It's the Real Thing!

We are aware that much of what we have to say about reproduced sound in these pages goes completely over the heads of a lot of our readers, simply because they have not heard live, un-amplified music recently enough (if ever) to relate their own listening experiences to our observations. These are the people who tend to have developed a strong mental image of what hi-fi ought to sound like, and it is not surprising that that image should bear little if any resemblance to reality. In most cases, this image of hypothetical perfection involves a broadly sweeping sense of spaciousness, awesome power, floor-shaking low end and silky, velvety highs—rather similar, one might say, to the sound of a Magnificent Magnavox with a couple of extra octaves at each end.

This dream of sublimity, if nurtured for long enough, can completely warp an audiophile's judgment to the extent that it becomes the Ultimate Truth, the standard by which the sound of live music is to be judged. The real thing then is "lacking high end," has "poor imaging," and is so veiled that "all the inner detail is missing." Yet those are the people who tend to make the biggest fuss about "accuracy" in music reproduction.

We think it is time for them (and that means You, if you are one of whom we speak) to either put up or shut up. If you have not heard live, un-amplified music for at least a year, we cannot communicate with you, and you haven't the proverbial snowball's chance of assembling a system that begins to approach the sound of the real thing.

You have three choices. Either admit that you really don't, give a damn about fidelity and are merely looking for a fantasy-fulfilment system. (And don't bother to renew your Stereophile subscription, because we can't help you.)

Or, admit that you don't know what to listen for and trust our advice, because we do.

Or, as your third choice, take the money you were setting aside for another misguided component purchase and use it to pay your way to a live symphony orchestra concert. Choose an orchestra that is good enough that it has been commercially recorded at least once, and before making the arrangements, write to the orchestra manager (by title; you don't need his name) and ask him what seating location most customers seem to prefer for the sound of the orchestra. (You can pay more for status and not hear as well.)

Just so the music won't bore you to sleep within 10 minutes, try to choose a program containing at least one major work written between 1825 and 1935—from late Beethoven to late Ravel—as compositions written during that period are generally best for showing off the full orchestra's potential as a producer of magnificent sounds. If possible, obtain a season program beforehand and pick your concert from that.

While listening, close your eyes, think of the stage as the space between stereo loudspeakers, and analyze every aspect of the sound—its balance, high-end content, imaging, etc.—as you would a stereo reproduction. Note how often you can actually hear instruments that you can see being played, how much you can tell about the hall from its sound alone, and how much depth and perspective is actually audible when you rely on ears alone. Note the variety of sounds produced by the various brass instruments—from a round, mellifuous tone to a jagged rending. Note particularly the sound of massed violins with its peculiar combination of sweetness and edginess. Note the complete effortlessness of crescendos, the dew-drop clarity of the sound.

If the live listening experience is to be of any help to you in reproduced-sound evaluation, you must learn to dissect the total sound into its component parts while observing how they fit together. It is also necessary to keep reminding yourself that, regardless of what you feel to be "wrong" with the sound, what you are hearing is the Real Thing—the original by which the reproduction must be judged. It is, thus, more "right" than you are ever likely to hear it from a reproducing system.

If you come home with the feeling that you really prefer the sound of your system, you may be a lost cause. If, on the other hand, you feel that what you heard is what you want to hear at home, you're with us, we're with you, and we can share a common goal. You may then send us your ticket stub and a Xerox of the program (Not the whole thing, just the page showing what was played.) and we will send you, free, an Analytical Listener Certification Card (footnote 1). You will have taken the first step towards becoming the kind of listener we write Stereophile for, and will deserve credit for having done it. (Although this is not a credit card, it will come in handy for intimidating other audio buffs who haven't been near the Real Thing since the local band played for compulsory high-school assembly.)

Of course, you don't have to be a reformed philistine to get an ALC Card. If you're a regular concertgoer and would like a card, send us the requisite stubs and program copy and you'll get yours. (That doesn't read as intended..) You're our kind of reader. We wish there were more. Maybe you can help us find some more....—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: Stocks of these cards have long since run out.—Ed.

