Noted Audio Critics Fess Up!

Posted on by Mike Quinn

“What more irrelevant thing could you do for a living than write about hi-fi? It’s a pretty goofy thing to do.”

Wow! I certainly hope none of our wonderful advertisers actually reads that quote, maybe it’ll slip right by. In any case, it certainly doesn’t reflect MY opinion, no way, Jose. And, though I am very curious about the combination of the words “living” and “writing”, I would certainly never make such a flip remark. Would I?

Art Dudley of Stereophile

But the sometimes controversial audio observer/reviewer Art Dudley would, and he means it. Sort of. Dudley—who currently writes for Stereophile, but once served as editor of The Absolute Sound in addition to running his own audio magazine, the much-respected Listener, which faded into the halls of audio fame a couple of years ago—proposes that reviewers and consumers should listen to the musical attributes of a system and not its sonic virtues. And while most current writers on the scene pay lip service to this idea, the large majority continue to converse in a lexicon foreign to most average folks who just want to hear a believable reproduction of the scorching intensity of a Sonny Rollins solo. Micro-dynamics, soundstage depth, transparency, air, grain, smearing, holographic and so on. WHOA! What does any of this have to do with music? And what do these audio savants know that our ears and souls can’t detect?

The world of audio criticism has progressed well beyond the propeller-head “measurements are everything” creed of the old Stereo Review school; actual listening, subjective rather than objective reviewing, has become the standard. Just as in any type of review, measured results do not always tell the story: an auto can sport great numbers, but is it comfortable, safe and fun to drive? A restaurant might feature a chef with a great pedigree, but does the food truly satisfy, is it honest? Clearly, looking good on paper is not enough.

But when a totally subjective review talks about imaging, coloration and top-octave air without entering into the area of the transmission of music’s basic appeal as music, then is the reviewer really serving the reader, or merely flexing a macho audiophile muscle? Can a restaurant menu that merely runs down a list of esoteric ingredients to describe their latest cutting-edge entree really convey the essence of a dish?

Dudley responds, “As a person who writes about musical reproduction and how audio equipment performs that task, it’s really a question of forgetting all this bullshit about imaging and coloration. Setting all those things aside, at least for a while, and just relaxing and listening the way a child would listen: Is this thing playing the tune properly? Is it getting the beat? Is it really fun to listen to? Is it conveying the emotion that’s on the disc or in the groove? That’s the thing for me. But most audiophiles, god bless their hearts, are busy fooling themselves. It’s important to strip away all their descriptive trappings, to forget about the sound and listen to the music, and that will guide you toward something that will give you longer pleasure.”

That idea is echoed by Robert Harley, editor-in-chief of The Absolute Sound and The Perfect Vision, two bibles of the high end. “My goal is to connect people with music through audio. A hi-fi system is a vehicle for exploring the world of music, and the better that hi-fi system is, the deeper you can go into the music…really connecting with the expression of the composer and the performer.

Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound

“We are here to point out to readers which components are better at reproducing music than others. For example, you can spend the same amount of money on two different systems,” Harley continues, “and one might sound mediocre and the other might produce a totally compelling experience—captivating you so you want to go in night after night to listen to music. Our goal is to tell people about the products that can create that compelling experience.”

Pretty heady stuff, I mean we’re just talking about audio equipment, aren’t we? Well, yes, but if music is an important part of your life, as it surely is if you’re reading this Website, then it isn’t just audio equipment, but an important tool for maximizing the enjoyment of an organic and soul-satisfying hobby or profession. But sadly, even the average music lover is mostly unaware that high-performance equipment, an alternative choice to the mass-market stuff, is even available.

“We in the audio press have done a really crappy job,” swears Dudley, referring to the lack of success the high-end industry has had in penetrating the mainstream market. “Much of the writing can be an enormous turn-off to the average person. It can possibly do more harm than good. Years ago I would give people copies of the magazine I wrote for, thinking I would turn someone on to high-end audio and they would call back saying, ‘What is this shit? What is this guy doing, going off about caramel colorations? I don’t care about caramel colorations.’ Then recently I read another example of this audiophile perverseness which proclaimed a pair of speakers under review were so revealing, according to the reviewer, that ‘not only can you hear the subway trains running under the recording venue, but you can tell what direction they’re going in.’” Dudley laments, “That’s the sort of shit that keeps music lovers away from high-end audio because the average music lover doesn’t care about the subway trains and carmel colorations, they care about the music.

