I Believe in Magic

I Believe in Magic
Anna Logg
September 1999

In reading the accounts of Clement Perry and Mike Silverton’s reactions to Ralph Glasgal’s Ambiophonics system, I went back to read my own article to see if the intervening years might have changed my attitude about it at all. As I recalled, my evaluation had been along much the same lines as Clement’s. More to the point, I felt after reading it through that nothing I had heard in the time since made me feel I should change one word of what I had written.

Ralph Glasgal’s Ambiophonics system is unorthodox, both in its logistics and how it uses technology. I think that in view of this, one has to leave technical knowledge and conventional expectations at the doorstep. Since I have little of the former and have always been very open-minded in terms of the latter (being more of a “listener and seeker”) my reaction was not tainted by Technical Audio Stuff I Know or objectivist skepticism.

I believe in magic. I believe in the magic of believing. I do not disdain any tweak without trying it, for I fully embrace the concept of listening to something before forming an opinion. Then, if sufficiently astounded and/or delighted, I might become interested in how . . . and maybe why. But I don’t really need to know; it is sufficient to me to simply hear the result.

I have been invited to revisit Rockleigh to hear the current iteration of Ambiophonics, now equipped with, of all things, an analogue front end featuring the [in] famous Elp laser turntable, among other improvements since I last heard the system. This I’ve gotta hear!


(The following is reprinted from the August 1994 issue of The Source, the newsletter of the New Jersey Audio Society)

The Listening Room As Component . . . The next audio frontier?

At the museum of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, the fossilized skeleton of a saber tooth tiger (which was unearthed at the site) is holographically reconstructed in all its three- dimensional, corporeal perfection! In a powerful display of this technology, the lifelike apparition is intermittently projected over the skeleton so that at one moment you’re seeing a magnificent, softly-furred beast with glinting, watchful eyes and bristling whiskers, and the next — it’s back to the reality of lifeless “bare bones.”

First, Ralph Glasgall’s “Domestic Concert Hall” System….

Ralph has created a system to retrieve (“project,” if you will) a sort of “sonic” holography. Using only standard, readily-available two-channel recordings, the DCH can produce audio imaging that gives new dimensions to the concept of “soundstage” and, I’d go so far as to say, even transcends it! Everything necessary to the three-dimensional illusion is there save for the images of the performers!

It is the “you are there” concept that makes Ralph Glasgal’s approach unique. Conventional audiophile effort and thinking (mine included…) has focused on trying to “recreate them here!” By [re]creating hall ambience, my “holograph” analogy perspective changes from “puts the entire New York Philharmonic right there in my living room” to “Puts me in Avery Fisher Hall ….. without leaving my living room!”

The concept has been dubbed “Ambiophonics.” This term refers to a specific set of audio objectives which Ralph presents as The Ambiophile Creed. Its first tenet: “That the majority of home listeners to large ensemble recordings would prefer to hear their music reproduced by a system that recreates as closely as possible the acoustics of a live concert hall, opera house, church, etc.”

Whether it could be feasible for conventional home application is hard to say — this system represents a large financial investment which most of us could hardly afford. Plus, it requires special room deadening and equipment logistics. However, albeit on a smaller scale, some of the room treatment and hardware configurations can certainly be implemented in the average listening room. The DCH does not contain any hard-to-get experimental technology — it just uses a myriad of existing, readily-available technologies in a new way. All together, they point in a potentially exciting direction for the future of home audio.

If nothing else, just one brief audition of the DCH is enough to shake your complacency and rouse you from the dull-witted torpor of the “beaten path.”

