What's Real?

I couldn't believe it. Something was off.

I had just spent more than 200 hours playing my system 24 hours a day in order to break in some new Bybee devices in my speakers. During the same period I'd switched power regenerators, installed better-grade electrical outlets, and finally replaced my dedicated line's fuse box with a circuit breaker. I'd even installed audiophile-grade fuses in my tube amp and DAC.

The break-in period sorely tested the patience of my spouse, who detests the sight of all the silvery cables that hold the system together. Sound carries everywhere in our wood-and-plaster home, and we leave doors open so that our beloved companion, Baci Brown of canine renown, can access his water. I can't tell you how many nights we fell asleep listening to the break-in sounds of the Dalai Lama chant "Om," and various New Age artists play music that some would call somnolent.

Finally, the time had come for me to assess the cumulative improvements all those upgrades had wrought. I picked a disc that had just won a Grammy, baritone Thomas Quasthoff's SACD/CD of Bach cantatas. I've heard Quasthoff live on several occasions, always seated in a fine acoustic location, and have reveled in the glories of his voice.

What I heard now dismayed me no end. Quasthoff sounded terribly labored, negotiating scales and range breaks as though he could barely hold his instrument together. Was he undergoing some sort of vocal crisis, I wondered? Had he received the Grammy as much for his inspiring triumph over physical deformities as for his singing?

Curiously, the barely indulgent spouse, whose mind was mainly focused on the imminent broadcast of Sex in the City reruns, rebuffed my dismay and declared the system up to snuff. We agreed that Quasthoff sounded awful, but several tenor and soprano vocalists sounded pretty damn good. Diana Damrau, for example, still made heavenly sounds singing "Et incarnatus est," from Mozart's Mass in C Minor.

I remained unconvinced, however, that my system had been born again. Everything had a glassy, syrupy, somewhat monotone "tubey" sound. There was plenty of bass, but it seemed disconnected from the highs. Had I installed something incorrectly, or were all the changes we'd made to speakers and electrical system finally revealing the sonic colorations of an amp I had previously praised for its neutrality?

When I checked to see if the changes to the electrical system had radically altered the biases of my amp's tubes, I discovered that three of the amp's fuses and two power tubes had blown. I was powering the Jadis DA-7 Luxe with only nine of its dozen power tubes. No wonder the sound was off.

In retrospect, I realize that, had I not approached my system with a solid grounding in the sound of live, unamplified music, I might not have detected the problems. I might have proceeded as do an increasing number of Americans: clueless that what passes for music is nothing more than an aggregation of pitch, rhythm, noise, and distortion.

But what is the sound of live, unamplified music? We often speak of it as an absolute, when in fact it varies from hall to hall and from row to row. I recently moved from Row L to Row F of San Francisco's acoustically deadened Herbst Theater because I could not hear the distinctive color the Capuçon brothers were drawing from their violin and cello. The program notes declared that one was playing a priceless Guarneri violin, but for all the color I could hear back in Row L, it might have been a fiddle he'd found on the street. Only when I'd halved the distance between me and the Capuçons could I discern what makes this duo's sound so special.

What if Row L of Herbst had been my reference for live, unamplified sound? What a colorless system I might have assembled.

Most people, I realize, no longer have live sound, let alone good live sound, as a reference. They're accustomed to hearing music in their cars, over iPod earbuds and boom boxes, and at amplified concerts. Sometimes, nothing they listen to has correct timbre or balance. When I consider telling my neighbors in the 'hood that the huge speakers rattling their cars and vibrating the foundations of my house are not the real thing, I remind myself that they're simply reproducing their reference for how amplified music should sound when a testosterone-addled male hits Play.

How to establish a reference? Months before West African kora master Mamadou Diabate's Behmanka was nominated for a Grammy, I went to hear him perform at Berkeley's Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center. The amplified sound of Diabate's 21-string, long-necked wooden harp was booming like crazy, with hardly any evidence of the higher-pitched vibrations that had so thrilled me when I listened to Behmanka at home.

Diabate's kora sounded so unnatural that I retreated to where the soundman was enthroned against the back wall, to ask him what was wrong. It was only then that I discovered that most of the bass that was muddying the sound was dying off before it reached his ears. As is the case in halls where the mixing board is located under the balcony, so much of the sonic spectrum had been truncated by the time it reached the sound tech that he hadn't a clue how it sounded elsewhere in the hall.

"Is it real, or is it Memorex?" the commercial used to say. A better question might be, Whose reality and what reality are we talking about?

As someone weaned on the sound of tenor Enrico Caruso on acoustic 78s, I can never forget my surprise at discovering that, on modern recordings, orchestral "accompaniment" can express as much emotion and meaning as the voice that rides over it. Had I not had that reality check, I might never have understood what makes opera so grand.

Thankfully, I've listened to enough great music in enough fine halls to recognize the real thing in the same way that an Antarctic penguin can shuffle through many thousands of birds to detect the distinctive cry of its mate. I've stood right next to a fine cello, a Guarneri violin, numerous concert grands, and Joan Baez—I stood 10 feet from Janis Joplin when she gave a spontaneous free concert. I know the sounds artists and instruments are capable of producing at their best. I've accumulated a reservoir of sonic memories and beauty that holds me in good stead. Without it, I'd be listening blind. Which just may be what helps many of those who peddle distinctly colored and artificially hyped sound stay in business.