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Accurate sound without being true-to-to-life

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

How sound can be accurate without being true-to-life

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1985, The Syracuse Newspapers

The marriage of audio and video, which seems to be the hottest link-up since Anthony and Cleopatra, may finally solve one of the original riddles of home music reproduction.

For decades, those who love recorded music have debated whether a proper stereo system should create an illusion of a real performance. According to this belief, listeners who closed their eyes would actually believe that they were sitting in their favorite seat at the concert hall.

That this is a bunch of nonsense is clear to anyone who ever sat through a performance of a symphony orchestra. For one thing, records and tapes don't cough and wheeze, and they don't whisper during the quiet passages.

And records and tapes, even when they are played on the most stunningly conceived modern loudspeakers, don't exhibit the depth and width and transparency of the sound heard live in a concert hall.

They can't.

This is because they are facsimiles. Therein lies the nub of my argument. Videophiles will have no trouble understanding the concept of facsimile replication, two big words that mean nothing more than the attempt to make one thing look or sound almost like another.

Facsimile replication happens all the time in the video world. The broadcast studio captures a picture and sends it out to your home TV set. If you have a good set, the picture might look "almost like" the real thing.

If you have one of the big-screen TVs, the picture might be "life-like" and "life-size." But whatever it is, you can bet it will be "like" something. The next time you rent a tape of "Rambo," it's unlikely anyone will wander into your living room and ask you to get Sylvester Stallone off your wall.

Of course, that is what sound reproduction is all about, too. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has never been in my living room (at least not while I was home, and my wife swears she hasn't been inviting strangers in lately), and yet some of my favorite recordings feature the CSO, and I play them often.

When I put a CSO recording on my turntable or tape deck (or CD player, for that matter), I don't close my eyes and imagine that I have been transported to the orchestra's beautifully restored Symphony Hall. I hear a good recording, and it sounds like a good recording.

I wouldn't have it any other way, especially after auditioning a set of loudspeakers from Audio-Technica. If the name sounds familiar, it may be because Audio-Technica is the world's largest phono-cartridge manufacturer. A-T is also a giant in the headphone industry, and has recently entered the loudspeaker business.

The speakers that Audio-Technica loaned me, the $75-pair model SP5, had that "you-are-almost-there" sound that I've come to expect from good components. I spent a week listening to no other speakers, and the sound was always smooth.

But what was most impressive was the fact that each of the Audio-Technica speakers was hardly bigger than my fist. Two of them stacked together took up no more space than a two-quart milk carton.

Four C cells inside each speaker supply power for a self-contained amplifier, and a long cable links the speakers to a Walkman or similar portable player. I used my little Koss portable some of the time, and plugged the mini-mites into my regular stereo system the rest of the week.

Later, when I ran some bench tests on the SP5 speakers, I found that they didn't go very low and they didn't go very high, and they certainly didn't play very loud. What, then, could have accounted for the fact that they sounded so good? It was not an easy question to answer. Audiophiles are supposed to believe that faithful reproduction requires speakers that growl with the lowest bass notes and shimmer with the most gossamer of all the highs. And, according to this tenet, reproducing a real performance requires speakers that stand up and shout, very loudly.

The answer came one day when I was listening to my daughter play her flute. She was in another room, almost too distant to hear. Yet I listened with an inestimable pleasure to the simple Kenny Rogers song she was playing.

What I was hearing was not a facsimile and it was not a concert. The flute sounded weak and shy, much too far-off to satisfy an audio buff. But it sounded like music. I was listening not to the flute but to the music itself, and that is what made it so satisfying.

It struck me that what drew me to love the sound of the little Audio-Technica speakers was a similar quality. They sounded like the real thing, in a small way. Not in the sense of an illusion, but in the sense of that little silvery flute, soft and far off.

It was a kind of reality in miniature. You could hardly ask for anything better.

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