Jazz Corner: In Search of a Better Sound
The best sound remains enigmatic and the opinion, subjective and individual
All us music buffs are constantly looking to get a better quality of sound for music reproduction. This has been a constant search, and I can bet you anything that we audiophiles will never be perfectly satisfied with a particular quality to end that search.It is a fascinating endeavor; of course, we all want our favorite music to sound the ‘best’ it can. It will certainly be more enjoyable. But does anyone actually have a concept of what the ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ sound might be?
When Miles Davis was at the beginning of his playing career, he once asked his then-idol, Dizzy Gillespie, why he (Davis) couldn’t play the high notes that Gillespie could. Not one to mince words, Gillespie replied, “You can’t play those high notes because you can’t hear them.” Simple as that.
I had a most fascinating conversation about this a few days ago with an eminent musician who is a veteran and plays all over the world. He said, “No two people hear the same music in the same way.” We were talking about the quality of sound in live performances in auditoriums and open-air concerts. Hearing is unique—like fingerprints!
That is certainly food for thought and it makes a telling point in our discussion of what is the ‘best sound.’ This ‘best sound’ thus remains enigmatic and the opinion, subjective and individual.
I remember a leading American car-maker talking about the ‘most comfortable’ car seat one could find. He had said, “Look for the most comfortable lounge chair in your own living room. You should then look for that level of comfort in a car when choosing one. That should be the yardstick.”
Similarly in an audio set-up, the ideal sound will be that which can approximate a real-life concert sound, the natural sound of the music. This point was driven home to me one day when a Mumbai-based jazz pianist was visiting. I played a jazz vinyl LP and he immediately reacted, saying, “That’s a good sound. That’s how I hear it when I play on a bandstand.”
Much discussion has taken place about analog sound versus digital sound for home systems. Vinyl buffs swear by the sound they get from their LPs, and this large, cumbersome vinyl disc has made a spectacular comeback in recent years. Is there really a noticeable difference in the sound of vinyl?
Personally, I think there is. But it can be neither measured nor quantified. For starters, there is perceptible ‘warmth’ in the sound of vinyl records, perhaps in the way a piano sounds warmer than even a good quality electronic keyboard. I find that makes it easier to listen for longer without aural fatigue. Of course vinyl record listening has the inherent downside of scratches, occasional rumble and stylus jumping. Vinyl buffs are somehow quite happy to overlook these blips!
However, vinyl is certainly an esoteric medium and thus not favored widely. Albums are bulky, storage needs plenty of space, you can’t carry this medium in your car or ‘device’ while you are out. The equipment to play it on is also large and often expensive. Digital medium, on the other hand, is ubiquitous and portable—therefore largely preferred.
Ultimately, whatever your choice, make sure you listen a lot. There is a wonderful ocean of music out there, waiting for your indulgence. Never mind the medium!
Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]