What Is It To You?

Rock and roll music – the music of freedom frightens people and unleashes all manner of conservative defense mechanisms.

– Salman Rushdie

I’d rather play jazz, I hate rock and roll.

– Ginger Baker

Appreciating music can be so many different things. It can be a tune casually whistled strolling down the sidewalk. It can be a jazz band expertly warping a commonly whistled tune into something new and amazing. Pots, pans, strings and chants, or a soloist mastering counterpoint of incredible complexity. It can be an arena rumbling with decibels of bass, or an orchestra delicately tossing a theme around the stage. Though some still argue, it can even be 4’33” of silence. And, as always, the serious music of one generation, society, or subculture may very well be unrecognizable or intolerable to another. A delicacy in one part of the world is headed directly for the garbage disposal in another.

For some people, in some contexts, music is a neck-up art form, subject to both emotional and intellectual scrutiny. To others, musical magic happens mainly below the waist. It can be a soothing medicine or an energizing source of nourishment. It can be solitary or a social activity; it can communicate, pass the time, catalyze true love, or it can rebel and alienate. I can’t think or work if there is music playing; many cannot think or work without some. Dinner music? Barry White or Bolero? Please no! I need to concentrate. Meanwhile, I have friends who break out in a cold sweat if there isn’t something playing in the background pretty much all the time.

No matter. Human beings express themselves in limitless ways, and I see no compelling reason why, over all, the composers of the 1800’s had any more or less skill than the composers of the 1900’s. Rembrandt, Rubens, Cezanne, Mondrian, and Pollock are all acknowledged as great painters by art lovers, regardless of the profound stylistic and conceptual differences between them. As a music lover, music exploration and the search for work that speaks to me is a great joy. I have yet to encounter a style or genre that I do not get at least some value from. Maybe just a tiny and forgettable sliver that suggests I ask for my money back. But, something. It’s fun for me to hear what people do with sound, even if the result is not to my liking. (I never understood people who tell me how much they love music, followed immediately by a list of genres they detest en masse.)

So, how does this all relate to our audio hobby? It mainly comes down to speakers, the component with the most influence over how the recorded signal is rebuilt into the listening room. When I was a young audiophile…shortly after the discovery of electricity…the prevailing wisdom was that there were speakers for rock and pop, and speakers for classical. (Jazz folks were just, plain out of luck, I suppose.) On the other hand, various experts at the time insisted that, “An accurate speaker is an accurate speaker!” So, what’s the truth, at least as seen by a speaker designer?

The way I see it, there are many aspects of sound, many realms of subjective impression, many kinds of specifications and measurements, that prove to have different weights of importance to the reproduction of different musical genres. While the theoretical concept of a “perfect reproducer” is appealing, that’s not how it works in the real world. In practice, all product design is a series of compromises and trade-offs, and speaker design has more than its fair share. How these are adjudicated by the designer must necessarily take into account the priorities of the listening, and the techniques used to make the recordings that are to be reconstructed. As an example, vocal purity tends to be degraded by rich ambience…just ask a concert hall designer. Deep bass and tight bass rarely go hand in hand. Imaging and seating coverage are at odds.  Etc.

Heck, these days, between computer-aided design and DSP processing, obtaining a flat frequency response, however one wants to measure that, is very doable. Instead, it’s all those trade-offs, that keep a speaker designer up at night. (Well, that and cheesy subwoofer porn.)

I can think of dozens of such balances that must be struck during the design of a speaker. A big one, well known, is that recordings of classical music tend to like a smooth power response from a speaker-room combination. While this can often lead to some deterioration of stereo imaging, that is not a big impediment to getting a concert hall experience. In contrast, EDM, rap, and other electronically-derived music does well with very little room reverberation, so that the sound is clear and spatially precise. Rock is a tricky one, since both electric and acoustic sources might be present. I think you get the idea: No matter what the review said, your favorite speaker for all your minimalist recordings of acoustic jazz is going to be less than ideal on classic rock. Hate classic rock? OK, you’re all set.

Over the coming months, I’d like to explore some of these issues and tradeoffs in more detail, and relate them to the specifications and design details that a listener can use to help understand how a given loudspeaker is likely to perform with a given style of music and a particular recording technique. At the same time, we can look at some approaches both in the design of speakers and in how a listener can set them up, that will help get the most from a wide variety of musical styles. They all deserve to be heard.

I think.

[As I mentioned in Opening Salvo, Ken will be joining Copper as a regular columnist, writing about speaker design, psychoacoustics, and whatever in audio strikes his fancy—Ed.]