Balance is certainly a lovely concept, as well as a lofty ideal. But achieving an optimal sonic balance in a high-end audio system—whose final sound is determined, in part, by interactions among any number of components and that great bugaboo, the listening room—while maintaining some semblance of psychic equilibrium can be the hardest goal of all.

One dictionary defines the noun balance as "a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions," as well as "mental and emotional steadiness." In the largest sense, balance describes the place where two or more opposing physical, moral, or spiritual states can coexist in harmony. Think hot and cold, yin and yang, masculine and feminine, passive and aggressive, love and hate, innocence and guilt, the astrological sign Libra (oops—just lost a few readers with that one),—or, in Marxist dialectics, the new synthesis that is the "combination of thesis and antithesis into a higher stage of truth."

Sounds fairly straightforward, eh? Ponder, then, this quote by Susan Sontag: "The truth is balance. However the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie." Assuming your mind isn't already spinning out of control, try applying Sontag's perception to the world of high-end audio and see where it leads you. Then see if you're willing to let anyone join you on the path, or if you already see yourself sliding down the slippery slope to the sorry states of Audiophilia nervosa or, even worse, Cancel my subscription!!!!

Recently, as I strove to fine-tune my system, I was haunted by thoughts of balance. The problem wasn't the quality of my components or a lack of synergy between them. Nor, thanks to room treatments, could I trace my dissatisfaction with the sound to any easily identifiable interactions between gear and room. Rather, I was dealing with the reality that when you assemble a system that's resolving and transparent enough to reveal minute shifts of timbre and musical expression, questions inevitably arise as to whether your perceptions of brightness or dullness, shallow or bloated bass, insufficient or overblown midrange, or inaccurately reproduced timbres were caused by some aspect of my system's sound I hadn't noticed before, or were inherent in the recordings themselves.

After trying a number of equipment supports. I discovered that different supports from different companies interacted differently with components, including the rack. Some tended to highlight the top end and lighten the sound, while others brought out the midrange and bass, thus darkening the sound. Might it be possible, I wondered, to find a balance of supports that would get me even closer to the goal of natural, open, full-range sound?

As I tried various combinations and permutations of supports, I became painfully aware of the distinction between brightness and brilliance. When a musical passage is intended by a composer or performer to sound brilliant, I want it to sparkle and resound with life without becoming irritatingly bright or noisy. Conversely, I want my system to reproduce lower-pitched musical sounds with richness, without making the overall balance of the sound too leaden, too weighty, too dark.

In the midst of my experiments, I attended a performance by a conductorless chamber orchestra that I'd previewed for the Seattle Times. The space was large, open, and naturally resonant, and the orchestra members were on the same plane as the audience. Seated just a few rows back, I heard sound so vivid, so saturated with colors, so alive and involving that I challenged myself to see if there was some way I could get my system to sound anything like that.

And so I dove into that space in which quest can become madness. Ah, yes—this combination of supports does bring out the piano's lower register. But did Murray Perahia really intend those left-hand notes to sound so strong that they rival and sometimes obscure and sometimes dominate the melody he's playing with his right? Wow, the timpani sure sound fabulous and tightly controlled in that recording of Mahler's Symphony 9, but did Mahler really want to so frequently draw attention to the cellos and double basses? And why is this simple accompaniment overwhelming the soprano?

In no time, I was perilously close to the point of no return—of finding myself forever a prisoner of the Land of Endless Tweaking. Or like my late neighbor Charles, whom I wrote about in "As We See It" in the November 2013 issue—constantly moving around little swatches of silk and rotating Mpingo discs by quarter-degrees in the hope that, with one more shift, perfect sound will be mine forever.

"Wait," I said to self—"I'm a Stereophile reviewer. Readers count on me to share informed opinions arrived at through careful observation. If I continue to switch out stand after stand, tweak after tweak, they're going to bury me with them." My consciousness seared by visions of Valkyrie Brünnhilde's funeral pyre, the flames fueled not by logs but by tweaks, I declared "Halt!"

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." May the clarity of consciousness sufficient to simply sit back and enjoy the music be mine.—Jason Victor Serinus

Anton's picture

The problem with our hobby is this:

That chamber orchestra only has to sound like itself. That's easy, so to speak.

Our Hi Fi systems have to make everybody sound like themselves. That's impossible.

Even if you could perfectly replicate the sound of that one live event on your Hi Fi and set things up so it actually did fool you, your system would still fail on all other attempts to do the same for all other performances....and may sound worse, in the aggregate.

We are actually just searching for an optimal compromise, my friend.

dalethorn's picture

Music is dynamic. If you could set up a dynamic room, that can change at the push of a button, from intimate for chamber music to grandiose for the big stuff - there you go.

