Ever been to a rock concert, or any live show where the music is loud and powerful, and felt like the music was pounding your chest and even slapping you in the face? Ever felt like the music was pulling at the very cortex of your soul? Ever closed your eyes at a live show and could still see the musicians on stage and even felt the music enveloping around you? These attributes, and more like them, are all part of a really well done live musical performance. It is what musical groups aspire to create. To a certain extent, the result of all of this is due in large part to an audiophile condition known as dynamics.
When we talk about audiophile dynamics, we talk about the condition that helps our systems create an emotionally evolving listening experience. Dynamics gives music weight, power and a feeling like you are actually part of the very sound you are hearing. Dynamics gives music the ability to “punch,” as it were and helps explain why all of this makes music more interesting. Dynamics are one of the more welcomed and favorite conditions of high performance musical descriptors – namely soundstage, imaging, dynamics, clarity and accuracy.
Dynamics has more than one meaning in high end vernacular. “Dynamic Range” is the difference in dB levels between the loudest and softest sounds. For example, think a soft flute solo compared to a fifty-piece orchestra. System dynamics is more of a global attribute of how involving a system actually sounds.
More than just the ability of a stereo to play very loudly, dynamics occur in two basic forms – macro and micro. Macrodynamics are loud passages, like drums, cymbals and the crescendos often heard in orchestral pieces. They tend to offer what we term as “slam” or “impact.” If a system does poorly at delivering these attributes we commonly apply the term “compressed” when referring to the dynamics of that particular system.
Microdynamics are much the opposite and generally occur on a much smaller scale. Many of the softer percussive instruments are usually quickly portrayed, much in a “here and gone” scenario, are representative of Microdynamics. A triangle comes first to mind.
Having both micro and macro dynamics is important to the overall quality of a system’s sonic portrayal. Having one or the other at less than its peak performance means music may easily sound somehow “off” or perhaps “wrong.” – maybe even less engaging. Better systems create large scale Macrodynamics with ease, yet they don’t obscure Microdynamics. When both of these conditions exist mutually, we have in the musical presentation a vibrancy and the tendency of music to “come to life” – something we all want our listening sessions to accomplish.
Many might think all that is needed to improve dynamics is increase the amplitude, or put differently, “crank up the volume!” Not so fast because increasing amplitude may well create a condition antithetical to dynamic excellence and that condition is “congested” – or a loss of detail and possibly the “smearing” of instruments. Fine audio systems will easily play more loudly without creating congestion. Ideally, even when music is played loudly, we want a sense of space around each individual instrument.
Musicians should sound like they are in their own time and space. It should seem like there is a physical, positional difference between the musicians. Increasing the volume should not decrease sound quality, or if so, as little as possible.
I see this as one of the main and most easily noticeable differences between high performance audio and mid fi. Try this, visit a big box store that sells middle fidelity audio equipment. If there is a sample on the shelf playing music, try slowly yet steadily turning up the volume.
As you do so, if it sounds progressively worse, and the louder it plays the more you want to turn it down, congestion is one reason, and in terms of mid fi certainly not the only reason, the music sounds increasingly distasteful. Do the same with a very finely assembled high performance audio system and the difference should be not only obvious but also startling.
There are many different attributes of a well constructed audio system that create the sonic character we so cherish. Soundstage and imaging give us not only some reference to the space where the music was performed, but also where in that venue the artists were positioned. Clarity and accuracy are also welcomed as they both add authenticity to the musical portrayal. All of these qualities are necessary for an audio system to give music a live feel.
Dynamics, on the other hand, make music come alive. It helps create in the listener an emotional experience. Looking back at a live concert, anyone who has ever left the show and could not stop talking about how great it was for several days, then the band or performers have done their job. Dynamics are one reason why they were able to do so.
When you hear an audio system and it feels like the music is pounding your chest or slapping you in the face, you’ll know. Welcome to dynamic power – making music more visceral.