Defining audio circa the 1960’s or so was not quite the same as it is today. Yes, the goal was the same, that goal being stunningly reproduced music. How audiophiles back then quantified what constituted stunningly reproduced looked somewhat different than it does today. To a certain degree, anyway.
Measurements ruled the day in the 50’s, 60’s, even into the 70’s. Stereo Review, alongside other likeminded thinkers, embraced a measurement centric discipline principally equating laboratory data to sonic excellence. In so doing, they collectively influenced our industry into an analogous doctrine.
Not everyone bought into that particular way of thinking.
J. Gordon Holt and Harry Pearson (generally credited for coining the term “high end audio”) decided on a different, albeit wholesale different methodology to judge sonics – they listened. Whether together or independently they both determined the better path was judging a system by how it sounded compared to live music. That comparison was predominately centered around acoustic instruments in a real space. Think a symphony orchestra in a concert hall.
One problem existed, however. How would they accurately describe to fellow audiophiles what they were hearing? This was especially important as both Pearson and Holt were, at the time, involved with audio magazines. A more descriptive method, or language if you will, was needed to describe sonics, especially when a product review was involved. Just telling readers “It sounded really great” was not nearly enough.
Pearson and Holt crafted the terminology not only still in use all these years later but has even been expanded. Perhaps most interesting, their collective efforts precipitated changing the industry from a measurements based review system to a listening based review system.
“How does it sound” is a frequently asked question by audiophiles. And this query need not necessarily apply to an entire system. It may easily also apply to an individual component, speaker, cord or cable. Answering the question typically involves the use of some, if not many of the terms crafted by Holt and Pearson.
We use these, arguably an entire vocabulary of terms interchangeably in the pursuit of a definable explanation of what we hear. Musical portrayal might be “bright” or “dark” which gives an outlook into what was heard. Bass may be “bloated” and cymbals are quantified by their “attack” and “decay.”
When we talk about speakers, yardsticks such as dynamics and distortion certainly matter. We also turn to the term “imaging,” or the ability to recreate the positions of musicians in a listening space. Closely related is “soundstage” or the physical space where music is played. Music may sound “liquid” with a presentation that is “forward” or “back.”
Most audiophiles understand the predominance of these phrases but not all or always. What happens if a term comes along where the meaning is not understood as it applies to audio? Well, yes, there is the Internet but realistically, how many of us will take the time to perform a search of an unrecognized term? If we are reading a review, probably not many – we’d more likely keep reading and run the risk of misunderstanding an important point.
As widespread as an alliterative description the terms of audio may be, measurements have never gone completely away. In fact, they are still highly regarded. Possibly at the forefront of that cause is John Atkinson, for many years the helm of Stereophile. His contributions to audio reviews enable a scientific inclusion to a terminology based discipline. Measurements also gives the reader an opportunity to additionally consider scientific analysis. In so doing, we audiophiles effectively have the best of both worlds, a subjective examination, and a scientific approach as well.
Audio is not alone when it comes to using everyday terms to describe something. One need look no further than wine for an entire library of terminologies describing taste, bouquet and all the other conditions on how wine is judged.
When describing a wine’s bouquet, for instance, which sounds better – “it smells really nice,” or “the fragrance is reminiscent of freshly picked berries.” The goal is simple, use language to create a visual benchmark with which the reader may identify. In this way, a better understanding may be realized. It works for wine just as it does audio.
How much knowledge an audiophile may possess regarding everyday terms varies by how dedicated anyone might be to the hobby. There are those seeking a commanding level of understanding of the audiophile hobby. Others simply want to enjoy a song. Those who are resolutely committed to the audio hobby will typically endeavor to better understand terminologies used.
In order to effectively understand most product reviews, understanding the descriptors of the audio language is required. Where does one turn for a summation of audio terms? Oddly enough, it is more difficult than one might think.
J. Gordon Holt’s “The Audio Glossary” has become quite difficult to find. I was fortunate enough to find a first edition about ten years ago. Stereophile has published an abridged version on their website which is very useful. With a bit of searching, I found a half dozen or so sites outlining the more popular terms.
While the audio language may, for some, be a bit odious, for others it is a means to embrace a better understanding. Sonic excellence is an aural quality. Knowing how to describe what we hear is a necessary skill. Just as we seek to learn the difference between a bright or dark presentation, or a forward or back presentation, we also need to have a sufficient understanding of all audio terms to describe what we hear. Telling someone it sounded nice is not enough.
Having the ability to understand the sonics our systems produce is a learned trait. It would seem we also need to possess another skill. We need to tell others how our system sounds. Knowing the terms of how audio sounds is the means to be able to describe what we hear. This makes us better, more intelligent audiophiles. It enables us to speak intelligently amongst our audio peers.
Know the terms of audio. It’s the right thing to do.