ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

April 1, 2004

Listen Critically, Sure -- But for What?

The prospect of writing an opinion piece can be stimulating, even when the urge precedes the topic. My editor suggested aspects of music reproduction difficult to quantify. That’s good -- something that’s not been beaten to a pulp and is, better yet, resonant. Funny word, resonant. Among audiophiles, resonance has long legs. In one of its excursions, it’s a physical property that speaker designers strive to eliminate as best they can. A speaker enclosure ought not to resonate. That they all do resonate, to some degree, is another story. Within one’s primary enclosure -- the cranium -- resonance sports a nimbus and wings. Where would our imaginations be without it?

Jeff Fritz’s suggestion got me to thinking about aspects of listening perhaps more basic and equally tough to nail. For example: Aesthetic considerations aside, what qualities of recorded music impress us as "right" or "wrong"? And, as a step back from this already loaded question, what criteria, if any, do we bring to such judgments?

My raising the issue of criteria is no mere squirt of rhetorical lubricant. The audio commentariat pays proper homage to transparency, resolution, dynamic slam and finesse, soundfield dimensionality, midrange verisimilitude, sweet and extended highs, authoritative lows -- all familiar signposts along a familiar path. Among writers about and producers of audiophile recordings, one would think that there would be a unanimity of opinion with respect to sonic essentials. And yet, I wonder. Time was I covered audiophile CDs and CD-compatible SACDs for a publication that, out of kindness, I won’t name; nor, for the same reason, will I identify the labels. One particularly instructive disc is a sampler, an assortment the proprietor gathered together from his own label’s earlier releases and elsewhere as illustrations of superior sound.

As I hear it, that audiophile sampler illustrates in perfect irony production vulgarities: obviously phony reverb, exaggerated vocal sibilance, and weirdly spacious, counterfeit soundfields. To compound the irony, one of the sampler’s better tracks is the work of a recording engineer I admire. His considerable credits appear on mass-market productions rather than recordings geared to a narrow, presumably discriminating niche market. He’s mainstream, and he doesn’t call himself "Professor."

But then, my standards may be skewed -- if not by my lights, then perhaps by yours. And they may have as much to do with my age as with anything else. Hi-fi and I grew up together. My first serious sound system consisted of a 15" Tannoy Dual-Concentric speaker in a corner bass-reflex enclosure, a Marantz preamp and power amp, a Pilot tuner -- all with tubes, of course -- a Rek-O-Kut turntable and tonearm, and Grado and Fairchild phono cartridges. I also fussed briefly with a Weathers FM arm-cartridge system. When I graduated to stereo, it was Acoustic Research AR-3a speakers, then Allison Model Ones, then Allison IC-20s (two pairs in a novel back-to-back arrangement blessed by Roy Allison), then Carver Amazings, then my first WATT/Puppys. While it’s nice to reminisce, it isn’t so much the hardware as what one wants to hear it doing.

Since childhood, my primary musical interest has been classical. This puts me in a minority. However, when hi-fi became a serious commercial entity -- this was still in the mono era -- as often as not, salespeople played recordings of classical music in order to demonstrate what these early component systems could do. A performance of a Bach organ piece remains with me more as a memory of a sound room’s trembling floor. It must have been the D-Minor Toccata and Fugue, and I’m reasonably certain it was from the then-celebrated Westminster series with organist Carl Weinrich. (In addition to their standard vinyl offerings, Westminster got in early on the audiophile track with their higher-priced Lab Series in protective plastic envelopes. I wonder what philovinylites pay for these today.)

Let’s also recall, with respect to set standards, that recording engineers such as Bob Fine helped create the stereo era’s so-called golden age. Among cognoscenti, multitrack, multimike production techniques have taken much of the blame for classical recording’s departure from Eden. Early stereo’s sense of immediacy succumbed to lifelessness. Rather than a vibrant masterpiece, one looked with one’s ears at a crass billboard.

I’ve heard an interesting explanation of classical recording’s sonic decline. Those golden-age recordings we cherish were generally minimally miked. Multitracking had yet to become the norm. Minimally miked productions require painstaking balance adjustments, and not that many engineers could call themselves masters of the craft. Enter multiplicity: A vast array of microphones feeding a large mixing board is a lot less time-consuming and therefore more cost-effective. It’s also cost-effective to keep fewer employees on hand, or indeed to keep them at all, the alternative being freelance journeymen. I’ve been told that at least one major label’s techies on the pop side also work on the far less profitable classical side, with its profoundly different needs. When those needs are not met, the result sounds like a dog’s dinner. I’m close to raving, of course -- nothing is ever so black and white, and splendid recordings fairly litter the decades since stereo’s inception.

