Steve McCormack: It's All In The Details Page 5

Harley: Do specific presentation aspects described in reviews contribute to musicality, or are they unrelated? Can you have involvement without having some of the specific attributes?

McCormack: Absolutely. Many people have said that the state of the art in music reproduction hasn't really advanced since—name a date. In this context, they're absolutely right. I've heard old systems that were highly colored, with nowhere near the resolving capability of the systems we listen to today, that were nevertheless wonderful to listen to—they were musically engaging.

This notion of musicality is very hard to get at, and it's something that traditionally tube electronics have done very well or with relative ease. It's very difficult to get it out of solid-state equipment, although I believe it is possible and doable.

And now we're faced with this whole issue in Compact Disc and digital recording and playback systems in general. I have the view that good-quality CD systems today are excellent if you go on the specifics—transparency, detail, dynamics, localization—make a laundry list. I believe that CD systems today (the good ones) do virtually every one of those things extremely well—extraordinarily well in some cases. Often better than analog vinyl playback.

But it's in the area of listener involvement in the music—this key issue of musicality—that vinyl analog is still superior and digital is struggling. We're getting better. Some of the products I've designed—the Signature CD player—have that quality. Perhaps not to the degree of analog, but nevertheless I can get goosebumps when I listen to music. That means I've succeeded. It doesn't mean I can't improve on the product, but it means the goal was achieved.

Harley: Compare and contrast working in digital vs working in analog.

McCormack: I will say that not only is CD far from perfect, but it is more temperamental and difficult to work with and more changeable than anything in analog ever was. When I make changes to an analog circuit—a resistor or capacitor or whatever—the effect may not be that big of a deal. In CD, you start changing things and the sound changes so dramatically that it makes it a much more difficult and demanding task to make a truly high-end digital product than I had ever seen in analog. CD decode electronics are extremely sensitive to very small changes.

Harley: So you get an analog-like variability from changing digital-domain components?

McCormack: Yes. Absolutely.

Harley: What changes in the electrical signal allow the music to convey more emotion?

McCormack: Now you're asking the hard ones...

Harley: If you knew that you'd win the Nobel Prize...[laughs] I don't really expect you to know the answer—I don't think anyone does.

McCormack: There are a number of things tied into it. The notion of coherence is associated with it. I have some difficulty in describing coherence; different people define it differently. To me, the quality of coherence is where the whole thing, the whole musical event, hangs together as a single entity. It is seamless from top to bottom. The entire frequency spectrum is properly balanced. The different spectra that we break the audio spectrum into—like bass, midrange, and treble—don't seem discontinuous. A lot of systems do that, where the bass seems disjointed, out of sync somehow with the midrange and top end, and even is broken into smaller sections. It seems fragmented somehow.

I can't tell you what property of the equipment causes that to happen, but when it's there I hear it as a problem. When the fragmentation is gone and we're back to a coherent sound, it sounds seamless. Everything hangs together. It fits. But that doesn't answer your question because it doesn't get at what property of the equipment is doing that. I don't think there is a direct answer to that because it is a systemic problem that you have to approach the designs as whole systems.

Resolution is important because it allows the listener to hear what the individual musicians are saying with their instruments. When I say "hear," I mean hear intimately. The subtle inflections. You have to hear the person's breath, the fingers moving, the shift of the fingers on the keys—not just the click of the keys, that's not what I'm talking about. It's the intonation that comes out of the instrument. Musicians do many things that are marvelously subtle—little intonations, lyrical things, bends of notes. These are the personality of the musician coming out through the instrument and in the music. You have to have a way to hear those things before you can completely get the message.

Harley: Those are things that get lost in some systems.

McCormack: Yes. That's especially true of the human voice. I think the human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, the most evocative. It's so rich with subtlety, and so much of that is lost on a lot of systems, even very good high-end systems. When I hear something that makes it sound as though that person were right there, singing to me, it comes across in a way that is rare and beautiful. That's what I keep searching for. It's the Holy Grail of high-end audio.