A few thoughts to correct a possible mis-impression I may have given to some, based on what I've read on the Legacy Speaker thread. Some people seem to think I like a "colored" sound, and I would just like to make myself a little more clear on the subject.
My goal in building my stereo is to achieve 100% musical truth -- to make music in my home sound as much like the real thing as possible. Over the course of now almost 30 years I have come to appreciate that one man's accuracy is another man's coloration. That no two people will ever agree completely on what is accurate.
I find the use of the term unproductive, and worse. Herr Wittgenstein would call it a "word problem", a "puzzle", a trick of language that confuses us and prevents us from understanding a deeper truth.
The musical truth we seek in reproduction has something to do with accuracy; we just don't know what it is. What exactly is the relationship? When we say something is more accurate, is it? Or does it just have colorations we are confusing with accuracy? How can we possibly know the difference?
In your "mind's ear" you have a sound that you compare to the sound you hear on a recording, and decide what degree of accuracy you are hearing, based on that comparison. What is the sound in your head? What makes you think it's accurate? It strikes me as having more in common with one of Plato's Ideal Forms, a perfect version that exists outside of our world, as our world is made up of only poor imitations of these ideals. An interesting philosophical system, but what good is it? The sound in your head can hardly be called accurate, now can it?
This search for "accuracy" is a way of intellectualizing a problem that ultimately is not about the intellect at all, but about emotion. I've heard many stereos in my day, all of which had many good reasons why they should work well. Problem is, they mostly didn't, for me anyway. Many would call them accurate; certainly their owners would. But what good are they if they don't convey musical truths, if they don't make you respond emotionally to the music they reproduce?
Transistor equipment is supposedly "accurate". It's accurate in many respects, no doubt, but I find it drains much of the color from the instruments it reproduces. Instruments no longer sound "vivid" and "lifelike" to me. They sound gray, or grayer. But people say this transistor equipment is accurate, so maybe I just prefer the colorations of my tube equipment, which gives instruments that "vivid, lifelike" quality I desire.
Since I review and recommend recordings for a living, I couldn't possibly have a very inaccurate system and stay in business for long. When I play a record, I have to hear what's on the record -- not what I want to be on the record -- to be able to do my job, which is to tell my customers what a given record sounds like. It will no doubt sound very different on their stereo system. But if their stereo is a good one, the tonality of the record I described to them, and the tonality of the record I sell to them, should be the same. Which is one of the most basic forms of "accuracy". Tonal accuracy is the sine qua non of reproduction. Without it you're dead meat.
A customer recently told me he liked the Classic Zep III and Houses, and thought IV was mediocre. I responded by saying that I had the opposite impression; that IV was tonally right on the money and the other two were midrangy, irritating and just plain wrong, and that almost any cheap domestic copy would be more natural sounding. He replied that he had a Japanese pressing of IV that sounded much better than the Classic. Do you see a pattern here? Bright Classic records plus bright Japanese pressings equal dull stereo, or an affection for bright sound. I would say his system is inaccurate, and I would hope that he could find better equipment so that he wouldn't need to find bright records to compensate for his stereo's shortcomings.
But that's Step One of a very long journey, one that has turned my hair gray. We all need some accuracy, however we define it or recognize it, but we need a whole lot more than that. We need to move way beyond it, to get to that thing I like to call Enjoying My Music. Is it the same thing as Having Lots of Accuracy? I don't think so. Related maybe. But not the same.
I have one small advantage over most current audiophiles in this respect. I have owned for more than 25 years some favorite audiophile demonstration and test discs, which I still rely on to this day: BS&T's second album, Ambrosia's first, The Three (Ray Brown, Shelly Manne, Joe Sample), just to name a few.
(By the way, I am literally afraid to play Ambrosia's first album; I know my stereo has to be at its absolute peak of performance for that album to sound as magical as I know it can sound, for it to move me the way it has on some nights when the planets were in perfect alignment and the sound was everything I'd always wanted it to be. So I don't play it too often. Sad but true.)
When these records don't sound right, it's not because I'm revealing their flaws. I'm simply failing to reproduce them. It's nobody's fault but mine. I've changed something, and been fooled into thinking it made an improvement. Maybe I thought it was -- dare I say -- more accurate, revealing some previously hidden shortcoming that I now, in my wisdom, see for what they are, that cause me to reevaluate the quality of the recording. Hardly. I won't say it never happens, but it is rare. 98% of all the records I always liked get better every year. When people say they need super quality records -- like the ones I sell -- because they have a super quality stereo, that tells me they don't have a super quality stereo. Super quality stereos bring out the best in recordings. They don't hide the flaws. They accentuate the positives so that the flaws become less and less bothersome. This is what I mean by musical truth.
These recordings are my audio touchstones, and they always pull me back on course -- eventually. Many audiophiles lack recordings that can do this for them, hopping from one to another, changing this, changing that, making some sound better, some worse. But which is truly better, and which is an illusion? It takes a long time and a lot of records to figure that out.
