KIH #32 – The infinite realities of playback

  • In-laws, outlaws and other deviants. On absolutes vs. relatives (where relatives aren’t your in-laws). The notion of the absolute sound is abstract, elitist, erroneous and misleading. If the ideal were the sound of unamplified instruments in a concert setting as Harry Pearson of The Abso!ute Sound proposed at the time, the vast majority of modern music with its reliance on at least amplified bass would automatically disqualify. Talk about obnoxious snobbism. If acoustic concerts additionally meant classical, not folk or any other type of unplugged music, it’d be exclusionary snot all over again. What about choice of venue and your seat and row within it? Any changes in those very variable parameters hugely impact sonics.

    Still, none of it begins to consider the recording, the number, type and setup of microphones used, the amount of post processing applied, the splicing of passages to cut out flaws.  All of it impacts the sound and alters the feel and flow of an uncut live event. It forever overwrites what two ears would have heard during the original performance. What’s even remotely absolute about any of it? The misleading bit becomes an underlying assumption – that there exists just one right way to set up the absolute sound. The plain truth is, there are any number of sound flavours which correlate with different types of venues, sitting distances, music styles and recording techniques. The ideal of an absolute sound is a useless abstraction whilst also being pure, uncompromising and unambiguous as most ideals tend to be. Reality of course bites back. That is far more ambiguous and messy. 50 shades of grey. Enter pragmatism which is far less sexy.


    Settling down with one system obviously locks us down into one fixed flavour. The broader our musical tastes, the more varied the demands become which different music places on our playback gear. Now a setup which was carefully groomed and tuned to excel at large-scale classical for example (substitute that with anything, say intimate Jazz, electronica, grunge, Country Western, Pop, Rock and the lot) must by its very design be less than perfect and custom-tailored to other music types. That’s always the curse of specialization. You wouldn’t see an ear, nose and throat doctor for knee surgery or a tooth ache.

    From this very basic survey follows the obvious: our musical diet must dictate our hardware choices. That’s what sits in the driver’s seat. Do we want a hyper-critical system that extols one particular genre to be more compromised on others? Do we want a Jack o’ all trades who’ll be fine with anything but perhaps brilliant on nothing? To sort out a few key options, consider amplified versus acoustic music. Music in a club or arena setting uses microphones in front of its performers. Those are key to achieve the desired SPL for its larger audiences. The microphones feed sound reinforcement rigs (amplifiers + speakers). What’s more, certain instruments on stage like synth keyboards, bass and electric guitars already funnel through gain kit of their own. That could be a Mesa Boogie, Peavey, Marshall or Fender stack using a variety of tubes routinely pushed into deep distortion.


    A typical upshot of sound reinforcement are images significantly larger than the actual vocalists or players who create them; a bassier tonal balance; high SPL mixed into which is plenty of audience din to cause low dynamic range (everything is loud most of the time); and a dense fat dark sound. Acoustic performers lack SPL assist. They are quieter. This means either smaller venues or large ensembles. To hear everything, it also forces their audiences to be quieter. Hence the typical grave-like atmosphere of symphonic or chamber-music events. As a direct consequence, their effective dynamic range is higher (the difference between quietest and loudest passages) even if peak SPL are thankfully lower than with Rock or Heavy Metal concerts. Pure acoustic images are smaller, their tonal balance is less bassy and upper harmonics exhibit more energy. The closer to stage one sits, the more separation, transient sharpness and treble brilliance survive. As one moves deeper into the farfield, the venue’s reflective sound field begins to dominate over direct sound. This mixes in more blended, soft, reverberant and diffuse elements.

    This brief lay of the land already gave us four basic flavours: club and acoustic sound, each in its own nearfield and farfield perspective. To do club sound justice wants a large dense wall of sound with powerful bass and high SPL. To do acoustic sound justice wants more finesse, articulation and focus. It also needs higher dynamic range, lower SPL and more treble energy. For either, a nearfield perspective increases volume, impact, sharpness, speed and precision. For both, a farfield perspective reduces volume, softens transitions, damps down speed and enriches tone with acoustic reverb. Once we introduce electronic music with its inclusion of unnaturally low synth bass, we add the demand for more LF bandwidth and power. The same goes for aficionados of large church organs. This means bigger speakers and/or subwoofers.


