What's Best? The Absolute Sound or today's High End Systems?

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Back in the day of Harry Pearson and the evolution of the High End Audio, Pearson, in the pages of The Absolute Sound, defined the "absolute sound" as unamplified acoustic instruments and/or vocals performed in a real space, usually a concert hall. The evaluation of reproduction systems (HiFi equipment) was a based on a subjective comparison to the "absolute sound." The best systems came the closest to the sound of a live performance in a real space.

Over the last several years I have been a regular attendee of live music in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall and The Metropolitan Opera House. I have come to the realization that, in my opinion, the best sound and musical enjoyment happens at home with my highly evolved system, and I question weather it's worth the expense and effort to attend, other than for the occasional performance of a favorite artist.

I've tried various seating choices, always seeking the best. But more and more I have come to the conclusion that the best seat in the house (at least sonically) is at home! Do other WBF members share this view?
 
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bonzo75

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Feb 26, 2014
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#2
Not at all. But then I have 6 or 7 concert halls next to me and costs much cheaper than US concerts. The only system where I would sit at home 70 percent of the time without going to a concert is the General's because apart from having a a great system he has much better performances than what you can find live. We can have two great current performers playing the same day in London, at different venues. This is the only city it happens @astrotoy will tell you the same
 
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tima

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Mar 4, 2014
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#3
I'm with bonzo that I can have better performances and usually better artists at home than at my local small town symphony, although sometimes they'll bring in a compelling guest artist/conductor or the Chicago Symphony. But sonics? Live, in person, is best - it's the reference.
 

Ron Resnick

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Jan 25, 2015
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#4
I prefer the sound of, and I derive more musical enjoyment from, Walt Disney Concert Hall than I did from my last stereo system at home.

The only exception, I think, was the time with Keith I did not really enjoy a four piece string ensemble group that looked like miniature figures in a diorama lost in the vast expanse of the Walt Disney Concert Hall orchestra soundstage. That particular performance, I think, maybe, I might’ve enjoyed more on my home stereo. (But if you had put that group in a living room, then I would have enjoyed the living room performance more than the same performance on my home stereo.)
 
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morricab

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Apr 25, 2014
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#5
Not at all. But then I have 6 or 7 concert halls next to me and costs much cheaper than US concerts. The only system where I would sit at home 70 percent of the time without going to a concert is the General's because apart from having a a great system he has much better performances than what you can find live. We can have two great current performers playing the same day in London, at different venues. This is the only city it happens @astrotoy will tell you the same
I second live sound, which to me is still the ultimate reference. Living near Zürich, I get the opportunity to hear a lot of great concerts in great sounding halls. I was recently at the KKL in Luzern (very nice acoustics) to hear Evegeniy Kissin play Beethoven piano Sonatas...amazing and I would argue he plays them as well as anyone has ever played them. Sonically I was beautiful sound and powerfully dynamic. I have still to hear a system that can equal that. Of course a recording is made up close so if you hear live from the back of the hall I could see how one might prefer the up close perspective of the recording but it will not have all elements on gets from live.
 
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morricab

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#6
I prefer the sound of, and I derive more musical enjoyment from, Walt Disney Concert Hall than I did from my last stereo system at home.

The only exception, I think, was the time with Keith I did not really enjoy a four piece string ensemble group that looked like miniature figures in a diorama lost in the vast expanse of the Walt Disney Concert Hall orchestra soundstage. That particular performance, I think, maybe, I might’ve enjoyed more on my home stereo. (But if you had put that group in a living room, then I would have enjoyed the living room performance more than the same performance on my home stereo.)
Having heard quartets, quintets, piano trios etc. in a home environment I can tell you the stereos cannot compete when the environment scale is correct. In Zürich Tonhalle they have a Kleinersaal (small hall) where more chamber concerts are performed. It’s still not tiny or intimate like a home but works much better for smaller ensembles than the big hall.
 
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Folsom

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Oct 26, 2015
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#7
My issue is one Ked brings up, the performances... Live is great, but symphony is boring for the most part. I mostly listen to performances for instruments.
 

Al M.

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Sep 10, 2013
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#8
As others have said, live. Exceptions may be concertos for solo instruments and orchestra. There sometimes I prefer the balance of a recording, because you hear more of the usually upfront solo instrument. Case in point, I attended a concert with friends at the Boston Symphony. We sat in the tenth row I believe, and the program was Beethoven's fourth piano concerto, followed by Shostakovich's 11th symphony. While the Beethoven concerto sounded nice, the piano was less clear than from a recording, and the whole work sounded a bit soft. The Shostakovich symphony on the other hand sounded very loud, very clear and unbelievably powerful. It was a sonic blockbuster. No system can touch that.

But of course, a good seat is a prerequisite. I prefer the sound at home to an acoustically compromised seat in the concert hall anytime.

I did hear concertos for soloist and orchestra live with an ideal or close to ideal balance. This also depends on the seat.
 
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cjfrbw

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Apr 20, 2010
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#9
If you don't stringently cater to the notion that live sound is the Grand Audio Goal, you have branded yourself a blithering audio Neanderthal without credibility or sensitivity. Good luck with that. Standards are standards.

Certain perversities and tendencies need to be kept to oneself. Repentance and forgiveness are costlier than silence.

I read one of HP's old reviews a month ago. I was surprised that it sounded like nonsense to me. I used to like the poetry.
 

Folsom

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#10
If you don't stringently cater to the notion that live sound is the Grand Audio Goal, you have branded yourself a blithering audio Neanderthal without credibility or sensitivity. Good luck with that. Standards are standards.
By them, or you? People in general?

I think enjoyment is the highest goal that often is overlooked.
 
