Looking Like A Horse


There's an old story about a famous sculptor - it may even have been Michelangelo -- who was asked by one of his admirers how to carve a marble statue of a horse. His answer (paraphrased and translated, of course) was "It's easy; all you have to do is find a block of marble that has a horse in it and then use your hammer and chisel to carve away everything that doesn't look like a horse."

Whether as audiophiles or simply as music lovers, isn't that exactly what we're all trying to do in practicing our hobby? 

Just like that sculptor, we're all trying to achieve one very specific thing: For him, it was the marble image of all and only a horse; for us it may be all and only the music or all and only the sound; but whichever the case, what we're trying to do is to separate something we want from the medium that it comes buried in.

In order to do that, we must first figure out exactly what it is that we're "looking" for, and that can be a real problem:  How can you find (in our case) "the music" or "the sound" if you've never actually heard it? Unless it's an event or a performance that we actually attended in person and recorded, ourselves, from our own actual listening position, how can we ever know what it's really supposed to sound like? How -- to fuzzy-up the metaphor a little bit -- if we don't know what the specific horse we're trying to "free" looks like, can we ever know what's not a part of it?


A couple of good audio examples of what I'm talking about are two classic (and very much respected) speaker systems; the Dahlquist DQ-10 and the Tannoy "Gold". Because of the way their drivers were arrayed, the Dahlquists did a wonderful job of communicating the space and ambience of a huge concert hall. The problem was that they ALWAYS did it, regardless of what the actual venue of the musical performance might have been: Big concert halls sounded like big concert halls and were thrilling in their scope and grandeur; but intimate recordings of jazz or string quartets in smaller venues also sounded as if they had been recorded in a huge space and, although the effect could certainly be pleasant, it was never "right". The Tannoys were the exact opposite, and gave a much more "in your face" perspective that was perfect for small groups performing in small rooms, but could fail entirely to give the experience of a symphony orchestra performing in Carnegie Hall or even of a rock concert in an open field or giant stadium.

For things as obvious as the "size" of a musical performance, it can be (but isn't always) relatively easy to tell the music from the medium, but what about other things? What about musical or signal information that's lost or obscured in the process of delivery? How can you clear away the medium if you don't know what it's doing?

An incident to illustrate this happened to me when I was at XLO:


Our custom was to actually listen to every batch of our cables before approving them for sale, and one day I was in our sound room listening to samples from a new batch of XLO/CDA in-wall speaker cables for custom installation when I heard something absolutely amazing! At a point on our regular test recording (Mahler Symphony #3, Leonard Bernstein, NY Phil., DGG) that I must have heard two hundred times before, and that was normally unremarkable, I noticed, for the first time ever, that the music was a military march! Surprised, I listened again to that same section, and it was, indeed, a march. How could I never have noticed that before?

Just to make sure, I put our reference speaker cables (XLO Signature Series, at the time) back into the system and listened again: NO MARCH, just, as usual, an unremarkable point in a quite remarkable symphonic recording!

How could that be?  "Pace" was the big word among reviewers at the time, and this was most certainly a perfect example of it. But how could it be that our cheapest-by-far speaker cable was doing a better job of revealing the pace of the music than our most expensive?

The answer finally became apparent when, instead of the Mahler, I and some of my staff listened to several other recordings of different kinds of music and, as expected, the Signature Series simply ate the cheaper cable alive. That made us go back and listen REALLY CAREFULLY to exactly what was happening at the "march" point of the Mahler.

What we found was that, with the "in-wall" cables, we were losing detail that the Signature Series cables exposed:  At that one point, one of the musicians "blew" the tempo and went, for a while, off in a wrong direction, taking, like some out-of-step Pied Piper, a number of the other musicians with him. That's why that section of the music had always seemed "unremarkable" - it was a jumble of warring tempi that the better cable showed but the other didn't.  What, in the lesser cable, had seemed to be better "pace" was really that all of the musicians who were out of line were getting lost in the cable's lower resolution and only the ones who were together, playing a march, were left!

For a while, there, (is this beating a dead horse?) even though we knew what it should look like, the "horse" was effectively disguised by the "marble", and we couldn't tell them apart to separate them.

Ain't Hi-Fi fun?

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