Listening #124

Beethoven understood the pathos of the gap between idea and realization, and the sense of strain put on the listener's imagination is essential.—Charles Rosen

Bass, like sex, is something most young men desire in excess: To the novice, quantity trumps quality, and as long as he can hear from his playback system the deepest sounds of an orchestral bass drum or five-string electric bass (low string tuned to B-0 or C-1), he is completely satisfied. Meanwhile, bass texture, bass color, bass momentum, bass nuance, bass tension, and, especially, bass feel have now joined the short-nosed sturgeon, the Arkansas fatmucket clam, the Iberian lynx, and the teacher of European culture on the edge of extinction. And relatively few music lovers seem to mind: As far as low-frequency content is concerned, most people—even most audiophiles—are as mere consumers, who swallow without tasting and whose hunger is never sated.

Exceptions abound, I'm sure, but I suspect that most of the people who are as deeply dissatisfied as I with the current state of bass are themselves older hobbyists. Yet, as with John Stuart Mill's famous observation on the relationship between intelligence and political orientation, the inverse isn't necessarily true: God love them, but many of my contemporaries are just as enduringly infatuated with sucky bass as their younger counterparts, notwithstanding the former's more sophisticated tastes in other aspects of sound reproduction. For some damn reason, almost everyone on Earth has convinced himself that the overblown, rubbery, and altogether relentless low-frequency reproduction that one hears so much at the typical audio show is realistic.

How can this be? Why is it that so many mature, savvy, concertgoing listeners—not to mention so many mature, savvy, concertgoing audio critics—are willing to accept bad bass?

One possible answer comes to us from the file folder labeled "Jed Clampett's Oldsmobile": After years or perhaps even decades during which only the humblest playback gear could be afforded, some hobbyists are happy to have any bass at all. I suppose I'm at least slightly guilty of that myself.

Add to that the legendary and nearly limitless capacity of the middle-aged male for self-delusion, colorful evidence of which is found in the story of Leo Fender: a man who pioneered the design and manufacture of the solid-body electric guitar, yet who himself had no musical training or talent. Today, of course, listeners recognize the solid-body electric as an appealing and artistically valid variant on the sound of the Spanish guitar, but that wasn't the opinion of Fender, who considered his "purer"-sounding guitar a successor to the more traditional types. Fender, who was apparently deaf to the distinctive tonal signature of his own instrument—especially as used with various different amplifiers—betrayed in later interviews some sense of astonishment that the acoustic guitar did not vanish from the Earth altogether at the dawn of electrification.

So it goes in our relationships with the low-frequency performance of modern playback gear. We all know, deep in our subconscious minds, that most of the reproduced low-frequency content we hear from our systems is unrealistic. But we also suspect, just as subconsciously, that that's the best we can do. And, just as important, we have grown to rather like modern bass playback in its own right.

So it goes here. I don't quite disdain modern bass: That's too strong a word. I'm just a bit fatigued—a bit fatigued and a bit unsatisfied. I have listened to, accepted, and, in my way, enjoyed modern bass for a goodly while. But now, late in the day, I've had enough, thank you. Now I'd like to have good bass. And if I can't have good bass, I'd rather have no bass at all. Not to be brusque about it.

Snippy is not a word I would use
What's the difference between real bass and unreal bass? One of the latter's most defining characteristics can be described with a single pejorative word: pump. Real music, with the possible exception of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, is not pumped at the listener, nor is it squirted, hurled, shot, pummeled, thrust, or thrown at the listener. Yet the majority of "high-end" systems I've heard throughout my life—and the vast majority of the ones I've heard at audio shows—do just that. The effect is not unlike trying to make a corpse seem lively by shooting it out of a cannon: The force with which the thing arrives isn't realistic—just horrifying.


Let the record show that virtually all of the bad bass I've heard from domestic playback gear has come from bass-reflex loudspeakers, usually driven by high-power amplifiers. As a general rule, high-excursion/small-diameter woofers have tended to sound worse—pumpier, if you will—than their larger comrades.

Real bass, on the other hand, as created in real settings by real musicians, simply happens: It is there, existing as a very long sinusoidal wave that's audible to listeners and detectable by microphones over a wide range of distances from the source. Acoustic instruments that produce audible tones pitched below 80Hz can excite the air in a performing or recording space by means of: large physical size (the soundboard of a grand piano); a large, enclosed volume of air that's open to the room via an aperture of predetermined size (the bell of a contrabassoon); or some combination of the two.

