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Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
january/february 2013


and Steve says Music, Formats, and Accuracy - What Really Matters?
by Steve Lefkowicz


Sometimes I think I might not be a real audiophile. Actually, I've never claimed to be an audiophile, at least not in the traditional or generally accepted sense of the word. I do love nice gear, and have certainly had enough different things in my system over the past fifteen years, probably more than most, since I get a steady stream of gear in to review. But still, when I hang out with other audiophiles at shows like CES or T.H.E Show, or at LAOCAS meetings, I still often feel like an outsider.

I hear audiophiles talk about it being "all about the music" constantly. I keep hearing and reading comments about how all of this is about listening to music. I know that's why I am involved. I've been buying records since I was nine years old, more than forty five years ago. I avoided CDs for a while in their early years, when I could still buy music I wanted on vinyl, but now own several hundred of them. I recently started getting high-resolution files, either downloaded, or from various physical media, though lack of selections and high prices have limited that somewhat. At least I've started.

Now, I'm not about to get into an argument about musical choices, at least not with regards to what music we choose to listen to. Musical taste is a personal thing, and I don't expect anyone to like the stuff I listen to, any more than I expect to like some stuff other people listen to. However, one thing I think is important is whatever music we listen to, it should be something we genuinely like, appreciate, and maybe even love. Much of my music collection is what might be considered an acquired taste, especially some of the more progressive or avant-garde pieces. What can I say, whether classical, jazz, or rock, I've always had a thing for music that makes me think, is different, and maybe is challenging to listen to.

I like music that moves me emotionally, or makes me marvel at the technical wizardry of the musicians, or that connects with me on some level, whether that be intellectually or emotionally. Messiaen's Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps practically brings me to tears every time I listen to it. The McGarrigle Sisters Mendocino chokes me up every time, as does Jimmy Buffet's A Pirate Looks at 40. After more than forty years of listening to the early works of King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and ELP, I still marvel at their musicianship and creativity. Zappa still both delights and infuriates me at every listen.

Still, I listen to a lot of different types, styles, and genres of music from every age. My son has turned me on to a great variety of music I might have missed entirely. I love bands like The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Rebelution, Sublime, Local Natives, Fleet Foxes, and dozens of others. There's always time for more Jack Johnson, Erick Macek, Jason Mraz, and bunches of others. Then there's all the, country, bluegrass, prog jazz, the entire output of the Moonjune record label, and all sorts of other music I listen to on a daily basis. 

The thing is, it is all music I really, honestly, like and enjoy listening to for its own sake.

So, what does all this have to do with anything? Well, here's where I tend to feel distanced from the typical audiophile. This music, the music I like so much, is more important to me than how my system sounds. What does that mean? It means that I have worked over the years, within the budget constraints I have chosen (or have been forced on me by a large dose of financial reality) to build a system that gets the music I like sounding its best. That might sound like a typical audiophile response, but it isn't.

I don't know where I recently heard or read this, and if I'm quoting you, please let me know, but I recently read (or heard) the clear definition of "high-end" audio to be "playing back the best recordings in the most accurate manner possible." That doesn't seem controversial, and I suppose on the surface we'd all say that an accurate playback of our music is certainly a good thing. But what stuck with me was the inclusion of the phrase "the best recordings."

Why? Why would that concern me? A few reasons come to mind.

First, and most obviously, a lot of good music is not all that well recorded, much of it far from even being a good recording. Does that mean I should live without it, or stop listening to something I otherwise like? As audiophiles, should we say that even if we really like a piece of music, we'll choose not to listen to it, and therefore deprive ourselves of it, just because the recording, pressing, or otherwise, the sound, isn't good enough? I know a lot of people in this hobby who would say "yes" and who don't listen to any music that isn't high-end in terms of sound quality.

I saw an extreme example of this many years ago, when a few of us from our old audio club visited a member's house to hear his system. He had built a new dedicated sound room as an addition to his house and had a state-of-the-art system for that day and age (I believe all recommended components from TAS). I looked over the shelves of records (this predated CD) and they were all sorted by record label. One shelf for Sheffield Direct to Disks, one for Reference Recordings, one split between Opus 3 and Proprius, one labeled "HP" that was records from HP's Baker's Dozen and Super Disk lists, one for Nautilus and other audiophile labels. There were maybe, at most, two hundred LPs total. After an hour of demonstration using disks he selected from this collection, I asked if I could play one the LPs I brought with me. He looked at them and indicated he would prefer not, as what I brought wouldn't be good enough to hear how good his system really sounded. I asked where the rest of his collection was, to see if there was anything I wanted to hear. He said "No, none of them were good enough, I got rid of the rest of my collection."

Either "the rest of his collection" was music he didn't really like in the first place, or his participation in the hobby as an audiophile was all about sound and equipment, not music. If any change or upgrade to my system rendered any of my favorite music less enjoyable to listen to, I would consider that a serious failure, and not an upgrade at all.

