The sound of music is what every audio system should be trying to reproduce, yet it is the rare audio system that gets this crucial aspect correct. There is an intangible sort of rightness that, when it exists, seems to allow the musical intent to come through despite all other odds. Defining this rightness, or musical truth, is what the subjective press has been attempting to do for many years, with very little success. The language of audio can seem at times to be basically about obscuring the truth, or at best, putting a positive spin on less than desirable traits. Many musicians have a very accurate sense of what makes for good musical reproduction. Musicians are busy being musicians not writers. Many writers have the ability to put words together to form flowing sentences and ultimately entertaining pieces. Writers are good at writing, but not, very often, listening. It is not that the writers don’t believe what they write, I think for the most part they do. They are too far removed from what an actual instrument is like or how a recording is made to have any appreciation of how far reproduced music has fallen from its ideals.
Using recordings that are as processed as most are to evaluate the sonic integrity of the playback chain ensures a big problem. The writer has no real way of knowing, for instance, whether the sound of the playback is good because it happens to "fix" the recording or "bad" because the recording is bad and the system at hand reveals that information. (For more in-depth discussions regarding recording qualities, equipment qualities, and trends, see “Sonics”: 4/98, p.41; 8/98, p.38; 9/98, p.101; 10/98, p.34; 12/98, p.43.) Granted, nothing will ever be perfect in these regards but the gap could be seriously reduced. It is just far too difficult to continue to attempt to distinguish solidly okay equipment from other solidly okay equipment. Just lump it all together as more of the "solidly okay crowd" and move on.
Dynamic integrity may be the single most important aspect of capturing a performance and playing it back, yet this notion is barely mentioned in the press. This is the reason why some systems that may even be obviously deficient in finesse, resolution, and frequency extremes can be exciting to listen to. Obviously a system is just that: a system, and no single element can rescue a botched collaboration, but the emphasis has been placed in the wrong area. Manufacturers have gotten extremely good at being technically proficient. But, just as a mass of perfect notes spliced together does not make for an inspiring performance, technical proficiency is not going to bring the music back. "Bass slam" is not a phrase one often hears with regard to a live performance. In fact, very few of the terms used in the press with regard to the sound of equipment are terms that one would use to describe the sound of a live acoustic instrument. There are three terms that are used with regard to live acoustic instruments: dynamics (both macro and micro), tone, and timbre; three terms that have no way of being accurately measured in a scientific manner. They are concepts that require extremely refined knowledge in order to not only grasp but more so to execute.
There are very few well regarded instrument makers. Not everyone, it seems, can pull off a good sounding instrument. In fact, technical proficiency, while appreciated when it comes to moving parts, seems to not be the priority in creating instruments that 'voice' well. Instrument quality is also one of those nebulous concepts that can not be measured. My experience has been that an equally few number of equipment designers have been able to pull off that longed-for combination of technical proficiency and musical validity. It is unreasonable to assume that every audio company out there should be able to do it. The sort of "me-too" mentality that thrives in the mass market of receivers, surround sound processors, and televisions has migrated into the more "serious" audio markets. Product lines take precedent over product prowess. New models overshadow real improvements. Change for the sake of change rises above the subtlety of refinement. And, the fragility of the musical integrity gets lost in the shuffle.
Now, should you think this is all a little bit too serious for something as simple as listening to music, I would encourage you to avail yourself of the opportunity to hear a well crafted audio system play back a well crafted recording. Without question, there are many needs for an audio system, some extremely utilitarian. I am not talking about simply putting together a system that will make sound. There is an abundance of equipment that can be used for that purpose, quite respectably and at a fair price. I am talking about those systems which aspire to be more, systems that attempt to close that gap between the sound of a live instrument and one that is reproduced. I am concerned about those pretenders to the state of the art that are filling up the shops and confusing the listeners, those that are merely competent and expensive. This is the equipment that fills the pages of the so-called alternative audio press. The reality is that educating listeners is far less glamorous, and far more time consuming and effort laden than waxing poetic about the latest reincarnation of the same old same old. If you are really interested in musical reproduction at the edge of the art, dig a little deeper, the rewards can be quite spectacular.
© Cadence Magazine 1999