5 votes

The search for the perfect sound

1 comment

  1. soks_n_sandals
    (edited )
    Here's a piece I really enjoyed from WaPo about the world of high-end vinyl releases and the huge egos that dominate the audiophile landscape. I really like the interactive format and the design...

    Here's a piece I really enjoyed from WaPo about the world of high-end vinyl releases and the huge egos that dominate the audiophile landscape. I really like the interactive format and the design of the article. Kudos to them! Beyond that, welcome to my soapbox.

    I've long held the belief that audiophiles can teach us one thing: how to listen to a recording. Beyond that, I have my reservations. Mostly because there's more to music than recording quality. For instance, do you like the music and is it good? At some point, audiophiles are listening to equipment, not music. I think a good HiFi system is serving an express purpose to elicit a physical, emotional, or any other visceral response from the listener. It's all about having a reaction -- being transported somewhere by the sound and letting yourself live in that moment.

    I was disappointed there were only three listening tests in the article. I did get them correct, and would love to hear whether those that can access the article do as well.

    Now, I will also say that anyone who is on a crusade that vinyl is the ultimate in sound quality is misguided. Except for particularly cynical forum circles, no one is mentioning that the old men in this article are old. Hearing degrades over time. I don't care if they think they have "golden ears" - until I see a hearing test that shows their frequency response is better than someone in their 20s, I'm a skeptic. IF, however, we qualify "best" with "my preferred sound", I am more open That is, "vinyl is my preferred way to listen and it is different, but not better than digital. On that, here's a spoiler about the Miles Davis analog/digital listening test.

    Listening test spoiler The vinyl record is obvious if you know what to listen for: how the bass is mixed. Surprisingly, there's no audible crack or pop to give this one away. The digital file has much louder bass. It's almost booming, and extremely lively. The hi-hat in the beginning of the sample is shrill in the vinyl sample. It's pitched much lower in the digital. Here's a point of preference: I like mixes to be from the perspective of the listener, not the musician. The vinyl hats sound more like you're behind a drumset, and the digital hats sound like your in the audience. I think when the drums come in at the end of the sample the vinyl recording just falls apart. It's like a suggestion that there are drums, but little separation and the brushes get shrill against the trumpet mute. The piano gets completely lost in the vinyl, whereas I'm getting very distinct voicing in the digital. It is much darker and has much more low-end information. I'd call the vinyl fatiguing.

    Of course, the dynamics in the room could be wildly different. All I can critique are the files shared in the article.

    Listening test spoiler 2 The Neil Young recording had obvious vinyl crackle that gives away. Similarly, the bass is much quieter on the vinyl. In this case, it fits way better in the mix than the digital. The digital is booming in a bad way. But you know what? I have to turn my subwoofer up ~15-20dB louder for vinyl than digital. If I kept the level the same and played a vinyl record back-to-back with digital, the bass on the digital would be horrendously overdone. So the vinyl sounds better here, because I suspect there's no EQ in this setup to avoid interfering with their exorbitantly expensive signal chain. If that's the case, I think presenting a system that's not EQ'ed the same way is a bit of apples-to-oranges.

    This part I particularly agree with, but draw a conclusion that if the overwhelming majority of pressings are bad, how could vinyl ever be a superior format except to serve elitist, gatekeeping attitudes?

    Port believes that records are like snowflakes — no two are the same. So many things can impact the pressing, including room temperature, the split second the stampers are pressed onto the hot, vinyl biscuit, and unknown factors no human can understand. You can’t find the best-sounding record by reading the marketing sticker proclaiming the latest advances in audio technology. The only way is to use your ears.

    I think this is an interesting point, because I tend to hate early stereo recordings. Many times, instruments are hard-panned to one side or another and it just sounds silly. Mono is better to me, in those cases.

    Port calls [the recording] serviceable but flat. He grumbles that it’s a mono, not a stereo recording.

    “It sounds tonally correct,” he says. “But the problem with mono is everybody is in line between me and Sunshine, and they’re all standing one behind the other. Can you really separate out all those musicians when they’re all right in the middle? It’s very difficult. I don’t like it.”

    Other things I think are good points:

    “Do you think there is a perfect sound?” I asked as he searched through a pile of records.

    [Fremer] shook his head.

    “There are some incredibly great records,” he said. “Great recordings. Perfect? I don’t know what that means, even.”

    This is the last portion I'll quote. As a musician and an avid listener, I think chasing the perfect re-produced sound is a flawed pursuit. Take Julian Lage's latest recordings for his album View With a Room. It sounds almost exactly like an amp in the room. It's astounding and beautifully accurate. How do I know? I have the same amp in my room. It's like an article that was shared here about pianos. I'm paraphrasing, but there was a slight contempt for folks that will spend 250k on a home theater but not a piano. If I was an avid piano listener and had that kind of money, you better believe I'd buy a digital player piano. I know home theaters are more versatile, etc. but if we're talking about exacting reproduction, there is no substitute for the real thing.

    Talking to musicians about the subject can lead to very different opinions. Chuck D, the rap legend whose booming voice has always defined Public Enemy’s thick productions, didn’t seem impressed when I told him I got chills when I heard Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” on Weiss’s towering system. He seemed more focused on how I listened: from a specific chair, marked out and measured on the floor, to provide the best possible sonic experience. What I described, he said, sounded like nothing more than a glorified man cave.

    “What do you want to do with the sound?” Chuck said. “That’s the biggest question. Like, I want to dance with it. Are you going to sit? Are you going to respond or just chill out and go to sleep? You want to multitask? Oh, I got the perfect sound. Perfect sound for what?”

    I have listened to a friend's system that only has the perfect sound if you are in a specific spot. "Narrow-dispersion" speakers that beam the sound to your head. I prefer wide dispersion, so I may move about and still be treated to good sound. And that's it at the end of the day. I want music to excite whether I'm listening quietly or cooking with my friends.

    6 votes