Listening #71 Page 2

Next came the fun part: Measuring power, distortion, and frequency response. With a 1kHz signal across the inputs, we gradually raised the level until the wave began losing its shape, as seen on Neal's nice old HP oscilloscope: The upper half distorted slightly before the lower. At the clipping point, with 1% distortion, the Verdi produced 24.5W, or just 0.5W shy of the manufacturer's power specification. Its squarewave output was just about what we'd expect to see from a well-designed tube amp with a very good output transformer: slightly rounded corners, no egregious ringing, overshoot under control.

Switching from one frequency to the next, we saw that the Verdi's mid- to upper bass response was goosed up a little, starting at around 40Hz (+0.3dB) and continuing through about 160Hz (+1dB) before flattening out again. The treble rolloff began at 10kHz (–1dB), and by 20kHz the Verdi's response was 2dB down.

That was fun! Then we turned off all the gear and picked blueberries.

Questions but no answers
Amplifiers amplify music, and so do rooms. So do musical instruments, and so do mouths. There's no such thing as unamplified music, except when you're imagining it.

Acousticians—or, more precisely, consulting engineers in the field of architectural acoustics—earn their pay by using science to predict the performance of such large-scale acoustic amplifiers as concert halls and opera houses. Inasmuch as a genuinely, thoroughly, titanically disastrous auditorium is something of a rarity these days, one could fairly conclude that acousticians do at least a decent job overall: We would almost certainly be worse off without them and their craft.

Fairness also compels me to say that consulting engineers in the field of architectural acoustics seldom, if ever, claim that their measurements and their predictive modeling can tell you everything you need to know about the sound of a given performance space. Indeed, I can't imagine any of today's acousticians being quite so foolish as to do so—if only because of the field's many well-publicized partial failures. (Carnegie Hall's mildly controversial restoration of 1986 comes to mind, as does the 1988 attempt to reverse some lingering missteps with the addition of freestanding acoustic panels. I can't help but imagine that a number of talented, well-trained acousticians were involved at every stage of those changes; because their efforts were, insofar as one could tell, more or less free of hubris, none has yet been recommended for waterboarding.)

But why on earth would anyone claim that science can predict or explain every nuance of the sound of an audio amplifier? And why on earth would anyone with the brains God gave a mule believe such a thing?

The measurements that Neal Newman and I made of the Verdi correlated with many aspects of its sound: It was a warm, rich-sounding, identifiably tubey amplifier, with a pleasantly but not egregiously soft top end. It allowed Paul McCartney's beautifully melodic electric bass lines to sound colorful and fat, but not slow. Tony Rice's Martin guitar was every inch the Brazilian rosewood bluegrass warrior through the Verdi, and the orchestral bass drum in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius seemed to shake the foundations of the room in which it was recorded. The chorus of knights at the end of Wagner's Parsifal sounded like men, the double-basses behind them suitably portentous. Harps sounded enormous. Best of all was the way Sonny Rollins's tenor saxophone sounded through the Verdi: deeply textured, vividly colored, just plain rich. I listened to a lot of Sonny while that amp was in my system.

Our measurements predicted all of that. But what could have foretold the fact that the Verdi allowed musical lines to flow better than most other amps I've tried in my life? What might have prepared me for the very real sense of momentum in the music I heard through that amp? Could I have seen that in its squarewave response? I guess, maybe. To paraphrase the late Shelby Foote, that might have been the sort of thing I would have expected, but only after I'd learned to expect it.

I'm not mocking the idea of measuring an amplifier, or those people who would seek to do it. The answers I want may have been there all along, but I missed them only because I lack that most sophisticated of all human cognitive skills: the ability to see connections where none appear to exist.

Nor do I pretend that our set of measurements was anything other than very rudimentary. We didn't measure risetime, or high-frequency intermodulation, or any of a number of other pertinent things, either because we couldn't or we didn't know how. Those things might have told us more, might have given us an even fuller idea of what the Verdi sounded like.

But I don't think for one second that any measurement, made by itself or in combination with some others, could have told us everything that a really engaged listener would hear within the first 15 minutes of playing a recording of music.

Measuring domestic playback gear is fun, like tying your own flies: The fish you catch with them won't fight more valiantly or make for a better meal, but for the dedicated enthusiast who wants the full experience, nothing else will do. Count me among them: God gave me that cell, too.

Survival strategies
A fearful outlook once again led me to wonder: If I have to move house in a hurry, what will become of my 3000 or so LPs and 78s? In an emergency, how will I know which ones to grab, which to leave behind? The answer is obvious: I won't.

So I set about correcting things by reorganizing my collection, and by culling just enough titles to fill three milk crates. That amounts to a little over 200 records, now stored at the end of the final shelf, the one nearest to the door. My basis for selection was highly subjective, and something of a moving target: records I want to keep...

• for their collectibility (ie, their monetary value)
• for their sentimental value
• because they contain indispensable music that neither I nor my descendents should ever be without

In my time of culling, I tore through the larger collection like grits through a goose, choosing as much by instinct as by intellect, and rejecting the rejects ruthlessly. Yet for all that, I was surprised at how balanced the results turned out to be: roughly one-quarter classical, one-quarter jazz, one-quarter pop, and one-quarter American folk (bluegrass, old-time music, cowboy songs, etc.). Someday I'll write out the list so I can post my choices for the sheer reckless fun of it: 200 records ain't a lot, but I'd stand by most of the list as an awfully good foundation.

Some choices satisfy only one category—to me, Casino Royale is valuable only as a collector's item, and the well-worn copy of John Lennon's Imagine that I bought on the day it was released is more a sentimental than an intellectual fave. Others ring more than one bell at the same time. You'd have to kill me and use a very high grade of Formalin to pry my fingers away from the album of Django Reinhardt 78s I only recently found on eBay. Even better is the original-issue LP of Jacqueline du Pré and Sir John Barbirolli's recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, which I bought at Caruso & Company in London when Janet and I were on our honeymoon. Likewise the second-greatest rock bootleg ever made: Roxy Music's Champagne and Novocain.

But one stood out: a record that didn't even make the grade the first time I went through the collection. While working my way through the first row of classical LPs, I came across a copy of Brahms' Piano Concerto 2, performed by Artur Rubinstein and Josef Krips, to which I'd taped a little note: Good condition awful sound snoozy performance.

I couldn't recall writing those six words, so I decided to stop what I was doing and listen to the record through the Verdi amp, with the Audio Note AN-E loudspeakers at one end of the system and my vintage Thorens-EMT-Ortofon record player at the other. (Because I didn't remember the record, I had to assume that the last time I'd played it was at least a few amplifiers ago.) Either I was deaf and dead wrong when I last put a needle to that groove, or else the Brahms was a record whose very good qualities had eluded my previous system. In any event, the performance was wonderful, if a little sloppy here and there (Rubinstein seemed to cut the corners on some of the snagglier bits), and the sound was actually quite good: very colorful, and very big.

I'll tread carefully here, if only because some readers appear to regard the ability to re-examine one's point of view as evidence of demonic infestation: I was a little dazed at how close I'd come to ignoring, let alone discarding, such a fine record. But more than being discouraged by my occasional foolishness, I was delighted by my more commonplace good fortune—and reminded that real high fidelity means fidelity to the music, and that the system that brings out the music's drama, color, scale, and sheer meaning will always be the one worth buying, no matter what qualities are offered by the competition. God gave me the sense to know that.