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auricauricle | Bloggers

Confessions of a Tweaker

The current SACD debate is a stimulating one and I, having read your respective posts, would not like to slip through the scene acquiescently. As one who has never listened to SACD, I cannot make a very informed argument for or against the format. I have no doubt that proponents of the medium are very much enamored with it. Conversely, I have little disregard for detractors of SACD, who having listened to them first hand observed little or no sonic advantage. In describing my own observations, I can only appeal to the CD format that I know intimately and listen to with ardent fondness. Having been introduced to digital music in its heyday, I am quite acquainted with its sonic quality and the various limitations and constraints that accompany it.

In my listening experience, the goal was always to play the material in as pure a fashion as possible. When I was growing up, my father own(ed) a fairly decent collection of LP’s (and a few 8-track tapes, at one time—I won’t mention them again), which were played on a BSR turntable, a nondescript receiver and rather modest speakers. Having friends who extolled the virtues of larger speakers and amplifiers increased my awareness of “good sound”, so that I early became aware of the need to tweak, fiddle and clean the needles and records to ensure that my ears would perceive the best sound possible. Clicks and pops and squeaks were annoying, but with a little work they could be minimized. With a little work, the music I listened to could bloom to its full (as full as it could be on such humble gear) extent.

In 1981, I joined the Navy and bought a Sony Walkman. I was introduced to the compact wonder a year or two earlier when a well-to-do aunt bought one for my uncle. Cassettes were, for me, a solution of sorts to the limitations of the venerable LP. Surface noise was virtually eliminated, and I could listen to my beloved Pink Floyd and Beethoven in all its pristine glory. I collected a very large number of cassettes at the time. In due fashion I became increasingly aware of tape-hiss. While Dolby noise reduction dealt with the matter somewhat handily, it became increasingly apparent that it did so in detriment to dynamic range and over all playback quality. After experimenting with a number of various portable tape players, I found what I considered the best of the lot (an Infinity!) and rested content that things were as good as they could get.

In 1984, Sony’s 501ES CD player was rolled out onto the floor of the local Navy Exchange, a CD player that was the first I owned. CD’s represented the epitome of playback performance. No surface noise, no hiss, just music. Of course, this is not always true, as CD’s will only reproduce the medium recorded. Music recorded in the 1920’s—such as the early piano works of Rudolph Serkin—are dreadful. While the recordings are certainly noteworthy for their historical value, they are certainly not practical for exemplifying the sonic capabilities of the medium. On the other hand, digital recording when properly and deftly applied is a fantastic achievement. With enough care and work, recordings of great clarity can be wrought, a fact that has resulted in recent-year recordings that are among the best sonic offerings ever made.

I still continue to tweak, however. A look at my list of gear will betray my penchant that is exemplified by the presence of two equalizers—one parametric the other graphic—that are regularly deployed. In the past, other devices have been used, including noise reduction units and dynamic range expanders made by dbx and meticulous regard to cassette manufacturers that culminated in the acquisition of cassette decks made by Nakamichi and Tandberg. I have owned Yamaha’s esteemed M2 amplifier and her venerable sister the C2a preamplifier: exeplary models in good stead of mid-fi solid state. Likewise, I have taken the tube road, at one time owing and enjoying very much a previously owned Harmon Kardon Citation 5 amplifier and Conrad Johnson PV5 preamplifier (I still miss them!). I have also enjoyed a few nice turntables, one that I still own but do not presently use. The arm is quite ornate and intricate, and I will enjoy using it when the time comes. Likewise, I owned a Meridian CD player and matching DAC. With three separate boxes, the player her court drove me to raptures. All of these devices contained in them the capability of being tweaked, a hobby that gives me tireless aggravation and tireless fun, for that, friends, is the nature of the hobby we have adopted. I describe these acquisitions not to brag or to impress, but as examples and standards that have informed present and future purchases and my appreciation of them.

Yes, we enjoy good music, but we enjoy good equipment, which is, after all, what brings us here, today. With my DVD player churning out my beloved Dvorak, I am content that the sound I listen to is quite glorious. Sure, I realize that the experience can be improved upon for, as mentioned, I have listened to and have owned systems far more expensive than my own or own presently. Perhaps it is the result of my isolative existence that compels me to this complacent state, for I am—as you know– a poor student; but I am content that the sound I enjoy at the present is immensely satisfying.

When SACD players came out, I was aware of their presence, but I was quite unable to indulge the extravagance of owning one. SACD players were not cheap and I contented myself that digital recordings could not be improved upon. Of course I realize that this argument is fallacious, for any fool knows that no system is perfect and that workmanship and technology will always find ways of perfecting the wheel, but I was convinced that I could be quite happy with what I owned nevertheless. Today, SACD players are within my grasp, but without sufficient capacity to compare them properly, I wonder, is it really worth it?

The discussion before us is one that is reminiscent of the newest battle to come before the AV community: Blue Ray versus DVD. While adherents to Blue Ray are impressed and awed over Blue Ray’s unsurpassed sonic and visual presentation, stalwart DVD fans are satisfied that the medium they enjoy is good enough. Again, I have never seen a Blue Ray disc compared to a DVD; so making any assumptions about Blue Ray’s comparison to DVD is not possible. As a DVD owner, however, I am very impressed with what I have. The other night, I watched for the first time Batman: The Dark Night. Believe me when I tell you that the sounds and images that found purchase upon my poor brain still have me reeling in ecstasy.

