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In our everyday lives, being accurate about most things is important. For example, when we visit the doctor, we want an accurate diagnosis if we feel bad. If the washing machine is on the fritz, we want the repair guy to be accurate in going about fixing things back to right.
How about in music? In the vast array of sonic presentations available from a huge variety of systems and technologies, how achievable is accuracy as a goal?
I have had people in my audio room with one request – “crank it up!” Somehow, for some, playing music abusively loud is the key to enjoying a song. I’ve had others request a string quartet, turn the volume down lower than audiophile normal, close their eyes and relish, become enveloped even by what they are hearing. There seems to be no correct or incorrect method of listening to a song.
For most of us, from an audiophile perspective anyway, the hallmark of good sound, and enjoyable listening, may be determined by several factors: dynamics, soundstage, imaging, clarity and yes, our good friend accuracy. Remove any one of these attributes and music sounds, essentially, less captivating.
Let’s jump forward a few giant steps and mention digital signal processing (DSP). This is a technology whose time has come. Ten years ago, it was almost exclusively a stand alone component. Now, many components as well as speakers have DSP built right in. There are scores of audiophiles who will swear by the achievements DSP provides.
DSP has, as a utopian goal, the communization of sonics. It alters the digital signal to an algorithmically derived waveform. It has the ability to correct problems with a song based on the room in which the song is being played. Many find this a highly valued achievement.
As audiophiles, we all know there are good recordings and there are less than good recordings. Which format does not matter one whit. Any recording – streamed, CD, LP even reel to reel can be better or worse than another recording. When we play a song and it sounds far worse than something previously played, we sort of roll our eyes and think to ourselves how bad it sounds. Maybe we might make a mental note to not play that song again.
For some, and I fall into this group, I want the song playing on my system to be as accurate a representation as possible of how it was recorded. I’ll take a poorly recorded song any day over one that is altered or modified by artificial means to achieve a predetermined result – even if that result improves the sonic portrayal. Then again, my preferences apply to only one person, me. And just because I may happen to like something one way does not make it universally accepted. Because in actual practice, my guess is more people prefer playback improvements however they happen – through artificial means or not.
All that said, we have not yet answered the question of the importance of accuracy.
Determining an answer to this question is not quite so easy. DSP alters the sound we hear, that much is true. But does it always and consistently do so at the expense of accuracy? I see that as a very difficult question to answer – difficult because there are so many variables yielding an army of answers.
If we can agree that any change to the recording is an alteration of the accuracy of that recording, we open up the doors to a wide interpretation of sonic changes. If we increase the bass and decrease the treble by the use of tone controls, is that not changing the recording? Isn’t that doing fundamentally the same thing as DSP, only not to the same degree? And if any change in the signal produced by the recording after it leaves the initial source component, however small, is an alteration of that recording, how can we say accuracy is not effectually compromised – however small?
I realize I am being decidedly literal in this analogy. Most people hardly give any of this a passing thought. Tone controls can be adjusted, DSP may or may not be used or even necessary and we can still enjoy listening to a song. That part is unassailable.
But it is worth thinking about. Our hobby seeks to obtain the closest representation of perfection of musical accuracy. We want our systems to sound like live music despite knowing it is not possible. Yet how many of us have said something along the lines of “it sounded like she was singing right in front of me!” We want perfection. We chase that dragon endlessly in its pursuit.
For me personally, I place a high value on accuracy. I want a piano to sound like a real, live piano. I want instrumentals to sound somehow live. I see accuracy equally necessary as any other of our sonic attributes and an essential requirement for the total enjoyment of a song. It follows then, compromising the musical signal, however minimally that alteration may be, degrades accuracy.
My one enduring question, and one, I suppose, without a universal answer, is where should the line be drawn? When have I gone too far in my efforts to improve sonics? If DSP goes too far, how can tone controls not be viewed the same way? If DSP is a welcomed and enjoyable resource, is there no limit on how far accuracy may be maligned to fulfill our own definitions of improving what we hear?
In the end, I suppose it is a question we all must answer for ourselves. Because just like the wide variety of system choices available to play music, there are equally as many ways to interpret how that music should sound. Basically, its listener’s choice.