God is in the Nuances Page 8

THX has drawn our attention to the fact that room size influences perceived tonal balance. Listening rooms tend to be much smaller than the halls or studios in which music is recorded (this is even more true in Europe than in the US). Thus, if a recording is true to the original event but is reproduced in a smaller room, it will sound too bright---which, again, seems to indicate that a truly flat system will sound bright (footnote 10).

These factors have long been known to audio designers. Having spoken to a number of manufacturers of drive-units, I know that it's relatively easy to make a tweeter with a flat on-axis amplitude response. But the loudspeaker designer knows that flat is not necessarily right (a point I'll return to later). Celestion's SL series, particularly the SL 600, was an international sales success and very well reviewed in all leading audio magazines, including this one. Its tweeter was shelved down 2dB vis-à-vis the woofer, but it sounded pleasingly natural in typical living rooms.

Conversely, many speakers have an on-axis rise in the tweeter's output to compensate for radiation patterns and give a flat room-averaged response, and to heighten the apparent level of detail a speaker can reproduce. To my ears, such speakers have always sounded way too bright. Summing up, I think it nigh on impossible to design components, especially loudspeakers, that will sound anything like their input in a variety of settings (footnote 11).

The third sacred cow waiting to be slaughtered is measurements. This magazine is working very hard to correlate the listening experience with measurements. I remain to be convinced that conventional measurements tell us much about whether a hi-fi component reaches the heart or not. In loudspeakers, there seems to be a fairly good correlation between a reasonably flat amplitude response and fidelity of timbre. In my own experience, low loudspeaker distortion and a reasonably flat phase response make for ease of listening, in the sense that I can listen for long periods of time without listening fatigue. Power bandwidth, perhaps more so for loudspeakers than amplifiers, will tell you if a component is apt to change its sound when the listening level goes up.

I think that good measurements are often an excuse for the designer: It measures well, so I haven't done anything wrong. Not doing anything wrong, however, does not automatically mean that the component under test will do enough right. To put it another way, I have yet to find a measurement that tells me if I'll want to listen to a component.

A final pet hate is detail. A proposal for the international language of hi-fi reviewing: There should be a distinction between detail and nuance. Just as a fact is mere data without an interpretable context, which only meaning can transform into information, a detail is meaningless without its context of musical direction, which transforms it into a nuance of interpretation (footnote 12). Dwelling on details like the audibility of a microphone falling down, the direction taken by a London underground line below the recording venue, or the chirping of a bird somewhere outside the recording venue, seems counterproductive: Such aspects take my attention away from the music and its meaning; they don't lead me to the music itself.

A reviewer who relates his listening experience in terms of the emotional impact a component made on his enjoyment of music has a hell of a time getting his point across. As is evident from this magazine's "Letters," a lot of readers out there don't have a clue what he is on about. I can understand why: If the writer uses a type of music the reader can't relate to, it's hard to translate the review into a context relevant to his own preferred music. "Yeah, but how would it sound on my kind of music?" is a question often heard when discussing such reviews with readers. The prevailing impression seems to be that different music styles depend on different aspects of reproduced sound to carry their musical meanings.

A typical observation seems to be that for classical music, timbral fidelity, low-level dynamics, and, yes, soundstaging are considered important. (The soundstaging part I have never really understood; yes, I know, in the concert hall, the violins are seated on the left and the double basses on the right, but hey, they have to sit somewhere, and I have yet to read that a composer---Stockhausen excepted, and you never know if he's joking---specifies a certain seating arrangement for artistic reasons.) For rock music, essential aspects seem to be loudness, speed, rhythm and pace, and a tonal balance that conveys power in music.

These prejudices are so widely held that there must be something to them (although I submit that if you listen to Ansermet conducting, pace and rhythm are very important for his readings). And the dichotomy is so deeply anchored in the minds of music lovers that it seems almost insurmountable.

Yet it seems to me that for the reviewer, the way out need not lie in falling back on a sonic description of the audio experience. He should instead try to incorporate as many different styles of music into the review as possible, and describe the emotional impact these different styles have made. That means that the reviewer must educate himself in the appreciation of these different music styles.

Footnote 10: Which brings to mind J. Gordon Holt's famous "Down With Flat!" essay.

Footnote 11: For a more detailed discussion of some of these points, read J. Gordon Holt's "Space . . . the Final Frontier" in Stereophile, March 1994, Vol.17 No.3, p.61 (and especially p.67).

Footnote 12: "God is in the details," said Mies van der Rohe. When I look at his architecture, which to my eyes is cold, full of harsh black-and-white contrasts, decidedly inorganic, and well-meaning but brutal in its treatment of the buildings' inhabitants, he seems like just the man to suffer from this misapprehension. Maybe God is in the nuances.

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.