Audiophile Sonic Terms Redux

Karen Sumner

Industry Expert
Apr 18, 2021
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During my recent interview with WBF, I think additional clarification of why relying on audiophile sonic terms like detail, pinpoint imaging, crisp leading-edge transients, black background, and slam to describe the attributes of component performance is counterproductive if one’s goal is to reproduce music in your home to a believable level. It is interesting to note that Harry Pearson was not the originator of these terms. He was rather more oriented to talking eloquently about the emotional experience of listening to music performed on a believable level through a home audio system. The press’s sonic terms really came from those who have unsuccessfully tried to emulate him.

Because our industry struggles to grow beyond its infancy, quite a few high-end audio companies do not yet have the resources or know-how to promote their own products. Many unfortunately have relied and rely upon the audio press to do their bidding. For our industry to move closer to our goal of helping our customers suspend their disbelief that they are only listening to a hifi, more manufacturers need to grow beyond depending on the press to build their notoriety. Instead, more designers and manufacturers should be telling their own stories more effectively with the power of videos, interviews, the internet, and customer events in listening conditions that are more acoustically controlled than hotel rooms. With a handful of exceptions, members of the audio press do not have a listening environment that is capable of accurately reproducing a wide variety of source material at believable levels, nor do they typically have a reference standard system of components in place that is on a level that would qualify them to judge the performance of a well-designed audio component. Quite a few of them also do not have extensive and ongoing live acoustic music listening experiences. It perplexes me why so many manufacturers still run to the press for approval, and some dealers bank on reviews to attract customers. In contrast, Jacob Heilbrunn comes to mind as an audio writer who has broken the mold of the “amateur audio press.” He has a professionally designed listening studio that helps him become immersed in all types of music listening experiences. He also has an established reference system and a huge, eclectic music collection. He’s also an articulate, knowledgeable, and creative professional writer who attends a lot of live music performances. Are there others like Jacob out there?

Because more than a few manufacturers rely upon good reviews to keep their public interested in their brand, some of these companies I fear calibrate their products to get good reviews by designing to the press’s fabricated sonic terms. By and large, the audiophile publication readership has likewise been “schooled” by the articles they read to seek out these qualities — which are just words that might appeal to the front of our brains, but do not reach our emotional engagement centers. Using the press’s own terms to describe the listening experience is like residing in a tiny echo chamber.

Here’s why the high-end audio echo chamber seems to be so well sealed from music-loving interlopers. Unfortunately, in most homes where there is a substantial audio system set-up in rooms that are built according to standard residential construction methods, it is very unlikely that a person can play a wide range of different types of music at believable volume and dynamic levels and achieve across the board full natural tonal balance; i.e., reproduce the critical 100Hz -1000kHz range to the same level that it is actually recorded on the source material. The energy that results from amplifying the critical emotional-connection frequencies overloads most of these rooms resulting in frequency nodes and cancellations and out-of-phase reflections that cover up the very qualities that the audio press has tried to teach us should be the priority; hence, the solution to this conundrum is to strip away that energy, the life of the music, that is so important to creating an emotional connection by selecting components that reproduce music in a way that is natively leaner than what is on most source material and by speaker set-ups that emphasize the frequency extremes.

One can only imagine how disheartened some music-loving audiophiles might be when they discover that in their home environment, they can play perhaps a dozen songs from a small handful of albums that deliver truly musically satisfying results. Some have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual pieces of equipment that have been deemed ground-breaking by the audio press only to find that their systems and listening environment are unable to reproduce music in an emotionally compelling way. This is not a sustainable model for customers, dealers, or manufacturers. No one has told the simple truth: that everything matters, including listening space.

Does everybody need to invest in a professionally designed, purpose-built listening room to achieve a really satisfying level of music reproduction at home? If one wants to experience the ultimate in music reproduction from today’s best source material and components, the answer is “yes”, but there are many musically enthralling stops along the way that are far more affordable and achievable.

To be continued . . .


Karen-Sumner.jpg
 
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Elliot G.

