Gary Steel asks one of the most pressing questions of the modern era: why does the best music sound like crap on good hi-fi systems?
MY WITCHDOCTOR COLLEAGUE Ashley Kramer kindly invited me over yesterday to check out some rather special new hi-fi kit he’s auditioning, and which has been keeping him up nights. He just can’t stop listening.
Ash is playing around with a handsome valve amp from Japanese company Shindo, whose gear is handmade using componentry its creator chooses for one reason alone: it makes the gear sound better. Apparently, Ken Shindo produces his amps at his own pace, and turns down bulk orders. Obviously, the guy is doing it for the right reasons, even if this methodology does ramp up the price of the product.
The speakers – oddly truncated not-quite-floor-standers called Living Voice – were also worth a small fortune. We’re talking something in the region of 15K. Attached to the gear were interconnects that were worth considerably more than the music source component, Ashley’s trusty Marantz SACD player.
As usual in such situations, I brought along a small stack of my own CDs – music that I know well and which have defining sonic characteristics that I can use to compare with the sound on my own system – and Ash augmented my selection with some of his discs.
Now, given this blog’s heading, you might be wondering if I’m going to contend that Ashley’s music selections sounded great but were shit, and that my selections were great but sounded like shit. You may be disappointed, dear reader, to learn that I’m not about to put that particular cat in with the pigeons.
But what was evident from the get-go was that almost all of Mr Kramer’s sounds were “realistic” – voice and mostly acoustic guitars often caught in a live, or live-in-studio setting. Whether genuinely live or not, they were clearly designed to replicate what an audience would expect of a typical performance. That is, you’ve got a singer, you’ve got players, and you’ve got a conventional performance setting with the voice right in the middle and just enough stereo imaging to provide depth and width. Although Ash himself was alarmed at the way the amp and speaker combo showed up flaws in the recordings – especially when voices had been over-driven through microphones – I thought all his records sounded quite astonishing: there was a very attractive intimacy coming through, together with a sense of perfect timing and timbre that is impossible to describe. With most good-quality stereos, you’re not aware of the absence of timbre, or of timing being even slightly off, but when you hear a system like this where all the rhythmic factors are working in spectacular accord, you realise what you’ve been missing. And perhaps that’s the thing. With this quality of hi-fi reproduction, maybe there’s an intrinsic ability of the gear to create a conscious realisation in the listener about things he or she may have previously not noticed.
The problem with most of my favourite music is that it’s invariably recorded in somewhat complex studio environments/situations. That is, they’re mostly studio creations, where many overdubs may have been applied, and therefore, they’re not “natural”. Still, to me they’re great sounding… but not on this system.
Whatever I threw at it sounded “small” and lacking in dynamics, as opposed to the luminosity of Ashley’s selections. Frank Zappa’s ‘50/50’ (from the rather nicely engineered Overnight Sensation, 1973) had all the oil boiled out of it, and Jean-Luc Ponty’s incredible electric violin solo, and then Zappa’s own incredible fretboard extravaganza, sounded dry and ordinary. On my Martin Logans the same song sounds incredible: deep bass, huge sounds, spectacular. The same thing happened with Talk Talk (‘Happiness Is Easy’ from the Colour Of Spring remaster, 1986/1997) and others.
There were positives. These speakers weren’t terribly generous with their bass, which probably reinforced their ability to resolve fine detail in the mid-range and upwards. I noticed melodic and orchestral voicings that I hadn’t noticed on my own system, but then, maybe it was simply because of that more upfront mid-range. And the aforementioned timing was really something to experience – I was intrigued by the way the amp/speaker combo dealt with rhythmic detail.
But generally, I found it all rather disquieting. Why is it that high-end hi-fi seems not to suit so many of my favourite albums, including the ones I have always considered to be exquisite recordings?
We all know the trope about the hi-fi salesman playing the same old Dire Straits or Norah Jones album, and it’s something that worries me about hi-fi freaks: invariably, their music tastes are a tad conservative, and the unquenchable desire to listen only to music that sounds good on that expensive gear is a further disincentive to make something of an adventure out of music.
