What is the “absolute sound”?

What is "the absolute sound"?

The question of how we measure success in hi-fi is a tricky one. Many years ago, The Absolute Sound magus Harry Pearson made a lot of hay about the idea of reality being the only valid metric when evaluating sound or systems that produce sound. Specifically, the point of your hi-fi was to recreate, as faithfully as possible, the sound of “the live event”. The best hi-fi systems would freely cross the uncanny valley; playback would be indistinguishable from the original. Real instruments, played by real people, in real spaces — that was ever the barometer, the referent, and the aim. That was “the absolute sound” — and our hi-fi systems succeeded or failed solely by their ability to create this illusion, to erase time and distance, to bring the performance into your listening room.

Fascinating, right? I think so. I think many of us still think so.

But what if it’s a load of crap?

Many years ago, I wrote an article called: “Chasing the Absolute Sound“. This was an evolution of an article I wrote years before that, called “Your hi-fi sounds like crap“. Sadly, neither article has achieved “common wisdom” status, because I keep seeing/reading discussions online about how there is this “one thing” somehow “out there”, one perfect absolute sound, something that “we can all agree” is the “ideal”. And when a hi-fi system is able to recreate this one, singular, Platonic ideal, then that system is “doing its job”. Our job, as enthusiasts, would be to struggle toward this hidden peak, to seek out the tales from the expeditionary forces that have gone before us, to venture into the blinding snow and freezing fog, searching after “the absolute sound” as if were some kind of audio yeti.

Long story short: there’s no yeti. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were! Instead, we have other goals and other guides. And that fact is why this hobby is so interesting.

Check out the YouTube video for all that — and a lot more. Comments are welcome!

About Scot Hull 1039 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.


  1. Perhaps I’m entirely wrong, but Harry’s statement/quest all those years ago was sired in a world where (presumably) live,acoustic music (maybe classical and jazz) was not only his ‘thing’, but also the most common form of experiencing what to some people is the only form of ‘serious’ music out there. With the ability today to generate and deliver complex sound entirely within electronic means leaves this view too strict and limiting.

    I was born in the 50s, grew up with dad’s jazz records, moved to rock and electronic instrumental music in my teens, then on to pure, recorded electronic (think ambient, dub, EDM, house and a whole host of clicks, bleeps, noises and abstracted sounds etc).

    The whole concept of seeking the absolute ‘live’ sound reproduction is irrelevant to me as most of what I listen to now was born, stored and conveyed in chips, discs and wires before wobbling some speaker cones in my lounge room.

    What is the absolute sound for me?
    Seriously, sometimes just being able to play it back at all (and let the emotion take me away).

  2. Hull makes valid points, but ignores a more fundamental question: what is the live performance? Is it in the studio with the performers? But what about dubs and overdubs, and performers playing individually? Is it what’s heard in the sound booth, given adjustments on the sound board? Or is it after mastering has occurred? Plus imaging we hear at home is artificial, that is, created by an engineer for consumer listening, and is not directly the original performance (compare it with what one hears in a typical live concert).

    • I’m pretty sure I said exactly this, but whatever — yes, the question “what is the live performance” is not answerable with anything other than a subjectivist metric.

  3. As a frequenter of recitals and concerts in venues varying from large rooms to cathedrals and concert halls, I carry a memory of these moments as LIVE. I especially love to hear song and music up close and personal, all minus electronics, when it is coming from the likes of a street busker or a roving group of musicians at a fete. When listening to recordings from similar environments – and yes I understand the effect of environment on LIVE music and vocals – I strive to recreate these experiences. It is this that drives my search for the best equipment that I can afford, or even that I can’t afford.

    When I hear music that has been butchered by a recording engineer, it is a huge turn-off. Similarly the opinions of otherwise respected folk in the audio business who describe the badly equed cacaphony coming from the gear that they are demonstrating as suiting the tastes of the listener, when it impossible to determine whether or not the sound is being mostly generated by the recording or the equipment.

    Consumers such as I read the audio press to find gear that will help recreate the wonders of live music. I feel disappointed when a reviewer opines that “the absolute sound” is a myth.

    • This is impossible to judge. Chances are, you’ve never heard any “live performance” that was subsequently transferred to a captured medium, and then offered up in a meaningful way that would allow you to compare the two. Worse, even the very best “aural memories” of trained experts has been shown to be unreliable.

      That does not keep us from having many strong beliefs about those memories, or our aural powers of observation, however. Not quite Dunning-Kruger, but close enough for government work.

      So, regrettably, yes, “the absolute sound” as a referent for in-home audio reproduction is not only a myth, it’s provably false. Apologies.

  4. The average recording quality (movie, music, game etc.) is low. You have clips on YouTube with very interesting high quality mics, and the sound is amazing even with low end headphones speakers.

  5. I have always viewed the absolute sound as being in relation to the original recording. In other words I would say that the absolute sound is one that reproduces the original recording most faithfully. In the case of a live event that would tend to match what Harry Pearson said, but will also leave it open for artists to specifically make it not sound like a live event if that is not the sound that they want. This goes along with the electronics definition of an ideal amplifier of creating an output that exactly matches the input but with higher amplitude of the waves. Amplifiers, speakers and playback devices should all be attempting to create output that matches the input as accurately as possible which then gives you objective measurements for how good a system is.

    Read the media that is being played and show the waveform that would generate. Compare that waveform with the output from the playback device, amplifier and what you get from recording speaker output. The more similar the waveform the closer the output is to what the artist intended and therefore the better it is.

  6. I mostly listen to rock, along with occasional forays into jazz and classical music. Most of my recordings were created in a studio, so the question remains: “What is live music?”. The music has been recorded in a specific environment and with specific pieces of recording equipment, all of which add coloration) distortion along the way.

  7. It is idealistic to think that there is an ‘absolute sound’, but yet it is a journey all we ‘audiophiles’ pursue – full or part-time. The best analogy I can think of is akin to an NFL wide receiver who catches the long ball running down field, defensive back in close pursuit with said receiver turning and taunting the d-back with a ball he will never get. The chase for the absolute sound is that d-back chasing a ball he will not get.

    My opinion is aside from gear love, we all have to do our best to assemble the hardware and software that fits our budget…and brings us closer to the reproduction of music we love and appreciate.

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