To be fair, I think it was either Stereophile or Audio magazine who inquired to a number of loudspeaker makers, asking "What kind and size of room is best for your speakers?" Most of the answers were what I expected, but Roy Allison answered "A good loudspeaker is a good loudspeaker in an auditorium or a broom closet."

While Allison may have had a point, I think different size rooms and speakers appropriate to the room would be the most convincing for realism. Along with the isolation tweaks of course.

Allen Fant's picture

Right On! dalethorn.

Solarophile's picture

Studios use different speakers and headphones to monitor sound.
Audio engineers have preferences for microphones used.
For multitrack recordings all kinds of studio tricks get used.
Mastering engineers add their own tweaks to EQ based on preference.

So unless there's a "standard" album with which we're all supposed to optimize the sound by balancing "to", this is just a non-starter!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Of course I used recordings that I have heard over and over again, both on my system and on countless other systems at shows. I know these recordings inside and out, and have learned to trust them as references.

In the midst of listening to orchestral, piano, and vocal recordings, I attended live performances and did a reality check. I'll be doing the same while I'm in the Bay Area reviewing Carolyn Sampson's lieder concert tonight, and then on Sunday, when I review Music of Remembrance in Seattle. In between, I'll attend a performance of the New Century Chamber Orchestra. I am constantly refreshing my live reference in different halls, and bringing it to my experience of reviewing equipment.

I would dispute the notion that every speaker is only good with one type of music. Ditto for amps, etc. As a reviewer and critic, I would only work with equipment that excels equally in conveying nuance and delicacy, and in slamming my brains out.

Have a most lovely day. I'm about to take a poor excuse of a power walk around Lake Merritt in Oakland and listen to the birds, people, and sounds of the city.

Anton's picture

JVS: "I would dispute the notion that every speaker is only good with one type of music. Ditto for amps, etc. As a reviewer and critic, I would only work with equipment that excels equally in conveying nuance and delicacy, and in slamming my brains out."

I was saying that if you were to be able to create a system that could, somehow, perfectly recreate a given performance in a given place, that would likely not translate into that system being able to do it for very many other performances, if any.

For that final frontier of passing into the realm of "mistaken for real," the various resonances and gear and room interactions that work for that one recording that fooled you would likely fall way short on most/all other recordings.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Happily, I am not trying to pretend that the Seattle Symphony, Carolyn Sampson, or Lady Gaga is in my music room. You'll hear no talk of the absolute sound here. I just want to get as close to their sound and emotional expression as possible, within the limitations of technology, engineering, and room.

Anton's picture

I play disc golf, and only 18 times per round does the disc do what I want it to do - go into the basket. Every other shot is just hoping to celebrate some smaller than expected degree of failure!


Same with Hi Fi. I strive to make the falling short of the absolute sound as pleasing and fulfilling as I can.

I've been fooled twice by a Hi Fi system, and both times, the illusion only lasted a few seconds before reality crept back in.

dalethorn's picture

Based on all these things you attend, I want to be your chauffeur, or butler, or something...

PeterInVan's picture

I have given up the search for the ultimate combination of seperate components. Out goes my bi-amped SET tube amps, DACs, power supplies, and tower speakers.

After six weeks of pleasurable listening, the KEF LS50W has cured my Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). I believe I have reached my end game system.

To my old (68) ears, KEF has found the "balance" with USB, DAC, DSP, and individual amplifiers dedicated to each driver.

Now, I only read the gear reviews to see the favorite tracks the reviewers are using to test new gear.

I also enjoy discovering new albums on Tidal.

Does this mean that I am now a Musicphile, and no longer an Audiophile?

dalethorn's picture

I see that your KEF is now the most talked-about system on Computer Audiophile's speaker forum.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Do check out my review of the Dynaudio Focus 200 XD on this very site.

dalethorn's picture

Interesting - I got to thinking about the internal electronics and amps, the many switches on the speakers, the cable between the speakers, and whether you would expect any signal degradation or interference just because of the many contact points.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I love you. I'd never heard that one before. Perfect.

rt66indierock's picture

You seem troubled by what you went through with your new listening room so I have a suggestion.
I want you to try some zero based thinking. Go back in your mind three months with everything you know now and ask yourself what would I do differently?

Take care

Gregam's picture

@JV Serinus: "(I'd like to know)... did Mahler really want to so frequently draw attention to the cellos and double basses?" Well, we will never know that and, in the context of your article, it's not what you are looking for is it? Rather, you would like to know if the MAESTRO, in his interpretation of Mahler, "really wanted to draw attention to the cellos... etc", or is it just your system putting emphasis where none was recorded (or the mastering adding emphasis where none was intended)! Kind regards