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KIH #43: Feeling so real

  • R-rated®. For hifi, is expecting realism realistic? After giving the dastardly n-word of neutrality a friendly grilling in the last interrogation slash instalment, today’s turn is for its R-rated cousin. When I read about people referencing symphonic music to test playback realism, I’m aghast. Your average living room converted into a hifi temple might host an actual jazz trio. Perhaps it’d do a string quartet or woodwind quintet. Regardless, you’d likely sit much closer than ideal. But a 70-head orchestra? No way, Johann. I don’t care how palatial your crib. You’d not fit an orchestra into it. Even Andreas Vollenweider’s band at the Montreux Jazz Festival sprawled out in excess of 15 metres wide. For the six-Nines 99-percenters, playing back his music involves considerable miniaturization already. What to say of orchestral forces?

    For most music then, our hunt for realism subtracts scale as a matter of course. This becomes most glaringly obvious with headfi. Tiny people bop and shove around inside our skull trying to get out. Mind, I’m not dismissing headphones. I really love them. For knowing what’s on my albums relative to tonal balance and micro detail unaffected by room acoustics, I have no better judge. For listening when the house is asleep; when I’m out and about; there’s nothing else. I’d just never call the experience realistic. What I would call it is immersive and intimate in ways speakerfi can’t be. It’s two different kettle of fish. Life music is the third. Never the three shall swim in the same pond.

    Once we’ve deleted realistic physical scale – of five or more musicians occupying our digs with a drum kit, grand piano, double bass and sundry whilst we sit 3 metres from them – can we revisit realism with a straight face? On the face of it, I think not. Regardless of bandwidth, live voices and instruments propagate omni. Unless we use omnipolar speakers like mbl, Duevel and German Physiks, conventional direct radiators with their bundling beaming tweeters misbehave relative to live music. How they interact with our room versus how actual musicians would play it is different. That affects tonal balance and density. It’s not the same. Different needn’t be worse by the way, just different. But how can it mean realism?

    How about realistic dynamic scale? Whilst musicians do adapt loudness to venue, the fact that most ensembles play venues far bigger than our actual listening spaces means they must do it louder. Else their paying audiences would fall asleep. If during playback we attempt dynamic realism, most people mean SPL matched to what they’d be live. Isn’t it obvious how that’d be far too loud? As a result, our room pressurizes in ways real musicians wouldn’t tolerate. They’d back off naturally. Again, when I read of symphonic music played back at ‘realistic’ levels, in a (cough!) 5x7m living room, I’m dumbfounded. How could it track? But there’s more. Your front-row seating at home is probably 3-4 metres i.e. your sitting distance from the speakers. In a real concert hall, the first-row violins should be thrice that far away at least and far more in first row balcony. Your home ceiling is perhaps 3 metres. The concert hall ceiling might be 20. That means the concertgoer’s SPL include far more reflected sound, hence far less transient brightness. Accordingly, “realistic” sound pressure levels at home aren’t just disproportionate to venue, their relative nearfield effect includes far sharper direct sounds. No wonder unrealistic playback SPL can be so unpleasant – never mind the high chance that at least somewhere across the audible bandwidth, they already contain distortion.

    What to say of attempts at reproducing a full-scale pipe organ that’s housed in a massive cathedral? A 30-foot aka 10-metre pipe wouldn’t even fit into your room without penetrating the next two storeys above. Even two rock drummers with their widely spaced kits eclipse in width what most people have at their disposal for between their loudspeakers. If you’ve ever stood close to an energetic drummer whacking away in kill-‘em overdrive, you’d not want to do that to your ears at home. Ever. It’s painfully loud. Why bother with cannon blasts on a Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture? It’s downright idiotic: “I’ve got cannons in my crib.”

    In short, I contend that hifi realism and related expectations are unrealistic. That doesn’t discredit the illusion of musicians appearing virtually in our modest rooms. Good systems can be bloody amazing at how they fool our senses. It’s simply a very different experience. It should, and in fact very much can, stand on its own two feet and terms. It puts us in control. We decide when to listen, what to listen to. There are no audience coughs, no costly tickets, no last-minute ticket cancellations, and no bad performances (unless we deliberately pick them). With judicious hardware choices and setup savvy, we shape our aural environment exactly to our liking. We become co-creators. We assemble playlists that would never happen live. We hit ‘repeat’ or ‘shuffle’ or ‘pause’ whenever we please. It’s freedom. It’s entertainment. It can be gloriously emotional and rejuvenating. Personally, I’d just not invoke the R-word. But that doesn’t mean you can’t. In fact, if you listen solely to acoustic guitar, you might know very well what you’re talking about!

