bases to the surface on which they're mounted; a firmly mounted base will enable the suspension to better isolate the subchassis from the base.—Larry Archibald

Footnote 3: Acoustical damping is, of course, necessary for a good listening environment, but it should be one of the first things done, not the last resort.—J. Gordon Holt