Audio Nirvana:
Recreating the Original Performance

What are you trying to achieve when you tap “play” on your tablet or place the stylus on a cherished record? For audio enthusiasts, the answer is simple. They’re trying to recreate the musical performance of their favorite artists. It’s not just about hearing a recording – it’s about experiencing true-to-life sound.

But you don’t have to be an audiophile to experience great sound quality.

Everyone, from seasoned audio enthusiasts to casual listeners, enjoys a quality recording played through quality equipment. However, on a scale from “that sounds boring” to “audiophile nirvana,” which factors really make the difference? What, specifically, are you trying to hear? Unless you’ve gone out of your way to select the best equipment and audio formats, you might not know what you’re missing.

Ultimately, a recording has one fundamental job: Letting you hear music the way an artist intended. You should hear all the nuance and detail of a musical performance. Nothing more, nothing less. To get to that point, the first step is figuring out which nuances and details you’re trying to uncover.

Distinguishing “white bread” from “whole grain” audio

Grainy bread is big these days. Everyone seems to want the brown, speckled stuff with the nuts and seeds in it. White bread? Not so much. It’ll always have its place, but whole grains are rapidly gaining the upper hand.

Why so much love for the healthy stuff? Because many people have stopped looking for products whose greatest virtue is cheapness. “It’s edible” simply doesn’t cut it for savvy consumers. They want to know a loaf of bread is good for them; they want to recognize (and pronounce) the ingredients on the label; they want to see the grains and seeds that are supposedly inside it.

In other words, they’re looking for authenticity. They need bread that looks, feels, and tastes like bread ought to taste. Musical recordings, believe it or not, are similar.

Just ask Ivan Halbach, resident audio guru at Audio Advice. According to Ivan, there are three primary qualities you should listen for in a recording:

Timing

Sometimes referred to as pace, rhythm, and timing (PRAT), the timing of the playback of a recording refers to whether that speed is consistent throughout. When the timing is off – even by a little bit – you’re not getting true-to-life sound. You’ll miss all those subtle emotions your favorite artists were trying to portray.

Dynamics

Think of a song with loud and soft sections. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one example; “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” also fit the bill. In a recording, the transitions between relative loudness and softness are known as dynamics. Strong dynamics add vitality and emotion to music. Without them, everything comes through at a similar volume. The instruments and voices are still there, but it all sounds… boring.

Timbral accuracy

When a recording offers accurate timbre, the voices and the instruments sound the way they were supposed to sound in the studio. In other words, a piano sounds the way you expect it to sound when you play one yourself in a room with great acoustics.

When timing, dynamics, and timbre are where they should be, you’re in great shape. It’s like eating organic whole grain bread from your local bakery. But to what extent can you enjoy all of these sonic details in a given recording? According to Ivan, the answer depends on several factors.

“Timing,” he says, “is really apparent in both great and not-so-great recordings. Have you ever heard the warbling sound of an 8-track or cassette tape player? That’s what it sounds like when the timing is messed up. As you advance to a better system, things start sounding more ‘together’ with no variation in pitch.”

As Ivan explains it, your source, especially if you’re using a turntable, can have a huge impact on reproducing the timing and pitch accuracy captured in the recording studio. Even your amplifier and speakers can give you that feeling that makes you want to tap your foot to the music.

“Dynamics are a big issue, too,” Ivan explains. “Nowadays, we’re dealing with what some have termed ‘loudness wars,’ which is a way of saying that recording engineers add heavy compression during the mixing process. Fifteen years ago, you still had great dynamics. The loud parts were loud, and the soft parts were soft. But now the trend is toward making everything loud. Pop music doesn’t have the same dynamic slam that it once had.”

Just as you can’t make great coffee from stale beans, you can’t get great dynamics from a poor master recording – even if you use great audio equipment. However, audio gear capable of reproducing a wide dynamic range brings you closer to that live sound everyone loves from a good recording. And it’s not only just about the loudest and softest parts – it’s about having gear that reveals those tiny changes in volume that trick our brains into thinking the instrument or singer is in the room with us.   

Audio equipment also makes a huge difference when it comes to timbral accuracy.

When you talk about timbral accuracy,” Ivan says,“you’re talking about hearing instruments and voices for what they are and where they’re supposed to be in a musical performance.” For example, a quality recording played through a system capable of keeping the timing will reveal both large and small dynamic changes, accurately reproducing the timbre of any instrument. It makes us think the instrument is in the room with us.

