From the founding of this magazine, Harry Pearson did our industry a great service by establishing a reference: the sound of unamplified live music in a natural space. As a result, designers began to pay attention to such crucial sonic phenomena as soundstages, timbres, dynamics, and the localization of musicians. However, an unintended consequence of HP’s radical reference was that the industry became so wrapped up in recreating the sound of live music, it often paid less attention to the experience of hearing live music.
Listening to live music differs from listening to a recording, and not just in sonic terms. I find, for instance, that when I am at a live concert I can comfortably absorb and grasp new material on a first hearing. Yet when listening to a recording of new music, I usually need several playings to reach the same level of appreciation. Also, at a live performance an audience witnesses not only the physical but also the musical interplay between performers. In contrast, even very good-sounding audio systems often fail to convey the interplay that made a particular performance unique. And though stereo setups strive mightily to present a facsimile of the recording venue within our listening space, that is very different from the feeling of having a live venue—and its attendant acoustics—surround you. To cite one final example, consider how refreshed one feels after a live performance, as opposed to the fatigue that can result from even a short home listening session.
This dichotomy between live and recorded listening experiences began to occupy my noggin after I spent time with two new DACs from Bryston and Audio Research, the $1995 BDA-1 and $3495 DAC7, respectively. These components are, in my view, at the vanguard of a new digital era. Like the best analog systems, they deliver not only state-of-the-art sonics, but propel the listener right into the heart of performances. This is exactly what happens in the live listening experience.
What these two DACs do is a bit difficult to convey because our industry has not spent decades establishing a vocabulary to describe the nature—as opposed to the sound—of live music. However, here goes. HP often used photographic terms to help readers, through visual analogies, understand his sonic descriptions. I will enlist another of the senses—taste. For those who have ever eaten truly sublime food, you know what happens: You put a bite in your mouth; at first, individual flavors assert themselves, some more urgently than others; then those tastes begin to intertwine, playing off each other; finally, they form an integrated whole that is in perfect balance and makes complete sense. The wondrous part about this experience is that it requires absolutely no effort on the part of the diner; the process washes over you, explaining itself as it goes, leaving you with nothing to do but enjoy and appreciate the artistry that made it.
This is also what happens during a live concert—just substitute instruments, notes, and musical lines for flavors. I submit that it is what should happen when we listen to an audio system. Unfortunately, most audio systems deliver the sonic equivalent of a heavy-handed stew. Flavors are inextricably mashed together, and sorting them out takes real work. This phenomenon is so pervasive that I believe most audiophiles do not even know they are hard at work. The system tells them “what” is happening musically, but the listener is left to fill in the “how” and the “why.” This is tiring!
The Bryston and ARC DACs reveal, Linn-style, the individual strands that make up the music’s fabric. But, as with tasting miraculous food, that is only the first step. They go further, allowing the listener to then hear how each instrumental line relates to the others, how they trade off, and why the composer wrote the music as he did. The same goes for the musicians themselves. Each has decided to play his line a particular way, yet each is simultaneously listening to his fellow musicians and making adjustments so his part fits and enhances the whole. Believe it or not, these DACs make all this plain as day.