The Chicken and the Egg Page 3

Many of the Wilson and Reference Recordings are similarly timbrally accurate, at the expense of the stereo image, while recordings that aim to preserve the accuracy of the soundstage nearly always seem to require the use of microphones that color instrumental tone quality, sometimes more than a little. And many recordings, particularly those made with large numbers of microphones, both add coloration and destroy any semblance of a realistic-sounding stereo image.

What I am trying to lead you toward is a recognition that it is too simplistic—and pompous—to insist that equipment reviewers unthinkingly adopt the dialectic involving logically inconsistent comparisons to live sound. This inevitably leads to the reviewer becoming trapped in an endless loop. Rather, it is more fruitful for reviewers to base their value judgments on specific recordings that they already know have a particular character in one area of reproduction. A reviewer's initial task is one of diagnosis, and any recording is appropriate for use, not just those that can be compared to live sound, if it aids the reviewer in this phase of the review. (How else could you justify the use of non-musical test signals, for instance?)

The Clannad Magical Ring album that I mentioned last November, and that Mr. Bernstein suggests I abandon as a test record on the grounds that it doesn't have a verifiable source sound, is such an album. While it would be pointless to use this recording to examine a component's departure from tonal neutrality, I use it specifically to examine a system's ability to throw a well-defined soundstage with width and depth. The fact that it has no absolute referent is irrelevant in this respect: a system's imaging ability can be benchmarked with any recording that contains pure intensity-stereo information, and in actual fact, panpotted multi-mono rock recordings tend to be more informative than a typical classical recording, as almost none of the latter are recorded so as to encode this information. (The only exceptions are recordings made in a pure, coincident-figure-of-eight manner or in a variant of the M-S technique, and these are rare beasts indeed.)

In addition to the intensity-stereo lateral imaging contained on Magical Ring, the fact that its producer has used sophisticated artificial reverberation enables a good system to present considerable image depth. There is no need for a comparison with live "images" here; the fact that the recording possesses the requisite information makes it a sufficiently sensitive test. If I hear the attributes of specific lateral image position and well-defined image depth with Magical Ring, I then know that any classical recording will reproduce with the maximum image specificity of which it is capable. The reverse, Mr. Bernstein—if, say, I use a typical orchestral recording from one of the major companies as my benchmark record—will not be true.

Similarly, I use Wilson, Reference, Water Lily Acoustics, and Sheffield Lab classical recordings to assess departures from tonal neutrality, pink noise to look for the presence of resonant problems, pretty much any modern rock album to assess the ability of amplifiers and speakers to present tight, well-defined midbass, good organ recordings and sinewave sweeps to investigate low-frequency extension, drum and percussion recordings to investigate "jump factor" and overall dynamics, in fact any recording where I can break the logical judgmental loop due to the fact that I have independent knowledge of how the recording should sound. As an aside, it is for this reason that I regard it as essential for reviewers to be actively involved in making their own recordings, because this gives them that knowledge absolutely. (Though, as has recently been pointed out with respect to Dick Olsher's use of his recordings of his wife's voice, this removes the capability of readers to repeat his test).

Which of all these parameters is most important I believe to be a personal choice, associated with the listener's musical taste. J. Gordon Holt, for example, would agree with Mr. Bernstein's apparent feeling that it should be tonal neutrality; as would Peter Mitchell, who, when asked by Bud Fried at the 1989 WCES (full report in this issue), replied that "good frequency response is a 'necessary but not sufficient condition' for great sound. Other things are important, but if the frequency response is irregular, the other qualities don't matter because the speaker won't reproduce the real sound of music."

But the most important thing for a reviewer is to use as wide a range of recordings as possible in order to frame value judgments which can be communicated intact to someone else. As, again, Peter Mitchell pointed out in a recent "Industry Update" feature (December 1988, p.47), merely to compare the sound of a component with the reviewer's memories of live sound can lead to error unless he or she uses a sufficiently varied selection of recordings.

So where does my idea, as expressed in November, of the reviewer using his visceral response fit into this neat framework of diagnosis and judgment? And how does live music fit into it?

As follows: The whole business of diagnosis described above seems designed to allow the reviewer more to get a handle on what a component is doing wrong than on what it does right. The latter, however, is more important—the fundamental purpose of a hi-fi system is to enable its owner to enjoy music in the home—and the listener who is sensitive to the music has a shortcut to discovering it. But in order for a listener to become musically sensitive, it is incumbent on him or her to regularly experience the real thing. How can you make yourself receptive to Mahler's music, as opposed to the sound of Mahler's scoring, if you don't expose yourself to the music as the composer originally intended it to be heard? If, then, a listener who regularly attends live music finds that a component somehow destroys his or her ability to enjoy the music—and this is true of all kinds of music—then all else is irrelevant, even tonal accuracy.

As J. Gordon Holt emphasized many years ago, a component must have the ability to allow the music to raise goosebumps on the listener's arm. Mr. Bernstein states that a reviewer must provide his reader with an intelligibly stated standard by which he will judge components coming before him. Ultimately it's goosebumps, Mr. Bernstein. Goosebumps.