Neil Young introduces his “Journey Through the Past” to his audience (Live at Massey Hall 1971, Reprise) with a little humor: “I’ve written so many new ones (i.e. songs) I can’t think of anything else to do with them other than sing ’em.”
Like most things that make us laugh, there’s a nugget of truth buried in this throw-away line. And the truth revealed here is that music is performance art. As Mr. Young says in his video interview for the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, the song is the vehicle. Those notes need to be driven off the page and vibrate the air. It’s not until the song is performed that it becomes art. The artistic expression of a musical idea or emotion doesn’t sit in notated form like framed, painted brushstrokes frozen for all to see for all time. The expression is released through the performance. Music happens. It’s an active, created force.
The wonderful thing about our hobby is that the systems we assemble are a necessary part of re-creating this artistic force in our homes. This is the first and most important job of any system that we purchase, recommend, or just listen to. Can it allow that musical message (driven by performance) to get through? If you think that seems impossible to determine, I beg to differ. It’s the first and most obvious thing you should notice. Simply put, are you listening to the music or to the system? If you get out of your own way, that answer will quickly become apparent.
More good news? In my experience, the ability to allow the musical message through is not tied to a price tag. I can promise you that most of Rage Against the Machine’s messaging gets through the very crude stereo in my car. And I know of a former conductor for a major U.S. symphony orchestra who used to listen to his recordings on a kitchen table radio. The ability to enjoy music in your home (or on the go) is not a privilege reserved for the few. Which, of course, in no way suggests that many don’t still manage to screw up that basic task, at all price points. Want proof? Go to any audio show and count the number of rooms in which you can just sit back and listen to music. That should be the minimum requirement, not a high bar.
The Absolute Sound (and by extension, this review) exists, however, because of a secondary connected potential of these same systems. And that is the potential to recreate in your home the sounds of real instruments in a real space. The best systems can let the musical message through while also allowing all kinds of insights into the physical performance itself. Now please, don’t shoot the messenger, but the bad news here is that these kinds of technical attributes do come with a price tag. If that bothers you, stop reading now and continue listening to the radio on your kitchen counter. I won’t blame you.
My 10-year-old son walked into the room, and I think it was Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West that happened to be cued up. He rarely offers any comments/opinions on anything I have at home (which has been a lot), but this time after about a minute he said, “I like these better.” I quickly turned the volume down to get any unedited nuggets that I could. “Why do you like them better?” He followed with something completely unexpected, and keep in mind that we don’t discuss audio equipment and he has shown virtually no interest in it. He explained, “They project better.” What? Where on earth did that come from? “What do you mean they project better?” Without missing a beat, he continued, “They sound purer. It’s like you’re right there.” That from a 10-year-old who’s never read an audio review and doesn’t really talk to me about the gear I bring home. And it’s not like I have audiophile friends for him to overhear and pick up on their accepted terminology. This was a raw, unfiltered response. He went on to tell me that he used the word “project” because they have a projector at school. In other words, he was telling me that these compact Stenheim loudspeakers were projecting a picture. A real picture. “Like you’re right there.”
In many ways this was a sad, humbling moment. This was the bursting of my sophisticated, experienced audio opinion bubble. It turns out that anyone who merely listens can fully realize just how special the Swiss Stenheim Alumine Threes are. I’ve set up thousands of systems, sold and represented loudspeakers by Rockport Technologies, Wilson, Magico, MartinLogan, Kharma, Dynaudio, ATC, Verity Audio, Avalon, Dunlavy, Quad, Totem, PSB, Wisdom Audio, Eclipse, Penaudio, Linn, Audio Physic, and many more. I’ve lived these kinds of things for heaven’s sake. Yet a 10-year-old boy, who’d rather be playing a video game on a PS4, walks into a room and without even sitting down recognizes a sound with superior purity, projection, and realness. And for those of you out there who say, “I’d never hear the difference,” well, you’d be wrong. My son is living proof.