Truth vs Beauty: A Tale of Two Transports

It is a truism that audiophiles love music. What distinguishes us (footnote 1) from the vast majority of music lovers is the importance we ascribe to the high-quality reproduction of recorded music. But what, exactly, constitutes high-quality sound reproduction? To many audiophiles, the answer relates to accuracy. Useful indices of accuracy include many of the parameters that editor John Atkinson routinely measures: flat frequency response, time and phase accuracy, and low distortion, to name a few. On the other hand, many audiophiles apparently have little interest in these aspects and instead seek nothing more—or less—than a romantic and pleasant sound. Such individuals are unfazed by demonstrable inaccuracies in their systems; as long as it sounds good to their ears, they are happy. Are these two schools of thought both compatible with the notion of high-end audio? If so, is one "more correct" than the other? Are they mutually exclusive? What brought this issue to mind was, of all things, a digital transport. Actually, two transports.

306truth.jpgFor the past few years my reference digital transport has been a CEC TL1-x. Ever eager to try new things, I recently purchased an older (and now discontinued) Sony CDP-707ES CD player and sent it to Alex Peychev, of APL HiFi, who extensively modified the transport section. Alex is a topnotch modder perhaps best known for having played a pivotal role in determining the cause of the widespread failures of Philips SACD 1000 SACD players. Not only did he help diagnose the problem, he willingly shared the information with the audio community. High-end audio needs more people like Alex.

Once connected to my Reimyo DAP-777 DAC via a Stealth Audio Varidig Sextet digital cable (footnote 2), the Sony presented a starkly different sonic picture from that of the CEC. The belt-driven CEC's strength is a lush midrange associated with somewhat diminished frequency extremes. Despite these errors of omission, it is a very seductive presentation. In contrast, the Sony has more treble and bass energy, places more emphasis on the transient attacks of notes, and gives the impression of the music being more brightly illuminated.

While listening to these two transports, I was reminded of something that transpired a few years ago, when I was a regular customer at Innovative Audio in New York City. Two of their flagship speakers were the Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 and the Sonus Faber Amati Homage. While both have garnered wide praise, and in many ways represent the state of the art of speaker design, they sound as different from each other as day is from night. I discussed this with one of the Innovative salesmen—Bruce Deegan, with whom I became good friends. He opined that while Dave Wilson might describe his objective as that of conveying truth, Franco Serblin might describe his as that of conveying beauty. With his typical keen insight, Bruce was quick to point out that the difference was not as clear-cut as it might seem at first blush, since there is beauty in truth and truth in beauty. In much the same way, the CEC seems more about beauty, the modified Sony more about truth.

With that as background, the following questions arise: Since the goal of high-end audio is the "high-fidelity" reproduction of recorded music, why would a designer choose beauty over accuracy? Similarly, why would an audiophile prefer a less accurate sound? And, most intriguing, how is it that a less accurate reproduction can sound more beautiful than one that is more accurate? After all, when we hear live music, we don't typically wish that the instruments sounded more beautiful (footnote 3). Why should we do so when listening to recorded music?

It is my belief that the key to these questions lies in the fact that all playback systems are ultimately flawed. Thus, attempts to achieve accuracy, however noble, are unobtainable with present technology. Even the best equipment generates any one of a variety of artifacts, many of which are perceived as unpleasant: sibilance, harshness, exaggerated detail, or a metallic quality, to name a few. Designers deal with these artifacts in either of two ways.

One approach, taken by those we can call "beauty seekers," is based on acceptance of the fact that absolute accuracy cannot be achieved. Accordingly, designers of this ilk seem willing to sacrifice accuracy—or, more correctly, near-accuracy—for a sound they find more pleasant. Commonly, this manifests as a prominent midrange of a kind that calls to mind the descriptor lush. In other cases, or concurrently, the high frequencies may be a bit rolled off, perhaps as a means of avoiding a bright sound. I don't want to give the impression that the beauty seekers are unconcerned with accuracy. Were that the case, it is unlikely that their products would ever be taken seriously by the audiophile community. Rather, the distinguishing feature of these designers is their apparent willingness to "embellish" that which they find pleasant sounding and to minimize that which they don't.

