Evaluating sound

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The question is often asked just how one can know if a particular piece of equipment is presenting recorded music correctly. After all, it's not like we know how any one recording actually sounds. We do not have access to the master tape and, even if we did, we're still relying on the tape reproduction equipment to judge its quality. And that's a real problem, isn't it? No one knows how any recording actually sounds, because all recordings must be reproduced through audio transducers. We are forever beholden to the equipment's imprint on sound to evaluate what's been recorded. To date, no human has ever heard the actual sound of recorded material–what's really on the tape or hard drive–because we can't plug our brains directly into it. We are at the mercy of our transducers. How can we make reasonable evaluations of what we hear? How can we suggest this is too bright, or this hasn't enough depth, because we don't know how it started out? I posed this question to Stereophile editor John Atkinson, himself an avid recording engineer, and his response was, "I was there. I made the recording. I can tell you that's what I heard, reproduced well." Fair enough, but few of us were at the recording we listen to and thus, at a disadvantage. And most recording engineers listen not to the actual live sound, but what's reproduced through their recording monitors. I remember sitting with engineer Keith Johnson when we unveiled the PerfectWave Transport. We played one of his recordings and he told me the transport and DAC reproduced the sound perfectly. I was ecstatic, but then paused. He had never heard my system. And his system was different than mine. How could he know it was right when it wasn't the same? And he told me something else I shall never forget. He said, "the monitors I record with sound nothing like the speakers you're using today. In fact, you'd hate the sound my monitors produce. I use them because they tell me everything I need to know to get the sound right on your system and the system of others." Let's examine how he could know what I was playing sounded "right" tomorrow.
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Paul McGowan

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