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KIH #12 – Realistic is pathetic, real is powerful

  • RIP. We stick to our deformed 3-letter thematic and reappropriate one we’ve used before but differently. This Keep it Honest feature looks at just a few gaps between live and playback whilst disregarding similar discrepancies in the recording process which our last installment pointed at. Today’s RIP becomes shorthand for realistic is pathetic and real is powerful.

    I attended the closing twofer of this year’s Cully Jazz festival which took place in its usual location on the shore of Switzerland’s biggest lake. Dhafer Youssef’s quartet opened the 3½-hour event at 8:30. Ibrahim Maalouf’s octet closed it out at midnight. The venue was the main blacked-out tent by the water. Like 95% of all concerts–classical exempted–this one was amplified. The award-winning French-Lebanese trumpeter alone had three stand-hoisted microphones on him. With three chorus trumpets, guitar, electric keyboards, bass guitar and percussion, things got bloody loud. During peaks the bass guitar amp emitted obvious distress signals not part of deliberate overdrive distortion. Perhaps because the tent was so transparent at low frequencies without suffering domestically typical standing waves, the sound engineer and musicians had dialed the tonal balance to be super bassy too. Think seriously elevated very heavy fulminant bass.


    Given such potent perfectly non-lumpy LF energy, the fine upper harmonics were utterly swamped out. Textures were matte not glossy. Forget audiophile descriptors of limitless treble, endless cymbal decays, holographic transparency, illumination, lucidity and such. This was all about the meat, none of the sizzle. Scratch outline limning too. Cancel image specificity scaled down to actual instrumental sizes. These physical sound sources were far bigger than the actual instruments. As such they were less specific or focused. Subtract stereophonic soundstaging and its off-axis collapse. Here one could—and we actually did—sit all the way to one side and still get a proper left-right panorama without tonal shifts.

    This was the near polar opposite of playback from modern super monitors like EnigmAcoustics’ Mythology M1. That speaker has a dual-tweeter array which includes a proprietary self-biased nano-coated electrostatic super tweeter. Think very powerful yet small-speaker ported bass to 40Hz. This experience is all about supernatural treble finesse which supports very holographic staging and terrific ambient recovery.

    Unless you sat very close to an all-acoustic small ensemble; or next to a pianist as the dedicated burger, er, page flipper… you’d never hear this type of HF elucidation and gossamer nuance in a live venue. Anyone calling the M1 realistic would be so far out to lunch, he’d never return to work. He’d be sacked. That’s because the word ‘realistic’ implies a reference. It’s relative to another reality which traditional audiophiles consider the real thing: the live performance. It’s The Abso!ute Sound conundrum all over again. Except applied to amplified music.


    This hits the common stumbling block when dealing in ideologies and abstractions. But note the phrasing. Comparison to another reality. Obviously playback is real. It’s not imaginary. It’s its own reality. Whilst I’m listening to my system, you could call me from anywhere in the world and hear it. Without any soundstaging or much bandwidth to speak of, you’d hear music in the background. If you knew the cut, you’d identify it. If it were a conference call, we could have multiple observers share in it. No group hypnosis or hallucinations involved. This is so obvious, it feels silly to write it out.

    Yet there’s no conflict. Two different realities. Conflict arises when we invoke realistic. Let’s face it, hifi playback just isn’t that realistic. Yet it’s certainly very real. Never mind that it doesn’t sound like most live concerts—it misses by country miles on loudness, dynamics, bass power, tone, scale and substance—it’s still just a partial extract of our sensory live inventory. All visual context of the concert experience is subtracted when playback excludes video. Subtract sight and with it about 50% of vital data go down the drain. If you’re Australian, I’m told that happens counter-clockwise.

    So we’re watching the circling down our drain in whatever direction whilst our list of playback impossibilities continues. Most living rooms couldn’t contain more than a quartet. Play anything with a higher head count and by definition you’ve abandoned credible claims of realism. In that regard the use of full-scale symphonic music as reference is as far removed from realism and as bone-headedly moronic as one could possibly get.


