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…