JA on Relativity vs Absolutism

Without, of course, wishing in any way, shape, or form for the title of his four seminars, “Just How ‘Absolute’ Is Recorded Sound?,” to be misconstrued as referring to a certain publication based on what I personally consider a dubious concept, Stereophile editor John Atkinson used everything from a drumstick to a cowbell, both sounded “live” and played back on the seminar room’s stereo system, to convey the message: “Nothing is real. How the recording art affects what you think you hear!” As John proceeded to point out that the brain combines information from separate left and right loudspeakers into a single stereo image, my own brain began to repeat the refrain, “30 or so more rooms in the hall, 30 or so more rooms, If one of those rooms should end up uncovered, your ass will be plastered far into the wall.” Hence I vamoosed, and now leave it to John to say more about the content of his seminar.

JA explains: Using the master files for some of my own commercially released recordings, played on a MacBook Pro using Pure Music and either Halide’s HD or the AudioQuest DragonFly USB DACs, I showed that it is a fallacy to assume that “the absolute sound of live music in a real acoustic space” resides in the bits, pits, or grooves, even when such a live event existed. Making recordings is an art, not a science and there may only be a coincidental resemblance between what is presented to the listener and the sound of musicians playing live, even when all concerned with making the recording were trying to be as honest as possible. Even the fundamental decision of what microphone to use moves the recorded sound a long way from reality—I played listeners the recording on the original Stereophile Test CD where the late J. Gordon Holt read an excerpt from a 1960s essay with a different professional microphone used for each sentence—and it is a naïve reviewer who doesn’t realize this fact!

jdmcderm's picture

I'm glad to hear this subject getting serious attention and it really begs the question of what ideals we are moving toward in our pursuit of better sound.  Certainly at some level, improvements are fairly obvious in terms of resolution and detail.  As we move up the price/performance ladder however, these differences become harder to hear or more compellingly; harder to categorize, or define as actual improvements. 

If there aren't really agreed upon and achievable ideals, it could be argued that the differences between, say an Audio Research preamp and a Conrad Johnson of similar provenance become mere matters of preference.  This might seem self-evident in a capitalist based audio industry and is really Stereophile's raison d'être, but I would hazard to guess this isn't at all what the individual audiophile is really working toward.  While we all rage and delight in the many roads we are taking to audio nirvana, I get the sense as I talk to my fellow 'philes that if somehow the perfect audio system could be devised and was reasonably affordable, every other company would soon go the way of the buggy whip. 

The point is this:  Without real, knowable, measurable and agreed upon ideals, a perfect system isn't even possible.  My humble perspective on the high end has long been that if it sounds good to you, follow your bliss; and if you can't hear a difference, don't spend the extra money.  The reality seems to be that the best we can do, even with a live recording, is to recreate the master tape (no small task or insignificant goal).  Even then, we are really just capturing the colorations and distortions of the recording chain as well as limitations based on microphone placement and finally the mixing and mastering choices of the engineers and producers.  In the end, our knowledge of sound reproduction, how to effectively measure it and how humans interact with it are incomplete at best.  So we are essentially told that everything matters.  And the quest continues.

mrplankton2u's picture

Excellent, valid points!

It might not be clear to everyone from JA's blurb but I think we've reached a point where equipment makers have been struggling to distinguish themselves with products that aren't really making a net improvement on the end result. Who (other than the delivery man or an environmentalist) cares if your speaker baffle is 2 inches thick aluminum and resonates a little less than a Harbeth banjo. If you can not detect sound from either baffle - does it matter? It's a forest for the trees issue. All the ridiculous claims for tube amps, amps in general, cables, magic vibration absorbing feet/spikes, cable suspenders, power conditioners and the like - are completely ignoring the giant white elephants in the room - the room's acoustics and the severe limitations of stereo recordings themselves for starters. If reproducing the live event experience is the essential goal, then all the obsessing over the vast sea of irrelevent minutiae is not going to get us much closer to the end game. Is this about absolutism or relativism? I don't think that's an accurate characterization  We have the abiltiy with instrumentation to detect various aspects of low pressure sound waves much more reliably, precisely, and accurately than the human ear. That is an absolute. What is truly relativistic is how close our two channel paradigm and acoustic echo chamber listening rooms can come to reproducing that elusive live experience.

