What is the Absolute Sound?

Just what is the absolute sound, and how do you get there from here? What the heck are we looking for as we endure the mirth of others while purposefully setting up our high-end systems? Is it, indeed, the sanctified sound of acoustic instruments in real space? Can we ever really achieve that? Or is it the accurate realization of the signal on the master tape? Or—as was recently suggested at the New York Noise single-ended lovefest, covered in this issue's "Industry Update"—are some of us looking for the emotion and the artist's intent?

I've asked a lot of people these questions in my interviews, and was asking them of myself when I found myself squeezed into an incredibly small space at the Village Vanguard trying to hear—no, make that glimpse—guitarist Jim Hall on the distant stage. While I urge everyone to hear live music as often as possible, "live" ain't always what it's cracked up to be, and the Vanguard is a terrible venue—an over-amplified acoustic nightmare not at all suited to the elegant, intimate stylings of Mellow Master Hall. I'd walked over that night intending to hook up with a fellow Stereophile scribe, only to be dismissed at the bottom of the stairs...

"Sorry, sold out—come back for the next show."

"Press," I prompted. "My name should be on the list."

Hurried conference with another harried individual. "Okay," he barked. "One seat left."

"Uh, I was hoping to be seated with my friends. They're probably already here..."

He looked at me as if I was completely off my rocker.

"Look, ya wannit or not?"

Suddenly, the club's owner stepped over.

"All right, that's enough. Out."

I was astonished. "No, it's okay," I stammered. "I'll take the remaining seat—no problem."

On my way, I passed my colleague, comfortably ensconced with three friends at a table halfway back the dark, narrow cavern that is the Vanguard..

"Uh, you weren't here..." he bleated as I passed.


"Back row banquette, to the right!" barked the harried one.

...and make it snappy, I thought to myself.

The Vanguard was hot and sweaty, its red, dim-lit walls looking like Hell's waiting room. I glanced to my left: the bar area was full, each precious stool occupied by a Jim Hall devotee busily slamming drinks. In fact, the room was packed with Hall devotees. I eyeballed the Korean gentleman to my right, who'd grumpily moved over to accommodate my bigger-than-normal derrière. He was flanking a group of 10 Korean tourists who filled up the rest of the rear banquette. One of the ladies sported a surgical facemask. I guess she had a cold. I suddenly felt a tickle at the back of my throat.

Just in front of me sat a professional-looking couple in business dress. Every few minutes the brunette ran her fingers through the back of her medium-length do and shook it out. Unconsciously coquettish, or just ridding herself of itchy flakes? Fortunately, the lights dimmed, and Jim Hall and fellow musicians took the stage. Stretching my neck, I could just make him out in the distance.

Just as I thought it couldn't get much worse, I felt a fleshy thump on my right shoulder—the guy next to me had fallen asleep. He awoke and muttered an apology, then, head back, began a slow crawl of a snore. Two guys next to the hair-shaker kept looking back at him with mixed malice and amusement.

What's proper club etiquette? Jab the offender in the ribs and hope he doesn't kill you, or make like a good New Yorker and see no evil? I chose the latter. Finally, one of his lady friends copped wise that the sonic boom wasn't from the air-conditioning and poked him awake. By mid-concert, a full third of the équipe was head down, diggin' it deep...or sawin' wood.

If I told you I didn't enjoy Jim Hall's performance that evening, would you hold it against me?

Later that night, I stayed up late listening to CDs and LPs of Hall, Charlie Byrd, Wes Montgomery, and Bill Frisell. It was tremendously satisfying. I wondered: Do audiophiles even realize how lucky they are? That's the saving grace of the High End—you can experience truly moving musical moments whenever you like, in the privacy of your own home—even in your 'jammies.

High-end has brought so much joy to my life. It's brought me closer to the wonder, emotion, and nobility of music. It's opened my mind to grow and learn—to touch something or someplace inside that never would have been touched had I limited myself to a diet of the latest Bollywood Blockbusters.

And I know you're out there too, lookin' for it, like me. The e-mails and letters tell me so. The subscription numbers tell me so. Your wild-eyed enthusiasm tells me so.

There will always be a High End—those individuals who appreciate music for its own sake. That's why all of you must take on the responsibility of sharing your passion. Do your part to spread the word. Grab a friend, relative, or neighbor and haul his or her butt into the listening chair. Play some great music—something that turns you on—and have some fun. Let 'em hear just how utterly fantastic two-channel can be. Some will react to the immediacy and accessibility of the music. Some might become audiophiles.

Listening to music is a higher-order function than watching home theater. What you see is in your imagination, not handed you on a platter as you lie there, unblinking, like a lox in front of your 72" monster monitor. Knocking down the barriers—the mechanical elements of audio playback—gets you closer to the music. That's when the magic begins to happen.

The absolute sound is the one in your head—that utterly special connection between you and the music. Your high-end audio system can be the portal to many fascinating worlds. Get out there and infect someone today.