That's Just How the Record Sounds

It's an error commonly made in evaluating hi-fi–system performance: the failure to listen differentially. Differential as in compared to something else. "Something else" could be a different recording on the same system or (especially this) the same recording on a different system. The question is, what are you comparing it to? The point is: Do you really know what that recording sounds like?

When it comes to evaluating equipment, audio engineers—especially those who specialize in naturalistic recordings—have an advantage. Someone like John Atkinson—I wrote "someone like," though really he's a category of one—knows better than anyone what his own recordings sound like. John was there at the beginning, in the same room, or monitoring nearby via well-known components. He decided what's on the recording. Even so, even for him, all the evidence of what's on there is indirect, via his monitoring equipment. The very notion of a recorded sound, independent of a reproduction system, is fraught.

Still, given a choice of whom to trust—the recording/mastering engineer or someone hearing a song for the first time—I'll take the engineer every time. The engineer is far better prepared to listen differentially—plus, engineers are analytical about sound, which is usually, if not always, a good thing. Read on.

As I write this, I'm listening to skinty fia, the most recent (though not that recent) album from Fontaines D.C., produced by Dan Carey, who, way back in 2005, produced Fisherman's Woman by Icelandic chanteuse Emilíana Torrini, one of my 2016 Records to Die For. I first encountered Fontaines D.C. via the band's previous slab, A Hero's Death, which I immediately loved. Then I listened to their debut album, Dogrel. I liked that one even more.

I'm not sure why I like this band so much; they just have a certain sound—though isn't a certain sound the first thing we fall for when we fall in love musically? To experience Fontaines D.C.'s certain sound at its most characteristic and inviting, listen to "Jackie Down the Line," this album's first single and the fourth song on side 1.

I'm listening on LP, Partisan PTKF3016-3. When the album's second song—"Big Shot"—started up, my subconscious mind told me the record was spinning too slow. As soon as that thought rose to consciousness, though, I dismissed it: I haven't listened to this music in months, so how would I know? I measured just to be sure: The SME's platter speed was precise.

skinty fia is not a demo-quality album. It does not sound live. The sound is slightly distant, the soundstage narrow, contained between the speakers, which is odd for such big music. In its favor, Carey's production (and the work of engineer Alexis Smith) is straightforward, unaffected, no fancy tricks.

If I were to listen to skinty fia on an unknown system, and I found it sounded like live music, we'd have a problem, because that's not the way this record sounds.

Few albums are recorded in a naturalistic way, and even those with such ambitions rarely succeed. As Stereophile writer and audio engineer Tom Fine reminded me in a recent correspondence, achieving natural sound is rarely as easy as using a single stereo pair of good microphones, carefully placed, or by employing any other purist-recording dogma (footnote 1). That kind of recording tends to draw attention to itself.

Speaking of dogma and repeated listening: It is common to criticize the music used in demo rooms at hi-fi shows—but hey, at least those tracks are familiar, which makes differential listening easier. Faint praise.

Worst of all are songs played for decades, for no reason I can think of except habit and a lack of imagination. Why are they still playing "Hotel California," from 1977, when that year also offered Even in the Quietest Moments, ELO's Out of the Blue, and Steve Miller's Book of Dreams, among other fine albums? None of these are demo-quality, but then neither is Hotel California.

Almost as bad are the industry's recent crushes, chosen for audiophile virtues more than musical quality, which surface regularly and stick around for a couple of years before dying a slow death—painful only to the listeners as they (the songs) lay dying. But hey, repetition breeds familiarity. (And familiarity breeds contempt.)

Despite the advantages of familiarity and repeated listening, several Stereophile reviewers, including me, often use new music in component reviews. How does that work? Can a review be trusted if the music isn't deeply familiar?

If it's in Stereophile it can be, for a few reasons. First, with rare exceptions, we retain access to our reference components even as we review something new. While we may not always write about it—that would make for tedious reading—you can be confident we've heard the same music recently on a system we know well. Differential listening.

Second, Stereophile reviewers have an obligation to evaluate every component, at least in part, with recordings they know well. At some point during each audition, reviewers turn to their own standard reviewing repertoire, even if it's not the focus of their listening notes. No review covers a reviewer's complete listening notes. Even if those familiar tunes aren't covered explicitly in the review, they're auditioned behind the scenes. Count on it.

Third, engaged (but not too engaged) listening to diverse but unfamiliar tunes is a surprisingly good way to evaluate equipment. Certainly it's a fine complement to listening to more familiar material. This kind of listening has the advantage of more closely resembling what regular people—people who aren't audio writers—do when they put music on. When listening to music for pleasure, your mind is more open and receptive than it is when you listen critically. While not analytical, this approach has a different kind of rigor: stochastic, inductive, Bayesian. Impressions accumulate and add up to dependable evidence. It's the difference between having a glass or two with dinner, or over several dinners, and swirling a sip in your mouth, thinking hard about the flavors it contains, then spitting it out.

