Thoughts on the “Absolute Sound” and Perceived Musical Realism (Part 1)

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Thoughts on the “Absolute Sound” and Perceived Musical Realism (Part 1)

Background

Long before I worked for any of Nextscreen consumer electronics publications (The Absolute Sound, HiFi-Plus, Playback, The Perfect Vision, or AVguide.com) I was an avid music and high-end audio enthusiast, and like many of my fellow enthusiasts I followed the work of those who wrote and edited The Absolute Sound (and a handful of competing publications, as well). I was drawn to the magazine, as so many are, by two things: first, its philosophy of pursuing in-home reproduction of “the absolute sound” * (typically defined as the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space), and second, its “trust your ears” mentality (which made perfect sense to me, given that measurements and graphs had always seemed to me to do an inadequate job of representing the real-world sonic character of audio components).

* Note that, apart from inspiring the title of our oldest and most famous publication, the term “absolute sound” describes a conceptual reference standard that is used by all Nextscreen consumer electronics publications.Over time, as I read and enjoyed The Absolute Sound and a handful of other magazine, certain philosophical and practical questions began to crop up.

First, when I compared notes between my own perceptions of certain components with reviews I had read, I found evidence which suggested that while reviewers and I were hearing more or less the same sonic phenomena, we were interpreting or “weighting” our perceptions very differently vis-à-vis our agreed upon standard—the sound of live music. Some examples might help to illustrate my point.

1) A reviewer might highly praise a certain set of sonic qualities in a component—qualities that were certainly audible to me, but that seemed comparatively small in magnitude (and not nearly as dramatic as the review had led me to expect).

2) A reviewer might mention in passing certain favorable qualities in a component, giving the impression that the qualities, while desirable, were not of terribly great importance, whereas I might hear those same qualities and find that they contributed in a huge way to the component’s overall musical realism.

3) A reviewer might mention certain sonic flaws in a component, but dismiss them as being inconsequential when, to my ears, those same flaws were not only audible but egregiously so.

4) A reviewer might damn as fatal certain flaws in a component that I could also hear (if I forced myself to pay strict attention to them), yet that did not—for me—significantly influence the product’s overall realism one way or the other.

Let me emphasize that the discrepancies I noted did not seem to involve differences in perceptual acuity (as in, Listener A can hear a certain phenomenon and Listener B cannot), nor did they involve simple matters of taste (as in, Listener A simply likes components with elevated treble response—because they make music sound more detailed, while Listener B likes components with rolled-off treble response—because they make music sound smoother and more romantic). 

Despite inevitable variations in individual hearing response curves, both the reviewers and I seemed to be receiving and processing all (or nearly all) the sounds presented to us—both from live music and from audio systems. Instead, the variances I am describing seemed to occur more on the level where we ascribe meaning, importance, “weighting,” or musical significance to the sounds we heard. 

Even though we all use the absolute sound as our sonic reference standard, it seems to me that this fact does not necessarily guarantee we will wind up at common destination points in our quests to reproduce the absolute sound in our homes.

This point came into sharper focus for me when, several years ago, I got to experience a rare treat. Specifically, I got to visit the homes and listen to the then-current reference systems of two individuals that I (and that many of you) regard as heroes of audio journalism: namely TAS founder (and Chairman of the editorial advisory board) Harry Pearson and TAS Executive Editor Jonathan Valin. As an added bonus, I also got to hear the reference system of Atul Kanagat, a man who is a long-term friend of TAS and who works extensively with the American Symphony Orchestra League to help promote more widespread exposure to and enjoyment of symphonic music. Most importantly, I got to hear all three of these reference-grade audio systems back-to-back and within the span of less than 48 hours.

Now the three systems in question were configured by men who are highly familiar with the sound of live music, extremely knowledgeable about high-end audio, and passionate about the pursuit of the absolute sound in the home. Given this, and given that there are some significant areas of overlap between the men’s musical tastes, you might think the three audio systems in question would sound at least somewhat similar (as if converging upon a mutually acknowledged reference point). But that is not what I found at all. Instead, the systems sounded not just a little different, but a lot (and this despite the fact that two of the men, Pearson and Kanagat, were at the time using the same basic reference speakers: namely, Nola Grand References).

