Wednesday, October 7, 2015

RMAF - summing it all up

It's hectic, it's impossible to hear everything, and sometimes it's impossible to know what is even there since rooms get assembled in many ways. I wanted Quad and failed to notice they were in a DCS room (no listing for them in directory). The importance of asking folks cannot be overestimated. A casual chat at the bar where I mentioned Tech Das sent a chap racing off to hear it since he'd not known the table was present. So, busy but friendly, a sort of 'we're all in this together trying to squash as much as we can into limited time'. Where else can you get access to so much great gear? Consider it an education.

Room set up is all over the shop. Some nail it from the outset, some get there over the weekend once they hear what attendees hear and how the room changes with more bodies packed in; and some just suck all weekend (or have equipment failure). Music could be more varied (Venessa Fernandez  still popular, Norah Jones, Krall etc, you get the idea. Way too much Dire Straits for my taste too). I know it's handy to have a reference but it does get tiresome if you don't actually care for the music). That said, who'd be a rep or room host at this meeting? - it would tax human endurance by Saturday pm, no wonder so many rooms shut down right on cue!

What I learned

I find uber-resolution tiresome. There's a kind of audiophile sound that is super crisp on transients, particularly on digital sources, that can impress with details but become sort of irritating quickly. I'd not really found a way to describe this before RMAF but after a day I came to sort of recognize it, usually in the more expensive set-ups, and to dread it when volume went up. When coupled with the sort of deep, strong bass that the high end speakers emphasize just to show you they can, it is often disguised as 'resolution' but it's not the same thing. That leading edge crispness can kill the natural sound of instruments and ruin the illusion of music. Now I know it when I hear it.

Real instruments are recognizable when reproduced but there's a level beyond recognition that pushes the illusion of presence further up the scale of credibility. Harbeth rooms did that well. Von Schweikert's too, but the German Physiks room did it best on violin. Of course, that was just the speakers, each had excellent partnering gear and careful set up. I commented a lot on lack of soundstaging in many rooms, the pull of vocals or instruments to one speaker at the expense of the other. Am sure there's a ton of technology that can work on this but the basic rules of set up cannot be fought and even if they could, sounsdtaging won't ever replace timbral accuracy as the key for me. And back to that point about resolution:  real unamplified instruments never have that bleeding edge sound you hear in some gear.

Pricing bears only a modest positive correlation with quality. Once products are well designed, combined with some consideration of match, and set up to suit a space not fight it, then the results are generally pretty good. To move from good to great requires real effort and sometimes incredible cost. But just paying that cost is no assurance of improvement. Further, the improvement you might gain is comparatively slight. It's rare to hear something that is so far beyond the decent, well matched and set up system that you think the world has changed.  Accept this as the reality of reproduction and you will hear gear a little more clearly. The ELAC speakers are a classic case of what's possible on the affordable side and can really compete with more expensive speakers. Reproduction is an illusion anyway, the question becomes at what price you can get a passing illusion of musical reality. I think you can get 80% or more of the way to the ultimate for 20% of the cost of the very best equipment, maybe closer. There's a real 80-20 rule for audiophiles.

The medium might be the message but am not convinced that one format is best. I heard great vinyl, cd, hi-rez digital, tape,  and all fell a bit short of real life. That's ok too, our brains can fill the credibility gap and a system can help it to do so easily. I do think that I am of a generation or a personality type that likes the physical medium. Some computer-based front-ends sounded fantastic at RMAF but I do like my record sleeves and I enjoy the process of setting up an album to play. But I recognize this as something in me, it's not a principle of sound quality. And I would say the same about tubes and solid state amplification.

Finally, despite all the talk of obscene  upward spiral of prices, I actually think there are some downward pressures at play which are offering us really good sonics and value for money. A few years ago I noted that $30k was the typical price of floorstanders. This year there were real choices, serious contenders for your dollars, at far less. Sure, you can drop more and you might be happier, but I saw a few components that I thought could help you put a killer system together for under $10k that would be a delight in most rooms. Of course, I like learning about the top end, and seeing how far the art can be extended, but I no longer feel that I'm missing much by not being able to afford it. In fact, I don't think I am missing too much at all.


Eisener Bart said...

Patrick, thank you for great job!

PatrickD said...

Eisener, you are very welcome, thank you for your interest.



MikeG said...

Nice job! I too was at the show and, In general, I agree with your observations and listening impressions. Such is not usually the case with most reviewers. This leads me to wonder if you are or ever were a musician? I've been musician since age 3-1/2 and observe many of the same things about reproduced sound (unnatural timbre, soundstage distortion, etc) that you mention. My perspective of listening to things like brass, strings and percussion from within the band or orchestra (close up) tends to lead me to speakers with great transparency and dynamics. Yet, I am constantly puzzled by the "edge" produced by most audio equipment - as it simply isn't there in real life. Yes, there is a raw power to a trumpet at 5 feet away or a snare drum a couple of feet behind you, but it still has "air", presence and IMPACT without the "etched - edge" frequently heard on hi-fi equipment. Suffice it to say that your hearing seems to be well tuned and that I look forward to additional commentary from you on equipment.

PatrickD said...

Thank you very much Mike, I appreciate the thoughtful response.

I would never describe myself as a real musician (nor a real reviewer either ;) but I have played guitar for 30 years, my son piano and cello, and listened to music of all kinds in live settings, large and small, in my own homes and in theaters, amplified and otherwise, all my life. As I became more and more interested in audio, I started to wonder how best to compare and describe what I was hearing since the terms and phrases of most audio writers, though comprehensible and useful, did not quite capture what seemed important to me. Having studied human perception for many years, I thought something was missing.

And it's sort of obvious when you hear live instruments up close as you indicate -- the sound they provide lends itself to a different set of descriptors than is found when people talk about gear. Air, attack, rawness, body, and that amazing blend of sonic qualities that emerges from them playing together in a reverberant field. There's plenty of detail but no etch. Real soundstaging is also not really like the effect people seem to crave in reproduction. But it's taken me years of listening to get to this level of awareness. RMAF just pushed one home to me again and again. That, and I don't care if I never hear "Money for Nothing" again!


Mike G said...

Patrick, you mention "body" and I would say that this is the one quality that most Hi-Fi set-ups really miss. The unmistakable "body" of a baritone saxophone (for example) hits you in the chest … and simply goes AWAL when listening to Hi-Fi for the most part. The same can be said for the "body" of the cello, trombone and Tuba - or most any other acoustic instrument. I have heard a system or two that come very close in this area, but nothing yet that really nails it. The ability to "move air" seems to be a part of this - perhaps. I think that the physical limitations of most speakers simply don't allow them to move air in the way that wind instruments like saxophones, trombones, etc. "move air". I do, as you seem to, find the German Physiks Walsh Driver speakers to have some "lifelike" qualities. Instruments tend to generate a 360 degree wave form, so perhaps these more omnidirectional designs hold some promise (as well as some acoustical challenges). I also found the Vaughn Loudspeaker demo at RMAF to do a pretty good job of moving some air. The Vaughn's are Bi-Polars. Not that these two were the "best of show", but both struck me as having some special qualities along the lines of mimicking the "live" experience in some tangible ways. It would be interesting to hear both of these interesting designs in a setting wherein more time could be spent with them using material that I am highly familiar with. But, I don't really want to spend $16K to $32K for that privilege, so …. and BTW - I have no affiliations in the audio world - NONE.