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Music Outside of My Head

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 

For most of the 1970s I was on something of a quest to get the best sound I could. I listened to many speakers, amps and sources. Having more time than money at the time, I did more research than buying. The final system, before various moves drove me to downscale, used a Thorens TD-125 turntable, Ortofon MC cartridge, Harman-Kardon Citation 11 and 16 for amplification, and JBL L-100 speakers. In those days no one worried about cables.


By the early 1980s I'd come to the conclusion that no speaker could duplicate the sound of live music. I dialed back my goals to something like 90th-percentile sound. It's that last 10% that gets really expensive.


I moved to Los Angeles in 1984, having left all the equipment behind. Being bereft of music wasn't tolerable. All I could afford was an Aiwa portable cassette player and a pair of headphones. In the summer of 1985 the CD revolution arrived. I nearly went broke buying them, after Rogersound Labs sold me a player. I stayed with the headphones until Cambridge Soundworks came along and sold me a set of Ensemble speakers. That all worked for a number of years, and I really enjoyed not having the inner-groove distortions and other problems of analog records.


Things stayed that way for years. Main listening on headphones, speakers for when I needed to move around or wanted the different experience.


In 2005 I gradually awoke to the elegance of a computer-based stereo system. I used a portable CD player in the bedroom until it quit working; it was replaced with a Squeezebox. That didn't sound very good, which led to research into digital-to-analog converters with headphone amps. I bought a Benchmark DAC-1. Then the cans broke. The ultimate replacement was the Denon AH-D7000.


Somewhere along the line, I realized that the Ensemble speakers, driven by an old Sony ES-line power amp, weren't sounding all that good. I began to think about speakers. I used them mainly to monitor the music I played for some Internet friends on Saturdays. Early this year I had to move out for a few months while my apartment was being renovated, and I had to take the stereo equipment down. When I got back I saw that the speakers were falling apart. It was time to get serious.


I'd been interested in amplified speakers, such as Genelec and others. Went to listen to some and didn't like them at all. There's a high-end audio store here. I figured they'd be out of my price range, but one has to start somewhere so one day I walked in to see what they had. A few weeks later I bypassed the rest of the research process and bought a pair of Vandersteen Quatro speakers, Rotel RB1552 power amp, and, acknowledging the new standard, Auidoquest speaker cables that cost more than most amplifiers.


Buying any audio equipment is a challenge. If you're in a store, you often have a salesman breathing down your neck and other customers waiting. How long does it take to make a decision? In my case, roughly 40 years from the time I first entered a real stereo shop to the time I made a more-or-less informed decision. Sometimes decisions are made for hidden reasons; a big reason I chose the store and the speaker was that both had been in business for years. While not a sure-fire promise, it's a good indicator.


The dealer came out last week and installed the system. The Quatro has adjustments to suit it to the room, which is one reason I bought them. The first song I played was Yo-Yo Ma and friends, playing "Attaboy" from "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." The speakers take roughly 100 hours to run-in, but I noticed them getting better, or my hearing apparatus getting better, after five or six hours. The sound is quite remarkable, by far the best I've ever owned. I didn't know music could sound this good in a living room.


Still, they're not live. They're just really, really good. Entrancing, actually. I was late to an appointment because I got carried away by the music (Brahms chamber works, from Hyperion Records). I think any audio transducer requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief in order to sound "real." Every once in a while, I'd find myself realizing that what was in the headphones was a speaker the size of that in a transistor radio. Music, it seems, wants to be felt as well as heard, and I don't mean exclusively massive bass. Speakers fill the room with sound, and that seems to matter to the perception of what's going on.


What do these speakers do that others I've owned don't? I mean, all speakers and headphones play back sound: electrical impulses in, sound out. That some do the job better than others is obvious, but how to describe the differences isn't. One clear difference with these speakers is that they have truly authoritative bass. Not overwhelming, unless that's now the music was made or recorded, but any low frequency comes out as if it really belongs there. Low bass from the L-100 was a kind of sham, and headphones could convince the ears but not the body, which was expecting something. In the rest of the audio range there's detail and elegance, and an ability to integrate all the different threads into a musical presentation. I don't know how it's done, but I like it.


