It’s the time of year for saving money!
As audiophiles, we all seek some variant of the same stew. We are hoping our systems resemble, or at least give us the impression of listening to live music. We of course know live equivalency is not possible, so we willingly accept what is perhaps a lesser standard – being true to the recording.
A high performance audio system has four main principal goals. Those goals include, but are not limited to, dynamics, imaging, clarity and accuracy. Having only one, or maybe two of the four does not completely accomplish what we want from our systems. It takes an equal combination of all four to be aurally successful.
Having all four of these attributes fabulously occur all at once might be likened to a golf swing. Make the perfect swing and the ball goes right down the middle of the fairway. If any component of that effort is compromised – backswing, club plane, club perpendicular to the ground, downswing, impact, follow through or any other myriad things, the ball will likely go screaming into the woods. Worse still, the degree or amount of deviation from perfection required to alter ball flight is precipitously small.
Component manufacturers should, by any practical measure, work to make their products sound as close to lifelike as possible. Such is not always the case. Very often, makers of speakers, amps, preamps, DAC’s, phonostages, turntables, cartridges, media servers and yes, even cables, may easily produce a product possessing a particular “sound.”
There are too many components to even list having their own particular sound. Some combinations of amps and speakers, amps and preamps, even music servers, streaming devices, turntables and especially speakers, go through a process called “voicing” that is designed to impart a particular sound. This process varies in the component’s resultant neutrality, but the salient point is it only takes a thin deviation from perfection to alter the sound of your system – taking it further from the recording itself.
It is for this precise reason we should always test equipment in consideration for purchase. Not always will the component have acceptable sonics. To make things even more confusing, what sounds magnificent to one person may sound objectionable to another.
Some equipment manufacturers pride themselves in being very neutral – having minimal sound of their own. This is particularly true with amps, preamps and speakers. Whatever the recording outputs, that is what the listener will hear. On the surface, it’s probably not only a good thing but also highly desired, right? Yes, but achieving that goal is difficult. All audio equipment, to some degree, imparts their own characteristics. A reasonable goal, therefore, is finding equipment that minimally alters what the recording presents.
Different listeners will like a particular sound. As for me, my goal is to be as true to the recording as possible. I want to hear exactly what is on the recording, not an amalgam of what a component builder thinks I should hear. For that reason, I have chosen my components, from the source to the speakers, to be very neutral.
There is a downside to this. Not always will you be satisfied when near neutrality is achieved. On my system, I am very confident I am hearing the recording as acccurately as my system is capable of producing. Now of course, I realize there are factors standing in the way of that goal, factors I cannot possibly control. Things like jitter, distortion and the simple, well, maybe complex act of converting an electrical signal into music does change things somewhat. No audio system is perfect.
But I am able to readily hear a distinction between a well recorded song and its poorly recorded variant. And guess what, there are far more poorly recorded songs in my library than I would like!
I have divided the area of image development into zones of where instruments will be presented. Superior recordings will image from one side of the room to the other, well beyond the left and right side of the speakers themselves, with super accurate placement of instruments. There will be depth from front to back, even bottom to top, and all image development takes place behind the speakers. The clarity will be outstanding with no discernable distortion or congestion. The accuracy will be almost lifelike, particularly on vocals and normally hard to reproduce instruments like a piano. Dynamics will be enormous. Liken this to the perfect golf swing.
Unfortunately, those songs are not as common as I would like. Very often, I find more than a desired share of songs having way more or less of something than I would like. Sometimes the bass is quite overwhelming, other times I wonder if the recording has any bass at all.
I also find myself occasionally straining to hear any measure of midrange. Where is the guitar, I sometimes wonder? Other songs have midrange that explodes. Some recordings have upper frequencies so bright and with so much sibilance I am concerned I have a monumental problem. When the next song plays and it sounds not only normal but also glorious, I breathe a sigh of relief. Understanding an aurally neutral and accurate system takes a larger number of test songs than might seem normal. Decisions in these instances should not be made in haste.
I have started making a playlist of songs that are fantastically recorded. Sadly, that playlist is not very long. And who wants to listen to the same few songs over and over? I have resigned myself to accept what I cannot change. So when a song plays that does not image from one side wall to the other, little depth, poor dynamics, no lots of things I prefer, I have two choices: learn to live with the disappointment or push next on Roon – unless I’m playing an LP and then I just sigh and curse to myself.
Be careful of finding what you seek and desire. Not always is it the tasty stew you were hoping to enjoy.
Critics (and recording engineers) want to hear what is wrong. This leads often to a tilted up response and ear bleeding gear like the Yamaha monitoring speaker that was the industry standard for years and which I found unlistenable. Some of us just want to enjoy our music collections. Read between the lines in reviews: “analyttic, I heard things I never heard before. Revealing” are trigger words.
If you don’t want to drive yourself crazy don’t use pop and rock monitors. Stick to what a lot of classical music engineers use.
I remember a great article/interview of the great Al Schmitt on why he uses those awful Yamaha NS10M…his wife is an audiophile and she said to him, “Why do you use those awful sounding speakers?”. I owned them for about a year and ditched them. Al said, “If I can get a mix to sound good on them, it will sound good on anything”. I doubt that he is using them today. In my studio I use a very affordable pair of JBL P305s that in test reports are superbly flat in EQ, but that doesn’t mean (and I don’t) use them for everyday listening. I do use them for new releases that are bragged about and can make a judgement about if a recording is that great or not. For my own recordings I have 4 sets of “consumer grade” speakers and my mixes have to pass muster on each of those. Mine is a hobby, not a business, so I have only an interest is making a friend’s or a local school or university recording sound as good as I can. I also listen to the mixes on my AKG K701 cans as well, which I really like. I cannot use my AT ATH50xs as they have too much upper bass, but for fun I like them, especially if a disc or mix is not bass heavy, which most classical music is. I listen to mostly classical piano music on them in a headphone station driven by a Project S2 DAC box which I really like.
In my experience, too, an accurate system reveals how much recordings differ, even classical recordings. Some are mellow, some shrill; some present a large sound world, others are like listening through a doorway. Like you, I’ve had to avoid blaming my system based on a single recording — but still, when something sounds bad, I think: “What has gone wrong now?” If I’ve remembered to turn all the switches, the usual answer is: Nothing, it’s the recording that’s the problem.
Care to share your list? We are always looking for elusive well recorded music.
Larry, I have decided to take your request and make it a feature on Audiophile Review. Look for something in the next four to six weeks. Thanks for your reply!
check out Brian Culbertson: Another Long Night Out; but most from him is excellent on CD. Jimmy Heath: Love Letter…Nice natural acoustic recording with a good review on Analog Planet. Jorge Federico: The French Album, clasical piano with a great sound: Cedille Records. Sound tracks from: The Book Thief; The Pianist; Schindler’s List; Somewhere In Time; The King’s Speech; Olafur Arnulds: Island Songs. This is a combo CD/DVD with the DVD showing how each track was recorded on location. The CD is just music only, but if you record like I do, this DVD is great fun. A couple of 2 old pieces by David Foster: Recordings and The Symphony Sessions Cds.
Always remember “Holt’s Law”…”Holt’s Law,” the theory that the better the recording, the worse the musical performance. 🙂