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May 30, 2010
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#11
IMHO the situations are not comparable. A live performance is much more than just variations of air pressure. The recording is manipulated to overcome the home listening limitations, not to make the sound exactly the same.

And as Folsom just wrote, enjoyment is the highest goal of sound reproduction. Fortunately most times the real experience helps our enjoyment of recordings - the industry knows how to fool us and we can also help in the process.

Biases help us enjoying reproduced music. I have no problem admitting I appreciate the sonics of the XLF even more because I read a lot from David Wilson about them and understood his aims in this project.
 

MtnHam

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Jan 13, 2014
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#12
If you don't stringently cater to the notion that live sound is the Grand Audio Goal, you have branded yourself a blithering audio Neanderthal without credibility or sensitivity. Good luck with that. Standards are standards.

Certain perversities and tendencies need to be kept to oneself. Repentance and forgiveness are costlier than silence.
Thanks for the gratuitous insult. Perhaps it speaks more about you than I.

Folsom says it better.
"I think enjoyment is the highest goal that often is overlooked."
 

Duke LeJeune

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Jul 22, 2013
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#14
Over the last several years I have been a regular attendee of live music in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall and The Metropolitan Opera House. I have come to the realization that, in my opinion, the best sound and musical enjoyment happens at home with my highly evolved system.
I believe you.

I see that you are a SoundLab dealer, and I've had two SoundLab owners tell me essentially the same thing. I didn't really believe the first one, but didn't argue with him about it either. When it happened again with someone else, someone that I had gotten to know pretty well, I had to reconsider. And now here you go spouting the same heresy.

And I believe you.
 
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morricab

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#15
Thanks for the gratuitous insult. Perhaps it speaks more about you than I.

Folsom says it better.
"I think enjoyment is the highest goal that often is overlooked."
I think he is in fact making a critique of those of us who still think that live, unamplified music is the only real reference (or Absolute sound , if you prefer) and not insulting you... but that’s how I interpreted the post...
 

cjfrbw

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Apr 20, 2010
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#16
Thanks for the gratuitous insult. Perhaps it speaks more about you than I.
I think you misread my post. Sorry for being unclear, I was trying to be ironic. I was not trying to insult. I think your premise is sound.

I never understood the term 'absolute sound' in the day. I eventually came to believe it was artificial in order to generate a subjective standard presided over by HP so that he could be the grand anointer and dethroner of audio gear. He was successful in that regard, but the standard is so illusory as to be meaningless.

I have heard on a couple of occasions a session being recorded, then played back through an audio system. I could barely hear myself what the microphones heard, and the live vs. recorded was diametrically different. Those were simple sessions without the subsequent interventions of mastering gear to further confuse the process, much less the limitations of microphones, recording gear etc. A common complaint from musicians is that recordings never sound like their own instruments to their ears.

All stereo systems sound different. every piece of equipment sounds different, every phono cartridge sounds different, all the permutations sound different. Even if people were present at the recording venue, they would all be in different seating arrangements hearing different things at the same session. Things can’t be that different across the board and then be compared to an imperfectly perceived and remembered original.

There are also recordings that probably allow a better perception of the music played than actually being present at the performance. Maybe the standard should be reversed, and the question should be why don’t more live performances sound as good as the comparative home recordings played on high end equipment.

So I do blame HP for generating a persistent apocryphal standard. In an article of his that I read he was reviewing a record played in a hall he was familiar with, and he was actually reviewing the equipment based on how well it rendered the 3D image of the hall according to his aural memory. I thought he was either sincerely deluded or he was just spinning it. Differentially placed microphones and mastering anomalies would assure that there could be no meaningful comparison to begin with.
 

tima

Industry Expert
Mar 4, 2014
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#17
And as Folsom just wrote, enjoyment is the highest goal of sound reproduction.
Sure. And we believe - or at least hold out hope - that it is a reproduction of an actual performance and not some sui generis sound. Inherent in the notion of 'absolute sound' is the unattainable. I agree about enjoyment but we, or at least some of us, as audiophiles (in contrast to any listener) posit a reference. What possibly could that be if not the live performance?
 

morricab

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Apr 25, 2014
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#19
Sure. And we believe - or at least hold out hope - that it is a reproduction of an actual performance and not some sui generis sound. Inherent in the notion of 'absolute sound' is the unattainable. I agree about enjoyment but we, or at least some of us, as audiophiles (in contrast to any listener) posit a reference. What possibly could that be if not the live performance?
100% agree.
 

morricab

Well-Known Member
Apr 25, 2014
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#20
Sure. And we believe - or at least hold out hope - that it is a reproduction of an actual performance and not some sui generis sound. Inherent in the notion of 'absolute sound' is the unattainable. I agree about enjoyment but we, or at least some of us, as audiophiles (in contrast to any listener) posit a reference. What possibly could that be if not the live performance?
IF you happened to be live at a recording session that is NOT performed in a studio but in a real acoustic space (or if that studio is suitable as a real acoustic space...for example a converted church) AND happened to be located near the microphones AND that recording was performed without any or minimal processing then it is possible that a recording of that type might serve as a proxy for live.

I just happen to have a few in my posession where I was the recording "engineer" and was sitting right next to the microphone during the recording. These are pretty raw but have no processing whatsoever and primarily capture the dynamics of what I heard live (backed up by subsequent performances in similar environments) if not the absolute truth in acoustic space (the space in the recording gets overlaid onto the acoustic environment of the playback). Nothing is better than hearing something live and then immediately going home and comparing to your system while the auditory memory is still fresh but having a recording where you have some memory of what it sounded like originally (although this does fade with time unless reinforced regularly) goes a long way towards knowing where your system excels and where it fails.
 
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