God is in the Nuances Letters part 3

Unconstructive stereotypes?
Editor: I read with great interest Markus Sauer's insightful and thought-provoking two-part essay ("God is in the Nuances," January and February, 2000) on music and high-end sound. Although I agree with much of what Sauer wrote, there is a disturbing undercurrent throughout the article best summarized by this excerpt from Sauer's first installment: "It seems that much of the high-end sound experience is just that: an experience of sound, not of music-generated emotion, and that many expensive high-end systems are not one iota better at generating a musical experience than all those down-market systems."

This attitude promotes an unconstructive stereotype of high-end audio as well as a corollary, which, when taken together, hamper the goals of educating the masses about the hi-fi hobby and bringing more music-lovers into the fold. The stereotype: High-end audiophiles care more about the sound than the music and are more equipment geeks than music-lovers. The corollary: A music-lover cannot be taken seriously as an audiophile unless he is willing to spend significant amounts of money on a true high-end system.

It is true that some expensive high-end systems strive for the goals of analytical detail resolution and reproduction of subtle soundstage cues at the expense of reduced musical involvement and enjoyment. Most do not. It is also true that some audiophiles spend most of their time playing short excerpts of audiophile-spectacular recordings and fretting about upgrading the weakest link in their systems rather than relaxing and enjoying music. Most do not.

Friends have wondered why, as I have such expensive state-of-the-art audio equipment at home, I like to review the lowest-cost audio gear. The answer is twofold: 1) Many of the most exciting and innovative audio designs today are being marketed at the lowest price points; and 2) By lowering the "entrance fee" to this hobby, we can attract more music-lovers to the hi-fi fold who are not necessarily audiophiles.

Colleagues of mine in the financial world have frequently scoffed at my pursuits in this hobby: "Hey, this is the guy with the $2000 speaker wire!" My retort is always a challenge: "I can assemble a complete high-end audio system for under $1000 that I'll wager is better than anything you've ever heard at any price." Haven't lost a bet yet.

Actually, I currently enjoy music on five systems: a $50,000 reference system, a $4000 vacation home system, a $2500 car system, a $1000 home-recording-studio system, and a $450 office system. Why do I own five systems? Because wherever I am there is music playing at all times, unless someone is sleeping in the house or my son tells me to turn it off (which happens more frequently these days). I am not one of those obsessive audiophiles who insists on sitting in the sweet spot when listening, or who insists on listening to music without concurrently engaging in another activity. In fact, when I'm not reviewing equipment, I am often reading or walking around the house while listening to music. One gets to hear more music that way. But if I enjoy music on all of these systems, then why bother to spend the money on the exotica? Because every time I switch from one of my systems to a more expensive one, I enjoy the music more---it sounds more realistic and involving.

Some of my audiophile friends were shocked that, when my son was born, I dismantled my reference system---as the dedicated listening room became the baby's room---and moved it to my vacation house. This was an interim step until I could afford a larger house to accommodate my reference system and my son, a process that took five years. How could I have such an expensive system and listen to it only four months out of the year? Simple: my second system was sufficient for me to enjoy music for the bulk of the year without missing the main system. But every June, when I'd fire up that big guy again after the winter hiatus, it was such a rush!

When friends ask me how much to spend on hi-fi, I tell them to follow this simple algorithm: Assuming, of course, that the friend is a music-lover to start with, when deciding between component (or system) X and the more expensive component Y, I ask him or her these questions: 1) Can you hear the difference between component X and component Y? (I've never received a "no" on this one.) 2) Does the difference matter to you, and does it influence your enjoyment of the music? 3) Are you willing and able to spend the additional money if it does? Works every time.

Audio snobs should not look down on music-lovers who own affordable, serious high-end products, and music snobs should not jump to the conclusion that a high-priced audio system implies an owner who cares more about the sound than the music.---Robert J. Reina, robert.reina@citicorp.com

Enjoyed the nuances
Editor: I enjoyed Markus Sauer's "God is in the Nuances" articles in the January and February issues very much.---Pasko Varnica, varnica@pacbell.net

The closest approach to...what?
Editor: I have just read Markus Sauer's "Nuances" articles (January and February 2000). I have learned a lot about critical listening from the likes of Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound, but I have recently begun to doubt the validity of the apparent philosophy---as Markus [quotes Quad], "the closest approach to the original sound." The reasons for my doubts are that getting closer to the original sound has not necessarily resulted in greater musical pleasure. I even began to wonder if I was losing interest in music at one point---perish the thought.

