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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 6
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Dog Yummies

Exceptional Recordings & Performances, For High Resolution Audio Systems, an Introduction
(Spring 2003)
by Chip Stern

Cost of turning screw?
One dollar
Knowing which screw to turn,
One Thousand Dollars

WAGGING MY TAIL

For years our audiophile mentors have beguiled us with their mystical recollections of live music performances, and how they represent the ultimate aural reference point.

While it's unlikely that certain live presentations, under ideal circumstances, may ever be equaled by even the finest two-channel home systems, there are approximations of the proscenium arch experience we can enjoy in the splendor of our own listening rooms, on our own reference systems—be they ever so humble—that trump most of the flawed concert and club experiences I've ever had.

Which illustrates what a slippery slope we ascend when trying to ascribe too many absolutes to the audiophile experience. So the next time an audiophile friend or some well-meaning retailer start lecturing you about how LIVE MUSIC is THE Absolute Reference Point, keep in mind that the aesthetics of a live performance experience and the artifice involved in capturing a perfected sound employing modern recording studio technology are really quite different.

Classical pianist Glenn Gould (http://glenngould.com/gg) literally fell on his sword to drive this point home to classical concertgoers. It was his contention that in order to give people in the cheap seats (literally bathing in reflected sound) an experience roughly analogous to the sonic and spiritual bliss those lucky patrons down around tenth row center were enjoying (a far greater preponderance of direct sound), he'd have to grossly exaggerate his interpretation of music in a performance setting. On the other hand, that same performance might seem like a gauche vaudevillian exercise (think Liberache) to those in the prime seats. Gould's draconian solution was to stop concretizing altogether—choosing to concentrate on perfecting his work in a recording studio environment.

Such is the eternal conundrum of an audiophile's quest for musical intimacy, spiritual involvement, sonic purity and realism.

Which by way of a discursive set-up constitutes the introduction to my new column for Positive Feedback, DOG YUMMIES.

What's with the bow-wow metaphors? Roll over and I'll explain.

The legendary New Orleans soprano saxophonist and musical expatriate Sidney Bechet was generally considered one of the only musicians from Louis Armstrong's salad days who could match the young trumpeter's enormous sound, creativity and spiritual intensity. Sidney was a very proud, ultra-competitive man in every aspect of his life. As the story goes, a musician was awakened before dawn in his Paris hotel room by a knock on the door. It was Bechet with a dog. Sidney had heard tell how this sleeping musician was bragging that his dog was the baddest dog around, and so here was Bechet with his dog, ready to throw down and see whose dog was the most dog.

Sounds like some of the audiophiles I know. We're always sniffing about for the new gold standard, the shiniest new fire hydrant, and the last word in audio perfection with which to judge everything else. And it's generally agreed that the best way to educate your ears—to ascertain which dogs are truly best of breed—is to reference a perfect acoustic event in the form of live music.

Well, I don't get around that much anymore. But luckily for my growth as an audiophile, early one afternoon a couple of years back Bill Lowe of Audioquest (www.audioquest.com) rang me up out of the blue and asked if I had eyes to join him for an evening with the London Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall? "Cool. What are they playing?" Bill didn't know, but I thought, what the hell, it would be fun. Now Bill is one of the founding fathers of the high-end cable industry (along with Noel Lee of Monster Cable www.monstercable.com), whose audio quest is to bring people closer to the experience of live music. Well, he was surely doing God's work that evening, and I'll always be grateful to Bill for this act of friendship.

Because as it turned out the concert was simply galactic: the London Symphony under the baton of Pierre Boulez (www.andante.com/profiles/boulez/boulezintro.cfm) performing Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, featuring the formidable Daniel Barenboim (www.daniel-barenboim.com) and Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Damn! I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Better yet, Bill was in possession of Harry "Potter" Pearson's own subscription seats, and when The Absolute Sound (www.theabsolutesound.com) potentate was unable to meet him for that evening's performance, Bill found himself with an extra ducat, and while not precisely 10th row center, they were plenty close enough.