To be more concrete and less fanciful, it is important for we listeners and viewers to remember that the goal of all of these amplifiers, disc players and equalizers is not the production of music but the re-production of music. To this end, while such equipment is tasked with this re-production it does so to approximate the original source. In the posts that I have read here and elsewhere, this distinction seems to be overlooked, thus presenting an inherent flaw or fallacy in Hi-Fi discussions that should be dealt with.

In questing for great sound, manufacturers and users have sought to obtain the purest of sound (and vision), a goal that while useful as a benchmark to strive for ought not necessarily be an end to itself. To describe the matter using a sonic example, does one really want a preamplifier or a disc player that emits or resolves every single ounce of timbre from an instrument? Can it do so? While the pursuit of such a goal is noteworthy, I would hazard to say, ultimately, that if we were to have before us the ability to do so we would be so overcome by the details of the music that we would soon lose our sense of the music itself. I like the creaking of an old bass violin or the squeaking of a guitar as much as anyone reading this, but in the end it is not these characteristics of the music that I listen for, but the entire thing: the creaking, the squeaking and the composition. Visually, it is the same thing. Do I really want to see pimples on Angelie Jolie’s back? No, and doubt you do either. While such details are certainly realistic, in that they are certainly present, one doesn’t watch movies to enjoy pimples, but rather the Gestalt that encapsulates the entire scenic landscape as a whole.

In our every-day dealing with our environments and daily intercourse with our friends and relations, such details blend into incoherence, leaving our brains poised to appreciate the “big picture”, not the details. I venture then, to pose that SACD and Blue-Ray, while capable of capturing the details does so at some expense. For us movie goers who like the sound of explosions and grinding sounds all around us, we must remember that in real life, sound is much more complicated. Imagine an explosion occurring before you. Where does the sound come from? In front of you. Now notice it echoing around you and behind you. This also happenes in music performance. First, there is a stage; the ambience is secondary. Insisting on having all of this information in the foreground is just not realistic. When a friend of mine introduced me to surround sound in 1984, he told me that the rear speakers needed to be well near invisible. Somehow, this point has become lost and SACD users and proponents of surround sound have forgotten that the goal is not presence but ambience.

To underscore this point, I turn to the Impressionists Monet, Cezanne and Delacroix to give us audiophiles a chance to glimpse this pursuit a little clearer (!). Impressionism sought to capture the spontaneity of the moment in art, very much as our instruments seek to reproduce in fleeting instances and essences of a musician’s repertoire. While Realist painters sought to capture every sinew of the image they saw, and did so with breathtaking and heartbreaking effect, Impressionists knew that much of what we see is observed only in transient glances. It may be rightfully said that the images are oftentimes smeary and more akin to astigmatism or of one in the throes of an LSD-induced hallucination, but that that is not the point. In taking in the sum of experience and presenting it in fragments of color and nuance, the Impressionists caught an elusiveness that far eluded the realists, whose realistically rendered works were beautiful, clear and static.

So it is, I guess, with SACD and Blue-Ray players. While these instruments resolve their subject with great detail, they do so at the peril of their users who in seeking sonic and visual perfection may well lose sight of the objects of their adoration. There are times I myself lose this joy, when instead of sitting back and enjoying the music, become aware that this knob was not used or that line was not secured. In doing so, I became aware not of the music, but details that activated my critical ears but sealed off my music-loving ears. In time and practice, I have and am practicing, the art of just sitting back to enjoy the music. It may be well argued that SACD and Blue-Ray players will likewise be regarded with the same inconsequential insouciance that I speak of; but while novelty is fresh, users will remain smitten by the details. Yes, there are times when even these Golden Ears are reminded that while they are gold, they are not 24-carat gold!

I return, thus, to solitude. With few friends who take up this hobby as seriously as you, the possibility of comparing the various media, be they Blue Ray or SACD, are quite limited. This is a decided advantage that has dissuaded me from emptying my pockets the way I did while serving in the USN, when Stereo Wars among us shipmates had us scurrying here and there to Tokyo and beyond in search of the best equipment our paychecks could afford. Without the ability to compare, I have lost some sense of perspective. I have not entirely lost my sense of musical sensitivity, however, for I have played musical instruments (trumpet, French horn, piano) and have attended many concerts (Tokyo, New York). In doing so, I know well the airy blat of a trumpet, the schmack of the snare drum and the wine-gulped flavor a contralto. When the time comes, I will indulge my hobby further, letting my Sherwood Receiver rest alongside components of higher esteem and capability. In the meantime, Lady Sherwood sings sweetly enough for my impoverished yet grateful ears.

In due time, I will eventually get around to auditioning an SACD or Blue-Ray player, bringing the player into my living room to do so and giving the player a chance to be compared side by side my humble DVD player in an impartial and disinterested appraisal. In the meantime, I am conent that the engineers and technicians at Deutsche Grammophone, BIS, Arkiv and the rest will continue their hard work at ensuring that the recordings they produce are exemplary of the performances they tape. Likewise I will trust the musicians at the Vienna Philharmonic, the Academy at Saint Martin in the Fields and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to continue honing their craft. I will likewise make appraisals of the amazing fruits promised by the Blue-Ray manufacturers. When those days come I will, if you permit me to do so, print my thoughts and reflections with as unbiased and candid purpose as I am capable.

In the meantime, I shall tweak on, happy and content that Old Ludwig and Meister Serkin have descended from their lofty perches and into my living room where I listen enraptured and grateful!

Auricauricle is a very active audioreview.com forum user and has been publishing blogs since late ’09. Due to the current SACD post found here, this is worth repeating.

First published: Monday, December 29, 2008

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