Jump to content
  • austinpop
    austinpop

    Calibrating My Ears at the San Francisco Symphony

    Most of us audiophiles like to attend and experience live music, not just for the sonic treat that it is, but also as a way for us to calibrate our ears and brains - i.e. to provide a reference which we strive to approach with our audio setups.

    This was the situation I found myself in San Francisco recently, on a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon. A business trip had brought me to the Bay area, so I seized the opportunity to go see one of my favorite orchestras, the San Francisco Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, aka MTT/SFS. Emerging from the BART, I was startled and then amused to find that my walk to the concert hall coincided with the San Francisco Pride parade. Buoyed by the bonhomie of the marchers, I found my way to Davies Hall, and my seat (in row N), which gave me this vantage point - just about the perfect spot for my tastes:

     

     

    SS.jpg

     

     

     

     

    It was right  about when I took this picture that the idea occurred to me that I should use this experience to really focus on aspects of the live experience and contrast it to what I hear in my system. After all, the program was intensely familiar to me - Sibelius Symphonies 6 & 7, and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. This meant I could let this familiar, extremely pleasurable music wash over me, and still be able to analyze the aspects of the experience I'll describe below. 

     

    Let me explain why this was the perfect spot for my tastes. After attending many, many performances in many concert halls sitting everywhere from the first row to the rafters, I have found that sitting close to the stage really allows you to experience the sheer power and raw physicality of a live orchestra in a gut-punching way. It's tremendously exciting, but the disadvantage is you're looking at the performers'  ankles, and you have no view of the orchestra. My preference is to be up just a few rows where you can see all the performers, although the woodwinds and the brass sections still tend to be hard to see. The location pictured above is just about right for me, as while you do give up a tiny bit of the power and punch, it's not much, and you have the benefit of a much better view and perspective . I'll come back to this when I talk abut visual cues. 

     

    With this background, I'll spend the rest of this article on various aspects of the listening experience, and contrast this with my audio setup, or audio systems in general.

     


    Soundstage and Imaging

    Once the music began, I closed my eyes to simulate the experience in my listening room, and focused on placing instruments (or clusters) in 3-dimensional space. The degree to which I could do this spatial placement was incredible, but there were surprises too. Remember, the sound from the instruments interacts with the concert hall, creating reflections, reverberations etc. What this does is diffuse and smear the localization, so the spatial placement isn't pinpoint accurate. In a way, this is really useful to hear, because it made me realize that the imperfect sound staging I hear in my system isn't as "imperfect" as I think, since even the real thing is more diffuse, and dependent on the concert hall's acoustics.

    One thing we strive for, but is hard to get right in our system, is image depth, or front to back sound staging. Here again, the degree to which I was hearing depth cues was amazing, but again - surprising, too . Sitting mid-hall as I was, I realized that while my ability to place instruments front to back was way better than any audio system, the extent of front to back was not as great as I thought, due to the foreshortening effect based on my vantage point. The soundstage wasn't "incredibly deep," it was just right for the geometry of the space, the orchestra, and my position relative to them. What this made me realize is that we sometimes go overboard in our quest for stage depth. Rather, the better quest or goal is for the depth to sound just right.

     


    Visual Cues

    Remember, until this point, I was recording my impressions with my eyes closed, because in my listening room, I do not have the benefit of being able to see the musicians playing. But at a concert, I do have this advantage, so what does it add? Wow. Try this next time you're at a concert of any kind. Experience the music with your eyes closed, and then with them open.

    The extent to which visual cues enhance the experience is not just astonishing - it is mind boggling. The diffuse, imperfect placement of instruments is swept away, and the imaging is just about perfectly precise. Well duh, Captain Obvious, you say - of course it is, since you can now see where the instruments are. Yes, this is obvious, but it does underscore the fact that sight can play an incredible part in the listening experience. Whereas without sight cues, that french horn was vaguely in that corner there, my brain was now localizing it precisely, and my ears played along, as if to say "I knew it was exactly there all along!"



