The following is the first of a series of think pieces on audio reproduction. This one focuses on the relationship between the language we employ in discussing and evaluating paintings and how certain terms that are important in the lexicon of the visual arts like 'tonal pallet,' 'resolution' and 'reproduction' can help us better understand what we should seek in a first rate audio playback system.
All the pieces are speculative in nature and are intended to stimulate discussion and not to be the final word on the subject. They are the result of years of experience and reflection, but are likely fundamentally flawed; and even where they are not flawed, the claims made are often quite controversial. I am not running away from their controversial nature.
I am an academic by profession and disposition. I develop views that I like to think are supported by evidence. The views that I have developed in my academic writing are often architectural in nature: they are typically ways of thinking about a subject – organizing our thoughts in ways that are hopefully useful and illuminating. I have been doing the same piecemeal in my audio writing, and have decided that I might as well take a shot at a more global conception of how I think about audio reproduction, and why thinking about things in this way might be helpful or illuminating.
I can be completely wrong of course, but I do think that one of the problems with the domain of music reproduction is that our ears (which are frankly pretty bad) are better than our ability to convey in a common language what we are experiencing; and what we are looking for. My model as an audio reviewer has always been Jean Hiraga. I especially admire his earlier work. In many ways his efforts to provide a language for describing audio has always inspired and intrigued me and this is just an amateur's efforts to follow a similar path.
Thanks for reading,
Painting, Music And The Language Of Sound Reproduction
Some of the most helpful concepts in the audio reviewer's lexicon are rooted in the visual arts. Some of these are familiar, for example, the concept of tonal color. The first time I heard Frank Schroder's Reference arm, tracking a new EMT cartridge on a Garrard 301 table resting on an Auditorium 23 plinth, the phrase that leaped to mind was tonal pallet. It was not just that Frank's arm retrieved more information or detail. Rather, the entire set-up seemed to paint a more colorful (not colored) sonic picture; and in general appeared capable of accessing more tones and hues than I had heard through nearly all other analog front ends.
Sometimes the language that is most well developed and understood in the context of the visual arts can deepen our understanding of the same or similar terms used to describe audio reproduction. Take the term 'high resolution playback.' As many audiophiles and reviewers use the term, high-resolution audio is the sonic parallel of high definition television. The latter calls to mind super sharply focused images that allow a viewer of normal vision to pick out every blade of grass on a golf course or a baseball or football field. Some viewers experiencing high def for the first time innocently, but tellingly, remark that they have never before seen the grass on the course or the field looking so green. And for the very good reason, I might add, that the grass simply is not that green. No grass is.
Watching football in high definition may suit those who want to experience the game as if they were instant review officials, but I am quite certain that the field or the golf course that appears on the viewer's screen has little if any relationship to what the actual golf course of football field looks like – especially to those (golfers and football players) who are actually playing on it. In the audio domain, high-resolution is identified with reproduction in which the listener can pick out sharply etched figures – players, instruments and even the notes they produce - against a dark black, noiseless, untextured, weightless background. The problem with high resolution in this sense is that it too has absolutely nothing to do with music.
Here the visual arts provide a useful way of revealing what is simply wrong about high resolution (understood in the audiophile sense). Think about so-called 'super realist' paintings. Super realist paintings are intentional exaggerations of reality. The colors are unnaturally vivid; the perspective unrealistically fixed and sharp. Often the artist's intention is to demonstrate not that heightened reality is more or better reality – better at being the real thing than the real thing itself. Super realism conveys the idea that portrayals of reality in which the constituents of it are separated and each presented as the limiting or heightened instance of itself- the greenest green, the sharpest point-is artificial. Reproduced or portrayed in this way, the real becomes artificial and in this way super realism gives us an insight into both the nature of the actual and its fragility: the thinness of the boundary between real and artificial.
The audiophile conception of high resolution is like high definition in television - useful to an instant replay judge who wants to freeze time to see if the wide receiver caught the ball with two feet in bounds, but of no real importance to someone who seeks to be carried by the flow, rhythm or dynamics of the game; and like super realist paintings - which remind us of the fragility of the boundary between the real and the artificial, but do so in part because our eyes let us know unfailingly that the heightened reality portrayed is obviously artificial. So too with the audiophile and reviewer's fixation on high-resolution audio: one cannot listen to it without the ear ultimately identifying it as artificial, and to my ears at least, a-musical in the extreme. This doesn't mean that a highly resolving system is undesirable: far from it. It all depends on what one means by high resolution, and here again the notion of a fully resolved painting is helpful.
Sometimes it may be hard to put one's finger on why some paintings work while others that display talent, ingenuity, creativity, a firm hand and a good sense of color do not. Often, the only difference between the painting that works and that which doesn't is resolution. Successful paintings – like successful novels – are fully resolved. I do not mean that the paintings or novels reach unambiguous conclusions; rather, in saying that the paintings or novels are fully resolved, I mean that they are complete and contained; they exhibit an internal coherence, structure, or fit. They make sense and can be made sense of. They are not a mumbo jumbo of distinct parts that cannot be made to come together; nor are they incomplete thoughts. They may not be interesting thoughts and they may not be artfully expressed. But they are resolved. And because they are resolved, they are like well formed sentences – they can express meanings – artistic or otherwise.
