A Multichannel System That Moves One Closer to the Absolute Sound

Jim Hannon -- Sat, 01/24/2009 - 23:52

In a blog posted by TAS reviewer, Alan Taffel, today he writes:
"There is no question that the Magico M5 is a first-rate speaker, and that by the end of the first day Alon Wolf had the whole system humming. However, this was still a stereo presentation, with all the incumbent limitations of that format. For my Best Sound at CES pick, I tried mightily to find the system that most reminded me of live music. For me, that was the IsoMike/Pass/TAD/EMM multichannel setup. Multichannel, when done right (which is quite a rare feat!) can do things that stereo simply cannot.
For example, I was played a multichannel SACD of a marching band that had been recorded outdoors. In a good stereo system, I would hear a facsimile of the great outdoors spread before me. That's nothing to sneeze at, but in the IsoMike system, I was quite literally transported to the recording site. That is, I felt like I actually was outdoors. No stereo can do this, just as no stereo can convincingly place you inside --as opposed to looking into -- the hall in which an orchestra was recorded.
Yet the IsoMike system avoided the pitfalls of many multichannel systems. That marching band was not surrounding me as if I was in the midst of the ensemble. Like all the recordings I heard in this room, the musicians stayed put in front of me. On vocals, I could imagine a real singer standing before me. The rear speakers seemed to be playing.....nothing at all. They were not identifiable as sound sources, just as one does not explicitly hear the rear wall of a concert hall. In both cases, there is a rear sound source contributing to the overall musical experience, but it is not a distraction from the primary musicians, who are up front.
The IsoMike system sounded like stereo without the artiface inherent in trying to create a complete sonic environment with only two channels. We speak a lot in TAS about how digital makes the mind work harder than analog, rendering the former a less relaxing experience. The same can be said about stereo versus good multichannel. The IsoMIke system simply sounded more natural than stereo, without my having to strain to imagine a soundspace. (You see, even our language -- specifically, the use of the word "soundstage" -- admits to one of stereo's limitations. A "stage" is always in front of you; a space is all around you.) Being thus ensconced, I was involved and more transported into the music, which was more beautiful in the way that live music is beautiful.
Ray Kimber is to be congratulated for this achievement, and for having the guts to put on a multichannel exhibit, frought with peril, rather than taking the safe route. I believe he has shown us several ways in which audio can take a leap toward the absolute sound."

Jim Hannon -- Sat, 01/24/2009 - 23:54

My reponse to Alan Taffel's blog follows:
I think you nailed it, Alan. I labeled this system as "my biggest surprise" of CES. Namely, for its ability to transport one to the recording venue. Ray Kimber's huge SoundLabs systems in years past did something similar. Two years ago I voted the IsoMike/SoundLabs system as the best sound of the show, but this was even more convincing (perhaps because of the improvements in the EMM stack?).
Most multichannel systems I have heard place you somewhat in the center of the action. It's as if the performers "surround" you, but this IsoMike/TAD/EMM system is quite different. The rear speakers do not call attention to themselves (indeed, I put my ear to one to make sure it was playing), and enhance the ambience of the recording (or recording space). They must be playing the reflections off the back wall of the hall?
I have NEVER heard a more realistic portrayal of piano. It's as if one could actually hear (and feel) the sound coming off of the piano's lid, projecting towards the audience. That's what happens when you listen to somebody playing the piano in your living room. The focus of the piano was correct and not what I would have suspected in a mutlichannel system. Yes, there is a sense of incredible spaciousness, like in a live event, but the piano maintained its proper proportions. Moreover, all kinds of fine details and ambient cues emerged.
I believe this system, and recordings, moves one closer to the absolute sound ideal than any other in my experience. As I noted in response to another blog, it has shaken my world and caused me to re-evaluate multichannel and digital,  I wonder if there's a "poor boy's" version of the system one could assemble?

