It seems de rigueur these days to have some kind of vantage point regarding the
issue of high fidelity. This would also go some way towards explaining the
proliferation of high-end brands and products. Most of these products offer
exemplary performance. Yet, if The Audio Critic is not to be taken too
literally, they all sound different. Some vastly so. This seems to fly in the
face of the grand dictum of Hi-Fi: fidelity to the original musical event. The
majority of recorded music does not have an “original event” (for instance pop
music, where the music is created on a mixing console). When such an event
indeed exists, it is mediated by the judicious placement of many microphones and
re-created in a sound studio according to the tastes and habits of a sound
engineer/producer. On top of this, any original event contains recorded
“acoustics”. When this music is reproduced in a listening environment the
recorded acoustics are superimposed on the acoustics of the listening
In many cases this works; the ear/brain recognises this as a possible
environment and perceives it as such. In other cases this does not happen.
Strangely enough the brain is able to ignore this incongruence and one might
listen quite fondly and be largely unaware of the problem. What does happen,
however, is that a significant amount of listening stress is produced in the
listener to maintain this suspension of disbelief. This might be conscious or
unconscious, depending on many factors. ( We are not referring to gross
distortion – what is under discussion applies even to high-end audio
reproduction and might need very attentive listening and training to detect.)
But even when the listener is unaware of the problem, something is amiss and the
experience becomes strained and uncomfortable.
While singing as a bass in a choir, our choirmaster used to induce us to poise
ourselves during certain passages and to relax during others but to endeavour to
not change the way we sing (pitch, rhythm, loudness, colour) when doing so. The
strange thing was that this really worked, in a way difficult to define. It
appears that the ear/brain is much more sensitive than science would have us
believe. This could also explain situations where audiophiles detect distortions
described as undetectable by the human ear in scientific studies. Frequently
science catches up later and existing theories are modified or discarded, and
the cycle starts over.
There are many theories to describe these phenomena. Yet, theories that seemed
beyond doubt i.e. our ability to perceive (harmonic) distortion, are being
questioned today. Despite this, just about every single hi-fi manufacturer
brandishes exceptional distortion and frequency response figures. Frequently
these superlative products sound dead and unconvincing.
So where do they go wrong?
This leads directly to our approach. It is not to be stated in a single
sentence, so let’s say it as it comes to mind. The ear is the final authority.
If the music grabs you but the THD is 1%, then it’s fine. If it does not, there
is something wrong. Listen tomorrow, it might be you. If painting a layer of C37
varnish on a transistor makes the music bring tears to your eyes, then it is
working. Simplicity has a lot to say for itself. If something does not improve
the listening experience it might as well not be there. Complexity is frequently
perceived as artificiality and artificiality never sits comfortably. Beauty lies
in the small things. If one driver can do it, do not use more than one. If no
filter is necessary, do not use one. If one Watt sounds as good as one hundred
Watts, buy an SET amplifier. If your wife feels the loudspeakers are a bit too
big, buy her some flowers.
Need I continue? The King might indeed be wearing clothes.