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Music needs intermediaries to bring it to life; otherwise it remains nothing more than a series of black notes on a printed page. Some performers do this well, others poorly -- in translating the composer’s intentions, intermediaries inevitably add colors and shadows of their own.
Recorded music too must have intermediaries to restore it to life. Like performers, some audio systems do this well, others poorly.
Most people's audio systems are so poor that they hear only a ghost of the music. And most accept this without complaint, not knowing that good sound and a convincing illusion are actually quite accessible with some knowledge and a modicum of effort. There’s no need to accept mediocrity.
This is not to suggest that listening to a recording is the same as listening to a live performance. By definition, a recording is a. copy and a copy is not an original. But a recording does offer something as valid and important as music experienced live. And of all the sensory illusions that mankind has endeavored to create, the auditory ones may be by far the most potent and convincing.
“Good sound” is important for one essential reason—it makes the music accessible because it reveals more of its subtle detail. Rather than sounding “like a recording”—distant, muffled, uninvolving—a recording well played back instead is really able to convey a part of the compelling emotion and intensity of live music.
Anything added or “interpreted” by the system changes the music -- you want to hear the music as it was recorded, not as your system interprets it. Alter the sound and you’ve altered the music. So a “good system” is simply one that alters the music minimally -- not one that performs a lot of tricks.
Music, at bottom, is sound (more precisely, sound in time). Good (undistorted) sound quality therefore reveals more of the music. The more you can hear the details of the sound, unadulterated and unmuffled by distortion, the more you can hear of the music. Muzak perhaps suffers little from being played on the ubiquitous squawk box of public places—the subtleties have already been intentionally stripped away— but with more complex works good sound is very important, as all the instruments and all the myriad details become easily blurred, like a watercolor that has run.
Bartok, for one, recognized that the quality of the sound can alter the perception and enjoyment of music. His scores are carefully annotated with detailed notes specifying the exact quality of sound he was seeking—for example, that a snare drum should be hit with the flat of a knife-blade. So if your equipment makes a snare drum sound like tin cans falling down stairs, then clearly you will not even come close to hearing the composer’s intent.
Try eating a delicious meal with your nose blocked up. Or drink a glass of fresh milk with a little blue food dye added. Both the milk and the meal are themselves unchanged, but how they come to you has been changed and your response to each is therefore quite different—and far less pleasurable. It is hard to “eat past” the blue of the food or absence of olfactory information, but many have become resigned to “listening past” poor sound. We wouldn’t accept eating under such poor conditions, but accept listening thus because most of us don’t know that any thing better is readily available.
“Good” does not mean fancy, expensive, or “state of the art,” but simply having fidelity to the recording. All reproduction is a com promise—a copy can never be identical to its original—and with so many steps dividing original from reproduction, there are numerous opportunities for imperfection. But some systems sound “musical,” can be listened to with pleasure for hours, and provide a very direct connection with the music, whereas others seem to fight, however subtly, against your access to the music and quickly make you tire of listening.
So the aim of this guide is very straightforward—to enable you to get the most music and the most enjoyment out of whatever amount of time, money, and energy you are prepared to put into gaining good sound; to enable you, like Prospero, to summon up your musicians at will.
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