Why Hi-Fi Experts Disagree Page 3

You may prefer a close seat because you hear more sonic detail from there. Somebody else will prefer a more distant one because the sound blends better farther out in the hall. Another may choose the balcony because, in that particular hall, the brasses or strings, or the woodwinds come through more clearly or more richly when heard from a high vantage point. In other words, your best seat is best for you, but not necessarily for everyone else.

Where does this leave us? Well, it leaves us on slightly less firm ground when it comes to judging the original sound. There is an out here, though. If a system reproduces a recording the way it was intended to sound—that is, if it makes distant miking sound distant and close miking sound as close as it actually was—then we can justifiably say that the system is reproducing this aspect of the recording with fidelity. If the other aspects of the sound—frequency range, instrumental timbres and so on—come through as they were recorded, then the reproduction is a high-fidelity one.

In other words, as far as the reproducing system is concerned, it is fidelity to the recording that counts, rather than fidelity to the original sound. In order to judge how accurately the system is reproducing the recording, it is necessary to know precisely how the recording was made, and how the recording microphones affected the sound (which they always do to some extent). These, though, are the things that are almost impossible to find out about commercial recordings, which is why equipment testers who are really serious about their calling make their own recordings, using the best microphones and recorders they can lay their hands on, and use these recordings for judging the playback equipment they are testing.

A tape that is recorded through microphones of known characteristics, and is then played back through a carefully calibrated professional-quality tape recorder, will provide the most dependable audio signal source available for listening tests. The reproduction will never sound exactly like the original, because no living room has the same acoustics as a concert hall, but orchestral timbres should sound natural, the full frequency range of the orchestra should be there in proper balance, and the sound will be clean enough to reproduce without muddiness on a system that is free from distortion.

Discs cut from such a tape, under carefully controlled conditions, can provide a pretty good test for pickups and preamps, too, but there is less certainty about the sound of a disc, because too many variables—processing problems and playback styli, to name but two—can affect the way it will reproduce.

It is entirely possible to assemble a very fine-sounding system from components that are intrinsically third-rate, by balancing one component's colorations against those of another. But replace any of these components with one that is actually superior, in that it introduces less coloration than the "standard" unit, and the system will sound worse than it did before. Much the same thing can happen if a mediocre loudspeaker, which was effectively masking distortion that was being fed to it, is replaced by one with wider range and better transient response. The better speaker, revealing all the sonic flaws that the other one obscured, will sound worse than the mediocre speaker.

This is how many experts get themselves into trouble. They assemble components that compensate for one another's deficiencies, with the result that each time they substitute a new one for comparison purposes, their judgments of it are valid only insofar as that component is related to the rest of their own particular system...

The best source of information about equipment is someone who 1) attends concerts fairly regularly, 2) uses good master tapes of his own making for listening tests, 3) has the equipment and the know-how to check measurements against subjective reactions, 4) has frequent access to new components, preferably on the service bench, and 5) has the good judgment to know that his taste in sound may not be the same as yours.

This seems like a tall order, but there are many such experts to be found in the better hi-fi shops and behind the pages of some hi-fi publications (such as The Stereophile, of course).

The best that any expert can do is to lead you to components that are intrinsically excellent. You will still have to make up your own mind about such matters as cost and appearance and flexibility, and you should try out a few different loudspeakers in your home to find out which ones suit your acoustical environment and your taste in reproduced sound. The expert cannot, and will not if he has any sense, choose the components for you, because your ear is the final judge in the last analysis. If no combination of really good components sounds good to you, then you probably don't really want high fidelity, and can forget all about the expert opinions. They don't agree anyway.