How Do I Know it’s Right? (by JULIAN HIRSCH, Stereo Review, June 1993)

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That is a recurrent question posed to me in letters from readers. It is usually the final question asked by someone who wants his music system to sound “right” but is not sure he will be able to recognize that result if he hears it. Some times the question is presented in more specific terms, such as: “How do I know how much bass to have? When it sounds right to me, my friend says there is too much (or not enough).”

Actually, the writer of the latest such letter to reach me answers the basic question pretty much as I would. After telling me that his technically minded friend thinks that be cause “music is recorded flat” it should be played back with the tone controls set “flat” and that loudness compensation should never be used, my correspondent says that he prefers more bass, which he gets from his tone controls. He concludes his letter with these questions: Is bass boost less accurate? Does it matter? Is most music recorded flat, and should it be reproduced the same way?

First of all, a major feature of to day’s highly versatile audio components is the degree of control they provide over such matters as frequency response and listening level. It is generally recognized that personal tastes differ widely, even in respect to what the original “live” performance should sound like. The controls pro vided by a modern amplifier let the listener modify the original in an effort to suit his own taste, and there is nothing wrong with that.

But there is more to the matter than frequency response (at least, the kind you can modify with tone controls). If you have heard a number of different music systems in as many different locations, you are probably aware that rooms-and-loudspeakers (the two can not really be separated) simply sound different from each other, and usually no amount of juggling the amplifier’s frequency response will make them sound alike.

Experimenting with the room lay out (both the furnishings and the loudspeakers), which is likely to involve considerably more time and energy, may be worthwhile if simpler actions do not produce satisfactory performance. “Perfectionist” audiophiles often go to surprising lengths to “tweak” their systems to the nth degree, and if they have a high degree of hearing acuity and a corresponding level of perseverance this approach can result in truly outstanding sound. If you are not fortunate enough to hit the right combination of conditions with a reasonable expenditure of time and money, however, it can be a frustrating procedure.

On the other hand, some people (me included) enjoy hearing classical instrumental music and are fortunate enough to be able to do so in a reasonably good concert environment. I would prefer that my reproduced mu sic at home remind me as much as possible of a live concert experience. To that end, I almost never use a tone control (simply because they don’t improve the things I am interested in hearing) and prefer to listen through speakers whose qualities suggest those of a concert hall (not any specific one, just a believable environment for a musical performance).

For me, that is “right.” For my son, who has spent some years on the road as a rock musician, my musical and sonic tastes are probably difficult to understand, but then the reverse is equally true. One audiophile’s meat is another’s poison.

And to answer another of my correspondent’s questions—”Is it right?”— I have to say once more that there is no such thing as “right” in the sense of duplicating an original listening experience in a different environment. Who is to say what is “flat” in a recording made through a couple of dozen microphones? Certainly their combined outputs are in no way representative of what anyone in the audience is hearing during the performance, nor is any playback of a resulting tape or CD going to duplicate the original experience exactly. The best we can expect is a reason able approximation.

Even if some ideal tone control (whatever that might be) were to be invented, it would go only part of the way toward recreating the original sound. Your listening room, its furnishings, and the placement of speakers and listeners will probably have a far greater effect on what finally reaches your eardrums than anything that can be done by the electronic components of the music system.

So my advice is to adjust your system’s controls to obtain whatever results appeal to you, and enjoy the mu sic. It will be your choice, and even if

it doesn’t sound exactly like the finely tweaked systems of your audiophile friends, you can derive some satisfaction from knowing that their multi kilobuck systems will never sound exactly like yours, either.

Oh, yes—to answer the question that started this column: You’ll know the reproduction is “right” when you can close your eyes and believe—truly believe—that you are sitting in a concert hall listening to a live performance. It has never happened to me, and probably not to anyone else, but, like the search for the Holy Grail, it is a worthy goal. Just don’t hold your breath in anticipation of reaching it.

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Updated: Monday, 2016-09-19 12:05 PST