Footnote 1: See my 1981 article on stereo microphone techniques.—John Atkinson

cognoscente's picture

The question isn't "do I know what the recording is MEANT to sound like" but "how do I want the recording to sound?" An audiophile's set is his equalizer. And you're right, Fontaines D.C.'s first two records are impossibly to make it sound good, like Oasis at the time. You may indeed wonder why this great energetic music is edit like this? And indeed the Danish Dogma films, very strong storieslines, are actually unwatchable. The disadvantage of an audiophile is that (s)he cannot only listen to the music, but also takes the sound quality into account in the assessment. You have to give up and miss something to get something beautiful in return, a real experience with good music in terms of emotion and recording.

Toobman's picture

What I have a beef with is the whole notion of accuracy in audiophile circles. If a recording sounds different on every system and in every environment, who is to say what is accurate? And accurate to what? The original sound in the studio/venue, or to the recording? Only the artist knows how they intended for it to sound, and that is corrupted by record labels and mastering engineers who decide on how it sounds in the end. Therefore, "accuracy" is impossible to determine. The ultimate goal should be nothing other than putting together a system and room that make the music sound the way YOU WANT IT.

Herb Reichert's picture

told me, "Your system is only as good as how it plays your worst records."

He used wood needles in his old Victrola.


Ortofan's picture

... use cactus needles.

Anton's picture

All the heat generated by the stylus friction in the groove would cause cantilever combustion.

Anton's picture

Before a Hi Fi Show, I was trying to get everything just so on a system and some records sounded great, some, not so much.

Wes Phillips told me to just put the problematic platters aside, relax, and only play the good sounding ones. He said that was called 'system set up' for shows.

He was the bomb.

MontyM's picture

I agree completely. I have built my system over many years to play my music in my room to my taste. Beneficially, I don’t have to explain my tastes to anyone or please anyone else. If I take a sip of wine and don’t like it, I feel no obligation to explain what about it I didn’t like – suffice to say it wasn’t to my taste. I am not a reviewer, nor do I claim any special expertise. I am a music lover, and my system is my means to an end. And Herb, not by accident, it does a pretty good job with my worst (which are some of my favorite) records, too.

-- Monty

jimtavegia's picture

Since I wasn't there at the recording, and more importantly, I don't own the same gear as those who mixed it or the mastering engineer who put the final touches on the music, I can never know. We all try to know.

My gear is all middle of the road playback gear so I know I am not hearing it all and since my hearing above 6khz is shot, I am missing a lot, but my headphones with a HF rise are helping me out quite a bit.

Since I bought my project S2 DACS I know that has helped and my newer Schiit DACS are very good along with their nice headphone amps I own (3).

I can say that as I listen to the new music recommendations from your writers that I am enjoying greatly and the addition of my KEF Q350 speakers I am hearing a great deal more than I was before these purchases.

I am looking at one more upgrade to a Yamaha A-S801 integrated amp by Christmas and that should be the end of my upgrading journey...said no one ever. lol

Ortofan's picture

... want to wait for the Yamaha R-N800 receiver, which builds on the A-S801 by adding room correction, wired and wireless networking and an AM/FM radio tuner.

hemingway's picture

This is an excellent column, thank you for sharing.

Also wanted to chime in that Skinty Fia is a really good album. Even though its probably not the "best" sounding, I think the electric bass in "I Love You" is tuneful and sounds "just right" to my ear... and of course I have no idea if it sounds just like the instrument/amp it was recorded with. Rock on

Anton's picture

If anyone here has ever been fooled for more than one second that they are hearing live music from their, then that is one lucky audiophile.

Audiophilia is like golf. Only 18 times per round does the ball do what you want it to do. Everything else is just celebrating or bemoaning different degrees of failure.

So, we pick the recordings we most value for getting as close to the sonic objective as our means and methods will allow, and then we need to let records like this one simply sound how they sound.

Tweaking your system for some recordings can't happen: the product was designed to celebrate sonically falling short. It's a way to convey a degree of nihilism, I think. Which is fine, just acknowledge the choice and take your mind off audio onanism.

ok's picture real sound sounds.

jimtavegia's picture

In some of my local recording work what is real is not necessarily the best sounding. Some of the venues are dry and overly damped, especially if filled with patrons. Also, if the venue has much ambient noise spaced omni's will probably not work well. In a quiet room it is my preferred choice of how to record an ensemble.

If it is a noisy or a dead room then uni mics area a must and must be place appropriately to get the best sound balance and then some reverb is added to give the ensemble some air and space. In these cases if I did not add something the dry sound may be real, but not as enjoyable. I usually keep the master, make a copy for doing all the post work just so I can compare.

It might be easier if I had a cabinet full of Neumann mics, but a little out of my budget for the local school and university work I do gratis. Still great fun and the the folks love to hear themselves play.

Glotz's picture

1) As you like it sound (above)
2) Fidelity to source
3) Fidelity to live music

I think there's a magazine that made this up?


Glotz's picture

is to listen to the 'same' recording on several different playback systems. It's a discovery. Headphones and personal playback helps as well, but mostly in conjunction with listening in the room in free space.

I think there was a magazine that came up with that too... Oh yeah, this one.

jeffdyer's picture

A great album. About 10 years ago I "discovered" Beck from the use of the cover of Morning Phase to accompany an article. Man did I wonder how I'd missed all that work...fantastic.