I recently made a serious error in judgement about a preamp I thought was amazing. It took our own fearless leader Steve Hoffman to show me the error of my ways. This preamp had a bump at 5k that added tremendously to the sense of transparency in recordings: the voices were sweet and clear and just, well, amazing. It sounded unbelievably great on the Eagles' first album on certain tracks, but on other tracks it sounded...funny. I made the mistake of not testing this preamp with my old favorites, but on records I had only recently discovered. That was the problem. This unit was coloring the sound in a way that benefitted some recordings and hurt others. I can't have that. Any piece of equipment I own has to do its best to make all my favorite recordings, hundreds of them, sound better, not some at the expense of others.
But does that mean that the least colored system is the best system? That's the big question, isn't it? Do fewer colorations equal better sound? (Sounds like a Sex in the City column for audiophiles.)
Isn't it almost unavoidable that a system that can play huge numbers of records better this year than the year before has to be in some sense more accurate than it was? I would say that that is almost a working definition of the term. Records are all over the map soundwise, so a system that makes the greatest number sound the best must have very few colorations to be able to do that. Any deviation in tonality from accurate will hurt more records than it helps (unless you listen to a steady diet of MOFIs, half-speeds and Japanese pressings, in which case you will want to adjust the treble downwards.)
My point, if I can ever get to it, is that thinking about colorations and accuracy is thinking about abstractions that more often than not cloud the issue. It's hard to listen to an abstraction. A record is a record, not an abstraction. If you play lots of them, and make improvements in your stereo that seem to help you enjoy more and more of them, than I would say that you are making progress. I believe this is the right way to frame the issue. Colored, accurate, who cares? If you achieve good results, if your stereo is finding more musical truth in a wide range of recordings, than how inaccurate or colored can it be?
I play my stereo for lots of people, and I take their criticisms seriously. The more ears the better. I am especially fortunate to associate with two very critical listeners, SH and RP (Robert Pincus), neither of whom stint on the bad news when it has to be delivered.
But ultimately I want my stereo to deliver the emotional goods. When it does that I believe it's doing its job. I think it must be more accurate, less colored to do that. But I have no way of knowing whether it is or not. And thinking about it in those terms doesn't seem to help much.
Originally posted by Humorem
"My goal in building my stereo is to achieve 100% musical truth -- to make music in my home sound as much like the real thing as possible."
Keep in mind that, for many musicians, there is no "truth" as you describe. For example, an electric guitar player searches for the right tone, which is not "real" in the hi-fi sense. It is often a totally artificial, heavily processed sound that happens to sound good to the musician.
You could make the argument that you are trying to be true to the sound of the performance, regardless of the artificiality of its origin. That may be somewhat valid for an "unprocessed" performance, but once an artist adds processing to the recording, he has created something that is more or less unreal.
An extreme example of this would be the deliberately "no-fi" guitar that begins "Wish You Were Here" (Pink Floyd).
To use a video analogy, one could put together a high end video system that tried to achieve 100% visual truth - but it wouldn't be any more revealing or rewarding when watching a cartoon.
I always felt that if I could achieve a system that could accurately (to MY ears) reproduce acoustic music - human voice - jazz combo - folk music - opera - ensemble or orchestral, I would judiciously "tweak" electric/electronic music to my taste. This may involve out board equalization (a horror to audiophiles), but I have been to/played in/done the soundboard at enough rock concerts to know that "aural excitement" in ANY amplified music involves an acoustic illusion.
So when I demo equipment - I always use acoustic music. A good stand up bass for the low end, a fine female vocalist for the voice (I likes wimmin' - give me a break), orchestral music for soundstage, Sinatra 60's Reprise stereo for good measure. If I get that far - I give it some Abbey Road for... for.... balls. When I go for "balls", I don't mind that outboard equipment.
Your mileage may vary.
Regarding accuracy of tubes and solid state, I think each are accurate in their own strong points, in that solid state gets the stop and start right and offers a bit more clarity or transparency, and tubes get the middle most correct. I do believe that tubes are closer to accurate in getting "timbre" right. And that is what makes us listen to more music I think. Tubes can sometimes sound a big thick or wooley in the bass, while solid state can sound buzzy or hashy in the upper mid and treble. I have often found that components that "dazzle" right away are usually wrong.
A record is a record, not an abstraction. If you play lots of them, and make improvements in your stereo that seem to help you enjoy more and more of them, than I would say that you are making progress. I believe this is the right way to frame the issue
I experienced this to the highest degree when I was upgrading from ceramic cartridges to my first magnetic on my first real turntable (as opposed to record player), a Pioneer belt drive manual. It's when you make a quantum leap and hear real improvement that you run out and buy more records and listen to more music. When you have to start making comparisons between equipment and trying to figure out what each is doing different from the other, then you lose sight of your goal. When a new component does not not "kill" your old one, you've likely reached the point of diminishing returns and are now making "sidegrades" not upgrades.
"The Three" is indeed a fine record, a great reference. I was lucky enough to find a clean one in a used bin for about $3 over 12 years ago, and recently found a near-mint 2-eye 1A of BS&T.
Originally posted by John Oteri
I think OUR goal is to have all music sound great on our systems, regardless of if actually was recorded great or not, right? Isn't that the goal of a good system?...
I would say that, for me, the goal is to bring out the best in a recording, regardless of how good or bad it is. I can never make "Layla" sound good, but I can find what magic there is in that piece of music and try to bring it out. The better my system gets, the more that happens. Or is it that the more that happens, the better my system has gotten?
You are doing well, Grasshopper.
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