“And when you ask writers of that stuff if the equipment transmits the way in which a conductor builds the tension in a particular recording of Bruckner’s Ninth—and good equipment will do that—well, they say ‘but I heard the subway trains and I heard the violinist’s cuff links hit the music stand.’ That’s so silly, it makes a lot of audiophiles look like what they are, people spending money on ephemera and not getting into the essence of what it’s really about, the music.”

This site, of course, never, or almost never, delves into such tangential minutiae, though references to a particularly lively cymbal ping or blatting reed honk may creep in from time to time. But we do constantly strive to stress that there is another audio universe on the other side of the retail mirror that merits investigation.

Harley elaborates on the reasons why this alternative gear is such a well-kept secret: “The great tragedy in the high-end audio industry is that there are these wonderful components that do amazing things that people are not even aware of, and the high-end industry has tended to market to the same people over and over again rather than reaching out to find new music lovers who have the means and the desire to have high quality reproduction in the home. The industry has not done a good job of promoting itself and that’s why it’s stayed small and why it’s perceived as being kind of geeky and esoteric, super high-priced and that you need a golden ear to appreciate the differences. Actually, anyone can hear the difference between mediocre and fabulous sound.

“This is partly due as well,” Harley goes on, “because mass market media tends to view audio as an appliance, like a refrigerator or a toaster, and not as a vehicle for expressing an art form. The same media will tout expensive cars, watches, vacations, boats, and exalt those products, yet treat high-performance audio as an unnecessary extravagance.”

Dudley concurs with this, but also notes some socio-economic factors for what he sees as a shift away from better audio in the home, to more pedestrian gear.

“The average consumer attitude toward home audio has changed over the past 25 to 30 years,” he says. “When I first started selling hi-fi in 1973, the average system we sold ranged from $600 to $1000. That’s when people were spending two to three thousand on a car and maybe $17,000 to $20,000 on a house. Now people are shelling out $25,000 on a car and think nothing of spending $200,000 and more on a house, but they would be horrified at the thought of spending even $600 on hi-fi. The perceived value of home audio has gone way down. People have been convinced that the CD player in their car and the soundboard on their computer sound better than anything else out there. I’ve been in the homes of people who make $200,000-300,000 a year, love music and can afford better, but they think a $400 Bose radio is all they need.”

So what can the writings of audio critics such as Dudley and Harley, as well as countless others, teach die-hard music lovers like us?

Art Dudley and Tony Rice

“We don’t go into a club or to a concert and worry about grain and imaging,” says Dudley. “I think we all need to learn how to listen. From my point of view, it’s a matter of relaxing and trying not to make such a big deal out of it. We should go back to our more child-like relationship with music and to appreciate the melody and the rhythm and learn to identify those. I think it’s of paramount importance to talk about the way gear affects the music and the way the gear reflects the music’s essentials like pitch, rhythm, and so on. Some piano players have a better sense of flow in playing musical lines, to be able to find that line and follow it in a natural way. Well, audio equipment can likewise affect your ability to follow flow in music. That’s why I didn’t like early CD players, they just didn’t allow that flow to come through, you couldn’t listen to the music as a continuity because the players were presenting a series of cross sections—the digital samples—that interrupted the flow of the music.”

Harley makes this a bit more concrete when he describes the critic’s role in painting sonic pictures for the reader in hopes of helping them narrow down their choices for shopping: “Where the critic comes in is helping to identify specific sonic attributes and to put down on paper exactly why a system is more involving musically and more enjoyable to listen to. There are all kinds of effects of reproduced sound that contribute to that overall impression of a system sounding good. For example, with an acoustic bass, if you don’t get the sense of attack, that crispness of the leading edge of the string being plucked, you loose the feeling of the propulsive rhythm, the bass sounds more lethargic and you don’t feel the energy of the band. We need to hear exactly what the bass player is doing, not just sense some low rumble below the music. We need to hear that articulation of every note to really appreciate the artistry of people like Eddie Gomez, Ron Carter, John Patitucci or Stanley Clarke. A good system can do that, and our mission is to direct readers to those components that are truly musical.”

But what does the term musical mean in reviewers’ jargon? It’s a word found, after all, even in these hallowed pages. Harley says its the sum of all the little sonic cues that a component reproduces that make the recording sound like music on the equipment in question. “Such reproduction sounds like real music and not a sterile or artificial simulation. There is a naturalness that allows you to immediately lock onto what the musicians are doing and forget about everything else.”

