God is in the Nuances Markus Sauer Responds

Markus Sauer responds:

Editor: I was glad to see a number of reader's letters regarding my "Nuances" articles. My initial reaction was not to respond; I've had my say, now let the readers have theirs. However, there are two letters which make me wonder if I expressed my views as clearly as I should have.

Mr. Alter, whose letters I have read with great interest and respect over the years, accuses me of being untrue to Stereophile's original ethos of high fidelity reproduction. And Mr. Barringer accuses me of the abandonment of accuracy in sound reproduction equipment.

Not really. The easiest way to convey the original emotion is to convey the original sound. However, in the real world, conveying the original sound in all its glory is impossible, at least within the means of present-day science. My argument is that we should accept this impossibility and take a close look at which aspects of reproduced sound are of greater or lesser importance to the conveyance of the original emotion, and optimize our playback chain accordingly. If that means taking a retrograde step in some respects to make overall progress, well, that's one of the longest established tactics in all human endeavours.

We should judge our progress in matters audio not in terms of how close a component comes to the original sound, but how close it comes to the original message, which, in most cases, is an emotional one. We should judge a component on how close it comes to fulfilling its purpose of delivering the content of the message, not the outer packaging of the message.

I did not want to advocate using distorted equipment. I hate distortion. My point is that conventional THD+N measurements don't seem to correlate very well with the perceived emotional importance of the distortion. Hasn't CD taught us that very-low-level, but not signal-related distortion artefacts can be subjectively much more annoying than much higher distortion caused by other mechanisms? Isn't it an established fact that higher order distortion can be subjectively more relevant than a considerably greater amount of low order distortion? We should judge the quality, not just the quantity, of distortion phenomena.

I'm not calling for the abandonment of science. I'm calling for new and better science, for more research into the sound/emotion interface, if you will. For an example of what I mean by better science, readers are encouraged to seek out Ben Duncan's recent series of articles on amplifier sound in Hi-Fi News & Record Review.

And I'm certainly not calling for a return to the warm and woolly tube sound of lore. I never wanted to say that equipment should make us feel good, no matter what music is being played. If the original emotion, was hate, sadness or cold brutality, a component should be able to convey those emotions. That's why I said that our motto should be the closest approach to the original emotion.—Markus Sauer

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.