Feeling As One

A few nights ago, I listened to mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording of J.S. Bach's great solo cantata, "Ich habe genug" (It is enough), BWV 82 (Nonesuch 79692-2). Hunt Lieberson was one of those rare mezzos, like Janet Baker and Kathleen Ferrier before her, whose voice conveyed an innately spiritual sense of connection with something greater than the individual self. Especially when she sang softly, she was able to imbue her tone with a hallowed reverence that is easier to feel than describe in words. To the extent that anyone can communicate the "tender mercies" and sacred intimacies of life, love, and spirit, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson proved herself a master.

Hunt Lieberson relied less on excessive nuance than on subtle coloration and careful enunciation. Her artistry, while deeply thought out, nonetheless seemed a product of natural, spontaneous introspection rather than frequent rehearsal. Hers was an example of the art that conceals art.

She also sang with unwavering attention and intensity. Listening to her, one realizes that a straight, hollow tone, sparingly used to express grief, can speak volumes more than unduly emphasizing certain words of the text.

Not every component or sound system can convey such sublime singing without in some way impinging on its holiness. Almost all will enable listeners to distinguish between soft and loud, sweet and harsh, but few can convey the soul of music. And soul is what Hunt Lieberson had. When music called for it, her voice conveyed the essence of unwavering belief, purity, and the sacred. Of course, she also had her profane moments, as in her early soprano portrayal of Donna Elvira in Peter Sellars' production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. But not in "Ich habe genug." Certainly not in Bach.

In a way, Hunt Lieberson presents an ultimate challenge to audiophiles: How can we assemble a bunch of boxes filled with transistors and/or tubes, resistors, capacitors, Teflon boards, wires, and the like, into a synchronous whole capable of transmitting such unparalleled artistry as hers, all without missing a beat?

Not many of us can. In my relatively few years (compared to others) in the High End, I have encountered many audiophiles who own very expensive amps, speakers, cables, and the like, all of whom complain that their systems sound like shit. Having listened to a few of them, I can attest that they know whereof they speak. They know the promise of their components, yet have the hardest time linking them together in ways that fully harness their potential. Nor do I in any way exclude myself from their company.

As I sat listening to Hunt Lieberson's CD in silence, many thoughts crossed my mind. I had heard her live on several occasions. One, a Berkeley recital staged shortly after her first bout with breast cancer, centered around Schumann's song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman's Love and Life). Most in the audience knew of her travails, and were there to support the Berkeley-born singer. She must have felt our love, because she returned it tenfold. Even in an acoustically challenged auditorium of 2400 seats, her hushed tones seemed so personal, so intimate, so filled with love that it seemed as if she was singing to each and every one of us.

What I experienced from Hunt Lieberson that afternoon is what I ultimately expect of a sound system. When I feed my system a great performance, I want it to convey emotion and intent with such clarity and directness that I am transfixed and transported. That may be a tall order, but why not? Given all the time and money we audiophiles invest in our systems, why should we settle for less?

As I sat listening to Hunt Lieberson's Bach, I asked myself some essential questions: Is this the same voice I heard that magical afternoon? Is it as round, as healthy, as communicative? Does it seem a direct portal to her soul? If not, what can I do to improve the experience?

Several days later, I was visited by dealer Jeff Wells, of Audible Arts, in Campbell, California. When I had recently encountered Jeff at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, a light had gone off—I realized that he was familiar with products from VTL, EgglestonWorks, Shakti Innovations, and Bybee that are currently in my review system. Given Jeff's experience in system setup, I asked for help. I also invited over VTL's Luke Manley for a listen.

Time to fess up. My initial thought was that Luke would assist with the VTLs, and Jeff would help me fine-tune my latest set of tweaks—the Bybee Golden Goddess speaker bullets, Shakti Hallographs, and Finite Elemente Cerapucs.While we did address those in the end, most of our time was spent with something far more elemental: speaker placement.

I don't have enough fingers on my two hands to count the number of times I've read about the importance of proper speaker placement, and the difference a half-inch can make. Yet whenever it's boiled down to a choice between spending hours moving heavy speakers around, quarter-inch by quarter-inch, thereby risking further scratching of the floor and incurring even more wrath in the spouse, I've taken the easy way out: set 'em up where they look right and be done with it.

I think I learned more in my hours with Luke and Jeff than I'd learned since hearing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in recital. How to deal with that slightly muffled sound in the piano's lower midrange? In my case, move the speakers a few inches closer to the front wall, so that the reflected and direct sounds unite as one. How to get a more focused image, no matter where I sit? Slightly change the toe-in angle, and move the speakers a bit closer together—even if it means a slightly narrower soundstage—until the image locks in place. Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary. Yet how many of us would rather buy new speakers than do the footwork necessary to get the best out of what we have?

When Jeff and Luke left, did it sound as if Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was right there in the room? No. But it did feel as if I was at the other end of her microphone, breathing as she breathed, sighing as she sighed. For me, that is enough.