It was a defining experience spiritually, emotionally and aurally. I felt as if I'd finally referenced an inspired musical performance as a perfect acoustic event. And no, not even the most expensive system can quite duplicate that, though this is the ideal that beckons us so teasingly. Every time the percussionist whacked his big bass drum, the transient came right up through the floorboards directly into my butt, and knocked smack dab into my chakra a split second before the sound reached my ears. Aaaaarf! Made me sit right up on my hind legs, yes it did, like an eager little puppy, tongue lagging, tail wagging, begging for another treat—hit it again, hit it again. Oh, and they did. I even developed a transitory but meaningful relationship with one of the second violinists, a beautiful woman with her hair pulled back into a prim little bun, who saw my head bobbing in time with Boulez's baton through all the compound rhythms and metric changes; she subsequently made eye contact and tossed me a smile and a nod.

The holographic nature of my spot in the hall, the perfect timbres, the stunning dynamics…I was luxuriating in the music, enveloped by sound. The music resonated inside of me for weeks thereafter. I couldn't get over the astonishing richness and complexity of this evening as an acoustic event. In fact, during a long rest preceding a transitional passage in Petrouchka, I thought I could make out the rustling sound of people shifting in their seats. "Damn, can't people sit still for 15 lousy seconds?" I groused to myself, indignant audiophile. But what had actually occurred was that I'd perceived the reflections of the percussionist's snare drum from the rear and sides of the hall well before I heard the direct sound from out front. Such recollections come rushing back to me every time I sit down to evaluate a new piece of gear in the context of my reference system. Usually in the form of this nagging little voice reminding me how in the end, all things being equal, no matter how glorious the gear is, it's about the room and the set-up…stupid. When money IS THE OBJECT, making your compromises work for you.

Of course, being an improvising musician, I have first-hand experience of how live musical instruments "actually" sound. I've been plugging away at the drums, bass, guitar and keyboards for over twenty-five years, and just recently added cornet, theremin and electric upright bass to my musical menagerie. During that same quarter century I've penned record reviews and music features for the likes of Musician and Rolling Stone; covered pro audio gear for Mix and Pro Sound News, rhythm section instruments for JazzTimes and all manner of hi-fi gear for Stereophile. Ah, music…I keep trying to get out they keep dragging me back in. I've also edited a couple of music magazines; worked in retail audio; run the jazz department for a giant record retailer; worked in music distribution for a world music importer; and produced Ginger Baker's first recording as a leader, a jazz trio for Atlantic called Going Back Home.

The experience of recording Ginger in Studio A at the world class Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood (www.oceanwayrecording.com/home.htm) was as profound as my Carnegie Hall experience of Stravinsky, because having listened so closely to the music live in the studio, I was actually quite startled to hear how subsequently, every time the system changed, every time the loudspeakers changed, every time the room changed, my perspective of the music changed. Radically. Might as well have been a thousand re-mixes. I became obsessed with the idea of resolution: of putting together a reference system where I could bet the ranch on what I was hearing, so I could factor in the differences between what I heard in the studio and quantify what effect if any my own home rig was having on the music. I realize now that there is no single objective perspective—no one correct sound. Still, I proceed as if there were one, and this is what informs my listening when I try to ascertain how individual pieces of gear change the experience of listening to music in my almost perfected reference system.

As a result, I am always looking for dog yummies: for the finest possible musical-recording experiences with which to immerse myself in and to periodically re-reference as some sort of objective acoustical experience, so I can factor in the effects of different rooms and new gear.

Some of you may have followed my audiophile musings over the course of the past seven years during which time I penned the Quarter Notes section of Stereophile (www.stereophile.com). Dog Yummies will be a little different. When I penned Quarter Notes for Stereophile, audiophile discs as a specific genre—produced by and for dedicated audiophiles by audiophile imprints—usually advanced to the front of the line when it came to coverage. That won't always be the case here, although we're always on the lookout for any type of compelling acoustic music. We'll endeavor to sniff out as many audiophile truffles as your reference system might possibly desire, but they'll be drawn from many sources and genres, both electric and acoustic, pop and classical—although we tend to mark our territory with a lot of jazz.

