The Tin-Eared Americans

How would you feel after paying $2000 for super-stereo system, you learned that genuinely high-fidelity recordings of many excellent classical musical performances were not available to you? Could you excuse it with a shrug and the philosophical observation that nothing's perfect but things will get better as the state of the recording art improves? Okay then, what if you learned that truly high-fidelity recordings of these performances, that would sound very much like the real thing if reproduced through your super system, are available to millions of other people but not to you? Would you begin to feel just a little bit slighted, or maybe even irritated?

What, then, if you were told that the reason you must buy second-rate recordings of performances that millions of other people can buy excellent recordings of is that, whereas those other people demand that their recordings sound like live music, you don't really want that kind of recorded sound. You only think you do. What you actually want are shrill, steely violins, piercing trumpets, heavy mid-bass but no deep bass, restricted dynamic range, and gross exaggeration of any instruments that the recording director feels you should be paying attention to at any given moment.

Starting to get your dander up now? Good! Now get this: It's all true!

Those millions of people for whom recordings are carefully engineered to sound as natural as possible live in Europe, where the prevailing philosophy of classical recording is "We'll give you the best sound we can, and if your phonograph doesn't make our recordings sound good, then buy a better phono." In the US, the aim of the major record manufacturers is not to produce a classical recording that will sound as natural as possible on the best reproducing equipment, but to produce what is called a "commercial" sound, which means the kind of sound, we described earlier.

"Ahah!" you may say. "I'll just buy European-made recordings!" A fine idea. Except that the European-made recordings released through "legitimate" channels in the US are often not the same as the "same" recordings sold in Europe. Why not? Because the big European firms have learned American marketing from Americans, and have been producing "special" versions of their discs for the US market. And what makes them so special? The commercial sound, that's what!

Is every European firm doing this to us? Nope. Both Philips and Lyrita are exporting to the US pressings which are identical in all respects to the ones Europeans can buy. As for the other companies, we have first-hand reports that at least two have been producing "special" US versions with cynical intent, but because our sources of this information are employees of the companies in question, and said they would deny everything if quoted, we are'restrained from naming those firms.

So, who is doing it, intentionally or other™ wise? Here we must rely on the evidence of our ears, and our ears told us that, of a substantial number of parallel—ie, US/European—discs we have compared from London/Decca, DGG/DGG, Musical Heritage Society/Lyrita (footnote 1), and Angel/EMI, the European-released versions were consistently more musically natural-sounding. Could it all be coincidence? We don't see how that's possible, but we would welcome any better explanations from the record companies themselves. (Many recent DGG releases, incidentally, do appear to be identical to the European-released ones, which solves one problem for the buyer.)

As far as Angel and Musical Heritage Society are concerned, we can excuse a certain amount of deterioration between their releases and the overseas ones because theirs are cut in the US from master tapes which are presumably copies of the tapes used to cut the European releases. And no tape copy is as clean and as lucid as the original.

But what we do take umbrage at is the obvious changes in frequency response and, frequently, in dynamic range, that are made for the US releases. Perhaps the US firms really believe they are improving the sound, but since the changes are almost invariably toward what the industry calls their "commercial" sound, we can't help but wonder if they aren't being done with cynical intent.

How did all this come about, when just 20 years ago the US was admired by the world for the superb musicality of its recordings? We think several things contributed to it, but that the lion's share of the blame lies with the hi-fi press.

Magazines like High Fidelity and Stereo Review (footnote 2), which were ostensibly dedicated to furthering the cause of high fidelity, should have been keeping a watchful eye on the audio scene, reminding themselves and their readers as often as necessary that the term "high fidelity" means realism in reproduced sound. The editors should have seen that their record critics were equipped with record-playing systems that could reproduce what was on the discs instead of sharing the attributes of most of the mediocre phonographs owned by the majority of the public. Perhaps then, we would not have had critics applauding as "brilliant" or "hair-raising" each increment of treble boost that the record companies were starting to add to their discs.