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Thank you Karen . This is really well written.
Elliot
 

Lee

Well-Known Member
Feb 3, 2011
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Alpharetta, Georgia
During my recent interview with WBF, I think additional clarification of why relying on audiophile sonic terms like detail, pinpoint imaging, crisp leading-edge transients, black background, and slam to describe the attributes of component performance is counterproductive if one’s goal is to reproduce music in your home to a believable level. It is interesting to note that Harry Pearson was not the originator of these terms. He was rather more oriented to talking eloquently about the emotional experience of listening to music performed on a believable level through a home audio system. The press’s sonic terms really came from those who have unsuccessfully tried to emulate him.

Because our industry struggles to grow beyond its infancy, quite a few high-end audio companies do not yet have the resources or know-how to promote their own products. Many unfortunately have relied and rely upon the audio press to do their bidding. For our industry to move closer to our goal of helping our customers suspend their disbelief that they are only listening to a hifi, more manufacturers need to grow beyond depending on the press to build their notoriety. Instead, more designers and manufacturers should be telling their own stories more effectively with the power of videos, interviews, the internet, and customer events in listening conditions that are more acoustically controlled than hotel rooms. With a handful of exceptions, members of the audio press do not have a listening environment that is capable of accurately reproducing a wide variety of source material at believable levels, nor do they typically have a reference standard system of components in place that is on a level that would qualify them to judge the performance of a well-designed audio component. Quite a few of them also do not have extensive and ongoing live acoustic music listening experiences. It perplexes me why so many manufacturers still run to the press for approval, and some dealers bank on reviews to attract customers. In contrast, Jacob Heilbrunn comes to mind as an audio writer who has broken the mold of the “amateur audio press.” He has a professionally designed listening studio that helps him become immersed in all types of music listening experiences. He also has an established reference system and a huge, eclectic music collection. He’s also an articulate, knowledgeable, and creative professional writer who attends a lot of live music performances. Are there others like Jacob out there?

Because more than a few manufacturers rely upon good reviews to keep their public interested in their brand, some of these companies I fear calibrate their products to get good reviews by designing to the press’s fabricated sonic terms. By and large, the audiophile publication readership has likewise been “schooled” by the articles they read to seek out these qualities — which are just words that might appeal to the front of our brains, but do not reach our emotional engagement centers. Using the press’s own terms to describe the listening experience is like residing in a tiny echo chamber.

Here’s why the high-end audio echo chamber seems to be so well sealed from music-loving interlopers. Unfortunately, in most homes where there is a substantial audio system set-up in rooms that are built according to standard residential construction methods, it is very unlikely that a person can play a wide range of different types of music at believable volume and dynamic levels and achieve across the board full natural tonal balance; i.e., reproduce the critical 100Hz -1000kHz range to the same level that it is actually recorded on the source material. The energy that results from amplifying the critical emotional-connection frequencies overloads most of these rooms resulting in frequency nodes and cancellations and out-of-phase reflections that cover up the very qualities that the audio press has tried to teach us should be the priority; hence, the solution to this conundrum is to strip away that energy, the life of the music, that is so important to creating an emotional connection by selecting components that reproduce music in a way that is natively leaner than what is on most source material and by speaker set-ups that emphasize the frequency extremes.

One can only imagine how disheartened some music-loving audiophiles might be when they discover that in their home environment, they can play perhaps a dozen songs from a small handful of albums that deliver truly musically satisfying results. Some have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual pieces of equipment that have been deemed ground-breaking by the audio press only to find that their systems and listening environment are unable to reproduce music in an emotionally compelling way. This is not a sustainable model for customers, dealers, or manufacturers. No one has told the simple truth: that everything matters, including listening space.

Does everybody need to invest in a professionally designed, purpose-built listening room to achieve a really satisfying level of music reproduction at home? If one wants to experience the ultimate in music reproduction from today’s best source material and components, the answer is “yes”, but there are many musically enthralling stops along the way that are far more affordable and achievable.

To be continued . . .

Great comments as usual. I might note that in addition to Jacob, there are several reviewers at TAS with a high quality, purpose-built listening room.

I also agree that we need to get the word out across more digital channels including video. I have done my best to create more innovative digital channels and solutions while at TAS.

A good bit of our YouTube channel focus has been on a correct setup and some tips on how to achieve that.

