The eternal quandary

Is it the sound or is it the music?

A recent experience. Started to listen to a baroque trio on the main system, harpsichord, bass viol and violin. The harpsichord seems to be positioned to the left of centre, the bass viol to the right, and the violin probably somewhere in the middle. The sound of the two continuo instruments is "larger"/more diffuse than I would expect in "real life". The acoustic is slightly "swimmy". Worse still, impossible to tell if the violinist is standing in front of the continuo instruments, on the same plane as them, or even slightly behind them (in a kind of concave semi-circle). Then that tiny little doubt creeps in: although you want to blame the recording, the acoustic, the recording engineer, the digital recorder, could it be the system that's not quite doing the trick? Could its soundstaging abilities be somehow deficient? After about six shortish tracks I have stop.

Later, I finish listening to the CD on the secondary system. No, the timbral textures are not as fleshed out, no, the sheer presence of the instruments is not as intense, and no, the soundstaging is certainly no better, but I listen through to the end, in main part I think because my expectations are not as high now, and I'm listening to what's being played, not how it's being reproduced.

So are we listening to the sound or the music? Is this why car radios, table-top radios, even secondary systems have a certain, curious advantage over the "big rig"? By having so many expectations for the big rig, are we setting it up for failure? Is that one reason why lots of enthusiasts are on an unending upgrade spiral? Does this experience strike a chord (no pun intended) with anyone else out there?
Hi Twoleftears,
You make an excellent point. What you describe is the curse of audiophilia:
If the system does not sound right, you do not get drawn into the music and the audiophile devil chases the music-lover angel away. I find there are several ways to deal with this:
1.Tweak the system first with trivial stuff you know well and then listen seriously. If it doesn't sound right, blame it on the software, relax and concentrate on the music.
2. Break off your listening session and wait until the electricity, your mood, the wine, or whatever gets better and try again.
3. Concentrate on the performance. Imagine you have a bad seat in the concert hall, relax and enjoy the artistry of the performers an wait for a better day, seat....

Happy listening,
If you listen to and are moved by the music, it does not matter that an instrument is larger/more diffuse/not clearly imaged, etc., etc. Many people listen to the sound and not the music. I feel sorry for them.
Detlof--wise words indeed!

When you think about it, even before you add that last anti-vibration device to the system, we're already listening to music reproduced at a level that is superior to what 99% of listeners are hearing from their boom-boxes, car radios, etc.

But--and this goes out to Markphd--would the *pure* music-lover be on this site in the first place? Don't they have to have at least a little of the "audiophile" in them? Does this have to do with the fact that so many practising musicians have such notoriously deficient equipment in their own homes?
Twoleftears, consider that it may have nothing to do with the quality of the replication of recorded music in the home vs the 'live experience'.

It has, to me at least, more to do with tonal balance and pitch. Timbre. At one concert hall I regularily attend unamplified performances, I would rather listen to the performance over a Bose system in a bathroom, than sit in the balcony, even with an oxygen mask. There it is very unbalanced - overly bright, no bass. Just like a lot of audiophile grade monitors. On the main floor the sound is, generally speaking very good, excellent and great!

Perhaps that raises the question whether I would be an acousticsphile and not a music lover? I think not, no more than I would love to listen to a voice or an instrument off key. Pitch and timbre, naturalness, and ease rules, live or canned for me anyway, music appreciation comes from a source that draws me in.
Bad accoustics in hall, a bad seat, because you had booked too late, can drive me bonkers. I've been known to leave the hall fuming at intermission soothing the savage breast in the next bar. I am much more patient with my rig, even patient with bad live performances as long as the accoustics are right. Bad accoustics insult the ear of a music lover. As you say, tonal balance, timbre, pitch, the reverbs must be right. Otherwise you start to itch, scratch and get restless in your seat. Your eyes and your mind wander as your insulted ears close up. With my rig, reacting with all sorts of different software, I find I am more patient, because disillusioned, I have learned that I am at the mercy of more or less gifted recording engineers who keep knocking my seat about in my "own private concert hall", while they twiddle their knobs and push their levers. The better my rig got through the years, the more I heard of their twiddlings, especially if they had not read the score and reacted too late, pushing the first violin quickly from right of center back to where it belongs after about thee bars into the music. Mind you, that can be amusing though for a jaded audiophile who knows, that the facsimile of real thing will never be perfect. It is pure Freud: The "reality priciple", which makes for patience at home but anger in the concert hall, if you, after overcoming your laziness, getting into some other cloths, commuting downtown, hunting for parking space, cued at the guarderobe, had to discover that you had better music at home.....
Soothing the savage breast......sounds like a Lifetime movie :)
Hi Chadnliz,
LOL, You've said it, friend!!
As if all this weren't enough, we must also consider SPEAKER positioning & room acoustics... Move one speaker & the violinist moves front stage; move it again and he is behind the cello!
Pure gestalt
Greg old friend, now finally you have made me understand why I had that odd compulsion to buy those huge Sound-Labs in spite of knowing that they would clutter up most of my listening space. I just can't move them. Ain't got the strength no more. So those fiddlers have to sit tight and that's it, because me, I'm not going to budge from my sweet spot once I've sat down.
Speaker positioning seems to make the problem better, if it won't go away completely. However I always defer to simply listening to the music over the audiophile obsessiveness. Point well taken. I am just as moved in my car by the music as I am with my $30,000+ system. Of course I like it better, but I have to actually work at stopping the audiophilia to concentrate and ENJOY!!!!
BTW, the "offending" disc that occasioned this thread, was:

Jean-Fery REBEL, Violin Sonatas

Andrew Manze, violin; Richard Egarr, harpsichord, Jaap ter Linden, viola da gamba

Harmonia Mundi 907221.

Andrew Manze, IMHO, is an excellent baroque violinist...

I wish more CD booklets would include photos of the performers during the recording (this one doesn't, like so many others...)
I re-read your initial post. I do not have this particular recording, but I have a lot of HM's. Most of them are very good, but I would never call them rolled off or dull, in fact on some I found there was a tendency to close mic the instruments, which if not balanced properly could sound a bit bright, but not fatiguing so. Listen to some of Chiu's Prokofiev - the clarity of these recordings will not enhance the sound from a poorly balanced CD system (I really like these performances and recordings however).

Your complaint/observation leads me to think that the problem you experienced in your main system was due to a less than optimum mix by the recording engineer of the centered violin. Assuming each instrument was close mic'd and the engineer gave a little more emphasis to the violin because that would give a good central focus, then its acoustic envelope would overlap unnaturally that of the other two and become confusing to the critical listener with an audio set up with good resolution capabilities.

You probably didn't experience this with your secondary system precisely because it didn't have these resolution qualities. Back to 'Bose in the Bathroom' listening.

It's OK to judge the recording as difficient, after all that was NOT created by you so you're not to blame! :-)
Thanks, Newbee, for the reassurance--I'm sure you're right. The problem is aggravated somewhat because beyond getting the basics right (timbre, etc.) I do enjoy a good dimensional soundstage with good imaging within it.

Lately I've been noticing some major differences in the "apparent" acoustic (the hall acoustic as reproduced in/by the recording). The John Eliot Gardner Planets on DG (with Percy Grainger's Warriors) was another recent major disappointment. Swimmy and very diffuse again. All the more noticeable when played consecutively with some older analog Elgar recordings--cavernous acoustic, narrower, set well back from the place of the speakers, better localization of the various divisions (1st violins, 2nd violins, etc.) of the string section.
Interesting question. All I can add is this:
Years ago,(before I knew who he was), I purchased a collection of Chopin songs on cd. One eveing while cooking dinner I played this cd on a cd/radio which mounts under a kitchen cabinet; hardly audiophile quality. I heard one beautiful song after another. Then nocturne op9 no.2 came on and I was paralized. I couldn't even begin to describe what I was feeling.
Now, how could this $79 cabinet mounted radio emit the most beautiful 4 1/2 minutes of sound I have ever heard in my life? If the first time that I heard it was on the main system, maybe It would have been even more memorable.
I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes it doesn't take thousands of dollars to be moved.
I used to think some of the cds I own were poorly recorded, because they didn't sound good on my system.

Now that my system has improved, I know better. Those recordings that previously sounded bad, now sound right.

If the recording doesn't sound good, the problem is almost certainly with one's system, though most of us, I am sure, hate to admit it.
Jimjoyce--I'm afraid that I'm going to have to respectfully disagree.

As one moves up from boom-box to mid-level system, I would think the sound should steadily improve. But there has to be a point, an "elbow", somewhere on this line where, as the resolving power of the system continues to increase, it will start to show up all the particularities and peculiarities of each recording.

An analogy: put a polished pebble under a microscope at lower levels of magnification and it will look good, but as magnification increases, at a certain level you'll start to see roughness and pitmarks not visible to the naked eye.