Noam Bronstein's picture

What a contemptuous and incoherent op-ed this was. So many condescending, incorrect and just plain rude assumptions. I can understand Holt's frustration with audiophilia nervosa, and I can appreciate that some of this drivel was probably meant in jest. Whatever his beef was at the time, it's ancient history and no one really cares.

I won't even try to tackle the concert-attendance-police premise. Certainly I agree that it's important for music lovers to know what instruments really sound like, in person. At least, the instruments they enjoy hearing. I have to ask though. Did he really believe that all "audiophiles" should be aligned on the sound of "the real thing" based on a subjective experience in some orchestral concert hall? If so, which orchestra? Which hall? What composition and performance? Whose ears, judging which criteria? Did JGH really think that audio equipment designers were all working from this same roadmap? What about the recording engineers? Or the producers and mastering engineers? Does their vision and technique count for anything?

It's staggering to think that someone of Holt's position in the audio press should need to be reminded that unamplified acoustic performances, amplified performances, recordings of performances, and home playback of recordings are all distinct events and that there isn't a single "correct" way to regulate or experience them. Carry on, and enjoy the music.

prerich45's picture

Excellent post - especially the last paragraph!

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

He manages, from the grave, to still rile people up! As a long time concert goer, I largely agree with his comments. But, recorded music is not necessarily intended to replicate live music. Proximity to the performers determines intensity. (Similar to near field v.s far field listening.) A three-mic DECCA Tree creates more of a mid hall sound than an array of mics close to the instruments. None of us get to stick our ears under the piano lid or float ten feet over the violins or sit one foot in front of the kick drum during a performance. Depends on what you want to hear. For symphonic music I prefer the "breathing room" captured by Mercury's Wilma Cozart Fine. But, for solo classical guitar I want to be up close and personal. That kind of closeness is seldom experienced in live performance. (One exception was when, from the front row, I saw Itzhak Perlman pound through Paganini's Violin Concerto in Massey Hall. At one point he whipped around and a bead of sweat flew off his forehead, through the stage lights, and landed on the toe cap of my shoe! I got upgraded to that seat at intermission, because in the lobby I ran into an acquaintance who edited an opera journal and had an extra unfilled seat.)

otaku's picture

"admit that you don't know what to listen for and trust our advice, because we do."

dalethorn's picture

Great article! Holt provided the archetype for music reproduction. Feel free to completely ignore his arguments, but if you ever do need a grounding in why high-end audio manufacturers have to know this stuff, and why they have to include this knowledge and philosophy into their design plans, keep enquiring.

Glotz's picture

Timely, considering the derisive letters and remarks that litter this magazine.

Robin Landseadel's picture

. . . which is to say, the notion of Orchestra music from 1825 to 1925 being the ultimate indicates the late Mr. Holt's preference in music and not the be-all and end-all of recorded sound. The idea that music before Beethoven is boring is the author's issue. The notion that the music has to be from a "great hall" is the author's issue. I have made a great many recordings of a very good orchestra with a major podium talent, albeit in a crappy sounding room. I have also listened to major orchestras in better rooms. But I would say that when I play old-timey music with folk from the Fresno Folklore Society, the level of reality is just as great, that hearing the sounds of fiddle, bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo, hammered dulcimer and other instruments while I'm playing guitar with them is, if anything, more to the point than sitting more or less passively mid-hall listening to "Bolero."

Catcher10's picture

Unless you live in Los Angeles, NYC, Chicago, Boston or a select few other big cities...I doubt you will ever experience what Holt was trying to explain.
An enormous amount of people that live hundreds of miles from a big city or live in rural areas of the south or west that will never hear this orchestra of unamplified music, in such a grand hall that will give you that musical detail.

And yet so many of these people probably have a sound system they are proud of and enjoy daily..and to make them think they have no idea or what they have been listening to is no better than a boom-box.

