1391 words · 7 min read
As a lifelong listener of classical music, and orchestral music and operas in particular, the importance of having a decent audio system has become known to me for as long as I have been listening to music. When I was small, I used to play compact discs (CDs) recordings on a small audio system, which, as one would expect, did no justice to the recordings. Later, I convinced my parents to upgrade the audio system at home to a beginner’s level high-fidelity system, with an integrated amplifier and a pair of bookshelf-style speakers, which, of course, probably weren’t very good, but I was able to enjoy it for some years. In the end, however, since I was the only person I knww who liked orchestral music with large dynamic range, I switched my listening to headphones so as not to bother anyone. The first pair of “real” headphones I owned was an AKG K240, which I bought when they were still made in Austria. That has served me well for close to ten years, until it stopped working. Upon inspection, I found, inside the earcups, some loose connections, which could probably be fixed with some soldering. Since I have had it for almost ten years though, I thought it was a good time to upgrade my audio system anyway. After some research and auditioning in Berlin, I purchased a pair of Beyerdynamic DT880 Pro, and later switched the earpads to the Dekoni protein-leather earpads. The new pair of headphones, together with a new digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) plus amplifier, gave me an entirely new audio experience. As a regular attendee (by that I mean about once a year, as I live twelve-hour flight away) of concerts by the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin, I can attest that a well-recorded concert at the Berlin Philharmonie sounds, on my new setup, just like Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin Philharmonie, as far as I can remember (auditory memory is very short-lived, so that is just a vague impression).
The better equipment, however, also creates some new problems that I didn’t have before. Perhaps by design, DT880 Pro reveals details one doesn’t normally hear in lesser headphones or in a live concert. For instance, in some piano recordings, I can now hear the noise of the rubbing of the felt tips of the dampers when the pianist changes pedal. I have been trained as a classical pianist for well more than a decade in my youth, and I know the noise is audible (though not particularly noticeable) to the person who is playing the piano, but realistically speaking, concertgoers who sit ten metres away from a Steinway Model D piano should not be able to hear it. I can now also pick out some problems from older recordings, such as the famed Der Ring des Nibelungen conducted by Sir Georg Solti (which I strongly dislike, there I said it). In some places, for instance, I can now hear clicks that are probably the result of cutting and connecting tapes from different takes. Worse still, the sonic differences between takes are sometimes so obvious that it ruined the flow of music. Such experience tells me that high-fidelity audio systems have become too capable, to a point that it no longer serves the main purpose of having audio systems in the first place: music.
The lofty goal of “high-fidelity” audio
The word “high-fidelity (Hi-Fi)” suggests a noble objective: to reproduce a sonic experience as accurately as possible. Of course, much like any other media of recording something for later consumption, the idea of being able to relive the original sonic experience through an audio recording is about as impossible as being able to know a person by looking at a photograph. For classical music, which is performed in concert halls and opera houses without amplification, the acoustics of the space becomes an important aspect of the sonic experience. Though, judging by the considerable quantity of recordings of the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Großer Saal of Musikverein in Vienna, for example, there is no obvious consensus among engineers with regard to how best to capture the echoey acoustics of the concert hall. In other premises, such as the Royal Festival Hall before its renovation, there are instances when recording engineers added reverberation to make the otherwise dry-sounding concert hall more normal (Claudio Abbado’s Mahler’s third symphony is a notable example). That perhaps enhance the enjoyment of the listeners, though it deviates from the “high-fidelity” goal.
Indeed, whether a audio recording sounds accurate or not may have very little to do with the level of enjoyment of a listener. Out of the large number of audio recordings from the last century, most were in fact made in less-than-ideal circumstances, even by the standards of their times, let alone ours. Arturo Toscanini’s mono recordings from the 1940s were made in the very studio that today serves as the home to Saturday Night Live. Besides the terrible static noise that is present in almost all recordings from that era, those Toscanini’s recordings sound obnoxiously dry. Toscanini’s recordings can’t possibly be of high-fidelity, not even then in the 1940s, yet no one can ever say that Toscanini wasn’t one of the greatest conductors of the time on the ground of the sound quality of his recordings. The same thing can be said about German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, French pianist Albert Cortot, and so on. They are great musicians despite the terrible qualities of their recordings, and it would be a travesty if we refuse to listen to those old masters because their recordings sound bad.
What you can really hear in a live concert
It is easy to forget just how many details are filtered out by our brains, and how many details are masked by the noises and other distortions and distractions during a live concert. For someone sitting fifty metres away from the orchestra, for example, he or she is subjected to noises made by other members of the audience, which mask a lot of the low-volume details that make their way into a modern audio recording. Meanwhile, the sound stage and sound localisation are no longer a purely audio phenomenon, but also visual one. Beyond the overall impression that the first violins are on the left and the second violins are on the right, the woodwinds are in the middle, and the brass section and the timpani are at the back of the stage, it is questionable if one can tell where each individual instrument is with their eyes closed, and whether anyone even care at all. Thus it is unrealistic to be able to tell, in an audio recording, with pinpoint accuracy, where each instrument of a one-hundred-piece orchestra is located, because that is impossible even in a live concert without also watching the orchestra.
The realistic objective in choosing audio equipment
I may be at risk of being a hypocrite for decrying audiophile while at the same time have some more deceng than average headphones most consumers are used to. Indeed, I do have a certain requirements I look for in my headphones, such as a somewhat neutral frequency response, which, to me, is something close to diffuse-field response. I value wide sound stage of semi-open-back or open-back headphones, and I look for good sound localisation within the sound stage, but with a reasonable expectation that flutes and oboes sound like they are roughly from the same location. While detail retrieval is desirable, I am doubtful that any more detail retrieval beyond what I can hear on my current system can in fact enhance my enjoyment.
It may still sound like a very demanding list, but that level of performance can be adquately achieved by a setup that costs US$500 or less, which is a very modest amount of money in the world of high-end audio, much of which sells stuff of very questionable utilities for absurd amount of money.
What are you listening? Music, or the equipment?
Music, after all, should be the focus here. If we, instead of listening to music, spend large amount of time listening to and comparing different pairs of headphones or speakers and nitpicking them, then the pursuit of the perfect sound will end up be just that, and what we do will no longer be listening to music, but listening to the equipment.