That’s Just How the Record Sounds

It’s an error commonly made in evaluating hi-fi–system performance: the failure to listen differentially. Differential as in compared to something else. “Something else” could be a different recording on the same system or (especially this) the same recording on a different system. The question is, what are you comparing it to? The point is: Do you really know what that recording sounds like?

When it comes to evaluating equipment, audio engineers—especially those who specialize in naturalistic recordings—have an advantage. Someone like John Atkinson—I wrote “someone like,” though really he’s a category of one—knows better than anyone what his own recordings sound like. John was there at the beginning, in the same room, or monitoring nearby via well-known components. He decided what’s on the recording. Even so, even for him, all the evidence of what’s on there is indirect, via his monitoring equipment. The very notion of a recorded sound, independent of a reproduction system, is fraught.

Still, given a choice of whom to trust—the recording/mastering engineer or someone hearing a song for the first time—I’ll take the engineer every time. The engineer is far better prepared to listen differentially—plus, engineers are analytical about sound, which is usually, if not always, a good thing. Read on.

As I write this, I’m listening to skinty fia, the most recent (though not that recent) album from Fontaines D.C., produced by Dan Carey, who, way back in 2005, produced Fisherman’s Woman by Icelandic chanteuse Emilíana Torrini, one of my 2016 Records to Die For. I first encountered Fontaines D.C. via the band’s previous slab, A Hero’s Death, which I immediately loved. Then I listened to their debut album, Dogrel. I liked that one even more.

I’m not sure why I like this band so much; they just have a certain sound—though isn’t a certain sound the first thing we fall for when we fall in love musically? To experience Fontaines D.C.’s certain sound at its most characteristic and inviting, listen to “Jackie Down the Line,” this album’s first single and the fourth song on side 1.

I’m listening on LP, Partisan PTKF3016-3. When the album’s second song—”Big Shot”—started up, my subconscious mind told me the record was spinning too slow. As soon as that thought rose to consciousness, though, I dismissed it: I haven’t listened to this music in months, so how would I know? I measured just to be sure: The SME’s platter speed was precise.

skinty fia is not a demo-quality album. It does not sound live. The sound is slightly distant, the soundstage narrow, contained between the speakers, which is odd for such big music. In its favor, Carey’s production (and the work of engineer Alexis Smith) is straightforward, unaffected, no fancy tricks.

If I were to listen to skinty fia on an unknown system, and I found it sounded like live music, we’d have a problem, because that’s not the way this record sounds.

Few albums are recorded in a naturalistic way, and even those with such ambitions rarely succeed. As Stereophile writer and audio engineer Tom Fine reminded me in a recent correspondence, achieving natural sound is rarely as easy as using a single stereo pair of good microphones, carefully placed, or by employing any other purist-recording dogma (footnote 1). That kind of recording tends to draw attention to itself.

Speaking of dogma and repeated listening: It is common to criticize the music used in demo rooms at hi-fi shows—but hey, at least those tracks are familiar, which makes differential listening easier. Faint praise.

Worst of all are songs played for decades, for no reason I can think of except habit and a lack of imagination. Why are they still playing “Hotel California,” from 1977, when that year also offered Even in the Quietest Moments, ELO’s Out of the Blue, and Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams, among other fine albums? None of these are demo-quality, but then neither is Hotel California.

Almost as bad are the industry’s recent crushes, chosen for audiophile virtues more than musical quality, which surface regularly and stick around for a couple of years before dying a slow death—painful only to the listeners as they (the songs) lay dying. But hey, repetition breeds familiarity. (And familiarity breeds contempt.)

Despite the advantages of familiarity and repeated listening, several Stereophile reviewers, including me, often use new music in component reviews. How does that work? Can a review be trusted if the music isn’t deeply familiar?

If it’s in Stereophile it can be, for a few reasons. First, with rare exceptions, we retain access to our reference components even as we review something new. While we may not always write about it—that would make for tedious reading—you can be confident we’ve heard the same music recently on a system we know well. Differential listening.

Second, Stereophile reviewers have an obligation to evaluate every component, at least in part, with recordings they know well. At some point during each audition, reviewers turn to their own standard reviewing repertoire, even if it’s not the focus of their listening notes. No review covers a reviewer’s complete listening notes. Even if those familiar tunes aren’t covered explicitly in the review, they’re auditioned behind the scenes. Count on it.

Third, engaged (but not too engaged) listening to diverse but unfamiliar tunes is a surprisingly good way to evaluate equipment. Certainly it’s a fine complement to listening to more familiar material. This kind of listening has the advantage of more closely resembling what regular people—people who aren’t audio writers—do when they put music on. When listening to music for pleasure, your mind is more open and receptive than it is when you listen critically. While not analytical, this approach has a different kind of rigor: stochastic, inductive, Bayesian. Impressions accumulate and add up to dependable evidence. It’s the difference between having a glass or two with dinner, or over several dinners, and swirling a sip in your mouth, thinking hard about the flavors it contains, then spitting it out.

Footnote 1: See my 1981 article on stereo microphone techniques.—John Atkinson

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