Staying in Touch

"The trouble with some reviewers..."

Brooks Berdan was on a roll. The veteran Southern California retailer, who has sold and serviced high-end equipment for more than 30 years, had seized the opportunity to voice a pet peeve.

"Some people get too hung up on the equipment they're reviewing," he proclaimed. "They spend too much time listening to the equipment and not enough time listening to the music."

Berdan's pronouncement was issued during Home Entertainment 2006, as we stood outside his excellent-sounding Jadis-VTL-Wilson-Cardas room in the Los Angeles Sheraton Gateway. He'd taken his cue from my statement that one of the things I like most about my Jadis DA-7 Luxe amplifier (the latest iteration of the Jadis Defy 7) is that, when outfitted with the "right" NOS tubes—how's that for a case of subjective absolutism?—it can sound admirably extended and neutral from top to bottom.

"I know reviewers who are so busy listening to whatever they're evaluating that they forget to listen to the musical performance and the environment the music was performed in," he continued. "The equipment becomes an end-all, with music serving as the mere means for determining the gear's sonic signature. Some of these reviewers have forgotten what music sounds like. Either that, or they don't seem to care."

Immediately, several experiences with fellow reviewers that validate Berdan's lament flashed through my congested noggin. One had taken place on the first day of HE2006, in the room sponsored by Darren Censullo of Avatar Acoustics. After ogling the intriguing setup, I'd asked to hear my favorite Terry Evans track, "Blues No More." The sound seemed too warm and euphonic. The bright, cutting crack I expect to hear when a drummer strikes the side of his drum, the spicy twang of Ry Cooder's electric guitar, the blues-weary colors of Evans' voice—all were noticeably softened and romanticized. The music had lost its edge.

Normally I'm loath to provide instant feedback, especially when it concerns equipment that may eventually be submitted for review. But Censullo implored me to give it to him with the big, bright eyes of someone who wants it bad.

After I'd voiced my criticism, Censullo surprised me by agreeing. He explained that, shortly before I'd entered the room, he had entertained a reviewer who'd insisted that the reference CD he'd brought to the show sounded way too bright on Censullo's system. Although Censullo's experience with music told him that the problem was with the reviewer's recording, he had tweaked the sound to the man's satisfaction.

After my feedback had validated Censullo's sense of reality, he succeeded in rapidly restoring much of what the system lacked by adjusting small metal beads atop unobtrusive maple resonators affixed to the walls of the room. The transformation was pretty amazing. What he couldn't fix, however, was that reviewer's distorted sense of reality. What can you do about someone who's spent so much time focusing on the medium that they've lost touch with the message?

After Brooks Berdan had finished his spiel, I recalled an exchange that took place at HE2003 in San Francisco. After leaving a particularly large, well-trafficked room, I'd asked a fellow reviewer what he thought of the system we'd just heard.

"Wide soundstage, excellent depth, precise placement of instruments," was his slow, studied reply. "And fine dynamics."

"But the timbre isn't true," I protested.

"The timbre isn't true?" He looked absolutely befuddled.

"A clarinet doesn't sound that shiny," I explained. "Nor does a flute sound that sweet. That system made everything sound far more glassy-hard and monochromatic than it does in real life."

This reviewer, who soon confessed that he hadn't attended a live concert in at least four months, appeared to have scant idea of what timbre means. He'd spent so much time focusing on the sound of equipment that he'd lost the ability to step back and recall what music actually sounds like. One can only hope that he'd had the ability to begin with.

If only the disconnect between the potentially transcendent experience of hearing music being made live and sitting in a room evaluating equipment-generated sounds were confined to reviewers. Alas, it seems shared by some equipment designers, who invest untold years and hundreds of thousands of dollars "perfecting" a piece of gear that excels in reproducing one part of the sonic spectrum while shortchanging another. How else to explain the phenomenon of an ultra-expensive tube amplifier that offers a midrange to die for—a sound so warm, nurturing, and all-enveloping that you just want to curl up and suckle for the rest of your life—yet has no upper extension and vibrancy?

You should have heard Brooks Berdan sound off when I suggested that one way to get good sound out of a speaker that tends to sound bright and tinny is to mate it with one of the many amplifiers and/or cables on the market that tend to emphasize midrange and bass while darkening the top.

"No, no, no!" he exclaimed. "That's doing it all wrong. The point is to choose equipment that allows music to sound as it should in the first place, rather than compounding one design error with another in order to balance things out."

Although there's no denying the truth of this assertion, the reality is that most audiophiles are faced with a gestalt of room, setup, and equipment limitations that colors and distorts the sounds that reach our ears. We learn to make do, tuning as best we can. But in the process of getting a system to sound right, or at least acceptable, we sometimes lose touch with the ultimate goal—assembling a system that allows us to lose ourselves in the music. The system becomes the end-all, the music trapped inside an all-consuming maze of boxes of wires.

It would be lovely to be able to announce the publication of The Fundamental Guide to Audiophile Nirvana: a book of cardinal rules and immutable truths that, if followed with absolute fidelity, will guarantee sonic bliss forever and ever, amen. But no such set of rules exists. There may be truths, but truths are relative. Even the most intelligent of designs can turn sour when the supreme spouse or the downstairs neighbor says no.

Only music can serve as the ultimate guide. If the system allows you to repeatedly transcend the limitations of time, space, and electronics, and to become one with that which exists beyond a collection of individual notes, you are there. All the rest is illusion.