The second group, which we can call the "truth seekers," strives first and foremost for accuracy. However, because compromises must be accepted in any design, even the most ardent seeker of truth must, well, make compromises. Presumably, such designers strive for greatest accuracy of those aspects of musical reproduction they consider most important. For example, some speaker designers feel that it is critical to maintain phase correctness and therefore favor single-driver designs; or, if they do use multiple drivers, they use phase-preserving first-order crossovers, and perhaps even concentric drivers. Other designers may feel that lifelike dynamics are of paramount importance, and will therefore design speakers that are of high efficiency/sensitivity, and that may include horns (or horn loading). Still other designers may feel that it is critical to avoid cabinet-induced artifacts, and will thus design cabinetless planar speakers. Others may wish to minimize room effects by designing highly directional speakers, while others may wish to create a spacious sound by using an omnidirectional array. Thus, even the truth-seekers "editorialize," though perhaps for different reasons than do the beauty-seekers. Notably, an adherent of either approach is inevitably faced with imperfections. And, of course, these two categories of truth-seeker and beauty-seeker are not restricted to designers but apply equally well to listeners.

Discussions of the truth/beauty dichotomy arise frequently, often contentiously, in the context of tubes vs solid-state. Audiophiles who prefer solid-state to tubes often point to the former's better measured performance, and attribute the appeal of tubes to their harmonic distortions. Tube lovers counter with the defense that solid-state gear sounds cold and analytical. (Such arguments similarly apply to comparisons of analog and digital.) In my opinion, there is validity to both points of view. I prefer certain tube gear not so much for the added "warmth"—which may well be due to lower-order distortion—but for what I perceive to be its ability to reproduce music with greater palpability, presence, and microdynamic structure than can solid-state gear. (There are, of course, exceptions.) That said, I have heard a number of systems that did in fact benefit from added warmth, as this helped cover up harshness generated in other parts of the system. While this may be viewed as a Band-Aid approach, the results are nevertheless often beneficial.

The fact that solid-state systems can sound analytical despite superb measured performance is very telling. Either we are not measuring the correct thing or, as I suspect to often be the case, the solid-state gear is simply revealing flaws elsewhere in the system—for example, in the recording medium itself, or in the speakers (the latter generally providing more distortion than any other part of the chain). Therein lies the problem with the truth: It is not always pretty, and can often benefit from a little makeup to cover the blemishes. Make your own analogies.

While many truth-seekers look down on beauty-seekers as being misguided (at best) or ignorant (at worst), I do not feel that such accusations are warranted. As I have tried to demonstrate, there are logical reasons for choosing less than complete accuracy in a system. Indeed, even such a highly regarded recording engineer as Steve Hoffman sometimes finds a less accurate system to be preferable to one that is more accurate: "Now, I have more than one system. My mastering system is accurate, boring and very useful to me in my work. I don't listen in there for pleasure. Not that it doesn't sound good—It does, but it's too accurate to be any fun. In some of my other systems, I can spread out a little."

Hoffman's brief statement says a mouthful. It reminds us that the goal of an audio system is to provide listening pleasure. For some listeners, enjoyment comes from a system that provides great accuracy, warts and all. For other listeners, a little sugar-coating is what brings a smile to their faces. In my experience, the more accurate systems find favor with those individuals who engage in what I consider an analytical style of listening; that is, a style in which great attention is paid to each and every minute detail of the recording. In contrast, more beautiful systems appeal to those who are more interested in the gestalt of the music than its details; these listeners focus more on the forest than on the trees, so to speak.

It is important to keep in mind that no one way is correct in the absolute sense, and we should all respect others' opinions and approaches. As on-line magazine editor Steve Rochlin, audio's Ferrari-driving wild man, is fond of reminding us, what's important is that we "enjoy the music." To this I say, Amen.

By the way, I prefer the modified Sony.

Footnote 1: I assume that if you're reading Stereophile you are a card-carrying audiophile.

Footnote 2: The remainder of the system is a Kondo Sound Labs M77 preamplifier, a Tube Distinctions Soul power amplifier, and Horning Agathon Ultimate loudspeakers. Interconnects and speaker cables are from Stealth Audio.

Footnote 3: There are, of course, exceptions—a Stradivarius may indeed sound more beautiful than a more pedestrian violin. This, however, does not speak to the issue of accuracy of reproduced music.