Why Audio is not all that good, but it’s great
When the era of Audio recording began, it changed the face of music. Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.
But, for many of us, getting the sound as good as we can is a most worthy objective. It’s why I am typing this and why you are reading. What can be frustrating to folks like us is that there is seemingly no end to the trail, even as sound keeps getting better it seems the goal keeps moving away from us. Sometimes, it can even seem doubtful that progress is even being made as listening to vintage gear that can sometimes seem in certain ways closer to the goal can show. The crux of the problem, as I see it, is that even in principle, perfect reproduction is not possible. Facsimile reproduction would be the end of the line, but it’s nowhere near.
I liken home audio to a blind man in a shooting gallery firing at a moving target. It seems every steps of even the recording/playback process has it’s shortcomings. Start even before the hardware, with recording techniques. So which combination of recording and playback techniques are “best”? Well, we all can have our own personal takes but really, even among professional recording engineers, there seems to not be any kind of true, absolute consensus, no perfect way to record. Where there is no perfect technique, there can only be differing compromises. Over time, some have ben employed and largely discarded, at least sonically. For example, you just don’t see many Classical extreme multi-track recordings any more, though it must be said that the best recording engineers that employed that technique could sometimes produce quite credible recordings. On the other hand, you don’t see many completely purist 2 mic recordings or indeed, even true Blumlein recordings (despite their oft-touted technical desirability). The reasons? Some are economic. The fewer the mics used in a recording, the harder it is to find their optimum placement. This placement requires expensive orchestra time to attain, so having a few more mics allows you to cover your bases better.
You could say that using the “best” mics (whichever ones that might be) with “proper” placement (wherever in the hall (hell?) that might be) and employing the proper recording technique (Blumlein?) would result in as good a recording as is possible to produce. Maybe that’s true. But if at least if one technique (whatever it was) had been settled upon at the beginning, one could arrange their playback system as a compliment to whatever had been chosen. But the reality is that recordings are wildly different, so we have a problem in reproduction right off the top.
Moreover, whatever the sonic truth of the original recording technique, complete faithfulness to that is not, even in principle, (at least with today’s technology) attainable. Mics are far from perfect. Our digital recording systems are quite good these days (not so much earlier on) and the old reel to reel master tapes, if in good shape, are pretty credible, too. But Records are imperfect, CD’s are variable and limited technically in their ways, SACD’s can be good but are limited in availability and depth of catalogue and downloads of less that lossless formats mediocre (true hi-rez files are probably the best we have). And there’s nothing to say that a particular format will be “transferred” well from the masters.
Then we get to Turntables, Cartridges, Tonearms, CD players, SACD players, D/A converters, Preamps, Amplifiers, Speakers and our listening rooms. All have at least potential problems. It seems like all hope is lost. But…
Let’s go back to the opening paragraph; “Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.” This is why we try and slog through all this and what’s amazing is that somehow, with all that is working against us at times the sound is good enough to take us virtually to (pre “renovation”) Symphony Hall or Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall or any of the (scandalously) now gone venerated rock venues or Abbey Road studios or wherever.
And that’s why we keep typing and reading and listening.