Is the goal of high-end audio to advance the state of the art in reproduction or is it to provide increasingly finite amounts of musical pleasure? Are they mutually exclusive goals?
One of the reasons for the great disparity in products, listening experiences, and opinions is due to the lack of clarity of the goal of so called "high-end" audio. Home audio reproduction seems to suffer from terminal confusion as users try to get from point A to point B in system architecture without a clear idea of the final destination. Even the people who are trusted with reviewing equipment to better guide the consumer suffer from this problem. Meanwhile, few of the reviewers have any true point of reference from which to draw conclusions about the relative merits of a piece of equipment. Enter: interpolative guessing. How do we review a medium while using those very same tools we are attempting to review?
Let us start from the beginning and make it simple: a solo instrumental on an acoustic instrument. The musician plays the instrument in a space. A listener hears that instrument in that space. A recording is attempted. Careful selection of microphone, placement of both musician and microphone, and choice of electronics to make the recording are made. In its simplest path this would be player, microphone, cable, mic preamp, cable, recording medium. A pair of headphones or monitor speakers will need to be used in order to hear what you are recording. Keeping with the simple approach, we will use headphones to check on the quality of the recording. The path now includes a set of cables from the recorder output feeding the input of an amplifier, which in turn drives a pair of headphones. With the ability to listen in the room and in the phones with instant switching, it will be possible to be clear about what has been captured in the recording and what is missing. In this very simple and very short path between creation and re-creation we are already faced with the problem of which component is being compensated for by another. There is no way to hear the intrinsic sound of a microphone, a cable, an amplifier, or a pair of headphones. Each needs the other to create a complete path. As soon as the acoustic vibrations of the instrument make contact with the diaphragm of the microphone, the colorization of reproduction begins. The choice of pre-amp will be made due to the sonic character of the mic, which in turn was evaluated through the sonic character of the amplifiers and the headphones. Over time users will begin to understand certain characteristics of the equipment they are using and what appear to be basic characteristics will surface for each item. This knowledge will be built upon with every new experience until users are fairly sure they have a handle on the equipment in question. This experience will then drive the understanding of other pieces of equipment in the chain until a reference point is reached.
At this point (using the system we have outlined above) users may feel pretty sure that they have created as close a match to the live situation as possible. Of course, no matter how flawed each individual link in this chain is, it does not matter as long as the flaws are complementary so that the end result of sound coming out of the headphones matches the live sound heard in the room. If it stopped here, things would not be too confusing. However, not all users are going to use the exact same signal chain for playback, so each individual is going to have different results from the original sound. One solution to this problem is to listen to the recording on several different types of playback gear to get a more general sense of its success, relative to a broader spectrum. Now let’s say that the perfect microphone was to be invented, a microphone proven to only put out exactly what is played with absolutely no variation in dynamics, tone, timbre, or frequency response. If this microphone was placed in the above chain, the end result would be unpredictable and most likely not accurate. The question is, how would we know where the problem is? We wouldn’t. In fact, it is most likely that the microphone would be blamed for the problem, even though it simply may be showing up weaknesses in the rest of the chain. Now, it may not be as bleak as all this, but this example is illustrative of the very real problems at hand. Add in a few more instruments, microphones, and electronics and things quickly get complicated. Now add a reviewer of equipment who was never a part of the creation. The recording takes the place of the musician. The reviewer, who has no first-hand knowledge of the accuracy of the recording, is now going to use that recording as a tool to evaluate other equipment. At best this is interpolative guessing.
This system encourages not so much the pursuit of the state of the art or the search for high fidelity as it does the pursuit for pleasing sound. This is where the issues get cloudy. Obviously perfect reproduction of a well set-up acoustic event would be pleasing. Here the goals are not exclusive. But that is theory. In practice, most recordings are poorly done and compromises must be made in the playback chain in order to smooth over those flaws so that the recording does not get in the way of the music. High-end audio products have increasingly become very elaborate and finely attuned equalizers. Here the goals are exclusive. This attempt at improving the reproduction of flawed sources runs contrary to the pursuit of high-fidelity. It seems clear that, in order to truly advance the state of the art, critics are going to have to clarify the intentions of the product at hand, and to let the blame for bad sound roll back to the creation of the recording if necessary. It will be a painful realization but a necessary one. Without it, we are doomed to the floundering that has resulted from audio electronics attempting to make the best of the moving sonic target of recordings. It is ironic that, with all the advances in recording and playback technology that have taken place, the pursuit of fidelity to the source seems to have slipped further and further off the screen. It is also ironic that as this process continues, the chances of getting recordings that will be both accurate and enjoyable become even smaller. Clarity of purpose would be useful. If it were more clear which products were designed to pass an unaltered signal rather than complement and 'fix-up' that signal, consumers would be better able to make educated choices as to which direction they would like to take. People who just like to play with equipment could continue to do so and those who are looking for an end to the search could quickly get there.
© Cadence Magazine 2000