“You Are There” Absolute Sound: Can We Get There From Here? Part IV

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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The basic problem with breaking Toole's "Audio Circle of Confusion" as I see it is that if many audio engineers do have faulty hearing, as Toole claims is the occupational hazard of such folks, audiophiles with normal hearing would not hear things the way the engineers heard them even if they were present in the studio when the recording was made. Thus, for many recordings, matching the recording set up at home might not help much even if the audiophile's taste in how things should sound perfectly matched the sound engineer's taste.
 

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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Chicagoland
Some contrary musings:

I think chamber music should sound fairly close up, just not bright/shrill. It is meant to be fairly intimate music. Our standards for hearing such music should NOT be how it sounds in a large concert hall from ten or more rows back. Perhaps that's not obvious or even agreeable to some, but that's what I think.

I really like the way chamber music sounds in the continuing series of living room concerts I attend, even though such a room is much smaller than the small ballroom "chamber" for which such music probably was intended. I don't mind hearing breathing, shifting, or bow noises because that's natural to hear from close up in such music.

I definitely agree that the top end should be pulled down on many close-miked recordings. One can usually tell within seconds of starting playback of, say, string quartet recordings, whether the highs are too aggressive compared to concert-hall reality and they usually are.

But the imaging/staging will remain that of hearing the group from rather close up. Equalization will not change that. A string quartet will still fill the space between the speakers, and maybe more, so that the subtended angle of the group will be as if you are listening from only a few feet away.

Here's a slightly radical suggestion: We should begin to train ourselves that, given how recordings are made, the reproduction of most classical recordings will always be sui generis--a thing unto itself. The goal of making them sound as the recorded group would sound in a concert hall will never be totally realized via home two-channel reproduction. A more attainable goal would be to make classical music recordings sound pleasantly entertaining in a maximally natural, immersive, and involving way. Thus, pull down the highs to prevent nastiness for a more natural tonal balance. This will tend to somewhat back off the apparent location of the sound source--make it more "out there"--but just accept the fact that the image will appear "big" as if you are listening close and learn to enjoy that for its greater excitement, involvement, and envelopment.

Those who want to hear a string quartet or other small ensemble as "out there" far enough to subtend a small angle will never achieve that from most recordings at home. In fact, I really question whether you want to do that.

For two-channel recordings bereft of any visual element (i.e., no video component), such audio is rather uninteresting--downright boring to hear at home, except from another room as background music. A bigger, more immediate presentation is much more interesting/involving when heard at home. I'm sure, for example, that this is why even most "audiophile" solo piano recordings make the piano image fill the stage with significant left/right and even front/back presentation, something one almost never hears live. That makes the home playback so much more interesting and involving. Very few people actually like listening to the few distantly miked fat-mono sound classical solo piano recordings like Sheffield's Lincoln Mayorga recordings.

This is also one reason so many enjoy headphone listening. It's not just that it's private/personal. And, no, it doesn't sound like music in a hall. It's much more immersive and immediate; the listener is much more part of the action, even without any special processing--surround, binaural, or otherwise. Again, it's sui generis, but can be very enjoyable if you just drop the concert hall goal of reproduction. Headphone listening haters are mostly those who still want their music to be considerably "out there" in front of them, as in a concert venue, as opposed to close up and around them. For those who want headphone listening to sound more "out there" try out some Apple AirPods Pro or Max with music played from an iPhone or iPad. Getting the music to sound more "out there" (as well as all around) is one of the triumphs of the Apple Spatial Audio processing.

Many if not most audio critics have already abandoned concert hall presentation as the goal of music reproduction at home. They actually did this many years ago without being very honest about it. They may still talk about accuracy and realism, but they really mean just "good" pleasing sound and they use "good sound" often as a stated goal. I think the "good" part for many speaks to the tonal balance part--avoiding off-the-charts bright top end and having enough bass fullness and midrange presence--but it also speaks to spatial immediacy, three dimensionality, and immersion.

Yes, you can get some feeling of immersion from concert hall perspective recordings. But few of those exist. With those few recordings with a good two-channel set up you can get lots of depth with the front of the orchestra "out there" in front of you, behind the plane of the speakers on "distantly miked" recordings. But most recordings have too little hall sound on the recording and those that have a lot of recorded ambiance tend to sound at least a bit odd/echoey in two-channel stereo speaker reproduction since most of the hall ambience is forced to come from in front of you rather than from the sides, above, or behind you as it would in a concert hall. It may be better to just shake the concert hall realism dust from your shoes and move on to a more attainable home audio reproduction goal.
 
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dan31

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Jul 22, 2010
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Very well thought through Tom. I agree on the headphone listening. I have become more appreciative of my headphone setup over the past pandemic period.
 

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