Reflections On Reviewing and Resolution
Commentary
Jason Serinus
10 October 1999

"I traveled to the New York City area and had the opportunity to experience some of the recordings I love most played on the system of our publisher, Clement Perry. Although I would not describe my visit to Williamsburg as the Stereo Times equivalent of a TAS staff member’s holy pilgrimage to Sea Cliff, I did find the experience heart- and ear opening in several respects."

As a relatively new "kid" on the reviewing block, I have been pondering how to make my equipment evaluations come alive. In what ways can I discuss scores of black boxes and meters of cables and clearly convey the excitement borne of a revelatory listening experience?

I know this is not an easy task. I have encountered countless high-end reviews that evaluate equipment by employing the standard set of audiophile "buzzwords." While I do not wish to deny the value and importance of these words – I intend to include at least some of them in my reviews—I must nonetheless confess that I so frequently find the same words and phrases used to describe very different sounding pieces of equipment that the high-end lexicon sometimes loses its meaning.

The raison d’être for reviewing, as far as I’m concerned, is conveying how electronics can serve as a satisfying vehicle for reaching deeply into the heart and soul of music. When reading a review, what interests me the most is how something sounds, how it affects the listener’s emotions and sensibilities. Alas, I often have to wade through many paragraphs of padding, personal asides, physical descriptions, and technical explanations before I finally get to this information. (Reviewers who resort to describing electronics as "sexy" would, in my opinion, benefit far more from therapy than a new amp). If I constantly have to turn to the end of a review to learn how something sounds, then, to my way of thinking, something is off.

"…just today, when I told a local dealer of my foray into reviewing, he immediately begged me to reconsider, launching into an unstoppable tirade about how removed reviewers are from people who just want to come home, kick back and listen, This further brought home to me that what the reviewing process must always be about is MUSIC."

I have had several talks with dealers who pal around with reviewers. These dealers complain that some of the criteria used by people who review audiophile equipment have little relationship to the actual experience and values of most listeners. In fact, just today, when I told a local dealer of my foray into reviewing, he immediately begged me to reconsider, launching into an unstoppable tirade about how removed reviewers are from people who just want to come home, kick back and listen, This further brought home to me that what the reviewing process must always be about is MUSIC.

Some reviewers, straining to hear differences between different interconnects, for example, exult in the ability of cable Big Bucks to let you hear more of the valiant, albeit unsuccessful effort of the third row, fourth from the left violinist to suppress the cough that seized her in the midst of the climactic, triple fortissimo finale of conductor Lawrence Bernhardt’s fourth and final recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. I suppose it’s a triumph of engineering if equipment can actually convey the visceral experience of that infamous tickle in the violinist’s throat, but, then again, what happens to the sound of Mahler’s music in the process? Does the ability to convey extraneous detail that one would never hear, or wish to hear, in a live situation end up creating an artificial experience that buries the music in the process?

The issues of holding music paramount while reviewing became real to me when, in late September, I traveled to the New York City area and had the opportunity to experience some of the recordings I love most played on the system of our publisher, Clement Perry. Although I would not describe my visit to Williamsburg as the Stereo Times equivalent of a TAS staff member’s holy pilgrimage to Sea Cliff, I did find the experience heart- and ear opening in several respects.

The music I brought with me was mainly classical. While I love many forms of music, the truth is that I was weaned on a combination of Caruso, Galli-Curci and Tetrazzini 78s, Peter and the Wolf, the old Reiner Carmen, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and David Oistrakh’s playing of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with variety supplied via recordings of Annie Get Your Gun, Finian’s Rainbow, and South Pacific. I certainly listened to my share of ‘50s and ‘60s rock and soul, intentionally driving my mother out of the room by playing Little Richard at top volume and later doing what many of us did while listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Nonetheless, it is classical music that I most love, because it is the music that most deeply touches my heart and soul.

Several people I know have told me that my system is one of the highest resolution set-ups they have heard. One is a locally based reviewer, who has been to chez Serinus on many occasions. Another is a recording and mastering engineer, who came here frequently to listen to his own recordings until he purchased the same awesome combination of Duntech speakers and Hafler amps used in a Sony mastering facility. But the resolution delivered by either my system or his doesn’t hold a candle to what I heard on Clement’s.