My own personal view is that hiring someone like Jim Smith or Stirling Trayle is one of the best investments one can make.
 

Ron Resnick

Site Co-Owner, Administrator
Jan 24, 2015
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Thank you, Karen, for elaborating on this point in this insightful and beautifully-written essay!
 

Al M.

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Sep 10, 2013
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During my recent interview with WBF, I think additional clarification of why relying on audiophile sonic terms like detail, pinpoint imaging, crisp leading-edge transients, black background, and slam to describe the attributes of component performance is counterproductive if one’s goal is to reproduce music in your home to a believable level. It is interesting to note that Harry Pearson was not the originator of these terms. He was rather more oriented to talking eloquently about the emotional experience of listening to music performed on a believable level through a home audio system. The press’s sonic terms really came from those who have unsuccessfully tried to emulate him.

Great post, Karen. A few observations:

Detail is extremely important to me, in relation to unamplfied live music. Without timbral micro-detail, string quartets are just not believable, and on this material the difference between my current speakers and the previous ones (a lower model from the same manufacturer) was particularly stark. Also, the system must be able to unravel all the individual strands in complex music, such as in a good amount of orchestral music, and make them audible. This "separation of instruments" is detail as well, and always strikes me in the concert hall. It is extremely important for conveying musical information. The more information, presented in a natural manner, the more the music becomes emotionally engaging to me. I try to emulate this aspect as much as possible at home and have made some good progress in this area as well.

Pinpoint imaging is an uninteresting artifact to me, and my system now eschews it too a large degree. Crisp leading-edge transients can be important when the music demands them, but this is not always the case. The more improvements my system has seen, the more a realistic portrayal of transients has become part of it. In some cases, transients have softened to a remarkable degree (in the right direction, that is), in others they come with a sharpened edge that previously was blurred by hardness. So I would agree that crisp leading-edge transients are not always a virtue, even though sometimes they emphatically are. They just should not be a general model for transient behavior. Realistic transients reside along a far more fluid and malleable spectrum than just that.

Black background is a thoroughly annoying term, and we have had thoroughly annoying discussions about it on WBF. Unamplified live music does not have a "black" background, it arises from a calm background, without electronic "hash". Big difference. Slam can be an artifact, but also a virtue. Bass drum in an orchestra often has slam, and this should be reproduced as such. Slam is also an important term in the reproduction of rock music; not all audiophile terms should solely refer to unamplified live music.

So in sum, I would not be entirely be dismissive of modern audiophile vocabulary. I'd rather say, it's a mixed bag, and one should think twice before enthusiastically embracing all of it.

Here’s why the high-end audio echo chamber seems to be so well sealed from music-loving interlopers. Unfortunately, in most homes where there is a substantial audio system set-up in rooms that are built according to standard residential construction methods, it is very unlikely that a person can play a wide range of different types of music at believable volume and dynamic levels and achieve across the board full natural tonal balance; i.e., reproduce the critical 100Hz -1000kHz range to the same level that it is actually recorded on the source material. The energy that results from amplifying the critical emotional-connection frequencies overloads most of these rooms resulting in frequency nodes and cancellations and out-of-phase reflections that cover up the very qualities that the audio press has tried to teach us should be the priority; hence, the solution to this conundrum is to strip away that energy, the life of the music, that is so important to creating an emotional connection by selecting components that reproduce music in a way that is natively leaner than what is on most source material and by speaker set-ups that emphasize the frequency extremes.

One can only imagine how disheartened some music-loving audiophiles might be when they discover that in their home environment, they can play perhaps a dozen songs from a small handful of albums that deliver truly musically satisfying results. Some have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual pieces of equipment that have been deemed ground-breaking by the audio press only to find that their systems and listening environment are unable to reproduce music in an emotionally compelling way. This is not a sustainable model for customers, dealers, or manufacturers. No one has told the simple truth: that everything matters, including listening space.