I guess most of us should throw out our sound systems and buy an iPod and be done with it, it will not get any better.

Boy oh boy, let's just give those that think audiophiles are crazy more reasons...

Glotz's picture

If one is traveling many miles to purchase gear, one also needs to do the same for live acoustic music. The natural reference is important. In the context of 1980 gear, he was spot on as the variance in gear frequency distortions were far more profound. Intimate knowledge of many acoustic concerts trains the ear that my-fi is not always hi-fi. Pride and accuracy are not always mutual.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Your town may have a university or college with a music program and their student orchestra may do free concerts several times a month. They're likely better than you'd think. Your town may also have an amateur phil or sym orch, or, string, or chamber group. Their performances are cheap.

And, what about your town's clubs? Are there no jazz, rock, country, hip hop or folk venues? I'd be surprised if there weren't. Support you local musicians. They're trying to make a living. The Berlin PO, Frank Sinatra's estate and the Beatles have enough of your money already. Don't assume that if they're not big city orchestras they're not worth your attention.

Way too many people claim they saw the Quarrymen perform in Liverpool before they became The Beatles. A friend called me years ago to join him at a concert of a new band at The Silver Dollar Room in Toronto. He told me I'd regret not going, "Because they're going to be the next Beatles". Of course I didn't go and today many thousands claim they heard The Police that night, when in fact the club holds maybe 200 people.

So, take your significant other out to live music tonight. Who knows, you may witness the next superstar in music.

remlab's picture


cgh's picture

Moog argued that musical tastes are enculturated. I argue that the representations of music also develop in a similar manner. Rewire our brains as much as we like, but it is not without cost!!! Having that live reference is a bit like keeping an atomic clock or a platinum–iridium alloy kilogram at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Cut that tether and start drifting and soon you may not know where you are. We could all wind up listening to clicking noises in 1000 years.

Allen Fant's picture

JGH was the best!

howardv's picture

Folks, I actually tried this once and was greatly disappointed. Yup, I attended a live classical concert. It sounded NOTHING like my 2-channel audiophile stereo system. It lacked highs. The mid-range was bland and colored. They needed another 10 percussionists to even come close to the thunder of my subwoofers at home.

During the intermission, I told the conductor that the imaging would be much better if he put half of the musicians on the right side and the other in on the left side. I explained the "phantom" center that would be created, so no musicians are needed in the center. He just didn't have time to rearrange everyone, but thanked me for the advice.

As I bared to sit through this experience, I made another discovery: There was no type of room correction electronics! Ha! No wonder it all sounded bland. The music was NOT being digitized and adjusted by something like Audyssey or Trinnov! All the musicians should have been put in another room and recorded. Then it should have been played back in the concert hall on a good two channel system with room correction software. I don't think I'll be spending any more money on concerts until they can make this improvement.

At the very end, I invited the conductor to my residence. I figured he would never know how to fine tune his musicians if her had never heard a fine audiophile system.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...I think I'm going to cry! you should start you own audio blog, entitled: "Seriously, I'm Not Kidding Here!"

dalethorn's picture

Absolutely priceless!!