    Going back to the listening room, I've experienced the power of visual cues myself. I subscribe to the Digital Concert, a streaming service of the Berlin Philharmonie, which streams all the BPO concerts live, as well as provides access to a vast archive of prior recordings. While this stream is relatively good quality, it is not lossless, and certainly not high-resolution. If I listen to a performance with no video, it's pleasant enough, but no match for my best recordings. But display the performance on my 100" big screen simultaneously, and it's a whole different experience. Why? The audio is the same in both cases. The addition of visual cues makes the difference.


     

    Certainly, this is no surprise, as the whole premise of home theater is based on the same principles. Home theater components are not generally engineered to the same extremes as high-end audio gear, but we frequently speak of the home theater experience in superlatives.

     

    I know the use of video in the listening experience is hardly an audiophile preference, but it's food for thought.

     

     

     

    Dynamics

     

    From the barely audible sound of an instrument playing pianissimo, to the knock-you-off-your-seat sound of the entire orchestra playing the loudest crescendo, the dynamic range of a live orchestra is something to experience! Of course, the acoustics of the hall, your listening position, even the size of the audience - these all matter. Yes, put enough human bodies in the way, and they act as an acoustic damper! 

     

    Still, once I heard the range from the first diminuendo to the first crescendo, there was no doubt at all that this is no audio system - it's the real thing. Why is that? First is the clarity with which I could hear even the softest passages. Then came the crescendoes! These were momentarily so loud as to literally startle me. The key word here is momentarily. Obviously, sustained sound at that level of loudness would damage the hearing. But it is really that fleeting loudness, what we audiophile call transients, that stand out in a live concert.

     

    It is extremely hard to make an audio system deliver this dynamic range. Obviously, transducers and amplifiers bear the bulk of the burden to deliver dynamics, but the digital chain can profoundly affect it too. In my own digital chain, and in my experience, the key subsystem that affects this is the power supply. This is fairly obvious in a DAC, but the power supplies' quality and robustness seems to matter further upstream as well. I have found that optimizing power supplies in the digital path pays rich dividends in dynamics. Is it close to the live experience - no, but it's getting ever-better.

     

     


    Tonality

     

    We audiophiles love to throw around adjectives like bright, dark, warm, analytical, and that's even before we get creative! I hope it's fair to say that as computer audiophiles, we are all at war with digital harshness, glaze, or etchiness, which often gets lumped under the term bright. With this in mind, I would describe the sound of a Real Concert™ as darker than most digital audio systems. What I mean by dark is the absence of any kind of brightness or glare. There is a sense of calm and ease to the sonic experience. Traditionally shrill instruments like piccolos, oboes, trumpets and trombones don't grate on your ears. Except when they're meant to. 

     

    The other aspect of a live concert is bass. Deep, glorious, gut-punching, ball-busting bass. Most non-classical listeners have a misconception of classical music as polite elevator musak. People in formal clothes sipping wine, and clapping politely. The reality could not be more different. Classical music can be beautiful, yes, but also ugly, visceral, and raw. And deep bass - the growl of the double basses, the blat of the tuba, and the thump of the tympani - is a vital element of that experience.

     

    One instrument that seems to be particularly difficult to reproduce correctly is, of course, the piano. As I listened to Daniil Trifonov's beautiful playing of the Rachmaninoff, I realized there is something about a live piano's tonality and dynamics that is immediately recognizable, even with eyes closed.

     

    In the context of my own system, I could tell I still had quite a way to go to achieve this level of tonality. While my system reproduces piano notes without obvious harshness or color, it's just not the same. Still, what heartened me is that the trajectory I was on, the optimizations I was making, were all pulling me in the right direction.

