Listen To What You Like
Do you remember the Knights Templar? Or the story of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail? In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they actually found it, and to everyone's surprise, it turned out not to be some jewel-encrusted chalice, designed and fit for the use of kings or better, but the simple clay vessel of a carpenter or a man of the people.
As portrayed in the movie, the significance of the Grail lay not in what it was made of, but in the way that it was regarded by those who beheld it. Perhaps surprisingly, there's a fairly good parallel to that in High-End audio. Our Holy Grail – the thing so many of us have always sought – has always been (at least after Harry Pearson first described it as such ) "the absolute sound": a perfect reproduction of the experience of hearing live music played in person.
That was my hope for years, too, and it's been the goal of most of the audiophiles I've known, ever since I first got into this hobby, more than half a century ago. In our heart of hearts, we don't just want good sound; what we've really always longed for is a system good enough to, at least perceptually, put us right there in the hall or at the venue with the performers.
Along those lines, there was at one time, a rumor circulating in audiophile circles that The Grateful Dead had, for years, been secretly working with the CIA to accomplish something even more than that: actual time travel. By perfectly replicating the sound of past events, it was said, they were hoping to achieve actual physical transportation to other times and places. That, so the rumor goes, was, even more than just ordinary audiophilia, the reason for their constant striving for better sound.
Whether the rumor is true or not, or what The Dead's actual intent might have been, nothing like that is ever really likely to happen, even with today's remarkably advanced recording and playback technologies. For one thing, there's a basic problem of specifics: Which "absolute sound "are you referring to? From where at the venue or in the concert hall should it sound like you're listening?
The fact is that different people in different positions at a live performance hear things differently. What you'll hear at Row 30, far right, at the concert hall will sound different from the same music from Row 30, center. And Row 5 will sound different than that. And the Conductor, on his dais at center stage, will hear something different from any position in the audience, as will the violinists, the trumpeters or any of the other performers on stage, who will also hear the concert differently from each other. And, to top it all off, the recording engineer, listening through earphones to multiple different microphones scattered throughout the orchestra will hear something different from any of them.
That applies for any kind of music, classical, rock, or anything else that can be heard by a live audience. Which of those on-site musical experience is the "real" one? Or, if they all are, which is the one that we should try to replicate?
And what if there's no "real" experience at all? For "studio" recordings, the performers and musicians may be brought in separately, either individually or in groups or instrumental "sections" to be recorded and then later "mixed-down" into a final composite recording. In that case, there's no actual "live" performance to experience.
So what can we do? We can realize and accept that listening to any musical recording involves an illusion and that- even if that illusion were perfect it could never be "real", and go on from there.
And what does that mean? Easy; reality isn't going to happen, so buy and listen to whatever pleases you.
If the illusion of reality is what turns you on, certainly go for it. Treat creating it as a game or set it as a goal and work toward creating the most convincing illusion you can, never concerning yourself with the fact that you can never win. In fact, consider that a blessing: If you ever did win or achieve your goal, what would you have left to do? You'd need to find another hobby and start all over again.
If you have some other particular sonic preference (big bass, for example, or pinpoint imaging) make that your goal and build your system accordingly. If you like dynamic, "punchy" sounds, try horn speakers. If you want a sound that's warm and lush, consider classic tube electronics, or, for extended frequency response, detail, and power, check out solid-state. Or mix them both to get exactly the sound you want.
Despite a great deal of hard work to the contrary by our industry's designers and manufacturers, nobody has yet been able to come up with a single hi-fi component (or even any of the parts that go into making them) that works and can probably claim that it has no sound of its own. Everything, no matter what it is – even the room that you listen in and how your system is placed in it – makes some contribution to the sound of what you hear, so instead of trying to come up with a system that's truly neutral in a room that may never be, work to create not the "perfect" system, but the system that will do what you want it to do in the way you like best.
Let that be your "Holy Grail".
Then, when you're done, put on some tunes, sit back, close your eyes, and...