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BLOG #19: What Is The Main Function Of High End Audio?

In 2009, at the CEDIA show in Atlanta, Gary Reber of “Widescreen Review” magazine introduced me to the Smyth Research “Realizer” – a revolutionary technology to create a “3-D” sound field via a pair of headphones or earphones.

 In January of next year I spent a day in Los Angeles to go through a marathon of three personal “Realizer” unit calibrations a day, the first one took place in the historical “Egyptian Theater” on Hollywood Boulevard and, after that I was “calibrated” in two studios: one – for DVD mastering (“Mikasa”), and the other one – for multi channel audio recordings (“AIX”).

 A few days before that I interviewed Lorr Kramer of Smyth Research in Las Vegas for a Russian publication called “Audiomagazine” where I wrote a bi-monthly personal column (pic.1).

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 During that interview Lorr told me that the whole “Realizer” project started when the team behind original DTS standard was approached with an offer to develop an equipment kit to facilitate learning Japanese via Internet.

 The “Realizer” happened to be an offshoot of that original idea, and, as far as I know, the product that totally diverted the ways of the Smyth Research’s further product development.

 So, what’s the connection between leaning Japanese via Internet and the “3-D” aural imaging via headphones?

 As Lorr mentioned to me an efficiency of learning a foreign language, especially, its phonetics, is directly linked not only with high aural resolution (which is trivial), but (what is not trivial) it is directly linked with a particular aspect of that high resolution - its “three-dimensionality”.

 When Lorr was telling me that I suddenly remembered how I was learning English in the seventies via listening to BBC World Service broadcasts on a short wave radio.

 The quality of reception was so poor that I had to look in a dictionary at several similarly sounding words’ verbal transcriptions to see which one would better fit a word’s sound, first, and then better match the context, second.

 According to Lorr even if the regular audio quality available via Internet two-channel stereo is ok, it’s still not good enough to pass all the intricacies of the foreign phonetics.

 For the latter you really need a third dimension.

 If the first two dimensions allow you to hear what’s being said, then the third one allows you to better hear how that was done.

 The reason they impart so much significance to a concept of “soundstage” in the High End Audio is closely related to the latter: the sounstage’s third dimension allows us to better hear not only what musicians play, but also how they do it.

 When I rapturously related my “Realizer”’s first impressions to John Grado, while visiting him ay his factory in Brooklyn on my way from Atlanta back to Moscow, he was puzzled by my enthusiasm:  “But why do you need it, especially for stereo?!”

 I agree, the main application for “Realizer” is for multitrack recordings and for movie soundtracks. Nevertheless, for me, the hardcore “home” audiophile, the third dimension in stereo was taken for granted, so to hear it via headphones was a thrilling experience.

 Even if my gut feeling was telling me that the more info the better, and the third dimension’s info can be as relevant to the total musical experience, as the first two one’s, at the time I was taken aback by his reaction and was not prepared to give John the full explanation of why we need the “Realizer”, partially because my Lorr Kramer interview, in which he mentioned the “Japanese” project, had to come a few months later.

 My possible explanation to John Grado has struck me some time later when one more time I contemplated about why we invest so many resources, so much time and so much effort in our audiophile hobby.

  Actually, the main reason we spend all these should be to recreate that third dimension in stereo playback.

That’s why we must to cope with room acoustics, that’s why we get better and better electronics, and that’s why we resort to all sorts of system tweaks.

 And that’s why I see so much promise in such new technologies as deqx or Edgar Choueiri’s BACCH 3D.

 That third dimension, or soundstage, is a direct result of an improved resolution, so how well the soundstage’s third dimension is defined is an ultimate litmus test for the sonic class of an audio system.

 But, again, why do we need that well focused three dimensional soundstage? (pic. 2)

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 For the same reason: the audiophiles are supposed to be aware not only of what the musicians are playing, they are also supposed to be aware of how they doing it.

 There is no doubt that they’re fully aware of the former, but the big question is: are they fully aware of the latter?