     

     


    Timbre

    One of the most satisfying aspects of a live concert experience is savoring the sound of instruments in all their nuance and complexity. Listening to instruments live is to hear an overwhelming wealth of minute details - the intakes of breath, the creak of chairs and instruments, the sound of fingers plucking strings, the sound of mallets striking tympani, the sound of a piano's hammers hitting the strings. Instruments have a spatial volume - a size in 3 dimensions. We often use the term dimension to describe this. Massed instruments playing in unison, especially strings, sound like a collection of individual instruments, not like one giant amalgam. Even when playing the same note, the thin reediness of an oboe is profoundly different than the rounder tone of a clarinet. When evaluating this characteristic in our systems, people tend to use terms like texture, dimension, and resolution.  

     

    I want to mention voices and song in this section. Although this particular concert did not involve vocalists or a choir, this is another area where experiencing the human voice in song - live - delivers the kind of goosebumps no recording or audio system can. Massed voices - as in a choir - are another example of the timbral richness of a live experience. Listen hard enough and you can make out the individual voices that comprise the whole. Or sit back and soak in the magnificent collection as a whole.

     

    It was humbling to hear how far from real my own system was. This (timbre and texture) is an area that is particularly benefited by the optimizations in the digital chain from the DAC on upstream. Improvements to clocking and power supplies, for example, seem to reveal timbral subtleties as their reward. Again, this has been an area of focus for me. When I compare where I started a couple years ago to where I am, my system has loads more timbral accuracy. Yet, compared to the real thing, there is much more to be done.

     

     

     

    Summing up

    One would have to be a deluded fool to think that one's audio system could reproduce music as well as it sounds at a live performance. I'm not a deluded fool. I use these experiences to cast a critical eye at my system, and identify which aspects are weakest, so I can prioritize what to optimize, when I am able.  One would think that this exercise would be a depressing one, but perhaps surprisingly, I don't find this to be the case.
     

    I am pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable a listening experience we now have the ability to create in our own homes. Especially in the context of digital and computer audio, the extent to which we can now approach the tonality, timbre, and soundstage of live music is incredible, and improving rapidly. Of course, this is nowhere close to the "real thing." But enjoyable, uplifting, even soul-touching? Absolutely. 

     

     




    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments



    A fine article sir!  Also, it has given me some inspiration, London is a one hour train ride for me, I really should make the effort to visit and listen to something similar myself.

     

    As an aside, how impressive is that organ?😊  I am sure it could be a sub bass monster with the right music.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    39 minutes ago, Confused said:

    A fine article sir!  Also, it has given me some inspiration, London is a one hour train ride for me, I really should make the effort to visit and listen to something similar myself.

     

    As an aside, how impressive is that organ?😊  I am sure it could be a sub bass monster with the right music.

     

    Glad to hear it. You should!

     

    I happen to be en route to London. I will be at CanJam this weekend, and have already booked tickets to the Proms on Saturday AND Sunday!

     

    As for the organ, yes indeed. I want to return to SFS next time they do Mahler 8th or similar.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    You ... “I use these experiences to cast a critical eye at my system, and identify which aspects are weakest, so I can prioritize what to optimize, when I am able."

     

    Me ...  I use these experiences to escape the real world, forget about the trivial world of woefully inadequate home systems, and become completely engulfed  in an experience it is now impossible and always will be impossible to reproduce at home. On the few occasions I do get to experience such an orchestra, the furthest thing from my mind is comparing it to my stereo, which by the way, is a very nice one. It is far better in IMHO opinion to enjoy the live experience for what it is and when at home try to remember what the live music was, than to clutter my mind at the symphony with trying to compare it to something I know it never will

     

    I understand where you are coming from, but VERY sad in a way that you go to hear a world class orchestra and focus on how it compares to your stereo. I have never even considered that my system can reproduce the sound of a symphony hall so why waste my brainpower on doing so. Can't you just enjoy the music?

    Edited by bbosler
    further thoughts

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    Great article @austinpop! A friend of mine wrote a similar post about his first serious experience in a concert hall in our local forum. 