I had heard rumors of audiophiles like this, but had never met one before. I made up some excuse about having to be somewhere and left. I actually felt sad for that guy. But I also know I've met many audiophiles in the past thirty years, who though maybe not taken to that extreme, certainly let the sound of the recording, or the sound of their system, dictate their musical taste instead of the other way around.

That's not to say I won't seek out better versions of music I like. Even for something as simple as Genesis' Nursery Cryme, I have an early LP (US release, purchased in the early 1970s), an English import (purchased a year or so later, better in some ways, but not all) a standard CD, the really well done Classic Records LP reissue from around 2000 or 2001, and 24/96 FLAC files on my server. When I get the urge to listen, depending on my mood, I of course go for the Classic LP or the high-resolution files from my server. But the key point being, even when my records were in storage, and before I acquired the FLAC files, I still listened to this album on a standard CD when that was the best I had available. I love the music on this album, and though I want it to sound its best, I'll listen to whatever its "best" is under the circumstances. I do listen to it as a 320kbps file from my iPod when using that device, either with headphones or plugged into my car's audio system.

How much of your music collection do you skip, just because the sound isn't audiophile quality? How much of your music collection did you find yourself ignoring as your system "improved?" How much of your collection is music that you listen to only because it is audiophile quality sound? Do any of you actually like Jazz at the Pawnshop? Would anyone own it if it was just an average, typical, mass market recording?

Can anyone say it is all about the music, if they choose their music based on the quality of the recording and sound, rather than the actual musical content? I guess you can if you are a real audiophile.

Then what do you do when new, better formats hit the market? Do you abandon your old, lower quality formats? Do you buy all your music over again? When CDs first came out, we all knew people who disposed of their entire LP collection, thinking that CD was so much better. I acquired hundreds of LPs for free from people, some audiophiles some not, who simply felt they would never play a record again after hearing the noiseless background of a CD.

When SACD and DVD-A came out, did you toss all your CDs? With the shift to high-resolution files and music servers, have you deleted all your 16/44 files to make room for 24/96 or DSD? Are you ready and willing to buy all your music all over again? Or, are you ready to simply stop listening to the music you bought before, to be replaced with new stuff that sounds better in the new format?

I suppose if all you've collected are audiophile favorites that are guaranteed to be reissued in every new format that comes around, it's not that big a deal, just buy them again. But, if you've collected a lifetime of music that you really connect with and love, much of which isn't likely to be reissued in whatever new better format comes out, what's your choice? I know what mine has been.

The other point, and one that many of you may also disagree with me about, is that over the years, I've heard too many big, expensive, finely tuned audio systems, that, in being set up to get the "best sound from the best recordings," seemed to fall flat when playing regular, average, everyday music. I don't know why that is, or what makes some high-end systems sound better on average recording than others. Up until a few years ago, I would have said any system with Wilson speakers, or either Krell or Levinson electronics would likely have fallen into this category. I will say recent versions of Wilson speakers I've heard (especially the Sasha and Sophia) definitely do not, and they seem to play everything really well.

But I've heard so many high-end systems that simply can't play "regular" music in a manner that interests, excites, or in any way connects with me. At CES and T.H.E. Show, I heard many systems whose sound would impress the heck out of you on a select sample of super high quality recordings, but which fell flat on anything approaching a normal recording.

Some years ago, my son and I went to a friend's house to hear his system. It was another beautifully and meticulously set up, ultra high-end system, using all state-of-the-art gear. Another case of about an hour listening to various audiophile recordings, and quite honestly, it was very impressive. My son (who was about twelve or so at the time) was fairly bored, but sat, listened and played on his Gameboy. Then we had some time to play stuff we brought. My son brought an early Led Zeppelin CD, and when we cranked that up, our host left the room to let us listen on our own. After about two minutes, my son leaned over and asked, "Am I missing something here? Doesn't this sound better at home on our system?" He was right, it did. My whole system at that time cost less than the interconnects in the system we were sitting in front of.

It just sounded flat, dull, lifeless, and worse, uninteresting. What it was doing was accurately rendering the limitations of the recording and the less than ideal CD reissue. So, from an audiophile standpoint, it was, I suppose, doing its job. From a musical standpoint, it just wasn't working for me.

It isn't that expensive, high-end systems can't play regular recordings. Editor Dave Clark's system is as refined and highly tuned as any audiophile system I've heard, yet, the times I've been over to his house and listened, everything, even my lowly non-audiophile CDs and LPs, sounded thoroughly captivating. It is one of the best systems I've ever heard anywhere, regardless of price. But, I know Dave and Carol are simply not into audiophile recordings either. They've set up and tuned their system based on the real music they love.

It's the same with my systems over the years. When I look to upgrade gear, or when I'm reviewing equipment, I play as wide a variety of music from my collection as possible. I don't play audiophile recordings; I own very few audiophile recordings, none bought in the last twenty-five years. Yet, I have always managed to piece together systems, and find equipment, that plays my music, and whatever music I want to hear, in a way that intrigues me, captivates me, and allows me to pay attention and get in touch with the music, and lets me listen for hours on end, day after day. That, to me, is the mark of real high-end audio system.