"What I Mean..." (review terminology)

As you may have noticed, Stereophile's approach to equipment testing is quite different from that of "mainstream" audio publications. Instead of throwing a bunch of measurements at you, and telling you how we think components ought to sound because of those measurements, we test them as you would: by listening. But we have an extra problem: we have to convey to someone else—you—a feeling for what we hear from that component. It ain't always easy.

Many letters we receive express bewilderment and irritation with some of our terminology. This seems to imply that our equipment reports don't get through to some of you. The following may be of assistance in clarifying some of Stereophile's descriptive terminology.

I think I can safely assume that words like "shrill," "boomy," and "raucous" are easily understood. But let's take "bright," which carries different meanings for different people. To some, "brightness" is what is heard when the frequency range above 8kHz has a rising response. This adds sizzle to cymbals, exaggerated sibilance to voice, and heightened sharpness to such hard transient attacks as the sounds of struck wood blocks and triangle. But to call these instances "brightness" is wrong. They're more properly called "wispiness," "tizz," "sibilance," or "edginess," depending on the severity of the rise. I presume superior knowledge of this terminology because I invented it.

"Brightness" or "brilliance" results when you slightly elevate the frequency range between 3kHz and 8kHz. Elevate that range a little more and you get "hardness," which can then climb through "shrillness," "stridency," and "screechiness." Screechiness produces the sensation that one's earlobes are about to be severed, flush with the temples, by daggers of sound. In a truly dreadful system, excessive brightness makes you flinch. Like a razor blade scraped across glass, or a piece of chalk screeching across a blackboard; it sets teeth on edge. And, to different degrees, it affects every instrument whose overtone content extends through that range: violin, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, snare drum, voices, all high percussion instruments, and—quel horreur!—record surface noise.

Conversely, lack of brightness produces a muted, overly "sweet" quality which exaggerates the richness of music. Many audiophiles covet this.

Excessive or inadequate brightness are forms of "coloration." Coloration is any perceptible quality impressed upon all material processed by a reproducing system. Other forms of coloration include vowel-like sounds (aww, ee, ah), one-note bass, and so on.

Every system, no matter how good, has some coloration; if the components don't, the room will. But it's not really necessary to consider the room— every component has some. If you doubt this, listen to FM interstation hiss even through your Wilson WAMMs or Infinity IRSes. The hiss should sound like the speech consonant "ff" with LF content, and have no perceptible pitch. More often, it sounds like one or more whispered vowel sounds. (Try a range of these, from oo to ih—as in "pig"—while listening to hiss. Some will match. Then change your listening position by a few inches, and be prepared for a surprise.)

"Realism," "presence," and "aliveness" are three overworked terms which baffle many readers, and for good reason—they have no definitions, except in terms of "the real thing." And to someone who doesn't remember the sound of live, unamplified instruments or voices, "the real thing" is an equally meaningless term. To one (like myself) whose reference is live sound, realism, presence, and aliveness (interchangeable terms) describe the feeling that I am listening to actual, in-the-flesh instruments rather than their reproduction. This feeling—and it is only that—is brought on by a certain combination of aural cues which my perceptions identify as characteristic of live music. But aliveness does not pertain exclusively to music reproduction; it includes the reproduction such incidental sounds as page turnings, chair squeakings, and, during a quiet passage, the muted clearing of a performer's throat.

The most apt description of aliveness that I have heard—attributed to Sheffield Records' Doug Sax—is "jump factor": Listening to music with only half your attention, you hear a noise from the speakers that sounds so much like it's in the room with you that you jump with surprise.

Aliveness is the most common deficiency in today's audiophile speaker systems, because it is often diametrically opposed to "richness" and "depth." A system with presence will make a closely-miked instrument sound as if it is in front of the speaker system, but the ability to do this makes all instruments sound as far away as they actually were from the mikes. This does not yield as much apparent depth in the soundstage as one can get by depressing the system's presence range (broadly centered around 2kHz). The high-end speaker manufacturer has learned that his customers are happy to give up presence for exaggerated depth. Again, it's a matter of familiarity with the real thing (footnote 1).

Describing a loudspeaker as having "aliveness" to one who rarely hears live music is like discussing polyphony with a deaf person. But to an audiophile who knows and remembers what real instruments sound like, "aliveness" is one of the most important attributes of an audio system. It is to them that that term is addressed.

I witnessed perhaps the best illustration of "aliveness" a couple of years ago at CES. One day, as the show wound down, and visitors to the main exhibit areas scurried toward the shuttle buses, a real, live Dixieland jazz band started playing in the concourse. Instantly, every head swiveled to face the source of the sound. All those people, who had been barraged all day with what passes for "hi-fi," reacted to that sound because they knew immediately that it was live. It had "jump factor." This rare quality can be found in some systems; I consider it fundamental to high-quality sound reproduction.

There's much more to be said about the terminology we use in Stereophile reports; watch future issues.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: In this case, the manufacturer seems to be more in touch with "the real thing" of what customers will buy, that will put money in his pocket, than in "the real thing" as discussed here.—Larry Archibald