Question: What are reviewers refering to when they describe equipment as having good, great, etc. inner detail?
Maybe they are saying that the circuit boards inside are beautiful in their complexity :)
"Inner detail" refers to not merely hearing the sound an instrument makes (i.e., a triangle makes a bell-like ringing sound, but the inner detial of that action is hearing the "wand" that strikes the triangle actually HITTING it), but the complete sounds of all the materials involved. So you hear the initial contact of the wand on the triange (which is part of the transient of that partcular motion) and then you set the triangle in motion, and you hear it ringing (preferably with the harmonics intact). Or, hearing Miles Davis blow into the mouthpiece of his trumpet instead of hearing ONLY the notes of the trumpet itself. Also, you can hear the valves on the trumpet clicking. Another term for "inner detail" is "low-level detail."
In real life, this is equivalent to seeing a woman in 6-inch stilettos walking toward you from 4 blocks away. You don't hear the sound of the stilettos contacting the pavement at that distance. But, when she's closer, say, 30 feet away, you can hear the sound of the material of the sole of the shoe (say, hollow cork) contacting the pavement, along with the sharp snap of the stiletto heel as well.
'a triangle makes a bell-like ringing sound, but the inner detial of that action is hearing the "wand" that strikes the triangle actually HITTING it'
But you are always hearing the wand hitting the triangle by virtue of the triangle vibrating and causing a sound (and maybe the wand vibrating as well) - how else are you hearing the 'hitting' apart from the resulting resonance in the wand and triangle. Surely this initial strike is the loudest part of the volume curve so why are we talking about low-level volume here?
The trumpert analogy is a good one though. Actually inner detail is really low-level detail like you say but this isn't the whole story as it comprises alot of other more fundamental properties of the system: good dynamic range, lack of resonances, accurate behaviour at very low volume, good transient response (step and impulse), low distortion , good coherence and probably a few more. It is actually alot more useful to say what part these contributing factors play, but of course a bit more challenging. The observation 'inner-detail' actually tells you very little about what is actually going on in a system apart from that the result is subjectively good rather than bad.
Any instrument heard live presents an incredibly complex pattern of sounds that the human ear immediately recognizes as real time and place, something that reproduced sound rarely is capable of creating in toto. Audiophiles have developed a language (e.g. inner detail) to describe the characteristics of reproduced instruments that contribute to the illusion of a live instrument in action. Typically the language and the reproduction both fall short of the real thing.
‘Audiophiles have developed a language (e.g. inner detail) to describe the characteristics of reproduced instruments that contribute to the illusion of a live instrument in action’
Very true, and in developing this language they have lost sight of what the language actually means as the questioner betrays.
Virtually any degradation at signal or acoustic level will affect ‘the illusion of a live instrument in action’ so ‘inner detail’ can equally mean ‘no discernable degradation’, or at least a musical rendition accurate enough to give a convincing live performance. It tells you virtually nothing about what aspects of the recording are particularly good, just that several are. That’s why it’s open to so much interpretation.
A similar case exists with the term ‘imaging’. If you have great imaging it is a result of a range of specific degradations being minimised and you are a long way to achieving an accurate sound.
To me your observations reflect an unflinching clarity and objectivity. Not sure about your experience, but I find most audiophiles do not share these qualities.
Thanks, Keldarin, for pointing out the inadequacy of my example of the triangle. It was past the witching hour - way, way, past it, and I was tired. I typed fast and, apparently, wandered in and out of coherency in my statements. Dave C's comment is what I would have typed if it had been earlier. Succinct and to the point.
One more thing, speaking of coherency. I wish TAS' reviewer's language (using musical analogies, as the original cast of TAS did) would also keep up with the equipment they review. There was a time when reading TAS was educational, not merely enjoyable. Even if one came in knowing nothing about reproduced music, one learned as one went along and with that learning, one learned how to assess equipment (but, of course, not music). Jonathan is closest to the old-school reviewers (who called a spade a spade without batting an eye) and even he (as he admitted in his recent CJ review) had anxieties about saying that he disliked CJ's old equipment. The older crew had no such reservations. You never knew what the hell you'd see in print. Dr. Cooledge was at the top of the heap in saying, 'this (amp/preamp/cartridge or whatever) sucks' and I admired him for it. Like him or not, you learned. Why, I wonder, has that learning curve left TAS? I love TAS, but the love affair part ("Honey, did TAS arrive in the mail today?") is long, long, long gone, and for the very reasons the original poster inquires (about). He doesn't know what inner detail means because TAS is no longer an expository magazine, just a good read. Every issue, my heart says, "...maybe this time..." and within 10 pages, it says, quietly, "...no, not this time. Maybe next time..."
You are right, there is very little accountability in audio journalism. This publication get close to being objective, although it is dwindling of late due to the contributors getting a bit long in the tooth: