How Many Hilary Hahns?

Hilary Hahn must be a chameleon. At least, that's how it seemed at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show.

On January 11, the gifted 23-year-old violinist accompanied me to nine different rooms, each time with Neville Marriner and the entire Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in tow. Playing Brahms's Violin Concerto, sometimes Ms. Hahn was modestly draped in "Red Book" Standard, other times in Superbly Accessorized Couture Divine. But even when she wore the same outfit from room to room, she and her backup forces created nine distinctly different sonic impressions when they began to strut their ones and zeros.

First, there was the sound of her violin. An 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume copy of Paganini's "Cannon" Guarneri, aptly named for its huge sound, it glistened and gleamed in some rooms, beautiful silvery sparks of light illuminating its higher reaches. In a few other rooms it was more mono-dimensional, in others so sweet that the sparks blended into one occasionally syrupy whole. One presentation was quite rich in the midrange, but the gleam was not there. In yet another room the violin sounded split in two, its glistening edge seemingly detached from the main, rosin-laden body of its sound.

The Academy's violin players seemed equal masters of transformation. Through some systems they sounded as if their instruments had been finished in the nectar of the Gods. Through others they sounded more neutral, though hardly less divine. On at least one system, they made me shake my head in disbelief that an ensemble whose strings are so harsh and scrappy could help Ms. Hahn receive a Grammy for her Sony recording of the Brahms and Stravinsky concertos.

At first, I thought it would be easy to determine which systems were most accurate. Though my first opportunity to hear Hahn live comes one month after CES, I have in the last few years heard a number of superb violinists in live performance, among them Vadim Repin, Kyoko Takezawa, Maxim Vengerov, Gil Shaham, David Abel, and Kyung Wha-Chung. I've even heard Murray Perahia play with and conduct the august Academy. Given such experience, one might think I could extrapolate Hahn's true sound with a fair degree of accuracy.

Not so easy. Each of those violinists sounded distinctly different, not only due to different instruments and technique, but also because of where I sat in different venues. The two Bay Area halls in which I most frequently hear orchestral concerts, Davies and Zellerbach, display distinct high-frequency rolloffs as one moves farther back in the orchestra. The damping effect is so significant that, when I recently sat in Row V of Davies, rather than in my usual seats closer up, the sound was so altered that I was unable to compare the sound of the visiting Berlin Philharmonic with that of the familiar San Francisco Symphony. It was easy to talk about differences in interpretation, but did the Berlin's strings and woodwinds actually sound as distinctly different as I thought they did? Divorced from my usual "sweet spot," I could not speak with authority.

Similarly, could I with surety draw definite conclusions about the sound of Hahn and the Academy? I first needed to know something about the space in which they'd been recorded, and how they'd been miked.

So far, I've talked solely about acoustic instruments. What about amplified and processed sound? How many pop and jazz vocalists actually have that breathy, zingy edge to their voices that we often hear on closely miked recordings? Even if some of them do, if one system gives that edge more emphasis than another, which is the more accurate?

Given that amplification in most venues does not even remotely approach the accuracy of audiophile systems, what kind of reality are we after? When it comes to amplified music, are we looking for a home system that is most accurate, or one that is most able to make music out of multitracked artificial reality?

Which brings us back to those CES demo systems. When all was said and done, it was easy to determine that something was way off in the rooms that whited out the sound, truncated extremes, or rendered the strings abnormally harsh. But the real conundrum arose in two rooms whose sounds were seductively sweet.

Both rooms featured single-ended triode amplification. One, in which I encountered Stereophile's Michael Fremer, offered sound on a much smaller scale than I'm accustomed to. Not everything I'm used to hearing was there, but that system had such a unique way of highlighting changes of emotion—the sometimes subtle pullback of voice and/or instrument that can instantly focus one's attention and touch the heart—that I found myself listening more closely to the music than usual. Even through the "lack of," I found myself captivated by every note.

In the other sweet-sounding room, a well-known producer of audiophile recordings was holding court. Fielding a call on his cell phone shortly after my entrance (until I reminded him that he was not conversing within a vacuum tube and received a free CD by way of apology), he proceeded to send person after person into the room. An investor in the company later claimed that said producer felt that the system made one of his latest CDs sound identical to what he had heard during the recording session.

I doubt it. I've spent many years absorbing the sound of live instruments and voices during performance, and no ensemble has ever seemed as sweet as what I heard in that room. But, "real" or not, there was no denying that the sound was so musically satisfying that I was more than willing to temporarily surrender my allegiance to the real thing in order to fully bathe in the bliss at hand.

This raises the same questions that have been voiced of late in many of Stereophile's reviews and in the "Letters" section. What is the ultimate audiophile goal: to achieve timbral accuracy, or to assemble a system that delivers hour after hour of musical satisfaction? To my mind, these goals are never mutually exclusive. But how much value you give to each will determine in large part which components and accessories you favor.

In an age when many audiophiles are far more familiar with electronic and amplified sound than live music presented without electronic intervention, sonic preferences are less dependent on "natural" references. At its best, audio has become an art form in itself, in some ways divorced from what those (such as I) who have been raised on acoustic music might consider "the real thing." In 2004, the ultimate arbiter of preference lies in knowing your own sensibilities and loves so clearly that the system you assemble becomes a clearer and clearer channel for what makes you feel at one with the music.

Footnote: Jason Victor Serinus is a Bay Area writer, audiophile, and music lover who by day is a professional whistler.