Clarity vs Fidelity
A sample article from the archives of the B.A.S. Speaker

by Dan Shanefield

In the December 1997 Stereo Review Corey Greenberg reviewed a new DVD recording of the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture (Delos DV 7001) and heaped praise on the sound quality. At the recent Audio Engineering Society meeting in New York City, this recording seemed to be all the buzz, and several knowledgeable people whom I bumped into there told me it is among the most realistic ever made. The DVD recording session was engineered by John Eargle, who evidently had obtained a sort of sharpness of sound without any harshness.

I discovered that this recording is obtainable for non-DVD folks as a regular CD, Delos D/CD-3081 (sometimes called DE-3081 on record store computers). When played on my home system, there was no doubt that this CD is something unusual. I especially noted the exceptionally clear strings, where it sounds like a lot of individual instruments rather than the single mushy blend that comes out of most orchestral recordings. On an oscilloscope, with the left channel going to the vertical input and the right channel to the horizontal, the display showed a bunch of narrow spikes at various angles, instead of the amorphous mush visible with many other recordings when scrutinized in this manner. In contrast, on a spectrum analyzer, it did not at all appear as though this recording had any more treble than other, less clear-sounding orchestral CDs.

When I got this CD, I had just bought a pair of Magneplanar MG-3.5/R loudspeakers, and I certainly recommend them for the playback of sharp recordings like this. When auditioned on some other people's generally good loudspeakers, the Delos 1812 did not sound subjectively as detailed, although I did not make any scientific comparisons, so I am not really sure that this is a significant conclusion. Anyhow, my new Maggies have huge Mylar plastic diaphragms for midrange and low frequencies, less than a thousandth of an inch thick. The tweeters are thin ribbons, about 6 feet long. Because of the large areas and therefore the good coupling to the air, these drivers hardly have to move laterally at all. I don't know if that is the secret of their success, but they do (subjectively) sound a little bit sharper than my old MG-IIs that they replaced, which operated by the same principle but had heavier drivers.

It is interesting that, while attending a live orchestral concert, I was not able to hear individual violins as much as with the above CD and speaker combination-it was more of a "mush" in real life. A question arises about being playback being realer-sounding than reality (I have other discs and tapes like this, and I call them "super-recordings"). Many of us would be quite philosophically repulsed if the realism illusion were obtained by merely turning up the treble. Also, increased treble would probably begin to sound harsh after a while. But suppose the illusion is obtained by something indefinable and mysterious-what then?

My answer is that it is perfectly OK as long as it gives pleasure to the listener. I can already hear some purists gnashing their teeth in anger and coming up with the counter-question, "But isn't this supposed to be about high fidelity?" The purist critics of enhanced illusions might best be answered with my own question, "Isn't it okay to watch a football game via a telephoto TV camera and get an enhanced clarity of image?" In other words, I am not going to be allowed to sit on a concert stage to get optimal clarity of sound, but I have no objection to having John Eargle put his microphones right up there, or perform whatever other magic he has wrought, as long as it sounds extra clear without harshness.

A Response by Kermit Gray

This illustrates the ever-present conundrum of mastering a recording: balancing realism with a presentation that is pleasing to a listener in a typical home environment. The mastering engineer is part artist, part technician; the decision the mastering engineer makes must balanced the perceived with the forensically-accurate to strike a balance that, hopefully, is pleasing to all listeners. This seldom can be achieved, because in essence the mastering engineer's manipulation of the recording represents an opinion and an artistic stance. Opinions can always be disagreed with. Clarity and fidelity, I feel, do not have to be mutually exclusive. I found this recording engaging at first then boring. In the end, to me the recording sounded small, cluttered, and disjointed. Too much vied for your attention. I would have liked to have seen the engineer attain more cohesion in the recording, and less spotlighting of sections of the orchestra. Less attention to his interpretation of clarity and more attention to achieving the blending of sounds into the euphonic whole that gives an orchestra its beauty and power. Then again, that's MY opinion as a mastering engineer. Is my opinion wrong? Is the opinion of the Delos engineer wrong? You decide.


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updated 11/11/04