If you have not already, I hope you can find the time to read -- and publicly comment -- on the essay by recording engineer Bob Speer entitled "What Happened To Dynamic Range?" The number "0 for 267" is the most distressing I have read in the 50-plus years I have spent chasing high fidelity. And I finally understand that my ears are not mistaken: What I have been hearing the past few years from contemporary recordings is not music, but as Speer puts it, distortion with a beat. Combined with Lynn Olsen's comments on the inherent, woeful shortcomings of the CD (as expressed in Positive Feedback articles, first regarding SACD and then in his review of the Monarchy DAC), there is little reason to spend thousands of dollars on equipment capable of extraordinary resolution of the slightest electrical nuance. It is an exercise in impotence. There is no nuance there to begin with.
Despite the dynamic range limitations of vinyl compared to the promise of digital recording on CD, I now know why one can hear music more faithfully reproduced on analog vinyl produced from master tapes. In fact, I'm beginning to think iconoclast Clark Johnsen is right, we would be better served listening to 78s of the '30s.
At any rate, as you have have listened to 1000s of CDs over the past few years looking for intense emotional connections and relying on absolutely state-of-the-art equipment, I would very much hope that you will weigh in on this topic. If Speer is right -- and 0 for 267 seems to strongly support his position -- then it is time for influential voices to speak out. With as much dynamic range as possible.
R. A. McCormack
Anyone who has used a recorder to monitor signal strength modulations from CD will agree with McCormack's e-mail. Recorded dynamic range on many CDs -- the difference between the lowest and highest amplitude events of the music -- is in fact rather limited. But JVC with their xrCD range for example has demonstrated how this is certainly not an inherent flaw in the format. In fact, any superior recording of especially classical music will demonstrate far broader dynamic range than is common in the Pop sector where compression makes albums sound as loud as possible.
The upshot for CD-listening consumers is simple. Maximize recorded dynamic range. Select your equipment with a focus on resolving the largest number of intermediate amplitude points between the corners set by the recording. The light now is on micro- rather than macrodynamics. We're not concerned over how much louder the climactic peak gets than the lowest whisper. That ratio has been fixed by the recording engineer. We're concerned over how many intermediate gradations between those two values we can resolve. This will allow us to enjoy the highest number of ripples on the pond since Hawaiian-style breakers are not to be had.
How does one maximize recorded dynamic range? First, minimize ambient noise. The higher the background noise of your listening space, the louder the minimum audible signal must be. Unless you play things really loud then, a lot of the extreme low-level stuff will remain buried in the noise floor. Second, focus on electronics and cables with superior S/N ratios and low operational noise floors. Anyone who's noticed that a certain cable will sound louder than another without altering volume settings already knows that not all cables behave the same in this regard. Contact enhancers for electrical junctions also fall into this category.
Third, explore the land of high-efficiency speakers. Those produce more output for a given input voltage and differentiate more accurately between tiny loudness variations. Maximum optimization in that respect occurs with horns. They add 10dB of acoustic gain above and beyond driver motion. This free acoustical multiplication factor means that essentially non-existent driver motion gets parlayed into something still audible.
For the purposes of this brief discussion, we're not concerned over horn-induced colorations or related issues with high-efficiency non-hornloaded speakers. These recommendations are squarely aimed at listeners like McCormack. They key into dynamic verisimilitude over, say truth of timbre or frequency domain linearity. It's a matter of priorities. What's most important for you to enjoy your music? If your primary complaint is that playback lacks the jump factor, vitality and excitement of the live performance, you might have to diagnose yourself as an adrenaline junkie. In which case, dynamics are your poison and anything that accelerates or highlights them should be considered a possible remedy to your particular dilemma. And, buy CDs of good music in the first place. I've got plenty of those in my collection. You just gotta look outside the mainstream and frequent certain smaller record labels that still give a shit and don't strangulate the life force out of their mike feeds.