 The reason the audiophiles are supposed to be interested in “how” [the subtle dynamic details of a music structure exposed through three dimensional soundstage effects] is because the whole raison d’etre of the High End Audio from its very inception was mainly educational: it’s supposed to be the most effective tool for mastering a new (for the vast majority) musical language. (pic. 3)

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As our native verbal language is “sucked with our mother’s milk”, the same way our native music language is born when we’re fourteen year old “suckers”.

 And that native “language of music” stays with us through all of our life, that’s why there is a saying that “we all listen to the same music which we were listening to when we were fourteen”.

 So, if you really want to learn a new musical language you need the same set of means as if you’d really wanted to learn any foreign language.

 Those necessary means include determination, methodology, a teacher, and last but not least for this story, some special technical tools.

 Yes, as a tool you can use concert halls and live performances, but if this is not possible, you can also use a “well certified” home audio system, where its certificate proves its musical ability to educate.

 The reason that most of the musicians are not audiophiles fully conforms to this. Their gut feeling is: if they’re already not interested in mastering a new musical language, but instead are interested in further advancement of their current one, then why should they be interested in pursuing the audiophile hobby?

 Having a typical “prole” background, only when I started to be heavily involved in the High End Audio my music tastes changed dramatically. And only after many years of “learning a new language” via listening to music via my audiophile rig I could claim that I started to be “fluent” in jazz, which is a dominant music language I can communicate with at the moment.

 To prove my theory, after all those forty years all my childhood friends still “speak” the same musical language they spoke when they were fourteen.

 Our brain has got a capacity to form various attractors, or templates. That’s why in my BBC World Service days I could become ecstatic from some music I heard on the short wave radio: I operated with well formed aural templates which I accumulated when I was fourteen which filled the aural gaps due to a bad want in sound quality.

 Those brain templates allow music’s “meaning” to penetrate even via a one-dimensional mono or two-dimensional flat stereo, and even when the sound quality is very poor.

 But you can’t develop a well defined new template without an external help, a lot of practice and a set of high resolution technical tools.

 An example of the latter: just try to learn a foreign language via long distance phone calls.

 That’s why Smyth Research were originally approached for the Japanese language learning kit.

 And that’s why we’ve got the High End Audio.

 To people who are not genuinely interested in future musical personal development the High End Audio is useless pieces of scrap metal and wood.

 That’s why we don’t really see any interest to high performance audio from the general public.

 On the other hand, an attempt of the High End Audio industry to push its wares as status symbols was very shortsighted: you can’t wear a loudspeaker on your wrist.

 During that “Golden Era of High End Audio” a lot of customers under the spell of some elevated promises about sonic Nirvana were buying some audio equivalents of microscopes and tried to drive the “musical nails” with them…while the latter endeavor would have been much more successful if those customers would had been using an audio equivalent of a sledgehammer (ok, with a 24-carat gold head, considering how much the customers were willing to spend).

 By the way, a few weeks ago during my meeting with a head of a widely known (in narrow circles) Russian High End Audio company, which distributes a lot of esoteric gear, he told me that I must listen to a recording which really excited him at that moment.

 I diligently followed his tip, and … it was a piece of music I’ve been listening to when I was…ok, nineteen.

 If the High End Audio distributors are totally oblivious of the main application for their own devices then how can we blame the ordinary folks who accidentally caught an audiophile bug?!

 On the other hand, the most of the High End Audio companies who do know what they are doing are afraid to openly state that original function of their products and, by implication, their limited appeal, so they’ll not loose (a vast majority) of their sales.

 But, there is no escape, as that unresolved cognitive dissonance due to a paradox between the intended High End Audio products’ main function (“a musical microscope” of a mature adult) and their actual use (“a musical sledgehammer” of an immature teenage rebel) is the biggest reason why the High End Audio is in such a decline at the moment.

 As for us, the intended main application of StereoPravda’s products corresponds with the traditional High End Audio’s original main function: to master new musical languages, so we are ready to admit that there is an intended main application of our devices - they are built for those who are not afraid to open, over and over again,  a new chapter in their musical life.

 And, by the way, “serious” classical music is my next frontier…

 

11.08.2016 // Author:  (Bigmisha) // Number of views:  537

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