Truth vs Beauty: A Tale of Two Transports
Laurence A. Borden, March, 2006
It is a truism that audiophiles love music. What distinguishes us (footnote 1) from the vast majority of music lovers is the importance we ascribe to the high-quality reproduction of recorded music. But what, exactly, constitutes high-quality sound reproduction? To many audiophiles, the answer relates to accuracy. Useful indices of accuracy include many of the parameters that editor John Atkinson routinely measures: flat frequency response, time and phase accuracy, and low distortion, to name a few. On the other hand, many audiophiles apparently have little interest in these aspects and instead seek nothing more—or less—than a romantic and pleasant sound. Such individuals are unfazed by demonstrable inaccuracies in their systems; as long as it sounds good to their ears, they are happy. Are these two schools of thought both compatible with the notion of high-end audio? If so, is one "more correct" than the other? Are they mutually exclusive? What brought this issue to mind was, of all things, a digital transport. Actually, two transports.
For the past few years my reference digital transport has been a CEC TL1-x. Ever eager to try new things, I recently purchased an older (and now discontinued) Sony CDP-707ES CD player and sent it to Alex Peychev, of APL HiFi, who extensively modified the transport section. Alex is a topnotch modder perhaps best known for having played a pivotal role in determining the cause of the widespread failures of Philips SACD 1000 SACD players. Not only did he help diagnose the problem, he willingly shared the information with the audio community. High-end audio needs more people like Alex.
Once connected to my Reimyo DAP-777 DAC via a Stealth Audio Varidig Sextet digital cable (footnote 2), the Sony presented a starkly different sonic picture from that of the CEC. The belt-driven CEC's strength is a lush midrange associated with somewhat diminished frequency extremes. Despite these errors of omission, it is a very seductive presentation. In contrast, the Sony has more treble and bass energy, places more emphasis on the transient attacks of notes, and gives the impression of the music being more brightly illuminated.
While listening to these two transports, I was reminded of something that transpired a few years ago, when I was a regular customer at Innovative Audio in New York City. Two of their flagship speakers were the Wilson WATT/Puppy 6 and the Sonus Faber Amati Homage. While both have garnered wide praise, and in many ways represent the state of the art of speaker design, they sound as different from each other as day is from night. I discussed this with one of the Innovative salesmen—Bruce Deegan, with whom I became good friends. He opined that while Dave Wilson might describe his objective as that of conveying truth, Franco Serblin might describe his as that of conveying beauty. With his typical keen insight, Bruce was quick to point out that the difference was not as clear-cut as it might seem at first blush, since there is beauty in truth and truth in beauty. In much the same way, the CEC seems more about beauty, the modified Sony more about truth.
With that as background, the following questions arise: Since the goal of high-end audio is the "high-fidelity" reproduction of recorded music, why would a designer choose beauty over accuracy? Similarly, why would an audiophile prefer a less accurate sound? And, most intriguing, how is it that a less accurate reproduction can sound more beautiful than one that is more accurate? After all, when we hear live music, we don't typically wish that the instruments sounded more beautiful (footnote 3). Why should we do so when listening to recorded music?
It is my belief that the key to these questions lies in the fact that all playback systems are ultimately flawed. Thus, attempts to achieve accuracy, however noble, are unobtainable with present technology. Even the best equipment generates any one of a variety of artifacts, many of which are perceived as unpleasant: sibilance, harshness, exaggerated detail, or a metallic quality, to name a few. Designers deal with these artifacts in either of two ways.
One approach, taken by those we can call "beauty seekers," is based on acceptance of the fact that absolute accuracy cannot be achieved. Accordingly, designers of this ilk seem willing to sacrifice accuracy—or, more correctly, near-accuracy—for a sound they find more pleasant. Commonly, this manifests as a prominent midrange of a kind that calls to mind the descriptor lush. In other cases, or concurrently, the high frequencies may be a bit rolled off, perhaps as a means of avoiding a bright sound. I don't want to give the impression that the beauty seekers are unconcerned with accuracy. Were that the case, it is unlikely that their products would ever be taken seriously by the audiophile community. Rather, the distinguishing feature of these designers is their apparent willingness to "embellish" that which they find pleasant sounding and to minimize that which they don't.