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The Absolute Sound
Issue 268   December 2016
The "Relative" Sound?
Editorial By Mark Lehman


The Absolute Sound Issue 268 December 2016


  I have a problem with "the absolute sound": I have trouble hearing both the "sound" and the "absolute." But then I'm not an audiophile, merely a devoted music lover.

Which may be why I find it so difficult to hear "sound." It's like trying to hear the sound of the language for a fluent speaker of that language: He hears the meaning rather than the actual sound itself. The brain simply interprets spoken (or indeed written) language directly as meaning. Only when a listener doesn't know the language — what the words and sentences mean—is it easy for him to notice the diphthongs and pitches and plosives by which the language is sonically conveyed. It takes careful training and attentiveness to make the sound of our native tongue perceptible; for most of us, the actual sound of human speech is heard only when the language is (to us) meaningless babble.

Sure, when I first settle into Jonathan Valin's listening room with its array of ultra-high-end speakers and components, I'm stunned by the astonishing detail, transparency, air, imaging, dynamic extension, timbral richness, and rock-solid authority it produces. But my listening quickly adjusts to the "sound" and soon all I hear is the music — the "meaning" of the sound, if you will. Of course better sonic fidelity improves, often greatly, my appreciation of the music's meaning. But that improvement is for the most part subliminally felt, and by no means always crucial. So many times, driving along and listening to my tinny little standard-issue car radio, a song or a concerto that captured my mood has been sheer magic. So many times a dim, scratchy old ten-inch LP from my childhood has cast a spell that awakened bittersweet memories.



Unlike me, a genuine audiophile trains himself to isolate sound from the music it conveys. He may internalize a template of "the absolute sound" — such as "what live music sounds like in a real space" — to which he can compare what he hears on a recording. Hearing, like vision, is, after all, a function of the adaptive brain, not just the ears. (People who get cochlear implants for a deaf ear experience this: The device "sounds terrible" at first — distorted, synthetic, off-pitch — until their neural wiring learns, "trained" by the better ear, to interpret what it's receiving. Now voices and music "sound right" to both ears.)

But not only do I often disregard sonic realism in becoming entranced by the music, I also have difficulty in formulating or accepting a specific paradigm of "absolute sound." I brought up this point in a letter back in Issue 118 (my first appearance in TAS) noting that there is no single privileged or "authentic" auditory perspective for classical music recordings, whether set back in the hall (for more euphonious timbral blending and ambience) or up-close (for greater immediacy and detail). Both are trade-offs; certain sonic virtues are incompatible with each other. Both reflect actual concert experience. Both are equally "realistic" and artistically tenable: "a matter of taste, not a violation of an aesthetic absolute." Robert E. Greene (in his response to my letter) thought differently, finding up-close recordings of concert music a distortion of the composer's intentions. But I find different vantage points enjoyable and enlightening. I look at paintings both up close, scrutinizing tiny brush-strokes, as well as from a distance to comprehend the larger design. I do the same with music (both in concert and via recordings), listening from varying distances. Indeed it's hard to imagine anyone who enjoys "near-field" listening (as I do), let alone listening through headphones, proscribing an up-close perspective. And of course it's "up close" that the performers hear the music.

Recordings always editorialize. Like a photograph, every recording, whether mono, stereo, or multichannel, whether analog, digital, standard, or high-resolution — offers a point of view, but never the only possible one. I don't think there's necessarily an "absolute" sound any more than there's necessarily an "absolute" or ideal performance of musical compositions (in all genres — rock and pop, jazz and roots, folk and world music, as well as classical). Different interpretations and even different arrangements often reveal different merits in the music.

This isn't to say there isn't better or worse, in both sound quality and musical quality. Of course there is. But I vote for audiophile pluralism. There are many different ways to be very, very good — many ways to ascend the mountain, and many fine vistas at the top.


— Mark Lehman




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