It was not the detail per se that mattered to me. Yes, on a little-known but wonderful CD, "A New Heaven" by contemporary composer Nikolai Korndorf (Sony SK 66 824), I was able to distinguish the sounds of individual string and wind instruments on the composer’s Hymn II for Orchestra more clearly than on my system. This extra detail was engaging and rewarding -- something you could never hear from the acoustically excellent second tier of Davies Symphony Hall -- but it didn’t ultimately change my experience of the music. It didn’t make the music come any more alive. Nevertheless, on recordings of the female voice in particular, what I heard was truly a revelation.

"I have frequently used this Brahms recital to evaluate equipment, not because it represents a paragon of recording technique, but because it features such an exquisite combination of voice, piano, song and word as to render the sometimes arduous process of equipment comparison an act of joy. I never tire of comparing cables when my "work" is accompanied by such celestial singing."

One of the CDs I shared with Clement was the 1990 Elly Ameling Brahms recital (Hyperion CDA66444), in which pianist Rudolf Jansen accompanies the Dutch soprano. Known for her radiance of tone and moving simplicity of expression, Elly Ameling was born in 1934 in Rotterdam. After winning 1st Prize at the International Competition for Musical Performers in Geneva in 1958, singing Gounod’s Jewel Song from Faust in an impeccable performance that I listened to just the other night, she completed her studies under the noted baritone Pierre Bernac (partner of the composer Francis Poulenc).

Glancing at the dates, you can see that this Brahms recital, Ameling’s third, was recorded late in her career. While her interpretations had deepened considerably over the years, with the voice retaining the radiance, sweetness and purity which frequently elevated her performances to the level of the transcendent, she had also developed an unfortunate warble when sustaining sounds of any significant volume in the higher registers. On this recording, at least, her performances contain so much depth, feeling and still-radiant beauty as to make her vocal imperfections relatively insignificant.

I have frequently used this Brahms recital to evaluate equipment, not because it represents a paragon of recording technique, but because it features such an exquisite combination of voice, piano, song and word as to render the sometimes arduous process of equipment comparison an act of joy. I never tire of comparing cables when my "work" is accompanied by such celestial singing.

A short track I invariably play is Brahms’ An die Nachtigall.

"Do not pour so loudly love-inflamed songs’
rich sounds from the apple’s blossomed bough,
O nightingale!"

ever so sweetly intones Ameling as the song begins. Granted, the poet Holty’s turgid verse makes me grateful that I know only a few words in German. Brahms, however, thankfully transforms the poet’s soupy words into a gem of refined musical expression.

As Clement was putting this CD into his transport, I thought that I already knew just what Ameling does with this song. How wrong I was. For the first time, I heard just how small she makes her voice when she begins to sing. Aware of her vocal decline, I suspect that Ameling chose to use as little volume and breath as possible to achieve the most intimate and rapturous of vocal utterances. The smallness and fineness of her sound, and the purity of line, literally stunned me anew with their beauty and humility. Only on a system of such high resolution could I get close enough to Ameling’s throat to experience the fineness of breath and delicacy of nuance that make her singing of this song ever more exquisite than what I had previously heard.

"Since this listening experience, terms such as "resolution" and "dynamics" no longer seem to me like empty buzzwords."

In the second and third verses, as the music ascends the scale, Ameling sometimes opens her voice up to sing at higher volume. The dynamic capacity of Clement’s two 750 Watt Sim Audio W10 monoblocks, linked by Harmonic Technology Pro Silway Mk II interconnects and Pro Nine speaker cables to Von Schweikert VR6 speakers, Meitner Bidat processor and transport, Z-Systems RDP-1 digital preamp and Tact 2.2 Digital Room Corrector, startled me with how great the difference in volume and impact was between her soft singing and louder utterances. On this system, the way Ameling conveys that her "innermost soul thrills" to the nightingale’s "melting" sounds had tremendous impact. Moreover, when she then pared her voice back down for the final stanza,

"Fly, nightingale, to green dark places,
to the woodland thicket,
and in your nest kiss your faithful wife,
fly away, away!"

her return to hushed intimacy became even more touching than and rewarding than on any of the countless previous times I had played this performance.

Since this listening experience, terms such as "resolution" and "dynamics" no longer seem to me like empty buzzwords. Rather, I understand them as an imperfect but nonetheless necessary vehicle for describing what it can mean to someone to get closer to that mystical yoga or union achieved when an artist and their music meld as one. I heard Ameling do this live at UC Berkeley in the mid ‘70s, when her Brahms singing literally created a time warp which took many of us in the audience to another place. And, just last month, I heard her do it again in Williamsburg.

It is my goal to convey this thrill to you in the reviews I pen for Stereo Times. I intend to take my time writing them, because I want to be able to stand behind everything I say. Please stay tuned.