I do not have a purpose-built music room. This would be an expense beyond the already elevated price of my house (I live in the Boston Northshore area) that I cannot afford. Fortunately my room, in a wooden house rather than one built from concrete, has a benign behavior in the bass (I suppose it has just the right amount of "leak"). The mids and high frequencies have been much more problematic, and I have invested years of acoustic improvements and system set-up to reduce unfavorable system-room interactions to a minimum. By a large margin, this effort in aggregate has taken much more time than auditioning and choosing components. Thus, I agree that listening space is of paramount importance, and time and effort needs to be invested.

As to components that preserve the energy and life of the music, this has been a priority of mine since more than thirty years now. I chose monitors, which are easier to drive than most multi-way speakers, and my current ones have direct coupling of mid-woofer to amp, without crossover, which is a great help in more easily achieving the goal. Subwoofers round out the frequency response. Of course, such a system has its own compromises, as does each system, but I was not willing to unduly compromise in the area of energy, liveliness and dynamics.

My system finally is capable of representing a wide range of music, including orchestral, at relatively realistic volume (I do not want to kill my ears over time either) and dynamic levels without showing strain. Proper management of electrical power has been a large part of the solution as well.

Does everybody need to invest in a professionally designed, purpose-built listening room to achieve a really satisfying level of music reproduction at home? If one wants to experience the ultimate in music reproduction from today’s best source material and components, the answer is “yes”, but there are many musically enthralling stops along the way that are far more affordable and achievable.

I guess I have arrive at one such musically enthralling stop myself. At least, that is how I perceive it, and the only person in this subjective hobby that needs to be fully satisfied by my system is me.
 

PeterA

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Dec 6, 2011
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Here’s why the high-end audio echo chamber seems to be so well sealed from music-loving interlopers. Unfortunately, in most homes where there is a substantial audio system set-up in rooms that are built according to standard residential construction methods, it is very unlikely that a person can play a wide range of different types of music at believable volume and dynamic levels and achieve across the board full natural tonal balance; i.e., reproduce the critical 100Hz -1000kHz range to the same level that it is actually recorded on the source material. The energy that results from amplifying the critical emotional-connection frequencies overloads most of these rooms resulting in frequency nodes and cancellations and out-of-phase reflections that cover up the very qualities that the audio press has tried to teach us should be the priority; hence, the solution to this conundrum is to strip away that energy, the life of the music, that is so important to creating an emotional connection by selecting components that reproduce music in a way that is natively leaner than what is on most source material and by speaker set-ups that emphasize the frequency extremes.





To be continued . . .

Karen,

I really enjoy reading your series of essays. This is a particularly good one. Two friends, one a manufacturer and the other a reviewer, and I have been discussing your essays and your two recent interviews. You are describing what we refer to as natural sound. I very much appreciate your contributions to this topic and look forward to reading the continuation of this essay.
 

Tam Lin

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Mar 20, 2011
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It’s not surprising few high-end audio systems sound like real music because few audiophiles know what natural, un-amplified music sounds like.

Several years ago I attended RMAF where the organizers arranged to have a real, live, jazz trio perform to serve as a reference by which to judge the audio systems on display. I arrived early to get a good seat up close. Before the show started someone tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I move further back because the music was going to be loud. I heeded the advice and as I was walking to the rear of the room I noticed that most in the audience were wearing ear plugs. Then the music started and it was horrific. That must be a common occurrence because the audience came prepared with ear plugs.

If the audiophile reference for the sound of live music includes a jazz trio amplified to rock concert levels and heard through ear plugs, it's no wonder most high-end audio systems are crap.

The current fashion is ‘connecting emotionally’ with the music. That’s nice but connecting with the music doesn’t require a professionally designed music room and a $1M worth of audio equipment. In 2001, I was driving through Salt Lake City on my way home from the VSAC show in Seattle. I was in a noisy, diesel pickup truck with a stock radio, when a tune, I never heard before, came on. The reception was poor and getting weaker by the minute so, with tears in my eyes, I stopped on the side of the road and just listened. Talk about connecting with the music!

In the 1960’s I was part of the psychedelic rock scene in Berkeley, CA, and lived in a modest one-bedroom cottage on Lincoln St. My audio system at the time had JBL studio horns, a HK vacuum tube amp, Bogan TT, and a Teac tape deck. It was OK: However, no amount of room treatment would make it sound like real live music. What unquestionably sounded like real live music in that little house was when Mad River provided the music for a party I had. No room treatment required.
 
