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28 Aug

High Fidelity, Objectivity and Subjectivity, when two worlds collide…

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high-end-2018After some very nice musical discoveries, great meetings with experts of electronics or loudspeakers and a few short trips to Paris, Reims or Brussels, the time has come for me to put my little suitcase aside and take stock. If travels – even the smallest ones – will keep you young, thoughtfulness will allow me to have a break and to clarify my mind in our very special field of music reproduction. Because musical reproduction is obviously in concern if we want, calmly, to define what is High Fidelity.

However, this definition will remain incomplete if we can not clarify it further. If I tend to think that High Fidelity will not pass the next generation without a serious questioning, I also had the opportunity to hear two very different sounds of bell… These two opinions rest simply on the question of the relation to the reality for the reproduced music. In this case, can we speak about objective or subjective relation to musical reproduction in relation to High Fidelity?

An antithesis that deserves a synthesis if we want to agree on what is High Fidelity

Munich-high-end-2018No need to look for rocket science to define what High Fidelity is. In a reasonable way, I would simply say that High Fidelity is related to the musical reproduction of a work, a piece of music, a concert or in a studio, according to the intrinsic limits of electronics, loudspeakers and accessories used to obtain this musical result.

To speak of reproduction and not of original listening therefore presupposes that one will try to get as close as possible to the original work by means of electronics and electroacoustic processes, in other words your speakers. We will therefore talk about a search for the highest possible Fidelity and therefore, to be closer to the real conditions of the concert. Until then, it is likely that we would agree if we consider this definition as responding to an objective consideration of High Fidelity. However, this objective value also presents the defect of its qualities, that is to say that it will be particularly difficult to obtain an exact reproduction of a piece of music recorded in the studio or in concert. Even the best electronics in the world will never give you a strictly accurate reproduction of what you have listened live or indirectly, in the studio.

When the “best” reveals the worst, the subject is clearly questioned

Munich-high-end-headphonesUnfortunately, it will be quite easy to see that those who boast the most of having designed the best electronics in the world give us the demonstration of the worst audible musical reproductions, only “audible” but not even “listenable” and still less “appreciable”. It is also a shame that it is in France that we must stand this kind of demonstration.

Aside from the budget issue, combine what you consider to be the “best” electronics with the “best” speakers and you may never get the “best” musical reproduction. How many systems costing more than 100,000 euros sound ridiculous in front of systems 5 times less expensive but may be 5 times better created? To date, I would have a hard time counting them. Let us admit, however, that some very expensive high fidelity systems are admirably musical; they really exist, but they are particularly rare.

How could we reconcile an instrument that vibrates naturally with membranes that can only reproduce this musical vibration?

cd-playerThe explanation behind this phenomenon is simple to understand. A musical instrument is made of a combination of wood or other string-related materials or other resonance mechanisms that combine their vibrations to create a sound (a unique and complex vibration) and to produce music that will depend on the unique talent of a musician, a person who knows how to put these vibrations in order.

Then, it will be up to him to create a melody considered as musical. For the human voice, it is even simpler since it is the vocal cords that produce this vibration. Until then, there is nothing very surprising. So, we would like that our electronics could give us the same objectivity, at least to consider that the music listened to in concert is a source of musical emotions, which is not always the case. As for the listening of a piece in studio, it is precisely this emotion released during the recording that one seeks, without necessarily obtaining it. The problem is there. Music reproduction, transmitted through electronics and speakers is no longer objective, although the technical progress can now approach this fact much better than before.

horns-speakersIn reality, the musical vibration is only reproduced at the end of the race by the membranes of our speakers whereas this same vibration was first translated into an electrical signal, modified a thousands of times by our electronics. From there, the question of musical objectivity will be more and more difficult to admit.

Of course, we will be the first to rebel against all forms of coloring, until the flat neutrality of a response curve will be as flatly reproduced by our speakers. We will lose musical emotion here by finding only a cold and tasteless musical message but not music as we consider to be as it has to be. To be very close to a violin solo or guitar phrasing or to the musical atmosphere of a concert will encourage us to talk about musicality but again, it is no longer possible to talk about musical objectivity.

The musical objectivity is that of the concert, the musical subjectivity is that of your electronics

vantage-loudspeakersWhether you like it or not, your electronics, and at the end of the track your speakers, do not translate the music to you in an objective way. This is even more true as those who rebel with an almost violent vehemence against this idea will always be the first to criticize the lack of “matter” or “dynamics” of a high fidelity system, or even a lack of harmonic richness in the medium and whatever I know…

These fervent defenders of the objective reality of a concert do not even realize that they are indeed the most quick to characterize their audio channel on purely subjective criteria. No matter what you do, it is absolutely impossible to listen to two exactly identical songs on two different audiophile systems, except in some cases, but they will not have anything to deal with audiophile criteria. These specific cases probably refer to low-end and made in China supermarket junks that will always give the same pseudo-musical clogged and distorted soup. In this very specific field, all electronics are consensus and if some of them do not, it would be conceivable to think that they can one day make music.

Music reproduction depends on the sound aesthetics of our electronics

speakersNo, an electronics that claims to be audiophile has a sound. The designers of these electronics have also developed their devices so that they respond as accurately as possible to the sound aesthetics they want to obtain. This aesthetic will be more and more recognizable, depending on whether one goes up in range. Here, there is no surprise either. Then you like it or you do not like it…

This also explains why there would be fans of the sound of Naim Audio, others of Eera CD Player or Helixir Audio DAC and what do I know yet. The sound of an electronic device or a speaker will de facto remove any notion of objectivity in terms of musical reproduction because it will be based on the choices desired by the designers. Even trying to design an electronic or a neutral speaker is a choice, but not often in agreement with the reality of the concert.