The demo consisted of a selection from an obscure Gershwin musical. (CD source.) I think it is important to add here that no other information was volunteered, nor was there any attempt to set a level of expectation for what you were about to hear. The listener sits in the center of the 28 x 30 foot room, twelve feet back from the major front speakers (Duntechs.) An 8″ thick by 8 ft. high by 10 ft. long panel covered with sound-absorptive material is situated vertically in the center of the room between the listener and the speakers. (It resembles a free-standing room divider.) Its purpose, says Ralph, is to “prevent front speaker (interaural) crosstalk.” For optimum effect, one sits within 6″ to 12″ from the edge of the divider, which is notched to allow foot and knee room. The remaining speakers (a pair of Carver AL IIIs and two pairs of Acoustat 1+1s) are arranged down the sides of the room, fairly close to the walls and alternately angled sideways facing out toward the center of the room. Of course, each speaker is individually amplified.

The minute the demo started, I knew that it was not “pure” acoustic sound on the recording. What I heard sounded like an amplified acoustic musical event exactly as it might sound in a theater.

As it happened, this was the “sound” and the hall ambience that Ralph was testing. He added that it was fairly easy to do with this particular recording, because it was almost as if the engineer was deliberately trying to get that kind of “theater” ambiance in the recording. However it was achieved, I had a definite sense of actually hearing the show’s “sound reinforcement” amplification system.

The overall effect of the center divider can be described as rather like wearing giant headphones, but Ralph’s system can recreate a life-size environment with a palpable sense of its physical space, intimate or huge. In the demo, the performers “materialized” as life-sized, with instrumental/vocal images that seemed as real and solid to me as that sabre tooth tiger! The singers had flesh (and bones) and walked (sometimes stomped) on a real stage rather than seeming to float sort of suspended in mid-air.

To that extent, the components in the system must be considered suitably transparent and “accurate.” Actually, I had no conscious awareness of the “sound” of the system, per se, as much as of the recording itself.

Acoustic Accuracy

It is the room’s acoustic treatment that is really at the heart of the system. Ralph maintains that the original (or simulated) ambient sound (s) cannot be accurately produced if the room plays any part in modifying those sounds. To this end the DCH listening room is not only dedicated, but is an integrated part of the system. It fulfills the 6th tenet of the Ambiophile Creed: “That diffusion in the listening room is the enemy of concert hall realism and absorption is its friend.”

Starting with ankle-deep carpeting on the floor, all reflective surfaces have been deadened with absorptive material up to a height of 12 feet on all four walls of the 35 foot high room. This creates the “holodeck,” if you will, for the computer to project an approximation of the original (or, desired) acoustic environment. (Hey, Trekkers!!) Want a Broadway theater? ZAP. Want to be in Carnegie Hall? Merely ZAP again.

The major drawback, of course, is that there’s only one optimal listening position. I admit that I’ve always abhorred speakers that limit listening to a constricted, dead-center “sweet spot,” firmly believing that good or great speakers should sound equally panoramic from any angle.

Of course, that attitude relates to conventional system setup. In the case of the DCH, however, the limited listening position is dictated by the center “crosstalk” panel, and there’s no way around that. (Yet?) either left or right as well as center. In fact, in a 1986 article, I even ridiculed the notion with a cartoon titled “The Audiophile Concert Hall!” But, even though I readily acknowledge that 99 44/100% of [my] listening is a solitary pastime anyway, there is something about the DCH’s overt, active commitment to isolation that can be a bit of a turnoff. It’s irrational, I suppose, but there was something vaguely unsettling about it..

On the other hand, the wonders that the DCH may be capable of make it worth searching for compromises. For example, perhaps the room/system could be designed with elements that would permit one to revert back to conventional playback in order to satisfy the extroverted audiophile’s need to share fine recordings, impress friends, (i.e., show off) or, Hey, — even Party!

As to other reactions, I found that some people seemed to completely misconstrue the concept— and the potential — of the Glasgal Domestic Concert Hall. The demo recording was, arguably, not the best sounding available, but that wasn’t the point. The system astonished me precisely because it was so accurate in recreating the very same unnatural, “wired” sound you will in fact hear in the theater. In all other respects, it sounded amazingly “real” to me, and presented a very convincing illusion.

The meeting ran quite late so it was not possible to have any encores that evening. I can only imagine the goose-bumps a great analogue opera or symphony recording could raise. (We will be returning for some extended listening and will report further impressions after that. )

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