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Amir

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With a handful of exceptions, members of the audio press do not have a listening environment that is capable of accurately reproducing a wide variety of source material at believable levels, nor do they typically have a reference standard system of components in place that is on a level that would qualify them to judge the performance of a well-designed audio component. Quite a few of them also do not have extensive and ongoing live acoustic music listening experiences.

Yes, it is true .
I also doubt they put enough time for speaker placement.
AC quality is also very important but you will find AC filters in their setup, Most AC filters kill the natural beauty of sound.
Isolation Transformers kill dynamics specially in bass.
There are many problems there that I will list all of them.
 
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Scaena1

Industry Expert
Sep 13, 2010
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Gestalt-an organized whole perceived as more than the sum of its parts.
Continuousness-forming an unbroken whole;without interruption.

In numerous listening sessions with HP while our Model 1 was in room #1 at Sea Cliff for 6 years, these are the most
commonly used terms by him. Blackness, pin point imaging,and other micro dissections of playback were not the norms in his assessment and seemingly antithetical to his search for “the absolute sound”.

I find too many audiophiles focus on and search for one or more of these rather obtuse characteristics when comparing audio systems and in choosing a “winner”, rather than the two HP valued that in my opinion render greater service to the quest for musical truth.

And thank you,Karen for pointing out the importance of a good room and the limitations of the listening laboratories that many in the audio review business have themselves.

Alan Eichenbaum
 

Gregadd

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Apr 20, 2010
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It's kind at odds with what I believe.FWIW for me at least HP was my ears for products I would never hear and describing characteristics i could not put into words. I cannot say whether HP was the originator of thterminol9gy or just adept at using them.
I do recall HP was adept at describing a components attribute that eventually become standard. He wa equally gifted at describing its faults that eventually would be cured or alleviated

As always I appreciate your brilliant insight and experience
 

Elliot G.

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Gestalt-an organized whole perceived as more than the sum of its parts.
Continuousness-forming an unbroken whole;without interruption.

In numerous listening sessions with HP while our Model 1 was in room #1 at Sea Cliff for 6 years, these are the most
commonly used terms by him. Blackness, pin point imaging,and other micro dissections of playback were not the norms in his assessment and seemingly antithetical to his search for “the absolute sound”.

I find too many audiophiles focus on and search for one or more of these rather obtuse characteristics when comparing audio systems and in choosing a “winner”, rather than the two HP valued that in my opinion render greater service to the quest for musical truth.

And thank you,Karen for pointing out the importance of a good room and the limitations of the listening laboratories that many in the audio review business have themselves.

Alan Eichenbaum
could not agree more and those speakers really were wonderful in his room. So many want to use three terms
Soundstage
Imaging
Depth
and in doing this seem to be trying to "hear" the differences in sound yet not "listening"to the music. Its funny but when listening with HP those 3 words were never used and never discussed when we sat and listened.
Ive never once been at a live performance and used those words either
 

adamaley

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Apr 15, 2016
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Here's an article that makes suggestions to amend and append to our audiophile jargon that resonates with me. You'll need to scroll down to the second section beyond the description of the system - not that one should brush off the system; Misho's Audio Antiquary equipment is world class, and is how I stumbled upon this article:

 

Gregm

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Mar 14, 2019
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Interesting thoughts, thank you for charing.

For our industry to move closer to our goal of helping our customers suspend their disbelief that they are only listening to a hifi...
I can propose an additional goal, if I may:
attract more people to this hobby.

Most outsiders discount the sonic difference a hi-end well setup system makes, as being only for "specialists" and "hobbyists".
They attribute the differences we describe as "perceptible only by sophisticated, trained ears".

How do we draw in more people?
 

PeterA

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Here's an article that makes suggestions to amend and append to our audiophile jargon that resonates with me. You'll need to scroll down to the second section beyond the description of the system - not that one should brush off the system; Misho's Audio Antiquary equipment is world class, and is how I stumbled upon this article:


I enjoyed Jeff Day's article. Thank you for posting the link and bringing it to our attention. I can particularly relate to this passage:

"Naturalness: This is something that is almost never discussed in audio but may be one of the most important attributes in providing a satisfying re-creation of a musical event. The one attribute that I hear in much of high-end audio these days is an artificial tonality, the music simply sounds synthetic and no longer real. Instruments don’t sound of themselves, but a new hyper-real synthetic recreation. I find this sound to be the very antithesis of engaging.

