Sunday, October 20, 2013

Who gets to say what is good sound?

My 'reactions' post garnered more traffic in a few days than most posts here manage in a month. What gives? Other than general interest in the show, the traffic suggests a lot of interest from the modestly titled "What's Best" Forum, where a 'name' reviewer dismissed my views in such an off-hand manner that it drove traffic my way. Thanks Mr. Expert. No hard feelings here, people who make a living from doing what I and many others do for fun probably are threatened.

I moved through RMAF with a friend who, like me, has spent non-trivial amounts of his own money on equipment he thinks sounds good. We attended, listened, and compared notes, so you can be fairly confident that if we liked something, it was based on two sets of ordinary ears, not one golden pair. That may nor may not be important. When something did not sound so good, then that's where the trouble seems to start.

If you read the majors' 'Best of' lists you might be surprised. TAS, a magazine to which I subscribe, had a senior writer review speakers above the $20k mark. He lists almost over thirty pairs of speakers, fully one-third of which are candidates for 'Best of Show'.  If you read it, there are several others which were also described as producing 'excellent' sound, one which for brief moments was better than anything else, and these not' contenders. Perhaps it's all just thinking out loud but you now realize the meaning of 'best' as used in some professional circles is likely not the way you and I use the word.

On that same forum, a room I heard on Friday was described as excellent.  I thought it was awful. So did my colleagues. Interestingly, the owner admitted he probably shared my view. What were the others hearing? Could the presence of the company's CEO as a regular poster on the same forum have possibly influenced people to say nice things about the room's sonics?  You tell me. 

All this points to a rather difficult position for potential purchasers. Since it is practically impossible for most US audiophiles to hear everything they are interested in buying via dealers, attendance at shows such as RMAF is increasingly a vehicle for making purchasing decisions. If you can't make it there, you consume all you can find from others who go. Everyone accepts the room sonics might play a part but if people really can hear the same sounds and describe them as 'great' or 'awful', then there's something of a problem here. I certainly allow for differences of opinion but the human percpetual mechansims for sound are more similar than different, so what causes these reactions?

I don't believe there is one simple factor here but I do sense in the dialog and chatter about RMAF that there is a class of reviewers either determined to create some mystique about sound so as to protect their status as judges, or they are so lazy that they just don't really critique any more, they just say vague pleasantaries so as not to upset manufacturers.  Read the press. How many poor rooms are listed? I heard more than a few. I also heard lots of ordinary rooms, places where the sound was undifferentiated from anything playing around it, poor in timbral reproduction, boomy or muddled in the bass, tizzy on top. Anyone who tells you otherwise either luckily missed all of these rooms (in which case I question if they were there at all), chose to ignore them, or, perhaps has an agenda. That at least a couple of these are being lauded this in the professional press as fine sounding really suggests to me that something is awry.

There is also a class of casual reviewers (like myself) motivated to write about such shows and equipment. Don't assume we're any better. Plenty of people just use the web to criticize expensive gear, to take a pot shot at Wilson or Magico, and to push the more affordable equipment they buy, like or happen to know about. If they are friends of the owner, even worse, they will sometimes push the idea that research, technical development and large scale manufacturing capacity a la B&W or Focal are unnecessary when a guy in his garage with some woodworking skills can produce better sounds. Yeah, there's a lot of that about too.

But there are people who are genuinely interested in finding out how good something might sound, and how much one has to spend to get near the best sounding gear. There is so little science or method here that you are left with opinions as a guide, and some established opinion makers seem threatened. When expertise is almost entirely based on taste and experience, you don't have quality standards, you have connoisseurship. Fine, as far as it goes, but then audio gear becomes more like wine than engineering, subject more to branding, marketing, and opinion formation from elite reviewers than from facts. No wonder, when you state an opposing view, an 'expert' feels it is acceptable to summarily dismiss it  with a derisive 'who's he?'

I cleansed my ears this week with two live performances at the opposite ends of a true skill spectrum. The first from my son's school orchestra, which contained some players who started their instruments only weeks ago. The second was from Manahem Pressler with the Miro Quartet, a collective that has served its dues.  The former was in a school auditorium, the latter in an acoustically designed performance stage. Both sounded  really good, and nothing I heard at RMAF came close. During the school orchestral performance, the sound of strings rose up from the stage in a bloom, unlike anything any speaker has ever delivered to me at RMAF or elsewhere.  When listening to the Miro and Pressler, as I looked at the performers, followed the intricate lines, lost myself in the music and I did not think too much about soundstaging, bass, or articulation. I listened to the whole sonic picture and realized that if an audio system reproduced what I was hearing from my seat in mid-hall, I am not sure commentators from RMAF would think it the 'best-of' anything. We have a long way to go.

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