Sisters in Sound Karen Sumner part 2

Guttenberg: Wait a sec...

Sumner: It's just that sometimes audiophilia is in direct odds with what music is all about. And I do agree that women may listen differently to an audio system, because they don't have an interest in using the system as a toy to manipulate sound. They look at it as a vehicle that brings them an experience.

Guttenberg: Based on my experiences selling high-end for 16 years, I can tell you that women are not so terribly interested in the process as much as the result.

Sumner: Yes, and when audio becomes a pursuit in and of itself, a system's performance may not have any relationship to its musical fidelity. I do enjoy listening to audio systems with a few male friends, but they're not audiophiles. Both of our engineers are men, but they're not looking at their job from an audiophile perspective. They're musicians and listen to a lot of live music, and that's their "reference." So we're not just tweaking the sounds of Transparent cables to suit our liking.

Guttenberg: The old "cables as tone controls" mindset.

Sumner: No, not at all. I have no problem with the pursuit of audio as a hobby, but a great high-end system should bring us closer to the musical truth. And if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have any reason to be in this business.

Guttenberg: Hey, I'm an audiophile, and I take great pleasure in both music and sound. I believe that the audiophile lexicon—transparency, soundstage, etc.—can raise the listener's awareness and musical satisfaction.

Sumner: I disagree with you. I don't believe that soundstaging, for example, exists in real life the way we hear it in a two-channel audio system.

Guttenberg: Really!?!

Sumner: Really. We don't hear "soundstaging" at a live concert. You don't get pinpoint imaging in three-dimensional space in a concert hall—that's a recording artifact, and terms like "soundstage" are musically irrelevant. In that way of thinking, the recording has become the absolute sound, not the music. Yes, the concepts are interesting from an intellectual standpoint, but those words fixate audiophiles on specific elements of sound, as opposed to the entire musical presentation. I think audiophile magazines have really done our industry a disservice by defining the High End in terms of a "sound" lexicon. For the most part, the press seems to have missed the point—that the sound system's ability to reveal the finer musical details of the performance, the sound of the instruments, the venue, are far more relevant to creating a fulfilling musical experience than analyzing specific sonic qualities.

Guttenberg: Okay, but what about multichannel? Will SACD or DVD-Audio get us closer to hearing the music?

Sumner: I really think that high-resolution multichannel's ability to render full surround ambience can be very appealing from a musical perspective. I've heard some of Peter McGrath's four-channel recordings, and they're riveting.

Guttenberg: So I guess you've also embraced home theater.

Sumner: I was a home theater holdout, although we have this unbelievable setup here at Transparent [Vidikron Vision 1 projector, Snell & Wilcox interpolator, Stewart screen, etc.]. But that system didn't connect with me on an emotional level—mostly because it wasn't in my home. Four or five months ago, I broke down and bought a 62" Pioneer Elite rear-projection set with a nice surround-sound system, and it all clicked. Yeah, this is good!! But music still works for me on many different levels. And there's a lot more good music out there than there are good films. But at least I now know why home theater is appealing to so many people.

Guttenberg: That's good, because we need something to draw more folks to the High End, and communicating sound quality to the average music listener isn't easy.

Sumner: Music listening is a right-brain phenomenon. The left side of the brain is the logical, more rational side, and so the analytical audiophile has a left-brain assessment of music. That approach has limited our industry's ability to reach a wider audience. I'm not just referring to reaching female listeners—just as many men have a hard time relating to the typical high-end audio presentation. Until we find a way to demonstrate high-end audio that connects with both sides of the brain, we're never going to reach a wider audience.

Guttenberg: So Linn's toe-tapping, feel-it-in-your-gut approach is on the right track?

Sumner: I'm with them all the way. Years ago, Harvey Rosenberg, bless him, wrote The Search for Musical Ecstasy, a really lucid book about this very subject. Harvey rhapsodized the sensual aspects of the hobby—from the gizmos to the musical experience, and on to the religious experience of it all. I contributed a chapter Harvey entitled "Karen Sumner for President" that covered the more Zen aspects of high-end audio.

Guttenberg: Yes, I especially liked the parts about how you listen as part of the design process. What sort of criticisms would you have...? "This cable's making the French horns sound like tubas!"

Sumner: I would have said something like that years ago, but at this point, by the time the engineering staff have brought a new design to me, they're long past just achieving correct tonal balance. I might tell them, for example, the cable lacks emotional involvement or immediacy, or I want more dynamics. Then they'll say something like, "Oh I know what that is," and go back to the lab and listening studio and take care of it. The engineering staff and I prefer to listen over the long term—no one can go for hours conducting A/B tests and make any real progress. We make a change and then live with it over a period of time, and then go back to the original cable. A/B tests nearly always lead you down the wrong path, because you invariably focus on a single or several specific elements of sound quality.

Guttenberg: And you go through this whole rigmarole with the lower-priced cables, too?

Sumner: Well, no. The time-consuming listening tests are performed only on the more expensive cables. But they provide us with computer models which we then apply to our more affordable products. Remember, every length of cable we make has a different network, and there's something like 500 different combinations of lengths and models in our current lineup. If we had to listen to every single one for days at a time, we'd lose our minds!

Guttenberg: This may be a politically incorrect question, but what do you think of the term "Wife Acceptance Factor"? Let's face it, a guy's got to sweet-talk his wife or significant other into letting him have big fat cables strewn across the floor.

Sumner: Cosmetic quality has always been important to us. Until recently, our customers have mostly been men who really like the look of big, blocky networks. With home theater, and more women becoming involved in the buying process, the market is changing. So we are just now introducing a sleek new aesthetic, along with some pretty amazing new technology. The new look is relatively small, "swoopy," and organic.

Guttenberg: Can you see a time when you produce cables without networks?

Sumner: We already do that. Our digital and video cables don't have networks—only our audio cables have networks.

Guttenberg: We haven't mentioned the other part of your business—you still make turntables!

Sumner: Yes, they're not going away. We still manufacture Well Tempered turntables and tonearms, and we intend to continue to provide service and support for our thousands of Well Tempered customers.

Guttenberg: One last thing: What about importing? Any new lines on the horizon?

Sumner: We really don't have time to consider other lines. By sticking with just cables and turntables, we can be totally unbiased about what amplifiers and speakers we recommend to use with our products. We place a high value on our freedom to coordinate what we do with other companies in the industry.

Guttenberg: This was a lot of fun. Thanks.