Causes: To my ears certain elements add to this creation. Inert speaker enclosures and especially speaker enclosure made from synthetic materials, ceramic and diamond coated drivers, metal film/metal oxide resistors, solid state rectification, too much silver in the circuit and systems that focus of removing all vestiges of harmonic distortion. I think it was Herb Reichert that said things sound like what they are made of and that is certainly what I hear. Synthetic materials produce synthetic tone. I can’t remember the last time I heard an audio system in a high-end dealer that didn’t sound artificial, and seemingly the more a system costs the worse it gets. The target of super high spatial resolution, super low harmonic distortion, airy highs and black backgrounds espoused by the high end is a dead end for many of us."
 

Elliot G.

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Here one has to really take some major leaps of faith to accept any of what is written to have any significance.
I really find it difficult to accept as important views these opinions from an unknown source, with what qualifications, on equipment that virtually no one has heard, in a room that no one has visited. This website seems to try so hard to find a single example of someone or something that will agree with a posters point of view and then accept that as an authority or the views as facts. It is easy to then say that this source is correct and therefore the words are true and that makes the posters point more valid.
I for one can't buy this .
THis is the same type of thinking that because something is posted on the internet or youtube it must have validity. In my opinion people should earn your trust and respect over time by being correct or having validity by proving it on numerous occasions.
For example the mention of materials is just a bunch of mularky and would discredit any of the changes made in audio over the last 50 years.
This is great for the author to prove his unprovable point however its just total nonsense. All material or technical advances do not necessarily mean a sonic advance but all of them are not wrong either.
 

PeterA

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Karen Sumner started this thread to discuss the use of terms, language, and how we describe what we hear. It’s an interesting topic. She seems to have a specific approach to the hobby. I’ve been reading some essays by Jeff Day. This one seems to address some of what Karen Sumner is discussing. He wrote another good essay about the listening window which is discussed in a different thread.

We are simply here to discuss our ideas and approaches to what we are doing.
 

Elliot G.

Industry Expert
Jul 22, 2010
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With a handful of exceptions, members of the audio press do not have a listening environment that is capable of accurately reproducing a wide variety of source material at believable levels, nor do they typically have a reference standard system of components in place that is on a level that would qualify them to judge the performance of a well-designed audio component.


THis is only one of the points in Karen essay. There are many more other than a few ords to describe audio sounds and systems. THis persons article and opinions are exactl;y what she was referring to in the quote posted above. When these observations are made to sound like facts or when they are used by someone to try to influence or propose them as truth is where I have a difficult time.
I know you have a deep connection Peter to the words "natural sound" and to you they have some specific meaning however those words and your meaning are not universal to everyone else.
These assumptions from some writers or youtubers etc that is presented as truths is off base, off topic and to be frank wrong. This persons opinions are just that and their system analysis and conclusions about materials and technology is unproven ( me being nice) and border line insulting to the entire audio Industry.
 

PeterA

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Dec 6, 2011
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THis is only one of the points in Karen essay. There are many more other than a few ords to describe audio sounds and systems. THis persons article and opinions are exactl;y what she was referring to in the quote posted above. When these observations are made to sound like facts or when they are used by someone to try to influence or propose them as truth is where I have a difficult time.
I know you have a deep connection Peter to the words "natural sound" and to you they have some specific meaning however those words and your meaning are not universal to everyone else.
These assumptions from some writers or youtubers etc that is presented as truths is off base, off topic and to be frank wrong. This persons opinions are just that and their system analysis and conclusions about materials and technology is unproven ( me being nice) and border line insulting to the entire audio Industry.

I am not proposing Jeff Day’s words as truth. I simply said I could relate to them. These are just opinions. Where do you get the idea that they are presented as truths? Karen started this thread talking about language and Jeff Day discusses language in his article.
 

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