Pace, Rhythm, & Dynamics Page 3

Dynamic dilution: Realism in reproduced dynamics goes even further than this. Comparisons with live sound repeatedly show that the recorded or even just the amplified form suffers a significant loss of dynamic quality when it comes to reproducing music's inner dynamics. While an engineer might instinctively accept the notion that an audio transmission system has a finite dynamic window and that audible limitations may well be audible when waveform peaks reach the limits of that window, the idea that sounds nicely placed in the middle of the working range could still suffer in terms of dynamics is quite alien to him.

It's unfortunate that the subjective effect of all kinds of audio component errors is often a dilution of dynamic expression. More often than not, this weakness goes hand in hand with a loss in rhythm. Psycho-acous-tic-ally speaking, it may not be entirely valid to attempt to separate the two. Intuitively, one might expect that a perceptible softening of a system's dynamic quality would blur the timing cues due to its effect on the coherence and unity of the fast edges of transients and dynamic contrasts. Such an impression leads logically to a weakening in the presentation of rhythmic aspects in music. Weaken those, and the sense of drive and forward pace is also diluted.

It's ironic that you can have an extended bandwidth, or high sound levels, or great stereo imaging, or very low coloration, or powerful, low-distortion bass, or several worthy combinations of these, yet rarely can you obtain these with a coherent, focused combination of natural dynamics, pace, and rhythm. In high-end audio, we are often too busy examining the texture of the bark to see what kind of forest we are walking in.

It is undeniable that dynamics and rhythm strongly affect the emotional response to the whole musical entity. They represent the structure of the musical house, to which we can add such details as windows and decoration. However, exceptionally clear glass in a window frame is of no use if there is no structure to support it.

Whether played loudly or softly, music reproduced with good dynamic and rhythmic content competes with external factors for a listener's attention. Unfortunately, the high-end goals of purity and tonal balance often result in blandness of expression, with rather subdued dynamic contrasts. (Footnote 2) In addition, the rhythmic delivery can be perceptibly leaden, to the point where the sound is more like superior acoustic wallpaper than a committed attempt to reconstruct a live musical event.

In a contradiction of received wisdom, it turns out that some of the classic horn loudspeakers show much greater musical integrity, judged in terms of natural pace and dynamics, than do the majority of low-sensitivity, low-coloration systems now produced. Come back, Klipsch and Voigt, all is forgiven! Those designers' belief in outright sensitivity, and the qualities of linearity and uncompressed dynamics which this single factor confers, are still not properly valued by the high-end industry.

Is beauty sufficient in itself?
There is a real danger that the audiophile community---manufacturers, critics, and customers alike---has become obsessed with the search for absolute beauty in reproduced sound and has lost sight of the underlying animal force essential to a truly musical experience. Drama, surprise, and dance elements are essential to most music at almost every level of taste.

For many years it was suspected that beauty and rhythm were irreconcilably opposed, that systems which were lively and rhythmic were also unacceptably colored. Indeed, it was said that some products and systems only "sounded" as if they were fast and capable of rhythm, and that this was a result of a deliberately imperfect design falsifying the music's tonality.

Coloration has been and remains a major flaw of loudspeakers, some listeners taking the view that any serious coloration necessarily invalidates a design. Certainly many speakers are quite colored because they necessarily involve mechanical components which have intrinsic propensities to store and release mechanical and acoustic energies; ie, colorations. Yet if present to a mild degree, coloration may not by itself make or break a loudspeaker. For many listeners, mild coloration will not be that great a problem, soon becoming part of the whole sound of that speaker in their room.

Interestingly, a number of loudspeakers which do manage to convey the music's rhythmic values well are also moderately colored. To some, the two facts would seem to be causally connected. However, there is an unfortunate tendency for audiophiles and audio engineers to jump to conclusions when analyzing audio problems and effects. On the limited evidence of just a few models which appear to have related phenomena and technology, two plus two might appear to make four but can often make five. Earlier generations of JBL, Linn, Rega, and Naim speakers, for example, were sometimes labeled as "colored," it being said that their realistic presentations of life and pace were inherent in their design flaws. It is now clear, however, that in many of those designs the goals of lifelike dynamics and good rhythm were foremost in the designers' minds, and that these goals would not be compromised in an attempt to deliver fashionably low coloration. (Footnote 3)

Footnote 2: I recall a blind listening test I took part in in the late '70s, in which one of the recordings used was an anechoic one of a jangling bunch of keys. Through one loudspeaker, which had the flattest measured response and the lowest coloration, it was if the number of keys recorded had been reduced to just one! Through a speaker, which turned out to be the overall winner in the tests, the keys recording sounded appreciably more accurate, if more colored.---JA

Footnote 3: Which is the worse loudspeaker: the one that makes a German bassoon sound more like a French instrument, or the one that makes the bassoonist sound as if he hadn't had enough coffee that morning?---JA