     

    You provided a great insight to show the limitation of a typical stereo system when compared to a real live concert hall performance. At your 12th row seat, the sound that you heard was 90 percent of the hall sound. With such overwhelming surround ambiance it is not a mystery why the pinpoint accuracy will be missing when you move away from the front stage.

     

    Good job! I will be using this post often. Thank you.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    30 minutes ago, esldude said:

    I would note one reason you can't get real dynamics in your home, is darn near all the recordings are compressed. 

     

    Dynamic range in concert hall is mostly influenced by the lateral reflection. 

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    This clearly demonstrates the difference between those who love music and those who love stereos.The mindset demonstrated in this thread is how does this live music I'm listening to compare to my stereo? Thinking about the "sound" rather than listening to the "music" is a terrible waste. If that brings you pleasure then I wish you great happiness. The real magic of live music is how it transports you into a world you can't otherwise experience. At a live performance your mind should not be in an analytical mode analyzing the sound. It should be in a mode where you are deriving maximum pleasure from the music. 

     

    I also completely disagree with the experience of watching the Berlin streaming, unless they have changed how they present it which I gave up on a while back. At the symphony you have a fixed perspective.. one seat. The ones I watched there were multiple cameras moving about focusing on whatever was being highlighted at the time.. like a rock concert video.  Lets look look up close at the woodwinds, then lets jump to the cellos,  then zoom into the horns... an utterly distracting experience that completely ruins the experience you see at a live concert.

     

    Sorry to rain on your parade but it is about the music

     

    Thanks for entertaining my ramblings, feel free to disagree, won't hurt my feelings

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    18 minutes ago, bbosler said:

    This clearly demonstrates the difference between those who love music and those who love stereos.

    No. Can you not walk & chew gum simultaneously?

    I enjoy music & audio sound quality together for advantages of both. I am not more evolved or powerful, just say Yes & embrace opportunity.

    Sad so many on CA not understand difference & similarity of music & sound  😟

     

    your mind should not be in an analytical mode analyzing the sound

    Not analytical, perceptual!  Hear tonal balance like rhythm, hear dynamics like melody, &c. Disconnect mind to hear many things from ears 😏 Intent & training will provide capability. Music & good SQ provide pleasure.

     

     

     

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    Thank you. wonderful point about multitasking. It is well proven that a human mind can only concentrate on one topic at a time that involves any degree of focus or analysis. Feel free to do some research but it is indisputable. The only way that a human can do more than one thing at a time is if all but one involve no concentration. That is why so many think they can text and drive at the same time focusing on each. Forgive my bluntness,  but they are fools. Look at the accident statistics on it.

     

    Bubblegum and walking, perfect example. Why can I  do it? Because I've done both many times and it is ingrained, AND more importantly, I  can do both without thinking about them because they are routine. However,  if I want to focus on the taste of the gum it is impossible to focus at the same time on the comfort of the shoes, or to be aware of the shoes if I am aware of the taste of the gum. Try it.

     

    Can you carry on a conversation on two topics at the same time with two people, or do you have to stop and switch  from one to the other? Can you answer questions from someone who is in the room while you are conversing  on the phone with another without stopping to switch gears? Can you follow a movie when the person next to you is asking you questions about what just happened when you have moved onto the next scene, or talk on the phone and follow a movie at the same time?


    You can switch back and forth. Like at the symphony, at this moment I'll compare how the clarinet sounds to the clarinet on my stereo, but it is impossible to be completely absorbed into overall the sound of the orchestra,  and be comparing an instrument in the orchestra to the same instrument on your stereo

     

    That may seem rather esoteric but it is true. If you go to the symphony you can't think about how this music affects me or to be absorbed by it at this precise moment and also think about how it compares to my stereo.