Of course, should the performance warrant it, we'll reference recordings where the music transcends any reservations we might harbor about aspects of the recording, mixing or mastering process—because to these ears there is nothing so bloodless and joyless as great recordings of mediocre music. As I've stated in the past, we all possess a sort of internal spiritual Dolby, which can cut right though all of the distortion, multi-path, veiling, degrading room resonances, reflections and colorations that obscure a broadcast, compact disc or live performance…if the experience is profound, we can cut right straight through to the essence of emotional satisfaction—but you can't polish a turd. Which is why the term audiophile music has long seemed something of an oxymoron to me; the international semaphore for dumb music—though things are nowhere near as grim in that department as they were years ago. Beware of Charlie The Tuna, my friends. We don't want CDs with good taste—we want CDs that taste good.

In addition we'll…

Try and give some burn to new artists setting out on their initial audio quests (PUPPY CHOW)

Put you on to the scent of releases worth waiting for…before they hit the streets (LETTING THE DAWGS OUT)

Dip into our private stash for those tasty treats I toss my audio rig whenever I want her to sit up on her hind legs, wag her tail and howl contentedly at the moon…those audiophile reference discs I've come to depend upon for a glimpse of sonic truth in evaluating the relative sound signatures of high resolution gear (DOG YUMMIES)

Put on the dog with a bowl full of noteworthy new releases (GRAVY TRAIN), amongst which, we'll zero in on a couple of show dawgs who constitute the PICK OF THE LITTER.

Will examine some beloved-featured artist from a variety of perspectives (TOP DAWGS), consign hounds to the DAWG POUND when they leave a mess on our carpet or get up on my favorite chair and commence to bark when I want to hold forth on some issue or need to go for a walk (WAGGING MY TAIL). And while there is no way to be absolutely current in such matters, we will try to keep our ears fresh and maintain a critical edge by sampling New Amsterdam's nocturnal wares, on the prowl for meaningful live music assignations (WALKING THE DOG)

It's worth noting that sometime after that eventful Stravinsky concert, when I returned to Carnegie Hall with my wife and heard Claudio Abbado conduct Beethoven from the second balcony (seventy-five bucks a piece for "Dress Circle" seats), the sound was bass-heavy, murky and altogether lacking in dynamic oomph, as I was mostly hearing reflections of the music. Still, live music remains a vital reference point for seekers after audio truth. As you fine tune your listening apparatus, you'll come to an understanding of how acoustic instruments actually sound, and how varied are the interactions between musical instruments in an acoustic space. Likewise, when you have the experience of no-compromise audio gear, you will better appreciate how to make your compromises and trade-offs work for you at more humbler price points. I have always believed that with the right set-up and a synergistic array of gear, you are capable of achieving something quite a bit more alluring and involving and convincing in your own living rooms than can be experienced in all but the most elevated live performance venues, and then only in the very finest seats.

And pilgrims, that ain't a matter of money. I have seen way too many examples of someone spending $50,000 or more on a system and not only getting it wrong, but getting it LOUD WRONG. By the same token, I've heard plenty of systems where the bill came well under $10,000, well under $5000, well under $3000, let alone a grand or so, and the listener achieved something very visceral, involving and real—reduced in scale, low-end extension and ultimate resolution, of course, but relatively free of distortions or colorations, and well endowed with midrange articulation, focused bass, smooth top end extension, lifelike detail, coherent imaging and realistic soundstaging depth…quite right, thank you very much.

To that end, Dog Yummies is dedicated towards sharing inspiring musical experiences with fellow audiophiles…sounds to educate your ears and elevate your soul. Because the whole point of this hobby is to leave Planet Earth—to make the system disappear so we can be swept up and transported by the experience of music. There is an underlying art and science behind every piece of high end/high resolution audio gear—only you can determine what value it holds for you. My job as a consumer by proxy is to afford listeners clear reference points based upon my tastes and experiences in order that you can proceed with you own very personal, subjective judgments. And please don't take my word for it—audition all of this audio gear for yourself. Take the time to listen with all your heart and soul, and I promise that you'll be able to experience the sheer joy of total immersion in a musical experience from the vantage point of the best possible seat in the house—your house, with your own personal sweet spot, right where you hang your hat.

[c]HIPSTER[n]

 

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