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The Ear of the Beholder
New West, July 14, 1980
Copyright © jwb 1980, 1997.

 
Before I begin reviewing stereo equipment and other matters of audio on a regular basis, I thought it might be useful to write a bit about my criteria and my prejudices. What interest me in audio is perception, not technology. One perception often lost in all the getting and spending is that live sound is beautiful, while reproduced sound rarely is.
      A friend and I were in the control room at a recent recording session while the musicians rehearsed and the engineers set up their equipment. The sound we heard came directly to the monitor speakers from the microphones and amps, with no intervening tape or disc.
      The sound quality was excellent, unlike most professional audio sound. The closest you could come to it at home would be one of the very best direct-to-disc records. But of course the "direct feed" that we were hearing from the microphones was even better, and the speakers and amplifiers in the control room were better than anything you are likely to find in a private home. Altogether, we felt that we could truly discern the subtleties of the music being recorded.
      Yet when, after listening for a while, we opened the door of the control room and walked into the studio to hear the live sound, the difference was astonishing! The control- room sound impressed us with its impact, but the live sound moved us with its beauty.
      What was the actual difference? I could point to this or that specific, but it didn't feel like a matter of specifics. Perhaps part of it is the combination of delicacy and power that live sound gives you. In reproduced sound, these qualities are almost mutually exclusive. Still, some systems give you a reasonable combination of the two, some give you one or the other—and most give you neither.

      When I talk about the beauty of live sound, I don't mean prettiness. I mean whatever it is that draws you in instead of putting you off, involves you instead of repelling you, rewards you for listening instead of punishing you.
      And when I say that live sound is beautiful, I don't mean that I am enamored of the motorcycle that roars by while I'm practicing the piano, or that I love an out-of-tune piano or a bad singer. But there is something beautiful even in those sounds, or perhaps in the process of hearing them; in the way they bloom and change as they sustain and die, the way they come to you through the air, the way they are transparent to their content.
      Can you imagine listening to any kind of recorded music at concert volume for as long as you listen to live music at a concert? Neither can I. But on some systems you could listen for an hour, while others would tire you after five minutes. This fact suggests a good technique for buying audio equipment. Take along some good records to play on any system you plan to buy, and listen for an hour or two on several occasions. If the system fatigues you, don't buy it.
      Part of this fatigue may be muscular, as I found out last year in reviewing phonograph cartridges. After forming my own judgments on the cartridges through dozens of hours of listening, I had a panel audition each one. I noticed that when the panel members were listening to a cartridge they liked, they were physically relaxed. After a minute or two of listening, they would start breathing more regularly and settle into their seats. But when listening to one they did not like, they would fidget and become tense.
      I ended up thinking that a valid review might almost be done simply by monitoring the muscle tension of a listening panel chosen at random: The lower the tension, the better the component.
      One further aspect of the panel members' behavior suggest perhaps the simplest test of all. It turned out that the sound quality affected not only their state of tension but also the focus of their attention. After listening to three of the cartridges, they commented on the sound and the equipment, but after the two best ones, they spoke about the music.
      This reminded me of descriptions of concerts I sometimes hear from friends. They will tell me in a dutiful tone what famous performer they heard, how wonderful his technique was, and so on. This always makes me suspicious, and I generally find that when I ask if the concert moved them, they look a little surprised and uncomfortable at my Midwestern naivete—you mean that's your criterion?—and then they answer, No.
      In a way, though, you should not notice the performance at a concert. The music should be transparent to the emotion. And a reproduction system should be transparent to the music.
      People accept amazing ugliness in reproduced sound because it's impressive or overwhelming, or because it emanates from expensive or reputedly good equipment. In the long run it all comes out in the wash; but as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead. Meanwhile, you may be the live owner of equipment you can't stand. To short-circuit this process, listen at some length before you buy. Notice your state of muscle tension, notice how quickly you tire of the sound, notice whether you are attending to the equipment or the music. Ask yourself if the sound is beautiful. That is more important than volumes of technical data!

 
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