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Rockport Technologies AnkaaMost audiophiles will recognize that of the myriad components in audio playback chains, loudspeakers have always been the subject of the most rigorous, passionate, and inconclusive debates. And there's plenty of evidence suggesting that this trend won't be changing any time soon.

Specifications might weigh heavily in the analysis of other high-fidelity entities, but they take on a whole new significance with loudspeakers. Because we all hear and listen differently, however, there's little room for unbiased assessments, and audiophiles are unlikely to reach consensus. Recently, Jeffrey W. Fritz, editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network, has added more fuel to the debate with two insightful articles: "Do You Always Get What You Pay For?" and "Comparisons on Paper: B&W 803 Diamond vs. Tidal Contriva Diacera SE."

Clearly there must be some sensible approach to evaluating loudspeakers. But because customers are rarely able to audition equipment in their own homes, they're often forced to make purchases in pressure-filled, aurally blind circumstances. Are we forgetting that without patrons there can be no industry? Consumers need to be numerous, nurtured and nourished, and dealers should never treat them like audio neophytes.

A challenging portfolio

201101_jack_rennerThe fiercely competitive field of high-resolution audio is a challenging job environment. The ideal recording engineer should have a keen sense of music appreciation, and strong knowledge of electronics and acoustics. A thorough understanding of microphones and their applications is an essential prerequisite.

One of the portfolio’s main objectives is to guide clients into making technically sound decisions, so as to optimize the overall quality of finished recordings. This is usually done in conjunction with the project’s producer.

Most musicians will accept good professional advice. Therefore, the recording engineer needs to instinctively appreciate the finely delineated balance between the words subjective and objective. By accepting tactful, prudent recommendations, musicians can avoid wasting money resulting from poor productions. This strategy generally ensures repeated business from satisfied clients and generates new opportunities through referrals.

However, according to Jack Renner (at his recording console in photo above right), who was the chief recording engineer of TELARC Records, "Many would argue that the producer on any project has more influence on the final outcome, musically speaking, than the recording engineer. The engineer is ultimately charged with delivering the final sound re-creation which satisfies both performer and producer."

201011_pic1Summer in Southern California is beaches, BBQs, sun and fun, outdoor symphony concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and a lot of freeway driving. It’s not as well known for audio, though manufacturers, distributors, and legendary dealerships abound in the area. I recently dropped in on two SoCal distributors: Philip O’Hanlon’s On a Higher Note, in San Juan Capistrano, and Dan Meinwald’s EAR USA/Sound Advice, in Long Beach. On a Higher Note distributes Brinkmann Audio, Luxman, Vivid Audio, and (soon) Audio Aero, while EAR USA/Sound Advice distributes EAR, Mårten Design, Townshend Audio, and Jorma Design.

Philip O’Hanlon lives in the foothills above San Juan Capistrano. I drove up through swank suburban roads to O’Hanlon’s large, two-story, Mediterranean-style home. O’Hanlon greeted me at the door and waved me quickly inside; he was busy making up playlists on an iPad, for later burning to CD. He spoke with the distinctive Gaelic lilt and precise pronunciation of the Irish; he’s from Cork, in the south of Ireland.

He led me into an incredible space. A long spiral staircase descended to a spacious (40’ x 31’ x 23’) master room with a cathedral ceiling, skylights, floor-to-ceiling rear windows, French doors at one end, large artworks on the walls, and, in a pot in one corner, a living tree. The staircase curled toward a long bar with a huge mirror behind it, then to a living-room space with couches and chairs on one side, and on the other a listening space with Vivid Audio’s distinctively shaped G1Giya speakers (91dB/6 ohms, $65,000/pair), a leather couch, assorted electronics, and other audio gear. Tucked under the staircase was a collection of LPs and CDs.

A Pandora’s Box for audiophiles

My realization that Jack Renner had miked Ahmad Jamal’s Chicago Revisited from the audience perspective proved to be very serendipitous indeed. A piece to provoke healthy discussion among the many avid supporters of this publication was long overdue.

Renner’s statement was astounding because I had always assumed that pianos were miked from the performers’ perspective. So with my curiosity aroused, I spent days listening to nearly every piano recording in my library and contemplating the intrinsic sonic characteristics of today’s modern high-resolution recordings and audiophile playback systems. An audiophile’s Pandora’s Box had been inadvertently opened.

The main ingredients

Perspective relates to the way our senses perceive events. When we close our eyes and listen to recorded music, there should be spatial cues that allow the brain to reconstruct events accurately. We should see the performers. For clarification, players’ perspective refers to musicians onstage facing an audience, while audience perspective refers to an audience facing the performers.

Realism in audio reproduction pertains to the delineation of a soundstage into a facsimile of an original recording, without embellishment or interpretation. The term relates directly to nuances and detail, phenomena that are inextricably linked to the resolving power of audiophile playback systems.

Many factors influence perspective and realism. Some of the more commonly used industry terms are:

The trigger

Recently, while reorganizing my library, I perused an article in the September 1983 issue of The Abso!ute Sound (Vol.8 No.31), "The Threat of the Compact Disc to the Sound of Music," by renowned mastering engineer Douglas Sax, of Sheffield Lab Recordings. Overwhelmed by curiosity and nostalgia, I resurrected a blue T-shirt I’d bought at the 1984 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. Sax’s commendable crusade and its catchy slogan, "Stop Digital Madness," had received sustained support from skeptical audiophiles.

In concluding his piece, Sax wrote, "For me, all digital attempts thus far have been a failure. I simply cannot enjoy music that has been digitally processed, and the enjoyment of music in the home is the sole reason we have a high-fidelity industry. I support analog recording because it works.

"It is a time-proven process that contains musical information which is accessible to all and which has a resolution that allows the listener to continually discover hidden nuances as he improves the abilities of his home playback system."

The words thus far in that first sentence, reinforced by his description of analog as being "a time-proven process," prompted me to conclude that Sax, like most audiophiles, would eagerly anticipate future research and development into the optimization of digital sound, as audiophiles continued the quest to hear more and more, until the resolving capabilities of home playback systems approached its horizontal asymptote of live musicians performing in real spaces.

Sax’s article was published at a point in audio’s history halfway between the birth of stereophonic high fidelity and the current level of refinement of analog-to-digital conversion techniques. In the 27 years since that article’s publication, what sort of evolution has taken place? How much more are we hearing today at home, and how far away does utopia remain?

But first: Where and when did stereo begin?