     

    It is your choice. Do you want to be completely focused on the music that the orchestra is producing, focus on on how the sound compares to your system, or switch back and forth.  I am not condemning one or the other, it is a choice. . For me, being drawn into the music is my choice.

     

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    Nice write up.  I recently heard the LSO and know exactly what you are referring to in live orchestral performance.

     

    And while I agree that our systems can't reproduce that sound, they sometimes can come close enough - after all, I don't really want a symphony orchestra in my home - or even a string quartet, for that matter. 

     

    One of the reasons I upgraded to the system I now own is that it comes much closer to giving me the dynamics and spatial illusion of listening to a symphony orchestra than my previous one could, especially in my small listening room. On well made dynamic recordings it can make me jump out of my seat sometimes.  I'd imagine that if I had the space and the funds,  I could come even closer to a good illusion. Not the real thing, but  a very nice illusion. 

     

    I wouldn't be surprised if in the not distant future we will be able to use DSP and psychoacoustics to make a "virtual reality"  playback that is good enough to fool us into thinking we are hearing the real thing. Enough cues, and our brains will fill in the rest. 

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    38 minutes ago, firedog said:

    I wouldn't be surprised if in the not distant future we will be able to use DSP and psychoacoustics to make a "virtual reality"  playback that is good enough to fool us into thinking we are hearing the real thing. Enough cues, and our brains will fill in the rest. 

     

    The technology is here but the implementation is tedious. The sound in concert hall consists of two parts. Direct and reflected sound. Most classical recordings are a mixture of close miking and from the critical radius where the reverberation and direct sound ratio are equal (more or less). 

     

    In real life, the sweet spot is much further away than the critical distance where the microphones were placed to do the recording. We are essentially listening to 90 percent of the hall's sound and only about 10% of the direct sound from the performers.

     

    The rest of the 40 percent of the actual concert hall sound is not in the recordings. It is a myth to believe you can reproduce the concert hall sound with only 40% of the actual sound in the recording. It cannot be done. Furthermore, the reflected sound comes in surround mode from thousands, if not millions of different angle all around the listeners head giving the sense of envelopment. This reflected sound if reproduced in the recording it will sound fuzzy because the speakers will be sending this reflected sound from only two angle as opposed to the millions in a concert hall.

     

    A good room with diffusers, can help to reproduce the balance of 40% of the reflected sound but due to the limited volume of our normal listening room it can only give a marginal sense of envelopment. Also notice that in recordings, you only have TWO location of the source. Unlike a live concert performance, the reflected direction of the reverberation in listening room is rather monotonous as the direction cannot vary beyond the two speakers radiation point.

     

     

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    7 hours ago, esldude said:

    I don't think the author of the article is saying this is how to listen to music. It was a one off experiment of sorts the way I read it

     

    Then I misinterpreted his statement  " I use these experiences to cast a critical eye at my system, and identify which aspects are weakest, so I can prioritize what to optimize, when I am able"

     

    I took "these experiences" literally since it is plural, not a one off event. Perhaps the problem with the written word versus a real time discussion to clarify our intent.

     

    Sorry to put a damper on the abundant praise for his analysis,   but it just bothered me to think that someone had the opportunity to enjoy such a fine orchestra and obviously spent a great deal of the time making notes, at least mentally, about how it compared to his stereo. Perhaps he, unlike me,  is fortunate enough to go to so many live events that he can use some of them in the manner described.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    I’m a regular concert-goer and depending on the hall itself, the things I miss most after returning to home are dynamics, incredible upper harmonics of the brass (french horns especially) and “hearing the rosin on the bow”. There is a small but distinct additional sound in the string instruments as the bow attacks the strings, which is never there in a recording.

     

    Opera singers are something completely different. Few systems and fewer recordings can recreate anything close to the heavenly sweetness, power and substance needed at the same time.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites



    Create an account or sign in to comment

    You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

    Create an account

    Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

    Register a new account

    Sign in

    Already have an account? Sign in here.

    Sign In Now

×