I recently befriended an ardent Naim man. We have compared systems and approaches, and the differences in our respective philosophies. Everything I had learned about critical listening told me my system was superior to his. His system cost more than mine---his is the best of Naim, mine a collection of good American gear---but I could point to several weaknesses: a metallic edge to highs, a solid-state midrange, a lack of soundstage, and average resolution of low-level detail.

But I had to admit that, if you could get over these shortcomings for a moment, many of my CDs sounded more musically engaging on his system than on mine. As Markus described it: "the closest approach to the original emotion."

Since then I have worked on bringing this expressiveness into my system. Interestingly, out went the tube preamp---it was improving the sound, but not the music. Same with my CD combo. Here I was apparently reducing the performance of my system (but probably only adjusting the trade-offs) in terms of what I had learned about critical listening, and yet significantly improving the musical experience---by listening differently.

The critical listening skills I had previously learned focused on timbral accuracy, macro- and microdynamics, resolution, and spatial details---what might be described as the accepted audiophile philosophy. What I am increasingly learning to listen for is: Am I enjoying this? Do the musicians sound like they are having fun? Are my heart and mind getting involved with this?---what might be described as the Linn/Naim, or PRAT (pace, rhythm, and timing), or British musicality philosophy. I am not saying Stereophile's reviewers are ignoring the musicality of components in their reviews, but, as Markus implies, they are being too objective in describing what they hear. Now there's an original thought.

Life has taught me that the answer is never found at the extremes of philosophy, but in the skillful blending of the extremes. The accepted audiophile philosophy has its place. While I can engage with the music on my friend's system, there are timbral anomalies that make it hard for me to enjoy it over the long term. But equally, I have on occasions gotten to the point of feeling all is just right with my system in terms of the accepted audiophile philosophy, only to find that the music is boring. Recently I have gotten much closer to enjoying the best of both worlds. I am sure someone will accuse me of enjoying colorations---but this would miss the point, which is that I am succeeding in emulating more of the enjoyment that I get from live music.

It may seem paradoxical to accuse so-called subjectivists of being too objective---to tell them to forget what they think they hear for a moment and let themselves react to what the music makes them feel. This is not unscientific, particularly if you accept that the point of playing recorded music in the home is to gain musical enjoyment. In fact, it is the measurement idiots that are practicing poor science. The scientific method is not about denying reality when it does not match your mathematical models. It is about disproving and then improving your mathematical models when they fail to explain reality. To expect your mathematical models to fully explain reality in an area such as audio seems horribly na;dive in the face of the history of science.---Mark Jenkins, mark.jenkins@telecom.co.nz

A sympathetic chord?
Editor: Marcus Sauer's two-part essay on sound and emotions (Stereophile, January & February 2000) struck a sympathetic chord with me. I mean, who among us hasn't gone off the deep end of audio nervosa, worrying about the errant piccolo sounding off from left-center, or wishing that the neighbors would turn off their porch light in order to reduce that last smidgen of glare? No wonder John Atkinson reports that he can listen in critical mode only an hour a day. Of course, we do allow the medium to become the message, so no wonder we find ourselves dissatisfied with our expensive toys.

But: I don't think the problem lies with the equipment. One can always cobble together an ugly-sounding system with brilliant individual components. That's not hard at all. Nor do I think we should blame measurements. Most of them don't predict sound quality very well, but frequency response (not necessarily flat) can tell us a great deal about sound, as can such items as input, output impedance, etc. And pity the poor reviewer. He must attempt to communicate the sound of equipment through abstractions, which always creates problems. If he tries to use analogies such as sexual pleasure (Corey Greenberg) or anal attributes (Sam Tellig) to indicate his emotional feelings, half of his readers are offended. So he is left blathering on about left soundstage or menehunes in the CD player. If readers get caught up in all that instead of listening to the music, no wonder they feel no pleasure.

I don't think any of these problems justify the abandonment of accuracy in sound reproduction equipment. Emotional dissatisfaction can originate in the music or performance itself, as well as in faulty equipment. If you have ever heard a recording of the Fine Arts Quartet from their home base in Winnetka, north of Chicago, you will hear a sound that I can only describe as an alum and vinegar gargle. That was their sound. I know. I suffered through many a live concert in Winnetka. I don't want a stereo system that makes that quartet sound pleasurable---I want them to sound like them.

Last, I am deeply suspicious of the neo-Freudian mumbo-jumbo that Dr. Ackermann is pedaling. I know I was torn from my mother's womb. I have lived with that for more years than I care to admit. If it has something to do with my cravings for good sound, fine. Leave it. Life is messy enough without dragging unconscious hobgoblins into the picture.

Actually, I have an idea: why don't Ackermann and Sauer open a psychotherapy clinic for audiophiles? New York would be a good place to start.---Herb Barringer, Honolulu, HI

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.