    And before lovers of classical feel tweaked, I understand perfectly well why ambitious audiophiles use such music to judge gear by. It’s arguably the most demanding in terms of dynamic range, timbre diversity and soundstage complexity. If anything is off—if massed strings glare, trombones sound like French horns, violas like violins and soprano divas dent your tweeters— the educated listener can tell immediately. On that level, it is a grand jury. The verdict just couldn’t be realistic. What’s more, excelling at massive orchestral music does not imply that a system will be equally brilliant at bass-heavy hip-hop or rock with screeching overdrive guitars. The demands are different. And we haven’t even begun to poke fun at notions of realism when classical recordings are done with ceiling-suspended microphones where no human ears would ever be; with individual microphones for various instrumental cadres to allow discrete mixing; and spliced in multiple takes to eradicate botched solos or other errors. Realistic? Far from it. Enjoyable? You bet…

    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. As Brian Eno once said, “A movie is not made by pointing a camera at a theatre stage for the duration of a play”. The two – stage play and movie – are entirely different experiences.

      As a fan of rock and electronic music (both amplified within their live venue scenarios) and as someone who writes for similarly-minded people, I’ve no interest in putting a nightclub or a rock band in my lounge room. The live gig and home/headphone listening are entirely different experiences and get different things from each with only a very little cross-pollination between the two. I don’t expect my listening to Built to Spill at home to come close to what I see/hear when I see them live in a room full of other people, playing at higher SPLs and sounding less polished.

    2. Interesting. But I’d go the other way and say that hyper-realism is actually the goal. At live and unamplified concerts I often close my eyes and try to place the individual players. The complex acoustics of the room or hall, however high-tech, always make it impossible to do more than guess. When listening to a recording, the musicians are not actually present in front of you, so to counteract the empty space between the speakers, I think it’s necessary for your system to produce an artificial and more-than-real sound that also mimics the ambience of the performance space. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a single instrument or an entire orchestra: the mark of success is the power of the illusion. I don’t have an expensive setup, but the first piece I listen to always startles me with its sudden creation of a completely different, but entirely convincing, sound ambience.

    3. Reading your treatise on realism and how it can’t be, reminds me of movies. I can never be in the picture but I can surely enjoy it while watching. And with the advances made possible, I enjoy it even more at home than in the theater. I can chose the TV, seating, lighting and sound, tailoring it my liking. Theaters pale in comparison to what I can achieve at home. Granted, I lose the big screen effect, but the adjustment is quite easy and now, automatic.

      I can see why my sense of hearing can adjust as well: shrinking the stage, keeping the SPLs at saner levels, and using my imagination for the rest. The only things that matter, and make it “realistic”, are tone, texture, and the ability to scale dynamically. One must have some touchstones to base it on.

    4. Hi,
      Having heard an NAD M2 feeding a large pair of Sonus Faber floorstanders, I can attest to the fact that you CAN give the illusion of great depth when you get the synergy between speakers, amp and room right. I heard an orchestra that had amazing depth and precise placement on a virtually deep stage. Dynamics were there too given the amp’s power output combined with the speaker’s ability to reproduce loud undistorted sound. Very inspiring.

    5. Eric: I agree with you 100%. Because hifi lacks actual visuals, it must compensate elsewhere. So aural hyper realism or however we decide to call it can intensify the illusion and get us even more involved, tricking us into quasi ‘seeing’ invisible ghost performers. Spot on. So it seems altogether best to chuck the silly ‘realism’ idea and simply go after what produces the strongest suspension of disbelief. If that’s hyper realism, why not?

      What I’ve been trying to do with some of these articles is to ‘deconstruct’ the typical approach to hifi commentary; and to see what is left when we poke holes into ideas of realism, neutrality and sundry references. If none of those things are terribly useful (because, to begin with, they mean different things to different people)… what might replace them?

    6. I recently compared two phono preamps in my home and ended up chosing the one I thought made my music sound more “life-like.” Now, i don’t really believe that a musical performanc would sound the same in my home as it would live. I just came up with a description that matched my emotional response to the preamp I liked better. I think that’s where most of the audio terminology comes from; grasping to find words too describe our feelings.

    7. Thank you for bringing realism in listening. It helps me to keep perspective and enjoy the music more.

    8. Dont even get me started on the acoustics at venues in Oz – for years we had to make do with nothing better than a ‘barn’ for visiting rock acts in Sydney and even our famous Opera House has an unfortunate reputation for poor acoustics – must be those %&*$# sails the designer insisted on 😉

      So, its the Vienna Philharmonic IN Vienna or nothing, eh wot ? Suddenly there’s method in Darko’s madness ! 😀

      McLovin, still spelling Kulture with a K

    9. For a lot of the music I listen to, reality doesn’t even exist. The songs are recorded in a studio, but the master doesn’t correspond to a single, beginning-to-end performance – it combines bits and pieces from multiple of them.

    10. I once heard a gentleman tell Margaret Throsby, on Australia’s ABC Classic FM, that ALL recorded music was untrue and therefor pointless. His dislike of recorded sound was startling.
      I could see where he was going; he had taken this very argument right up his own fundament.

    11. Well, a painting of a person is untrue as well – ‘cept in the days before photography, that’s all people had as keepsakes of loved ones. Think of arranged marriages during the Baroque where the husband-to-be saw a miniature drawing of his intended in a locket (hopefully she got one of him as well) and had to say yeah or nay (well, looking at her bank account was another big factor).

