Early this year I was talking to Constantine, our Publisher/Editor, about the sound of the remarkable Soundsmith Strain Gauge phono cartridge system. During this conversation, the subject of “the best” came up. He suggested I write an article about what “the best” really means. I thought about it and I’m sure it means different things to different people. Dear Constantine, maybe it would be a good assignment to all the reviewers to write an article about what their best or dream system would sound like. (Good idea! -Pub.)
I’m going to start with an assumption. That is that you are not one of those people who think a great audio system can sound better than live music. In that statement, I’m assuming you want to experience the same kind of emotional experience at home that you do at a live event. If that isn’t your goal, then you don’t need to read any further unless you just like to read my ramblings.
Being from the south, we usually start telling you what something is by describing what it isn’t. I think I will start here about this idea of what the best audio system would be. I can tell you for sure if you audio system always has a wide and deep soundstage, if it always has precise, pinpoint imaging, if it’s always airy, always three-dimensional, if its bass is never boomy, if there is never any glare in the midrange, and the midrange and top end never have too much bite, then it’s not the best. You may love it, but it’s not going to take you to the emotional and musical experience that live music can.
The reason I say this is simple; live music often has some of those mistakes going on and often sounds more like a great mono recording than the sound we audiophile refer to as soundstaging. Years ago, Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK said if you wanted to pick the best system you should go out and buy a handful of recordings you had never heard before. Then, you should play them on the different systems or with the different components you are comparing. He said the system on which those recordings sounded the most different would be the best system.
Let me demonstrate by talking about a couple of live performances at Yoshi’s in Oakland. This is a venue where I have gone to hear Jazz a couple of times a month for the last 12 years. Last night, my son and I went to hear Dr. John. He played the same concert Steinway that is always there. He also had someone playing a Hammond with a Leslie speaker, an electric bass, a lead electric guitar, a great drummer, and Sarah Morrow singing back up and playing her slide trombone as only she can.
The experience was great, no one could sit still, people clapped, danced, and sang along. It is still reverberating in my ears to this day. In fact, I will remember it fondly for a long time. If I hadn’t been in the middle of writing this article I would have never thought about the sound, and as it was, I forced myself to think about it for maybe ten minutes out of two hours of great music. If I had been evaluating the sound as an audiophile evaluates his stereo, I guess I would have said the following.
I would have commented on the huge soundstage, and the great scale and power it had. That’s because I was sitting on the second row. From experience, I can tell you it doesn’t sound nearly as wide or have much separation from the middle or back. I also would have commented on how beautiful the piano sounded in that honky tonk way. I would have pointed out that the bass got boomy and out of control at times, that the system could have a little glare when things got really loud. By the way, I would have, without a doubt, talked about how dynamic and alive it sounded.
As I sit here and read that last paragraph, I am thinking how stupid that sounds. Why? Because that is not how I felt about the show. That’s not how I listened. I thought about how incredible Dr. John was. I commented to my son that even though he’s now 71, Dr. John hadn’t lost a step musically since we heard him four years ago. I talked about how incredible Sarah Morrow played that horn and what a hoot she is. I first heard her when she became the first female player for Ray Charles not long before he left us. I just would have never thought about the things I said above without forcing myself, and even then I felt silly.
So, when I talk about something being the best, it’s something that gets me closer to that and a system that does the least to distract me from that experience. Nothing could be a bigger proof of this than the SoundSmith strain gauge that I was telling Constantine about when he asked me to write this column. When I first started listening to it, I was listening as a reviewer. I was immediately blown away. Not a good sign by the way, most things that blow me away on first listen usually start to distract me from the music or just irritate me with time.
The opposite was true this time. When I put back in the Miyabi Standard, my first thought was oh-this-is-wonderful, but the longer I listened the more I missed the strain gauge system. What did I miss? I missed how alive people sounded, how beautiful instruments sounded, how much I could either be transported to the listening environment, or more often with studio recordings, how much it sounded like they were singing or playing right there in my room.
Let me give you another example of what I’m talking about. Right now as I’m writing this, I’m listening to an old Telarc Digital LP, Liza Minnelli At Carnegie Hall. I would never pull this LP out to set up VTA, VTF, or other such things. Still, I would never consider a system to be right if you could listen to this album and not want to stand up and applaud from time to time. On a lot of audiophile systems you will most likely listen to hear the recordings’ flaws, but on a really great, not necessarily the most expensive system you won’t care about the flaws because of how alive, powerful, and exciting it is. When I listen to this LP through the strain gauge, I feel drawn into the performance as if I was at Carnegie Hall and mostly I just feel excited.
Let’s get back to the question, what makes an audio system or component the best? Does being the best mean it can playback exactly what is on the recording, or does it mean it is a system that sounds more like music and moves me emotionally like live music? In my experience, it is highly unlikely that this depends mostly on the equipment you own or how the room is set up, but on a synergy between both.
Trying to answer this question of what it means for something to be the best, I have come to the conclusion that it is quite a personal thing. So for myself, and you the readers, I’ve compiled a list of five things that make a system or component the best for me.
1. The system allows performers to sound alive. This has a lot to do with the immediacy that a system is capable of, the scale a system has, the cohesiveness of the sound and the solidity of the performers and instruments on the recording. If a system can do this, it can result in something that allows recorded music to, directly, instantly and emotionally involve me in the musical performance.
2. Second for me is the tonal and harmonic quality the system is able to portray. By this, I mean the reproduction of the textures, colors, and tones of the music. I want recorded voices and instruments to sound like themselves in tone and harmonic textures.
There are two things that can rob a system of harmonic texture. The first is a system that is slow and overly warm, so much so that you can’t really hear the leading edge of the instruments and voices. You end up with a rich and sometimes seductive sound that does not let you hear the textures, layers, or the aliveness of the performance.
The second is a system that is so fast, so quick, and so tight that it does not develop the harmonics that create the textures and layers of sound that live music almost always has. The funny thing is, I know a good many audiophiles who actually prefer one of these two extremes to a more balanced sound. Like lots of things in life, the pendulum of what’s popular tends to swing from one extreme to the other and seldom settles on the truth.
3. To really, emotionally, connect with the music I find that a system has to have real dynamics and quickness. Without these, it is difficult for the flow of the melody and the rhythm of the music to sound real. This probably explains my preference for speakers with efficiency around 100 dB or more.
4. A coherent/holographic soundstage, this in no way is to be confused with the typical audiophile soundstage that mini-monitors do so well. I know how much fun it is to listen for pinpoint imaging, and how exciting it is to hear a voice or an instrument coming from a foot or two outside the speakers; but the last thing I want to listen to are strings floating around in space. You know, like some modern painting that show strings and notes but no instrument or musician.
What I do want to hear is as near life-size sound of instruments as possible. I don’t know why Jazz musicians love to walk over and stick their horns right into the mic, but they do and it’s part of a live Jazz performance. I want to hear that, I want to hear a vocal or a trumpet start soft and small then swell in volume and size as they reach back and let it go. I also want to hear the space around, and even within an instrument. I want to hear the body of the guitar, I want to hear the floor under the bass, I want to hear the sound of the strings inside a piano. A coherent soundstage sounds like real instruments in a real space. It has a wholeness to it and lets you hear the hall, or club as well as the space and air around and within instruments.
5. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I want a system that allows voices to sound alive and like real people. I love vocal music and if a system can’t let voices sound right then I simply have no interest in it.
So I hope in a very personal way I have answer Constantine’s question, “What makes a system or component the best?”
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