God is in the Nuances Letters

Letters in response appeared in the March, April, and May 2000 issues:

Editor: I just finished reading Markus Sauer's article in the January issue. This is the kind of writing that generates those life-changing moments of clarity that are so rare in my life. My highest praise to Stereophile for printing it.

The nature of my epiphany is of my very perception of music. Until this day I had assumed that only the most accurate reproduction, the truest to the original, could be the answer to my quest. But my listening is almost all for pleasure, and not necessarily for accuracy. Mr. Sauer was able to show me why I never seem to be satisfied with my system, and why my listening habits have recently tended more toward electronic music.

While the analytical nature of my system has its place, there needs to be balance, or at least synergy. Mr. Sauer leaves me with much food for thought before my next audio purchase.---Nils Lima, lord_coz@webtv.net

Listening pleasure
Editor: I was very impressed by Markus Sauer's article, in the January 2000 Stereophile, about high-end audio and emotional involvement in music. I personally think there is a strong connection between emotional involvement and liveliness of presentation, and I think it is in this area where much modern high-end equipment falls short. Many big systems with powerhouse amplifiers and large speakers have dynamic slam for the huge events, but simply don't deliver when it comes to portraying the dynamic liveliness of music during the "normal" passages, especially in the midrange. I find it embarrassing when, after having attended a demonstration of high-end gear, I step into my car and discover that even my car stereo sounds more lively than what I just heard!

In contrast, I have found huge listening pleasure for many years with my own system, which I have optimized for liveliness, for very good portrayal of both macro- and microdynamics. The system has gone through only minor modifications in the last six years (no exchange of components), and I am still as happy with it as at the beginning. I am irresistibly drawn into the music for hours without fatigue---and I listen to the music, not to the way it sounds.

The system consists of a Tice Powerblock II power conditioner feeding all components, a Wadia 8/12 CD transport/converter combination, an Audio Innovations push-pull triode monoblock amplifier with no negative feedback (neither local nor global), and Ensemble Reference minimonitors.

Because this system does not reproduce deep bass and its sound picture is not large, typical audiophiles are not very attracted to it. However, normal music lovers and---very important---musicians find my system impressive and enjoyable. So it must do something right musically. I think it is mainly the relatively accurate portrayal of the natural liveliness of music.

Again, I think it is the aspect of liveliness that makes the link to emotional satisfaction through music (not just the sound of music) in good reproduction at home.---Al Moritz, Beverly, MA. moritz@neb.com

Applause for Sauer
Editor: While Markus Sauer (and perhaps his editor) needs to de-Teutonize his rhetoric somewhat, his articles "God is in the Nuances" [January and February 2000, Vol.23 Nos.1 and 2] win my applause. The subliminal phenomena that Sauer and Dr. Ackermann write about are all too real, and too much intrude upon the listening quality of high-end, especially classical, music-lovers.---James van Sant, Santa Fe, NM

Get out of your own way!
Editor: Markus Sauer's "Nuances" articles are the best, most important writings to appear in Stereophile in the more than 10 years that I have subscribed. Although I think the second article blunted the impact of his main points when it digressed into his debatable theories about circuit topology and speaker design, the articles nonetheless identified the single biggest problem in high-end audio today: There are lots of expensive, beautifully made, impeccably designed components that have great sonics if you listen "critically," but that fail utterly to convey the emotional content of music, and therefore leave the listener stone cold.

Audio designers: If the gear you build doesn't give you goosebumps when playing your favorite music (whatever it may be), then don't put that product on the market, at any price. You'll save capital costs and increase revenues, as distributors, dealers, and more customers spend more money on better products because they won't have to sort through all that initially seductive-sounding but ultimately unsatisfying gear. Get out of your own way!

Stereophile: Make this point more directly in your reviews. It should not be in code that a component is not musically satisfying only by inference from the fact that the reviewer goes on and on about bass, soundstage, and air, but does not mention the emotional power of music played through the component.---Bill Knopp, lackeyknopp@mediaone.net

The reason for being
Editor: Experiencing a strong emotional impact from one's music is the home audio system's reason for being, and I applaud Mr. Sauer for returning this basic fact so eloquently to the attention of the hi-fi audio community. Mr. Sauer's articles forced me to reassess my own views of what attributes of a piece of gear were and were not important. Why should I read Stereophile at all if the reviews, measurements, and experiences described therein will not, and indeed can not, lead me toward equipment and music that I know with certainty that I will enjoy?

Imagine going to a performance of a dance, sitting in your assigned seat in the hall, and watching as the stage crew pulls a large plate-glass window out between the performers and the audience, so that you have to look through this window to see the performance. If the window is perfectly transparent, introducing no visual artifacts of its own, then your perception of the performance is the same as if the window had not been there at all. If the window is colored to a greater or lesser degree, or if it is dirty, then the very presence of the window changes your experience of the performance---perhaps not degrading it, but certainly changing it.

We hear the performances of music in our homes through many, many windows, including the recording microphones, the ears and tastes of the producers and mixing engineers, the distribution medium (tape, LP, CD), and, finally, our home components. The performers, recording engineers, concert-hall designers, mastering engineers, etc. have done an incredible amount of work to get the production of each album into the form they feel is best, much as a painter may work and rework a painting until it is "complete."

Perhaps measurements and reviews will not tell me if I will be emotionally affected by a piece of gear, but perhaps I don't want to be emotionally affected by any piece of gear in my house. Perhaps I want all the windows that I can exert any influence over to be as transparent as possible, to convey to me, without any alteration, the original intent of the performers, producers, and recording, mixing, and mastering engineers. In the case of a classical music performance, perhaps the goal of all these people is to be transparent themselves, to let the original occurrence of the performance shine through unaltered. Perhaps the goal of a Thomas Lord Alge or a Bruce Swedien is to provide added colors and artistic distortions, such that we see the original performance through a gorgeous stained-glass window---more interesting and moving than it would have been without their "interference."

Buy your albums according to your taste in style, performer, engineer, producer. Buy equipment that is simply as clear a window on their work as it can be. That's what the measurements and reviews are for.---Todd Heller Hager, Walnut Creek, CA, THH@dolby.com

dcrowe's picture

Markus Saur's article lists several effects that I have noticed myself.

1. Increased accuracy, lower distortion, and increased speed do not assure increased enjoyment of music for many listeners. Hearing things never heard before in the music is considered a sign of superior audio equipment performance [I agree with that myself], but the new things may be distractions to some listeners. My teenage son, who is a musician as well as a brilliant computer and science student, prefers the sound of his game grade headphones to my high end audiophile headphones. It is the sound he expects and it masks the limitations of the rest of the sound system he is using. I am reminded of people who prefer McDonald's to gourmet food. [my son is not one of those, he is a gourmet cook himself].
2. The sound of one Watt class triode amplifiers is preferred by some. I wonder if the electron cloud saturation of these amplifiers compresses the dynamic range so that quiet components in the music are more prominent without turning the peak sound level up to the threshold of pain.
3. I happen to prefer highly accurate playback. It enhances my enjoyment. For example, the distortions caused by wear and mis-tracking on vinyl discs irritates me. I prefer high quality digital sources. I also prefer amplifiers that have power in reserve. So I may be in a minority camp, but in that camp accuracy is in, distortion and compression are out. I can hear the forest AND the trees simultaneously, and am displeased with equipment that falls short of giving me both.