Musicality vs Transparency & Detail


I would like to get the opinions of forum members on this topic. As I work to develop my audio system I wonder if the goal of extreme detail retrieval will sacrifice musicality. How have you been able to achieve excellent detail retrieval without getting an etched fatigue inducing sound. As an example when I have read about Shindo equipment I have always come away feeling that it was not noted for detail retrieval but was high on the list of emotionally satisfying.
Jean Nantais who frequently post here seems to feel that ultimate desire for detail has sacrificed musicality. On the other hand Arthur Salvatore of high-endaudio feels that the ultimate goal is the retrieval of low level detail as his first priority.

Can one go to far in the quest for ultimate transparency and low level detail retrieval? Have you ever retreated in system development to equipment or cables with less detail because of listening fatigue? Look forward to your comments.
montepilot
Interesting questions you pose, Montepilot. For me, I've always enjoyed detail and resolution, but too often that has come at the expense of musical naturalness. It seems relatively easy to design for more apparent detail but harder to maintain overall correct rendering of harmonic overtones -- the key in my experience to musically natural sound reproduction. I'd far rather trade-off some amount of detail and some level of transparency for greater accuracy of timbre and harmonic overtones. In the 80s, this was for me always the classic trade-off between Audio Research and conrad-johnson gear: c-j always made music for me, even without the ultimate in detail and resolution.

Today, many designers are achieving a much better synthesis of musical naturalness and resolution. Among the equipment I'm fond of, Jim White's work with his Jupiter series Callisto and Io preamp and phono stage comes immediately to mind, as does Ralph Karsten's work with his Atma-Sphere MA-1 and MA-2 OTL amps. I don't think you can go too far in the search for transparency and detail retrieval, but I do think it's easy to go astray and lose the music.

One final thought: don't confuse Salvatore's priority on "low level retrieval" with "high detail." Salvatore is very careful to clarify that he's looking for is the ability to retrieve the very quietest musically relevant information and not have that low volume information masked by system noise. In his March 2007 blog update, he clarifies this a bit with a discussion of "noise floor" and "sound floor".
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How have you been able to achieve excellent detail retrieval without getting an etched fatigue inducing sound.

I found the solution was to go to pro studio speakers. Consumers designs are all designed to impress the listener in one extreme way or another - they are mostly looking for that "differentiating" factor to sizzle up the sound and stand out from the crowd or give good reason to buy this years model over last years model (different sound).

Audio engineers listen to music nearly all day, 8 hours a day five days per week. Audio engineers require detail and transparency in order to make precise adjustments. Audio engineers are often deeply familiar with the sounds of real instruments and musicality. Audio engineers want their productions to translate to other systems and therefore seek accuracy with the lowest amount of coloration possible from monitor systems. It is a "no brainer" that the most popular speakers used in pro audio mix and mastering studios are all of what you describe; musical, transparent, detailed and without being at all fatiguing to the ears. This not to say that studio speakers don't differ in sound from eachother - they do, however, consumer speakers are much more of an eclectic, eccentric, anachronistic mixed bag, as they cater to a such a broad market where being different is often more important than achieveing accuracy.

Are pro studio speakers right for everyone; probably not ....because they lack coloration or sizzle and certainly won't improve a bad recording, worse they will reveal a bad recording all to obviously.
Well said, Rushton. Salvatore's description explains that detail retrieval is musical, and I completely agree with this concept. A system needs proper transparency and detail retrieval to get to the music. Live music is seldom rolled off, plodding and lacking in detail. In fact it is just the opposite.

What happens many times with components that aren't up to the task is that the presentation becomes bright and glaring. That is what causes fatigue.
My experience of Shindo gear is that it is as "detailed" as the source it is fed.
It redefined "transparency" for me.
But somehow puts one off the track of such intellectual disection of the music and instead sucks you into the groove,funk,flow of whatever you are listening to.
I never feel like I am missing any details when I listen to my Shindo,and this from someone who's system used to be based on valhalla cables and the DCS stack.
I agree with Rushton. One way to put it is that true transparancy, and thusly true detail, has nothing to do with exagerated sense of detail via brightness or edginess, which are distortions. Noise that rides the signal, as opposed to noise floor, can result in a brighter, edgier, superficially more detailed sound but is actually masking true detail. Listen for a lack of harsh edge coupled with a sense of more information and naturalness, being sure to use reference recordings that you can trust to be naturally and well recorded. If you build your system around this you will have a magically revealing system that is very satisfying.