In many ways, the best novels and paintings are ones in which the artist has been able to weave the parts so that there are many possible ways of integrating them satisfactorily. The work is subject to several perhaps even conflicting interpretations, and can be read at many different levels and is capable of conveying a range of different ideas. All this is possible only if the work is resolved – completed, well formed, and has a kind of internal integrity. Resolution is a matter of completeness, integrity and structural coherence. It depends on the balance and integration of the parts in relation to one another and to the whole.
In contrast, there is no denying that an unresolved painting can n fill a canvas (of any size) just as an essay of hundreds of pages can fail to resolve itself. Both can be filled with many details displayed in sharp focus. But without resolution, the details amount to nothing, In other words, the audiophile conception of high resolution is all about the details and nothing about the integration into the whole. It is less about the part/part and part/whole relations that are necessary if we are to distinguish music from making sounds; and favors instead the pixels over the picture. In live music, notes don't decay into emptiness. They decay into physical space, which has density and texture and is noisy and can even be dirty. There are no edges around the instruments or the players. There is integration, wholeness. Resolution is about getting the relationship right between the parts and the whole; and conveying it as a musical experience, not as puzzle pieces strewn on a kitchen table.
In my experience many of those who purchase systems that emphasize high-resolution in the audiophile sense are never fully or adequately engaged with what they hear. They keep changing gear; and worse in doing so look for even more resolution. They confuse the problem with the solution. What they think is the solution is actually the source of the problem; and as long as they don't realize that they will only spend ever-increasing sums of money, making matters worse. The reason is that high resolution in the audiophile sense is simply not a musically significant property, and ultimately the ear picks this up and finds the reproduction much more distracting than engaging.
Let's move from tonal pallet and resolution to detail or information and see what insight we can get into its importance to music reproduction again by taking a look at the visual arts. Many people don't like abstract art, and are completely put off or puzzled by various forms of minimalism. One of my favorite gallery stories concerns the time one of my colleagues and I were headed to a Robert Ryman exhibit at Pace Wildenstein's midtown gallery. We got off the elevator on the floor where the exhibit was hung, and my friend walked out of the elevator, looked around at the various canvases on the wall and asked out loud where the paintings were. (Ryman is famous for his white on white monochromes that are in fact rich with color in the underpainting but which on first viewing can just look like unpainted canvasses.)
Whether one gets minimalism or not, there is something fascinating about it; and that is that it restricts itself to the most 'minimal' set of resources for creation and is thus restricted pretty much in what can be done, and yet it attempts to convey full and rich meaning with the limited resources at its disposal. Most minimalist or reductive work ends up as flat, lifeless and dull, however, For me this makes minimalist works among the most impressive when they succeed. The minimalist painter is not trying to produce something from nothing. It is not as if he seeks to make a painting while restricting himself to fewer than the minimal number of artistically important resources. He or she wants to produce a painting that says a lot – that conveys a rich artistic meaning - while employing a minimal number of artistically relevant resources. In this regard, minimalism in art has a lot in common with analytic philosophy: it tries to get the strongest conclusions from the weakest or least rich premises.
The lesson for audio reproduction is that it is not just how much information a system produces, but which information and how the system reproduces it. The question of course is what are the musically important cues? I don't have anything like a complete or satisfactory answer, but I have some thoughts. First, hearing the singer belch or burp, or hearing the subway under the hall is not musically significant. Hearing such sounds may provide evidence of the resolving power (in the audiophile sense) of one's system, but I am quite sure that in and of themselves, belches, burps, sneezes and farts - as well as subways - are not normally musically significant features of playback. The worst mistake we could make would be to confuse microphone artifacts - sounds we hear entirely because of where and how the microphones were placed - with musically significant features of a performance.
If a highly resolving system can help the listener place the performers on stage instruments in hand, but can't allow one to identify what instruments they are playing because the system doesn't get the timbre or the tone of the instruments right, something musically significant has been sacrificed for something that is not. So on the top of my list of important musical characteristics is tone and timbre. Right after that comes dynamic realism. All instruments have their own dynamic character, and first-rate reproduction reflects this in a consistent dynamic character throughout the frequency range.
Many loudspeaker systems to my ears emphasize mid bass dynamics which has an undeniable visceral impact, but at the cost of dynamic realism and consistency throughout the range. Too many systems, by my lights anyway, lack coherence and consistency. They seek, and the best of them achieve, weight or heft down low, midbass punch, midrange transparency and high frequency extension, sparkle and air. This is a far sight better than the old formula of boom and sizzle, but it is nevertheless a form of compartmentalizing the reproduction rather than integrating it. In the kind of system I strive to assemble, the performance is just that: an integrated whole – wherever 'on stage' the performers may happen to be in the sonic picture – they need to be heard as playing together in a space in which the tone and timbre of the instruments are accurately portrayed and with suitable dynamic realism.
