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

Flesh, blood and soul


I bought an unusual piece of classical music the other day, Piazzolla for Two Tangos for Flute and Guitar, (DG 449 185-2) by Astor Piazzolla (1921 - 1992). I know absolutely nothing about the composer or his music. I bought the CD quite on impluse, after just a brief listen.

So when I had the opportunity, I asked the guru for his opinion, since he knows quite a bit about classical music.

"Lets listen," the guru suggested.

When I put the music on, he exclaimed, "Oh! This is so lively! It's very good."

The guru did not need to listen further. From hearing just the first bar or two, he judged the CD to be "very good" without having to analyse whether the music had a nice melody, whether the flautist and guitarist played well, or whether the recording did justice to their performance. All those elements are there. But the guru needed just one criteria that summarised them all: Life!

Life, or liveliness, does not mean that the music has to be fast or upbeat. Even slow, mournful music can have "life" while fast, "lively" music can just as well be dead.

Life, in this case, refers to what the guru often calls "the flesh and blood". It is the feeling that the musicians are right there, alive before you, and that they are putting their heart and soul into the musical performance rather than just making music in a disinterested manner they way some tired lounge musicians do when they have an uninterested audience.


When the guru talked about flesh and blood, I recalled my first visit to Florence, Italy. Everywhere in the city were marble sculptures and they all looked beautiful. "So what's so special about Michaelangelo's?" my wife and I wondered.

When we finally got to see Michaelangelo's sculptures first of Moses, then David and finally, the Pieta which depicts Mary holding her child Jesus we knew right away what was so special. They had life! We could almost "see" blood flowing inside the marble.

Life is what separates great art from the good, the bad and the ordinary. With this one criteria you can evaluate any form of art without expert knowledge.

Once, at the Taipeh airport in Taiwan, the guru drew my attention to a piece of calligraphy. "Stand here and look at that character," he instructed. "Don't you think it looks very lively?"

Yes, it does. And recently, while eating in a Chinese restaurant, I noticed that one character of the calligraphy seemed to be "running". It seemed alive! I could see it even though I cannot read Chinese and I know nothing about calligraphy.

For that matter, I don't think the guru knows anything about Balinese art. But once, when a DIVA customer proudly showed some art pieces that he had bought from Bali, the guru made the same observation: "Very lively. Very good!"

So it is with hifi and music. You can listen to any piece of music classical, jazz, folk, traditional, pop, rock, metal, etc and judge whether or not it has life.

That liveliness has to be present in every stage of the music's journey from the artiste to you the performance, the recording and pressing of the CD, and finally, its playback through a hifi system.

If a piece of music sounds "alive" in one hifi system but not in another, then it is obvious where the fault lies. This test is very useful when you are evaluating hifi systems, especially in a hifi show where there are hundreds of hifi set-ups and you do not have much time to seriously evaluate all of them.

Dead and wooden

Take along a CD which you know well. But if you are sufficiently experienced, that is not necessary even. Whatever music that is being played, you can tell whether or not it sounds lively.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, for example, the guru and I did not have to spend more than a minute in most rooms. We would walk in, hear that the music was lifeless, and walk out immediately. No need to waste time.

"See, see& char, char!" we would say in Hokkien. The phrase directly translates to Dead, dead& wooden, wooden! meaning the music sounds dead and mechanical. Only in those few rooms that sounded lively did we stay longer and request to play our own familiar music, to listen out for other qualities.

Try this if you have not done it before. Listen to the same music to many different hifi stores and friend's homes.

You will be amazed how vastly different it sounds. There is also a good chance you will be amazed that some very expensive hifi systems can sound quite dead, quite lifeless.

Even more amazing is what a truly great hifi system can do with certain "bad" recordings.

I remember very well, the first time I visited the guru and heard his hifi, he played an old recording of Lee Siang Lan, a Chinese singer who was famous she was legendary! during the 1940s.

Most audiophiles would consider this a bad recording no highs, no lows, no inner details, no huge soundstage... none of those qualities that audiophiles normally listen out for. And quite distorted.

Most audiophiles would not think of using such a recording to evaluate a hifi system. In fact, one of the gurus friends was ridiculed and scolded by a hifi dealer for doing so. But when you hear this recording through a truly great hifi system, the feeling is magical. As one Hongkong hifi magazine puts it, "you will be transported to audio heaven".

For you will hear and feel the flesh, blood and soul of a great artiste.





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