MCK22's picture

Some of these responses are really amazing. But I guess they show why Stereophile since JGH has prospered financially as it never could as he created and controlled it. TAS after HP is in the same place, as well...with an Atkinson's Stereophile alum at the helm. When Siri can pass a Turing test, will you install it into your graphene skinned, perfect playmate dolls and sleep with them (Yup, an getta load u'da phantom center on that one, heh, heh!) Or maybe you will have it program music that is perfect for ever because it was composed according to the preferences of the ideal focus group of 16 to 21 year-olds, randomly selected and regionally balanced to ensure statistical purity unbiased by any previous knowledge or experience? Or maybe even you could have SuperSiri compose music on demand based on brain wave modeling, so it is a perfect reflection of each person's own aesthetic and emotional map! (Talk about the eternal purity of a spotless mind!) Back when people made last century, I know...guys who loved electronics built kits and tinkered with speakers until they had the exact sound that they loved. A few still do and more power to them! It was a great hobby, and a lot of the people like that who I knew really liked music, too. Back in the day, a few ended up creating the High Fidelity industry. But most, by far, created things that sounded so solipsistic that no one else would care to listen to them beyond a polite 5 minutes. Well, the digital revolution, along with the potential for very significant advances in sound reproduction, has also allowed convenience to triumph over quality...mp3s, sure...but now you can also just buy your way into your personally perfect idea of what music should sound like, without going to the trouble of putting solder to metal or glue to wood, or even (god forbid!) learning an instrument. Ain't progress wonderful!? So, have your hobby. Certainly, that's your privilege. You can call it electronics. You can call it High End or call it electro-bling. You might even call it Stereophilia! But you can't call it HiFi (high fidelity to what?) without misleading others, and probably most of all, misleading yourselves. (BTW, while this is my first and last comment. I have subscribed to Stereophile...and TAS...for quite a long while and I will continue to subscribe. They are both now cheap thanks to advertising, and I enjoy the generally high quality of the writing. I even feel I can trust the information about new equipment they provide, even if economics dictates that it is mostly products from the advertisers. But I won't be wasting any more of my time reading the comments. Have fun!)

John Atkinson's picture
I even feel I can trust the information about new equipment they provide, even if economics dictates that it is mostly products from the advertisers.

The last time we examined this false statement, less than half the products we reviewed came from advertisers. See footnote 2 at

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

AussieSteve's picture

I remember going to the Palais dance hall in 1984 to see Motorhead. I stood in the "sweet spot" and listened as heavy metal thundered into a 1940's timber hall with the acoustical properties of a volcano. I swear to God, the only sound I heard ALL night was a screeching whistle and not ONE lyric or note. My ears nearly bled and I was near deaf for THREE full days later! I guess the band, venue and amplification source plays a part in live music, because my speakers play the band better than the Palais did! Just a Thought from a headbanger..........

prerich45's picture

Wow - that's a huge statement...for one that listens primarily to orchestras! However - everyone's listening taste are different. The point of reference for an orchestra would be different than a chamber ensemble, or a Gospel choir - (were most of the musicians are amplified B-3, electric bass, electric guitar, mic'd piano - but the singers aren't - with the exception of the lead singer), or even different styles of Jazz. Your reference determines your taste and develops a natural prejudice. Just being truthful.

Most of the music in my taste happens to be amplified, however I can enjoy the sound of a symphony as well. I may not get a ACL card...but can everyone say that they know what a real gospel choir sounds like? I'm not talking about the Harlem Boys choir (they are great though), I'm talking about the mass choirs of the 70's and 80's - most audiophiles don't have a reference (they think of the Fairfield 4 or the 5 Blindboys - different type of gospel)....I do. I've even directed choirs, sang in choirs, and played for choirs.

Musical bias sets us at odds with one another. Speaker makers voice their speakers for a certain audience and then set a biased reference. To sum it up, many don't see Klipsch Heritage as an audiophile speaker - however - its ironic that the music that I was most involved with - used these speakers in churches. That sound became the "reference", hence my bias is shaped. To pigeon hole ones ability to listen into one type of music situation is well....very biased indeed.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Woo hoo! The comments prove readers get most riled when an article challenges their cherished beliefs. (Mikey's blind cartridge shoot outs generated similar emotions.) At least we're arguing about music and the role of audio gear, rather than about one piece of gear vs another (and the owners' prides tied up in each). John, thanks for republishing these "grenade in a day care centre" articles.

