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The Cat’s Grin

Jonathan Valin wrote the following essay in response to the Point/Counterpoint in the last issue, in which Robert Greene and I presented diametrically opposed views of the roles of listening and measurement in evaluating audio equipment. —Robert Harley

To start, let me just say that I am very very glad that Dr. Robert E. Greene has recovered from his illness. If you’re comparing big differences to littler ones, what could be bigger than surviving a near-death experience, where being here and not being here are the stakes? I am extremely happy that Dr. Greene is still with us. The petty disagreements about hi-fi that he and I have had over the years matter not—hi-fi itself matters not—in this biggest of all pictures.

Having said that (and said it from my heart), I have to add that denying the existence of sonic differences because they are “too small” to verify by measurement is the exact opposite of Harry Pearson’s “observational” approach to hi-fi. This is not to say that questioning or expanding upon Harry’s ideas (which is what Dr. Greene is doing and what I myself have done and am about to do) is verboten; it’s just that quoting Harry incredibly selectively to support your position on, oh, wide-dispersion loudspeakers and soundstaging, while simultaneously going squarely against his core idea (which is that listening trumps measurement, always and invariably) is more than a bit misleading.

But rather than chastising Dr. Greene for heresy, let me confess one (very big) heresy of my own: I don’t believe in the absolute sound—at least, I don’t believe in it exclusively. Instead, I see three closely related but nonetheless distinctive and equally valid ways of listening to stereo systems and judging their excellence.

My first group of listeners, staked out by Harry and this magazine, is what I call the “absolute sound” bunch. For them, the thing that matters most is how closely and convincingly reproduced sound approaches the sound of the real thing. It doesn’t really matter how a speaker or amplifier or turntable or server manages to create the illusion of actual acoustic instruments in a real space; all that matters is that it does—whether that be by design, accident, coincidence, or adherence to or deliberate departure from the measurable (or un-) “truth.”

While profoundly important and influential, the idea of the absolute sound is not unproblematic. The trouble is that the absolute sound, as I often said to HP, isn’t absolute. What you hear in a concert hall is fundamentally dependent on all kinds of variables (e.g., the hall’s acoustics, where you’re seated in the hall, how the players themselves are spaced on the stage floor, what kind of instruments they are playing, how “warmed up” or not those instruments are, etc.). The result of all this relativity is that what sounds “absolute” to you in your orchestra section seat close by the double basses (which is where Harry customarily sat in Carnegie Hall) may be—in fact, will be, in ways large and small—different than what sounds “absolute” to another listener who sits in the center of the orchestra section or nearer to the strings, or in a loge or a balcony seat.

My second group of listeners is also looking for the absolute sound, but with an essential proviso: These folks want to hear voices and instruments sound fully realistic when—and only when—the recording has been made in a way that permits them to sound fully realistic. This is what I call the “accuracy” school of listeners, who aren’t really listening first and foremost to music, but rather to the quality of recordings. Fidelity to what is on an LP or a bitstream becomes the central goal of the stereo system and reproducing what was actually miked, mixed, and mastered, warts and all, overrules other considerations.

The trouble here is that determining what was “actually” recorded is fraught with its own set of problems, not the least of which is the inescapable fact that a recording is made and monitored through a set of speakers (or headphones) and electronics that are fundamentally different than those through which that recording is being played back in your listening room.

Of course, you could (if you had the access) turn to someone who was actually at the recording session for an informed opinion on how “faithful” your playback is, but then you start bumping up against some of the same issues that vex absolute sound listeners (e.g., where was that audience member seated vis-à-vis the microphones used at the recording session—and how did what he or she heard differ from what the microphones heard at their locations, how reliable is his or her “sonic memory” of the event, how much of what he or she heard is actually reflected in the finished product where edits, compression, and overdubs may have been used, etc.).

Which kind of brings us back to the ineluctable relativity of the listening experience, in the concert hall, in the recording studio, and in the home—a conundrum that is solved (or at least overstepped) by my third group: the “as you like it” or “musicality first” listeners.

By far the largest of my three sets, musicality listeners are simply looking for a good time. They could care less if the system sounds like the absolute (save to the degree that voices and instruments sounding real increases their enjoyment of and involvement with what they’re hearing), and they aren’t concerned if a system is faithful to sources (save to the extent that better-sounding records make listening more exciting and fun). Truth is, this group is not interested in sound per se. Its adherents are interested in what sound does to them, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They’re looking for a facsimile of the rapture they feel in a rock club or a concert hall; they’re looking for delight.

Obviously, the problem with putting musicality ahead of everything else is that one man’s musical is another’s mush. In worst case scenarios, musicality amounts to subjectivity taken to an entirely personal extreme. There can be no general standard of what constitutes excellent playback because no standard (except one’s own) is needed or applies. Put simply, you like what you like.

As I noted earlier, these three groups are interrelated: They share a love of “better” sound. What constitutes “better” is where they differ.

This brings me to a fourth set of listeners—one that Dr. Greene, at least in part, seems to sympathize with—the bunch that listens primarily to numbers.

Based on long experience, I don’t fully relate to this group. Oh, I understand the role that measurements play in designing, say, a loudspeaker, just as I understand the role that measurements play in following a recipe for a mille-feuille pastry or a plate of lièvre à la royale. What I don’t understand is how measurements taken with a microphone from one or even from several spots in an RFZ or an anechoic chamber or a quasi-anechoic setup can tell you, save in broad outlines, what that speaker is going to sound like in a real-world listening room, hooked up to real-world sources, amplifiers, and cables. For me, determining that requires actual listening, just as that pastry or plate of lièvre requires actual tasting.

I used to pester Harry with some of these thoughts—to get his goat. But whenever I started to go on about, say, the relativity of the absolute sound, he’d stop me short with a single prescient observation that could’ve been his byword: “We all know real when we hear it.” In other words, real is real, whether you’re sitting in the first row or the cheap seats, whether you’re listening to an RCA or a Mercury, whether you’re a fan of acoustic music or rock ’n’ roll.

“We all know real when we hear it.” Figuring out why that should be the case in the face of the obvious contradiction (to wit, a stereo system is manifestly not a real symphony orchestra or a string quartet or a rock group) has been the challenge of a hi-fi lifetime. And I haven’t figured it out yet, save to speculate (as I’ve done recently) that when a stereo sounds “real” it isn’t just a matter of superior parts (such as more powerful intensity, flatter-measuring timbre, longer duration, or more perfect pitch) but also of the way those parts are grouped together—of their gestalt—and that this magical gestalt regrouping of parts depends in some unmistakable way on the neutrality and completeness of the presentation. It is that neutrality and completeness that allows a stereo system to disappear like the Cheshire cat, leaving behind only the music—the cat’s grin.

Well, that’s it, folks. At least, from this corner of The Absolute Sound world. It may not be satisfying and it certainly isn’t specific, but…it’s the best I can do when it comes to summarizing how we listen.


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