The Acoustical Standard (with follow-up) The Last Word on Fidelity

As We See It: The Last Word on Fidelity
STEREOPHILE May 1989, Vol.12 No.5
J. Gordon Holt

Last October, in Vol.11 No.10, Stereophile's Founder and Chief Tester J. Gordon Holt stated, in his acerbic editorial "The Acoustical Standard," that, in his opinion, only recordings for which there is an original acoustic reference—ie, typically those of classical music—should be used to evaluate hi-fi components. And that in the absence of a consensus over such a policy, high-end component manufacturers were losing their way over what does and does not represent good sound quality.

Many readers wrote to us agreeing with Gordon's thesis, although its uncompromising nature did surprise some, such as Mr. Ralph Gonzalez in this month's "Letters" section, whose musical tastes lean toward jazz or rock. It also came as a surprise to some members of the magazine's reviewing team, many of whom use all manner of recordings to assess components. As I pointed out in this space in March, the role of a reviewer is one of diagnosis, and any recording of any kind of music is valid to use, provided that it does enable him or her to reach valid value judgments concerning all the different aspects of reproduction. As Gordon started the whole controversy, however, I feel it only fitting that he should bring it to a (probably temporary) close.JA

Okay, so I overstated my case last October. But I offer no apologies for having done so, because a reasoned, sober presentation of a point of view never gets noticed. If you don't get people mad by overstating your case, they'll read it, say "That's interesting," and forget it. My intemperance in this made some readers (and Stereophile's editor) think about my point, whether or not they agreed with it, and that was its intent.

There is really no arguing with my view on this, because its truth is intrinsic in its own definition. But I will take the time to reiterate my line of reasoning here, for the benefit of those who need to have the obvious spelled out in neon.

1) Since fidelity in sound reproduction means accuracy of sound reproduction, there can be no fidelity without there first being an original with which we can compare the reproduction.

2) If that original is to serve as a reference for reproduction accuracy, it must be completely free from the kinds of electrical and mechanical artifacts which we know to be inherent in all of the sound-reproducing equipment whose performance we are trying to judge. That is, the original cannot of itself be the result of amplification and transduction.

3) The only musical sounds which meet the requirement of #2 are those produced by acoustical instruments—those whose sounds are purely the result of mechanical vibrations.

4) Therefore, acoustically produced music is the only kind which can be used for the subjective assessment of the fidelity—accuracy—of reproduced sound. Period.

I am not arguing with JA's contention that electronically produced or processed music can be used for the assessment of other aspects of sound quality. It can, of course. But it should be obvious to any intelligent person that, by the very definition of fidelity, that kind of music cannot be used for assessing the accuracy of its reproduction.

I rest my case.—JGH

Herb Reichert's picture

with JGH


Bogolu Haranath's picture

I like this ....... "to use the sound of amplifiers and loudspeakers for the evaluation of the amplifiers and loudspeakers is ridiculous" :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be binaural recordings of audio of the orchestra where the audience usually sits, is better than conventional microphone recordings with microphones placed on the stage or close to the stage, is better for evaluation of 'the absolute sound'? :-) ..............

The binaural recordings are also very useful for evaluation of headphone/IEM based audio systems :-) ......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Yes JA, I totally agree with you .......... A reviewer should ideally evaluate any audio equipment using all types of music, classical, rock, pop-rock, electronic, instrumental, jazz etc.etc ........... Yes ..... like Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington song "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" :-) ............

Bogolu Haranath's picture

The audio reviewer can always say, this particular speaker (for example) sounds good with classical music, however it may not be suitable for rock music ......... The reviewer can say the bass drums in the rock music sound somewhat bloated and loose and less impactful :-) ..............