God is in the Nuances Page 3

Music is not really a universal language; different cultures link the same music to different moods. But within a given culture it is an important nonverbal communication tool. What you may not be able to express in words, you may be able to share through music.

The original motivation behind the reproduction of music in the home, therefore, has been to facilitate access to the emotional aspects of music. When you make music yourself, your ability to express emotions will be limited by your talent, and by your proficiency on a given instrument (and boy, have I suffered in both respects). With reproduced music, these limitations are unimportant. I can have Led Zeppelin, Caetano Veloso, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Tony Scott, Büdi Siebert, Stephan Micus, Aretha Franklin, or Alfred Brendel play for me whenever I like---heaven!

If this is the motivation, then it follows that the yardstick for judging a component's worth should be its ability to communicate emotion. Is modern technology getting us nearer our goal of emotional communication? Certain subcultures of the hi-fi community have long held that some historical components, even though they're hopelessly behind the sonic accuracy of modern components, have qualities that many modern components lack. Why do some amplifiers from the Golden Age of American hi-fi, such as the Marantz 8 or certain McIntosh models, continue to rise in value? Is modern technology evolving in the right direction?

Expert testimony
Jürgen Ackermann is a 37-year-old psychologist living in Frankfurt, Germany. He has long been interested in music and its reproduction, building amplifiers and speakers for himself as well as for some friends. His current home system includes a home-brew tube preamp, a home-brew single-ended triode power amp (the power in question being all of 2W from a single 2A3 per channel), and modified Klipschorns. This system is seriously loud when required, those sound bursts from Flim and the BB's Tricycle coming across as positively threatening---yet it whispers with a clarity and conviction most minimonitors fall short of. His amp is remarkable in that there is none of the hum that is generally unavoidable with direct-heated triodes. He has designed an indirect heating that relies on very precise balancing of voltages, and has made it work beautifully.

As part of his doctoral thesis, Ackermann researched the experience of music reproduction in the home. He conducted an experiment, setting up three systems in a room of the Frankfurt Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst (Music and Performing Arts University). The first system consisted of an analog record player, ca $4800, and a tube pre- and triode power-amp combination worth ca $4500 (hereinafter called the analog system). The second system substituted a respected CD player, ca $2400, which has been well reviewed worldwide, including in the pages of Stereophile, but retained the tube amps. The third system kept the CD player but was powered by a transistor pre-/power combination worth ca $11,000 (hereinafter called the digital system).

The components had been selected as being reasonably representative of their kind. The loudspeakers were held constant and had been selected for their ability to sound equally good driven by tubes or transistors. If anything, the system favored the expensive transistor combo, which had been selected because it was one of the best-selling combinations in its price range, and also because comparative listening tests against some other transistor amps had revealed this combo to sound particularly good in the test configuration. All three systems were played at exactly the same loudness level.

Ackermann found 53 people from all walks of life willing to participate in his experiment: hi-fi enthusiasts, musicians, and "normal" people with no special relation to music or its reproduction. The selection of participants was not truly stochastic, but the sample was large enough to give meaningful results.

Participants were seated in a room before a pair of loudspeakers. The part of the room behind the speakers was partitioned off with dense cloth so that the participants could not know what went on behind this curtain. Indeed, they had no idea what was going on or what, if anything, was changed between trials, except that they were going to be interviewed on their reactions to several pieces of music. Ackermann made the system changeovers without once interacting with the participants.

The participants were received and instructed by a student who was paid for her time. This student, who had no knowledge of things hi-fi, was instructed to sit behind the participants so she could not influence the participants even subconsciously. The student first gave the participants a questionnaire that asked for their musical likes and dislikes. A second questionnaire asked how the participants normally listened to music, and a third questionnaire tried to establish the emotional base level at which each participant entered into the experiment. These and all other questionnaires were standard forms developed for musico-sociological research, and had been pretested to be meaningful and easily understandable by the participants.

Then the participants were played a standardized set of three musical pieces. These were tracks from Larry Conklin's Dolphin Grace (light jazz), Sally Barker's This Rhythm Is Mine (pop), and Italian Violin Musik, 1600-1750 on Edition Open Window (baroque classical music). The tracks had been selected after a preparatory experiment showed that they gave meaningful results. None was offensive to the participants; strong individual likes or dislikes could not influence the experiment's outcome.

After the first run-through, participants were given three more questionnaires: one asking for their emotional balance (the same questionnaire as before the music began), one asking how the participants had experienced the musical tracks, and one asking for their opinions on these tracks.

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.