Bear in mind that bad recordings will sound bad, but you won't be adding insult to injury. You can, if you want, prioritize components that are smoothed over as opposed to simply lacking in harshness, and end up with a system that is forgiving of bad recordings, at the expense of low level detail that fleshes out the palpable you-are-there/they-are-here effect.

Assessing each component can be tricky though, since a better down stream component can reveal upstream coodies. It can be done though.
Bear in mind that bad recordings will sound bad, but you won't be adding insult to injury.
I'm reminded of the story about a well known reviewer who vastly preferred a given set of cables because they made one well-treasured recording sound wonderful. Unfortunately, that well-treasured recording was really a sonic disaster with sharp, edgy sonics. The cables smoothed over all the edginess, added a mid-bass boost, rolled off the top end, and made that one record very listenable. For this reviewer, there was no question but that this cable was far superior to another cable on hand that had made some outstandingly well-recorded orchestral LPs sound wonderful in the reviewer's same system just hours earlier, but allowed the "well-treasured" LP to sound like it's true self.
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The other issue I didn't quite cover is that some components, most easily speakers, can editorialize the frequency response by being simply brighter or less bright, etc., by adding or subtracting frequency amplitude without necessarily adding edginess, boominess, or other distortions. A component that is simply brighter, or one that lacks bass, can seem more detailed but is not, of course.
I agree that true transparancy and true detail has nothing to do with an exaggerated sense of edginess or brightness. As the detail resolution and transparancy of my components increases, I find that the number of sonically "bad" recordings has gradually but surely diminished, while the number of musically worthwhile performances has steadily increased.

However, components are only tools in the hands of the person setting up and maintaining the audio system, and if he does not do a good job, good components will likely be a waste (or even counterproductive).

Regarding speakers that are developed for monitoring purposes, I agree that there are some that are quite good, but then there are also clunkers like the Yamaha NS-10m. I've heard studio sound that was quite good, but I've also heard obnoxiously bad sound in a recording studio. Once again, it's not about what things are called, but the individual component - and the person using them.
I agree with Jcarr regarding studio monitors. Audio engineers, with many exceptions (I'm one), are notorious for their ingnorance of, and sometimes scorn for, audiophile products. They respect workhorses that help them get their job done in short order with a minimum of fussiness.
It's easier to excuse a lack of detail if you aren't aware that it exists in the recording. Once you know it's there, it becomes much harder for your brain to continually "fill-in" the missing detail.

Some music loses its appeal without those low level details or transients.

I am quite fond of both tubes and transistors, but I certainly prefer certain music through SS and other music through valves.
Dear Montepilot: +++++ " I wonder if the goal of extreme detail retrieval will sacrifice musicality. How have you been able to achieve excellent detail retrieval without getting an etched fatigue inducing sound.... " +++++

IMHO, I think that the whole " thing " is a lot more complex that "" extreme detail retriaeval vs musicality "".

Both subjects can live together no question about, all depend of audio items design and synergy between those audio items in an audio system.

We can't do nothing about the recording process: distortions/noises/inaccuracies already generated at the recording process: we are hope ( doing the best: perfect ) to mantain in that way but because there is nothing perfect what we really have is that through an audio system we increase those distortions/noises/inaccuracies.
What can we do?, well to look for audio items that are well designed and that have the lower distortions/noises/inaccuracies: truer to the recording!!!!

But all these is more easy to say it that to do it because we need the know-how about in different areas: what to look about distortion, noise or accuracy? where to look about? how to be sure about? how much experience we have with live music? how good is our music ( ears ) perception? which are our music reproduction priorities? how good our audio system achieve those music reproduction priorities?, which is our audio system develop budget? how much time we have for the research about? where to buy those audio items? in whom we can trust about? etc, etc, etc

Very complex and a very hard life time work!!!!

We could have almost all if we have almost all know-how about.

Regards and enjoy the music.
Raul.
Regarding speakers that are developed for monitoring purposes, I agree that there are some that are quite good, but then there are also clunkers like the Yamaha NS-10m.

Jcarr,

Absolutely agree a real clunker.

