Saturday, November 15, 2008

Does the sound matter anymore?


A visit to the Norwegian website Hifiisentralen prompts me to ask, does the sound matter any more? Hifiisentralen linked to my recent Radka Toneff post, and I noticed that many of the comments on the Norwegian site included details of the member's audio system. Blogs today are full of mentions of MP3s, iTunes, SACD, 5.1 and other miraculous acronyms. But when did you last see any discussion of the other links in the audio chain - the amplifier and loudspeakers?

A while back hi-fi brands such as Quad and Acoustic Research were mentioned as frequently as record labels and recording artists. It could be that audio systems are so good today that we don't need to talk about them anymore. Or, it could be that we are so obsessed with storage and transmission media that we have forgotten the other vitally important components.

Personally, I tend to the latter explanation. It is a simple law of physics that you need large speakers to reproduce extended bass. And I'm not only talking about for listening to organ recitals. As I write the new Simax CD of George Crumb's Makrokosmos I-II with pianist Ellen Ugelvik plays. Crumb's music just doesn't make sense unless you can physically experience the visceral quality of the sound, and you need serious loudspeakers to do that. Yet, much listening today is done on PC speakers, or even worse in-ear headphones that are prevented, again by the laws of physics, from reproducing the soundstage in front of the listener lovingly created by the recording engineer. Strange when concert hall acoustics are a million dollar science.

Elsewhere there is evidence that content producers are confusing the medium and the message. So often 'perfect sound' digital recordings fail to match analogue alternatives from decades ago. While in the car a couple of weeks back I heard a Bach keyboard concerto recording bought in by the BBC from a Canadian broadcaster and aired in the Radio 3 afternoon 'graveyard' slot that should never have been allowed past the audition stage, both for sound and performance quality. Naxos has done many great things, but a thread here a while back asked whether they dumbed-down production standards. And one of my own webcasts included some unwanted ornamentations.

Perhaps the it's time to start thinking about the sound as well as the file format. Remember who said 'Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio'.

* For information the main Overgrown Path listening room has a front end of Thorens TD 125 turntable with SME Series IIIS tone arm and Audio-Technica AT-F3 cartridge, Denon TU-260 tuner and Arcam Alpha 9 CD player. The amplifier is an Arcam 10 with moving-coil phono card, and the speakers are Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803s. Sennheiser 580 headphones are also used. There is a mains conditioner constructed by our electronics graduate son to smooth the sometimes noisy rural electricity supply. The secondary audio systems in other rooms all put the emphasis on loudspeaker quality. Online sources are usually auditioned via KEF Q50s floor-standers in my study. The Thorens front-end can be seen in this article.

The Simax CD of George Crumb's Makrokosmos I-II was purchased from Prelude Records. All audio equipment mentioned in this article was bought at retail price. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

3 comments:

Pliable said...

With apologies to my readers in Norway for re-locating Hifiisentralen to another Scandinavian country in an early version of this post.

Brian Rossmann said...

Yes, sound matters! And, the best sound is still analog on vinyl.

Rega P9 Turntable.
Rega RB-1000 Tonearm.
Clearaudio Maestro Cartridge.
Naim CD5 Compact Disc Player.
Naim Flatcap II Power Supply.
McIntosh MA6900 Integrated Amplifier with MM Phono Section.
Vandersteen 2CE Signature Speakers.

But ... the best part ... ~3,000 LPs amassed over several decades.

(I will also admit to ~70GB of music FLAC files on my PC at work, which I listen to with a HeadRoom Desktop amp/power supply and Denon AH-D5000 cans; but, this can't hold a candle to the rig at home).

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Your link today to this post reminded me I meant to comment on it and never did. One of my favorite music bloggers, Terry Teachout, back a while ago was singing the praises of his iPod and ear buds, saying they were wonderful and worked fine for him. He mentioned the highs weren't there, but that older folks don't hear them anyway. My immediate thought was the point you make here about bass. Plus the whole notion of feeling the sound with your whole body as well as hearing with the ear drums. Couldn't help suspecting that he's listening analytically to write about the music, but missing that somatic component that can be so important to other listeners - and dancers.