Steven Stone -- Sun, 01/25/2009 - 00:31

 While I totally agree with you about the quality and realism of the system, I feel that you are putting undue emphasis on the hardware.
It's Ray Kimber's recording techniques and the software he creates that makes the listening experience so realistic. Over the years he's been refining his technique to a level that few other recording engineers have achieved.
I'm curious - have you listened to his recordings on another well calibrated surround system?
If you do, I think you'll discover that the real magic is in the software, not the hardware...

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound, EnjoytheMusic.com, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

Alan Taffel -- Sun, 01/25/2009 - 09:56

I think you make an excellent point -- we have indeed been giving the software short shrift. I agree, and I think Jim would agree, that the recordings were the element that gave the listener a realistic perspective on the performance. I think the larger point, though, is that finally having recordings of this caliber only proves the potential of the multichannel format. Early stereo recordings were panned hard left and hard right, and there were even the notorious "ping pong" records. These early recordings called attention to the format rather than illustrating its potential. Only when records were made with stereo's full potential in mind were we able to hear that potential. Similarly, Ray Kimber's recordings are made for this new format, and the results, with a good system, show what that format can really do. And what it can do is amazing!
I agree with you too, Steve, that much of the magic we heard in the IsoMike room would be captured on a lesser system, assuming that system were properly set up. That is a good thing! Just as convincing stereo can be bought at different price levels, with varying degrees of ultimate resolution, transparency, dynamics, timbral wealth, etc, so I am sure could multichannel systems. The system in the IsoMike room, according to some blog posts, was not even as good as the one at RMAF. All of this only proves my main point, which is that multichannel done right -- and that includes the software -- can do things that stereo simply cannot do, and that the format has a demonstrated ability to bring us closer to the absolute sound.  

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

Jim Hannon -- Mon, 01/26/2009 - 21:37

The IsoMike recordings can be played back on a variety of systems, including CD Stereo, SACD Stereo, and SACD Surround (4-channel). I'm listening happily to some of them on my two-channel system. However, after hearing them in 4-channel, I'm hoping I can "replicate" a far less expensive multichannel system.
My understanding is that ALL the proceeds from the IsoMike recordings go to the Music Department at Weber State. As a result, they've been able to buy three Steinway pianos, and other needed instruments. That's pretty cool!

Cemil Gandur -- Tue, 01/27/2009 - 05:24

I also agree - the sound up in the EMM room was superb and Ray Kimber is a wonderful host / presenter. I ended up buying one of their recordings, the jazz one, to try at home. Although I've got a CDSD/DAC -6e, I've "only" got a pair of Mini 2s for it, so will be auditionning in stereo. Unfortunately, I've not had the time since returning from CES to listen to it. had more trips after that, and been trying to get my VPI to run properly with the RIm Drive, without much luck ...
Will report back when I do so.

jeffreybehr -- Tue, 10/05/2010 - 17:47

I heard a HUGE Ray Kimber multichannel (NOT 'multi-channel') setup a few years ago; I can't remember if it was at an RMAF or a CES.  That system featured multiple HUGE Soundlabs per channel.  Altho I LOVE multichannel Classical-music recordings, I was not positively impressed with what I heard there...it was just too big and amorphous.  Perhaps his hardware systems have changed since then.
My multichannel system started with a great-sounding stereo system and added 3 channels.  With the best, most-naturally microfoned recordings, it sounds simply superb.  I keep the surround channels* relatively low in levels (altho they're set 2dB ligher than 'flat' in levels) and the center channel much lower for music than for movies. 
The best from Pentatone, Channel Classics, BIS, Telarc, etc., sound fabulous.  If I had to recommend just TWO MC recordings, they'd be Telarc's Music of Jerry Goldsmith, Telarc #SACD-60433 and Ivan Fischer's Rachmaninov Symphony #2 on Channel Classics, #CCS SA 21604.
* I've built the surrounds to be full-range and diffuse; the sound from them is never noticed until it's turned off.

Tin-eared audiofool and Classical-music lover for about 50 years, terrible competitive pistol shootist, and amateur fotografer.

All content, design, and layout are Copyright © 1999 - 2011 NextScreen. All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction in whole or part in any form or medium without specific written permission is prohibited.