Musical flow is as important as dynamic realism. It represents an overall sense of continuity and balance. It is easier to explain what I mean with examples of systems that lack the capacity to reproduce a sense of flow than to give a fuller characterization of what flow is. I have had experience with both turntables and CD players that present music with the feel of a marching army walking in step or a drill brigade performing at half time of a basketball game. There is nothing wrong with the timing – indeed everything is generally within lock-step; and in the context of a marching army or drill brigade, this is precisely what we are looking for. The problem comes when this is the way one hears all musical reproduction: rigid, lacking grace, movement. In a way perhaps it is the difference between seeing and hearing the notes isolated and located in space and time on the one hand and hearing them in a way that enables one to trace their movement through space and time.
A good system should be transparent, but even the notion of transparency can be somewhat confusing. Transparency is not the same as focus or clarity. Take a Gerhardt Richter portrait painting. In many of his portraits the subject is portrayed in a hazy, vague way and looks a bit like a slightly out of focus photograph. But it is a painting, and painted precisely that way. Seen under good light it is unmistakable what Richter is doing – and no one does it better. There is no issue of transparency even though the image is intentionally unfocused. But put a curtain in front of the painting or a veil, or put it under bad light and you have transparency issues; and that is because there is something between the viewer and the work that makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to see the art and get its meaning. In its main sense, transparency refers to the presence or absence of roadblocks between listener and the performance; it is not a feature of the performance itself.
Even so, it is helpful to distinguish between transparency and focus. In the case of painting we would not say that transparency means being able to make out every detail in a painting. That is more like zooming in on details, and if one looked at Richter paintings for example in that light one would miss his artistic intention. It may well be good for studying technique, but it is not well connected to uncovering artistic meaning or intention. Transparency is about lifting roadblocks to what is hopefully a highly resolved work, the point of which is to put one in the position of being able to fully engage the work for its emotional, visceral and cognitive content.
I have focused so far on similarities between the visual arts – especially painting – and music and its reproduction in the hope that doing so will illuminate some of the concepts that figure prominently in the lexicon of music reproduction. But at least one difference between painting and music reproduction can be as illuminating as all the similarities we have already noted. The conventional wisdom is that an excellent audio system faithfully and accurately reproduces something, though there is considerable dispute and uncertainty about exactly what it is supposed to reproduce: e.g. the original event, the gestalt of the original event, what is on the 'recording', and so on. In contrast, something that accurately and faithfully reproduces an original painting (the performance or work as it were) – with the intention of having the viewer experience it as indistinguishable from the original – would likely be a fraud and in any case would not be something that is particularly valued or desirable. We don't confer the same value on reproducing art that we do on reproducing music. Stroke for stroke faithfulness in reproducing art with the intention of 'transporting' one to the original is fraud. Doing so without the intention of deceiving or misleading is not fraud, but the work produced is not itself a work of art, or valued as such. It can be admired for its accuracy, but it cannot convey the same meaning (especially to the extent that the artistic intention figures in that meaning).
On the other hand, faithful reproduction of a musical event is highly valued, and most certainly is not a fraudulent misrepresentation of the original. It is what we seek. I think it is an open question what faithful reproduction in audio refers to, but I want to tie several of the considerations I have emphasized here in the hopes of putting at least one alternative understanding on the table for discussion. Again, to my mind anyway, the analogy with art is helpful. The central failure of art reproduction – what is wrong about it when it is wrong – is that once we know that it is not done by the original artist, it cannot convey to us the artist's intention. Furthermore, to the extent that the works meaning is connected to features of the artist's intentions (including the circumstances in which he or she formed that intention, including the time in history and the place in which he or she was located), the reproduction cannot exhibit among the most important values of painting.
This suggests that we want from an audio reproduction system is faithful reproduction of what is necessary to express what is of value in the original work. Of course there are many things of value in the original performance of a piece of music, and I guess I am just emphasizing one of those: the meaning of the work, or better, those aspects of the meaning that are connected to the performer's artistic intentions. It is the connection between the playing and the mental states of the performers and the composers that we are looking to recreate through an audio system. And we can't do that, I don't think, if we cannot make out the tone and timbre of the instruments, and voices, the dynamics of the performance (both micro and macro), the musical flow, and if we cannot experience the piece as resolved – an integrated whole or a complete thought or thoughts. However, we can do that even if we never hear burp or belch; and God knows we can do without the farting. In addition, as a New Yorker, I can assure you that when I want to hear the sounds of the subway, I simply walk out my apartment on 3rd Street, make a right turn, head down to Broadway and walk in either direction: subway sounds galore – and the wonderful music of the city.