The magazine editors, at least, should have observed what was going on and started taking the record companies to task for their increasing excesses in the name of fi. They didn't, and we can only speculate on their reasons. Perhaps they were actually as tin-eared as our European cousins believe we all are, or perhaps they are just as deficient in principle as the publisher of one such magazine who once told us "I don't care what they do to a record as long as it sounds good!" (To whom? To a European or to one of us tin-eared Americans?)

We don't know what kinds of reproducing systems the reviewers for the European hi-fi and record-review magazines have, or how much the editors influence the reviewers, but it has been our observation that they do not like "commercial" sound on discs, and they make their feelings about 'such matters very clear in their reviews. They have coined such delicious pejoratives as "zinc tank" sound, and occasionally toss off nasty little asides about the "tinsel and brass" taste of American record buyers. But the biggest difference between the American and European hi-fi press seems to be that the European magazines serve as a conscience for the record manufacturers and the buying public, while the US ones sometimes give the impression that they will endorse anything their advertisers do.

And so, we have our Sorry Situation, all of which raises the question: What can we do about it, if anything? Well, for starters, we can buy only European-released discs.

Many of these are now being imported into the US by certain record shops like Discount Records in Washington, DC, August Rojas, and Worldtone Music, and a number of smaller record shops have a spotty selection of genuine imports. You can spot these in several ways. Often, they are displayed in bins marked "Imports," which pretty much solves the identification problem right there. When they aren't, look for:
• 1) brandnames you won't usually find in the regular Schwann Catalog (footnote 3), like EMl/HMV, Argo;
• 2) unfamiliar brandnames (like EMI and Pathé);
• 3) familiar brandnames on unfamiliar-looking labels (Decca);
• 4) record jackets with brandnames obviously pasted over with new brandname labels;
• 5) records packed in sleeves of lighter cardboard than you're accustomed to seeing; and
• 6) products of non–English-speaking countries with jacket notes written in the native tongue or in a couple of foreign languages, often including an English translation.

There are more foreign labels than you can shake a stylus at, particularly if we include the pop and specialty labels, and while foreignness is certainly no guarantee that a recording is going to be state-of-the-art, the chances of its being better than the "equivalent" US release are much, much better than even.

You might also make a point of comparing some of these with their US-released counterparts, and if you can work up a nice head of steam over the difference, you might even dash off an irate letter to the president of the US distributor asking for and end to this nonsense, and suggesting that they import the stampers for the European-type releases and press them over here, if they won't import the pressings.

Finally, you might try sampling the wares of some of the smaller US record manufacturers like Nonesuch, Musical Heritage Society (on domestic recordings), Connoisseur Society, Composers Recordings, and Delos. Many of them are doing what the European firms do: Trying to produce the most musically-natural recordings they can.

And when you do come across a really good domestic recording (like Turnabout's Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances), for God's sake write to the manufacturer and praise him for it. You see, he thinks the American record buyer wants commercial sound. Let him know there are a lot of us out here who don't.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: Lyrita is also in the direct-export business, sending their European pressings to the US to compete with Musical Heritage Society's remasterings of the same recordings. Seems like an odd way to do business, but don't knock it!

Footnote 2: In an ironic twist of fate, in 2015 Stereophile's publisher now owns Sound & Vision magazine, which incorporates High Fidelity, Audio, and Stereo Review.—Ed.

Footnote 3: Stereophile owned and published the Schwann Guides from 1991 through 1998.—Ed.

dalethorn's picture

Audio magazine had some great writing. I remember Ed Canby (Audio ETC) writing about recording the Ed Canby Singers on batteries with a portable Nagra recorder. If I'm not mistaken, Audio was the only magazine where I read of the dangers of tape head wear, and how worn grooves in the head could chew the edges of some tapes. I lost a few tapes that way with an Advent 201 deck.