March 1, 2008
Theres No Right Way to Enjoyment, but High Fidelity is Different
Debate is part of our culture: truth vs. beauty, right vs. wrong, left vs. right. Most anything worth talking about has at least two sides worth debating, and the world of high-end audio boils with hotly debated issues -- it has for as many years as Ive been around it, and is sure to do so forevermore.
Most of us remember the most-talked-about Stereophile cover of all time. On it appeared a Cary tube amplifier, a Krell solid-state amplifier, and this headline: "If either of these amplifiers is right . . . the other must be wrong." But tubes vs. solid-state was just the tip of the iceberg. There was SACD vs. DVD-Audio, CD vs. vinyl, and now, of course, downloads vs. physical media -- and those are just the source components of the last few years. But in all of these debates lingers not only the question of what is right, but of whats right for you. It might be that whats right for you is whats right to begin with; then again, whats right for you might be whats wrong for others.
The goal of a music system is to provide its owner with musical satisfaction from prerecorded music. Im the first to conclude that whatever system can do that is right, at least to some degree. After all, that stereo is fulfilling its functional purpose in meeting its owners goal. In the final analysis, its hard to argue with someone who states that such-and-such a component or system "brings them closer to the music." If they say its so, then who am I to argue? I dont care what people listen to -- the gear, the music -- its theirs, and mines mine. There are those who will tell you that your speakers are inaccurate, your amplifier distorts, your digital is glaringly bad, your turntable rumbles, or your wires are screechy. But as long as its good and right to you, then screw em -- your hobby is yours, and thats that.
What you wont see from me is any claim that I know whats best for you, regardless of how many reviews I write, how many audio shows I attend, how many recordings I own, how many live concerts I enjoy, or how many designers I talk to. I just dont know what will work best for you. Only you can decide that.
So why have audio reviewers at all? Entertainment value? I dont write that well. If I cant tell you whats best for you, then whats my point?
I write for the consumer, right? Well, yeah. I can always tell you what I like best, which you can plainly see by examining what Ive bought for my system. But there has to be more to it than that -- its not as if Jeff Fritz is a household name in any house but mine.
Whats left is high fidelity, and that concept is different from what any one individual most enjoys.
I suppose that, in some sense, The Abso!ute Sounds Harry Pearson had it right: What we are ultimately after is "the absolute sound" -- the reproduction in the home of recorded music that is indistinguishable from live music. Where that concept has always fallen short, in my mind, is in a tiny variable known as the recording chain. You can hear the concert live and unamplified, and then you can hear the recording of that event on your audio system, and you can compare the two. The only problem is what happens in between: If what you hear at home is indistinguishable from what you heard in the concert hall, you could then rightfully conclude that the recording chain has been perfectly completed. But because we havent gotten there yet, we must conclude that something between playing the music live and listening in our home is flawed. Likely, a lot of it is flawed.
That leaves us not with the concept of "the absolute sound" as the measuring stick with which we judge an audio component or system, but something else. If only we had a measurement device that was pure and perfect . . . but the unknown of the recording chain will always translate the units on any measuring stick into a language thats not the one we listen to music in. What were left with is high fidelity, or faithfulness to the source, which in our case is not the original performance but the recording of it. That is all that high-end-audio reviewers can hope to report on, and we can do so only by seeking the highest fidelity.
I know there are two burning questions that most of you would confront me with right now, so Ill save you the trouble: How do I know whats "really" on the recording? In terms of audio gear, how do I define whats "accurate"?
I still struggle with those questions, even after many years in the business. Heres my best shot at answering you (and me):
I can begin to conclude what a recording should sound like in my room by listening to the same tracks over many different high-quality systems and comparing them. In most cases, those systems will sound different in some specific ways. However, they will also sound the same in even more ways. For instance, I feel confident that, when Ive played specific segments of well-known recordings of male vocals (or whatever) over a number of well-respected speakers in my room with very similar results, I can then conclude that Im hearing is whats actually on those recordings. When several excellent speakers all agree, I call it a consensus. Only then can I use those recordings to judge other equipment. So when I hear those tracks played back over a different speaker and the singers voices sound drastically different from how they sound over my reference or "consensus" speakers, I can conclude that Im hearing an anomaly from the speaker.
Now it could be that the new speaker is simply more accurate than all the others, a possibility that I take into account by examining just how the new one differs from the rest. Sometimes those differences are obvious, sometimes not. So there must be additional checks to make sure that my original conclusions were sound. Supporting these opinions is the technical side of audio reproduction. I talk to audio designers, study design concepts and established audio theory, learn to read measurements of all types, and conduct my own in-room speaker measurements, all to help validate or refute my own conclusions. That leads to peace of mind for me with respect to the opinions I eventually publish.
So when an equipment reviewer concludes that a specific component is accurate or of high fidelity, my first question is: Based on what? Im not very impressed with such answers as I had an epiphany and now there is a new king! Im far more comfortable when the reviewers answer goes something like this: Based on listening to the product with recordings I know well, examining the technical measurements, taking my own measurements, comparing the product to several other similar, well-respected products in the same carefully designed system and room, and considering all of that in drawing my conclusions. Then I have something I can sink my teeth into.
And thats what I try to do myself.
I cant tell you what you might or might not enjoy, but I can take a pretty good crack at telling you what components can reproduce your recordings with the highest fidelity. As far as Im concerned, you can take it from there. So back to that Stereophile cover: The premise that if one amplifier was right, then the other must be wrong, was, well, right and wrong. And Im confident that Im right about that.
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