As Reviewers See It Letters

Letters in response appeared in the February, March, and May 1992 issues.

Accuracy vs musicality
Editor: I really appreciate your periodic "As Reviewers See It" section ["As We See It," December 1991]. The disagreements and diversity of views are a mark of expertise and intelligence, in my view. The section on "Accuracy vs Musicality" in December particularly caught my attention. I have some thoughts about what I will call the "Car Radio Paradox" raised by Arnis Balgalvis (p.27): Goosebump elicitation (p.22) is the sine qua non of a good sound system, and car radios pass this test. Why not sell our expensive equipment and put car radios in our living rooms? Two distinctions help.

First, we may distinguish between the music (ie, form, harmony, rhythm, etc.) and the sound (ie, sound of the instruments and acoustic space). While we ordinarily hear music as a Gestalt of musical content and sound, we can also attend and respond more narrowly to one aspect or another. At one moment, we may be awed by the power of a Beethoven sonata; at other, we may luxuriate in the sonority of the Bösendorfer the pianist is playing. Analogously, in viewing a Renoir, we may be captured first by the composition, then dazzled by the brilliant reds or soothed by the pastels. Our capacity to shift attention between music and sound is crucial to the Car Radio Paradox.

Second, distinguishing among listeners' orientations and preferences is also helpful. Two extremes can be defined: The pure music lover could delight in playing beat-up old records on a 1950s console hi-fi, oblivious to the evolution of stereo equipment, uninterested in technology. The pure audiophile could spend tens of thousands on equipment, own a handful of "demonstration" CDs to impress friends, having little interest in music. Although we may tilt toward one end of the spectrum or the other, most of us are hybrids, having a love for music and a keen interest in sound.

The Car Radio Paradox is resolved by our ability to ignore the dimension of sound, the sensory aspect of the music, and to focus almost exclusively on the other, musical, dimensions. Apparently, we are all able to shift into the pure music-lover mode, at least in the car. Perhaps this mode comes most easily to those blessed with a capacity for rich auditory imagery; apparently, Mozart needed no sensory input whatsoever to hear a symphony. Those of us less gifted need at least a car radio (perhaps embellished with a trance-like capacity to fill in the meager sound with imagery from memory).

What is the point of accuracy (and high-end equipment)? In my view, the quest for accuracy as an end in itself is misguided, at best a peculiar hobby. It is, of course, a peculiar hobby that all readers of Stereophile participate in to some degree. Indulging in this hobby is a variant of the pure audiophile mode. Music is incidental; the sound of the system becomes the obsession (ie, comparison of the sound that emanates from the speakers with the sound of some (elusive) external criterion). In theory, one with absolutely no interest in music could diligently pursue this hobby. Equipment reviewers of necessity become caught up in this non-musical pursuit (until the music captures their attention); at least they have an excuse for it. To state the obvious, we need the accuracy not for its own sake, but to allow us the joy of those moments when we delight in the sound of the instruments. I use my car radio, but I'd hate to contemplate a life without any opportunity to hear the sound of Jack DeJohnette's cymbals!
Jon G. Allen, Topeka, KS

Music vs. hi-fi
Editor: Having read "As Reviewers See It" (Vol.14 No.12), I feel inclined to add my tuppence worth. The whole point of this hobby of ours is to enjoy music. A good hi-fi is one that stimulates your interest in music, broadens your musical tastes, and basically makes you want to switch off the TV and throw on some tunes. All this talk of transparency, soundstaging, image depth, etc. is meaningless unless it translates into an enjoyable experience. Personally, hearing every squeal, cough, or thud in vivid detail is more a distraction than a sign of a "well-sorted" system. Take the Avalon speakers JA reviewed [in January 1991]. They seem to be hi-fi hell rather than sonic nirvana. A Class A headache.

Some audiophiles are under the delusion that spending vast amounts on esoteric equipment equates to a greater love of music. In a lot of cases the opposite is true. They sit there with their heads clamped into the perfect listening position, waiting for the third violinist from the left in the second row to scratch his crotch. Who cares about the beauty of the music? If they don't hear that scratch, then two hours of tweaking will ensue. We're having fun now.