The purpose and popularity of the cheap Yamaha NS-10 in studios was to see how the mix or master would sound on a typical consumer system - how well the mix translated from high quality studio gear to what ordinary folk could afford. I'd forgotten that studios sometimes intentionaly try to replicate the sound of home audio. Good point.
Or we can just buy a Shindo system.Easy!
As I work to develop my audio system I wonder if the goal of extreme detail retrieval will sacrifice musicality.
IMO this is the wrong way to pursue satisfactory reproduction of music.

You must start by focusing on what you believe YOUR sonic ideal would be. One way of doing this is through emotional involvement -- take note of those rare occasions when the SOUND of a system moves you, not the music (music can move you regardless of where it's played). Take note of the characteristics of that sound.

Generally, there are two broad channels of pursuit in audio: 1) true to the original, the latter being the medium.
2) Tailor the sound to one's preferences.

If personal advice is seeked, I would say that musical coherency (i.e. the sound makes musical sense) -- which is my goal, is difficult to achieve by pursuing ultimate "transparency" alone. This is because what is called "low level detail" should be exactly that: low-level, i.e. there but often hardly perceptible.

Your ultimate goal could be, to have the kind of reproduction where you no longer think of, or seek, any more "detail". There are many reasons for this, mostly mechanic rather than broad... but one common misconception is to equate detail with "sound for oscilloscopes" i.e. pronounced upper mids and mids with a super tweet thrown in to soften the presentation.

Finally, as Raul notes above, you cannot go beyond the original -- i.e. how much detail is in the original anyway. But the sound can still have emotive qualities with most media.
To achieve transparency and low level detail retieval, without sacrificing musicality, or introducing an etched sound, must be one definition of an ultimate system. I think it takes dedication and a near bottomless pocket. Something that mere mortals can't aspire to, or at least this mere mortal. That is why I love reading Mr Salvatore's site, a sense of that unending search, I just wish he would'nt prevaricate and express an opinion once in a while, I'm joking.
In real world systems, where you have college fees to pay and college kids with big feet in the way, you have to compromise. That being so, at least for me, give me musicality, over etched detail, every time.
Bottomless pockets are not always necessary, although that, along with everything else, is very relative.
In my view, there's no such thing as "extreme detail retrieval". There is just the detail that every recording contains, and from that point you can only go down. The idea probably comes from the particular habit of some components to slightly emphasize the higher frequencies, as an attempt to make the transient sounds stand out over other sounds.

A good audio component or system, should be able to extract all the recording's detail without sounding etched, harsh, bright, metallic, fatiguing, etc. There are NO EXCUSES for this characteristic, it's a flaw. On the same way, many mid-fi products sound harsh, etched, bright, etc. and yet they present considerable detail loss.

Either way, the word "detail" is much more universal than just the higher frequencies or fast musical transients. Yes it can manifest in a cymbal's texture, but also in the organic feel of a leather bass drum. You can find it the breathy quality of a female voice, in a distant voice in an opera stage, in the 3D layering of a chorus. The interesting thing about a good system capable of retrieving all the detail, is that it increases your spectrum of enjoyment. Recordings that you couldn't bear to listen to formerly, now become far more enjoyable, even with their ever-present flaws! DVD movies, even your cable box, can be surprisingly enjoyable. Not to mention your high-performance audiophile sources (CD, DVD-A, LP). These should be absolute heaven to your ears.

If a component is really transparent, it should be musically satisfying in the long term. In fact, I Think that's the mark of true transparency. Unfortunately, many components that are labeled as "musical" are not transparent, showing a fat, dark, colored sound that will become tiresome sooner or later. The choice is yours.

Regards,
The way you get 'detail retrieval' is to not create distortion. Distortion obscures detail. The way you keep it musical is by not adding subtle distortions that are sensed by the human ear as loudness cues (odd harmonics). Feedback as a source of such harmonic content; often designers will use feedback to get rid of distortion, but the price is a clinical or harsh sounding unit.

The other way things are kept musical is by not altering the tonal balance. To do that usually requires wide bandwidth.

So it is possible to have ultimate detail retrieval with a musical presentation. One merely needs to pay attention to the design details that are important to the human ear.
Thank you, Ralph!
Jmaldonado said: "In my view, there's no such thing as "extreme detail retrieval". There is just the detail that every recording contains, and from that point you can only go down. The idea probably comes from the particular habit of some components to slightly emphasize the higher frequencies, as an attempt to make the transient sounds stand out over other sounds."

