Behind The Scenes (July 1978)

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Ever since the dawn of the high-fidelity era over 30 years ago, we have been trying to record and reproduce music with that elusive quality called "concert hall realism." In all these years we have made enormous progress towards the achievement of this goal, but facsimile reproduction of live music must await some distant, future time, when, perhaps, we will be equipped with electrode implants directly into the auditory/visual sensory areas of our brains. These visual aspects are a vitally important part of the concert -hall listening experience, a stimulus to the sense of participation in the musical event and empathy with the audience. Perhaps, before we reach the stage of the implants, we will have listening rooms where the walls themselves are uniformly driven speaker diaphragms. The wall you face would display moving three-dimensional holographic images of the particular orchestra you are listening to ... whether it be the Chicago Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, etc., on the stages in their own concert halls.

To heighten the illusion, you would be listening in the computer-simulated acoustics of their concert halls. (A foretaste of this already exists in the delay experiments of Bob Berkovitz of Acoustic Research with the simulation of the Boston Symphony Hall acoustics.) But enough of this "Star Wars" fantasy ... the best we can hope for, at present, is a "convincing illusion" of this "concert hall realism," and I've been playing with some equipment and some new recordings which afford considerable help towards achieving this illusion.

In any attempt to create the illusion of reality of a live musical event, the preservation of dynamic range must be given a high priority. The technical exigencies of cutting phonograph records often impose the penalty of dynamic range compression. As most audiophiles are aware, there are a number of complementary expander devices on the market, that can offset quite a bit of the recording compression, but these devices must be carefully adjusted if audible "pumping and breathing" noises are to be avoided, or at least minimized. Many good recordings today have a dynamic range of about 52 dB, while some specialized direct-disc recordings can be as high as 65 dB. In spite of the way high figures for dynamic range are bandied about these days, 65 dB is very close to the present technological limits of record cutting. In fact, getting the full 65 dB of dynamic range from a recording can be a problem in the average home listening situation. If you set the gain controls so that pianissimo sections of the music are just audible above the noise floor of the recording and the ambient noise of your listening environment, when you encounter a full orchestral fortissimo of violent, high-energy, spikey, transients from the brass and percussion, it is quite likely that your amplifier will run out of steam. An oscilloscope will confirm, what your ears have already told you ... that audible and distressing clipping of the waveforms has occurred.

Power Preference

This inevitably brings us to that most hoary of hi-fi questions ... how much power is enough? Enough for what? If you want to listen to low-level background music, you can get away with milliwatts. The hi-fi pundits of yore used to gravely inform us that "20 watts is more than adequate for the domestic listening situation." To use the old cliche'... "You can't place a symphony orchestra in the average living room." This is self-evident, but you can enjoy the psychoacoustic equivalent of a mighty orchestral fortissimo, with a fairly convincing illusion of concert hall realism ... if you have enough watts, and speakers that can handle those watts. Then how about a thing called "living room realism?" Consider this ... a string quartet can comfortably fit into an average living room, and you would be astonished how much power and loudness can be produced by two violins, a viola, and a cello. Similarly, millions of homes have pianos, and when they are played fortissimo, even in the average living room, their acoustic output is very high. To accurately reproduce recordings of a string quartet or a piano at the loudness levels they produce in typical living rooms, again requires lots of watts. Needless to say, the generation of high wattages is futile if it is accompanied by high levels of distortion. In the immortal words of Gene Czerwinski of Cerwin-Vega, the "high priest of high levels" ... "Loud is beautiful . .. if it's clean." Which brings up the point of my experiences in the world of "supersound." I want to most strongly emphasize that I am not advocating loudness for loudness' sake, or overkill wattages for the production of "larger than life" sonic thrill trips. I am put. Thus, I wound up with 2 ultra -high powered mono amplifiers, with exceptional sonic characteristics. Their sound is smooth and effortless, very transparent, a fast amplifier with razor sharp transients, but none of the "edginess" or "graininess," which is typical of most really high -power amplifiers.

HK installed special fuses in the line for me and I was ready to fly! Would HK make this modification available through their dealers? This idea is now under consideration.

Ultra-Sonorous Sound

The combination of the stacked Duntechs, and the 520 watts per channel HK amplifiers, put awesome, but exceptionally clean power in my hands. The Duntechs, which normally are flat below 30 Hz, were simply stunning in their impact on bass passages.

The ability to play almost any kind of music, many times at live performance levels, without the slightest sign of clipping is a revelatory experience.

Two records which certainly justified the bother of the whole project, and surely gave me a "convincing illusion" of live sound quality were the RCA RDC-4 direct disc of Beethoven's Appassionata, a 45 rpm disc, with Japanese pianist Ikuyo Kamiya, which was miked just a shade too close, and with the piano sounding slightly clangorous, but with an overall sound quality which is absolutely superb.

Playing this recording, without a smidgen of distortion at a level which would have approximated the output of the Bosendorfer Imperial grand if it were sitting in my living room was truly awesome. The other record was London ZM1001, with Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic playing the suites from Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars was bright, spritely, and exciting in its ingratiating fashion, but the real stunner here is Close Encounters. Recorded by top Decca engineer Jim Locke and cut at half-speed by my friend Stan Ricker at the JVC Cutting Center in Hollywood, the opening passages start off at a low level and build through one of the most tremendous crescendos ever put on a record. Then some low frequency (around 30-35 Hz) synthesizer sounds come in and with the huge power of my system, the impact leaves you limp. I might add that our Senior Editor Barney Pisha, our resident phono cartridge expert, and Ed Wodenjak of Crystal Clear Records, have the same stacked system as I have, and both are equally impressed.

A lot of bother to be sure, but it opens up a whole new world of sound, and ultra-sonority.

(Source: Audio magazine, July. 1978; Bert Whyte)

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