dalethorn's picture

Well, it's not the Catholic church and 10 thousand angels jousting for positions on the head of a pin. It's the audio industry trying to establish or maintain standards of some kind, so that output equals input amplified by 'x' number of decibels. The other half of the equation is me the listener, who doesn't intend to keep 17 different loudspeaker systems at the ready so when I switch from symphonic to jazz to pop to country that I have to wheel one set aside and wheel in a different set. Of course I could use a high-tech digital player and set up 17 different DSP's for my one and only set of speakers, but what assurance do I have that playing my favorite 50 country music tracks, that all of those sound 'right' with the 'country' DSP? Can I say 'no assurance'? That's why we have High Fidelity - not so that we solve all of the audio world's problems in one place at one time, and not so that I'm burdened with having to customize my system for each of my varied tastes separately, but so that it's possible to enjoy a variety of music on one system with minimal attention to re-tuning it whenever I play an orchestra piece followed by a jazz or pop tune. I feel comfortable adjusting my mood for the different sounds of various music pieces, but I don't feel comfortable having to flip switches and twiddle knobs (other than volume) when the music changes.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

Live music is the only real reference standard, against which all electronic reproduction should be compared. Inevitable imperfections and limitations of electronic reproduction should always be measured against the real thing. If you don't know what that is, then get up off your ass and go listen.

prerich45's picture

Which live music? Gospel, Jazz, chamber, symphonic, metal, R&B? In which venue - Outside, small church, large church, auditorium, bar, small club? Sound is not static - it is indeed very dynamic, a live performance in one venue will sound totally different than a live performance in a totally different venue.

Catcher10's picture

Problem is JGH is describing a large gathering of acoustic musicians in a very large acoustically tuned auditorium, where most probably "there isn't a bad seat in the house". Not many of us have ever experienced or will, this musical bliss. And yes I and my wife have been to see live orchestras before, both in large venues and small town college orchestra. We lived in rural northwest Alabama for awhile and attended a few shows of the local small college.

Was it a good sound...sure it was! Was it a memorable sound, that I would use to measure my sound system? Probably not...If I were to be lucky enough to attend the philharmonic of NY, LA, Chicago or some place across the pond, might feel different...but I doubt I ever do.

My problem is the tone of his article was downgrading to those people that enjoy their system for what it is, and yet thinking what they believe is good sound really is not..I call hogwash!

He could have made his point much more productive without putting down the "regular" hi-fi person....Not all of us aspire to be a furrow browed, non emotional audiophile goat.

But I do appreciate his feelings towards looking for that perfect sound.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I have never experienced, nor do I ever expect to experience, an Orchestral venue where there Wasn't a bad seat in the house. In fact, in most seats in most venues where orchestral music is played the sound is out of focus. Many Times I would set up my microphones in their usual positions and wander around the room in an attempt to find a seat where everything comes together. Usually that was limited to something like 10% of the seats in the room. It's interesting, my ideas about how to record an orchestra were shaped by the writing of people like JGH and HP but in the actual process of making those recordings I found their theories and explanations to be erroneous. Many of the best sounding recordings of classical music do not conform to the principle of very simple microphone arrangements—usually the best involve spot microphones, manual gain riding, "sweetening" in post production and so on. If you want the sound of the classic Decca "Microphone tree" in concert, you probably should be on the podium. The kind of impact, clarity and focus one obtains from Peter Maag/LSO's recordings very rarely happens in 'real life', in a typical seat in a typical concert hall. If you really want perfect balances, perfect sonorities, learn to read sheet music because that's the only way that experience is really possible.

prerich45's picture

That needs to be bold font because it's heavy truth!!!! :)

Anon2's picture

I have always been fascinated, though do not know, why many great recordings, particularly of the Cleveland Orch. and the Chicago SO, were made in the two cities' Masonic temples.

Even some digital age recordings of the Cleveland Orchestra, particularly the great 1990s records with Pierre Boulez, were made in Cleveland's Masonic Auditorium. Perhaps because the Columbia SO had no home venue that I know of, Bruno Walter did his late, great recordings in the Hollywood American Legion Hall.

