Does Anyone Really Want Perfectly Accurate Sound?

14 Nov 2014

I’ll answer that.  No, they don’t.  Not even an audiophile freak like me.

Yes, I demand equipment that can deliver the lowest possible distortion and the highest possible signal-to-noise ratio–but I reserve the right to tweak the music as I see fit.

Everyone’s ears are different.  Everyone’s tastes are different. Recordings differ.  Listening environments differ.  That’s why we have bass and treble controls.

Where I draw the line is having someone make those tweak choices for me.  I’m looking at you, Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.

At the same time, though, perfectly accurate reproduction often offers up music that sounds rather, well, dull.  Want proof?  Zero your tone controls and have a listen.  Better yet:  some stereos have buttons labelled “flat” or “tone defeat” or “direct input.”  These buttons are supposed to wipe out all post-source colouring of the sound.  I call these “yuck buttons.”

This leads us into the rat’s nest discussion entitled “What is good sound?”  Once you start heading down this road, you get into a jungle of subjectivity so thick that fistfights will break out.

I’m actually going to conduct a live experiment along these lines at an event called The Glenn Gould Variations in Toronto.  I have no idea if this will work–but even if it doesn’t pan out as expected, there will be much to learn in its failure.

Here’s the plan.  Back in the WWI years, Thomas Edison conducted public demonstrations of his phonograph called “tone tests.”  He subjected live audiences to blind audio taste tests.  Was the sound coming from behind the curtain being performed live by human beings?  Or was it coming from a rotating disc on one of his talking machines?  (See page 94 of this document.)

My GGV presentation will consist of a high-quality stereo with three source inputs:  a turntable, a CD player and an iPod.  Live and unrehearsed in front of an audience, I will play three different pieces of music using each of the formats.

Source 1:  Pristine audiophile vinyl

Source 2:  CD

Source 3:  128 kpbs MP3

Round one will feature something from Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations.  Round two will be “Avalon,” the title track of Roxy Music’s 1982 album.  And we’ll finish with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California.”

Will the audience be able to tell the difference between the three formats?

More importantly, though, will be there be disagreements over which format sounds most “beautiful” and “accurate?”

Have the Loudness Wars changed the way people perceive recording and reproduction accuracy?  Is it possible the Ear Bud Generation believes that an MP3 sounds better to its ears than an uncompressed vinyl recording?  Whatever the results, I’m sure they’ll be fascinating.

Tickets and information about the Glenn Gould Variations can be found here.  The dates are September 22 and 23 at Convocation Hall, University of Toronto.

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