Written by 4:39 am High End Audio • 13 Comments

Is Live Music Really Better Than A Stereo System?

Paul Wilson wonders why live music is always credited as sounding better than a recording…

In 1974, Owsley “Bear” StanleyDan Healy, and several others set upon the enormous task of assembling a huge sound system to provide distortion free sound for their employer / client, the Grateful Dead. Consisting of six independent systems utilizing eleven different channels, three tube amps and 48 McIntosh solid state amps putting out a combined total of 26,400 watts and depending on who’s telling the story, 586 JBL speakers and about 50 ElectroVoice tweeters, the “Wall Of Sound” is quite possibly, at least lately, the most gargantuan sound system ever created by a band, apart that is, from mega PA systems at huge coliseums. I wonder, with all that power, all those amps and what, over 600 speakers (depending on who’s telling the story), how far removed was this from live music and did it more closely resemble, I don’t know, an audio system? Not that the average audiophile system utilizes 51 amps, or 600 plus speakers! 

AR-WallOfSoundSmallFormat.jpgOf course I neglected to mention all this equipment was driving live instruments and not a recording. In any event, I suspect this set up must have been not only something to hear but equally as impressive to see. 

Harry Pearson, the late founder of The Absolute Sound always felt the sonic characteristics of an audio system were best matched against live, acoustical music and specifically classical or symphonic music. Hence the name of the magazine being “the absolute sound.” This, of course makes sense as the texture, tonality and timber of a piano, for example, is very likely best evaluated when a recording is compared to one played live. 

I feel certain I will not dissuade anyone from the conviction that live music, amplified or acoustic, sounds better than a recording played through a source, amp and speakers. Nor is it my position to attempt to do so. As I have found myself saying quite often, live is live, everything else is not. It also stands to reason that probably without exception, audiophiles will universally agree live music is the standard by which everything else is judged. I wonder, could there perhaps be any “wiggle room” in that assessment? 

AR-fleek Concert1a.jpgWhen we attend a concert, whether in an enclosed space or a large open amphitheater or stadium, part of our total immersion into what we hear is bolstered by what we see. We stand on our feet, clap our hands, wave our arms and sing in gleeful harmony with the band. Is that condition a supportable reason why we tend to enjoy live music to such a great degree? Apart from most symphonic music,  “live” music is still amplified. I am not attempting to compare that to a home audio system. Live is still live, but the music does go through an amp and speakers – though it could be reasonably argued guitar amps and stage monitors are quite different from an amp and speakers in the average audiophile system. So how much of what we purport sonically superior about live music is a result of the amps and monitors as compared to the combined result of music performed on a stage and the experience that performance delivers? Do we enjoy live music because we are more emotionally connected to the performance? Or does is simply sound better irrespective of the “show” that comprises most live performances? 

Emotional connection. This is a condition that is often underrated and overlooked. When we are able to become engaged with our audio system, intently listening in the sweet spot with eyes closed, head, hands and feet moving with the music, or conversely, perhaps, jumping around the room singing into the handle of a hair brush, are we any less connected emotionally than we are at a live concert? If we are able to establish an emotional connection to an audio system, are there varying degrees of emotionality to which we subscribe? Are we more or less detached from an audio system as compared to a concert? And if that detachment is heightened with an audio system, and lessened at a live venue, is, therefore, the greater emotional connection the reason we have a heightened affection for live music? Or does it just sound better? 

AR-LiveMusic.jpgI have enjoyed countless listening sessions when I left my audio room mostly speechless. I’ve attended concerts where I felt the same way. But I will almost always cede superiority to live music mostly because of what I perceive as superior sonics. Maybe one comparison would be to put my audio system on a stage and sit in the audience and see what happens. Maybe I would also be wise to have some musicians jumping around playing “air guitars.” And given a correctly sized venue, maybe my system will sound equally magical as a concert hosted on the same stage, wherever that may be.  

Then again, maybe my system would be sonically lost and I’d sadly walk away disappointed and unimpressed. Clearly, the design criteria of any of the components in my system do not include a live venue. Regardless, the question remains, is the listener’s engagement with live music amplified (no pun intended) by the fact that the performers can be seen as well as heard? Or is live music simply that much better? I’ve heard some systems that probably were very close to the sound the recording engineer heard. I’ve yet to hear a home based system I thought sounded in any way like live music sounds. So for any and all hopeful music lovers, it looks like the answer to the question is live still rules supreme. And if you really want to judge your audio system, a great concert in a proper venue is the best way to assess how remarkable, or how unimpressive a home based system really sounds. Hairbrush and all.

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