System synergy is what all audio systems should strive for. It is also what most audio systems fail to achieve. It may seem obvious that an audio system should be just that: a system that works together to re-create music, but the widespread failure of this concept suggests to me that it is either not so obvious, or it is given up on too easily. In isolation there are plenty of pieces of equipment that will reproduce sound and, when combined in a random manner, they will come together to make systems that will produce sound, but not always music. Why is this so?
I am beginning to think that sound reproduction is a lot less subjective than is widely believed. I am not saying that each person hears things exactly the same way, but I am saying that the range is not nearly as large as one would think. To begin with, you need to differentiate the exposed ear from the unexposed ear. For many people, listening to music begins and ends with simply hearing the sound coming from their speakers. These would be the unexposed listeners, those who have not had any guidance in how to listen for the finer points of music reproduction. They may or may not care either, but one thing is for sure, they have not had the opportunity to make that choice. In simple terms, bigger, louder, and more bass are the operative points by which a stereo is classified. Because of this mindset, most audio equipment (including those products aspiring to be the high end) is designed to appeal to that knee jerk sonic response. Remember that "do not confuse" is the first order of retailing. A confused customer is less likely to purchase at that moment. This myth is perpetuated not only in retailing, but in magazines purporting to help guide the listeners. Changing from an unexposed ear to an exposed ear is not that difficult, the hard part is finding the opportunity to be exposed. Once that listener has had the opportunity to hear what depth, soundstage, dynamics, body, tone, and timbre can bring to the listening experience, they become an exposed ear listener. My experience tells me that musically adept ears are very common, they have just never been given the opportunity to listen and learn.
Now, back to subjective audio versus objective audio. Once you have demonstrated to a listener what they are listening for and how to put into words what they are hearing, they are very quick to hear what is going on during reproduction. (Here I am talking about rather easy differences, not things like whether wire sounds better hanging in space or sitting on the floor.) Over many years I have had the pleasure of watching and discussing music with people who have simply been allowed to listen without external agendas clouding the issue. It is amazing to me how often such a disparate group will reach the same conclusion about individual products. It would seem that at some level there is good reproduction and bad reproduction with much less gray area than was at first believed. Now, once we get that out of the way we can begin to understand that some exposed ears may understand that System X produces more accurate representation but they would prefer the colorations of System Y. At least this is an honest approach. Heck, a listener can even decide that they would rather have System Z simply because it is huge and will impress their friends. Again, at least we know where they are coming from.
The one striking difference that I have noticed is that Cadence readers as a whole represent honest music listeners. Part of this may simply be that it is a niche market whose interest in the music that we deal with comes from internal honesty and nothing more. Musicians whom we deal with and who get the opportunity to listen here have also reached similar conclusions about audio equipment. I used to think that maybe it was just collective hypnosis or something until I realized that this commonality of music listening also extends to listeners who like classical and rock & roll. The dividing line with those listeners again seems to be if they come by their listening ideas internally or have been bamboozled by the press into believing some agenda. For all these types of listeners, three terms come to the surface as important for reproduction: tone, timbre, and dynamics. Of course not all would use those words, as many need help in articulating what it is they are hearing. But if you listen closely to the comments, each listener’s concerns boil down to those three concepts. Even more important is understanding the fact that most people writing about music reproduction do not share your music listening integrity or honesty and this is the main reason why honest listeners get led astray. Harsh words perhaps, but all I can say is that this has been demonstrated time and time again by listeners from all walks of life. And I do not believe it is simply a matter of reproduction opinion, I think it is a matter of agendas. It would be hard to put out a monthly magazine devoted to audio and constantly be saying "ho-hum, another piece of yadda yadda, which is for the most part indistinguishable from some other piece by Brand X, neither of which really make any improvements over Piece Y that was made 4 years ago." No, entertainment demands new better rankings and constant change. Agendas. Maybe if those magazines simply came with a disclaimer that said; "For entertainment purposes only."
So, back to why so few systems achieve the synergy necessary to make music. If you add up all the people represented in the above paragraph and multiply that group by some factor appropriate to extend the considered population to the population at large, you end up with a market that I would estimate to be under a couple of million people. That would be the total population who even cares. The sad truth is that, by current marketing standards, that is a niche so small that most electronic firms are not interested. In other words, we fall so far outside the bell curve we don’t count. Good sounding equipment is good sounding equipment and, in such a small market, a few products will suffice. The good news is that there is equipment available that does make music when put together, it is just harder to find. Don't compromise your standards. Make an attempt to hear a well-integrated system before you discount being an astute listener, and don't be afraid to trust your ears. It is very common for people to find that a highly touted system seems to have all its value wrapped up in its high-toutedness and not in music reproduction.
© Cadence Magazine 2000