When I got home I felt like a blast of nostalgia, so I picked out Sly & the Family Stone’s extraordinary 1971 album, There’s A Riot Goin’ On. This 2007 remaster sounds amazing on my system, but even here I’m aware of certain shortcomings. Larry Graham’s bass is phenomenal, but there are moments (mostly vocal, or trumpets) that are just too thin and sharp.
Here’s an album that has just about everything I value in the art of recording. Through his drug haze, over the course of months, Sly Stone slowly put together this album via all-night jam sessions involving a whole lot of different (uncredited) guests. Some songs sound like glorified demos – he uses an ancient prototype drum machine on a few cuts, and the recording quality varies, even probably amongst the layers of overdubs. For all that, it’s a rich sound and well… simply one of the greatest albums of the ‘70s. There’s nothing else even remotely like it, and in terms of its originality, and its influence on successive generations, it’s right up there with Miles Davis’s electric work.
There are two issues that Sly Stone’s great album raises in relation to the pursuit of audiophile nirvana:
1) To get truly creative in a recording studio, you want to get past the rather old-fashioned idea that a piece of music is just a performance, in real-time. You want it to be a piece of sonic art. You want to be able to use whatever acoustic, electric, electronic or other tricks to bring about a sense of musical metamorphoses that’s greater than just listening to a bunch of musos perform. The trouble is, it seems that hi-fi manufacturers are almost all approaching their craft with that old-fashioned idea that music is a bunch of fellas performing in a cowshed to an audience, not an opportunity to create a piece of sonic magic.
2) If we limited our listening to the kind of audiophile stuff put out by labels like Denon, we’d be worse off. This stuff is predicated to sound fantastic on great stereos, but most of it is deadly dull and a creative dead-end. On the other hand, the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s are packed full of classic albums that sounded great in their day on pretty good systems, but don’t sound much good on the majority of high-end systems in 2012. Why is that? I listened to parts of King Crimson’s 1969 In The Court Of The Crimson King on this hi-fi, and it sounded flat, uninvolving. I still remember the feeling I had the first time I heard this album in the early ‘70s – it was easily the best-sounding album I had ever heard, and the drum sound alone was astounding, let alone the combination of acoustic and electric instruments, and the dynamics of the surging mellotrons. Successive reissues of this album were letdowns, until Steven Wilson’s 2009 remix, which brought back all the lustre of the original vinyl, and thrilled me all over again. So why did it sound not special at all on this very expensive gear? Perhaps part of the problem is simply that today’s equipment is capable of rendering a piece of music with clarity that was never intended in the first place. So a trumpet that sounded muted on that original recording can sound horribly piercing on a modern stereo. In other words, perhaps the analogue gear that recorded the music wasn’t high resolution, but today’s playback gives it a kind of fake hi-res sharpness. Or perhaps those engineers in charge of remastering for CD are to blame.
Ultimately, there’s no resolution – so to speak – to this argument. The Shindo and those lovely 15K speakers did sound absolutely gorgeous on acoustic-oriented music, so I guess anyone whose musical diet was that limited would just love them. [Not that I’m suggesting Ashley’s tastes are limited. I would question his taste on occasion, as he would question mine, but I know he likes some very noisy and at times adventurous stuff]. There are always variables as well, and I’m sure Ash will report in due course with a very detailed review of this get-up.
For me, it just highlights the dilemma I’ve faced in all my long years of hi-fi appreciation. I love great sound, and lo-fi would just never do, thanks very much, but sometimes I wonder whether we should all just go and buy studio monitors. After all, if we replicated the standard gear in good studios, wouldn’t the music we listen to then sound pretty much like it did when it was recorded?
Still, as much as this provides me with a very real quandary, my fascination with hi-fi continues. While I’m somewhat of an agnostic, from time to time I find reason to believe. GARY STEEL
PS, In the end, the thing I enjoyed the most were Ash’s halloumi toasties. Exquisite.