The Music Problem

March 10, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

I remember the exact moment I became an audiophile. It was 1954. I was 12 years old. My father’s friend, Mitch Rose, wanted to buy a “hi-fi set,” which was what they called them in those days. Mitch asked my father to go with him to help pick one out. My father asked if I wanted to go along for the ride.

I did, and we went to Emmons Audio in Studio City, California, for what turned out to be one of the formative moments of my life.

When we got there, Dick Emmons, the proprietor, showed us around, asked Mitch some questions about his musical preferences and budget, and then started his demo, including a recording of someone—probably George Wright or E. Power Biggs—performing on a giant pipe organ played (in mono of course; stereo LPs didn’t come along until three years later) through a McIntosh MC-30 amplifier driving a Bozak B-310 speaker that made genuine 24Hz bass. In those days, 50Hz was the professional low-end standard, and other speakers (from Klipsch, Electro-Voice, James B. Lansing, Altec, etc.) had to work hard or be corner-loaded to achieve even that.

All the sound at Emmons’s store was better than any I had ever heard before, but it was the organ that really caught my attention. At its first pedal note, I was transfixed. My mouth dropped open and stayed that way until long after we left. I was hooked as an audiophile from that point on.

It wasn’t that I had never heard good bass before, or deep bass: I had never heard any bass before that night.

At home, my family listened to our television set, some table radios, and a Silvertone portable record player. The radio in my father’s car was no better: no bass. I had never been to a live concert, and because my family weren’t churchgoers, I’d never heard a live organ—certainly not one with 32Hz pipes. The very best sound I had ever heard until that time was probably at the movies, and the sound in 1950s movie theaters—even for something as special as Disney’s Fantasia—was nowhere near as good as what I heard at Dick Emmons’s shop.

My love of great sound has stuck with me through the years and, as I’m sure many of you have also done, I’ve tried to pass that love on to friends and other non-audiophile people. In almost every case, the result has been the same: I played my system for them, choosing recordings I thought would let them hear what a fine job it does of reproducing the detail and nuance of live music and the size, ambience, and presence of the venue it was recorded in. In almost every case, the response was … nothing. My friends either voiced vague niceties intended to console me for their lack of interest, or—the most common response said that it was all very nice, but “where’s the bass?” More than once, that last remark referred to a system whose subwoofers went well below 20Hz!

How could that be? I’ve wondered that for years. Are the people I’ve played my system for deaf? Do they not know what to listen for? Can it be that they just don’t know what music really sounds like—what bass really sounds like?

Those last two reasons at least are probably true, but, I’ve come to think, for a very specific reason. This reason was brought to my attention by a friend who is also in the high-end audio industry. He agrees that, like me as a kid, these people don’t know what music really sounds like. For me though, the reason was a simple lack of exposure to music. For most people, my friend thinks, it’s for a different reason entirely.

People today, he says, have heard live music; they have been to clubs and to concerts of every kind of music (rock, classical, whatever) at every kind of venue, indoor at home than I had even imagined before that fateful night at Emmons Audio. So how can they not know what music sounds like?

Easy: All the music they’ve ever heard—even live music—has been processed or made louder by some electronic means—a public-address system (a “PA,” or as they say in the UK, a tannoy) or a “sound reinforcement” system—before it gets to their ears. All of it, with only the rarest exception. From the amplified voice of a singer at anything from a restaurant with a singing piano player to an intimate jazz club or even an opera house (where it’s sometimes done to make sure the voice or voices can be heard above the instruments); to amphitheaters like the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theater, and others—which, in order for all of the audience to hear all of the music, have become little more than huge hi-fi sets with only a small part of what you hear actually being the sound coming from the performers or instruments; to venues like Woodstock, where it’s all PA. Live sound isn’t live sound anymore, and what people are hearing is the sound of the PA system.

That explains a lot. PA systems don’t image. They don’t present a soundstage. They can’t make deep bass; that 50Hz, which used to be the “pro” standard, is still about the deepest most can go. Often, they make up for the lack of real, low bass by bumping up the midbass, and sometimes the upper bass—hence the remark I heard a few times: “Where’s the bass?”

When non-audiophiles hear a system that does do those things that sound like real music, they don’t appreciate it. It doesn’t sound like what they’re used to, and they’re not impressed. They think the sound of a PA system is what music is supposed to sound like. Until we can teach them or—better—show them otherwise, perhaps by dealers playing a live, unamplified instrument at their store, it will likely remain hard to excite them enough to join our ranks.

What do you think?

Roger Skoff is the founder of two hi-fi cable companies, XLO and RSX, and has written for many hi-fi publications.

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