And there is always a sharply physical, tactile component to real bass—a sense of tautness—that is welded to the fundamental component of its sound in a manner that's all but indescribable. Real bass isn't merely fast: It's natural.

Let the record show that, of the relatively little good bass I've heard from domestic playback systems, most has come from woofers that measure no less than 12" in diameter, usually built with very tight, low-excursion surrounds. Some of those drivers have been horn-loaded, but that wouldn't seem to be a requirement. And most were manufactured before I made my First Communion.

An aside: Beginning in the 1980s (although this nauseating fad may have begun earlier), I watched more than one audio salesperson endeavor to prove the "quality" of a bass-reflex loudspeaker by lighting a match, holding it next to the reflex port of the speaker being demonstrated, playing at high volume a recording containing considerable amounts of high-amplitude bass, and watching with glee as the emitted air extinguished the match. Beginning in 2013 you can prove the irrelevance, if not the sheer pig-brainedness, of that stunt by lighting a match, holding it next to the F-hole of a friend's bass viol, asking said friend to play a low E, and waiting for the match to burn your thumb. On second thought, let someone else do it.


acawaigmail's picture

I’m surprised Art didn’t mention planar speakers (unless the comment about being “happy to have any bass at all” was a dig at his QUADs). The Magnepan MMG, for instance, has almost 700 sq. in. of radiating area, costs less than one third of the least expensive speakers mentioned in the column, and would fit well in a 12x19 room. Not much bass quantity, perhaps, but that’s why bigger (and more expensive) planars exist. Thanks for the Rosen quote.

dalethorn's picture

Some years back I read an article, perhaps in Audio magazine, describing a tiny loudspeaker that pumped out 1/4 acoustic watt of power at 30 hz or thereabouts. I sat down and wrote (before email) a letter to Paul Klipsch asking whether his Klipschorns could match that. I must have committed a heresy of my own, because he wrote back (handwritten) a letter explaining what real bass is and how the Klipschorn makes it happen, and that I shouldn't concern myself with juvenile fantasies of big bass in little speakers. And I did hear a Klipschorn in Cleveland after that, which sounded pretty neutral tonally. But no big scary bass.

prerich45's picture

You guys may get me to renew my subscription yet!!!!  This was one great article!!!! Bravo Zulu!

Freako's picture

Hi Art,

I love reading your column, even though sometimes it's about some things, of which I really haven't got a clue. But what the heck, you can always try to learn, right?

Other times I discover little golden nuggets in your column, and although you and I obviously don't agree on everything on this planet (which would in fact be weird), I surely respect your opinions. Why? Because they are built on facts, or at least on educated guesses. I also like your old fashioned (no pun intended) view on many things, especially audio, probably because I clearly remember the wonderful sound of 1950'es and 1960'es hifi equipment.

From the time when I wore diapers (1952-53), I was treated with a daily dose of Harry Belafonte, Nina & Frederik, plus a lot of other music that I don't remember quite as clearly, but I have had countless wonderful experiences with good music and decent equipment for decades. And at least I can still enjoy some of the sound of the above mentioned artists, as I still have recordings with them from that period. Hifi of that age sounded absolutely wonderful.

But now to the point:

Some years ago I worked with a bunch of students in the Danish State Archives, and one day some of them decided to go to a rock concert with the Danish (grunge?) band Kashmir. I decided to go with them, and be young with the young, just for a night. So, off we went to Little Vega...

Geez, that was a scary experience! The foremost half of the audience constantly jumped around like they were on drugs, which they may well have been, and the music (although it may have been okay if I'd been able to hear it) was completely drowned in a wall of bass, so loud and uncomfortable, that my ears sang for two days straight afterwards. There was simply no way of hearing the lead guitar or any vocals at all. A bit of drum forced its way through the wall of bass at times, but that didn't make the experience the least bit better.

Later I came to thinking that their sound engineer must have had his hearing severely damaged, since he was able to totally destroy whatever message a otherwise great band had in mind for us. Perhaps the band members and half the audience was deaf as well, I really don't know, but for me, another concert with Kashmir is out of the question.