A Script for a High-End Audio Demonstration

High-end audio is not a rational construct. It is a sensory experience that leads to emotional engagement. In slightly different words: High-end audio is not about a concept, but about the experience of having our emotions engaged. The difference between reading about a high-end audio system and hearing great recordings played on one is almost as big as the difference between reading a love poem and falling in love.

That's why I believe well-intentioned proposals to "save high-end audio" by using print advertising to "give people an idea of what a high-end audio system can do for them" are doomed to fail. There is no substitute for the listening chair. More to the point, getting people into the listening chair is more like getting people to visit a new church than getting them to buy a new bottle of shampoo. "Recruitment" happens one on one, not through the media.

But once that person is in the listening chair, what happens then? You would think that because what happens next is so important, manufacturers and retailers would by now have refined the audio demo into an art form. It's not just choosing a few tracks from different musical genres; just as important, it's having something worthwhile to say about the music, and being able to point out how it shows off the equipment. However, except for a very few noteworthy practitioners (Jeff Joseph, Peter McGrath, and Philip O'Hanlon, you may take modest bows), that doesn't seem to be the case.

So here's my script for an audio demonstration: (If a track is longer than three minutes, you can turn down the volume at some musically appropriate point after three minutes and move to the next selection. Except for "Blue in Green." To cut off "Blue in Green" before the last note has faded away would not only be a sacrilege, it will alert persons of discernment and taste to the essential Philistinism within your soul, after which they will decline to associate with you, let alone purchase your wares.)

"Stereophonic sound is a near-miraculous illusion. Yet most people have never heard a clear demonstration of stereo's ability to make you believe a sound is coming from the empty space between the loudspeakers. Let's start with that." [Channel Identification and Channel Phasing tracks from Editor's Choice, Stereophile STPH016-2. Time: 1:23]

"The human voice is perhaps the most revealing test of a loudspeaker's naturalness. An audio system just has to get voices right, the same way a video system has to get flesh tones right. This is a monophonic recording from 1956. The voice is captured very well, but the instruments appear somewhat superimposed on each other. There is not much sense of the room in which the recording was made. Also, the double bass is slightly tubby. But all that is quickly forgotten, because the singing is in a class by itself." [Ella Fitzgerald, "Easy to Love," from The Cole Porter Songbook, Vol.2. CD, Verve 821-990-2. Time: 3:24]

"Here's a much more recent recording. Like most modern stereo recordings, it is built up from separately recorded tracks that are themselves monophonic in character. This gives the producer great flexibility, but there is not much sense of the room in which the recording was made. Also, the positions of the instruments in space are arbitrary. But again, the singing is extraordinary." [Jane Monheit, "Besame Mucho," from The Frank and Joe Show's 33 1/3. CD, Hyena TMF 9320. Time: 3:55]

"Here's a real treat. Fabulous singing, simple, natural recording techniques, and high-definition SACD sound. Now you hear not only every nuance of the singing, but in addition, the singer and the instruments occupy their proper positions in space. You can also hear the ambience of the hall in which the recording was made." [Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, "As with Rosy Steps the Morn," from Handel Arias. Multichannel SACD/CD, Avie AVI 30. Time: 8:19]

"From one aria to another. This brief Aria is from one of the most famous of all piano recordings. You can hear the pianist humming along with the poignant melody." [Glenn Gould, Aria, from J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, 1981 recording. CD, Sony Classical S3K 87703. Time: 3:05]

"In addition to presenting the inner voices of Baroque music, this system can deliver the power of a grand piano playing an extravagant Romantic transcription. Notice how the sound doesn't fall apart as it gets louder." [David Stanhope, transcription of Sibelius' The Tryst, from A Virtuoso Recital. CD, Tall Poppies TP184. Time: 3:07]

"In music, tone color is as important as dynamics and articulation. Bill Evans was one of the most coloristic of jazz pianists—even though most of his colors were muted pastels. Here he is, playing his own composition 'Blue in Green,' from Miles Davis' 1959 album Kind of Blue. This performance of 'Blue in Green' is as carefully constructed as an Elizabethan sonnet. The order of the solos is perfectly symmetrical: piano, trumpet, piano, tenor sax, piano, trumpet, and piano." [Multichannel SACD/CD, Columbia/Legacy 064935 9. Time: 5:37]

"Cool jazz, modal jazz, and the bossa nova movement all influenced pop music. Michael Franks blends all those influences with Cole Porter's world-weary wit in his 'In the Eye of the Storm.'" [From Sleeping Gypsy. CD, Warner Bros. 3004-2. Time: 5:55]

"From the subtlety of Michael Franks we move to the raw power of Southern rock." [Alannah Myles, "Black Velvet," from Alannah Myles. CD, Atlantic 81956-2. Time: 4:49]

"The last track is from Donald Fagen, better known as half of Steely Dan. His eclectic influences, including blues and big band, are on display in this upbeat number." ["Walk Between the Raindrops," from The Nightfly. CD, Warner Bros. 23696-2. Time: 2:38]

Channel ID and phase, three female vocal tracks, three piano tracks, and three pop tracks. These 11 tracks run slightly more than half an hour total. (You could burn the tracks onto a CD-R, but don't "normalize" their volume levels! I have never heard auto-normalization that didn't sound awful.)

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This script is just one example. Write your own! The salient requirements are: 1) the tracks must be brief, musically interesting, and show off some identifiable aspect of the system's performance; 2) each track should logically lead to the next, both in terms of the music and in terms of the highlighted sonic attributes; and 3) the moods should vary, but end up bright and bouncy.

You don't have to stick to any script's every word. The important thing is that doing the work of choosing the tracks and preparing a script forces you to plan out exactly how you will demonstrate that high-end audio beats the pants off mass-market audio.