Your hi-fi sounds like crap

I ran across an editorial on Ultra High End Review called “The Sound of One Hand Clapping“. The author, Frank Berryman, argues (I think) that The Absolute Sound is the one True Reference for all audiophiles. I think. Wait, let me check. Okay, yeah, that’s what he says:

I maintain that there is but one type of audiophile: one who is interested in reproducing what, in his memory or imagination, a live event sounded like, based on his prior experiences and his expectations.

Interestingly, he actually makes the opposite point quite eloquently. He has one of the best, most consistently damning arguments as to why The Absolute Sound — that is, the “live event” — is actually impossible to achieve.

Sure, we know what a violin sounds like. Every violin has a certain intrinsic quality, but no two violins sound the same, and the same violin does not sound the same when played by two different musicians. And unless we were at the performance, we don’t know what a particular violin sounded like when played by a particular musician in a particular performance space. This scenario is further complicated by the fact that the sound of the violin will be different at different locations within the performance space. So even if we attended the live performance, we only know what the sound of the violin was, say, in the orchestra section, row M, seat 14. I must also add that our aural memory is short, and the likelihood that we will remember precisely how a particular violin sounded when played by a particular musician in a particular performance space at a particular location is, to say the least, remote.

Worse still, we really have no idea what we’re listening to — even when we are live and in person. People are terrible at this, generally speaking. I think Berryman realizes this when he says the following:

Reproducing the absolute sound is a worthy goal, one that we should diligently strive for, but we must recognize that it is unachievable.

There are good philosophical reasons for this, too, but I’m not sure an extended discussion of the philosophy of Karl Popper is warranted here.

What we’re left with is the sound of our reproduction systems. Given that the goal cannot be to recreate the live event, as this is pretty much unknowable and therefore meaningless, the goal then ought to be the satisfaction that we can achieve.

This is, of course, problematic and can lead to all manner of system-specific recommendations that aren’t generalizable. Not to mention entirely subjective.

It’s interesting that Berryman finishes here when he quotes Stereophile’s J. Gordon Holt, “Why Hi-Fi Experts Disagree“, because this isn’t where Holt ends.

Rather, this is the money quote that I prefer:

In other words, as far as the reproducing system is concerned, it is fidelity to the recording that counts, rather than fidelity to the original sound.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

What this does is establish a better, more objective bar. What we should aim for is what the mastering engineer was aiming for. What we should hear, with our fine audio systems, is what the mastering engineer would hear in his mastering studio. Right?

Hmm.

Wait a second. Have any of you been to a mastering studio? If so, which system should we be shooting for? The one tuned for iTunes? The one tuned for car audio? Or the one tuned for radio? Because almost none of these mastering systems are mastering for my hi-fi. I mean, sure, there are some studios out there that do that, but not many. Especially not nowadays.

Ha ha! Dude, you are so screwed! Welcome back to the real world — the world of total subjectivity!

The best that any expert can do is to lead you to components that are intrinsically excellent. You will still have to make up your own mind about such matters as cost and appearance and flexibility, and you should try out a few different loudspeakers in your home to find out which ones suit your acoustical environment and your taste in reproduced sound. The expert cannot, and will not if he has any sense, choose the components for you, because your ear is the final judge in the last analysis. If no combination of really good components sounds good to you, then you probably don’t really want high fidelity, and can forget all about the expert opinions. They don’t agree anyway.

Here’s my take on all this — get yourself the hi-fi you can afford that makes you stop fussing about the bits and bobs. You’re playing music here, right? And aren’t you supposed to be enjoying the music? It’s not supposed to be this much work, is it? In the end, your system really ought to do what you’re willing to pay for. It should sound good to you. Your system should be balanced enough that you can upgrade individual components without fubaring the balance of the entire system. If you like a particular coloration — go for it. If you need a particular bass register hit, be prepared to pay for it. If you want tone, or detail, or speed — all those things are possible.

The best thing that you can do for yourself is find someone who knows something and subscribe to their approach. If you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with their taste, over time, well — that’s fucking helpful, now isn’t it? Right on! But however you go about it, whatever your goals, remember what Gordon said: “Your ear is the final judge.”