As far as classical recordings are concerned, I would think many musicians would be more preoccupied with the performance (phrasing, dynamics, intonation, pace, etc. etc.) than with how well the recording happens to reproduce the acoustic of the space that the recording was made in.

Noticing what can sometimes be a large variation from recording to recording is surely a sign of the resolving capacity of the system, as labels, recording engineers and mixing engineers all have different philosophies, which they implement with greater or lesser success with each record.
I have to agree with you right down to your every word. Your experience is also mine, but it took me quite a couple of years to understand what was going on, I must say.
This is a wonderful thread. Its a state of mind for me:
State 1 - If I focus on the quality of the sound, then I only select the best recorded material to play and search for weakness and strength in the system. This is a good place to be if you are ready to spend. Its a lot of frustration and a lot of fun.
State 2 - If I have reached an upgrade plateau, I enjoy the music, and the various aspects of sound quality just add to the fun, but poorly recorded yet wonderful music doesnt detract from the pleasure too much. This is the budget state to be in.
The trick for audiophiles is being able to condition your mind to move to the desired state, generally from 1 to 2, and thats not so easy.
When you get carried away with a musical experience in your car for e.g., its because you are in the right mood, have the right music, and arent critically analysing the sound quality. You are focusing on the art of the music, not the science of acoustics. Its state 2, and it is great.
Mike--I totally agree, but as you say, it's a mental trick that may be easier for some of us than others. Even if one starts out a session in mental mode #2, something can happen that jolts you out of it. That's the experience that started this thread. You may just want to enjoy the music, but when you put on a particular recording (especially one that you don't know), something may happen sonically, good, bad or just strange, that attracts your attention sufficiently to knock you from #2 to #1. And that's when the second-guessing may begin...
Twoleftears: I'm not sure how your comment responds to mine.

Of course there are differences in how recordings sound, depending on what the recording engineer is trying to do, what is emphasized, etc. And of course, the more resolution in one's system, the more these differences will stand out. The question is this: When you hear something that doesn't sound good (sounds harsh or distorted), is this the fault of the recording, or is it the fault of the system?

What I am talking about are recordings about which one instantly says upon playing it, "That doesn't sound good, and the reason is that it is poorly recorded." For example, one or more of the instruments appears to be distorted, or the sound of one or more instruments is harsh. ---I am sure that all of us have had this reaction from time to time. I have said it many times myself about specific recordings. I have also been witness to it first hand in the living room of a very highly respected audio manufacturer.

My sense is that the better one believes one's system to be, the more likely one is likely to pin the blame on the recording, rather than on one's own system.

And the question is: Which is it? My sense is that there are very very very few recordings as to which, during the mixing process, the recording engineer heard the bad things that you heard, but somehow unaccountably pronounced it good and ready for pressing. And the question becomes: Why did what sounded good to him end up sounding bad to you or me?

Mike60: It's interesting that you choose the "best" recorded material as the way to challenge your system. I think it's equally useful to choose material that you think is "poorly" recorded as a way to challenge your system. My guess is that one very good way to measure improvement in your system is when the sound of the "poor" recordings changes from poor to good.
Jimjoyce, when I evaluate new components I often take along recordings that are flawed in some way. For example, the system should expose an overly sharp guitar or lean sounding vocal. Its a good tool to see if the boundaries are defined. I did that with all the equipment I own.
I suppose at home when you I am being an 'audiophile' I really tend to select great recordings to show what the system can do - the optimistic approach. If listening to music, I select great music despite the recording and you have to be mentally disciplined to listen without critical ears, or the experience is ruined. i.e. let yourself be carried away with the art.
Twoleftears, agreed. The modes are very blurred, and its easy for to become critical again. I suppose if you keep reverting to being critical, you are bound to end up upgrading.
But I guess the question is: How do you know that the sharpness of the guitar or the leanness of the vocal is the fault of the recording, rather than the fault of the equipment?

I suppose one can make the argument that if some recordings sound good on a particular system, while others do not, then the fault must be with the recordings.

But then again, perhaps the problem is with the system, and a better system would not only resolve the problems with the bad-sounding recording, but also make the good-sounding recording even better.

I believe that most of us who have a deep financial/emotional investment in our systems would rather assign fault to the recording, rather than admit the possibility that the problem is with the system.

Perhaps a "sharp-sounding" guitar comes about because a recording engineer has "pushed the limits" in order to try get veracity on the recording, but this will be revealed on playback only by components designed in a certain way, and not on components that sound great with certain recording techniques.

