Live as Canned, Reproduced as True

A funny thing happened at the symphony the other night. A concert by the great Berlin Philharmonic sounded like lousy hi-fi.

It was as if art were imitating bad technology. Ensconced in orchestra seats T1 and T3, designated "Prime Orchestra" in San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, I and longtime audio consultant and dealer Tim Marutani were befuddled by what we heard. For all their vaunted superiority, the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, sounded like a dim, disordered mess. Highs were flat and lifeless, the midrange was muddled, and the deep double basses sounded so unfocused that I couldn't distinguish their pitches. The overloaded bass blasted by the souped-up, late-20th-century Buicks that set off car alarms as they zoom through my neighborhood suddenly sounded like accurate reflections of the live acoustic experience.

It was a dispiriting case of "Pass the live, give me the Memorex." All I could think was how much better the Berlin Philharmonic sounded "canned" through my home reference system than it did in person.

To make matters worse, this was my second consecutive night of bad sound in Davies. Although the fine folks in the San Francisco Symphony's Public Relations Department know my preference for orchestra seats closer in, I wasn't on assignment that night. Hence, the ideal orchestra seats—where highs arrive with thrilling brilliance, winds and low strings are in sharp focus, and percussion has sufficient space to bloom—went to other critics.

I'd spent that first night with the Berliners very far from my reference seats: in the first row of the First Tier. There, the sound was so flat and lifeless that I was unable to compare the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle to that of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Were the strings as soaring, the clarinet as colorful, the phrasing as persuasive? I couldn't tell. People around me were cheering Schoenberg's arrangement for full orchestra of Brahms's Piano Quartet 1 and Brahms's unretouched Symphony 1, but I was wishing I were home, listening to the Berlin Phil's new set of Brahms symphonies on my reference system.

Crazy, isn't it? There I was, a music lover privileged to have gratis seats for one of the finest orchestras in the world, and instead I longed for the audio rig I'm blessed to have: PS Audio Perfect Wave disc transport, Theta Digital Gen.VIII Series 2 DAC, VTL Signature 2 monoblocks, Talon Khorus X speakers, Bybee Golden Goddess and Nordost Odin cables/Quantum mains conditioner, all supported by either Cerapucs or Marigo Magic Feet, and accompanied by Synergistic Research ART and Shakti Hallograph room treatments, with a MacBook Pro laptop running Amarra, a prototype Wavelength Wavelink USB-S/PDIF converter, and a Kimber Kable USB cable.

Then, on the second night, things changed. Between the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony 1, I gestured to Tim that we could move up one row, to S1 and S3.

"Do you think three feet will make a difference?" he asked.

I suppressed a wink. "Only one way to find out."

Those three feet turned out to be crucial. Just one row forward, highs gained in life and clarity, and the instruments in the midrange began to come into focus. The basses were still a woeful mess, but at least there was some slight indication that they were playing in tune.

Warily wondering what the still-dim acoustic might do to Brahms's Symphony 2, I spied empty seats in Row M, in the center section. Although Tim was nervous about occupying the seats of possible latecomers, I assured him that we could always scurry back to our original spots if need be.

Moving forward brought further revelations. Bass notes now had distinct pitch, the midrange was in focus, and the highs, if not as brilliant as on MTT's optimally miked SACD recordings of Mahler's symphonies, were far livelier than through many of the dismayingly dark systems I've blogged about and reviewed.

But something far more important than instrumental clarity had been achieved. Brahms had been given back his soul. The great man, who so touchingly expresses our innermost longings while affirming the essential beauty and holiness of life, was again able to reach deep into our beings and touch us to the core.

What a thrilling experience his Symphony 2 became. When Sir Simon rallied the Berliners for the fourth-movement climax, the glorious clarity, color, and eloquence of it all propelled to their feet virtually everyone in the audience who could stand unassisted. We whooped and cheered, as much for Brahms as for the musicians who had transformed notes on paper into a transcendent experience.

As Tim and I half-floated out the door, we discussed his forthcoming visit to Los Angeles' Disney Hall, to hear the Berlin Philharmonic perform the same program. I begged him to tell me about any differences in sound and the resulting emotional impact he might notice.

Tim returned with a glowing report of Disney Hall's acoustic. Although I'd spent hours on the Disney stage when the hall was empty, covering a Yarlung Records recording session for Stereophile, I had never sat in one of the hall's prime orchestra seats for a public concert. Imagine my surprise when Tim told me that, seated virtually the same distance from the Berlin Philharmonic in Disney as we had in Row M of Davies, the sound was considerably more focused, articulated, and vibrant; the ambient decay was more audible; and the music was far more moving.

What does all this say to audiophiles? Certainly, it underscores the importance of the correct placement of loudspeakers and listening seats. If, in a huge, multitiered concert hall, a shift of only three feet can noticeably improve the quality of the experience, think of the difference that moving speakers by ½", or your listening position forward or back a bit, can make in a far smaller room.

It also flies in the face of a major audio truism. As much as black-and-white dualistic thinking may declare that live is better than canned, it ain't necessarily so. It all depends on the acoustic of the concert venue, where you're sitting, and the quality of your system and setup at home.

Forget declarations that high-end audio is always inferior to live acoustic sound. There are times when high-end audio can actually sound better, and move us more, than the in-person experience. In the worst cases, which occur all too frequently—in halls designed more for looks than for sound, and in amplified environments where noise and distortion pass for music—you may find yourself running home after a concert to hear all that you've just missed.

Next time a veteran concertgoer tries to dismiss your audiophile reality, you might suggest they test their assumptions by coming over to enjoy some great recordings, and possibly hear the music they love sound better than it would live.