I was talking with Steven Stone the other day about some new piece of audio gear when Steven said that it “… gets the edges right” and our conversation took on a whole new life.
As I’ve written before, the thing about High End audio is not so much that it does things better (although it most certainly does do a whole lot of things a whole lot better than other gear can); but that it does a WHOLE NEW KIND OF THING that the other stuff can’t do at all; that thing being, of course, to deliver a detailed presentation of the spatial characteristics of the original performance and its venue ― including the “edges”.
Even “mono” (or “monaural” or “monophonic”, if you prefer) recording and playback can, by including “echo” and “decay time” information, give a basic impression of the size of a recording venue. (Bear in mind, though, that because natural, digital or even “spring” delay can be added, that impression can be entirely illusory.) Going to stereo recording and playback on even the simplest two channel system can add right, left, and center information, but, even so, it’s only a good High End system that can accurately convey the size of the performers and of the hall or other acoustic environment that they are performing in.
If you stop to think for a moment, you’ll see that the key to doing this effectively lies not so much in making the listener aware of where the performers and the walls or spaces surrounding them ARE (although that, in itself, is certainly no mean feat), it’s in letting the listener know where they AREN’T! Practically any good system will let you know that the girl singer is in the center of the stage, or that the violins in a symphony orchestra are in front, to the conductor’s left, that the horns are to the center rear and that the basses are to the rear, on the conductor’s right, but it’s only a really good High End system that will present that girl or those instruments not only in the right place, but in the right SIZE.
Putting it in a different way, it’s relatively easy to show where the center of something – a singer, an instrument or group of instruments, or even the hall, itself, is, but it’s really difficult to sonically define where it STOPS (where the “edges” are) and that may very well be the most important information of all.
If you can’t tell where the first row of violins stops, how can you tell where the second row of violins is sitting? Or how far each of the instruments in whichever row is from the next. Or how far any of them is from the back wall? Sometimes, as with performers like the Mantovani orchestra, it’s fun to think (as they undoubtedly worked hard to create the impression) that there’s not a bunch of violinists there, but just one big violin (a violoon?), but, WOW, isn’t it great when you can practically see ’em and count ’em? And, besides, do you really want the girl singer’s mouth to take up the full eight feet of space between your speakers?
One of the words that reviewers seem to favor is “air”. I’ve heard (or read) it used in a number of different contexts, to mean a number of apparently different things. The meaning I prefer, though; that I’ve used in my own writings and reviews; and that I’m now going to use here, has nothing to do with any sense of “airiness” in the way something sounds, but is simply a description of the actual air – the physical substance – filling a concert or recording venue and all of the spaces between the performers and instruments. It’s this actual, physical air that is, IMHO, the most critical element of any musical recording or playback.
Consider this air, and consider one more thing: How many times have you read a review that waxed eloquent about the sound of the instruments arising from the “perfect velvety black space” between them? This is usually meant to say that the system (or the recording or both) has a good signal-to-noise ratio, and that the spaces between the notes are dead silent, rather than filled with background noise or other spurious sounds. But is that really right, though? Is that the way it SHOULD be? For one thing, if the edges we were just talking about aren’t there, where does the space come from? For another, the space between (NOT THE NOTES, but) the instruments SHOULDN’T be dead silent or “velvety black”: The hall IS filled with air and the sound that we hear is that air vibrating, not just from direct stimulation by the instruments or voices of the performers at any particular location within the venue, but from that direct sound PLUS all of the direct sounds of all of the singers or instruments in the hall PLUS all of the reflections and reverberations of all of those sounds as they bounce and re-bounce around the venue until they are ultimately absorbed or decayed beyond recognition.
It’s just like ancient issues of MAD magazine, where there was not only the main story happening in each of the cartoon cells, but also any number of sight gags and side stories running in the background, in the corners, and everywhere else: The spaces between the performers are a vital part of the High End audio experience, and accurate presentation of them and of all that’s going on in them is only made possible when a product or a system, as Steven Stone said “…gets the edges right.”