    But there’s still more bandwidth to sonic flavours. 2-channel playback is based on the stereophonic triangle illusion. That’s an artifice or mind fuck synthesized by our brain. Naturally its owner the brain surgeon is at full liberty to style, tweak and personalize said artifice. Are we soundstage freaks, tone fetishists, dynamic junkies, transparency trippers? Are we party animals or daydreamers, airy fairies or density dungeon dwellers? Verbal fencing aside, any aural aspect or attribute which review lingo covers may be prioritized to meet a listener’s personal brain tease programme. Because there are so many options; and because humans have a low tolerance for boredom triggered by sameness; we fête the cyclical buy’n’sell habit of AudiogoN. It indulges our curiosity about other sound flavours in serial monogamy fashion.

    Let’s talk tools of the trade. If we prioritize transparency, panel speakers (electrostatics, planarmagnetics, ribbons or open baffles) are good choices. By eliminating the box, they eliminate the boxy sound. But by eliminating the rear-wave loading of a box, they also pressurize a room differently. That’s particularly relevant in the bass. Their ‘depressurized’ behaviour often becomes less suitable for amplified music and electronica which rely on goosed LF with potent kick and shove. If you prioritize the higher charge of the nearfield perspective’s direct sound, you may prefer listening in the nearfield. You could prefer steep toe-in to maximize direct sound and attenuate reflected sound. You could enjoy horns whose geometry bundles sound for more directivity whilst their efficiency advantages increase dynamic reflexes.


    With a predominant diet of amplified music styles, you’ll likely prefer regular dynamic box speakers. That’s the speaker type of bass/e-guitar amps and sound reinforcement artillery. And box bass rather than panel/OB bass is what you’re already used to and imprinted by. This also calls for bigger woofers that move real air. If you want to maximize impact, speed and lucidity, you could favour direct-coupled wide-bandwidth transistor amps without signal-path capacitors; and smaller drivers. If you always gravitate to the farther rows away from stage, you could fancy the effects of higher THD in certain valve amps. That plays to similar qualities. Hard well-damped drivers with metallic or ceramic diaphragms and their break-up modes often capture the nearfield’s sharper more pungent qualities better. Softer cellulose/textile drivers tone it down some to more play to the farfield aroma.

    If your tastes or living conditions as a conscientious neighbour object to high SPL, you should consider high-sensitivity speakers. They are more effective at translating small voltage flickers; and they come on song sooner. If live amplified music or the general farfield are your ideal, true omnipolar speakers from the likes of mbl, German Physiks and Duevel are arguably closest to how live sound propagates and activates its surrounding space (in all directions, not like a beamy flash light). On the endless debate of tubes vs. transistors, here’s a brief quote from a man who works in both fields (Dan Wright of ModWright): “I love the sound we achieved with our all-tube designs. With them, soundstage depth, presence and musicality are astounding. And, pure solid-state designs still have greater speed, dynamics and detail. There is a trade-off. Both do specific things very well. I am hoping to achieve the ultimate amp by combining our best tube gain stages with our best transistor current amplifier.” If you focus on Dan’s strengths for either, you have a good seasoning strategy.


    Of course playback really isn’t about live sound at all. It’s all about recorded sound and naught else. Here artifice and trickery of the recording studio are endless. Musicians may play in isolated sound booths communicating only via headphones and windows. Some of them may even pipe in as pre-recorded tracks from elsewhere. Microphones are placed were no human ears would ever go. The recording engineer may apply electronic reverb, dynamic compression, frequency response adjustments, SPL trim, pitch correction and timing tweaks whilst the mastering engineer can and will apply further post processing (that’s what he gets paid for). The notion of recorded purity is often dirtier than 5-day old freeway snow. In the majority of cases, any ‘pure window on the performance’ claim is a hoax when the recording itself is a massively manipulated affair cobbled together of bits and pieces.


