Pace, Rhythm, & Dynamics One listener's lament

Pace & Rhythm: one listener's lament
Some years ago it struck me that British writers were increasingly discussing the "rhythmic" properties of the components they reviewed. (I now see the issue coming up slowly in Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound as well.) Although I understood all the words used to describe the differences ("bass was a bit slow...the highs lagged by a considerable amount...," etc.), this message made no sense to me; I felt no recognition. Rereading didn't help, and reading more of the same didn't help.

So, on one of my annual trips to the HFN/RR Penta Show, I decided to devote five minutes of a lengthy discussion with Martin Colloms to the above-mentioned phenomenon.

When I came home, I decided to let the matter drop, but in the back of my head the process must have gone its way.

Then, some months ago, I was testing three mid-priced CD players for a Dutch magazine: a Pioneer PD-9700, a Denon DCD-900, and a Technics SLP-700. One of the discs I use for my auditioning is Paul Simon's Graceland. Though musically very interesting, this is by no means the ultimate recording in terms of sound quality; it can sound a bit hard and "processed" on a very high quality, very transparent system. When I played track 3, "I Know What I Know," on the Pioneer, it suddenly struck me that there was something rhythmically wrong.

I tend to listen in an analytical way, not only when I try to come to grips with the sound quality of a piece of equipment, but also when concentrating on the music itself. Exploring the musical structure, I identify with one instrumental line and try to understand the other "voices" from there on. In "I Know What I Know," I chose the bass guitar, which plays on its high strings an intriguing, almost perpetually repeated sequence which goes more or less like this:

The bass guitar is played just slightly ahead of the beat, this "pulling" creating tension. Other elements playing important rhythmic parts are the bass drum, Simon's voice, a couple of electric guitars playing an Afro/Latin countermelody, and the chorus in the refrain, some of these syncopated. The rhythmic balance between these separate lines is not as tight as in much of today's sampled and thus computer-controlled music; it's looser, like what you'd hear from a live band. At least, that's how it should be.

The Pioneer made a mess of it. After hearing this same disc on other machines, the Pioneer made it sound like another take of the same music played by the same people, but from a different session in which the band had partied too much the night before. The Technics was better, and quite listenable, but the best of all was my reference machine: a Marantz/Philips CD80. I've tried many CD players since, but for rhythm the CD80 is by far the best, regardless of price.

You can hear these differences in rhythm on some classical music (eg, some faster Bach movements), but on many pieces of music it isn't that apparent, even when listened for. Still, I think it plays a role, even if a nearly subliminal one. It would explain, for instance, why I've always liked the CD80 so much, despite its harsh highs.

As for an explanation of the rhythm phenomenon, I've no idea. Some have suggested that low-bit converters are worse in that respect than the multi-bitters because of the noise-shaping used in the former (noise-shaping works by feedback and time-delay, and could thus be thought of as time-smearing), but in my experiences with 20-30 different machines I haven't seen such a relationship. Neither do I see a correlation between rhythmic performance and price. Even more confusing is the fact that, even when using the same outboard D/A converter, the rhythmic quality reflected the CD player used as a transport. What's going on here?---Peter van Willenswaard