GeorgeHolland's picture

I beg to differ when it comes to recording. A recording  engineer who has spent a few years in the real world, will have an arsenal of knowledge as to which micrphone will result in what type of sound he is looking for. I am sure that in that arsenal, he can pick one that closely as possible results in a recording that mimics the original sound heard live. Will it sound like being there in person? Of course not, several other factors dictate that, but to say it's an art and not a science belittles the time and education the engineer has spent perfecting his craft. It's a combination of both not one or the other. There are basic rules that determine how to set up a recording so science abounds in that profession.

mrplankton2u's picture

I'm inclined to agree with you that there's a tremendous amount of science involved. The fact that a lot of it is typically ignored in the making of recordings by "professionals" in the trade doesn't magically transform it into art practiced by those who in fact subscribe to and adhere to more stringent scientific methods. A tremendous amount of money and effort has been expended over the years to probe the limits of what is possible. Binaural systems and recording techniques have been explored at great depth by numerous big time players in the recording and sound reproduction industries. A wealth of knowledge and science has come forth over the past half century that has paved the way to a more ideal approach But that approach hasn't materialized or reached industry consensus. Traditional stereo recording practices in the industry have essentially remained frozen in time. And largely because of that paradigm, we're also stuck with the problems/challenges of room acoustics. I also can't help but think the inertia of our traditional stereo industry is an overwhelming influence on future developments. What would all the loudspeaker makers do under a massive shift to headphones and binaural recording?

rockoqatsi's picture

I long for the days when artists were also scientists. Vide: Brian May, the last great Renaissance Man.

rockoqatsi's picture

"The point is this:  Without real, knowable, measurable and agreed upon ideals, a perfect system isn't even possible."

And I'm sure the quest will continue long after engineers/entrepreneurs have found a bankable, popular solution to plug or transmit music directly into the auditory cortex. Taste still rules, one because the senses are subjective (and only something akin to Evangelion's "Instrumentality Project" can find a way around that), and two because even on the bleeding edge of scientifc research, vis a vis the Uncertainty principle, it is physically impossible to observe or understand something in its entirety. Doesn't mean this hobby can't or shouldn't benefit from scientific research, but the mystery of the quotient is whether or not these efforts result in the enhancement of that which is FUN or BEAUTIFUL, and all we can manage with our tools, presently, is to nudge the 'happy medium' ever closer to that inevitable asymptote where rational theories meet irrational meat. Case in point: Apple's new Earpods. I respect the efforts of their industrial design division, but for all the research and salesmanship Jony Ive poured into describing ports, waveguides, and chamfers with honey-dripping excess, there's still better sound quality for the money.

WELquest's picture

Thank heavens for the rare bridge builders like JA who apply proper scientific perspective to the challenge of "effective" music reproduction. Our industry might be healthier both philosphically and financially if it was as "honest" as the home theater world, in which audio is "sound effects." Audiophile sound is also sound-effects ... the question is whether it's a good effect or not, whether the effect is as close as possible to the effect of live music.

My favored analogy is to tinted windows and the I-think-obvious trade-off between purist dogma and real-life human interaction with the environment.

Dogma says that the tinting in an office building or on car windows should be a "neutral grey" ... which is all very well on a sunny day, but on a dark day makes the world overtly depressing. Bronze tint in comparison, provides a comparable sunny day realationship to the outside world, and enables far safer night-time visibility ... but pertinent to this discussion, bronze allows the viewer to maintain a through-the-tint relationship to the world on a dark day which is much closer to the relationship one would have with no tinting at all.

Is grey more "accurate" bacause it hasn't altered the color temperature, or is bronze more "accurate" because the human response through bronze is much closer to "live" untinted?

In this case, I vote that "more accurate" is the window through which the relationship is better preserved. The best recording engineers and the best audio-for-pleasure designers (in sharp comparison with studio monitoring priorities) don't follow intellectual dogma ... they honor it while using "bronze" or whatever mic., etc. best honors music and why we listen to it.

Over in the mechanical domain ... the most ridiculous thing to happen to analog playback is the domination of tonearm geometry by the single most indefensible formula, the one which is the answer to the wrong question: how to get the least amount of tracking angle error across the entire playing surface. That's a 100% valid reference point, but by itself ignores the huge reality that information is packed 2.5 times as densly on inner grooves, making the geometry Audio Critic sold the world on dead wrong. AC didn't invent this geometry, but because one can be a hero for selling things that are free, AC used it make itself into a false hero.

It's almost imposible to define all the variables, therefor audio solutions based on purely intellectual ingredients are rarely correct. Long live the recording engineers who understand this!

markotto's picture

Oh just wait untill AC reads this. I think I'll go listen to my Infinity Reference Standards because I like the way they"sound" and I also like the way music "sounds"played through them!!Happy listening.

GeorgeHolland's picture

The Audio Critic probably doesn't give a flying f*** what you think nor do I for that matter. I find it very entertaining that people still think of vinyl as a "modern" or even "high fidelity" medium. Have at it you dinosaurs. You won't be around much longer anway.Did your local high end dealer set up your tone arm geometry when you bought it?  They probably don't evem know that means.