As you might expect, all three systems were spectacular—among the best I’ve ever heard, and all three systems captured certain essential aspects of the sound of the “real thing” in powerful and compelling ways—though each system did, of course, exhibit a handful of minor sonic weaknesses.  But what was most interesting to me was that each of the systems captured different aspects of musical realism and exhibited different, albeit comparatively minor, areas of imperfection.

Once again, it struck me that pursuit of the sound of the live music can and does lead even the most expert of listeners and enthusiasts down at least somewhat divergent paths. Why is that, I wondered, and what mechanisms are at work?

As I pondered the question I began sketch out a simple, practical theory of musical realism that, I think, helps explains some of the phenomena I observed. The theory excited me so much that I decided to share it with Atul Kanagat, sketching out the basic precepts for him on the back of a coffee shop napkin in the Newark Airport. When I returned to Austin, I shared the theory with Tom Martin (NextScreen CEO and frequent contributor to TAS and Playback), and to my delight he adopted two of my concepts—the notions of musical “Realism Triggers” and “Realism Inhibitors”—and has since made them part of his audio vocabulary. But for now, I’d like to use this blog to share with you some of the basic points of the theory. 

Toward a Pragmatic Theory of Music Realism

My theory starts out with three basic hypotheses that have much to do with the nature of the sound of live music and the way that we, as humans, tend to internalize and process that sound.

Hypothesis: The sound of live music involves a variegated mix of sonic elements whose characteristics are inherently complex and diverse—more so than we may at first realize.

Hypothesis: Try though we might, humans are not fully able to attend to, emotionally comprehend, or cognitively process all of the elements of the sound of live music in real-time. When we attend live musical events, we hear all of the sounds presented to us (in a neurophysiologic sense), but can at best pay attention only to a subset of them.

Hypothesis: No two listeners are the same, and whether we do so consciously or unconsciously, we tend to apply somewhat different perceptual filters and value systems (or “weighting schemes”) to help us organize and make sense of the otherwise staggeringly complex experience of listening to live music—or to recorded music as reproduced by hi-fi systems.

If you put these hypotheses together and apply them to the tasks of building or evaluating (reviewing) high-performance audio components, some interesting conclusions begin to emerge. We all say that our objective is to have audio components that are faithful reproducers either of the sound of live music events or the sounds captured on recordings. But what we forget is that while those musical events or recordings are undeniably helpful and (relatively) reliable reference standards, the effects of our own perceptual filters and value systems are not so easy to measure or to quantify.

While the full range of sounds that comprise live music are available to each of us to use as our comparison standards, we tend in practice to comprehend the sound of live music (or reproduced music) only in part; despite our best efforts, the whole eludes our grasp. It is tempting, of course, to think, “Surely my listening experience is much like yours, so that we can compare notes and share experiences.” And to a certain extent we can and do. But at the same, I suspect that we often forget that the very sounds we hope to discuss with one another have already passed through the complex sets of filters that make up our individual schemas of musical consciousness.

So, the key points to bear in mind are these.

1) Despite best efforts, and whether we acknowledge our limitations or not, we in fact grasp only a subset of the body of musical information (or data, if you will) that constitutes the “absolute sound” as a whole.

2) The same is true when we listen to and attempt to evaluate hi-fi equipment.

3) Whether we recognize it or not, we each use our personal perceptual subsets of data on the “absolute sound” as the yardsticks by which we judge the musical realism or lack thereof in high-quality audio systems.

I think this model goes a long way toward explaining how highly skilled audio designers can set out to recreate the absolute sound in the home, yet wind up with quite different-sounding products.

The model also explains how careful and highly skilled listeners and reviewers can set out to assess the performance of audio components, yet draw different conclusions about the performance capabilities or potential for musical realism of various audio components.

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For my next installment of this blog, I plan to discuss two important ideas that I think can help us assess and describe our personal schemes of musical realism: Realism Triggers and Realism Inhibitors

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