    But that’s the reality of playback. We must work with what we’re given. If all we listen to is audiophile-approved geek crap, we can tweak our systems to maximize their high production values. If instead we’re musical omnivores who listen to a lot of poorer productions, our systems must make them enjoyable. Otherwise our hardware dictates to us what we end up listening to. Whenever the tail wags the dog, someone’s gotta scream “sit, baaad dog!” Never mind how the entire notion of owning a hifi is pure luxury. For centuries, mankind has done without it. What would be idiocy is an unenjoyable luxury like a sucky vacation or downer party which one must recover from afterwards. Our hifis ought to be like any other home appliance that gets used regularly, be it a washing machine, toaster or coffee maker. If we pick the right appliances for the job, we stop fretting and obsessing over them. Instead we get on with enjoying the fruits of their labour: hot coffee, crisp toast, clean clothes and an hour of whatever music serves our fancy that day. The best hifi systems aren’t those which the glossies or various show reports write up. The best ones are those whose owners use and enjoy them the most. That means a hifi which pleases you. Family you don’t get to pick. You’re born into it.  Later, in-laws just come with the wedding package. They could be far from your personal choice. Not so the average hifi. You only pick what suits you, anyone else’s opinion be damned. Perhaps today’s brief overview over some basic options can help you verbalize your own needs which then lead to identifying what best matches them. Good dog. Woof!


    More of Srajan’s audio world commentary can be found at his own 6moons.

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    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 Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. Written by a man who listens exclusively to CD (predominantly loudness-maximised these days), and the same author who makes such a worthless site. Still, at least he managed to write without mentioning ‘gestalt’ for a change. It’s easy to take pops at the passed-away, isn’t it, but I wonder who and what will be better remembered and respected ultimately — ‘Sgt. Ebay’ and, or Harry Pearson and The Absolute Sound…

      • In the same way that disagreement shouldn’t be confused with disrespect, to challenge a man’s philosophy or point of view is not the same as denigrating his legacy or reputation.

    2. Most ‘absolute sound’ advocates are implicitly advocating Aristotelian mimesis. That is ‘art as representation.’ And for the well-heeled audiophile that often is a manifestation of recreating the artist in the living area as a sign being able to buy satisfaction, buy the artist, to literally OWN the work of art, ‘its mine.’
      Now consider the following comments by Wilde:
      “The temperament to which Art appeals … is the temperament of receptivity. That is all.
      If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. And the more completely he can suppress his own silly views, his own foolish prejudices, his own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely he is to understand and appreciate the work of art in question.”
      I say,
      Music is a stimuli to creativity in one’s life. A means of separation from the ‘daily grind’, a meditation really. A way to open up vistas of ones own mind and spirit.
      Equipment is a means to bettering one’s self through music.
      That is my view.

      Good to see Srajan on another site:)
      I highly recommend Six Moons. It is always stimulating reading.

    3. One of the best takes on audio reproduction that has recently appeared. Lots of real world insight and a more pragmatic take on music reproduction in the home. Lots of real insight to chew on.

    4. Relating this to my own current world, the Devialet Phantom knock the low end rumble of electronica and techno out of the park; they put me mid-dance floor, 3am. However, if I want to get front row with Fela Kuti or Tim Buckley, I look to the higher eff Spatial Audio M4 with the Vinnie Rossi LIO.

      Once we acknowledge that no single system config can nail all music genres, does it follow that multiple less costly rigs with different personality traits are the way to have your cake and eat it?

      • Respectfully I would say no. Instead of a 911 turbo would it be better to have a 30k sedan, 30k minivan, and 30k pickup? Pragmatically absolutely the three vehicles make more sense. But you know very well you would take the 911 if it were in your means to do so.
        IE there is a system way above the Phantom and Rossi that would blow the doors off the respective positive qualities of those.
        Go up not down. just do it for the right reasons.

        • But if you *only* have the 911 you can never go off-road. How much of an issue that is will depend on the owner.

          And of course there’ll be gear that bests the Rossi/Spatial and the Devialets – I’m merely calling out their qualitative strengths with respect to the music I most often listen to; there are many routes to happiness.

          • Absolutely. And I read you and Srajan because I can glean from your observations a good idea of the products strenghths and weakness. I could probably be happy for a long time with a few Naim Mu-so’s around the house. But I would still read you guys because its an enjoyable experience.

    5. Personally, I’d pass on the 911 scenario – i.e sinking all one’s available hifi budget into one über system. No matter what that might be, it’d be *static*. And in my hifi experience (and watching others), sameness no matter how brilliant plays to boredom and eventual discontent. I’d rather have a number of lesser bits and bobs which allow changing things out and with it, steer the flavour of the presentation.

