If the Hifi Guru Says So...
Thoughts on musicality and the art of hifi

One eye here, another eye there

A rich audiophile

    A rich audiophile once invited a musician a Chinese orchestra conductor to visit his home and listen to his hifi system. This was many years ago, when the audiophile's $60,000+ set-up was one of the most costly in Singapore.

    When he entered the house, the musician and his friends - including the Hi Fi Guru - were visibly impressed with the audiophile's collection of paintings, calligraphy, ceramics and other works of art. This was indeed a man of fine taste.

    But when the music came on, they were not impressed at all. The musician frowned. He shook his head.

    Now the audiophile, although very rich, is also very humble. He sincerely asked the musician, What's wrong? If you have any suggestion on how I can improve the sound of my hifi, I will surely implement it.

    I don't know, the musician replied. I have played this same music in my home many times and I am very moved whenever I listen to it. But here, I dont feel anything.

    What hifi equipment do you use at home? the audiophile asked.

    The musician was embarrassed to say. But when pressed, he finally revealed: A Philips mini-compo.

The above story was told to me by the guru, who often uses it to illustrate what is meant by musicality. It took me a long time to understand. How could a mini-compo sound better, or at least more musical, than a $60,000 hifi system?

I began to understand only after I have been listening for some months to the gurus amplifiers which are very musical.

So now, when I listen to unmusical hifi systems and there are lots of them out there I get the feeling that the music is somewhat mechanical, as if it is performed by a machine rather than a human.

I first had this feeling during the harmonica solo on Holly Cole's Tennesse Waltz in her Don't Smoke in Bed album. This was in a customers' house. I suggested switching his preamplifier (to a Diva, of course) and the feeling changed.

I think it is easier to detect this feeling on musical instruments because the human voice will somehow sound human even in unmusical hifi systems.


Bach's music, especially his solo violin and solo piano pieces, are a good test. The nature of the music is itself somewhat mechanical. So when it is unmusical, it will sound terribly mechanical and downright boring. But when it is musical, the same music can be a joy to listen to.

What makes music musical?

First of all, it is the performer. If the performer is unmusical to begin with, even the best hifi system will not help.

In fact, hifi equipment can never improve any music. The best they do is minimise the extent of damage to the music.

After the performer comes the recording the recording equipment, the process, the pressing, and so on. If you have a chance to compare different versions of the same recording, you will have a good idea. For example, in the Japanese pressing of Faye Wong's Tian Qong album, Faye's voice sounds a lot sexier! Now, she sounds even better on the XRCD version of the same recording.

The way your hifi is set up will also have an effect. This happens all the time in my shop. In the process of swapping equipment and cables for demo, the isolation cones get shifted and the singer's expression changes! (See Brown Rice and the Art of Hi Fi.)

Of course, the actual equipment plays a big part. One of the guru's customer, Lee Fatt, gave this feedback: Its never before since the last 8 years that I have enjoyed music more sounds so musical, the voices so emotional, so involving& I can even enjoy songs from badly recorded CDs because of the amp's musicality and emotional involvement, yet forget the rest of the audio quality.


Musicality need not come with a heavy price tag, as the above example of the Philips mini-compo shows. The guru has told me for many years that the inexpensive Marantz CD63 is very musical, more so than many of the ultra-expensive CD players or CD Transport / DAC systems costing several thousand dollars.

Really? I was never fully convinced until about 3 years after I first heard this statement, when the guru and I took part in CES / THE SHOW 2000 (Consumer Electronics Show / The Home Entertainment Show) in Las Vegas. We exhibited his DIVA amplifiers and we shared a room with ReTHM horn speakers and DH Ceramic Cones.

Allen Chang of DH Cones offered to bring along a Sony SACD player, at that time the latest new technology CD player which many audiophiles and audio reviewers had been raving about. The guru's reaction was But is it musical?

He felt it would be wise to bring along his (modified) Marantz CD63 just to be safe.

When we compared the two CD players, the guru, myself and ReTHM designer Jacob George (Allen was not present) very easily decided which was more musical: the Marantz wons hands down!

On the Marantz, the music sounded more correct. It sounded more like music. The difference was so great that, in less than five minutes, we unplugged the SACD. We did not even think about resolution, detail, soundstaging, and all the usual hifi attributes. All that was irrelavent.


On to a more recent hifi show, AV Fest 2000 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in August 2000&

At a seminar during AV Fest, the guru and Jacob were scheduled to give a talk on The Art of High Fidelity.

Scheduled just before them was Kondo San, famed designer of the world's most expensive and some say, "the world's best" tube amplifiers: the Ongaku (US$85,000+) and Gaku On (US$200,000+). Kondo San's topic was similar: What is Good Sound?

The guru, Jacob and I discussed the issues over several nights: What is High Fidelity? What is Good Sound?

High Fidelity means highly faithful. It means reproducing sound that is as close as possible to the real thing. Among other things, it means accurate sound reproduction, with the lowest possible distortion.

But is this also Good Sound?


It is easy enough to agree that lower distortion is not always better sound. Many cheap brands of mass market amplifiers have extremely low distortion, in the region of 0.00... % Yet they don't sound good at all compared with some high quality tube amps with distortion figures of 2% or 3%.

Can highly distorted music sound good?

Take, for example, the ablum of old Chinese songs, recorded by Lee Hsiang Lan during the 1940s. The music is highly distorted, sounds very far from real, live music. Yet Hong Kong audiophile magazines say it will transport you to audio heaven. It stirs the emotion, it moves the spirit.

That is good sound, the guru declares.

Jacob and I disagree. We argue that while it may be good music, good performance, it is still bad sound.

Distortion reminds me of modern paintings such as those by Piccasso: one eye here, another eye there, nose and mouth totally out of place, totally out of proportion, totally distorted. Yet they are considered good art. Why?

Because it captures the soul! the guru explains. Not everyone has Piccasso's ability to paint a distorted picture and still capture the soul.

Yes! Agree!

By the same token, not everyone can snap a photograph which gives an accurate picture and capture the soul either.

We spent many hours talking about such things. In the end, the conclusion I draw is that High Fidelity means highly faithful to the real thing, the real music.


But there are two levels of reality the physical reality and the reality of the soul.

Physical reality is about sound vibrations how close does the music from your hifi approach real, live music. Reality of the soul is about the emotional content to what extent does your hifi convey the emotion of a musical performance?

This second reality can be called musicality.

It reminds me of yet another story which I once read in a US hifi magazine:

    A hifi dealer wanted to impress his customers, so he played a solo piano recording through his hifi. Midway through, he faded out the music and his wife took over, playing the piano live in the next room.

    The audience could not tell the difference. They were impressed.

    Except for one. He told her hifi dealer: Congratulations! You've succeeded in making a world famous pianist performing on a Steinway sound like your wife playing on an upright piano!





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