Sure we want to get the best from our investment, but that shouldn't get in the way of the music. If a piece of music moves you, then it should do so whether you hear it on the clock-radio or through a pair of Apogee Grands. I don't know any "audiophiles." I do know a lot of people who are passionate about music but own a rack system where the main design criterion seems to be that the speakers should be the same height as the cabinet that the electronics are housed in. I'll never argue with someone who says they won't spend $2000 on a "proper" hi-fi because they would rather purchase a cheap mini system and spend the rest on music. Would you?

Let's get back to basics. Being an audiophile isn't about the girth of your interconnects, the heat output of your class-A amplifier; it's about wanting to hear music you like in a way which you feel most closely approximates your perception of reality. This perception is different for everyone; there is no right or wrong. I have no idea what the "correct" sound is for any of my records. All I know is some hi-fi equipment gets the music across and some doesn't. The hi-fi experience is about tapping your feet, singing along, or being the conductor, not tweaking the system every half-hour. Yes, I wait impatiently every month for the latest conjecture on DACs, cables, or Kontak ear cleaner, but what makes it all worthwhile? Easy. When I slap a record on the Linn and do my own version of Karaoke. (Keep giving the more somber—or is that enlightened?—among us a kick in the butt, CG!) Nuff said.
Warren Hodgson, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Miking vs plumbing?
Editor: The last thing in the world I'd want to do is hassle Corey Greenberg after the treatment he's gotten from the heterophobes. But dang it, it annoys me when people make statements that are technically true but actually false.

In the reviewers' discussion session ["As We See It"] in December 1991, the assertion was made that the electric guitar/amplifier is actually an acoustical source. That's certainly true; many guitarists play in a style that includes hand-modulation of speaker breakup.

So is the acoustical sound thus produced actually recorded? Not necessarily. The microphone is commonly placed as close to a speaker cone as the grillecloth permits.

That's not miking. That's plumbing. The sound collected by this procedure is about as close to the entire original as a really good synthesized sound would be. Recording engineers are the biggest featherbedders since the railroad unions: They'll record 4% of an instrument, and bill you for weeks of production time while they try to reconstruct the rest. And they'll tell you they "have to" record that way so they can do the production work!

For an electropop band, this is perfectly fine. Unreality is their stock in trade, and those people are getting pretty darn good at what they do. But in the context of ensemble or near-ensemble playing, hyper-close miking always produces inferior results. Wouldn't you want to hear the resonances in that tweed Bassman, or the bodyslam gusts from a Twin-Reverb, or the harmonics of an acoustic piano, or all that stuff coming from the sides of a sax?

In a perfect world, nobody would bring a mike in any closer than the largest dimension of its intended source. Then again, in a perfect world, recording producers would read Stereophile and develop a concern for these kinds of problems; but you guys chased ;'em all away with your idiot treated clocks and Golden Sections.
—Hilary Paprocki
Rochester, NY

He's right; he's wrong!
Editor: In "As Reviewers See It" ("As We See It," December 1991, Vol.14 No.12), Corey Greenberg is absolutely correct in classifying an electric guitar, played through an amp, as an acoustic occurrence. It's about time people understood this.

However, he is just as absolutely incorrect in thinking that a miked recording of an electric guitar, played through an amp, can be used to determine the musical accuracy of a playback component or system. Unless the listener (ie, reviewer) was present at the recording, [or] unless he has complete familiarity with, and documentation of, the exact guitar, amp, and processing devices used, [and how each and every control on all three were set], the above assumption is absurd.
—Michael Kankiewicz
Buffalo, NY

See the article in this issue discussing Stereophile's second Test CD, which includes a music track recorded by Corey Greenberg without benefit of microphones. Can it be used to judge tonal accuracy? Only in very broad terms. But can it be used to examine such aspects of performance as image depth and soundstage palpability? Sure. Try it for yourself.—John Atkinson