      Back to the car analogy, sometimes you want to go fast. Sometimes you want to take guests on a comfy scenic ride through your area and have enough attention for spirited conversation whilst you drive. Sometimes you want to go to Ikea and buy something big that must fit into your ride. And sometimes you want to hit a beach down a bumpy dirt road; or go up a snowy mountain that requires floor clearance and 4-wheel drive.

      For most of us with just one car/system, we look at the things it must do – and then we get what fits that list of requirements and compromise on the things we do very rarely; or disregard them entirely. I’d reckon that a 911 wouldn’t serve most of us most of the time -:)

      In my case, I do classical music quite rarely. I used to play it as a musician, now it’s mostly a past life. So my system isn’t optimized for it. But I do favour more unplugged acoustic music over Rock and Pop, hence my hifi plays to what becomes important then. And by changing out a few things, I can reconfigure it to get more specialized toward another musical style.

      That’s back to musical tastes dictating hardware choices; and that the requirements for large-scale classical, coloratura sopranos, big choirs, church organ, Baroque period ensembles, heavy metal, arena rock, Pop and electronica are really quite different (and in some aspects, nearly mutually exclusive). I’d be surprised if one could design a 911-type system that was uncompromised no matter the musical material. Do you guys think it’s possible?

      • I’m confused. In key #31 you wrote of the virtues of simplicity in hifi. Now you seem to be advocating different gear for different musical styles. What’s more complicated than that? So I begin my evening with jazz, and if I desire to switch to rock I have to swap out gear? No way. I’m willing to accept the necessary compromises for the sake of simplicity.

    6. well I do hate the bmw x6 type vehicle which attempts it. So the evidence is leaning toward you…
      Let’s try wine. For me personally a $40 bottle is really, really nice. I freely admit I could not discern a $400 from a $40 in a blind test. but I surely could pick out a $4 bottle.
      Avrs have attempted for years to have various eq settings to approxomate types of music. For the audiophile it has failed.
      I ask you guys, who have access to much more equipment, what about A) a digital front end that has USEFUL filters, I am thinking the new Quad Artera play? Or B) something like a Lyngdorf or Devialet seems very close to having the ability to morph the system a click that would in fact satisfy the audiophile?
      I also admit that what I like musically, ethiopiques, hindustani, old school dub reggae, fusion jazz, african guitar and (groan) new age dies does not fall into ‘audiophile’. hyper resolution is most likely not my need. And your article addressed this very well, different folks have different priorities.
      Keep up the good work. Always stimulated to think by your writing.

    7. Suppose there are three types of people. Those who seek pleasure from external stimuli, those who renounce the world seeking liberation and those who yearn to draw close to God. Now if stereo a has you listening to techno at 3am, stereo b dissecting a quartet note by note and c has you immersed in the prema of bhakti inspired bhajans all day every day…know thyself friends.
      I think three modes might cover it. At least roughly.

    8. Angelo: These pieces are just meant to make you think. Disagreement is a perfectly valid response.
      That includes me disagreeing with myself. I might present one point of view in one feature, another one in the next. If there were a one-size-fits-all recipe, we’d all have been ‘done’ a long time ago.

      Pick one system you’re happy with. If you’re honest, you’ll likely have to admit that whilst it serves your needs and musical tastes, it can’t do everything equally well – but it does those things well which are important to you. By implication, another system perhaps at a friend’s would do other things better (but which actually may not matter to you) … and from that we’re right back at the heart of this article which says that software ought to dictate hardware; and that the requirements between amplified and acoustic music are quite different and in certain ways mutually exclusive to make it impossible to have one system that serves everything equally brilliantly…

      Anyone who has attended a number of hifi shows probably already knows that many of their systems sound from meh to outright bad when you ask to spin non-audiophile stuff (if they even let you). Then there are exceptions like Zu Audio who specialize in what audiophiles would probably call “rebellious” music (the more snobbish may not even call some of it ‘music’). Now try some large-scale classical music or a Baroque period ensemble or a coloratura soprano on a Zu kind system to see whether such a counter proposal to audiophilia is any better at presenting what to it now are the ‘opposites’.

