As you might expect, all three systems were spectacular—among the best I’ve ever heard, and all three systems captured certain essential aspects of the sound of the “real thing” in powerful and compelling ways—though each system did, of course, exhibit a handful of minor sonic weaknesses. But what was most interesting to me was that each of the systems captured different aspects of musical realism and exhibited different, albeit comparatively minor, areas of imperfection.
Once again, it struck me that pursuit of the sound of the live music can and does lead even the most expert of listeners and enthusiasts down at least somewhat divergent paths. Why is that, I wondered, and what mechanisms are at work?
As I pondered the question I began sketch out a simple, practical theory of musical realism that, I think, helps explains some of the phenomena I observed. The theory excited me so much that I decided to share it with Atul Kanagat, sketching out the basic precepts for him on the back of a coffee shop napkin in the Newark Airport. When I returned to Austin, I shared the theory with Tom Martin (NextScreen CEO and frequent contributor to TAS and Playback), and to my delight he adopted two of my concepts—the notions of musical “Realism Triggers” and “Realism Inhibitors”—and has since made them part of his audio vocabulary. But for now, I’d like to use this blog to share with you some of the basic points of the theory.
My theory starts out with three basic hypotheses that have much to do with the nature of the sound of live music and the way that we, as humans, tend to internalize and process that sound.
Hypothesis: The sound of live music involves a variegated mix of sonic elements whose characteristics are inherently complex and diverse—more so than we may at first realize.
Hypothesis: Try though we might, humans are not fully able to attend to, emotionally comprehend, or cognitively process all of the elements of the sound of live music in real-time. When we attend live musical events, we hear all of the sounds presented to us (in a neurophysiologic sense), but can at best pay attention only to a subset of them.
Hypothesis: No two listeners are the same, and whether we do so consciously or unconsciously, we tend to apply somewhat different perceptual filters and value systems (or “weighting schemes”) to help us organize and make sense of the otherwise staggeringly complex experience of listening to live music—or to recorded music as reproduced by hi-fi systems.
If you put these hypotheses together and apply them to the tasks of building or evaluating (reviewing) high-performance audio components, some interesting conclusions begin to emerge. We all say that our objective is to have audio components that are faithful reproducers either of the sound of live music events or the sounds captured on recordings. But what we forget is that while those musical events or recordings are undeniably helpful and (relatively) reliable reference standards, the effects of our own perceptual filters and value systems are not so easy to measure or to quantify.
While the full range of sounds that comprise live music are available to each of us to use as our comparison standards, we tend in practice to comprehend the sound of live music (or reproduced music) only in part; despite our best efforts, the whole eludes our grasp. It is tempting, of course, to think, “Surely my listening experience is much like yours, so that we can compare notes and share experiences.” And to a certain extent we can and do. But at the same, I suspect that we often forget that the very sounds we hope to discuss with one another have already passed through the complex sets of filters that make up our individual schemas of musical consciousness.
So, the key points to bear in mind are these.
1) Despite best efforts, and whether we acknowledge our limitations or not, we in fact grasp only a subset of the body of musical information (or data, if you will) that constitutes the “absolute sound” as a whole.
2) The same is true when we listen to and attempt to evaluate hi-fi equipment.
3) Whether we recognize it or not, we each use our personal perceptual subsets of data on the “absolute sound” as the yardsticks by which we judge the musical realism or lack thereof in high-quality audio systems.
I think this model goes a long way toward explaining how highly skilled audio designers can set out to recreate the absolute sound in the home, yet wind up with quite different-sounding products.