John Upton

January 1997

The High End vs. Real Music

I realize that I risk all credibility as an aficionado of high end audio in saying what I'm about to say, but the simple fact is that I'm not particularly fond of classical music.

For whatever reason, this type of music, along with most purist/audiophile label stuff, just doesn't do "it". To me, classical music is simply another one of the finer things in life, such as caviar, the ballet, and Merchant & Ivory films for which (despite concerted and in some cases, involuntary, efforts) I've never developed a taste. Hot dogs, Dodger baseball, movies with lots of explosions, and yes, "real" music (i.e. rock & roll in its various incarnations), are much more my liking. If this makes me a boorish, uncultured lout then so be it. Does this also mean that there is no place in high end audio for me and others of my unwashed ilk? Given the high end's strong predilection for classical music and sonic paradigms established thereon, sometimes I wonder.

For starters, the world of high end audio review is more or less dominated by the "subjective impressionists". When evaluating audio equipment, the high end reviewer typically emphasizes his ears over measured performance of the component in determining whether or not music is being faithfully recreated. Test tones and pink noise give way to reference-quality recordings as the most important means of appraising the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of audio gear. While I have no wish to revisit the very old and very boring objectivist vs. subjectivist debate, suffice it to say that, in theory, I have no problem with the subjective method of evaluating audio equipment. In fact, I believe that it is the more meaningful way of assessing the real-world sonic performance of audio components. After all, who buys stereo equipment to listen to 10 kHz squarewaves and 1kHz, -90dB dithered sinewaves? In practice, however, problems do exist in the implementation of this approach in the form of reviewer partialities, which lead to some frustrating predicaments for the real music fan.

In order for the subjective impressionist reviewer to convey the findings of the performance of a particular item of audio equipment, he must necessarily do so within the context of the recordings used in the evaluation process. As such, the more familiar the audience reading the review is with the reference recording used, the more information about the component is communicated in the review. Therefore, it would seem that the subjective impressionistic reviewer, in his quest to educate and illuminate, would choose at least a few commonly available reference recordings to establish a universal foundation upon which the full review can be built. To this end, I've often wondered why one or more of the high end publications cannot put together a high quality, musically diverse test/sampler record or CD once a year or so and actually use it in their reviews, but I suppose that would make things too easy on people.

Instead, the high end publication reader is typically provided reviews using recordings ranging from the uncommon to the totally obscure, making it difficult, if not impossible, to understand the evaluation in its proper context. Further, for the hapless real music fan (and certain magazines are far more guilty of this than others), when the reviewer reports his findings of the performance of the equipment at issue, the results using real music, if it is used at all, are rarely described. Instead, the reviewer's reported findings are typically derived from a choice of reference recordings prejudiced toward the expensive/classical or audiophile/boring milieus of source material. While this may be a fine means of testing the equipment's characteristics using purist-recorded materials, it tells us very little of the component's abilities with recordings of average commercial quality, which, I suspect, comprise the bulk of most record collections. As irritating as this is, however, even more annoying are those reviews which feature nothing but decades-old, ultra-rare recordings. How much is the reviewer really telling us about the performance of a component using, say, a mint condition six-eye Columbia pressing of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue that most of us will probably never have the opportunity to hear, much less buy?

The other and related partiality at play is the reviewer's disposition toward the "proper" goal of an audio system, be it to accurately recreate the sound of unamplified instruments played live in a music hall, to accurately reproduce the sound of the master tape, to extract all of the sonic information as it exists on the particular album/CD, or simply to recreate "good sound". This is significant because, unlike virtually all classical and audiophile recordings, most "real" music simply does not exist in the form of the first of these paradigms. As luck would have it, this "Absolute Sound" model is the very standard against which most reviewers, to a greater or lesser degree, seem to judge the sonic performance of the component under scrutiny. The real music fiend reading a review about a new piece of gear is thus left in the unenviable position of deciding whether or not that product is worth further investigation when it is evaluated using recordings that he doesn't likely listen to or own and when it is judged against a standard having no real meaning in the context of his music of choice.

The waters of the high end are no less turbulent to the real music devotee outside the confines of the high end press. Attend any major audio show and you'll be hard pressed to find manufacturers or dealers demonstrating their equipment with anything other than audiophile-approved records or compact disks. Again, this is great if such recordings get you going, but most real music recordings are of a less purist nature, and, not so coincidentally, are nowhere to be found at these events. Though I understand the marketing considerations behind the optimization of the demonstration systems for purist recordings and the exhibitors' reluctance to feature real music when setup has not been optimized with the essence of this genre in mind, it makes the situation no less frustrating and annoying for those caught in the middle.

Is there a place in the high end for the real music enthusiast? I would like to think so. Unfortunately, for real music to gain a real foothold in all aspects of the high end market, it will have to overcome decades of entrenched thinking, biases, and prejudices as to what an audio system and reproduced music should sound like. As grim as things sometimes seem, there is hope on the horizon. The recent proliferation of both mainstream and underground audio and audio-related publications has expanded the marketplace of high end ideas and perspectives to levels hitherto unknown, and with an infusion of a new generation of writers with more expansive points of view, real music may be poised on developing a voice of its own in the high end community. This increased presence, coupled with the establishment of a meaningful paradigm against which real music can be logically evaluated, may some day raise real music to an equal footing with classical and audiophile music in the high end community.

...John Upton