Getting the Notes Right (Midrange Madness) Page 2

Now I am aware that logic is anathema to the manic perfectionist who treats the more abstruse aspects of his "hobby" as revealed religious truth; this treatise is not addressed to him. I speak instead to the person who still approaches audio as a means for the realistic reproduction of music the person who still has at least one and a half feet placed firmly on the ground.

The middle range is the home of perhaps 85% of the music we listen to. The bass in a musical composition is usually nothing more than a rhythmic or harmonic underpinning to the "melody," which is traditionally scored for a piano's right-hand, or treble clef lies in the range between A below middle C (220Hz) and C4 (4186Hz). Often, of course, the right hand plays bass and the left treble, but the major thematic material of most compositions stays between 220 and about 1500Hz. (Few works call for more than an occasional excursion into the range above 1500Hz).

It is this 220-1500Hz part of the audio range wherein lie the most important notes in music. If a system can't reproduce this range properly—if it can't even get the notes right—then any other positive attributes that system may have are irrelevant. If it can't make the instruments that play in this range sound the way they're supposed to sound, then the fact that it has a beautiful soundstage, and a silky, airy high end, and deep, solid bass is mere embellishment of dross, like gold plating on a cigar butt. Sure, the system may "sound good," but so did the boomy, "mellow" old Magnavox consoles that were the last word in home music systems during the mid-'40s.

If we take seriously our commitment to accuracy in music reproduction, we should not take seriously the scads of high-priced loudspeakers out there in audioland which treat the essential midrange frequencies as obscenities, to be modestly hidden from innocent ears.

I am appalled at how often I hear cheap and unassuming systems—automobile radios and K-Mart Special (30% off!) table radios—produce the kind of startling, in-the-room realism from voice and small-ensemble music that hasn't been heard from "perfectionist" loudspeakers since Acoustic Research invented "Boston bland." Many people have told me, often with some embarrassment, that they get more sheer emotional excitement from their cheap car radio than they do from their kilobuck supersystem at home. What's the appeal of these cheap-crap audio "systems?" Because, while they may not do anything else well, they often do middles very well.

That so-called laid-back middle range (now known as the "BBC dip," after their design of the LS3/5A) has become an epidemic among high-end loudspeakers. Richness and unctiousness are In, realism is absolutely Out. Even JBL, long noted for the startling realism of their midrange reproduction (and for the awfulness of their high and low ends), has joined the bandwagon with a new line of audiophile speakers featuring—guess what?—superb highs, respectable bass, and a new, sucked-out, laidback middle range.

Midrange accuracy should be the starting point of loudspeaker design, onto which our other prized audiophile attributes should then be appended in order to convert that musical midrange into a semblance of literal accuracy. Today it seems that, among the loudspeaker designers who lay claim to accuracy, the musical midrange gets tacked on as an afterthought, to fill the void between all those lovely things the system does at the low end and high end.

Just a few years ago, audiophiles used to ask each other "Sure, it's accurate, but does it sound good?" Today, we might well be saying "Sure, it sounds good, but is it accurate?" It often isn't.