“And that,” Ivan adds, “is really special!

The bottom line? Standard audio hardware in your smartphone or your car probably isn’t giving you a true audiophile experience. It lets you listen to a song and sing along, sure. But if your goal is to hear – with clarity – the textures and subtleties within a beloved track, well… it might be time to rethink the audio formats and equipment you rely on.

It might be time to “graduate” from white bread.

Choose audio formats and equipment that recreate the original performance

If you’re ready to enjoy better timing, dynamics, and timbral accuracy , it’s time to take a good, hard look at your audio format and equipment choices!

Even a solid master recording won’t sound as great as it could sound if you’re hearing it in a low-quality format. Likewise, it’s hard to enjoy timbral accuracy or dynamic swings if your equipment wasn’t designed to deliver them.

When it comes to formats, there are three solid ways to enjoy clear, authentic sound:

Listen to CDs.

Unlike some digital music files that you stream or download from the web (more on those in a moment), compact discs include every musical detail and subtlety. With CDs, there’s no compression applied for the sake of saving disk space. You get a true representation of the music an artist intended for you to hear.

Trade MP3s for lossless audio.

By ripping a track from a CD and compressing the file into an MP3, listeners can store lots of musical data on a simple, consumer-grade hard drive. The downside? This convenience is only possible due to degraded sound quality. That’s why MP3 and OGG files are called “lossy.” They’ve lost some of the musical data from the original recording. The solution is to listen to lossless files – FLAC is a common format – that preserve all of that data. They take up more space on your hard drive. But if you care about great sound, they’re worth it.

Buy vinyl.

Yes, records are back in vogue. The vinyl revival isn’t just a fad, though. After years of sacrificing sound quality for convenience (see MP3s above), many listeners are rediscovering the joys of analog. Vinyl, in part because of its hobbyist appeal, is arguably the most fun way to enjoy high fidelity sound. When you put a record on a turntable, you’re getting every layer and texture that an artist produced during the recording session.

Ok, let’s say you’ve traded your Pandora subscription, which uses a lossy compressed file format, for a hi-fi streaming service like Tidal. How can you be sure your audio equipment delivers the beautiful dynamics and soundstaging you’re after?

Or maybe you’ve decided to buy some records, but you still don’t have a proper vinyl setup. You’re probably wondering what kind of turntable to buy and which vinyl accessories can help you keep your records clean. Where do you begin?

Selecting the right audio equipment depends on many factors ranging from personal preferences to budgets, aesthetics, and space considerations. It’s a huge topic. With that caveat, here are some questions to start with:

Where do you listen to music?

The concerns of someone who needs a good set of headphones are vastly different from someone building a vinyl setup in her living room. If you’re getting into vinyl, a good place to start is our ultimate guide to turntable selection. For selecting the right headphones, check out our headphone buyer’s guide. Room acoustics matter, too. Our guide to creating a listening room for active musical immersion discusses acoustics, speaker positions, and the best places to put your equipment.

How do you listen to music?

Are you streaming music, playing stored (owned) hi-fi music files, or popping a CD into a changer? Are you buying used vinyl? It makes a difference. For example, someone streaming music from the web should consider the vast array of music player options that are available. If you’re optimizing a computer-based setup at your home office, check out our computer speaker setup guide.

How can you improve your listening experience?

Audio equipment choices always depend on your unique challenges. Got high-quality speakers but want to improve the sound produced by your computer? Add an external digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to improve clarity. Trying to get the soundstage experience from your headphones without breaking the bank? Take a look at these options, all of which cost less than $600. Many are open-back headphones that offer a true soundstage.

What’s great is that you can enjoy high-quality sound in a variety of ways, whether digital or analog. You just have to understand which formats give you the most intricate layers of musical detail, which qualities to listen for, and which equipment gets you to the place you want to be.

After that, you’re well on your way to uncovering new and beautiful sounds within your music. You’ll also recreate the performance that your favorite artists always intended for you to hear. No sounds sacrificed, no details lost.

As any audio enthusiast will tell you, critical music listening is a journey. If you’re interested in getting started, a great first step is to Build Your Sound Profile. Our simple 6 question interactive quiz will help us get to know you better and help us recommend content and products that fit your interests and level of expertise.

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