      And yes, some of what crafty setup experts achieve mechanically and on geometry (exactly where they place speakers relative to the seat and the room’s boundaries to best play the space) can be achieved with strategic response tweaks, say a plug-in for PureMusic. That’d be the modern digital equivalent of vintage analog tone controls – except far more flexible. You could save multiple EQ settings and call them ‘Pop’, ‘low SPL’, ‘classical’, ‘dance hall’ and so forth.

      Such EQ doesn’t impact loudspeaker dispersion patterns which control how sound radiates in your space; and what frequency bands are being reinforced by how much by boundaries; and how much delayed in time. But a strategic application of an extra dB in the midrange somewhere, a small cut in the presence region, a light lift in the upper bass… all of that would go quite a way towards tailoring the sound without requiring hardware shuffles. Of course EQ and tone controls are four-letter words in the audiophile lexicon so you’d have to think outside that box…

      There is even such a thing as tube emulator software; and if you looked long enough (I haven’t), you might even discover a plug-in that lets you alter total harmonic distortion.

      • Thank you for the response. I’ve made a lot of changes to my hifi the last few years and it could be that I’m just fatigued by all the research and so forth that went into it. I’m in a period where I just want to enjoy my music and not think too much about it. Speaking of which, I listen to about 70% jazz and the rest rock/metal. I’m pretty happy with the sound most of the time. Could just be that I’m blissfully ignorant 🙂

    9. ‘Obnoxious snobbism’…?
      Blimey! Half the US based, so-called ‘audiophile’ websites come immediately to mind…

    10. Thanks for the Article Mr. Ebaen… Always appreciate your words. And forcing people to look at the obsessive “Audiogon” cycle. You get trapped in that cycle and you forget music… You become an empty consumer, who is just looking for pretty aluminum boxes etc.

      Find what you need…. get it, and get on with life! 6Moons and DAR are still a good read even if you aren’t “researching”….Proud to say I’m no longer chasing the “upgrade” dragon… Just had to admit to myself what it was and acknowledge that I don’t need Mt. Everest quality playback…. just good enough.

      My music tastes are informed by heavy exposure to live music… I grew up in Santa Barbara about a mile from a club there that used to host weekly live shows with some great underground acts… From The Ramones, to Bad Religion to Jawbreaker to early Green Day ( I saw them 4 times before they exploded on the scene with their 3rd album Dookie), Tool, Henry Rollins, Blur, the Stone Roses, Smashing Pumpkins, and old school reggae like Toots and Maytals, Desmond Decker, The Slickers, Hepcat… My teenage years were a blast.

      As I got older I got into oldies, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, CCR, Zeppelin, Yardbirds, and then started seeking out the roots rock, Bo Diddley, Leadbelly, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Little Richard, Buddy Guy and still keep up with modern underground stuff. Literally a couple hundred other acts in there that I can’t mention here but the point is that I needed both.

      I needed a system that can do big rock and intimate nuanced stuff too… So I opted for tasters choice and deep near field…. My system centers on headphones.

      1 delta sigma dac just because, 1 R2R dac to speak to my concert going self, 1 tube amp, 1 solid state amp. 2 sets of premium headphones and a pair of well maintained vintage speakers in case the wife gets curious about my collection of noise.

      Keep It Real!

    11. You’ve come up with what I consider to be the perfect solution – two DAC flavours, two amp flavours, 2 headphone flavours (plus a set of speakers). That gives you a *lot* of possible combination to address boredom from sameness. And let’s face it, that boredom (no matter how good something is) sits at the root of the AudioGon virus. Well done. Mr. Fed -:)

    12. I read a rather disrespectful and angry reply to your article. I respectfully disagree with him. Perhaps his anger is a reflection of allegiance to a long-time keeper of the high end flame. Harry was a great writer and great ears with, by his own admission limited technical comprehension in the extreme. Not only do you have good ears you have a wide grasp of the various ‘flavors’ that define the preferences of various ‘camps’. You, like Harry, are very skilled as a writer. From reading many of your articles over the years it is apparent you have a significant and functional grasp of the technical underpinnings which result in the flavors loved by those same camps, something Harry never possessed. Music and musical reproduction in our homes should be fun, yet I’m continually perplexed by the rage, vilification and outright character assassination unleashed on anyone, you in this case, who disagrees with their world view. Keep up the good work Srajan.

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