Dudley’s view is a bit more detailed: “Notes and beats, that’s what I consider important to getting the music right. Everything else is just sound. If it’s a description or a judgement that could apply to an orchestra conductor—so-and-so is good at finding the line, or making a phrase flow correctly, or getting the players to play in tune, or whatever—then that, to me, falls into the category of musical. In a way, so are things like drama and scale and the overall “architecture” of a piece of music. Things that can’t apply to a conductor—graininess, coloration, imaging—are merely descriptions of sound, and of secondary importance to me.”

Asked about the state of current equipment, the two disagree about how things have progressed in the last 30 years.

“I’m troubled by how much worse some of the stuff has gotten,” Dudley laments. “I think amplifiers and preamplifiers are the main suspects,” he explains. “Specifically, I don’t know anyone in the industry who doesn’t really think that early products by companies such as Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson, and Krell were superior to their current offerings. The cynical view—which is to say my view—is that once these companies saturated their small markets, they had to keep coming up with reasons for owners to keep trading in toward the new stuff, and the only way they could do that was to keep making their initially good electronics more complex.”

He goes on, “I always think simpler is better. If you have two amps and one is 30 watts and one is 130 watts, there is a great chance that the more powerful one is messing up your music because there are more parts between the input and the output. And a simpler speaker has less hardware between the amplifier and your ears. Given the choice between two products, buy the simpler one. As far as improvements, I do think digital players are getting better and I’m very impressed with SACD players as a whole.”

Harley’s proffers a different perspective: “There have been advances in materials and technology, and just the competitive marketplace, that have made all categories of audio products, particularly loudspeakers, better and at lower cost. On the other hand, there has been a move toward convenience at the expense of sound quality as in MP3 players and downloaded music from the Internet. The fidelity of those formats can never be as good as what you get from traditional media.”

As for particular values in achieving good sound, Dudley raves about Rega turntables, “They are well-engineered and I can’t recommend them highly enough.” But also mentions Spendor speakers, Naim amplifiers and CD players, as well as electronics from 47 Laboratory, a Japanese company that has returned to ultra-simplified designs. In fact all of these offer highly simplified engineering. But watch out he warns, “The vast majority of gear is boring, just not involving, and just gets in the way of the music.”

Harley also cites Naim, but also components from Rotel and NAD, and speakers from PSB and Totem Acoustics as offering high performance for the money. He specifically proclaims that, “the Magnepan MG 1.6 is one of the best buys in all of high-end audio.”

Another resource for the music lover who wants to milk more emotion from those precious CDs and LPs is Harley’s singular reference, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio (Hifibooks.com) which features a forward by none other than pianist Keith Jarrett, a professed audiophile himself. Now in it’s third edition, this hefty tome is absolutely and unbelievably up-to-date—nearly impossible in this fast-changing business—and painstakingly thorough. It’s 600 pages of easy-to-read, non-geeky writing that can make educating one’s self about home audio equipment actually quite fun. Art Dudley admits to using it regularly as a reference. Harley has also written a similarly comprehensive volume for the burgeoning field of home theater called Home Theater for Everyone.

Both writers state that when shopping for audio, shop for a dealer, not equipment. “If you find a caring and skilled dealer, the consumer will end up with a good sounding system regardless of what the equipment is.” says Harley. “A good retailer will carefully choose their product lines, will care about music and will care about getting the customer into the best possible system, to make the buyer a customer for life, not just for a one-shot sale.”

After finding the correct salesperson, Dudley suggests a more laid back approach to shopping than most of us are trained for. He suggests a relaxed attitude which shuns the normal insecurities of entering a hi-fi store, and avoiding attempts to impress the salesperson with how much you know by trying to speak their sometimes strange lingo. Then “get a good parking space.” He elaborates, “Just focus on the music and those musical attributes like melody and rhythm will jump out at you. It’s a function of ‘untraining’ yourself, of forgetting all those things you’re supposed to listen for. Just listen to the music and see if you respond to it.”

So does he really think his job is irrelevant if he can help guide people toward musical ecstasy in the privacy of their own home?

“I’m horrified at the thought that anyone has ever bought anything just because I told them to. The ideal would be for people to go to the store after reading a review and say, ‘My god, he’s right. An amplifier can affect the way music flows.’ If I’ve made them realize that audio can affect those core musical values—pitch relationships, timing, drama—words that we’d use to describe a musician or a conductor. If I’ve opened their eyes and ears to that and they go into the store and hear that it really does work that way, then I’m the happiest guy in the world. Maybe then I’ve done something good and my job’s not so pointless after all.”

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