Written by 6:00 am Audiophile, Audiophile News

Can Excellence Actually Be Too Much?

Paul Wilson wonders if audio perfection is actually a bad thing?

Audiophile legend Harry Pearson maintained in order to properly compare an audio system to live music, acoustic instruments in a real space are the optimum method of comparison. He called it the absolute sound. He, along with J. Gordon Holt, developed an entire audio vocabulary we still use today. Pearson even founded and named a magazine after his comparative benchmark. 

In modern times, we audiophiles are looking for what I call the “wow” factor. We look for the inescapable feeling of amazement when a song or listening session ends. We want to be swept along in an emotional whirlwind of musical excitement. We want to look around the room to make sure there are no musicians standing around waiting for applause. 

One attribute commonly mentioned is being able to hear “musical truth.” We want to hear recordings as closely as possible to how they sounded in the studio when the recording was made. We look for music to give us the undeniable feeling what we heard could not have been a recording, but something performed live. Worthwhile goal to be sure, but also one sadly unobtainable. Live is live. 

Everything else is not. Some systems come closer than others but none crosses the finish line. 

Okay, so a fallback position may arguably be described as hearing “musical truth.” We strive to obtain a perceptible continuity between the recording and how the musical presentation sounds in our audio room.  Many of us go to substantially involved lengths at considerable expense to have truth in our audio systems. Others will yield to whatever sonics their system delivers and make that presentation the acceptable standard. 

If we have a scenario yielding musical truth we feel championed, right? Is it also possible too much truth might actually be undesirable? 

Some systems are very revealing. They are able to wretch out the last inkling of detail from a recording. The have superb imaging, clarity, dynamics and a lifelike presentation. Such systems may often leave the listener looking around for musicians waiting for applause. 

Be careful what you wish for. 

It is an audiophile certainty some recordings are both better and worse than others. I have a playlist on my server called “Excellent Recordings.” These are recordings completely imbued with the “wow factor.” I also have recordings where, in very short order I begin to think, what’s wrong with this song? 

Some recordings have so much bass the mids are overshadowed. I have, on occasion, been convinced there was something wrong with my subs because the bass was so excessive. When the next song played and things sounded normal – I felt relief. Many songs have remarkable imaging most appropriately described as a “wall of sound.” Others have a more narrowly focused and generally disjointed image presentation. Great mids. Nonexistent mids. Soaring highs. Obscured highs.  Face it, recording excellence, or lack thereof, are both part of the audio hobby. 

Until a very revealing system puts poorly recorded music squarely in our face, or ears, whichever is preferred, we may not even notice “musical truth.” When that happens, how do we deal with the loss of the wow factor? 

For me, with a digital recording, I press next. With analog, I might suffer through an undesirable song with profound hope the next one will be better. I sometimes will opt to change the album entirely. Either way, my goal is the avoidance of poorly recorded music. 

My system is very neutral, highly detailed and revealing. Sonic disappointment is a tradeoff for neutrality. It is next to impossible to have a system delivering sublime and impressive detail and not be disconsolate by poor recordings. And let’s face it, we will always have poor recordings, no matter if physical media or streamed. What choice do we have, get a big box system with lessened sonics and a homogenized, one size fits all sound? Do we trade in our audiophile system for a handheld device? Some might, not me. 

Another phrase we throw around is “hearing deeper into the music.” This is the first cousin to “musical truth.” We intently listen for transient details and whether we might ascertain the specific location of each instrument. We want “black” backgrounds. Space around each instrument. Systems capable of delivering that in abundence also deliver the undesirable side of a recording – sloppy, bloated bass, poor midrange and highs either nonexistent or so shrill they sound like a fork on a chalkboard. 

Again, be careful what you wish for. 

Ours is a hobby of the pursuit of excellence. Our united goal is to acquire as much audio system superiority as possible in a given budget. We do not limit ourselves singularly to an audio system. We also concentrate on the room, position of speakers and furniture. We try and mitigate the harmful effects of reflected sound while at the same time taking advantage of their benefits. When, after all the effort, time and expense we put forth in the pursuit of excellence, we hear a song that sounds terrible, what do we do then? 

We press next. We move the tonearm to the next track. We change the album. We learn to live with the disappointment. 

Musical truth. Seeing deeper into the music. Sounds live. Audio perfection has many guises. With any luck, we will put together a harmonious system fulfilling our own wow factor. We hopefully will be left slack jawed and looking for musicians waiting for applause. And if those attributes fail to occur? 

Smile. Learn to live with the disappointment. No one ever said audio perfection is easy. 

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