ANYTHING BUT MUSIC: Why do some speakers sound like music while others do not?


Michael Vronsky writes:

Different isn’t automatically better

I was trying to find the problem in a friend’s system. It didn’t sound as good as it should have for the money. So we did a lot of cable switching, speaker positioning, isolating this, isolating that – all to no avail. We certainly got different sounds, but none of them were more enjoyable sounds. You get the idea, right?

So … I returned with my Focal Pro actives speakers and connected them to her DAC. Almost immediately both of us could hear the symptoms. It wasn’t the setup but the choice of music that prevented us from initially identifying the problem.

Maria Callas

I have a copy Puccini Tosca (conductor Victor de Sabata) EMI and we used that piece to hear the problem in the DAC. The greatest of all Toscas, Maria Callas is captured at her legendary best, urged on by a distinguished cast and conducting of dramatic sweep Whenever she starts to sing my soul leaps in joy. I just love it! Put a smile on my face and this from a set of active £700 loudspeakers. Lovely.

Cecilia Bartoli

I tried swapping my friend's amplifier for one of mine. Just a different sort of disappointment. The speakers seemed to be the culprit. However, just to be sure, we tried a different recording. Rossini La Cenerentola (conductor Riccardo Chailly) Decca. From high spirits to deep pathos, La Cenerentola ('Cinderella’) holds in perfect balance everything we love most about Rossini. The cast is led by an ebullient Cecilia Bartoli on her best form.

Once the problem was identified we removed my Focals speakers and reconnected her passive ones to make sure she could still hear the problem – which she could – but when Callas started singing again the hair on the back of my neck went up in horror. This was no longer music! It was ……. awful. Everything sounded synthetic, the beauty of her voice all but ruined and I found myself turning it off.

Anonymity – and for a good reason

The maker of her speakers remains anonymous. They’ve made many a fine loudspeaker – just not in this case.

So how is it that between two similarly priced loudspeakers one sings and the other just throbs?

My guess is that in one case a human designer who cared about music did the final voicing and in the other, it might well have been a computer design where the primary algorithm was biggest sound plus biggest mark-up using two cheap drivers in a 22 litre cabinet.

As an aside, I don’t really enjoy opera

So why did I use those two recordings? First, I didn’t want to be transfixed by the music (as I might have down by a Bach piano recital or a Pete Townshend demolition guitar assault) and in so doing loose focus on the reproduction chain

Secondly, human voice is very revealing under such circumstances. It isn’t necessary to ‘know’ the voice. Any voice within reason will do. Let me explain. If for example we had during this investigation listened to synthesiser music (which I happen to love) how would either of us ‘know’ it was ‘right’? quite simply, we couldn’t have. With female voice reproduction – especially classical – it’s hard to go wrong.


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