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The absolute sound idea is still relevant to audiophiles

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Where did this 'absolute sound' thing come from ?

First off, I did not invent this stuff. My original understanding of the absolute sound comes from Harry Pearson and early issues of his magazine 'The Absolute Sound' As best as I can tell, he invented the concept, and the methodology of applying it to equipment and recording reviews.

The Absolute Sound was, and is:
the name of a magazine
an audacious claim;
the name of the reference sound source for grading audio equipment (and our concern here)
a 'term of art' within the audiophile arena for over 40 years
various audio stores also used the name, but off topic for this post.

Maybe there are other interpretations on the name, but I find it a lovely combination of meanings, almost literary.

NOTE: I will refer to the magazine as 'TAS', and the concept as 'tas' for the rest of this post.

Harry Pearson started 'The Absolute Sound' magazine (TAS) in 1973 with an editorial in the 1st issue explaining the concept of the absolute sound (tas) and how it would apply to the magazines audio reviews. The TAS equipment reviewers all used the methodology designed by HP, implementing 'tas' in every review. They synced their perceptions with the other reviewers for consistency and regularly trained their ears with live, acoustic music (tas). I found the TAS methodology very scientific, for such a 'subjective' pursuit. I read almost all the early TAS issues - not all the reviews, or every word, but always the philosophy, methodology, and things that addressed the 'why' questions. My interest in those kind of audiophile issues continues to this day

What is 'the absolute sound' (tas) ?

HP, in this initial TAS editorial: "the magazine(s) goal was to discover and extol those products that came closest to reproducing the absolute sound—the sound of (primarily classical) music as heard in a concert hall."

Jonathan Valin, a TAS reviewer, recalled: "As HP pointed out in that first editorial, the magazine’s very mandate required the philosophical assumption that there is an absolute in the reproduction of music—a referential reality to which the recorded thing can and should be fruitfully compared."

So the 'absolute sound' (tas) is the sound of the real thing, the sound of live acoustic instruments playing in a real space. That is, with no electronics or electromechanical devises involved. Live music, not canned music (of any kind). HP was primarily a classical music fan, and frequent concert attendee. I think his writings about the idea didn't address the idea of electronics mixed with live music, since it just did not exist in his live musical world.

The Absolute Sound is not about reproduction, or records, or recording. It is about the Goal, the Reference, the Prototype… that which we try and reproduce with our recording, storage and playback systems. It is the sound of un-amplified instruments in an acoustic space, as passing the sound through mikes, amps, speakers, etc. diminishes it as a reference.

I was lucky to attend a small local orchestras concert recently. The string sections playing was terrible, but the sound was reasonably good in the largish library room. The cello surprised me in the 'gutsiness' of the real sound as opposed to what I usually hear through various (good!) audio systems. This was an example of 'tas', and helped me refresh my sound memory of the real thing. The absolute sound is readily available to audiophiles in concerts, clubs, friends homes, and wherever, to calibrate their ears whenever they wish, or have an opportunity.

I was a scale model builder before long I became an audiophile (and still am), so the concept of the Prototype, and its relationship to the Model , is very clear to me. The 'absolute sound' is the Prototype that we strive to model as accurately as possible with the reproduction of the original sound through our audio systems. But, almost by definition, it can not be rendered perfectly.

I see the relationship between the prototype and the model as a mathematical limit. The difference between the two can approach zero (with effort and cost approaching infinity), but a true zero difference is impossible. It could be argued that the difference could be non-zero, but surpass the ability of human hearing to detect the difference, but so far the evidence is that trained human hearing is much better at that task then we had thought.

I often laugh, or cringe, when I read CA people talking about some audio thing sounding 'better' ! Better then what ?? If it is closer to that Absolute Sound reference, then fine, but most of the time it is just personal preference. And I think that most peoples lifetime of exposure to ubiquitous electronic sound (including mine), makes their preferences suspect, without frequent, and conscious, hearing calibration with, you guessed it, the Absolute Sound !

As you can probably tell, I don't like the term 'better'. Perhaps we can try to use 'more/less accurate' here more often, that is, if one is familiar enough with the Absolute Sound to hear the difference. Or, simply be honest and say one simply likes it better, not that it is better.

When I gauge something with a dial caliper or micrometer to see if it is properly to scale or not, it has nothing to do with how I feel about the model or part, only its accuracy (or lack thereof).

Similarly, I use the best 'event' recordings (that I can stand or afford) to gauge how far away my audio system is from the reference (tas), and to 'measure' changes as moving closer or farther away from that reference. Then, I quit that hard work and enjoy whatever music and recording quality I like from my personal musical preferences, trying to ignore crappy recordings, and being delighted when better ones show me what my system is capable of

BTW; I am not trying to claim that I am some kind of 'golden ear'. Many have better audiophile senses then me, and I am better then some others. I have to constantly work at it, but, I have been thinking about these issues for a long time, as you may suspect :)

And just to be very clear about this, recordings are not the Reference, they are derivative of the original sonic event (or studio mash-up). To go back to my Prototype vs Model analogy, recordings are all Static (or potential?) Models, that are rendered by various playback systems into Dynamic Models (moving air), at any time we choose.

The Absolute Sound can only be perceived by your ears, at the time the real sounds are created by musicians and instruments and rooms. Once any microphone, amps, speakers, or any other electronic gear is introduced, the sound is derivative, a model, corrupted, impossible to know its original sound, and no longer Absolute !

(end of part 1)


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