    Before our drain starts to gurgle, real instruments in free space don’t act directional like loudspeakers either. Nor is reproducing 4 or 20 or 87 musicians with just two loudspeakers (which additionally distribute the audible bandwidth over different drivers for limited sections of the bandwidth) anything but another Quixotic endeavor. That any of it even comes off is a miracle. Amongst other things it’s a credit to our bio computer’s dual-core OSP (organic signal processing). By the time we get into headfi, these unreal aspects merely compound.

    But today we’re pretending to be reasonable. We have no interest in impossibilities and idiocies, at least not until the next KIH. We’ve given up on doing realistic. But we’re not defeated. We’re energized by the potential we sense in the concept of a discrete fully autonomous playback reality. All we need to know is that the stereophonic illusion is a – well, illusion. It’s a mind fuck. It takes place in our brains. That makes it personal. And it’s a fuck. That’s about pleasure, freedom, hedonism, hot buttons and preferences.

    Say you returned from my Cully concert and now wanted the closest sonic semblance from your hifi. I attempted just that in the concert’s wake the next morning. Of my speakers at hand, I’d have to tell you categorically that it required an omni to begin with; and a true infrasonic subwoofer to wrap up. In my case it meant the German Physiks HRS-120 and Zu Submission subwoofer. Full-range not partial, omnidirectional speakers not only image more like in a concert, their deliberate activation of the room’s ambient field creates that richer more redolent meatier tone which is closer to the sound of amplified live instruments than direct radiators manage.

    Obviously you’d need to have those speakers far apart to scare up any semblance of spatial enormity. You’d need to play them rather loud. And you’d need to augment them with that subwoofer to enhance weightiness in the low frequencies. Chances are your room and neighbors would protest long before any semblance arises. That’s how that reality bites. But it’s certainly a scenario one could pursue.

    This particular experiment was about the sound achieving a relative likeness to the amplified concert. What if necessary SPL were out of the question? What if attempts at realistic bass caused so many room-mode issues as to become intrusive and hateful? What if instead we meant to reintroduce certain pseudo-visual features which our playback had thrown out to go after greater transparency and less murkiness; more sheen and less dullness; more separation and less thickness?


    Now a Mythology M1 hits its stride. It images far more precisely than my omnis. Its advanced but still directional tweeter array helps (re)create performer halos, venue reflections and a sense of audible space which may (or may not) have been recorded. Either way it enhances the illusion of an acoustic other than our own that envelopes our virtual musicians. The luxo monitor’s absence of box talk relative to monkey coffins enhances clarity of fine detail. Absence of high-pressure bass avoids drowning out the subtle upper harmonics which now emphasize decay lengths for a stronger spatial presence and hone transient exactitude for better timing.

    You get the idea. Missing visual elements—imaging, focus, outline limning, edge contrast, layering, soundstage mapping, separation—can be injected or created to our liking. As audible effects relative to the concert, they’re artificial. They’re hifi effects and better than life. They’re supra-natural. But natural isn’t our concern. What concerns us is how such hifi FX pool into and shape our listening experience.


    If that experience grows deeper, more entrancing, more involving and satisfying, I’d call it all good and to be pursued at even unreasonable costs. I’d just not call it realistic. All that does is out us as not having been to a live concert in far too long to know the difference. I’d focus on making our personal experience as real to ourselves as we can. That says rest in peace to this very pervasive audiophile pretense. At the same time it becomes real is powerful when music lovers embrace the co-creative process to set up an individualistic audio artifice that’s most persuasive to them. And it’s true that what that is, exactly, should be a learning curve. It could change a few times during our hifi tenure. There are so many flavors to pursue, so many sacred cows to roast. And yes, rabble-rousing irritates purists is yet another meaning for today’s 3-letter word of RIP.

    And lest you assume this was it on the subject… far from it. Replace my Cully concert reference with a performance I heard last year in Montreux, of a large symphony orchestra in a very large closed hall without amplified sound reinforcement. If we attempted to replicate that perspective (or that of four Indian percussionists with solo bansuri flute as we enjoyed it during the Divali Festival in Pully; or a string quartet), things would shift again. Different requirements would surface. As I see it, there’s no end to it if one begins with the ambition to recreate the live event.

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    Written by Srajan

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Chai the Bengal cat in a tiny village overlooking the estuary of Ireland’s Shannon river at County Clare’s border with County Kerry. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons and his contributions to Darko.Audio.

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