Whether the above citations of cost-effectiveness are anywhere near what actually happens, it would still be interesting to dwell for a moment on what constitutes an ideal classical recording and how that ideal differs from production values in pop -- rock, hip-hop, country, R&B, etc. Few of my fellow hobbyists came of age as long ago as I or under similar circumstances, nor do they necessarily share my musical interests. And that’s critical to my point.

The debate among audiophiles over sound reproduction is as lively as it’s ever been. No less a perfectionist than I, the audiophile who plays, let’s say, heavy-metal rock (please bear with me -- I’m woefully out of touch) is poised to relish qualities other than those I listen for. I hear a good recording mimicking not the live acoustic event -- emphasis on acoustic -- but rather its ideal: the sweet spot as the perfect seat in the acoustically perfect venue for the world’s best-sounding (unamplified) instruments and/or throats. Which isn’t often the case in the real world, where precious little live music is purely acoustic. Even small-club jazz is amplified, generally crudely.

To return to my perfect phantom seat in the perfect phantom venue: I object to such departures from acoustic perfection as excessively reverberant chamber-music recordings, even when the reverb is natural rather than manufactured. This is intimate stuff, and so should be its milieu. A baritone accompanied by a pianist oughtn’t to be taped in an empty stone church; likewise a wind quintet or a solo violin, and so on.

Now, as standards go, I’m being fussy. But where in the sweet spot and its expectations does that leave the listener whose experience of music differs from mine in its essentials? For this individual, the kind of thing I listen to holds little interest. Is he into Broadway, perhaps? When was the last time anyone attended a performance of a musical that wasn’t amplified -- again, crudely? The hand-held mike is as much a part of a pop vocalist’s outfit as his or her shoes. I don’t know how many televised shows I’ve seen where the saxophonist, say, has a little mike clipped to the bell of his horn. Performance absent electronics is as quaint as the candle-lit music stand. Harpsichords are nice, but the piano also has its place. These are just observations; there’s nothing to be gained from decrying inevitability.

Were I the czar of whatever, I’d see to it that certain audiophile recordings wore "Color by Technicolor" labels. I recall a disc I reviewed for the above-unmentioned periodical in which the chanteuse’s larynx was 5" from my head. The plucked bass entered the room like the preface to a tectonic event. The piano sounded as if on loan from paradise. And so on, in plush, lush caricature. If this was the producer’s take on the sound of acoustic music, he failed. If, however -- a big if here -- the recording aimed at a heightened idealization of what one actually hears at a soigné supper club, the disc must be judged a success, off-putting as it was to me.

Today’s mail included a review CD from Oxingale [OX2006]: performances by the Miró String Quartet of Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op.80, and Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, D.956, with a second cellist, Matt Haimovitz. The Miró players are young and good, as is Haimovitz. A few seconds into the disc elicited an Aha! Here was a style of recording I recognized: a spot-on midrange and a perfect sense of space. The engineer, Da-Hong Seetoo, is one of a handful of recordists whose work is well worth seeking out. This kind of intimacy is a precious and wonderful thing: Da-Hong and I in the sweet spot. (The Quintet’s heartbreaking Adagio appears as one side of a 78rpm disc played on a phonograph by one of the characters in a superb HBO production, Conspiracy, about the clandestine Wannsee Conference, wherein Nazi officials planned the Final Solution. Toward the end of the movie, Stanley Tucci’s Adolf Eichmann wonders that anyone could possibly like such "sentimental Viennese shit." De gustibus non est disputandum.)

I could spend another lifetime as a foretaste of hell by familiarizing myself with the way of studio laminates, the laying down of tracks, and such; i.e., the full range of artifice informing the discs the public mostly buys. De gustibus. As I mentioned at the outset, not all audiophiles look to one ideal. Do I feel in my heart of hearts that the qualities I admire are right and that everything else is wrong? Of course! Not that it matters. Happy listening.

...Mike Silverton

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