Listening #12 Page 2

When people go on and on like that about "fidelity," what they're generally talking about is flat frequency response. It's a tone thing, in other words. But the science and art of music reproduction encompass a great many different things: Dynamics. Pitch. Timing. Speed. Texture. Scale and spatial effects. Freedom from noise. And, yes, tone—as in "correct" tone. My question—and it's a good one—is this: Why do some people not only take it upon themselves to put tone at the top of the list, but go so far as to pretend that it's the only thing that matters?

That's where claims of objectivity fall flat. I can't think of anything more subjective than trying to force other people to accept someone else's priorities.

For the record: Does flat response equal truth? No. That's like saying a truthful tax return is one on which the taxpayer's name and address have been entered correctly: Honey, that's just the beginning.

Let's look at the example of a Lowther full-range driver. Are Lowthers flat? For the most part, and depending on how they're used, the answer is another big, juicy "Hell, no!" For one thing, they've got that peaky thing going on in the upper midrange, which alone is enough to chase some—some—audiophiles into the next county. For another, Lowthers neither extend far enough into the highs to be called airy, nor far enough into the lows to be called truly full-range. I think it's perfectly reasonable to think of the overall spectral lightness that can result from poor bass extension as a coloration. (Even if I don't. Really.)

But: There isn't another dynamic, cone-style driver on the planet—not one—that can match the speed of the Lowther. In that sense, the Lowther's in-room performance is observably, inarguably more true to the signal it's fed. Thus, Lowthers are much higher-fidelity loudspeakers than average.

I can hear the howls from here.

The above is, of course, an example of subjectivity—in this case, my subjectivity. Even if I publish bookloads of truthful numbers and clear, unambiguous graphics that prove the superior speed of the Lowther loudspeaker, my observations are subjective, not objective, and my opinion should not necessarily be given more weight than yours or anyone else's. Who am I to say that speed, as a parameter of audio performance, is or should be the most important?

Why have we become tyrannized by the cult of flat frequency response? I think it's because frequency response is easy to measure. I mean, if I can do it...

Are you likely to pick up the phone any time soon and order a squarewave generator, an oscilloscope, and a suite of Fast-Fourier Transform softwares—then actually go to work using them? Of course not. That stuff requires training, understanding, and time: three things that are anathema to our American way of life. But a spectrum analyzer is different, and I speak from personal experience: It's easy. You can look at the front panel and, unless you're a habitual sniffer of paint fumes, you can get up and running within 20 minutes or so. Here's where the microphone plugs in. Here's where the pink noise comes out. And here's the control for determining how many dB are represented by each gradation. Simple as milk. The same typing chimps that came up with The Tempest and Richard III could do it, given enough time.

"'s later than you think!"
How's that song go? "Enjoy yourself..."

Let me back up again: Although I was being truthful when I suggested that the differentness and funness of the movement would have attracted me to SETs regardless of their sound, it was indeed their sound—their music-making ability, to be precise—that kept me there. Nothing does drama like a SET and a horn. Nothing does presence like that combo, either—not even a really good Quad on a really good day.

Above all, those systems love the human voice: They go looking for it and find it and pull it away from everything else like nobody's business. Having seen the band in concert at Saratoga this year, I've been on a big Crosby, Stills & Nash kick lately, and I've been listening a lot to their first album in particular, as reissued on LP by Classic Records a few years back. I remember hearing it on my Quads recently, and it was fine: transparent, uncolored, and nicely present—altogether fun and engaging and right. Then, just last evening, I set up my Lowthers and Fi preamp and Fi 2A3 stereo amp (a little less than 3Wpc). It may not have been "right," but it was arguably a little bit truer to the spirit of the music. How did this system pull those voices forward, away from the guitars and everything else in David Crosby's incandescent "Guinnevere"? And how could something like that be a distortion? I mean, maybe it is—but how?

I know that my really not caring whether or not it's a distortion constitutes a heresy. Sorry, but when I spend money on something, I'm stupid enough to want to enjoy it. Maybe that admission will draw more letters comparing me to yet another villain from the pages of USA Today (pedophile priests? murderers of pizza-delivery men?), but I have more important things than that going on in my life, and insufficient disposable income that I can afford to flush any of it down the toilet of audio correctness—anybody's audio correctness. To paraphrase a very different song, I buy what I like, and I like what I buy.

While I'm on the subject of heresies, here's one more: I think measurements remain worth doing, but not to make me or anyone else feel good about their choice of gear. Rather, I think that learning about technology, and looking for and occasionally finding correlations between science and sound, are also fun. (As John Atkinson will attest, I am forever bugging him to share with me his considerable experience on the subject.) In some parts of the audio world, of course, that observation is the fly on the sherbet: Some old people in hi-fi—younger ones, too, I'm sad to say—are like the biddies who don't think people should smile in church. Well, I just wasn't put on this earth to make them happy. I smile in church all the time.

To wrap up, here are two things I know for sure:

First, if you worry about what other people think of your hi-fi to the extent that it affects your approach to the hobby, that's utterly sad, and you should stop doing it and start having fun right now. Life is brief.

The other thing is this: If your idea of fun is bullying people in the pages of an audio magazine or on an audio website in order to—what? impress girls? impress boys?—you are truly a sad sack of dung, and with the exception of a tiny handful of suckups, most people with a spine just wish you'd go away and stay there.

On that warm note, I wish the rest of you a merry Christmas. If you're observing some other holiday at this time of year, I wish you a merry one of those, too, as long as it's not some stupid cult.