The Sound of One Hand Clapping

December 24, 2015

Jonathan Valin articulates that there are three types of audiophiles: 1) those who are interested in the absolute sound, 2) those who are interested in fidelity to the master tapes, and 3) those who are interested in what sounds best to them, regardless of its fidelity to the absolute sound or the master tapes. He goes on to qualify his statement by saying that there is overlap, and that some components and loudspeakers appeal to more than one type of audiophile simultaneously. I think he is pedagogically mistaken on all counts.

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. Such expectations are both intellectual and emotional. I also maintain that there are but two types of components and loudspeakers: 1) those which are transparent, and 2) those which are colored. Actually, since we have not yet achieved perfection, all components are colored, some less so than others, with loudspeakers having the greatest variability.

Let’s deal first with the definition of the absolute sound. It is, quite simply, the sound of acoustic instruments during a live performance in a specific performance space. In other words, what audiophiles are trying to accomplish is the reproduction of the sound of a live event in their homes. There are only two ways to accomplish that: 1) invite musicians into your home to perform, or 2) record a live event and play it back in your home over a high fidelity system. Obviously, for all but a very few on rare occasions, the de facto method is playback of a recording of the live event.

How do we know what the live event sounded like? Unless we attended the performance, we don’t. 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. Moreover, wherever we sit, it will not be at the same as the location of the recording microphones. Reproducing the absolute sound is a worthy goal, one that we should diligently strive for, but we must recognize that it is unachievable.

Regardless of whether we attended the performance or not, all we have is a reproduction. That reproduction was created by a recording engineer using a selection of different microphones, each with its own sonic characteristics, set up at certain locations and in certain miking patterns, whose relative gains were mixed to achieve what the recording engineer believed, in his judgment, best captured the live event. The recording may have undergone further manipulation back at the studio, in the form of panning, EQ, delay, reverb, adjustment of stereo depth and width, compression, limiting, and a host of other processes, all with the intent of further refining the sound so that it best reproduced what the recording engineer remembered of the sound of the performance, assuming he took his headphones off and listened to the performance itself instead of his recording. The recording then went to the mastering engineer, who added his own adjustments, even though it is unlikely he was at the performance. In short, the recording is an artistic performance in itself, separate and apart from the musical performance. Thus, the absolute sound is as an abstraction. How are we to judge the fidelity of components and loudspeakers based on an abstraction? So saying “I am an absolute sound kind of audiophile” isn’t really an accurate statement or a plausible category of audiophile.

We don’t have access to the master tape. At best we have a source which is several generations removed from the master tape, be it a first generation real time reel-to-reel dub of the safety master, a multi-generation removed pressing of an LP made from a stamper made, through a number of steps, from the original acetate, or a direct digital copy in the form of an audio disc or a digital audio file. Each step away from the master tape changes the sound in subtle ways.

Even if we had the master tape, we would not know what it actually sounds like. The master tape is a chameleon. It sounds exactly like the system it is replayed on. No two systems sound the same. That is why I characterize the sound of the master tape as the sound of one hand clapping. The intrinsic sound of the master tape is simply unknowable. How are we to judge the fidelity of components and loudspeakers based on the unknowable? So saying “I am a fidelity to the master tapes kind of audiophile” isn’t really an accurate statement or a plausible category of audiophile either.

Since all we have is the recording, our objective should be to reproduce it in as technically accurate a manner as possible. If, in reproducing it as technically accurate as possible, we don’t like the sound, meaning it does not sound they way we remember it being performed, or it does not meet our intellectual and emotional expectations of the way it should sound, we can change it. We can do so either by remastering the recording ourselves based on the copy we have, or by changing the components and loudspeakers in our system. The problem, of course, is that each recording is unique, so we are going to need either to remaster each recording ourselves or to change our components and loudspeakers for each recording. Neither is remotely feasible.

What audiophiles do, whether they are willing to admit it or not, is assemble systems which most consistently meet their intellectual and emotional expectations of the way the music they most often listen to should sound. Since our intellectual and emotional expectations are not static, and our taste in music changes and evolves, audiophiles are forever changing their components and loudspeakers.

My own recommendation is that you try to assemble components which, from a technical standpoint, reproduce the source as accurately as possible, and then, since loudspeakers are the source of the greatest variability in sound, find a pair of loudspeakers which best reflect your personal intellectual and emotional expectations of the way the music you listen to should sound. Live with it a while, and if you become dissatisfied, identify the area of dissatisfaction, and change the component which best addresses that shortcoming. Your system is not static. It will change over time as your taste in music changes and evolves, as your experience grows, and as your expectations change. It is part of the process. A music system is not a destination; it is a journey. The trick is to enjoy the music along the way without obsessing over the equipment. Easier said than done.

In closing, I would like to quote from J. Gordon Holt’s essay “Why Hi-Fi Expert’s Disagree”:

Listeners with identical hearing acuity and identical standards of judgment will usually be highly critical of different aspects of a system’s performance. Thus, expert A may be terribly, terribly critical of what happens in the high treble range, expert B may be hypercritical of bass, and expert C may have a Thing about middle-range smoothness or “coloration.”

We can see how this might influence their judgment of, say, a loudspeaker system. If it is a bit rough at the top, smooth through the middle range, and bass-shy, expert A won’t like it much; it will offend his critical ear for treble. Expert C won’t be too crazy about it either, because of the low-end deficiency, but expert B, even while admitting that “the top isn’t as smooth as I have heard,” and “the low end leaves a little bit to be desired,” will just as likely sum it up as “one of the most natural, musical-sounding speakers” he has tested.

They can all hear the speaker’s shortcomings, in the sense that the treble peaks and bass thinness will register on their hearing mechanism, but each picks out that aspect of its performance that is of particular concern to him, and tends to judge it mainly on the basis of that aspect.

I think that also explains why audiophiles disagree over which components and loudspeakers are best, and why no two high fidelity systems are the same. Thankfully, there is a huge array of choices available to us to tailor a system which best fits our preferences as they change over time. If we are interested in the music, since the absolute sound is an abstraction and the intrinsic sound of the master tapes is unknowable, we are all, not “as you like it” types, but “as you imagine it” types. Note that I am not advocating anything goes. But the ultimate choice of components and loudspeakers comes down to the subjective preferences of each audiophile, based on his memory, imagination, perceptions, and expectations, in his search for emotionally engaging and satisfying music reproduction.

- Frank Berryman