Thoughts from The Audio Beatnik: What I Look for and Value in a System

Having just come back from, well 3 weeks ago now, the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I find myself thinking more than ever before about what we as an audiophile society value and hold as priorities. In our hobby, just as in the rest of life, we don’t find it that difficult to agree on what’s right or wrong in the broadest of terms, but when it comes to the details, there are lots of gray areas. It’s those gray areas where there is a lot of disagreement. The good news is that for audiophiles disagreement on the gray areas is a good thing to a certain extent.

But to really discuss these gray areas, you have to have the right vocabulary and understand what you like in a system. Here’s an example from back in 2006 when I reviewed the still wonderful little Shindo Aurieges preamp. I started that review by saying, “I fear I will not have the right audio vocabulary to convey the sound . . .” Well, things haven’t changed much in the last 11 years. Year after year, I become more and more convinced that it is important to know what you like and to understand there are very good systems that are not your cup of tea.

Wine, Art, And Music
A little over 17 years ago I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m not a wine drinker, but you can’t live in the Bay Area and not hear a lot about wine. In some ways, wine connoisseurs are a whole lot like audiophiles. They have their own language, and there’s no agreement on which wine is best. They don’t even agree on what makes one wine the best. I hear them talk about wines being full-bodied, grassy, having a hint of oak, having a good nose, being buttery and sometimes I even hear that some wine has legs. It’s obvious that not all wine connoisseurs value the same things when they are judging perfection.

Likewise, in the art world, there’s also a wide difference of opinion on what is true art and what is not. Some people love realism, some impressionism, some love pop art and others love modern art. Inside each of these categories, there are some who like warm, earthy colors, others who like bright primary colors and even some who like a dark and somber tone in their art. I have collected a little art, and in art and classical music, I lean toward Russian artists.

How this Relates to Audio Reviews
I’ve gone a long way to make the point that it shouldn’t be all that important to you which preamp or other piece of equipment I choose to use as a reviewer. What is important is that I let you know how the equipment sounds, because in the audio world, just like in the wine and art worlds, there are dozens of ways to pursue the Holy Grail. Let’s not even get into the fact that we don’t agree on what the Holy Grail is. And by the way, none of the other arts I’ve mentioned can agree on what the Holy Grail is for them either.

Prior to being a reviewer, I thought the most impressive words a reviewer could say were, “I purchased the review sample.” While that does say a lot, I now understand that it’s not the most important thing a reviewer can say, and it tells you very little about how the product sounds. Let me see if I can explain.

At this year’s RMAF, there were six systems that stood out from all of the rest. They ranged in price from just under $50,000 to around $400,000. Three of the six were systems that most people who know me would have guessed that I would like, and two of them were systems that I would have gladly taken home with me to listen to all the time, not just review. I have to say though, that I would love to review all six of the systems though because I know many people who love music just as I do who would much prefer the other three systems. Intellectually, I can understand why.

So here I am still trying to explain to you and myself how important it is to know your own audio values and priorities and those of any reviewer you depend on to help you make decisions about your system. That’s why I, and others like Jeff Day, have a place on our websites where you can read about our listening biases. Here’s a link to mine if you haven’t discovered this page yet.

Finding Audiophile Perfection
I think I can safely say that the Verity audio room at RMAF 2017 came closer to audiophile perfection than any other room I heard at the show, and if you have a half a million laying around to spend on a system, you would be hard pressed to do much better than that system. It had the widest, deepest and tallest soundstage while still having the best tonal accuracy of any system I heard at the show. By the way, I know some of you do have that kind of money to spend on a system, and believe me, I’m not envious, well maybe just a little.

If you are willing to give up a few of the audiophile sonics, then I would suggest the best sound was in the VAC room with the Tannoy Kingdom Royal Mk II speakers. Yes, you give up a little in sound staging, image specificity and even a little in transparency, but you gain being able to more easily hear the layers of textures, tonal colors and overtones of the musical performance itself. While both systems had good Pace, Rhythm and Timing (PRaT), it flowed better from the VAC system with the big Tannoys. Then, there was the Von Schweikert and Audionet system that fell right in the middle between the Verity and VAC systems.

Now, if I were going to take one of these home, it would be the VAC/Tannoy system, or for a lot, lot less money the system in the DeVore Fidelity/Tone Audio Imports room. Which system I would take to my house should only be important to you in so far as it reveals more about my listening bias. When I review a piece of gear, my goal is to let you discover how it sounds. So it is important that I tell you how tonally accurate it is, how coherent, how transparent… well, you get where I’m going. It is also important that I tell you that while it’s the best at all the above, it’s also important for me to tell you what it won’t do.

What I Look For and Value
This is a thought piece and not a review though, so let me take a little time to talk about listening to music. It’s not that I consider the sonic performance that audiophiles look for to be a bad thing. Sonics are just less importance to me than the performance; that is, how the system plays the musical content of a recording. So while I love transparency (being able to ‘see’ into the music), I would like to see into it without the loss of musical flow or the tones of the lower midrange and upper bass that live music nearly always has. In fact, that ultra-clarity that is so often mistaken for transparency is often the result of a dip in the frequency in the lower midrange and upper bass. Instead, I want my system to let me hear deep into the music, more than the recording. Again, this is something that is so important in a live performance; it has to do with being drawn into the emotions of the music.

I know there are people who think I don’t value a good soundstage (the ability to portray the recording width, height, and depth) at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I don’t like is a soundstage that draws attention to itself and becomes a distraction from the performance. I don’t think I can say it much better than I did in that 2006 review of the Shindo Aurieges preamp when I said,”Instead of sound staging, I would rather talk about scale, depth and space. I know how much fun it is to listen for pinpoint imaging and how exciting it is to hear a voice or an instrument coming from a foot or two outside of the speakers . . . . The truth is, I go to hear live Jazz at Yoshi’s in Oakland often, and I never hear a soundstage or pinpoint imaging. In fact, often it sounds more like a good mono recording.

What I do hear at Yoshi’s is life-size to bigger than life instruments. I don’t know why musicians love to walk over and stick their horns right into the mic, but they do, and it’s part of a live Jazz performance. That’s what I mean by scale. I want to hear a vocal or a trumpet start soft and small then swell in volume and size as they reach back and let it go. This, the Aurieges does in spades after it breaks in.

I also want to hear the space around, and even within an instrument. I don’t want strings floating around in some black velvet space like some modern painting that shows strings and notes but no instrument or musician. I want to hear the body of the guitar, I want to hear the floor under the bass, I want to hear the sound of the strings inside a piano. This the Aurieges does better than any preamp I’ve ever heard in my system. To tell the truth, I had no idea my system could even do some of this.”

And, to go on just a bit, when I listen to music, I want to hear the difference in textures and harmonics when Frank sings a song versus Harry Connick sings it. Can you hear and feel the difference in the emotions of a Miles Davis ensemble playing a number compared to a Wynton Marsalis ensemble? This is what I mean by listening deep into music; its layers, timbers, harmonics and feelings.

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough, but I hope I have made you think about what you want from an audio system and why you might or might not be happy with a particular system. I can almost guarantee you that until you know what the Holy Grail is for you (or what you value in your listening experience), you are probably going to find yourself chasing for perfection with frequent changes to your system.

Keep on Boppin’ until next time. And, feel free to send me comments on questions that you would like for me to explore in a thought piece.