The word “transparency” is thrown around in descriptions of audio equipment with ubiquitous regularity. We generally understand what this refers to, but sometimes a keen analogy can offer a more tangible and memorable awareness of what transparency really means when it comes to audio.
For this week’s acoustic tip, we peer into the great mind and hear the eloquent voice of our good friend and The Absolute Sound editor-in-chief, Robert Harley.
His 1994 book The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, not only walks readers through the steps of choosing and using a truly high-end listening system, it also explains what we are really seeking and how to know when we have found it.
We at ASC consider the following analogy to be equally suited to one’s perspective on room acoustics. Please enjoy the following mildly condensed excerpt from this great book, and think about how it applies to the final link in your listening chain: the room acoustics.
Imagine yourself standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, feeling overwhelmed by its grandeur. You experience not only the vastness of this massive sculpture carved deep into the Earth, but all its smaller features jump out at you as well, vivid and alive. You can discern fine gradations of hue in the rock layers–distinctions between the many shades of red are readily apparent. Fine details of the huge formations are easily resolved simply by your looking at them, thus deepening your appreciation. The contrasts of light and shadow highlight the apparently infinite maze of cracks and crevasses. The longer and closer you look, the more you see. The wealth of sensory input keeps you standing silently at the edge, in awe of nature’s unfathomable beauty.
Now imagine yourself looking at the Grand Canyon through a window made of many thicknesses of glass, each one less than perfectly transparent. One pane has a slight grayish opacity that dulls the vivid hues and obliterates the subtle distinctions between similar shades of color. The fine granular structure of the next pane diminishes your ability to resolve features of the rock. Another pane reduces the contrast between light and shadow, turning the Canyon’s immense depth and breadth into a flat canvas. Finally, the window frame itself constricts your view, destroying the Canyon’s overall impact.
Made for TV
Instead of the direct and immediate reality of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, what you see is gray, murky, lifeless, and synthetic. You may as well be watching it on television.
Time to Clean the Windows?
“High-end audio is about removing as many panes of glass as possible, and making those that remain as transparent as they can be. The fewer the panes, and the less effect each has on the information passing through it, the closer we get to the live experience and the deeper our connection with the musical message.”
We all like our music to be detailed and dynamic, with accurate timbre and tone for all the instruments in a wide and deep sound stage. And as we’ve learned through analogy, each element of the playback system can introduce subtle (or not so subtle!) distortions that take away from the natural splendor and talent of the musicians and engineers involved in the recording.
Your room-with its walls, corners, furnishings, gear, and surface finishes-is no exception to this rule, and in fact can be the most significant detriment to enjoying your high-end audio system. That is where we come in.
Let’s all thank Robert Harley for his gracious blessing to share a piece of his book, and I would encourage all who are interested to buy the full book here.