Some Serious Listening

So, I figured I should sit down and do some serious listening. [Hee hee. That cracks me up.]

Alright, I need to make comparisons. But I'm not going to use the Magnavox. That would just be silly. There's really no point. Everything sounds better with the DeVore speakers and Arcam Solo. Sometimes the immediately discernible difference is subtle, simply a matter of volume. But then there's also greater presence — I mean that I can feel the music, I can sense the musicians and their instruments in the space before me. If you were sitting here with me, I could point them out to you. I could tell you where the guitarist is posing, where the bassist is hiding, where the singer is gripping the mic. And then there's higher resolution — I mean, not only can I tell you where the guitarist is standing, but I can offer guesses at what kind of guitar is being played, and how the strings are being strummed, and then, the drummer: I can tell you if he's using sticks or brushes — but you probably don't need me to tell you that, you can hear it for yourself — and I can almost see him switch between the two. And isn't that cool?

Let me stop. I've gained a bit of vocabulary in my five years at Stereophile. It would be impossible for me to have missed; I've read every single review we've written — once, twice, three times, maybe more — over the last five years. How many reviews is that? I could tell you, if you gave me a few minutes, but what's the point? It's a big number. I've gained a bit of vocabulary, and I almost wish I hadn't. I'd like to feel strained — even more than I feel now — I'd like to be crippled into use of only emotions, colors, sighs and grunts. Instead I talk about presence and resolution. Soon I'll throw a soundstage and a deep, black background at you. Before you know it, I'll hit you upside the head with some snappy transients. Watch out for the outstanding low-level microdynamics. They'll get you where it hurts.

I remember walking into the Aural Acoustics room at Home Entertainment 2005 and asking VP John Miller to play track four, "Missing," off of Beck's Guero. This was a favorite song of mine back in April — in the long gone days of the Magnavox boombox — but, through Aural Acoustics' large, floorstanding Model B speakers, the song sounded horrible. There was this blanket of crud — crackly, annoying distortion — floating above all the music. It actually drowned the music out; I couldn't concentrate on anything but the floating wave of distortion. I hated it. It was so bad, in fact, that I asked John Miller to turn it off. I wondered if something was wrong. Was something broken? "The speakers are very revealing," he explained. It was the recording's fault. It was Beck's fault. What was he thinking?

Sitting at home, now, I wondered if the DeVore speakers would be just as revealing.

First, I played the track in my Magnavox, just to remind myself of what was there. Nothing. The song sounded good. No blanket of crud. I immediately transferred the CD to the Arcam Solo, sat back down, grabbed the remote and pressed Play.

Well, hello there, blanket of crud. Where ya been? How's it going? Okay, take it easy. Check ya later. Nah, don't call me; I'll call you.

The crud actually introduces the song; it comes in even before the music. The DeVores allowed me to hear it — not that I wanted to — but it didn't sound as harsh or oppressive as I remembered it being in the Aural Acoustics room. Perhaps the DeVore speakers were a bit more forgiving? I stopped the track and transferred the disc back into the Magnavox. Now, if I listened really hard, closed my eyes, and used my imagination, I could hear the crud as, I guess, it was meant to be heard: old, dirty LP noise. The thought that this noise might have been added to the song intentionally didn't occur to me at all when I heard it through the Model B speakers. It just sounded wrong or, again, broken. Were the DeVore speakers telling me something? Were they, at once, allowing me to listen to the music and gain insight into the recording process?

Am I:
making any sense?

Will somebody:
help me out here?

Audiophiles are standing by, waiting to take your calls. Thanks.

Ward's picture

I think I can hear what you're referring to. Some artists, I'd chalk it up to a mistake; with Beck, he probably meant it to sound like that. The irony, having to use a hi-fi system to hear lo-fi exactly the way it was intended to be heard.

Wes Phillips's picture

Having trouble tracking down this Beck composer. Is that J. S. Beck or Wilhelm Fredrich Christian Beck? heh hehBy the way, way back in the day, Stereophile's founder J. Gordon Holt (in whose ears we trust) posited Holt's Law: The better the performance, the crappier the recording will sound (or vice versa). Fortunately, this is one of those laws now honored as much in the breech as in the observance.Hey Jeff, I'll buy your extra Illinois, assuming your collector's gene doesn't dictate you keep 'em all.

newbilong's picture

you're hearing it right, Stephen. i think Guero is poorly produced. to me it sounds over-compressed and over-processed as if it was made only for ipods and car stereos (where it sounds heaps better, by the way). the soundstage is narrow and crowded. the dynamics are limited. the midrange, where all the music happens, is foggy, and all the highest frequencies have been carved off so the vocals sound lifeless and airless. the crud will sound like electronic hash on a good system like yours. that said, it shouldn't sound irritating like it did through the Aural Acoustics. a good system can make bad recordings sound disappointing, but it shouldn't make them sound irritating.

GAry D'Amato's picture

Wes, I heartily agree with Holt's Law. I was listening to something the other day(again, back in the day) on my new Audes Blues(my first foray into true sound) and realized that the great, in your face rock tracks, often sound like crap on a good system. Who cares? I'd rather have the performance than the recording. For example, take the concert DVD included with the reissue of Born to Run. The band is on fire.

Wes Phillips's picture

Audes Blues, Gary? Cool speakers. I remember hearing them after break-down at CES a few years back. All of a sudden," the clutter of boxes and packing tape disappearerd and it was just me and Sarah Vaughan and Louis Bellson grooving to ""When Your Lover Is Gone."" Kind of wish I'd heard 'em at the beginning of the show -- I could have logged more time.I also agree that good speakers may help you hear bad sounds on a recording", but you should still be able to hear at least as much of the music as you heard on a boombox. That said, given the choice between listening to a kickin' recording with great sound and a kickin' recording with painful sound quality," my record collection would sort itself into ""must play"" and ""seldom play"" pretty darn quick.

Clay White's picture

You opened Wednesday," ""...listening for fun."" By Thursday you were falling into that critical listening trap. Watch it. Listening for all those sonic attributes will take a lot of the fun out of it. Yes", your new gear is going to show you some engineering/production garbage you didn't know about before. There's no free lunch. Given that your favorite genre appears to be rock," you'll run into more of that than you might find elsewhere. Most rock is ""live"" even when it is live - if you follow me - BUT IT IS STILL FUN.Old Gordon's rule still holds", and here's another one for you. Don't spend more on gear than you do on music.

charles's picture

that means I can spend a lot on gear...

andrew's picture

I too spend a lot on music.