|23 March 2001|
Enthusiasm among audiophiles for low-output, high-distortion tubed amps raises a question the answers to which may not be as engaging as the vague yet persistent issues they address.
The question: What do you want from your sound system?
One answer: I want my recordings to sound wonderful. I choose my hardware for the euphonic intervention it provides, e.g., low-output, high-distortion tubed amps. Has there ever been a review which failed to mention the qualities these devices apply to the midrange (where most music takes place), never mind ineptitude elsewhere in the spectrum, the high speaker efficiency they require in order to work at all well, and so on?
Very nice, yet gremlins dwell within. By its nature, euphonic hardware will stamp its distinctions on everything it transmits. The listener intent on getting to the heart of a recording has to understand that a euphonic system has a large, modifying say in the matter. Let's be honest, all systems do, euphonic systems moreso, however, and, most significantly, intentionally. Rose-colored glasses for the ears, so to speak.
Another answer: I want my hardware to be as neutral as possible, to intervene as minimally as possible, to get me as close to the recording as possible, to put me in the venue, among the microphones. As a music reviewer, I prefer to think that I require neutrality. I cannot in good conscience comment on a recording's production values if in contradiction of this obligation I'd sought out a sound system that reduces or elevates everything that passes through it to a euphonic constant. Euphony interferes. Nasty word, but there you are.
Because it was for me a significant moment (I've had similar before and after), let me mention again a visit to friend's home several years ago. The man is a knowledgeable music lover, discophile and audiophile; he also does some hardware commentary. I like the guy too much to have asked him to explain his reviewer's philosophy in light of what sounded to me like a decidedly euphonic system (several components of which are in fact celebrated for their "musicality," which I enclose in rabbit-ears because the term often operates as a synonym for coloration). If a reviewer's system is euphonic, does not this euphony mask the audible distinctions of the component or recording under review?
My friend acquired his audio hardware fully conscious of what he was after, or more accurately is after, since we audiophiles rarely remain for long with unmodified systems. My own situation offers a subtler problem. I like to think that I hold up neutrality (to say it again) as a beau idéal. I have recommended in Stereo Times a variety of audio goods, most recently, Acoustic Zen cables, Ortho Spectrum's AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor, Richard Gray's Power Company and Quantum power conditioners. But recommended them how? As I think back on it, the one virtue I assigned to this motley is its ability to extract grain, raise veils, expel mists, suppress noise, intensify transparency and resolution, enliven the stereo image. This gets fascinating. Could what I like to describe as a reduction in grain, etc., be elsewhere interpreted as a pursuit of euphony? I hate to think so, but the possibility's there, particularly with regard to the AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor, and believe me when I say I intend that as no criticism of this marvelous piece. I'd sooner part with a lung.
If I understand the AR-2000 (and I'm not at all sure that I do), it treats my CD player's output in such a way as to remove an aspect of the signal I'm glad to be rid of. Again and in spades, an extraction of grain -- noise, grunge, call it what you will. It's how I hear these things. Another commentator might reasonably put the experience in different terms. I believe that the AR-2000 adds nothing, even though I've heard the optical aspects of its circuitry criticized (in a different application) as less than flat. I couldn't care less.
Speaking of deviance from flat output, we've my Wilson WATT / Puppy Sixes. Certain speaker manufacturers design by the book. If it measures well, it's right. No need to listen. Others, Wilson Audio among them, design by ear. Listening during development takes precedence over measurement. John Atkinson's technical look into a Wilson speaker system reveals irregular measurements I'm certain the folks at Wilson Audio were well aware of when they sent the speaker into the world. They also know how to take measurements. The subjectivist side of the same Stereophile review describes the speaker as a triumph, which is what I'd call my WATT / Puppy Sixes, which Stereophile has yet to review. Should that happen, and should the findings be similar to those of the other Wilson system, I'd remain content, loving what I hear while at the same time hearing what I think I need to hear.
So where does that leave me (or quite possibly you) as a proponent of neutrality, of strict aural truth, of the real McCoy, of the sound from the horse's mouth? Probably in an ambiguous terrain, facing in the direction we seek. Happy listening en route.
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