Real or imagined?
Stereo systems build illusions. The better the stereo system, the more believable the illusion.
It’s not something people think about a lot, yet it is one of the foundations of what we strive for. First time listeners to Music Room Two get a 5-minute explanation of what they are about to experience and why. Their reactions to that explanation are always guarded until the system begins to play. Then it’s all grins.
The questions follow soon after. “The sound is coming from the front of the speaker, right? How is it possible the music appears behind the speakers?”
I was recently asked a very interesting question after the first time listener experienced the illusion of depth. “What’s the value of depth and why does it change from recording to recording?” I answered his question by playing an example, the Mahler 3d.
“The system is attempting to reproduce the sound of as many as 100 musicians seated onstage in a very long hall,” I explained. “Without proper depth, you’d get a scrunched up collection of horns and strings that would not sound right.”
So while depth, width, height, and soundstage are only imagined, they are real enough to justify whatever means are necessary to achieve them.
The difficult part of this equation is understanding just how important audio electronics are in creating the magic trick.
Life and stereo systems are compromises—a fact that causes us to make less than perfect choices. It’s helpful to understand the consequences of each choice.
Take for example amplifier power. In a perfect world, we’d have unlimited power and the best sound quality imaginable. In the real world of limited budgets, we’re likely to have to make some tough decisions: Power vs. ultimate sound quality.
If you find yourself on an economic leash that narrows your choice between high power and the sound quality benefits of small high-bias amplifiers, the first thing you want to do is determine where your soft underbelly is most vulnerable—dynamics or see-through transparency.
If your listening habits are mostly small ensemble with the occasional burst of dynamics you’re likely better off focusing your amplifier choices to those you believe offer the sweetest presentation of detail and nuance at reasonable listening levels.
If instead, you’re anticipating dynamic and spectacular, then high power trumps inner detail. There’s nothing more jarring than being jerked out of sonic bliss by the strain of struggling dynamics.
Of course, as manufacturers, we try and offer the best of both worlds as best we can but getting there isn’t always easy nor inexpensive.
When compromise strikes, do your best to figure out what’s important so you can let go of what you can’t have.