Music is essential. I'm not a Baroque-era prince with an in-house orchestra, so I'm very glad I have the orchestras on a hard disk... and speakers to let them out. And, of course, headphones for when it's late at night and I don't want to disturb the neighbors.


For those interested: Newer Technology G-Max Mini RAID-1 hard disk system, connected to a Mac Mini. Itunes plays the music through USB to a Benchmark DAC-1 HDR. None of which is to say I think any of this is the "best." It's just what I've ended up with in my own decision-making process.

post #2 of 3

THIS IS AUDIOPHILE LITERATURE, honestly the most honest read I have found on this site for months.  While you quote items of audio gear you dont put a spin on it, you leave out suggestions of preference OR recommendation.  This is really enjoyable to read on a forum.  My journey is not as long as your in terms of years but I have experimented and toyed with ambition of systems worth more than my house.  Honestly that was a pleasure to read, and gave me as much emotional satisfaction as a good album : D


Many people forget the enjoyment while quote facts figures and statistics,, and I am probably as guilty as the next forum user. I spend hundreds of hours a month listening to details of music playing around to find perfection.  I record,sample and mix for hours on end trying to get what sounds great to me.  I listen to equipment evaluating and comparing, trying to find the best output.  Sometimes you forget its about YOU and what the music is supposed to invoke in terms of personal emotion.  


I am not bold enough to call myself an artist, i mess with midi and loops, I record a bit of vocals, I try to make music I like to listen to.  When I listen I want to feel like I am in the room.  The OP summed it up with this comment "By the early 1980s I'd come to the conclusion that no speaker could duplicate the sound of live music." and it is the most under-stated part of "the audio chain" that everyone chooses to ignore.  Silver cables, $40k dacs and all the rest of the snake oil we listen to.  The money we spend on audio gear we could go listen to live gigs in pubs and clubs every week of the year.  Those artists are making money and they need ours as much as NAD or Sennheiser or Audio Techinca.  


While private listening is a fantastic thing in life, a relaxation tool, and a soul expanding experience. Next time you want to spend $1000 on a headphone amp or a dac, cut your budget by 10% and have a night out with friends and do the live thing.


This post has inspired me to forget upgrading a piece of electronics and actually buy some gig tickets, to a band I have never seen before.  **** THD, Screw FOM cans support a local band/venue we are in a recession globally and this is possibly the best thing you can do.

post #3 of 3
Thread Starter 

That's an excellent idea, Tablix. I hope those who are less crowd-averse than I will do so. The only live music I attend regularly are the three yearly concerts of Los Angeles' Concert Singers, whom I've been recording for years. A friend of mine sang with them.


Well, there's another problem common in "live" music: amplification. The clubs I've been to have been much too loud to really hear anything. Earplugs are an essential for me. Human hearing, while limited by the standards of other creatures (cats, for example, can hear up to 100kHz, and bats, of course...), is still marvellously subtle. It makes me wonder what a violin sounds like to someone else. But then, that depends on who's doing the playing, too; put ten violinists in a room, have them play the same piece, and you'll get 12 different interpretations of the composer's intentions. Who's right? All? None?


All we can really deal with is preferences. I have a preference for the way Angela Hewitt plays Beethoven piano sonatas. I wonder why there are preferences. Is my hearing that much different, or the way my mind works in assembling what the ears pick up? Beethoven put the notes on the staff. Pianists read the notes, under the influence of a couple of centuries of experience and expectation, and play the music as they see fit. What did Beethoven really intend? It's too late to know now. I go with preference, but if my preference never changes, how might I learn something new? My musical horizons have expanded over the years.


I have five versions of Handel's "Messiah." Which is best? That depends on my mood. Amazon reviews are a good guide, but not a perfect predictor. They must be read with a healthy dose of skepticism, too, as some reviewers have an axe to grind. There's also the problem of a recording getting wonderful reviews, but being a style of music I can't stand. As they sing in "Pete's Dragon," "There's room for everyone in this world."

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