Perhaps, in thinking we are overlooking the inadequacies of the recording in order to enjoy the music, we are actually overlooking the inadequacies of our systems?

I have plenty of cds whose "problems" (or what I thought were problems) have been cleared up as my system has improved. This has made me less apt to question the recording, and more apt to question my system. So, I think the question is valid: When we assign fault to the recording, how do we really know?
Jimjoyce, i think you learn which it is by experience. For example, I have a recording that sounds overly lean in most aspects, particularly vocals, but is otherwise very clean and detailed.
When i was shopping for my last system, i found out that some systems made it sound richer and more natural, and you could be fooled into thinking its an improvement. Then you try it on 3 or 4 reference systems, and you see it is a faulty recording. And so i use it as a boundary recording to sift out components that are too warm and rich. If that recording sounds good, i try a recording which i would say is overly rich and warm, and you virtually cant listen to it. Another example is a recording of a sharp steely guitar, and if it doesnt sound that way, you can rest assured the system will lack sparkle and life on a lot of material. I have many recordings that show up these types of things, and some hi fi stores look at me strangely when i use them, but they are very useful....of course if its your home system that you selected with great care over years, you dont want to discover any nasties....
So i suppose bias can creep in, but so what?
I like to think i am happy with my system, but there is always that next upgrade and tweak lurking. Shopping for hi fi can rightly make you highly critical, but at some point you have to really try listen to the music and write off bad recordings as just that, irrespective of the facts. If too many of your recordings have a problem, especially ones that are widely recognised as reference audiophile material by hifi reviewers, you probably need to upgrade.
By the way, I am sure i am not alone in reading hifi reviews with a view to trying the music that was used to test, rather than buying the equipment used.
John Atkinson and others have demonstrated that a high percentage of "popular" recordings issued nowadays are highly compressed. This is the work of the mixing/mastering engineer, and this is how that person wanted them to sound and to be released. But they're not very good sounding on "our" equipment, compared to the boomboxes and car radios that they were designed to be played on.

There's an ontological argument to be made here too. Most (though not all) pop and rock discs only exist in one version. They are what they are (rose is a rose is a rose), whatever the sound.

Most classical recordings offer different versions of the same composition. It think it was Gordon Holt who came up with the annoying and paradoxical "principle" (Holt's law) that the better the performance the worse the sound, and the related if subsidiary principle of the better the sound, the more trivial the composition being recorded.

There are other factors involved here. The early years of digital recording are known for "digititis"--that terrible, mid-treble glare that makes solo violin unlistenable and your ears bleed. Was that intentional? Did the recording engineer care? What were they hearing on their studio monitors? The inability to listen to large swathes of recent classical recordings is what got me,somewhat reluctantly, into SETs, which made the unlistenable listenable again.

Where is the "accuracy" in all this? What are the norms of accuracy? I certainly agree with Mike that if a disc sounds bad on three or four different systems, it's surely the disc's fault.
Actually I have found a more ( I suppose ) simple approach in dealing with the above mentioned problems:

I have LPs in my collection which I have used in a benchmark role through all the many systems I have owned in the last decades. I have- if you will- built my system around them. Later of course digital has also come into play. If my system meets those standards - and they have to do with timbre, prat, rendition of transients, soundstage, besides I'm particularly finicky with grand piano and female voices, as well as violins and big symphony orchestras, I relax. If it doesn't sound right, it is the take, not the system. Right or wrong, it helps peace of mind, as long as the benchmark takes - there are many - sound right. And those takes, being benchmarks to my ears come as close as possible to what I perceive as the real thing reproduced through my system.
Twoleftears, 'Accuracy' went out the windows when we selected our speakers and their set up. Nothing you can do will ever recreate exactly what the engineers put down. Not even close!

Detlof, A 'benchmark' system! You are absolute right on! It doesn't have to be the 'best' in any 'audiophile analist's view for you to be able to distinguish whats in the pits and grooves, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Its only when you get concerned about whether or not the recording quality is 'audiophile analist approved' do you need the ultimate system (what ever that might be!).

For what its worth, don't go to the dictionary, I coined the word - a short form for an anal retentive personality type. :-)
Violins have loads of harmonics. Many different sounds are possible from pleasant to screeching. Like a trumpet it can sound soft or very harsh and ear splitting - an extremely versatile instrument.

How are you so sure that the recording was not intentionally strident?

Also consider the impedance plot of Proac 2.5's - one might expect a bit of extra upper harmonic emphasis at 1Khz with a small de-emphasis at the deeper fundamental resonant frequencies of the violin around 200 Hz (remember a tube amp with high output impedance will mimic the speaker impedance curve in its "emphasis").

Just a thought...

Here is some info on violin response

Just a few thought as blaming the recording engineer might be a tad unfair.
Hi Newbee,
What a beaut!! LOL. "audiophile analist approved" --AAA-- for short, I would suggest, but since AAA is already taken, I believe, by the motoring crowd, what would you think of "AA"-short for "anankast approved"?

Shadorne you make - as usual - an excellent point. Violins should be intentionally screeching at times. I am thinking of passages in string quartets by say Schnittke or Shostakovitch. Hilary Hahn can be quite strident in her splendid rendering of Bach's solo-sonatas and partitas. But the thought of an entire piece strident or screeching makes my ears close up even as I write this. At the moment I cannot even think of one. Generally music, like our speaking voice by the way, changes in pitch and modulation in many various ways of course.
Besides, an experienced listener, I think, will be able to differentiate between harshness, which is part of the interpretation and harshness which somehow is "wrong" and hence blamed either on the system or the software. Just a thought.
I am thinking of passages in string quartets by say Schnittke or Shostakovitch.

Indeed!! Russian composers are some of my very favorites - it is different from Bach, Vivaldi or Handel (dishwashing music to me - of course that is personal taste as I tend to like music to be challenging and exhilerating rather than just warm rich pleasant sounds)

If you like Shostakovich done "BIG" (the American way) then I highly recommend Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orhcestra on Telarc - not at all as emotional as some versions but hellish fun and grandiose!
Detlof , I believe AA is also taken.Possibly by some of the patrons of the bar you found when looking to sooth the savage breast.
From an epistemological point of view, the whole field of audio reproduction is fraught with a myriad of problems. Actually, it's a miracle that we can agree about anything! From the recording venue, the position of the microphones in the hall, the brand, model, number and mix of microphones, the different arrays, the cables, the recording medium, the engineer, all the way on through to the manufacturing of the CD that you're going to feed into your machine, there are just so many variables involved!

So what to do? Obviously, as many people remark, returning to the concert hall to refresh one's auditory memory as to what live sound actually sounds like (to you, on that date, in that hall--more subjectivity and variability) is important, as it is also to establish a kind of benchmark for what one hears at home.

But I think consensus is important too. Bertrand Russell might have you wondering if that coffee table sitting there on the carpet in front of you is "really" real, if it's really even there at all, but we get around this epistemological stumbling block by agreeing to accept that it probably is there, and therefore also we tend to walk around it (even if it isn't "really" there) so we don't get knocked on the shins.

If three or four like-minded friends agree that your system sounds good, then it probably does. (Reluctantly, I had to put that "like-minded" in because there is such subjectivity and variability out there too as to what "good" sounds like. Different ears; different criteria.) But here we have a minimum of consensus.

Likewise, if six or seven recordings of small classical chamber groups sound good on a given system, and one other recording doesn't, then I'm prepared to believe that there's some kind of problem with the recording somewhere in the recording chain, and that it's not the system's fault. (I'm talking about a level playing field here: for the purposes of argument let's stick with 17C sonatas with continuo and not drag Shostakovich into the mix...)

How does that, er, sound?
How does that, er, sound?

B.R. once said, "Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise."

This kind of sums it up for audiophiles desacribing the sound from their systems.
Goldeneraguy, heck yes, you are so right, didn't think of those. Must have repressed that for a good reason, because I'm bent to go on soothing.

Twoleftears, Shadorne I could not agree with you more, though I will insist on dragging D.S. into the mix. My hunch is, that in spite of all the complexity both of you so rightly point out, we finally do agree more often than not, because no matter where and how the "sound" originates from, our love for music and our ability to get drawn into it and transported by it into moments of joy does unite us. The rest to me is a matter of taste, opinion, inventiveness, often sheer luck and last not least alas the pocketbook. Our rigs may sound as different from each other as we are as persons, but what unites us, I feel, is our passion for music and if our rig serves that, we are fine.
I know some high end manufacturers listen to instruments in a studio, then go into the next room and listen to the reproduction through their equipment. The honest ones say they are still miles away from reality, even with superb equipment. The question is -- If the music sounds superb, yet may not be an accurate representation, does that matter?
One viewpoint is that while reality might be the basic reference point to aim for, your system is your reality at home, and if your system tickles your emotions and you can really connect you with the performance, then its doing a great job.
Not saying that I agree, but I often wonder about this.