Atmasphere said: " The way you get 'detail retrieval' is to not create distortion. Distortion obscures detail. The way you keep it musical is by not adding subtle distortions that are sensed by the human ear as loudness cues (odd harmonics). Feedback as a source of such harmonic content; often designers will use feedback to get rid of distortion, but the price is a clinical or harsh sounding unit.

The other way things are kept musical is by not altering the tonal balance. To do that usually requires wide bandwidth. "

I could not have said better than above two explanations. It comes down to less than optimum component design and or lack of clean power source.

Excessive distorted high freq coupled with background noise/hash mostly is the culprit skewing the tonal balance producing highly fatiguing overtly detailed thin sound.

It IS possible to have detailed and yet transparent muscial sound.
I agree with mail187445, Shindo gear gives the best of both worlds, very detailed resolution, but yet very musical at the same time.
For me, the thing that makes music emotionally satisyfing is reproduction of Timbre. Whether or not your system gives you tons of detail and resolution, or a warm "musical" sound is not the final arbiter-for ME. A speaker that can present extreme detail may or may not get the timbre right. What is important (again-to me) is does an acoustic bass sounds like one does when you are in its presence as it is being played, does a clarinet sound like a clarinet or an oboe? Does that cello sound like a cello or are you in a quandary as to whether or not its a bass as its being bowed? For electric instruments some may say "Well, fine, but what is the true timbre of a Fender Stratocaster played through a Marshall stack?" That is a more difficult question, but again, if youve been around electric intruments played live, you hear a difference and know if the reproduction has that "right" sound. What I am constantly amazed at is this: the variables introduced by all our hearing abilities being so different due to physiology or age or environment makes one wonder at how there can be any standard to compare components against! How can Listener A say Speaker X presents detail in "extremely fine resolution", when Listener B may have hearing that is even more acute , and Listener C may have hearing that is incapable of perceiving that fine a level of detail? Food for thought.--Mrmitch
Mrmitch...that's why going to live music concerts is important. If one does, he/she will know what live music sounds like and is likely to replicate that in the home. All is lost if one's perception of music is from car radios, tv, etc. since there is not base for evaluation.
..I don't agree the timber is an important consideration, since timber is always affected by concert hall/venue acoustics, and the distance the instrument playing is from the audience. My violin sounds way different when I play it, then when I hear recordings of it... most times, the recording is better. The scraping, mechanical sounds are gone, replaced by the silkiness of the string itself.
I agree that timbre is critical and I do think you can evaluate it accurately at least to some degree. I believe the difference you're hearing, Stringreen, between the sound of your violin as you play it under your ear and that of the same violin on record is a matter of distance as you point out yourself. Having said that, accurate timbre and naturally presented fine detail are both important to me.
Being a violinist like Stringreen, I agree with his statements above completely .I would also add, I think that the violin and piano are the two most difficult instruments to record and get the sound correct. As Stringreen, I have played in symphony and chamber orchestras and have attented hundreds of solo violin recitals, and never to my ears does a violin
sound bright even in it's upmost register when heard in an accountic evironment. Yet, I have never heard a commercial recording of the violin that to me got the top end correct. They always sound bright, edgy,and with a thinner sound than when heard live.
Likewise, a concert grand piano can produce dynamics when heard live that to my ears is not reproduced on a recording. Also the top octaves of a concert grand produce a bell like quality when heard live and is lost or dimminished when recorded.
I know that listeners hear diferrently and each has their own favorite aspect of music that is more improtant to them than would be to others , but me as a musician,I have a very difficult time enjoying music that is bright ,edgy,or strident,on recordings when it is not when heard in a live accoustic event.
Maybe we can agree then that timbre is important insofar as it is possible to identify the tone color of an instrument as being of that particular instrument, as I alluded to in my previous post. What good is any recording if I can't distinguish between a viola and violin or a bowed cello and a bowed bass? I think we all know that no mike feed is ever going to match the sound of a live event. I dont think I stated that a recording will give you the true timbre of an instrument as it is heard live in performance. There is no wrong or right here, only what each of us feels is most important to US. That's why I brought up the differences in hearing acuity. Stringreen and Violin have a different set of priorities, and thats as it should be. We all perceive sound differently. By the way guys, I played clarinet and sax since the age of 7, was in All-State Band, high school orchestra and jazz bands, and w ent on to play guitar and bass in rock bands through college ( hope you wont hold that against me! lol)--Thanks for all your opinions, its one r eason I enjoy Audiogon!--Mrmitch