If the Hifi Guru Says So...
Not the Buena Vista Social Club again!
At CES 2002, by far the most popularly requested piece of music (at least in our exhibition room) was by the Buena Vista Social Club. After a while, whenever someone asked for it, I thought to myself, Oh no! Not again.
I have nothing against this group of aging Cuban musicians. In fact, I rather admire them, especially the groups pianist, Ruben Gonzalez. He is past 70 years old, retired, did not own a piano anymore, last made a recording 50 years earlier, has arthritis in his fingers.... and still plays great piano. I was hunting high and low for the CD long before it became widely available, after having briefly heard it just once.
There is a difference, however, between music for personal enjoyment and music for evaluating hifi equipment. So while I do enjoy the Buena Vista Social Club, their music is not the type that the guru and I would want to use for demo at a hifi show.
I would even go so far as to say that their music - particularly track one of the CD titled Buena Vista Social Club, the track that so many people requested - is the type which we want to AVOID using for demo at a hifi show.
Because the music is absolutely flat - performed at mf, medium loud, from start to end. It is unexciting, totally lacking in dynamics. It does not make a great hifi system stand out against the vast sea of mediocres.
I could see that some of the people who requested this music really enjoyed themselves. They closed their eyes, they swayed their heads gently back and forth with the music, as though relaxing by the beach somewhere in Cuba.
But what was there to listen out for in order to evaluate the hifi set-up? I really could not figure out.
Well, I can guess a little. Maybe they were listening out for some inner details that they could not hear with other equipment. Maybe the breadth and depth of the soundstage. Maybe the bass, or the highs. Maybe...
Of couse the music is not totally hopeless. Just that we had prepared very much better demo material.
We had, for example, lots of orchestral works - mainly classical music but also the rock opera Tommy by The Who, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra - whose dynamics ranged from ppp to fff, from very very soft to very very loud!
Great hi fi
With such music, one can hear, at one go, how a truly great hifi system is able to bring out all the details at low volume and produce very high sound pressure levels without hurting the ears, as well as how smoothly and effortlessly the music changes from one extreme volume level to the other.
In particular, we had a piece of Chinese flute music with orchestral accompaniment where the difference between soft and loud was far greater than even in a Mahler Symphony or Tommy.
Obviously, the average American would not ask to listen to something like this. But we did get a chance to demo it when Clark Johnsen of Positive Feedback requested anything but female vocals and indicated that he preferred unfamiliar music.
Later, in his show report, Johnsen commented that these guys really know how to please a musically-literate person.
Dynamics and excitement are not everything, of course. So yes, even music that is flat and boring has its place in the evaluation of hifi.
If you want to take this route, go all the way for something that is absolutely monotonous. Like some of Bachs works for solo violin. In this case, you would want to pay attention to all the subtle variations in dynamics and the nuances of expression.
If such music is well-performed and faithfully reproduced in a good hifi set-up, surprise, surprise, it will not sound flat and boring at all.
Likewise, regular pop and jazz vocals that are sung medium-loud from start to end have their merits too.
Felt like crying
One visitor at CES 2002, Alan Cadiz, heard the Holly Cole Trio perform Tennesse Waltz and, after a while, got up and left the room. I cant stand it anymore, he said. I felt like crying.
Earlier, Alan and his friend had listened to a wide range of music and his final request was to play a track from Sheffield Drums as loud as the system can take it.
I played it as loud as his ears could take it, pointing out that the system could go even louder. At the end of it, he said ours was the only system in the entire show that made me flinch.
Alan ended up buying the loudspeakers cash and carry and saying he would order the amplifiers, CD player and cables... the entire hifi system, including the CD with Holly Cole singing Tennesse Waltz.
We might have sold a lot more equipment had there been more visitors like Clark Johnsen and Alan Cadiz. Those who only asked to hear the Buena Vista Social Club had said good or even great. But none were sufficiently moved to part with their money.
AFTERWORD: CES 2003
But perhaps I have done the Buena Vista Social Club great injustice.
At CES 2003, again we played the same music but with different amplifiers (the DIVA Tian Zhu CV345 monoblocs), and a new improved version of the same (Second ReTHM) loudspeakers.
This time, the music came alive!