HotChiliPeppers73's picture

As Executive Director of HDAudioPlus (we created the 320.48KHz "audiophile mp3" codec) I'm probably out of my mind for daring to show my face in this forum,  but after reading the entire transcript of “Where Did the Negative Frequencies Go?” from the Heyser Lecture Series last year, I figured, "heck - if the editor of "Stereophile" can express those opinions without getting himself lynched - maybe I can, too."

(Don't worry-I'm still keeping one eye on that back door, just in case...blush)

John, I applaud your honesty and your courage. Those aren't opinions that win popularity contests with recording engineers or the pro-audio community. Saying things like,

“I no longer regard as fruitcakes people who say they can hear something and I can’t measure it—there may be something there!” 


As I wrote in Stereophile 20 years ago, “If a tweak sounds unlikely but still costs very little, then try it. Why not? The price of admission is low enough that even if the effect is small, the sonic return on the financial investment is high. You can enjoy the improvement while reserving judgment on the reasons why."

 are fightin' words  to these guys.


I know. We've been saying similar things to industry leaders about our mp3 codec for nearly 20 years now. At best, we'll get a kindly pat on the head before being shown the door. At worst..(let's change the subject, shall we? cool)


 Generally, the response fluctuated between outright hostility as in, "you're delusional", "show me the numbers", "you don't know what you're talking about", "you're making it up"; ad nauseum  or radio silence. It's been a real party.


I do like to give credit where credit is due. Not only JA's but the comments by WELquest, rockoqatsi , mrplankton, GeorgeHolland and others in this discussion were "music to my ears." Finally, finally the idea that not everything "real" can or SHOULD be quantified scientifically is beginning to catch on. 


I'm not going to make the mistake of pitching HDAudioPlus here. It's not what this forum is about and I'll get slaughtered anyhow devil for even trying.


Instead you're all welcome to visit our website http://hdaudioplus.com for documentation and sample evaluation files for download. If you want to get a sense of some of the broader applications of this codec (and you like MTV) then head over to our MTV-style demo gallery on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/channels/nobodydoesitbetter


Because you people are  true audiophiles, we need your feedback!  Even if you hate  the sound. (just don't bother telling us we're nuts-we know that already...)


We've been tracking  listener response since 2003 via our  "Baroque 24/7" on "live 365". From letters and feedback generated from over 7 million streams we're pretty certain that while the sound of our codec may not be to everyone's taste, it's more than good enough. 


One question we've never been able to answer  but always wanted to ask is: 

To what extent is our audio quality enhanced when played on killer high-end equipment? 


* A word of caution before you try that one: HDAudioPlus works best when all hardware and software enhancements on the sound card or media player are set at zero.

I  thank you in advance for your input and comments. Who knows? Perhaps this forum can be the catalyst for some long overdue changes in the audio and recording industry.

Paula Wertheim - HDAudioPlus , Israel

p.s. Please direct any technical inquiries to the developer (Tuvia) at producer@hdaudioplus.com, He's the "man behind the curtain"- not me.

GeorgeHolland's picture

"I do like to give credit where credit is due. Not only JA's but the comments by WELquest, rockoqatsi , mrplankton, GeorgeHolland and others in this discussion were "music to my ears." Finally, finally the idea that not everything "real" can or SHOULD be quantified scientifically is beginning to catch on."

Excuse me but you obviously didn't read enough by myself and Mr Plankton because we do NOT advocate what you said in the last sentence in the quoted paragraph. JA was saying that recording is pure art and I say it's both but mostly real science and experience. Also we have enough silly tweek products that claim to transform the sound when all they do is take the gullible's money instead. Please don't put words into my mouth next time.

Evey product be it physical or software driven needs to be tested by measurements not just lame "reviews" like we see so much of in Stereophile.

HotChiliPeppers73's picture

JA was saying that recording is pure art and I say it's both but mostly real science and experience.

The way I understood the context of the article, JA was saying pretty much what you did : recording is a combination of both. The difference in opinion between you is a matter of degree,  not  principle. 


GeorgeHolland's picture

No if you really had paid attention to the article you would have read "Making recordings is an art, not a science". That's a direct quote. Also you obviously didn't comprehend what I said also.It amazes me how often people on here see what they want instead of what's really in the print.

HotChiliPeppers73's picture

With all due respect GH, the amount of time you've spent "dissing" me by belaboring this minor point is puzzling...

Personal bias and perception don't only distort the way we hear music. What we read is also interpreted in a number of ways, depending on one's "hidden agenda". 

So why don't we agree to disagree on this one and move on to something else, okay? devil

GeorgeHolland's picture

Minor point? That you can't even read a simple papragraph without then coming to completley wrong conclusions because your reading comprehension is nil? I would hardly call that belaboring.Either you can read or you can't. Please learn how to first before posting next time.

John Atkinson's picture

I have warned you and others in other threads, GeorgeHolland, that we will not tolerate flames. Please address the point being made by other posters and refrain from making personal comments.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile