HIGH END AUDIO: A Time Machine
HIGH END AUDIO: A Time Machine
By Harry Pearson
Just as we use the telescope to look back in time, to the way the stars looked light-years ago, so too can we use recordings as a time machine to transport us to that day when creatures of flesh and soul once made music.
Our recordings, at their best, can be holographs of musicians playing in spaces now gone or irrevocably different, three-dimensional soundfields we summon at will, a power no magus of medieval persuasion could have imagined. We can freeze and store, in whatever fashion, moments of time, moments of human beings making their music. And we can, with our finest music systems recreate lifelike likenesses of those whose spirit we have captured.
We can make the walls of our listening room melt away and, in their stead, we have the walls of Orchestra Hall in Chicago before it was “improved” out of existence, as the boundaries of our experience. We can hear the individuality of the Chicago Symphony’s musicians, resolving them each and every one, though the recording is more than a quarter of a century old; we hear the “air” about the musicians, the distant sound of traffic on State Street outside the hall, the low rumble of the air-conditioning, and then the bloom of the sound. We, if imaginative, may even sense Fritz Reiner and his baleful eye, observing every nuance, and we forget, for the while, that it is all gone. It lives only in these moments we have snatched away from time.
John Lennon and the Beatles live on in EMI’s Abbey Road studio, four thousand holes in strawberry fields, forever. Toscanini and his men are still at NBC’s Studio 8-H, the old man yet atonally humming along in that never-to-be-forgotten dry box of a room. Flick. Bruno Walter rehearses Mozart’s 39th, urging his players to make the strings “sing”. Flick. Janis Joplin screaming her nuts off, vocal cords rusted by Southern Comfort. Flick. Jussi Bjoerling in Rome melting Puccini’s “Nessum Dorma”, a voice glinted gold and never changing. Flick. Ataulfo Argenta, early lost to us, but yet alive in Rodrigo, Halftter, and De Falla. Flick. Ansermet, Munch, Monteux. Flick. Hendrix, Holly, and Sam Cook to still send us. Like the figures on Keats’ Grecian urn, ever moving, yet frozen in a series of recorded instants.
We have a hundred years of artistic achievements at hand, in our hands. We do not know, during those hundred years, how many recordings have been made throughout the world. We do not even know how many discs are in existence. Nor do we know how many have been lost. We do not know how many we are now losing, through deterioration of the masters, nor how much will be discarded in our haste toward a digital future.
The very ubiquity of music has blinded us to its magic and to the wonder of encapsulated fragments of time encoded in our recordings.
Consider the lilies: We awake in the morning to the sound of our friendly radio clocks or iPhone docks- music and news. Something bright and not-too-rough to put us in the mood to face another day. Then it’s off to the shower, where Technology be praised, we can now bring in music that won’t let you be electrocuted. More music and news. Then, off to the car, where we have a stereo, FM or Satellite radio, maybe an iPod or other devices patiently awaiting our commands. Perhaps even some time at the computer, listening away while we check our daily inboxes and the status of the world. Note that so far, we haven’t been talking about a playback system that approaches a true music reproducing system. Just junk playback for our daily lives (Soma, but not the form Huxley supposed).
There’s probably a portable radio blasting in the parking attendant’s box as you park the car, and, once inside the lobby, there’s, maybe, Eno’s Music for Lobbies, and then Muzak for elevators. Then, in the office there’s pre-programmed music for the “work environment”, carefully selected by the subconscious manipulators at an “office-friendly” Satellite radio channel. Or more likely, you are sitting with your headphones on, as the music flows out from a portable device or computer system, allowing you to become the temporary master of your sonic domain. Lunch? You bet, music. Ever hear of, any more, a music-free cafeteria or restaurant? Then there’s the rush-hour home, and music to sooth the tangled nerves. Music beneath our movies. Beneath our favorite television shows (if indeed we watch conventional television any more). Music while you’re on-hold, waiting to be picked up. Headphones on the airplanes. Ear-buds and iPods walking the streets.
Never has there been a generation so stuffed, packed, and surrounded by an acoustic environment of wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor, air molecule-to-molecule music. And most of it played back on equipment that resembles the real thing about as much as the atmosphere on Mars is like unto that on Earth.
And then there’s the matter of the sorrowful quality of the music itself, this sonic wallflower. Endless instrumental versions of “The Way We Were”, “You Don’t Send Me Flowers Any more”, “Yesterday”, “Memories”, all blurring into memories of the way we were yesterday, “when I was 64”. Not even the classics are safe from the all-devouring aural satyriasis. Tonight we love a stranger in paradise with full moon and empty arms.
Combine garbage sonics and a compacted musical garbage—and know this is how Americans see music. Then you may begin to understand why some of us think music itself is in danger of being corrupted and turned into something it was never meant to be, an instrument for mood manipulation, instead of what it could be, an affirmation of all that is good about our species.
In a sense, such uses of music subsume the experience of listening to music with the attention, the concentration and, yes, even the rapture that it, at its best, requires and deserves. The experience of music is shoved aside and music itself becomes a kind of commodity divorced from appreciation of its diverse uniquenesses. Music is severed from its roots and, once removed from the context of performance and the “live” experience, exists in the background of our perception, not as a dominant force in shaping that perception.
This is where I come in. To tell you something of how we came to this state of affairs. It is a story of how the fledgling high fidelity movement of the Fifties became the Japanese-dominated mass-marketing stereo boom of the Seventies. And it is a story of how the High End, following a conceptual idealism of near Platonic purity, reversed the trend, putting American design again in the vanguard, while energizing a new industry dedicated to putting the musicality back in to audio components.
The High End is not firm buttocks on very long legs. It is not an economic measure of the cost of audio equipment. It is, quite simply, the highest end of the audio art, that often be-misted arena in which technology and art go hand-in-hand, with art always leading. It is an arena from which components emerge that, it is hoped, will move us fractionally closer to the illusion of having real musicians playing in a real space, though in our own living rooms. This illusion is audio’s grail, and the quest after it lures would-be Parsifals of design from walks of life that are virtually always alien to audio. It is, in a word or so, a measure of the intent of certain designers to recapture as much of a real musical experience as the technological sciences and their art allow in the here and now.
It arose, in the early Seventies, not precisely in rebellion to the junk marketing of high-fidelity components but rather, at first, as a striving for something beyond what the large corporations who had then subsumed the original high fidelity movement were offering to the public at large. As we shall see, there is an irony in the rise of the High End, and a historical parallel with the rise of components in the early Fifties. The high fidelity component was born in reaction to the console models of the times (made by the large American corporations, RCA, Columbia, Philco, Zenith, MagnaVox, et al.), as an effort, that is, to achieve higher levels of fidelity to the real thing than were possible through the console systems.
The High End rose at the same time my magazine, The Absolute Sound, was founded, and the two were immediately symbiotic, each’s destiny intertwined with that of the other. One can also savour another parallel/irony. High Fidelity, Stereo Review (nee Hi-Fi Review) and Audio rose with the high-fidelity component movement and were, in their early form, considerably different from the way they had become by the time The Absolute Sound was conceived. As was the industry with which these magazines identified. They moved from a pro-consumer orientation and from reviews that were part science (numerical measurements) and part art (the reviewers’ assessments of how well the components captured the illusion of the real thing) to a pro-industry bias (the magazine’s welfare became synonymous with the health of the industry) and to all numerical reviews (which increasingly denied the significance, even audibility, the all too vast differences that existed then—and now—between different products from different manufacturers).There is a commanding practical reason for making no distinctions between components of similar nature, say, for instance, amps and preamps. If they aren’t different, then the reviewer does not have to state preferences for one as opposed to another, thus providing his magazine’s ad salespeople with something bordering on paradise, a world in which all components are equal and therefore all ad space equally salable. Ugh.
The question will be one of whether the High End maintains its allegiance to music or to an accountant’s notion of profit margins and corporate growth rates. What has distinguished the High End movement so far has been the remarkable devotion many designers feel for an artistic ideal rather than to the practical implications of the bottom line.
It is more than mere coincidence that the decline in the quality of American discs, which were, up through 1964 both the best-sounding and the best-made on earth, paralleled the decline in reviewing standards in the audiophile magazines. That decay was first evident in an increasing number of record ads in the pages of those publications and a decreasing sensitivity to both the sound and quality on the discs. The major American record companies are even more vindictive than the audio manufacturers when it comes to getting even for a highly critical review. Advertising has been pulled, and more than once, when one has the temerity to tell the truth about the sound and manufacturing quality of a disc or component. The result is that today there is a complete absence of sonic criticism: Everything, record or component, sounds great. Just great. And unless one is in a monolithic position within the industry, he is likely to find himself penalized for telling the truth, the advertisers clinging to the publication with the blandest, most pro-industry editorial policy and the consumer be damned.
The High End came into being because there are people for whom music is an experience apart. One not to be wasted, not to be treated with the contempt that comes from making quotidian that which is unique. In other words, music is to be absorbed; it is an occasion to dream of the possibilities, of probable and yet unborn worlds. Lose yourself in its world, and you can dream yourself back together for this one.
This is where the High End comes in, and its justification for being. Critical to our understanding of what we mean when we say High End is that distinction between the background “noise” of Soma sounds and a kind of involved rapture that can occur when music overwhelms the barriers of the senses. The High End thus stands in opposition to the use of music as junk. Music is an absolute unto itself, and its sound is the absolute sound.
What a High End component, lowly or loftly, will do is resolve the musical information from our source material in ways that are more recognizably lifelike to those who know what the real thing sounds like. The night sky, viewed through a pair of Sears 7×30 binoculars is a gray-black field, bespeckled with wobbling dots. (Like certain receiver’s treatment of music.) But if we take a small telescope, we will see more, the rings of Saturn or the polar ice caps on Mars. (Like a modestly priced High End system.) With a giant telescope, we begin to see galaxies swirling, clouds of cosmic dust expanding, we see back into time and we derive a far more complete picture of the Universe about us. (Like the state-of-the-art.)
The best High End systems will allow you to hear not only the individual string instruments in the violin section of an orchestra, but even the spaces between the players. You will be able to hear the back wall of the orchestra, and, in some cases, you may make an educated guess about the material of which it is constructed. A hall’s acoustic signature is immediately recognizable, even its imperfections. And all of this without the usual distractions imposed by lesser systems, noise, distortions, compression of dynamics, unwanted peaks and valleys that play havoc with the orchestra’s harmonic envelope. In short, with a High End system, you are more nearly able to disregard the system itself. As the act of sex is supposed to eradicate (temporarily) sexual desire, so a good music playback system is supposed to eradicate the system itself, to make it transparent, and allow you to listen back through the system to the musical event itself.