Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Flat-earth audio

As with many others who are into music playback, I was thoroughly fascinated by the stereo imaging and sound staging capabilities of my hifi system when I first embarked onto my audio journey. I would seat myself in the sweet spot for hours and be on the constant lookout for placement of singers/instruments and the inner details available in the CD recordings (nowadays my favourite listening position seems to be on the long couch located on the left plane of my louspeakers). I love the organic texture and body of vocals and tone richness (timbre) of natural instruments and these qualities meant everything to me then, until a hifi buddy pointed out that there are actually far more important aspects in our enjoyment of music, ie. the pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT). As I am very much into female vocals (till todate), he asked me to listen to track 3 (Babes in the Wood) and track 8 (Adam at the Window) of Mary Black's Babes in the Wood CD with 2 different CD players and true enough, one of the CD player played these tracks better than the other – music has more tempo and made more sense to me. I never look back since although nowadays I seek the middle path between 'flat-earth' and some 'pretty sounding' qualities. I must clarify that PRaT is not all about playing music furiously fast and the rhythmic flow to slow music rendered them equally intoxicating. I owned an extremely fast sounding dedicated CD transport in Enlightened Audio Designs T-1000 in the past and coupled with Theta Progeny-A DAC plus its external anti-jitter and external power supply, what I experienced were first rate clarity, superbly fast transients and great dynamics but sadly no PRaT to speak of that I later sold them off.

Extracted from elsewhere:
Naim/Linn were the original 'flat earthers' since 1970s, an audio community more concerned with notes than with noise, emotion rather than location. Their systems could play in time, maintaining the fundamental structure of the musical performance whilst actually holding a tune. Rather than needing to know exactly where the musicians were standing on the stage they were more concerned with experiencing the passion that drove them to get up there in the first place. That spirit lives on amongst 'flat earthers' who have no need to justify their systems using tired 'hifi' criteria when in fact their rigs actually groove, connecting on a truly emotional level, offering both vibe and drama—words that real people might actually use to describe real music. This is where it all began...

Why 'flat earth'? The term was originally used in a somewhat derogatory manner by some in the UK hifi press when the Linn/Naim axis that had dominated the industry during the 1970s and 1980s gradually began to loose momentum. It is used by those who like pretty sounding hifi that usually can't hold a tune or play in time. Things now have moved on to the stage where 'flat earthers' are rather proud of the term! How can they take offence? Their hifi actually plays music!

Naim and Linn both sold their hifi using the concept that the actual portrayal of music was the most important factor – this brought forth the concept of the 'tune demo'. The idea is that in any A/B demo of two components, one usually allows the listener to 'sing the tune in their head' far easier than the other. This component is the better one, regardless as to how pretty the other may sound – i.e. musical content over presentation! Now 30 over years on it is hard to believe how radical this approach was, but bear in mind that hifi was then still being sold almost entirely on specifications. It is still sadly very often the case that an expensive high end audio system actually holds a tune far worse than a basic transistor radio!

The other key concept that both companies firmly believed in was 'front-end first' i.e. that the source component is by far the most important element in any audio system. If the information is not there at the start it can not be brought back later, no matter how good the amplifier or speakers are. Garbage in, garbage out. With any budget the majority of cash should be sunk into the source components, it is absolutely amazing to hear what quite affordable amplifiers and speakers are capable of when fronted with a real heavyweight source. This is in their opinion unquestionably the correct approach to selecting a audio system that is enjoyable to listen to in the long term.

Far too much audio equipment sounds unnaturally pretty: Hifi systems that produce 'smooth' or 'liquid' hi-hats and cymbals are inherently wrong. Hifi systems that produce 'soft' snares are equally wrong. A cymbal is in effect a bit of sheet metal formed into a slightly conical profile that is repeatedly hit with a wooden stick... sweet, smooth, delicate... yeah right. A snare drum is a metal or wood cylinder with a taut tuned skin on the two flat ends, with a series of tensioned metal springs on the underside, picture this construction in your mind, now hit it hard with a wooden stick. Did you get a soft sound? Audio systems with great gobs of bass may at first seem impressive, but try following the actual tune the bassist is playing, or hearing how the bass line grooves in with the drums. Slow fat bass is wrong bass.

The mainstream hifi press seems to be in a very sorry state at present, lacking any real direction, consistency or continuity, and giving the impression that advertising revenue is the sole driving force. The ideologies and products portrayed within the glossy pages are for the best part questionable and often laughable. The qualities that seem to hold the most appeal to reviewers seem to have little or nothing to do with the accurate reproduction of music. Bland systems to play bland AOR music on would appear to be the order of the day.


unker vic said...

Hi YC, If u have refer "Babes in the wood", it's track 4, track 3 is "Golden Miles". I get your drift about the 2 tracks(Babes...& Adam at the window). I have listened to many setups replaying these tracks, none approach what u would described, the bass line that is! Yes, I would agree with u, that's how the bass would probably may have being the most acceptable sound to the discerning listeners! But I won't go to great length as to argue with my fellow audiophile friends(At least I never did at teh tarik sessions) regarding how the bass line should be for this album. Others have their own idea of how the bass line should be, which almost always different from what i have in mind, la. So I kept the friendship and argued less.

Btw, the bass line u have described are very difficult to obtain(if one just buy equipments and hope to get it, not all gears will give this kind of bass) and diffcult to achieve it (if one set up from scratch either diying or thru modifications). So the bottom line is not many people will come across this type of bass line too often. At least I have heard such before, and hence could understand your explanations.

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