Use the Force, Luke. Let go. Trust me.

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5 Responses to Your hi-fi sounds like crap

  1. stew says:

    Striving for “the absolute sound”: I’ve given up on this completely. Yes I do write a few reviews, and I comment on equipment. But if I am nothing else, I am a realist. Most simply don’t have the means to even attempt to reproduce audio in a realistic manner within a domestic environment, so why bother? Well, at least we can attempt to make it enjoyable and engaging. And that is what I feel is the real benefit of good audio at home: it allows us to enjoy music in a more meaningful way than being satisfied as the the millions (or perhaps even billions) of drones convince themselves that they cannot “hear the difference”. In the lucky event we get to listen to good un-amplified music in some venue, then we can have some sort of reference to compare against. However it would be in regard to that music in that venue played by those musicians at that time. But few of us ever have that opportunity.

    Although not in complete agreement with Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound (TAS), nor the late Mr.Holt (stereophile), the two of them (and their respective magazines) have been the stimuli that has allowed good audio equipment to be available at relatively affordable prices to the general public.

    I’ve always subscribed to the notion that if it sounds good to you, then it is. I can only suggest equipment, I can only suggest what I or others have found to be “good” in that the equipment itself is not fundamentally flawed, and the sound that comes from a particular group of equipment is enjoyable in some meaningful way. Whether folks agree with me or not is not the reason for being.

    Somewhere , sometime I once offered up this thought: when listening to a group (whether choir, or orchestral, or rock) does the music I hear at home seem to take me to a place (in my mind) where I could imagine hearing what comes from my system. It need not be “perfect”, but does it somehow take me there. If the answer is “yes” then the audio system is doing what it should. (of course this assumes that one is listening to a piece of music that has been recorded and mixed with some care to the end result)

  2. Dave says:

    I was able to attend a concert at the famed Musikverein in Vienna, which is 100% unamplified, it’s all the sound of the instruments and the hall. The way the sound of the solo vocalists carried out into the hall was pretty breath taking. VERY few speakers I’ve ever heard have been able to produce anything like that effect, certainly none of the typical 36-42″ tall “tower” speakers. You don’t look down on the sound at all in that space, most of it is above you. Much taller speakers that mirror their drivers, like the Dynaudio Confidence C4 for example, are able to reproduce that much more effectively than the more typical tweet-mid-bass array tower speaker.

    Down at the level that’s more economically realistic for most people, I think there’s A LOT to be said for the full-range driver. Not something tiny in a massive horn that’s mostly midrange, something like the Audio Nirvana or Omega Super 8 Alnico drivers in traditional sealed or ported enclosures. These cost $1500-3000/pr, and they can beat up speakers that cost FAR more. Sensitivity of 93dB+ also opens up the door to flea watt tube amps, or very practical pure Class A amps in the 30-50W range like the Valvet A3.5, an amp that eats similar looking ICEpower amps for breakfast.

  3. Good article Scott. Makes my thoughts segue into questioning why some kit is somewhat derogatorily labeled “studio-oriented” or “prosumer” – especially regarding some DACs when in fact, these are the folks dedicated to making the music we love come alive in our listening rooms.

    I maintain that quite often “live sound” is so moving because of our direct perception and visceral experience of seeing and hearing the performers – it’s rarely the SOUND alone, but the experience of seeing your favorite performer doing an incredible and rare cut live for example.

    That said, good sound at venues exist, but that those auditory experiences can be so varied in quality and content that ironically, they become nearly irrelevant in this discussion of sound reproduction. The listening room is a controlled environment, as is a recording studio and mastering room.

  4. Beau Ranheim says:

    My issue is that I hear a lot about having to listen to unamplified music as my reference. Where, especially for symphonic music, can I do this? Most symphonies and operas use sound reinforcement during their performances. Can’t remember when I went to a performance and didn’t notice some type of amplification present, maybe the Village Vanguard? Hell I have even see a couple of string quartets in small churches use the PA system for help.

    • Part-Time Audiophile says:

      I know — it kinda makes the point. Even if you do go to live music, chances are, you’re still listening to an amplification chain composed of compromised gear. Screw it. Make your rig sound good and stop fussing, says I.

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