For the CSO, you have to go further back; Medinah Temple is now a furniture store. Still, many of the great recordings, in a long recorded legacy of the CSO, were made in Medinah Temple. One particularly memorable recording was, and still is, the Ravel/RCA (Hi Performance) with Jean Martinon. This recording is rare because it's one of the few available with Jean Martinon, and, sadly, one of the very few recordings of Ravel's very under-performed chamber orchestra version of "Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute and Strings."

I do encourage--in more diplomatic terms--that people seek out live music when possible, particularly in a concert hall. Besides large cities, almost all college towns in America have a serviceable to excellent concert hall, and talented college students, and local professional and amateur musicians with the talent and passion to fill these hundreds of venues nationwide with fine music.

dalethorn's picture

Another thought on High Fidelity - an experiment anyone can perform. I use portable headphones when walking around town - from empty streets to busy streets, from parks with birds and other wildlife, to markets with people chatting to each other. I choose headphones that measure toward the top of the brightness curve, to assure best treble reproduction. Yet when listening to a wide variety of music, when I remove the headphone the ambient sounds are nearly always more 'alive' sounding, particularly voices. Someone I mentioned this to said that "Treble in the environment is over-rated."

jmsent's picture

Headphones are, by their very nature, a very inaccurate approach to audio reproduction, unless you are listening to specially processed binaural recordings. And even then, they would require head position tracking circuitry to compensate for movement relative to the source. If you're using ear buds, there's also all kinds of issues with pipe resonances in the high frequencies due to the coupling between transducers and ears. While headphones have immediacy and clarity in their favor, frequency linearity is not their strong suit.

dalethorn's picture

Partly true at best. Think about it - you literally see upside down, but your brain accomodated and adjusted the picture before you knew it. Your hearing is no different. Once you've truly accomodated to headphones, assuming you're getting a good quality sound, your brain adjusts the 'picture' and all is well.

kursten's picture

As someone who regularly attends live music events (amplified and unamplified), I'm baffled as to why someone would want to go to the trouble of getting a certification from a stereo magazine that says they are a critical listener. Isn't the idea to avoid the pretentiousness associated with audio equipment? I love music. My stereo gear helps me enjoy music at home. I don't buy gear to impress friends, nor would I attend a live music event for the purpose of impressing anyone. Why then, would I want a piece of paper from you that acknowledges my interest in music? It seems the only people who would seek this certification are the very people who are only interested in audio for the impression it may have on their peers. You're only fueling the very cause you rally against with this silly scheme.

AussieSteve's picture

I recorded myself playing my Les Paul and played it back to my wife. She says the live version AND the recorded version stink! Go figure.......

Daveedooh's picture

I used to have a season ticket at The Royal Opera House, I saw and heard some truly wonderful performances. In my opinion no recording on God's earth will ever come close to equalling the emotions and shear beauty of the productions on the nights when it was all great.

I've sat through, danced to, joined in with and thoroughly enjoyed lots of live performances, in pubs, clubs and halls, by musicians whose records, if they ever made any, I would never consider buying.

Some recorded music is great, I listen to hours of the stuff daily, but I doubt it is or will ever be as good as the live variety.

We have a radio programme here in the UK in which recordings of big band and swing music are played. The recordings of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman etc. are well worth a listen. Nevertheless the hostess, a lady called Clare Teal, always advises us that "Live music is the very best thing for you!"

I cannot vouch for Clare's medical credentials, but she's not wrong!

rdiiorio's picture

J.G Holt is correct that's my opinion, by my interpretation of what he is saying. If you hear a cello for example played live you can, assuming ones recall is top notch, use that as a reference to compare its reproduction by a system. Until one hears a cello played live they have no basis for comparison, and all else is open to speculation. But ultimately the aesthetic judgement and its meaning is totally subjective. Lets not forget that aging has an effect on what someone is able to experience. "Time is a filter".

rdiiorio's picture

"one hears a cello played live..."

should read as:

"one hears a cello or whatever played live..."