The notion of subjectivity is clearly exploited in the studio, from sound recording to final mixing

high-end-systemIt is even more difficult to talk about the objectivity of the concert from the moment when, for a given recording, the sound engineer will have his preferences as to the choice of microphones or even the placement of the latter.

If the aim is always to reproduce the sound space of a place, recording the timbres and the instrumental phrasing in the most exact way possible, each sound engineer will have his own method of recording, depending on what he considers to be the one that will be the most accurate in each situation. If this were not the case, there would be only one method of recording, developed according to this or that part of the room, but each recording is different from the beginning, just like the interpretation of a work can be, each time it will be played.

Whatever the song, even in concert, you will never hear it twice exactly the same; this is even more true for a recorded work. Then, inevitably, corrections will have to be made to the recording in order to obtain a bearable balance for our ears. It will be a question of obtaining a dynamics close to reality without omitting the smallest details which, in the absolute, should also be perceived. Nothing is more difficult than this kind of exercise. From there, the statistical probability that you heard exactly the same thing on your audio system as what was played in concert or in the studio is already close to zero.

A minimum of musical balance is necessary if you really want to speak about High Fidelity

From a technical point of view, however, we could admit the opinion of those who consider that a High Fidelity System is particularly unbalanced in high or bass frequencies. If the treble is screaming with a scrawny musical reproduction, accompanied by a flat stereophonic image, we will still have a hard time talking about High Fidelity, even less of something that seems to be appropriate to the musical reality.

In contrast, when low frequencies are not controlled and become invasive to the point that they hide a part of the medium, the balance will not be optimal either. From a more or less objective point of view, we could therefore agree on the question of the balance of the sound spectrum. From there, a few sound engineers will argue that we can speak of High Fidelity only when the so-called “natural” instruments are recorded.

Unfounded arguments do not contribute to the debate, but they push it into a bias

vanessa-carltonThe problem arises seriously when I try to imagine what an “artificial” instrument might be. In fact, I can not do it. However, defenders of classical music or, rather, sound engineers who record only classical music (or sometimes other music such as jazz or blues) by choice or by conviction, often forget that this kind of music (even if I listen to classical music) is not the only musical genre on Earth.

Having played the electric guitar for 20 years, I know something about it. But they will tell you that your guitars are based on a distortion and that the sound is not natural anymore. Except that in our time (and even in the days of Jimmy Hendrix) it was a harmonic distortion that had precisely nothing of a disharmonious sound. Otherwise, the rock would be impossible to listen and yet it attracts more fans than classical music…

Just admit that if you have an argument to talk about, you must also be able to imagine the opposite. Otherwise, it is nonsense. In another area, we sometimes hear about “naturopaths” but I have never heard of “artificialopaths” who would advocate the virtues of an industrial diet. No, very often, if you admit an argument without being able to define the opposite, it is because you are dealing with dreamers or charlatans.

The recording of a musical work is based on a studio work reproducing a certain balance with a good listening comfort

high-fidelity-kefTo go even further, and even if I do not really like it, I must admit that even a synthesizer could hardly produce artificial music because we must understand, or at least at the beginning, that a sound, even digital, has to be based on a natural vibratory model. From there, the same technical questions arise in the studio or on stage.

For example, we can talk about the need to compress a bass drum to make space for the other drums and then balance the sound of cymbals, etc. And God knows if this kind of balancing takes hours of engineering work. And even if my rack allows me to access hundreds of possible distortions, I do not really see what I could do if the vibration of the strings of my guitar could not be transmitted by the microphone to the rack. So stop making a fool of yourself with your “natural” instrument or mood considerations when it comes to evoking fidelity to music because they are baseless. It is these same sound engineers who strive to reproduce all the emotional power of a symphony orchestra when they consider that a rock band only makes noise to impress its listeners. We quickly fall into ignorance and the grotesque.

Music is a source of emotions, the raison d’être of our High Fidelity Systems

death-chuck-schuldinerSo, it is time to place to put things back in place. Finally, if it’s all about pounding pots to make noise, as it still happens, I’d be the first to say it’s not music. On the contrary, a musician first seeks to transcribe and transmit a message and his emotions with music. We come back to it, music is a vector of emotions. This is also why I evoked the “emotional power” of it. If music is made of emotions, it means that our electronics are made to let us appreciate them, and it is also the foundation of High Fidelity.

In my opinion, there is no difference in musical quality between Saint Saëns’ Danse macabre and The Voice of the Soul by Chuck Schuldiner. Let’s say that if the latter dedicated his life to music, it was also to send a message. “Lack of Comprehension,” “Mentally Blind,” “Spiritual Healing,” or “Individual Thought Patterns,” the titles of these tracks speak for themselves. So, this is to say that the relationship between the musician and the listener will always be based on a common vector, the emotion. In the literal sense, it is undoubtedly a common movement that creates a complicity; perhaps this would be one of the most exact definitions of music.

So, if we really want to talk about High Fidelity, please understand that it is not a question of defining if the music is based on the way the work itself was created but of knowing if your electronic and loudspeakers will convey a fidelity as exact as possible to the original message transmitted by the musicians and especially, if the emotion they wanted to transmit will be perfectly palpable too.

These emotions will go through your electronics and your speakers, with their qualities and their flaws. These attributes will then be variously appreciated by audiophiles. Once again, we come back to the same thing. That is to say that there is no High Fidelity without approaching the acoustic reality but this is not where the High Fidelity really is. Depending on the listener, it is, it remains and will always be purely subjective.

Eric Mallet



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