      For most styles of paintings (photo realist excepted), nobody expects realism. It’s obvious that we’re dealing with an art form whose charm lies in abstracting, reducing, enhancing, altering, interpreting and so forth reality. Why should recorded music, as an art form, be any different? Like Vlad said, electronic music is often generated layer upon layer, with no original performance at all. It’s wholly artificial. So what?

      I just think that being the case, reviewer language of “a pure window on the performance”, “spot on neutral”, “like-like”, “the most realistic” and so forth is antiquated and quite irrelevant. Of course it’s one thing to point out flaws, quite another to suggest something better -:)

    12. There is another way to look at this issue.

      Lets say the width of an orchestra is 15 meters (not sure if this is correct, but for illustration it will do).

      My sonic perception of this width, sitting 20 or 30 rows back, is not 15 meters. It may be 10 meters or less. And as I move further back, my perception of the orchestra continues to shrink.

      Since my system recreates a soundstage that reaches beyond the walls of my living room, I have a pretty wide reproduction of an orchestra. Maybe 7 meters.

      A perceived 7 meter wide orchestra is pretty accurate to what is experienced in various seats in a concert hall.

    13. I agree 100% with your views… we cant get anywhere close to what a real band might sound like in a live venue (studio or otherwise).. so pick your poison.. focus on what makes it more real for you and bugger anyone else’s view or opinion…. whats on the record is an artistic view point and so should our reproduction of that.

      I listen on the long wall (8 metres) and mainly listen to older (50’s/60’s/70’s) small combo blues and jazz groups.

      All my sources are 2 channel but I synthesize ambient echos with a box from Dynavector to get 4 channels.

      Much of the music (esp jazz) is recorded live in the studio but with instruments hard panned left or right…seemed to be the way back in the day.

      So with careful speaker placement (been literally refining that for a decade) I can stretch the hard panning to a very high degree to get the instruments to scale (as I might hear in a small club), which is to say I can have a sound stage thats 8m wide.

      However…aside from the scale being close to life like, as you say, SPL’s are impossible to match… not specifically because my system couldnt get close but because it would overwhelm my room and my ears.

      But I am lucky I guess… the type of music I listen to and the one thing that is the most important for my listening realism… scale… can by pretty much achieved.


    14. Any recording is only ever a facsimile, the joy comes when the recording, equipment, room acoustics comes together to triggers a similar emotional response to what a real performance might sound like in a live venue. Even if the scale or dynamics are wrong the emotion can still be conveyed. I personally rate a systems ability to convey emotion as the number one priority.

    15. Hello Srajan,

      I’ve read your last two colums with intrest and i understand what you’re trying to say. However words like neutral and realism do help me when i’m reading a review. Aside from what neutral is in hifi, it is a word that exist in our language and a word that immediately makes all kinds of connections in our brain. The same with realism.

      People who write about hifi (like you and John) are trying to describe sound with the few words they have at their disposal. All the reviews and words i’ve read about my gear for instance have helped me with my purchase. In fact i didn’t listen to any of my stuff and bought everything on line. Here in Belgium hifi shops are few. So what is a guy to do.

      The sound i get from my system, the good things and the bad, is exactly what i read in the reviews. Fast, detailed, unforgiving, entertaining, clean, crisp, analytical and also neutral… All these terms can be seen as positive and negative. Even entertaining. I like the fact my set is fast and revealing when i’m listening to my electronic collection.

      I’m listening to Thomas Fehlmann as i’m writing this and the speed and detail is just astounding. I discover new things every day and sometimes a sound scares the hell out of me or i go in the kitchen looking for a certain noise. I bought this album in 1998 when i was ‘studying’ in Gent and listened to it at least a hundred times. At least. The best system at the time would have been a seventies amp i got from my granddad with grundig pro speakers. At the time i didn’t realise how good that set-up actually was. It just played loud and that’s all i wanted it to do.

      All the latest gear however is very (too?) revealing and so you get into all kinds of trouble. When i listen to my vocal stuff 50% doesn’t work. Biggest problem with my set and room is sibilance and lack of warmth. Another fuzzy term perhaps. So i do agree 100% with you that one set doesn’t work with all kinds of music. But for me all words can guide me into the right direction.

      Ps: Very interested in your view on the adagio, how you will decribe it. Reviews in dutch say it’s about as ‘neutral’ as it gets 🙂

    16. The Adagio has been shipped so I reckon you and I both should find out soon enough -:)

      As to the n- and r-words, if one follows a given writer for a bit, one tends to get a good sense about their scaling relative to one’s own. Then words are no longer absolute but personal and applicable. It’s when such terms assume (or pretend at) absolutism that, to my mind, they become useless and misleading. It’s why I think that The Abso!ute Sound title for a magazine is poor even though I appreciate its genesis there and what it attempts to stand for.

      In the end, we need words to communicate. As long as the intended meaning comes across, all is well.

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