Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Vintage equipment, tone pleasantness, and missing information

I'm continuing to enjoy Marantz 20B right now in background playing KPAC with extreme passion (enhanced dynamics?) and sweetness (low cut off?).  I still don't feel it provides an accurate reproduction, which is supposed to be the sine quo non of audio, which is also called "high fidelity" as a result.

Especially for background music, which is the kind most non-audiophiles enjoy almost exclusively, or even foreground music for serious dedicated listening, I believe a rarely mentioned quality is #1.  Tone pleasantness.  (Even the normal phrase "tone quality" obscures the fact that it's not fidelity, it's the fact that the tone sounds pleasant as opposed to irritating, annoying, grating, etc., so I've added the qualifier pleasantness to highlight this particular aspect of the tone.)

It is tone pleasantness that many listeners seek out to find within their favored equipment.  Tone pleasantness is something you may be more likely to find in older "vintage" equipment than new equipment for various reasons.  Vintage equipment is usually not (with rare exceptions, like FM tuners between 1960 and 1995) where you find the best performance overall.  It is not likely to excel in being revealing of component faults or obscure performance details.  It is not likely to have more slam.  But it can have, by some subjective standard, better tone pleasantness than something newer.  Easily, by simply not reproducing obscure details that have an unpleasant sound.  Some old equipment simply can't because the technology to achieve suct detailed sound were not available at low enough cost.  On the other hand, certain old pieces may have been designed to obscure unpleasantness, or highlight the more pleasant aspects.

Now I think the 20B does a little of both.

Type A audiophiles have the sense that audiophiles who haven't progressed past the pleasantness of the general tone are missing a lot.  Their lives would be much more fufilled if they could experience the audio ecstacy of truly accurate reproduction.  There is so much to be experienced, and equipment which only provides pleasant tone (whether the source is actually pleasant or not) are missing a lot.

According to audiophile canon, there is vast information in musical performance, and even the best equipment doesn't give you all of it.  For the fullest experience, you should have access to as much of that information as possible.

The problem with this for most non-audiophiles and many audiophiles as well is that reproduction of all that information is often unpleasant.  Sometimes the unpleasantness is begins with the original music, but the equipment somehow enhances the unpleasantness.  Other times, the unpleasantness is actually in the equipment.  Sometimes purposefully making something to convey as much information as possible has a tendency to make the previously obscured details unpleasant.

One of my audiophile friends, S, says that people shouldn't bother trying to figure out if reproduction is accurate or not.  Instead they should just find something that sounds good to them.  But this is not a matter merely of being flavored to their taste.  He says that something that sounds good to people *is* also objectively the best also, that's why it sounds good.

That's a strong claim which I don't see good evidence for.  But no doubt, people should find things that sound good to them.  And in many cases, this does not correlate with revealing the most information.

One thing overlooked is that even in a comparatively low fidelity performance, there is lots and lots of information.  And we don't actually need much information streaming in to make us happy or even give us a feeling of awe.  Just a little may be enough to trigger musical associations and hence extasy.  To much can even shut the exstasy.

Now there are other factors as well in vintage equipment, such as appearance, or social associations.

These factors can't be entirely dismissed.  If you play a piece of equipment because you like the way it looks or because you or your friends created it, or even pure sentimentality, is that wrong?  Whatever gets you to play and enjoy music more is better.  "Whatever works" is my bumper sticker philosophy.

The only error is when such realities are not acknowledged, and instead false claims are made about accuracy and performance that aren't true.  Audio is full of that also, and that's what we must guard against.

Also, audiophiles may not wish to concede that Audio, as it exists now within a capitalist world, is a very bourgeois hobby.  A large part of the hobby is obtaining (somehow cheaply if necessary) expensive equipment, often by its very nature more expensive than what most people use for audio reproduction (though sometimes through DIY or cleverness audiophiles can avoid spending much money).

Within a bourgeois hobby, it's perfectly fine to love something simply because it is old.  Or new.

Audiophiles want to pretend it's "only about the music" so they can pretend it's not a bourgeois hobby.  Yes, and not about the social status, etc.  But it cannot be only about the music.

I say it's about the happiness, feeling good, etc.  The music is part of that, but so are the looks and the scene.

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