Long before I worked for any of Nextscreen consumer electronics publications (The Absolute Sound, HiFi-Plus, Playback, The Perfect Vision, or AVguide.com) I was an avid music and high-end audio enthusiast, and like many of my fellow enthusiasts I followed the work of those who wrote and edited The Absolute Sound (and a handful of competing publications, as well). I was drawn to the magazine, as so many are, by two things: first, its philosophy of pursuing in-home reproduction of “the absolute sound” * (typically defined as the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space), and second, its “trust your ears” mentality (which made perfect sense to me, given that measurements and graphs had always seemed to me to do an inadequate job of representing the real-world sonic character of audio components).
* Note that, apart from inspiring the title of our oldest and most famous publication, the term “absolute sound” describes a conceptual reference standard that is used by all Nextscreen consumer electronics publications.
Over time, as I read and enjoyed The Absolute Sound and a handful of other magazine, certain philosophical and practical questions began to crop up.
First, when I compared notes between my own perceptions of certain components with reviews I had read, I found evidence which suggested that while reviewers and I were hearing more or less the same sonic phenomena, we were interpreting or “weighting” our perceptions very differently vis-à-vis our agreed upon standard—the sound of live music. Some examples might help to illustrate my point.
1) A reviewer might highly praise a certain set of sonic qualities in a component—qualities that were certainly audible to me, but that seemed comparatively small in magnitude (and not nearly as dramatic as the review had led me to expect).
2) A reviewer might mention in passing certain favorable qualities in a component, giving the impression that the qualities, while desirable, were not of terribly great importance, whereas I might hear those same qualities and find that they contributed in a huge way to the component’s overall musical realism.
3) A reviewer might mention certain sonic flaws in a component, but dismiss them as being inconsequential when, to my ears, those same flaws were not only audible but egregiously so.
4) A reviewer might damn as fatal certain flaws in a component that I could also hear (if I forced myself to pay strict attention to them), yet that did not—for me—significantly influence the product’s overall realism one way or the other.
Let me emphasize that the discrepancies I noted did not seem to involve differences in perceptual acuity (as in, Listener A can hear a certain phenomenon and Listener B cannot), nor did they involve simple matters of taste (as in, Listener A simply likes components with elevated treble response—because they make music sound more detailed, while Listener B likes components with rolled-off treble response—because they make music sound smoother and more romantic).
Despite inevitable variations in individual hearing response curves, both the reviewers and I seemed to be receiving and processing all (or nearly all) the sounds presented to us—both from live music and from audio systems. Instead, the variances I am describing seemed to occur more on the level where we ascribe meaning, importance, “weighting,” or musical significance to the sounds we heard.
Even though we all use the absolute sound as our sonic reference standard, it seems to me that this fact does not necessarily guarantee we will wind up at common destination points in our quests to reproduce the absolute sound in our homes.
This point came into sharper focus for me when, several years ago, I got to experience a rare treat. Specifically, I got to visit the homes and listen to the then-current reference systems of two individuals that I (and that many of you) regard as heroes of audio journalism: namely TAS founder (and Chairman of the editorial advisory board) Harry Pearson and TAS Executive Editor Jonathan Valin. As an added bonus, I also got to hear the reference system of Atul Kanagat, a man who is a long-term friend of TAS and who works extensively with the American Symphony Orchestra League to help promote more widespread exposure to and enjoyment of symphonic music. Most importantly, I got to hear all three of these reference-grade audio systems back-to-back and within the span of less than 48 hours.
Now the three systems in question were configured by men who are highly familiar with the sound of live music, extremely knowledgeable about high-end audio, and passionate about the pursuit of the absolute sound in the home. Given this, and given that there are some significant areas of overlap between the men’s musical tastes, you might think the three audio systems in question would sound at least somewhat similar (as if converging upon a mutually acknowledged reference point). But that is not what I found at all. Instead, the systems sounded not just a little different, but a lot (and this despite the fact that two of the men, Pearson and Kanagat, were at the time using the same basic reference speakers: namely, Nola Grand References).